Vintage Reviews: Car And Driver’s 1987 New Car Issues – Charting The Changes, Technical Highlights For Domestics

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1987 did not prove to be a big year for news or innovation from the domestic manufacturers.  Nor did it turn out to be a great year for sales either, following the very strong 1986 model year.  Car and Driver laid out all the updates (or lack thereof) in their “Charting The Changes” format, along with Tech Highlights and even some innovations that might occur soon (or not).  Read on to see how the 1987s rolled out.

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Don Sherman gave a smart encapsulation of the state-of-the-state for the American car makers.  While rather bullish on Ford and Chrysler, the mess at GM was becoming increasingly evident.  As for AMC, well it would make news that year, but not for bringing any more Renault products stateside…

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While Oldsmobile and Cadillac often come to mind as epitomizing GM disasters in the 1980s (which they did), the worst carnage was actually at the Bowtie division.  Whether it was the fact that GM had to look to Japan for  how to best build a subcompact with the lazily rebadged Toyota Corolla-based Nova (or importing cars from Isuzu and Suzuki to sell in Chevy showrooms), or the continued flogging of decade-old designs (Chevette, Caprice) or even a core mid-size product that looked like yesterday’s box next to the new Ford Taurus, there just wasn’t much good news for Chevrolet in 1987.

Chevrolet  1,518,140 -18%
Celebrity  362,524 -10%
Cavalier  346,254 -20%
Caprice  228,500 -7%
Nova  150,006 -11%
Camaro  137,760 -28%
Spectrum/Sprint  137,211 -14%
Monte Carlo  79,045 -34%
Chevette  46,208 -55%
Corvette  30,632 -13%

 

Each and every line posted decreases.  Total Chevrolet sales of 1,518,140 were off by 18% versus 1986.  But even more troubling was a comparison to 1977–sales were down 33% in ten years, or worse still, down 46% if you compared domestic-only products and excluded the Japanese products offered in 1987.  The “Heartbeat of America” needed a defibrillator!

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Pontiac was one of the brighter spots for dim GM.  At least some of Pontiac’s products were getting favorable press, like the 6000 STE or the better-late-than-never H-Body Bonneville.  The Grand Am even showed a 10% increase versus 1986, one of the few domestic cars to achieve that distinction.  Still, older products were withering on the vine, so the total sales results weren’t that pretty year-over-year.

Total Pontiac  784,319 -23%
Grand Am  244,728 10%
6000  138,489 -34%
Bonneville*  123,816 11%
Sunbird  106,769 -21%
Firebird  88,612 -20%
Fiero  46,581 -45%
Grand Prix  16,542 -60%
Safari  13,154 -9%
1000  5,628 -74%
*1987 H-Body Bonneville compared to combined 1986 G-Body Bonneville and B-Body Parisienne

 

Buick also took a big dip for 1987.  The only saving grace for the division was the second-year success of the LeSabre.  Buick’s H-body started vacuuming-up senior citizens, and showed the largest year-over-year increase of any GM product, though much of that success likely came from other Buick lines line the Century and Electra, or sister products like the Olds Delta 88.

Buick  677,968 -20%
Century  184,178 -33%
LeSabre  154,331 63%
Regal  94,566 -2%
Electra  90,041 -25%
Skyhawk  46,664 -47%
Somerset  46,501 -39%
Skylark  33,705 -46%
Riviera  15,223 -31%
Estate Wagon  12,759 -30%

 

1987 was the year that the collapse of Oldsmobile officially began.  What caused the tipping point?  For starters: old products that looked old, new products that looked old, yester-tech engineering for what was supposed to be GM’s “Guinea Pig” divisions.  All tech “news” was a snooze for Oldsmobile and every other GM division in 1987, since it was all the same.  So why buy an Oldsmobile?  Good question, and buyers seemingly started asking just that, as these 1987 sales results will attest:

Oldsmobile  834,249 -28%
Cutlass Ciera  297,298 -16%
Delta 88  153,537 -34%
Cutlass Supreme/Salon  126,784 -40%
Calais  117,014 -23%
Ninety-Eight  81,006 -35%
Firenza  25,828 -45%
Custom Cruiser  17,742 -16%
Toronado  15,040 -6%

