(first posted 4/9/2015) GM’s most persistent Deadliest Sin was releasing new cars that were half-baked and lacking certain key ingredients. The results inevitable were not tasty. This problem goes way back, the poster boy being the 1971 Vega, although one could argue there were earlier examples too. And it continued for way too long, until it was too late.
The result is that from a car-spotting perspective, finding first-year examples of many GM models is nigh-near next to impossible. I’ve been looking for a genuine 1982 Cavalier for years; there’s plenty of later ones still around, but the first year version with the wheezy, buzzy, gutless 1.8 L pushrod four has become a unicorn, despite the fact that some 200k were sold. But here it is, thanks to CC Cohort William Oliver. And now we can finally and officially give the 1982 Cavalier its long-delayed Deadly Sin award.
Now before a select few of you have to reach for your blood pressure medicine, and jump in to tell me about your 1999 Cavalier that ran 389,000 miles without an oil change, let me preface the Cavalier’s sins by acknowledging two important things:
One: It did not arrive with the kind of truly horrendous problems that plagued the new X-Body cars just some two years earlier, which made them the most recalled cars ever.
Two: Like many GM cars that were made for a (too) long time, the Cavalier evolved into a fairly reliable grocery-getter. Or at least according to some of its owners.
But; and it’s a mighty big but: The Cavalier utterly failed at its intended original mission, which was to compete head-on with the Honda Accord, in performance, refinement and most importantly, in price.
When the first Accord arrived in 1976, it roiled the US market, due to its exceptional refinement, lively performance, excellent space utilization due to FWD, and other qualities that endeared it to reviewers and buyer. The only folks that really hated it were the executives at all the other car companies. The Accord was one of the very few true game-changers.
And it sold at rather lofty prices; pretty much in the same territory that GM’s intermediate cars sold for. GM’s pathetic little litter-box Chevette could only dream of such average transaction prices (ATP). And its Vega-based H-Bodies were hardly competitive in any of these realms either. So GM set itself out to build a true Accord fighter. What could go wrong? Well, if the lessons of the Corvair and Vega had been carefully considered, GM’s execs might have shown a wee bit less hubris than they did. But that was a requirement for being on the 14th floor.
The story of GM’s hubris and inability to understand the small car market, and its failure in bringing competitive cars to market is the core of Brock Yate’s book, The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. It was written in 1983, one year after the failed launch of the Cavalier, and is essentially a Death Watch of the industry and a follow-up to his seminal 1968 C/D article “Grosse Pointe Myopians”. In that article, Yates clearly identifies the insular culture that had been bred in Detroit (Grosse Point is the exclusive suburb where almost all Big Three execs lived), and predicted the trouble to come as a result.
And did it ever come.
Keep in mind that the Cavalier (and the other J-Cars) were the first serious effort by GM to reclaim the huge compact car segment since its ill-fated Vega blunder ten years earlier. GM basically ceded that market to the Japanese, but they knew they could not be a viable long-term player without a competitive car in the heart of the post-energy crisis market.
GM Executive and former Chevrolet GM Robert Lund was the executive overseeing the J-Car development. At the infamous 1981 press launch of the J-Cars, he unleashed fighting words:
We are tired of hearing how the domestic industry let the Japanese take the subcompact market away from us. We need an unconventional Chevrolet – an unconventional package with an unconventional marketing strategy – if we are going to do a better job against the imports, and we spell that Japanese. Make no mistake about it, Cavalier is an import fighter! The whole Chevrolet division is spoiling for a fight!
Well, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of ‘unconventional’ in the Cavalier. It was a a reasonably decent-looking but hardly leading-edge body with a whole lot of borrowed mechanical components from its bigger brother, the Citation (X-Body). That included suspension, brakes, steering, transmission, CV joints, numerous ancillary components, and eventually the V6 engine too. Of course it was much cheaper to just use these then tool up for lighter ones specifically designed for the lighter Cavalier.
All of that borrowing from the bigger X-Body meant that these components were heavier than needed, which substantially pushed up the target weight of the Cavalier (The J-Car’s basic body was to be shared with Opel (and Vauxhall), but Opel used its own components that kept its Ascona within its weight targets).
And we haven’t gotten to the engine yet.
The Cavalier arrived a bit under-baked in a number of areas, but its 1.8 L ohv cast-iron pushrod four was its Achilles’ Heel, and what truly made it a failure and Deadly Sin. Ironically, it was precisely its engine that so impressed everyone with the Honda Accord: a silky-smooth alloy OHC four that simply didn’t feel and sound like the typical four cylinder. Well, Honda did know a thing or two about engines.
The Opel-designed Family II SOHC four was of course the obvious engine to adapt to the Cavalier (and was available on the Olds, Buick and Pontiac versions). It was a modern design with an alloy head and ran reasonably-refined, if not perhaps in Honda territory.
But after an internal battle described by Yates, Chevrolet decided not to go that route, just like they chose not to use Opel-designed engines for the Vega. In a cost cutting move, Chevrolet cobbled up a new four cylinder, later called the ‘122 Engine‘. It was highly conventional, not all that different from the architecture used on its small block V8s for almost two decades. Essentially, it was an in-line four version of their 60 degree V6 engine, as debuted in the X-Cars, sharing some of its internal components.
It churned out 88hp, but not happily. And at that 1981 press introduction, the most immediate reaction from the journalists that first drove it was: where’s the zip? There wasn’t any; the overweight Cavalier was hamstrung by its wheezy carburated engine that buzzed at higher engine speeds, and just didn’t deliver the goods. It was a good two seconds slower than a five-speed Toyota Corolla.
Speaking of, there was no five speed manual to be had on the J-Cars. And by 1983, the Accord already had a four-speed automatic. The J-Cars would have to wait too many years before either of those were available on them. So much for spoiling for a fight; showing up with a plastic butter knife wasn’t going to cut it.
In fact, although GM targeted the gen1 Accord with its Cavalier, by the time the Cavalier arrived, Honda’s substantially improved gen2 Accord was already out, a car that was praised for raising the bar on refinement yet again. And of course, Honda kept up a steady barrage of new Accords every four years or so.
The result was that Chevrolet’s pricing for the Cavalier was totally out of line with the market, which could smell the difference between a genuine Accord and a flawed pretender. Initial sales were as sluggish as the 1.8 four, and Chevy, as usual, had to make some quick and desperate adjustments to keep it from tanking. Content levels and average prices were lowered, and a new low-end ‘Cadet’ model was introduced.
This all set the Cavalier on a trajectory that it would maintain in its very long life: as a low-end car sold on its price and not on its qualities. Which turned the Cavalier into a $5 billion dollar blunder, since it never really became a profitable car line for GM, and its development was very costly. Which only sunk its reputation that much further. Undoubtedly it was the failure of the Cavalier and J-cars that gave Roger Smith the cockamamy idea to create Saturn. Which of course ended up making that $5 billion dollar blunder look like success in comparison (Saturn lost some $12 billion over its life). How about getting it right the first time? Or making it right, instead of starting a whole new company?
The 1983 Cavalier arrived with some critical changes in an effort to rectify the most glaring deficiencies. The engine’s capacity was increased to 2.0 liters, and TBI was added to improve driveability. Although torque got a little bump, horsepower stayed the same, at 88. And in 1984, that number dropped to 86. And then to 85 in in 1985. So much for any real progress. And engine refinement was hardly improved either. The Cavalier was saddled with a mediocre engine, except for the rare later V6 versions.
The four cylinder engine eventually got a major revision in the form of a new cylinder head a decade or so later, and a bump to 2.2 liters as well. But it will never be remembered for its Honda-like silkiness or enthusiasm.
When I first saw this brown Cavalier CS sedan, I wondered if it really was a 1982, or perhaps a 1983, which looked identical. But I distinctly remembered the 1983 proudly proclaiming the improved TBI 2.0 L engine on its rear end. This one lacks that.
And I found proof that the ’83s do have that badge, in this shot from oldparkedcars.com, as well as some others. Yes, we have us a genuine 1982 Cavalier 1.8. A car that was introduced by GM with very high expectations, and proceeded to fall flat on its face, once again.
Of course the real unicorn is the 1982 Cimarron, with the identical 1.8 engine. Murilee Martin found one in the junkyard (appropriately enough), but on the road? I’m quite sure I saw one a couple of years ago, going the other way on a divided road, driven by an older guy who undoubtedly bought it new. But there was no way to catch it, despite its slowness.
The 1982 Cavalier was the last time Chevrolet even pretended to compete with the Accord and such, until recent years. It effectively threw in the towel, and had to eat its fighting words. The NUMMI joint venture gave Chevy a genuine Toyota to sell, not that it made all that much difference. And the Cavalier became the poster boy for the decline and fall of GM.
I never really saw too many Cavalier’s with the single headlights while I was growing up and always thought they looked pretty odd with the single headlights, I thought they looked a lot better with the quad headlights and the Euro headlights.
Unfortunate that those alterations made the ‘same’ car which was such a success for Vauxhall in the UK, such an abject failure in the USA. The trouble with putting things right after is that you’ve already put off a lot of potential customers who bought into ‘the latest thing’ and ended up disillusioned – not that that stopped companies like GM or BL from doing it time after time.
If Top Gear had originated in the US I suspect we would have seen many a piano end its days falling on top of a Chevy Cavalier.
Honda recently did this with the Acura ILX. Wrong engines and options upon intro, “fixed” two years later. But the damage to the new nameplate has already been done. You get one chance at a first impression, after all.
I had a friend that owned a first gen Cavalier and referred to it as “The Cadavalier”. I did not stop him from buying another one, however.
