Automotive Histories: The GM-80 Camaro/Firebird – F-Body (Almost) Becomes FWD-Body

We all know the story of how the Fox-body Mustang was almost replaced with the FWD, Mazda-derived Ford Probe. What some of you may not know is GM nearly made the same mistake with its Camaro and Firebird, although in true 1980s GM fashion, their error came with a lot more hubris and an enormous sum of wasted money.

To GM’s credit, they didn’t try to replace the F-Body with some flimsy restyled Cavalier. The GM-80 was to be a front-wheel-drive coupe, yes, but an optional all-wheel-drive system was planned. But the V8 engines so popular in the RWD F-Bodies weren’t going to survive the transition to FWD.

Instead, the GM-80 cars were going to be powered by the gutsy Quad 4 four-cylinder and the 24-valve “Twin Dual Cam” 3.4 V6 that would later appear in the GM W-Body. The Quad 4 would have likely been the High Output, 180-horsepower version installed in hot versions of the GM N-Body cars and the Chevrolet Beretta.

The 3.4 V6 – derived from Chevrolet’s 60-degree V6 engine family – was to be a lot more powerful than the related 2.8 in the F-Body. In development, GM engineers had managed to crank out 285 horses from the V6. Unfortunately, GM lacked a FWD transaxle that could handle that kind of power and the engine was subsequently detuned to 200 hp and 215 ft-lbs. That was more horsepower than the Camaro V8 was producing in 1986 but less torque. A viscous limited slip differential was to be standard equipment.

Performance would have been aided by a considerable reduction in weight, in part aided by a shrinking of dimensions. The GM-80 cars were to ride a 96-inch wheelbase, five inches shorter than the F-Body’s wheelbase. GM planned to make the GM-80 their first high-volume, plastic-bodied car, with molded plastic panels fitted to a steel structural frame à la the Pontiac Fiero. GM had also considered building the GM-80 with an extruded aluminum frame, a rolled-steel tubular structure, or an all-fiberglass frame. The use of composites was appealing to GM, not just for owners’ convenience and the benefits to corrosion resistance, but also as a way of reducing manufacturing costs. The format also allowed for easier regular changes of design.

The GM-80 program’s massive cost overruns would suggest composite-bodied cars weren’t the silver bullet GM needed to reduce production costs. Had they have reached production, the GM-80 cars would have been priced unsustainably higher than their predecessors. At least GM had learned a little more about the production of plastic-bodied cars, although at tremendous cost.

Sure, GM could have pitched the GM-80 cars as more sophisticated, high-tech sport coupes. They wouldn’t have been the only FWD/AWD coupes in town, with the DSM triplets and the Mitsubishi 3000GT and Dodge Stealth all arriving over 1990-1991 and the GM-80 slated for a MY1989 or 1990 launch. But were existing Camaro and Firebird buyers the kind who would have considered an Eagle Talon? A significant amount of F-Body (and Fox-Body) sales were humble four- and six-cylinder models purchased by owners who liked the sporty looks, but a similarly healthy number of buyers craved the torque and sound of the V8.

A GM-80 mule

GM had initially projected 350,000 annual sales for the GM-80 twins – in comparison, the Fiero’s best year saw 140k units sold – but as development costs spiralled out of control, CEO Roger Smith demonstrated a rare example of fiscal prudence and canned the project. This was announced on October 19, 1986 in an interview with The Detroit News. Had the GM-80’s gestation continued, the project would have eventually cost $1 billion, possibly more. There is no exact figure as to how much GM wasted on the project but, considering development was quite far along by the time Roger Smith swung the axe, it was a lot. Those on the project, including chief engineer Fred Schaafsma, likely would have seen this news coming as suppliers had been notified in the summer of ’85 that the project was temporarily on hold.

It wasn’t just cost that killed the project. The GM-80 cars had also overshot weight targets and performed poorly in crash tests. And although all-wheel-drive was mooted, it wasn’t locked in, nor was the rumored twin-turbo 3.3 V6. The project was in high gear in 1985 as GM downsized its large cars. GM didn’t know yet how poorly, for example, the downsized E-Bodies would be received. However, it would have known by then that gas prices had stabilized and there was still room for a RWD V8 model in their lineup, even considering CAFE targets. There was still some internal opposition to the idea of an all-FWD passenger car lineup.

Not a Toronado, not a “Silhouette Touring Coupe”

Although the contemporary ’90 Fiero prototype survives in GM’s collection, the GM-80 cars appear to have all been scrapped. There are many more details to the GM-80 saga that have been left untold, and many rumors have spread. Buff rags at the time spoke of a potential third GM-80 for Oldsmobile, possibly using the Silhouette name. However, the evidence shows these were just confused reports based on mistakenly-identified mules. What added fuel to the fire of this particular rumor was Oldsmobile’s early research and development for the Aurora, as Oldsmobile project staff spoke to focus groups about a planned flagship upscale sedan. Interestingly, reports stated the Aurora would receive all-wheel-drive and the High Output Quad 4. Rumors also abounded of a sporty Oldsmobile in the vein of the Buick Reatta and Cadillac Allanté, but those cars’ slow sales scuttled those plans.

The GM-80 project was an overreach and could have been a very Deadly Sin for the company. Had the project reached production, GM would have been replacing two iconic RWD V8 coupes with new cars that were more expensive, possibly no lighter or faster, and with two non-V8 engines that eventually proved to be rather flaky. Cancelling this project was probably the smartest thing Roger Smith did at the helm.

Related Reading:

CC Forgotten Future: 1990 Pontiac Fiero Prototype

Automotive Histories: The Cars That Never Were

Curbside Classic: 1992 Saturn SL – GM’s Deadly Sin #4 – The Eulogy

Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: Chevrolet Edition, Part I and Part II