 

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The only GM division able to tread water sales-wise for 1987 was Cadillac.  Core lines dipped anywhere from a little (FWD DeVille/Fleetwood -2%) to a lot (pathetic Cimarron -41%).  Of course, sales for the Seville and Eldorado had already plunged in 1986 thanks to the disastrous downsizing program, so further decreases were just icing on a bad cake.  Biggest news was the Allante, an over-priced, underpowered attempt to challenge the Mercedes SL.  The only bright spot at Cadillac was still a problem: a barge-like old-school car with a too-small “corporate” motor–the 11-year-old Fleetwood Brougham–was the only product to show a sales increase.  Sadly, many buyers saw the Brougham as the only thing that came close to being a “real” Cadillac, even though it wasn’t remotely sophisticated (as a true luxury car should be), but rather just a big, blinged-out GM boat.  Kind of reminiscent of the Escalade today…

Cadillac  282,881 0%
DeVille/Fleetwood (FWD)  162,221 -2%
Fleetwood Brougham  65,504 33%
Seville  18,578 -3%
Eldorado  17,775 -22%
Cimarron  14,561 -41%
Allante  3,363 NEW
Fleetwood Limousine  879 -36%

 

The Roger Smith reign of terror at General Motors was becoming glaringly evident for 1987.  Total GM sales were off 21% compared to 1986, and the company was losing market share to other domestics as well as imports.  And as much as the press tried to get excited about GM offerings, there was just no hiding the fact that the cars were falling further and further behind in the marketplace.

Ford Motor Company, by contrast, had some genuine bright spots.  Leading the charge were the Taurus and Sable, entering their second year and demonstrating conclusively that Americans were ready for modern, aerodynamic mainstream cars.  The Taurus was FoMoCo’s best performer: it sold more cars and had a higher year-over-year sales increase than any other product in the Blue Oval stable.

Ford  1,470,204 -6%
Taurus  374,763 59%
Escort  370,765 -14%
Tempo  282,630 2%
Mustang  159,145 -29%
LTD Crown Victoria  128,878 4%
Thunderbird  128,135 -22%
EXP  25,888 -16%

 

Over at Mercury, the still-new Sable was also selling well, though it trailed its Ford sibling by a large margin.  The opposite was true for the old-fashioned Grand Marquis–it posted a big year-over-year increase and was the best selling Panther for 1987.  If only the “de Sade option” had been offered (still one of my favorite C&D lines–I laughed at that year after year), then the Grand Marquis could have  “beaten” the competition even more aggressively.

Mercury  495,502 -11%
Grand Marquis  131,194 20%
Sable  121,313 27%
Cougar  104,526 -23%
Topaz  98,430 26%
Lynx  40,039 -53%

 

Lincoln did not have a great year in 1987.  The core sedan products were out-of-step with the new aerodynamic direction of Ford Motor Company, while the beautiful Mark VII offered nothing new to more effectively compete in a fickle segment.  Plus, 2-door personal luxury coupes were rapidly falling out of favor with affluent buyers–sport sedans were the new “it” products for the 1980s, and Lincoln just was not there.

Lincoln  109,366 -30%
Town Car  76,483 -35%
Continental  17,597 -7%
Mark VII  15,286 -24%

 

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Lee Iacocca must have been happy about 1987, for two big reasons.  First, Chrysler Corporation car sales only dipped 1%, less than the declines suffered at Motown rivals, and this was not including the phenomenally popular minivans, which were actually counted as light trucks.  The second reason was that Chrysler acquired AMC from Renault, bringing the Jeep brand into Chrysler’s fold–undoubtedly Lido’s best purchase ever.

At Chrysler, the big news was the good looking new LeBaron Coupe and Convertible.  Demonstrating amazing design dexterity, here was yet another K-Car variant, but for once it was fresh and fluid, rather than just being another little box.  Buyers responded well, and Chrysler’s gained a strong convertible following as a result.