I never knew Cavaliers were intended to be anything other than cheap fleet type cars.
Every other kid drove those old square type Cavaliers when I was in HS and that’s just what they’ve always been to me, cheap junk cars.
I know, hindsight is 20/20 vision, but one still is astonished every time to hear such accounts. Why oh why did they not Americanize the Opel Ascona/Vauxhall Cavalier is simply beyond me. In Europe, these Opels and Vauxhalls outsold the Honda by a large margin and I honestly don’t think the Accord was so much better reliability-wise. It was perhaps more solidly built but (speaking from experience) was utterly boring to drive and handled worse than the Cavaliers I drove in the UK (and the sporty SRI130 was an honest fun car to which no Accord equivalent ever existed). These Accords also used to rust as badly as anything, possibly worse than the Opels/Vauxhalls, if my memory does not deceive me. When they broke down, the Opels/Vauxhalls were easy to repair (you did not have to split the engine from the g/box to do a clutch change (!) – try that in an Accord). I see no reason for an Americanized Vauxhall Cavalier to have been all that worse if done properly (the Family II engine was more advanced than that primitive device they used in the US model and could have been developed to produce competitive power much more easily). Crazy.
Crazy indeed, to us foreigners. But I think maybe you have to be American to understand the GM management mindset of the era. And they probably still wanted to move the customer ‘up’ to a bigger, more profitable car – rather than aiming for excellence in a smaller package.
But then, they put a man on the moon – how hard could it be to make a decent small car?
GM didn’t put man on the moon. Chrysler did.
Apollo 11 must have went down the line on a Wednesday, while Apollo 13 was a late, late Friday afternoon product.
Could be, ha, ha, ha. Owned a Canadien built 95 Voyager that was built around 14:45 on a Friday in August of 1994. It had decently good reliabilty, but I never did hear more than one tone from its two tone horn and the rear view mirror fell off back in the late 90s.
My 76 Maverick began to be welded together on a Friday and went thru final assembly on a Monday. However, it”s still here and still doing what it was designed to do. Guess Ford workers cared more.
The Delco Electronics plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, then-owned by GM, did play a part in driving men around on the moon, however:
Delco in Goleta, CA worked on the moon buggy as well.
I once met a guy who was an engineer on the project. The tires were wire mesh covered with rubber, there being no air inside them; they subcontracted making the mesh to a company that produced wire trash cans.
During one mission he got an urgent call from Houston that an astronaut was bogged down in a crater. The engineer advised him to check whether he was in 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive mode. The astronaut switched to 4-wheel drive and was able to get unstuck.
It must have been a real bummer to go from designing moon buggies to mediocre cars.
“Not invented here” was mantra for decades. Even now, some purists complain that there is “No true new all American designed car” anymore.
‘Man on the moon’ was a team effort, with enthusiasm.
While making a so called ‘cheap sh!!-box’ was a demotion.
that’s exactly right, the GM mindset of the era, cheap sells to plenty of people here, we don’t know how well the engine is built, its fine if it runs and keeps up, being reliable and the cavalier was just that, good enough to drive.
Hondas suffer from typical Japanese lack of handling ability, the Holden version of the J car the Camira handled ok but early onset oil burning and other maladies soon saw sales figures plummet, NZ also got the Isuzu Aska rebadged as a Camira with truly awful roadholding fitted as standard, they were not a good car and very very few survive.
“Typical Japanese lack of handling ability?” My memory may be hazy, but I don’t recall any reviewers having this opinion of Hondas.
Those Detroit suits understood better than you or T.Turtle that Honda was formidable competition.
I own two Japanese cars, neither are Hondas but I have never heard or thought of Japanese cars being bad handling. In general I mean.
I have owned an early 90s Accord a few years back and while it was boring as all hell it handled fine.
The Cavalier/Ascona was a better handling car than anything comparable coming from Japan back then. In the UK, an Accord was a car for old age pensioners (and the same applied to Toyotas and Nissans)…
Got some contemporary reviews to back that up? Obviously I’ve never had the privilege of driving those estimable Opels/Vauxhalls.
That you felt it necessary to deprecate other Japanese brands suggests to me that non-technical considerations are behind your opinion.
Neil, since 1992 (5th gen) we’ve got our own “Euro-Accord”, which evolved into your Accura (I’ve learned that here).
The Euro-Accord will be phased out though, since nobody is buying them here anymore. So no need to develop a future separate model.
As I said before, the Japanese had a decent market share in Europe from -roughly- the late seventies to the late nineties. Those days are over.
Europeans prefer and buy domestic vehicles. Hatchbacks, wagons, sedans, coupes, CUVs, SUVs, sports cars, limousines, vans & minivans, trucks. The whole shebang.
So which is it? Do Americans have lousy judgment compared to Europeans, or are the latter (except for dopey “pensioners”) willing to put up with almost anything before they’ll buy Asiatic makes, notwithstanding their ostensible hypertolerance of all cultures?
I am truly puzzled; the Accord/Camry have dominated the US market for years & top the review/quality charts, yet are complete failures in Europe (allowing for model variance). And non-luxury European brands are complete failures in the US, except for VW & maybe a little Fiat. A starker contrast cannot be imagined.
If we are willing to put up with almost anything then you can exactly tell me -as an example- why I should buy a Toyota Auris rather than a Renault Megane or Peugeot 308.
Europeans prefer and buy European vehicles. Anything from a Renault Twingo to a 700+ hp 130,000 lbs diesel truck. All developed, engineered and built on the continent. These fulfill all our needs. Is that hard to accept ?
If we are willing to put up with almost anything then you can exactly tell me -as an example- why I should buy a Toyota Auris rather than a Renault Megane or Peugeot 308.
Back in the day when Renault and Peugeot sold cars in the US, the answer was pretty evident. I suspect the European brands have closed the reliability gap some since then to stand up to the Asian brands.
Here’s a tidbit: the next generation Civic will be using the same platform for North American and European markets (Civic is no longer offered in Japan), produced as coupe and sedan here, and hatchback in England. For the first time in a decade, a Civic hatchback will supposedly be sold in the US, imported from the UK. Why? The Swindon plant was built for a capacity of 250,000, but Honda sells barely 100,000 cars/yr in the European market, which is about a tenth what Volkswagen sells.
Staggering to an American, but Honda seems to have failed in the EU, while they flourished in the US.
Old people buy Hondas in Europe because everyone gets sick of crummy cars eventually.
Danes like Hondas, but think they are too expensive – and they rust. At least they did thoughout the 1970’s 1980’s, and 1990’s, as well as having a lousy reputation in crash tests.
The Honda Civic from 2010-11 turned a lot of things around and has a reputation for record low maintenance costs.
We just sold our Peugeot 206 1,4 HDI from 2002. A little daily driver, which turned out bo a great car.
Very inexpensive to maintain, up untill it reached 170K miles.
Then the trouble began.
What astonished us the most about the Peugeot 206, was that i didn’t show rust – AT ALL. –
I could not believe it.
The 1984 Opel Ascona my parents had, needed an all over rust repair, when it was 10 years old.
Neil, I don’t have any articles handy – I speak from experience, having driven the cars back then. The Euro J bodies were nothing like their American brethren (and that is explained in the article). In comparison with the US cars, the Accord was a sharp handling car. But not in Europe. Back then there was a marked difference between how European cars handled when compared with the rest of the world – they were better than most. At the other end of the scale, US cars were decidedly comfort-oriented. Japanese cars were in the middle. Later the Japanese “discovered” handling. But not in 1978.
I’m going to have to agree with kiwibryce, most Japanese cars do not handle all that well and never have. My sister has owned almost exclusively Hondas and Toyotas, and they all were less than stellar in handling, ride, room, comfort and engine noise. Quite frankly, all the Japanese cars have ever had going for them was reliability, and even that is debatable. 70’s and 80’s Japanese cars were prone to severe and early rust out,ate head gaskets, timing belts and exhaust systems as if they were free, and had terrible body integrity and paint. While they had their heyday in the 90’s, their quality has slid ever since, but nobody is paying attention. What they make are decent engines in very mediocre excuses for a car.
Except that Japanese cars have come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s.
I think xenophobia has more to do with your opinion than facts.
I must disagree with you. We have owned cars from the US, Europe and Japan. Every time we step out to try something new, the subsequent experience sends us back to Japan because bottom line, not matter how nice they drive (Audi, Volvo, Saab), or stylish thy may be (Edge), constant niggling repairs suck the usefulness out of the vehicle and creates the rear of what’s next?
I don’t think there’s any quantitative long term data regarding reliability that doesn’t show Toyota or Honda topping the lists 3-5-7 years down the road.
When I retire and don’t need to fanatically count on my car for my job, I want a Benz or Audi.
Japanese reliability is interesting NZ has a vast majority now of Japanese brand cars some sold here new some from the exalted JDM, guess what, the car repair industry is thriving fixing Japanese cars,
Fun fact I discovered after getting the aircon fixed in my Citroen quite expensively: the parts required are common and cheap, the same parts are used in Nissans according to the aircon expert who does the truck fleet Im immersed in,
My Citroen uses a Mitsubishi heavy duty starter motor to suit the diesel engine both my Citroens had this part fail,
The electrical system in my 66 Hillman works as intended and after standing unused in the rain for weeks at a time starts easily and that was all supplied by the Prince of darkness Lucas! YMMV.
Probably you mean the light and afloat feeling, especially on cheaper Japanese cars. In general, Detroit has a lot of heavy and afloat cars, at many sizes.
“Not Invented Here” syndrome played a pretty big role in why GM made the moves it did. To the 14th floor, relying on Opel/Vauxhall designs and engineering for America’s small cars were anathema and a clear admission of defeat, right up to the moments of GM’s bankruptcy.
There was probably some arrogance involved. That could explain why GM was more eager to subcontract small car design to Daewoo/GM Korea rather than give that task to the European subsidiaries.
“There was probably some arrogance involved”
Congratulations, you win the 2015 CC award for understatement. 🙂 By 1980-81, GM was absolutely arrogant, but not without reason. It had plowed into the 80s with deep pockets, watched its domestic rivals nearly go under, and saw prevailing anti-import feeling that was so prevalent in the midwest at the time. Who could blame them for thinking that they would be big winners just by showing up. What they did not see because of that arrogance, was that their domestic rivals had had decades of bad habits squeezed out and that younger buyers lacked the same anti-Japanese feelings that GM’s older customers showed.
I recall being surprised when they were released that the J-cars were within 100lbs or so of the Xs.
It might not have been arrogance so much as basic, instinctive, corporate survival sense (which you can bet was one of the major character traits of those making it to the 14th floor).
Consider that if those guys turned over primary development of anything sold in the US to Opel/Vauxhall (or anyone else, for that matter), sooner or later, someone very high up (like on the GM board of directors) would start wondering why they needed a lot of those guys on the 14th floor, at all.
So, my guess is that the decisions to design and build US products within the US was simply based upon maintaining job security of the guys making those decisions.
Spoken like a true corporate survivor. People sometimes forget that when companies become big and old the emphasis shifts from focus on the customer to political turf battles. I think your analysis is spot on.
The key expression was “lost profits”; anything that added cost to a car (and wasn’t an item that could be bullet-pointed on a spec sheet or upsold as an option) was considered a lost profit. Whether its’ omission would lose the sale simply didn’t occur to them…
My Mk2 1.6 104 bhp Cavalier was a stripper as I have mentioned before.It was a very good car indeed simple lively and to my eye a handsome thing .I regettted selling it.The Accord was a dull pudding by comparison and not as reliable and hugely expensive for detail parts.
Difference between the philosphies. The Opel Diplomat 5.4 Litre V8 was for example axed in the late ’70’s and wasn’t really sold in huge numbers. It was far “too big” for an average european consumer. GM thought that they could settle somehow the american phylosphy in Europe!? No way. Later Royale/Commodore/Senator had only IL 6 engines and an IL 4 diesel. On the other hand Opel Ascona/Vauxhall Cavalier became very popular with the 1.6 >> 1.8 >> 2.0 Litre IL4 OHC engines. The reasons in the background: insurance costs, taxes and the fuel prices. Ascona/euro-Cavalier was an affordable economic family car.
Big -top model- Opels date back to 1939, when the first Opel Kapitän was introduced. Years later called the KAD-Opels: Kapitän-Admiral-Diplomat.
The Diplomat B from the seventies was a Mercedes W116 competitor, certainly the long V8 version. And it lost. Just like all high-end models from other mainstream automakers lost that battle in the decades to follow.
It was never meant to be a “bestseller”. The Kadett, Ascona and Rekord were Opel’s bestsellers. Year in, year out. A few decades in a row.
GM Europe mailed that big Opel V8 technology to Australia and GMH had great success with it, later they mailed the Vauxhall Cavalier to GMH and it wasnt quite so successful but better than Chevrolets effort, they were zippy and handled well but not as popular as hoped for.
Thats why Honda is considered an old mans car at least in the UK. . I cracks me up to think the Accord is the “must have” car in the US and American youth goes
ga ga over Civic Coupes.
Going back to the down fall of the J car, Americanization and local crap engines was to blame.
very believable for GM to cost cut. might seem crazy and unwise but when it comes to the buyer, many will simply buy the cheapest, being lower class. GM cuts quality and advertises “SUBTRACTED HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS IN PRICE”. and “prices low enough to make you think twice about any other small car – domestic or import”. being cheap and regular is what the cavalier was about from the start to the end, but improved of course, from the low state of the “alternative cheap engine” cost cut beginning.
I get the impression that GM back then was better at advertising than engineering. Or better at approving advertising than engineering.
The latter. GM engineering talent was without doubt as good as any in the world.
An SRi 130. “130” stands for the hp; those were fast lane cars in the UK back then. Imagine a US model with say 115 hp (on account of the emission regs) and a four speed auto…
We also never got a 4-door hatchback body like that one. Stylish; has more than a bit of Rover SD1 in it to my eye. We did have the 2-door hatchback, and those were easily the best-looking J-car variant, but they disappeared after ’87.
It’s hip to be square ! Opel Ascona C by Irmscher.
…and the 2-door Opel Ascona C was relatively rare.
The one my parents had originally looked like this.
Untill I changed it to this. I later added thin crome on the wheel well opening.
A friend had an SRi. Among our little group it was respected as being proper fast and well put together. Good car.
That is probably one of the best looking J-cars I’ve ever seen.
hi,it’s very nice,
your wheels is 17 or 16?
After looking at an 82 Pontiac J2000 hatchback for what seemed like months (and probably was) I walked into my local (small town, central Texas) dealership and bought a medium blue over medium blue vinyl “J”…..mostly for the superior GM A/C system and because they looked better than the year older Escort. In hind sight I wish I had bought a Dodge Rampage.
Yes, these cars were wheezy, buzzy, and ponderous, but they were decently screwed together. Unfortunately, over the course of a few years some of the oddest things broke on that car. The exhaust manifold broke into 2 large pieces, pretty much overnight. The shell covering the top of the shift mechanism (my car had the manual transmission) crumbled to bits….perhaps due to all the vibration? The speedometer developed a bad rattle at speeds over 35-40 mph. A technician at the Pontiac dealer told me “they all do that and there is no fix”. Apparently, the cable had a kink in the travel between the dashboard and the transmission? And the knobs on the wind winders broke off prematurely.
But, I have little doubt these cars could pile on the miles. In 4-5 years I managed to add nearly 90,000 miles to the odometer.
Of course, by that time it looked pretty beat with the Texas sun bleaching the blue interior panels to 5 or 6 shades of gray.
The Cavalier coming in on the heels of the K-Car. The K-Car with all its lack of refinement compared to the imports, was still a better car than the J-bodies, even if the Cavaliers seemed better equipped.
I’ll take a K-Car any day, but isn’t it funny that the Cavalier lasted so long? GEOZINGER was correct calling these the “Cockroaches of the Road”© for good reason!
The way to tell an 82 from an 83 is to check the back seat. If it has a plastic divider in the middle of the rear bench, it’s an 82.These plastic things were bad enough in the X and A bodies front seats, but in the back seat, it was far worse.
I had completely forgotten about those dividers. The feds made the automakers add them in the early 80s to keep someone from sitting in the center position if no seat belts were present. The companies wised up and started installing center lap belts, at least in the rear, even if seating 3 abreast was torture for the middle occupant — ask me how I know after riding in that position in an Omnirizon in my carpool years!
The Cavalier, J2000, and Cimarron were introduced in the spring of ’81 as early ’82 models. Only the early cars built in the spring and summer of ’81 got the plastic divider (which had cup holders in the sedan and coupe IIRC) in the middle of the rear seat. Those built in model year ’82 proper had a full-width rear seat with a center seat belt.
My first car was an early-build ’82 J2000 LE I bought used circa 1986, and the previous owner had removed the plastic insert to reveal carpeting underneath which was only about 2″ lower than the surrounding cushions, so someone could sit there. I cut a foam insert to place in the gap to make it still more comfortable, though it was only used if someone needed to sit there. I should have asked the original owner if they still had the insert lying around in their basement somewhere; wouldn’t surprise me if they did and forgot all about it.
A peek inside will confirm model year of these three J-cars. ’82 has chrome inside door releases and chrome bezels surrounding them. In the ’83 they are keyed to the interior color or black instead, and they’re are fewer if any chrome accents elsewhere. (not sure if this applies to the Firenza and Skyhawk which became available partway through the traditional ’82 model year). Also, the upper-trim models (Cavalier CL and J2000 LE) were much more plush in ’82 than ’83, with velour, woodgrain, lots of features. My J2000 LE was a mini-Brougham with pillowy crushed velour button-tufted seats that were dropped in ’83.
That a GM executive could get up in front of a room of knowledgeable people in 1982 and, with a straight face, call a front-wheel-drive car with a transverse-mounted engine “an unconventional package” only shows how clueless or shameless they were (maybe both). They knew they didn’t have to do as good a job as Honda did with the Accord, because there were still lots of people at that time who wanted an Accord-sized car but insisted on buying American, so they’d go for one of these instead, no matter how bad it was. GM exploited customers’ loyalty to dump its lazily designed, half-assed junk on them, which is not a very nice way to behave.
I rented a late-model Cavalier in 2005 when my 2004 Accent was killed in a flood. It was like stepping into 1984. I couldn’t believe GM was still putting out anything so slapdash. My $9,000 Accent drove and felt like a Mercedes in comparison.
Couldn’t sum it up any better, Mr N. I’ve re-read Brock Yates book several times. Nothing you wrote is untrue. And it still took them 12 years to get it to almost competitive status with the 1995 model. And GM let that one rot for another 10 years.
Of course GM wanted a buyer to “upgrade” to a larger more profitable GM car. They just refused to do the work to cultivate the entry level buyer that would continue to buy up the price ladder because their first experiences with their least expensive models were so good.