Chrysler Division  321,906 -10%
LeBaron  143,998 58%
Fifth Avenue  70,579 -33%
New Yorker  68,279 34%
LeBaron GTS  39,050 -47%

 

The big news at Dodge was the arrival of the Shadow, squeezed into the line-up between the Omni and the Aries.  A fresh face for the Daytona was the other big update.  Though not covered by Car and Driver in the “Domestic” new car issue, another strong player in Dodge showrooms continued to be the Colt models from Mitsubishi.

Dodge  463,006 -3%
Aries  99,299 2%
Shadow  76,056 NEW
Omni  66,907 -9%
600  40,391 -32%
Colt  38,621 -20%
Colt Vista  35,096 49%
Daytona  33,104 -25%
Lancer  26,619 -49%
Charger  26,286 -48%
Diplomat  20,627 -23%

 

Shocking but true: Plymouth actually posted a sales increase of 11% for 1987, the only domestic brand to achieve that milestone.  The new Sundance was the the driver of the success, though inexplicably the virtually unchanged Caravelle also showed an increase year-over-year.

Plymouth  336,024 11%
Reliant  103,950 -15%
Horizon  79,449 -6%
Sundance  75,679 NEW
Caravelle  42,465 24%
Turismo  24,104 -48%
Gran Fury  10,377 -30%

 

While Chrysler made a smart deal on buying Jeep, the AMC/Renault car lines that came with the deal were duds.  1987 was AMC’s last, and it was an anemic end to a long-challenged company.

AMC  41,539 -56%
Encore/Alliance  36,336 -58%
Eagle  5,203 -37%

 

So those were the domestic highlights, and the sales, for 1987.  Underwhelming, to say the least.  Are you feeling like you missed something?  Wasn’t there anything new or exciting?  How about the technical highlights?  Surely there was some hidden technical gem from Detroit that Car and Driver ferreted out.

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“Detroit’s only all-new engine is actually built in Japan.”  That line from Csaba Csere pretty much summed-up the sorry state of Motown engineering circa 1987.

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Nothing to look at here, folks, please just move along…

So where was the good stuff from Detroit?  Where was the Yankee ingenuity that would reclaim automotive dominance?  How about for 1988 or 1989?  Well, looking at these ideas, the answer would be no…

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Depressing, right?  Well imagine if you were a GM bean counter–in that case, 1987 was catastrophic.  Chrysler at least had figured out how to make money off the K-Car and its variants, and was the lowest cost Detroit producer at the time.  Ford had looked into the abyss in the late 1970s/early 1980s and realized it was “change or die.”  Thus revolutionary new products like the Taurus/Sable were born.  Even more conventional offerings like the Thunderbird/Cougar and Tempo/Topaz wore aerodynamic skins, making them feel fresh.  Plus, the archaic products at Chrysler (Fifth Avenue et al) or Ford (Panther and Fox) were pretty fully amortized so any sales of these products were just gravy.  The Full Size and Personal Luxury categories, which had proven to be so lucrative for so many years, were in a systemic decline.  That spelled particularly bad news for The General.

Let’s look at the share of sales by product category, comparing the 1977 results we saw last week to 1987:

1987-versus-1977

Full Size and Luxury had dropped once again, and the Personal Luxury phenomenon was waning.  The biggest change was in the growth of small cars, especially subcompacts.  Though that made sense as a reaction to the second oil shock, CAFE requirements and changing buyer tastes, subcompacts were not big money spinners for Detroit.  Imported brands, however, were quite adept at successfully satisfying the market for smaller cars, and that led to the biggest issue: the real “gotcha” for the domestic cars in 1987 was market share.  In 1977, domestic brands accounted for 87% of total U.S. car sales, and GM had 50% market share, followed by FoMoCo at 23%, Chrysler at 12% and AMC at 2%.  For 1987, the domestic brand share of the total U.S. car market had dropped to 69%, and GM had market share of 40%, FoMoCo had 20%, Chrysler had 12% and AMC was less than 1%.  As Scooby Doo would say: “ruh-roh.”