Short term gains at the expense of long term viability. GM’s primary Deadly Sin.
Hear, hear! That’s why back in the ’80s, my wife-to-be traded her Chevette lemon for a Camry, & I traded my Escort for an Accord. Those Michigan fools lost us forever.
Just out: Consumer Reports listed cars that should last 200Kmi. I was still a little surprised that despite many years of other makers’ improvements, they were ALL Hondas & Toyotas.
LOL. Do you seriously believe that no other car besides a Toyota or Honda can last 200K miles. I have thousands of sold GM, Ford and Chrysler cars with 200K or more miles on file that prove otherwise! In fact we right at this moment have a 2004 Buick 3800 LeSabre with 385K miles that looks, rides and drives like it had 38K miles. The motor, transaxle and most everything in that car are original save the alternator, battery and tuneup related items. Even the leather seats are in very good shape.
Faulty inference; CR isn’t claiming that no other cars can last that long. They’re going by reliability statistics, which of course are inexact. You need to offer contrary statistical evidence, not merely contrary anecdotes.
Unless it’s a well-maintained pick-up truck or Chevy Impala with the 3.8, I don’t believe you.
The best for long term quality is Honda, followed by a three-way tie between Acura, Lexus and Toyota. In other words, Honda and Toyota make the best cars. Ford and Chevrolet as brands were 61% as durable, but their numbers are inflated by their trucks. The cars aren’t that close.
The odd thing about the Cavalier is that GM tried to copy the imports by including a lot of formerly optional equipment (for Detroit) and touting the result as “the complete car.” This clearly wasn’t going to work when the “complete” Cavalier cost more than the larger (base) Citation and why the stripped Cadet model was rushed into production so soon.
The K car was ten times the car these J bodies were. And I have to make small correction here. As somebody who has changed a lot of steering racks in both X cars and J cars, trust me they are not interchangeable. Same basic Saginaw design? for the most part.
Come on the early k-cars were better in some ways but hardly 10 times better. Heck the rear windows didn’t even roll down on the 1981 and early 1982 sedans, the carburetors were equally annoying (at least GM remedied this a year later whereas Chrysler didn’t change over to FI until 1986 on the k’s) head gaskets and cam problems were common on the 2.2 and the Mitsubishi 2.6 was utter garbage when the miles piled on. I remember our local mechanic Harry that used to work at Dealmaker Chrysler say that he must have swapped out more 2.6 engines than any other in the 30 years he worked there. The K’s also had that insufferable solid bench seat that lacked a center armrest and sat back so reclined that many a customer would come in and ask if there was a way to shim the seat more upright. the only other remedy was to order the very rare bucket seat and floor shifter option which one hardly ever saw at the time!
Wouldn’t the world, and GM, have been different if someone had listened to Brock Yates. As I have said many times GM had (an has) the talent to put out a superb car. Management just really was not interested in being the best. After the Cavalier came out as it did the board of directors should have cleaned house top to bottom.
I recall a statement that some senior GM official made after driving the model that was about to come to market – something like “Well, it has power appropriate for its price class”. I’ll bet that guy had never even sat in an Accord.
“Well, it has power appropriate for its price class.” Sure, because in GM-think, small-car owners were supposed to suffer for their choice of not wanting, or being able to afford, one of their land yachts. It never dawned on GM that the Japanese were eating its lunch because they understood that there were millions of people in this country who *wanted* a high-quality, fuel-efficient small car and had no interest in, or use for, big cars.
The Japanese automakers also had two very significant advantages: First, as in Europe, what Americans considered compacts were locally considered midsize family cars, a couple of steps up the product ladder rather than loss leaders. Second, unlike in Europe, Japan adopted U.S.-style emissions standards in the late ’70s, and that combined with the high cost of bigger engines gave a lot of incentive for automakers to develop sophisticated emissions-compliant smaller engines. (A big slow-revving V-6 would cost you a mint to run, so that wasn’t a viable option.)
Tied in with these advantages was the US CAFE law. An Accord was a big car to Honda, and CAFE was never an issue to them. But once the Cavalier fizzled on its merits early in the run, GM had little choice but to turn it into a loss leader in order to offset the bigger stuff that they could sell at a profit. It was either cut costs and sell it cheap or dump additional billions into a more competitive new design that might sell on its merits in a segment that would be less profitable in any case in an era of low fuel prices.
On the other hand, the Japanese had to make their money on cars that were competing directly with UAW-3 compacts that were being dumped to reach CAFE goals.
No Japan did not adopt US style emissions in the 70’s. They lagged far behind. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I did big business replacing engines in Japanese cars with the “low mile” imported from Japan engines that flooded the market at that time. Many of those engines came with points distributors and none of them had anywhere near the emissions components that the US version it was replacing. That meant that the engines had to be stripped down to the basic long block and all the US spec equipment transferred to the replacement engine. There were many cases where the Japanese engine had a basic non-feedback carb while the US spec version had EFI and an O2 sensor. On some you had to go as far as drilling out a passage for the EGR system. The better dealers would do that for you.
I’m not implying the JDM standards were identical to federal standards — they weren’t. However, the gap between what was required in the home market and what was required in the States was significantly narrower than the gap between Europe and the U.S., including the widespread adoption of catalytic converters and unleaded gasoline to a level Europe didn’t match until the ’90s.
The engine lineups for particular cars were not necessarily the same between the U.S. and Japan for various reasons, but where the same engines were offered in both countries (for instance, the Toyota 4A-GE), their outputs and performance were very similar. So, while there were hardware and equipment differences (and as you note, the different versions weren’t interchangeable), from an engineering and manufacturing standpoint, the gap was relatively narrow.
That’s funny because Honda’s CVCC engine met US emissions standards two or three years before the deadline and Subaru, as well, with engines that could be run on leaded or unleaded, also meeting those standards before the deadline.
The Big Three were whining about being unable to meet the standards and the Japanese were developing systems that could do it. In the 70s.
Well documented by the automotive rags of the period.
Japanese emission standards were nothing like the US, I had a 84 Civic 5 door manual and it had carb problems the owners handbook had a schematic for the US market emissions nightmare included, my car had none of that nor had it been deleted, it was a simple setup.
But NZ market cars never got the pollution equipment required for Australia or the US, CAT delete is still legal here up to MY 07 though your insurance may be voided the car will still pass inspection.
Japan followed the model of the U.S. Clean Air Act, and implemented some of those standards sooner than the U.S. did.
The Clean Air Act called for CO emissions limits of 3.4 grams/mile, HC emissions of 0.41 grams/mile, and NOx emissions of 0.4 grams per mile. Implementation was delayed in the U.S., but Japan adopted the CO and HC limits for 1975 and the NOx limit for 1978.
In 1978, the U.S. interim standards were 15.0 g/mile for CO, 1.5 g/mile for HC, and 2.0 g/mile for NOx. California’s interim standards for 1978 were 9.0 g/mile for CO, 0.41 g/mile for HC, and 1.5 g/mile for NOx. The U.S. enacted the 3.4 g/mile CO standard for 1981 and the 0.41 g/mile HC standard for 1980. California enacted somewhat tougher hydrocarbon emissions standards for 1980, 0.39 g/mile.
So, throughout the late seventies and early eighties, Japanese emissions standards were stricter than U.S. federal ones and almost as strict (and at certain points stricter) than California’s.
The source here is “Emission Control Technology” by Hajime Nishimura and Masayoshi Sadakata, in How to Conquer Air Pollution: A Japanese Experience, Studies in Environmental Science 38, Elsevier, 1989. See also:
(The latter discusses the delayed phase-in of the original standards. Note that it describes the standards in terms of grams per kilometer — the above figures are converted to g/mile for ease of comparison.)
There were some differences in the methodology of how the standards are measured, which in practice may have made the Japanese standards easier to attain than U.S. standards of the same level. Like I said originally, they weren’t identical, but they were quite strict and were definitely modeled on the Clean Air Act.
That may be part of it, but the bigger picture was that GM just never got its head around the fact that there were millions of Americans who actually wanted a quality small car. In developing the Vega, GM went nuts making sure that it came in at under $2,000–same as a Beetle–thinking that if it sells for $2,000, it’s just as good as a Beetle, because people are only buying a $2,000 car because it’s cheap. They never got that people were buying Beetles because they were cheap, and efficient, and for the time, durable, reliable, and low-cost to operate. To GM, anyone buying a $2,000 car was either a bohemian (and who cares about them) or some sad-sack who couldn’t afford a “good” car. And by 1982, it had spent decades writing these potential customers off.
By the time the Cavalier debuted, it was 25 years since the Beetle had started making a huge impact, 22 years after the Corvair, and 12 years since the Vega launched. I don’t understand making excuses for GM at this point. They had 25 years and all the money in the world to develop a quality small car for the domestic market, and their failure to do so speaks volumes.
Another thing was Roger Smith said “best deal is a 2 year old Buick”, instead of a new compact.
Japanese cars come in different grades of suspension tune especially Toyota Camrys The JDM comfort spec is what the US recieves, the Australian market cars have mid range stiifer shocks and a more accurate on centre rack to suit their driving conditions, New Zealand got the stiffest shock rates and quick racks to suit our roads, we also have a lot of JDM spec used imports which have appaling road manners on anything but a nice smooth motorway, NZ assembled Toyota Coronas and Corollas had their suspensions sorted by a local race driver Chris Amon after Toyota manage ment got sick of criticism of how their products behaved on our roads, those cars were benchmarked to the 405 Peugeot and while a Corona will not match a Pug on a twisty road Amon modified cars are head and shoulders above anything else for handling from Japan on our roads.
Same here. An Alfa Romeo disciple who just drove my Mazda 3 was astonished by how sporty the suspension felt – more like a VW Gti than anything.
Brock Yates book said that GM brass said car being slow “makes buyers think they are saving gas”. 😛
Forget the Accord, these things lacked the refinement of an Omni. What a turnabout-that the perpetual underachieving screwup that was 1970s Chrysler could manage the L body in 1978. Four years later, the mighty GM could do no better than this.
We must not forget that in terms of market dominance, GM may have been at it’s peak in 1980-82. Both Chrysler and Ford were just getting up after a near-fatal knockout, but GM was at a modern day peak in market share, and had enjoyed a stellar reputation, at least until the1981 X body.
I believe that GM’s mindset had long been that small cars were a necessary evil. The mystery is why they gyrated so wildly between botched overreach (Corvair, Vega) and phoned-in afterthought (Chevette). I can’t decide where this one falls on this spectrum.
In the early ’90s I read a book titled “The Fall and Rise of the American Automotive Industry” – or something close to that. The book has been referenced by several folks here.
Anyway, the one thing that sticks with me from that book in regard to the Cavalier is the fabrication habits for the pistons and connecting rods. It seems that Honda would cast them in sets of four and keep these four together throughout the manufacturing process. As such, these pieces were nearly always identical in weight. On the flip side, GM would take the pieces and dump them in a pile, so whatever was needed was pulled from the pile and a Monday piston might be mated with a Thursday piston with connecting rods from Tuesday and Friday. As such, weights varied wildly, causing a rough running engine. A fix was taken to add weights to the lighter pieces, robbing power.
Different approaches entirely that yielded wildly different results.
That’s a great anecdote on the matched pistons, and goes a long way to explaining the different mindset between American and Japanese parts production and assembly. It would be easy to see how it happened, too. The difference is it would take extra oversight and, theoretically, manhours to ensure that the parts were produced and installed as matched sets.
American manufacturers simply wouldn’t want to expend the funds to keep costs down (and profits up) to do that, no matter how miniscule.
Isn’t that piston manufacturing process what gave the Vortec 4.8/5.3 their tendency to develop piston slap compared to the 305/350? If so, wow.
While I do not know about that, I do know where I work there is a fleet of GM pickups with the 4.8 and 5.3 – I am even assigned one with a 5.3. Some are starting to develop problems in the 80k to 100k range with a few swallowed valves and engine rebuilds.
Mine has 76k and developed an occasional rattle a while back. The GM pickup fans don’t seem to think this is a problem. Of course, I bought Ford’s during my fleet management gig and the worst problem they had was ball joints. It seems ball joints are much cheaper than engines, but I’ve been wrong before.
My friend’s 150 (three of them since 1996) were not nearly as trouble free as his Rams and GM trucks have been (He has a lot of kids from 18 to 35(Yikes, we are old!) and a disabled brother living with him and their driveway looks like a late model used truck lot, so he has experienced all kinds of stuff over the last 20 years) The only F150 left, a first year Ecoboost, had been ok, but now that the warranty is over, it’s been having a ton of issues that cost a lot to fix, it’s on the “One more thing and it’s gone” list now, along with a 2000 Sierra that has over 250K on it. The main problem area on it is the dash has constant electrical problems, like the dash lights going out, and then back on, randomly, along with the interior just falling apart.
My Sierra’s 5.3 had the so called “Carbon” issue that GM claimed was the cause of it’s ticking on startup. BS, totally, it was lifters. A friend of mine had an almost identical Chevy with the same ticking that was about 2X as bad, and lasted twice as long. I don’t even know how the service guys kept a straight face telling people that the “ticking” was due to carbon on top of the pistons. If it was carbon, why did it get worse the colder it was? Why did it stop almost exactly when the il pressure came up? Why did it only happen if the truck sat for more than a couple of hours? Because it was just lifters. If I let my truck sit outside at work in the parking lot with the temps in single digits, it clattered like hell at startup, but sitting in the same spot when it was seventy degrees, it went “ticka-tick” and was fine after that. My friend’s Silverado got so bad by the time it had 25K on it, the dealer, who still insisted it was “carbon” pulled the heads, cleaned every speck of carbon off the pistons and chambers, and it did absolutely nothing. It still clattered away on cold starts, even on the very first start after the “carbon fix” was done. Surprisingly, well only to GM and the service department at the dealership, an aftermarket set of lifters totally cured the ticking, and he drove that truck until 2014, when he finally traded it for a Ram 1500 4×4.
A friend of mine has rebuilt many 5.3s and other GM truck motors and the main problems he sees with them are bad intake manifolds and intake gaskets. He has taken apart 5.3s with 100,000+ miles and them and every single part in them has met specs for a new engine. On these “gems”, he changes the bearings, services the heads (new valves, etc) and runs a pine cone hone up and down the bores a few times, gets rid of the tiny ridge at the top of the bore, puts on a new timing chain and water pump, and it’s good to go. He puts them into pre LS engine trucks and 3gen Fbodies. I helped him tear two of them apart recently and both looked fantastic inside. One had a bad intake and the right side head gasket was about to fail, but it was running well, and the other was very clean inside and out, the previous owner had definitely had his oil changed on time. And they are cheap as hell to buy. For $500 in a couple of cases, he got the engine and all the electronics for the engine in one shot. A couple of hundred or so for valves and stuff, and it was good as new, and a vast improvement on the stock motors.
I know that with only 5000 miles my then new Pontiac Azteks 3.4 V-6 had a “piston slap” that would make you wince. Of course like every other problem that developed with this car GM tried to assure me it was “normal”
JP, I see Cavalier as an afterthought, right alongside the Chevette.
Corvair and Vega, I blame on the bean-counters. Vega also gets some “not invented here” blame (infighting between Chevrolet engineers and GM corporate) combined with no small amount of corporate arrogance.
Chevrolet apologized for all these cars in their 100th anniversary TV special, stating “we didn’t really have our heart in it”.
If we are going to talk GM’s mindset, I think it should be noted that when the 1st Cavaliers hit showrooms the Toyota Corolla was still RWD. When the Civic and Accord 1st hit showrooms, A LOT of anti-Japanese bias still existed in this country, especially among the group of buyers the Cavalier was aimed at.
I think the biggest “sin” about this car is the same “sin” Ford USA committed with the Escort: they had the basic structure of a pretty decent “world car”….but felt the overwhelming need to “improve” it for American tastes.
My first inkling that I made a mistake in patriotically buying the ’81 Escort (under the illusion it would have European virtues) was when I rented a contemporary Corolla for a job interview. Not as “high tech,” but a totally solid feel. I felt conned by Ford; even a Mazda GLC would’ve been a better choice.
I have always hated the twin headlight front end on the original Cavalier – what a god-awful looking visage. Quad headlights and getting rid of that “sloping forehead” partial grill really helped the looks of that car.
Prior to introduction of these cars to the market I helped a friend’s father (he was some kind of zone manager for Pontiac at the time) shuttle around several ’82 Pontiac J2000s between cities in NE Ohio for press preview activities. There were three of us driving preview J2000s following him in his big Pontiac wagon. I remember thinking how sharp the Pontiac hatchback I was driving looked. Anyhow our leader spent most of the day mad at us for screwing around on the highway and not keeping up with him – he ended up so pissed that he didn’t want to speak to us at the end of the day…bunch of screw-up kids farting around with brand new cars.
Wasn’t for several weeks that he finally drove one of those things and realized that we weren’t screwing around with him: we just couldn’t keep up with him even with the throttle wide-open the entire time we were on the freeway.
What a disappointment after the big PR buildup.
I still want an Olds Firenza GT hatchback, though.
> Quad headlights and getting rid of that “sloping forehead” partial grill really helped the looks of that car.
It also made the Cimarron and Cavalier resemble each other even more than they already did.
Quad headlamps? Check. Eggcrate grill? Check. Make sure to put a bowtie in the middle of that one and a wreath & crest in that one so that no one gets confused.
The dual headlights of the first Cavaliers are worth noting in the context of the Cimarron fiasco. Many think that if the original Cimarron had had the later composite headlights, things would have turned out better. But, since the first Cavaliers had different headlights/grilles from the start, that argument doesn’t really hold water. The Cavalier didn’t get the Cimarron’s quad headlights until at least a year after the Cimarron had come out. Simply put, the rest of the Cimarron was just way too much like the Cavalier.
It also highlights how badly GM miscalculated with simply rehashing X-car components for the Cavalier. If GM had come up with truly new, lighter, better engineering for the Cavalier, it might have been an easier sell when those same parts were put underneath a much more expensive Cimarron. But with the rough-running engine and poor driving dynamics of the Cavalier, there was just no way to disguise it underneath a small Cadillac.
Ironically, Honda would later use the same formula to much greater success when they started up the Acura brand.
Admittedly, the 1982 Accord was less powerful than the Cavalier (75 hp in 1982–83 from the 1,751cc engine, then 86 hp for the 1,829cc carbureted engine in 1984–85 and either 100 or 101 hp in the injected SE-i sedan), but the Accord was a bunch lighter and the engine was a lot more pleasant subjectively.
That’s Honda’s genius: Even their basic models earn praise by reviewers for their “willing” engines. And to my knowledge, Consumer Reports has never blamed 4-cyl Accords for being underpowered.
This may be apocryphal, but awhile ago I heard Honda employed some sort of NVH savant who could identify subtle harmonics in engines.
Or to put it a different way, Honda’s genius was in how they were able to mass-produce blueprinted engines. So long as an engine is built to within a certain set of tolerances, it will run. The problem is it may (or may not) run well. That’s always been American manufacturers way.
‘Blueprinting’ is a term mostly used in racing circles where an engine is built to the specs and tolerances that will produce the greatest horsepower and, theoretically, efficiency and longevity. The problem is it takes a great deal of time and effort to find and match components for this.
Honda figured out how to do it quickly for their regular production vehicles.
The Accord being around 200 pounds lighter than the Cavalier undoubtedly helped as well.
I ordered (and waited for delivery) of an ’82 Cavalier hatchback Type LT with 4-speed manual transmission. It is the worst car I ever owned with repeated visits to the dealer for the same engine oil leak problem. The engine was removed several times in attempts to repair. After some ominous noises developed (no doubt due to the engine removals), I traded it after about a year (for a Pontiac J2000). The Pontiac had the Opel OHC engine and was much more satisfactory.
So if GM was bound and determined to use a pushrod cast-iron I4, why didn’t they just pull the Iron Duke off the corporate shelf? Chevy was already using it in the Citation and Celebrity, and the 3rd-gen Camaro even got it for a while. Sure, it’s not exactly the picture of refinement or power either, but they wouldn’t have had to spend development money to come up with a mediocre solution when they already had a mediocre solution. Or was it simply too heavy or too inefficient for the J-body?
Obviously the Family II would have been the most logical choice, but management arrogance and all that. I do find it peculiar that it eventually found a home in most of the other J-variants though, but wasn’t even offered as an extra-cost option here.
I have no idea of this was a factor, but the Iron Duke was a Pontiac engine, which probably made it just as unwanted by Chevrolet as an Opel engine would be.
True, but they were already using it in a couple of other lines at the time–I would have figured that the idea of unique divisional engines was dying by the early 80’s.
It was, but I assume GM was assuming they were going to sell scads of these cars, and the projections may have exceeded their Iron Duke production capacity. If you have to tool up anyway, it becomes more tempting to say, “Well, why not tinker or come up with something new(ish)?”
I think the issue with the Iron Duke would have been weight, and the Cav was already overweight. It would also increase the overlap with the X body even more.
Wasn’t the Iron Duke too big externally? But then they shoehorned the V6 into the J later.
They got the Iron Duke into the Grand-Am FWD’s
Paul, thanks for the article. Thought this one was incredibly well written. Really sums up all of the thoughts that a lot of us had about these cars at the time and puts the development of this car in to the context of what was going on before and after. My experience with the Cavalier is pretty much as you described it in the article. In high school, we had a 1980 Accord 4 door 5-speed, which was really fun to drive, especially when revving the engine, even with 72 horsepower. When I went to college, I didn’t have access to a car but spent a lot of time driving my roommates’ 1984 Cavalier sedan, both to and from college (about a 6-hour drive) and around town. I couldn’t believe the lack of refinement and responsiveness of the engine, especially with an automatic transmission. Plus, the terrible fit and finish of the interior and let’s not even mention the handling.
Speaking of Honda..
one thing i never knew they did..until quite recently was they own a shipyard.
I have seen pictures of at least one car carrier they built to carry Honda’s!!!!
I think they also built their own cargo ships to carry steel..which had Honda written on the side as well.
I had what I remember as a 1983 Cavalier with a 2.0 and a carburetor. Was fuel injection late coming to Canada?
One day while I was sweeping the showroom, an old woman came in that just traded a Catalina for a 1982 J2000 LE sedan. She found her salesman and told him that he lied to her about the new car having power……she called it dangerous……I do remember the 1.8 OHC being much better and with the 5 speed capable of 40mpg highway with a/c on.
Nice write-up. Summarized things very well. Enjoyed the photos and ads too (“The Full-Blown Car”?!?).
I bought a new ’84 Cavalier (Type 10 Hatchback). And while things may have improved somewhat since ’82, and the car wasn’t terrible, it very much left me with the impression that no one at GM sweated any details at all. It could have- and really should have- been so much better.
A once common sight as a Vauxhall on UK roads.The SRI 130 was popular with boy racers and was often wrapped round trees,the rust monster and wear and tear saw most Cavaliers off.
Ahhhhh,the Chevy Cavalier. The car everybody loves to hate,and for good reasons.
Being born in 1993, I saw plently of early-80s cars in my childhood, but early J-bodies I don’t recall seeing many or even any. Late-80s Cavaliers were common, and I even still see a few Sunbird convertibles around these days. To think that GM intended this car to be an Accord-fighter is insane. We’ll have to see how this 2016 Malibu is once production models are out on the roads.
While I was dating the woman who eventually became my wife; her car-buying decision came down to taking her father’s recommendation (’82 Pontiac J2000) vs. mine (Honda Accord). To keep peace in the family, she bought the J2000; a decision that she regrets to this day. It was a blue fastback with an automatic and dealer-installed AC, and it was a relatively attractive little car. But on hot days, the engine would stall when the AC clutched-in; and the car was difficult to start afterwards. The dashboard creaked and rattled over every imperfection in the road. It had a hard time keeping up with traffic even on slight grades — I can recall the J2000 downshifting to second with the engine screaming at about 45 miles per hour on interstates, with VW Beetles and tractor-trailers passing us by in the dust. But the worst problem was the persistent oil leak that various Pontiac dealers either couldn’t or wouldn’t fix; occasionally leaving her stranded. Too bad lemon laws didn’t exist in 1982.
She worked as much overtime as she could to pay off the car loan early, and we starting looking for a new car for her the minute that she received the title from the loan company. So the ’82 J2000 was traded for a bottom of the line ’84 Toyota Tercel with a 5 speed transmission. While the Tercel wasn’t any sort of rocket ship either, it was as reliable as a car could be. The Tercel still looked and ran like new when we sold it 8 years and 100K miles later.
I have often wondered about whether or not GM actually drove that era Honda Accord or Toyota Corolla around substantially to see why Americans were buying those cars in droves? I know they probably bought a few to take apart to see what made them tick(all auto makers do that) but I wonder if GM had somebody spend a few weeks in those cars driving all around to see. I have driven that era Accord around for a few days a few years ago and it was a miserable penalty box however it was much better then that era Cavalier(I had a friend with one and got a good chance to drive it.)
The big issue with the Cavilier is not so much the car itself(yes there were teething issues but by 1987 it was a decent car for point A to B driving) it was the GM’s arrogance in that era. They thought that once they made a FWD compact car, that Americans would rush to dump their Japanese cars to buy one of these new GM cars. They counted on patriotism and the Buy American credo to sell the cars. But while most Americans love their country and love to buy American, they are also impatient and want things to work right. Patience wears thin if you have to sit in the waiting room in a dealership 3 or 4 times to get the car fixed with in the space of a year of buying it new, you are going to look elsewhere for the next car.
We Americans love style but we love reliability more and the ability to come out on even the coldest day and hop into our Toyota Corolla and have it start up on the first crank is why people buy that car in droves.
However that being said, I feel that Toyota is starting to take on the mantle of arrogance from GM, and will fall sharply just like GM did. They seem to be selling the same tired Camry and Corolla with expectation that folks will flock in and buy them. I can see them losing a great deal of market share to Hyundai/Kia in the next 10 years as they have really upped their game in their cars. 3 weeks ago I went car shopping with a friend(who was in the market for a new car) I test drove a 2015 Corolla and it felt plasticy and subpar. I then test drove a Hyundai Elantra and it felt well built. This friend bought the Hyundai.
That era of Accord a “miserable penalty box”? Are you sure you’re referring to the same generation? My family owned an ’84, which was part of the same generation as an ’82 would have been, and it was anything but a penalty box. Sure, it was small. But it had a nicely finished interior with pleasant fabrics, comfortable seats, a reasonably compliant ride for such a short wheelbase, direct and nimble handling, a peppy engine with smooth delivery and a lot of refinement for a carb motor, plus some niceties like A/C and power windows.
Maybe your definition of penalty box is different than mine!
Maybe Leon’s example was too old and tired by the time he drove it. I found the 2nd generation Accord to be an eye-opener when new, with its smooth, willing engine, light clutch and pleasant gear changes (manual tranny of course), and hushed interiors.
The model year of the Accord may have made some difference as well. The 1982–83 and 1984–85 cars had different engines and the later cars (even in carbureted form) had about 15 percent more power and a bit more torque than the early ones. A five-speed ’84 would have very different performance than an ’82 automatic, for instance.
I didn’t realize they made changes to the engine, and also wasn’t considering the potential difference in transmission. Ours was, indeed, a five-speed ’84.
As to potentially being old and tired, that’s a possibility too, but ours was no spring chicken either (14 years old and something like 120K miles when we bought it.)
I really don’t think GM’s heart was ever into small cars–I think Delorean’s book stated it didn’t cost anyless to design and build a small car compared to a large one but buyers expected small cars to be cheap. I don’t know why former owners of domestic 80’s cars can remember every squeek and problem–I’ve been in the parts end of the business since that time and we heard owners of imports complain about their cars just as much as Detroit cars only they would always say “best car I’ve ever owned though”
To some extent, yeah, people remembering those Accords as “great” have selective memory.
Yup, it was all a conspiracy in the media.
PhilL and others… My memories align with yours. I dated a young lady back in the late 70’s whose parents owned a then new Accord. While it was a nice car (I was more into European cars and muscle cars during my early life), it definitely had faults. I can remember seeing a different car (not their Accord) frequently when I would visit her at her parent’s house
I would question her folks and they would tell me that their Accord was in the shop for something or another. Like others who drank the Honda Kool Aid, they loved the car and the dealer. It was great that the dealers kissed their a$$es, but even if they did treat you like royalty, what good was it to have a car that was in the shop frequently?
After a couple of years, they got another car (IIRC a Chevy Malibu, no less) and gave the Accord to their daughter. We drove that car all over the place, but it was a chore. There were a number of things wrong with the car and I eventually grew to hate being under the hood of that thing. Even though gasoline was $1.10/gallon and my Capri Turbo got about 18 MPG in the city, I drove that because when it was running well, it ran better than the Accord.
Eventually I broke up with her, and I don’t know the disposition of that car. Even before I broke up with her, I’d broken up with the Accord. I’ve never been that big a fan of Hondas, no matter how much they’ve changed. First impressions and all that…
Everyone is entitled to their memories and opinions. I’m not trying to change that, but just reminding folks there were good reasons why not everyone feels the Honda love…
Totally disagree…I owned a 77 Toyota Corolla wagon….Very nice, reliable car. A family friend purchased a new 78 Accord 4 door…I was bowled over that it was a Japanese car…At that time we all expected Japanese cars to be basic, cheap, reliable and fuel efficient…..like my Toyota…. In fact most people had them as second cars. They bought American to be their primary, “nice” car.
The Accord was a revelation. Quiet, well equipped and exuding quality it was a Japanese car that anyone could be happy with as their only car.
Then when the second generation came out in 82 it was even nicer.
Excellent styling, more room and exceptional detailing….
My memory isn’t selective…The Accord was a game changer
Honestly, this is what bugs me the most with the early Hondas. When I had my awful early Accord, I’d ask others at work about theirs, and usually I found that they were having many of the same problems I was, yet “best car I ever owned, though” was their response.
When I dumped my Accord, I eventually found its next residence. They apparently kept my old car another 2-3 years and then there was a new Accord in the driveway. Ugh. Honda did make great strides through the ’80s, though.
That said, if the choice was between an ’82 Cavalier and Accord, even I would choose the latter.
“Like many GM cars that were made for a (too) long time, the Cavalier evolved into a fairly reliable grocery-getter. Or at least according to some of its owners.”
That sounds right as the Cobalt was a steaming pile of crap throughout it run and instead of correcting that GM just changed the name to Cruze.
1984 Firenza (1.8L EFI SOHC) and 1992 Caviler (2.2L) were some of the best cars I have owned while still drinking the GM Kool-Aid.
I second your opinion of the Cobalt. It’s the car that ended my relationship with GM.
My uncle has a Cobalt, a very basic “rental” style stripper. He refers to it as a “little nothing of a car”.
My former stepfather ran a car dealership, and we used to talk about the cars that gave them the most trouble and models they tended to avoid at auction. When he and my mother were together, Cobalts were fairly new cars and they did deal in a few of them back then (circa 2009-10ish), but by 2013, they skipped Cobalts at the auctions. Lots of computer problems. A close friend also had one. Had gas in it, but at a certain point the car would stop running with a half tank of gas. Chevy dealer said there was gas in it and tried a few things, a fuel system cleaning was one, IIRC. Still had the issue. Cobalt was traded for a 2011 Civic coupe that they still have.
In some respects the Cobalt was a step backwards from the second-gen J cars. The interior seemed to be of a little better quality than the later Cavaliers but the rest of it felt every bit as cheap.
The Cruze on the other hand isn’t bad at all. After taking a fair bit of heat here over some comments I’d made last year about the folks on the line at Lordstown Assembly I decided to rent one when the opportunity came up. Night and day difference over the Cobalt. It wasn’t Civic good, but I’d say good enough to compare to the current Corolla. Power is quite adequate for what it is. I never felt unsafe merging into freeway traffic, something I can’t say for an Impreza with the FB20/CVT combo.
Bottom line, GM (and especially Lordstown) has finally redeemed itself.
I’ve been observing (but not commenting on) this post for a couple of days, mostly waiting out the usual GM hatefest that accompanies one of these posts. As time goes on, our memories of all of these cars gets fuzzier and fuzzier and our biases eventually cloud our memories.
Having known a number of people who have and had worked at Lordstown Assembly, the sea change that has taken place over the last 40 or so years has been remarkable. Actually *all* of the plants have seen remarkable changes, but since I’m somewhat familiar with Lordstown I’ve noticed it most. Most folks associated Lordstown with the now extinct militant UAW that has largely capitulated to the Corporation’s demands. I can’t imagine an UAW worker in 1975 would recognize an UAW contract these days.
Regardless of that, I frequently remember that the assembly line workers do not design or engineer the cars they build. That said, I think that every new generation of small car that comes out of Lordstown since the 1990’s has gotten better. Contrary to popular opinion here, the Cruze is a great little car (but I hate the misspelled name, my typography training not withstanding) fighting an uphill battle in a crowded market.
Thanks to MarkP for recognizing that fact and the assembly workers part in it.
I don’t know much about the Chevrolet, Pontiac or Olds versions of the J-car (the Cimarron was a Cavalier), I did get a new Buick Skyhawk in 1983 which did have a 5 speed manual, an OHC 1.8 with fuel injection and automatic climate control.
However, my Skyhawk was a bit buzzy at certain speeds (it would easily run over 90 MPH), and the 5 speed did not shift all that well. I have owned two cars with manual transmissions and I have not liked the shift quality of either one.
I think that GM’s basic problem was that top management knew what they would like to get, but they also wanted the price tag to be in a certain range too, and to get the quality would have meant an unsustainable retail price.
When the Cadavers were introduced, my Father’s Horizon was getting a little long in the tooth, nothing major, just getting old.
Dad and I test drove a new Cadaver, bright red with the 3 speed automatic tranny. Not a …bad…looking car, GM’s typically excellent Air conditioning system worked well, so very important here in the Heat & Humidity capital of the country AKA New Orleans, LA.
But….”Slow”… was being highly optimistic! That slug could barely ooze away from a stop sign!! Light, “old lady tip toe” tip in, half throttle squeeze, foot-on-the-front-bumper…..didn’t make any difference. Wondering if this particular car had “issues”, Dad politely asked the salesman if they all drove like this. The salesman just looked at Dad and changed the topic of conversation.
Needless to say, Dad kept his peppy-by-comparison Horizon. After a set of new tires, spark plugs & wires and a weekend long detail/wax job/interior fumigation by me, that Horizon never looked so good by J car comparison! AND….paid for!
What I’ve never understood about the J cars is why they were designed to be so relatively close in size to nearly everything else from GM at the time. Too big to be a subcompact, a bit small for a compact, and not really enough different from the X (and to an extent, FWD A) cars or later L/N cars. For a while, my mom had a ’87 Buick Somerset and my sister had a ’88 Pontiac Sunbird. While the Somerset seemed to be better put together, the interior space didn’t feel all that different. I think the lack of differentiation in size must’ve held them back to at least some extent.
I had never heard that they were intended to go against the Accord either. Seems laughable today. I seem to recall the W bodies being intended for that duty, at least after the sedans came out and the Accord and Camry grew in the 90s. They too missed the mark by quite a bit, but at least were better finished. To me, the Js felt cheap all the way to the end.
I remember thinking the J-cars were overpriced, overweight, and underpowered when they came out.
I think Pontiacs had a Brazilian-made 1.8 OHC engine. It wasn’t noticeably quicker according to the car magazine.
But in 1986-87, Car and Driver tested a Pontiac Sunbird Turbo with a 3-spd auto. It ran the quarter mile in 16.3 and had the good-looking Fiero alloy wheels. Pretty zippy.
I friend of mine bought one, and she said it was the best car she ever owned!
I considered a Cavalier in the late 90s, but felt it was too cheap…
Yes my sister bought a 84 -85 Sunbird turbo new.
She liked the car until the first frigid Minnesota winter hit.
It seems the Sunbird turbo was a notoriously hard starting car in cold weather.
To the point where it would have to be towed to the dealer to be thawed out and have its gasoline diluted oil changed.
This happened to her three times ,over the two winters she owned it.
She grew disgusted with it, and traded it off for a Mitsubishi Gallant that treated her well.
In 1982 we bought a brand new Accord hatchback with a 5 speed manual. It had no shortage of power (by the standards of the day) and was very smooth and refined. We liked it so much that we got a new 83 Accord sedan with automatic and air. The automatic took quite a toll on power, as did the additional weight of the sedan, but it was still a very capable and reliable car.
The GM J bodies never even crossed our mind. We were young and not exactly wealthy, we wanted the best bang for the buck that we could get, and GM crap was not even considered.
I recall seeing more than a few of these J-cars in Kansas & Oklahoma during the mid to late 1980’s, bought by uninformed “regular Americans” who viewed their cars as appliances, people who had gotten used to GM’s small cars and just didn’t know/didn’t WANT to know that their was a much better “Foreign” alternative.
You sound like just about everyone I know growing up in Westchester County in the 1970s and 80s. These were educated, upper-middle-class professionals, most of whom were managers at the many large corporations–IBM, General Foods, PepsiCo, and others–that had moved their corporate headquarters up to the suburbs after World War II. These people could afford big GM cars, but chose to buy small imported cars instead. And they paid a premium for them, too, because they were considered much better in so many ways than what the domestic makers were turning out. My father went from a ’68 Galaxie to a VW Rabbit in 1977, and I think the price was around $4,500–definitely not cheap, especially for a small car at that time.
Whether or not the Rabbit was worth the premium price is debatable, but the larger point is that GM executives, cloistered away in their well-to-do Detroit suburbs, completely missed this trend. When they should have been cultivating these kinds of customers on the coasts, they continued to believe, arrogantly and ineptly, that small-car buyers were freaks who had no idea what was good for them, and they’d eventually come to their senses and buy a nice comfy Brougham. The people who were buying VW’s and Hondas in 1980 were, for better or worse, cultural trendsetters who dropped $150 on a Cuisinart because Craig Claiborne or Julia Child told them to, and because it was the kind of thing that sophisticated people were supposed to want. Meanwhile, GM was unaware that anybody in America was eating anything that didn’t come out of a Crock-Pot or a Swanson box. To well-to-do people on the coasts, American cars were strictly blue-collar; to them, GM’s reputation was already trash. Amazing how a company that built itself up largely through marketing could have failed so spectacularly in spotting this trend.
I have driven some recent GM cars and was surprised at how good they were. The Malibu I rented a few years back was easily better than an Accord, no doubt about it. It’s a shame that it’s taken this long, and I hope GM can start turning its reputation around, because its products have definitely come a long way.
Maybe in Westchester the Greatest Generation were early adapters, though I think it’s a bit overstated to say the whole coast. A lot of sophisticated people on the coasts still bought big cars, but the key was, they were ALL older, every one of them. Just one of many examples I can think of my paternal grandparents were quite affluent and lived in the Hartford suburbs (my grandfather was a life insurance executive). I’m sure that if their choices were limited to Cavaliers and Accords they might have become Honda loyalists c.1980, but in the 70s and very early 80s they drove Continentals and DeVilles, and then downsized in the 80s to Grand Marquis. They were happy with these cars, because, frankly, this was what GM and Ford were good at building and so they turned out well.
It was my parents generation on the coasts who never gave the J Bodies a second, or in their case, even a first look. My dad and mom were 35 and 28 in 1980. They weren’t remotely in the pay grade to buy a big boat and didn’t want one. They wanted a good small car. My mom had just come back from South America. My dad was driving a beater Ford truck. They went to GM, and Chevrolet gave them a really bad Chevette. That was it. They haven’t bought an American car since. I feel it was them, not their parents, that GM ignored at their peril c. 1980.
As I commented elsewhere a few days ago, it is their generation who reacts with almost automatic disdain to any American car and it’s because they were so disappointed by the dreck economy cars of the 1980s. Thus, even though I think the Honda-love is a bit overdone on an objective basis, it’s true that whatever their faults, they were a lot better than these, which poisoned an entire generation on GM.
One other reason was dealer service treated small car owners badly, saying stuff like ‘you shoulda got a real [big] car’.
Ma had a ’75 Skyhawk and Buick dealer was like ‘get this outta here’ when brought in for a minor recall in ’77.
Not so much that the 82s were lame, but then GM insisted on keeping the J’s the same for eons, acting as if ‘we know better’.
I think you may be overstating it slightly. In Scarsdale in the 80s there were still pockets of American cars, although the Jeep XJ Cherokee was the only really popular one. My 40ish parents may have stopped buying American in the 60s but lots of their friends still had mid size and full size station wagons and sedans although not always for long.
I think you are right about the smaller cars, I recall VWs, Hondas, and Toyotas far outnumbering J cars.
We had a 77 Accord and an 84 Accord and they were miles ahead of 82 Firenza and 88 Cavaliers I briefly drove.
The thing is, GM today is turning out the same type of small car it turned out in the first year Cav.
As mentioned in another thread, I have been entertaining the thought of a second car to slog through the winter schmutz with. I really like the Cruze, admire it at the auto show every year. Like the tall greenhouse and good visibility. Like the instrument panel. Like the styling. Dealer near me has a certified used LS for $10,500. I even like the color.
So Steve starts the research process.
Found an article comparing the Focus and Cruze. Article said both have received a lot of criticism from owners, but while criticism of the Focus centers on the DSG auto and My Ford Touch for their buggy operation, criticism of the Cruse concerns things that actually break, a lot.
Owner feedback on Edmunds indicates the Cruze cooling system is a disaster: multiple complaints of coolant leaks, failed water pumps, heater that will not turn on, or if on, will not turn off, radiator fan that will not turn off, high levels of antifreeze fumes in the passenger compartment and frequent, sudden overheating. Then there are the oil leaks, the multiple complains of all the instrument panel lights going out, and typical GM gripes about failed accessories and bits falling off.
According to Consumer’s Reports, not only is the 1.4T Cruze the most troublesome vehicle GM makes, it, and the Ford Fiesta and Fiat 500, are the most trouble prone cars on the US market.
CU complaints about Fords of late indeed center around their MyTouch system. I don’t want digital crap on my next dashboard (Japanese or otherwise) beyond the basics, because I’m afraid of fool programmers who have the same blindness about QC as Detroit did in the ’70s. The last thing I want is to contend with a car company over software; the rest of the software industry is bad enough. God help us, we’re in the hands of programmers.
Just because code is easy to write doesn’t mean it’s easy to do WELL. It can take years to evolve software worthy of trust 24/7.
The legacy lives, Steve. You can get a Sonic with a hokey 80’s style digital dash, OnStar, even a compass and an idiot light for temperature.
I think the Cobalt is attractive too, but not going down that route again. Same old same old from “New” GM.
After fighting GM’s notorious ignition switch on my 05 ION for 10 years, you think I trust GM’s skill with electronics ?
It’s a matter of desirability versus expected frustration. I, too, fought an ignition switch battle, with my wife’s Alero which eventually became my DD once it became too unreliable for her. And that frustration, which culminated in a needlessly complicated replacement I did on my own dime before the recall, has seriously dented my opinion of GM, to where with a few exceptions I would not buy any used GM car, and would think very hard before giving them any of my money for a new one.
(The two exceptions I can think of offhand would be a G8 GT, Solstice GXP or 2nd-gen CTS. If the right one came along for the right price, the desirability of said car would outweigh any expected frustration from said car. That desirability factor doesn’t really apply to anything else they make.)
You can get a Sonic with a hokey 80’s style digital dash,
The Sonic has a big round tach, and everything else is on a digital panel, the same as the Civic has had since 06. The Spark has the same look, but the one big round dial is the speedo.
After fighting GM’s notorious ignition switch on my 05 ION for 10 years,
A dealer near me has a Cobalt for cheap. Quite clean, ugly color, bare bones: crank windows and mechanical locks. I started reading the owner feedback on the ‘balt on Edmunds. Found multiple complaints about the ignition switch jamming so people couldn’t turn the engine off. Which issue did you have: can’t shut the engine off, or engine shut off on it’s own?
Sorry this is late, Steve: key refused to come out of the ignition on shut down. But I could remove the key driving down the road. Got sick of diddling that little button underneath the wheel to release the key on shut down.
Four replacements and when the official GM sanctioned as seen on TV recall switch came in, I thought my problems were over. But nooooooo. Same problem and yet another service bulletin for an open sensor in the Passlock system that was refusing to release the key.
10 years later and it’s finally working as planned. Unbelievable.
My dad bought a brand new 1982 Pontiac J2000 hatchback. It was a good looking car but problematic from the start. The car would shut down on every stop if the A/C was on, so they had to turn it off on every traffic light or stop sign.
Fortunately, they trade it in for a new 1986 Honda Accord sedan and that was an awesome car.
I recall first gen Cavaliers already becoming quite rare by the early 2000s, the ultimate throwaway car. I’ve seen more Vegas and Monzas recently than these, this is one of the few still left here.
I remember those cars from the tv series “Homicide: Life on the Streets”.
Up until the 1960s, GM (especially Cadillac) was “The Standard of the World”. Not necessarily because they built great cars, but because they built the best cars. In that era, to get 100,000 miles out of a car was tremendously exceptional.
The perceived quality and 50% market share allowed/caused GM to become an exceptionally arrogant and (I believe intentionally) ignorant company. They rested on their laurels and began the squeeze of profits over quality. It wasn’t at all that they *couldn’t* make a good small car, they didn’t WANT TO.
Then, with two unconventional failures under their belt (Corvair and Vega) they decided to follow, rather than lead. The inherent problem with making the Accord the target for the J-bodies was that Honda had experience making a quality small car (the Civic). Scaling a small car up is far easier than scaling a big car down, and the only thing GM did well was big cars. Raiding the big cars’ parts bins is a sure recipe for an overweight small car.
As Yates wrote, the ignorance and arrogance coming from the 14th floor is and always will be what brings about the downfall of GM. It’s been 40 years since GM had the right to be arrogant, but the attitude still carries on to this day.
I would not mind GM raiding the big car parts bins for their small cars if it made the cars more durable but the the big car parts on the small cars seemed to fail just as much as if they were on the big cars.
Well, the selling point was “New J cars are better than the old Vegas/Monzas, and some have 4 doors!” And “Here’s our new small car, buyers will come back” [And will buy a bigger car once in the dealer] they thought.
“Good enough”, “we are GM, #1, who else will they buy?” “If they don’t like it, then they should have gotten a bigger, REAL car!”
If it wasn’t for truck sales, GM would be long gone. Now that attitude is ‘buy a truck, it’s what everyone is buying these days!’
Even if they weren’t actually thinking that, they built their small cars as if they were. As I said below, while not perfect, the big cars feel like they were built by a different company than the small cars.
When I “transitioned” from an ’84 Sunbird to a 78 Caprice my aunt who drove a ’79 LTD II at the time, remarked, “you got a real car….congratulations”
My cousin, who drove an XJ Cherokee said ” good for you…you ditched the golf cart!”
While I did not think my Sunbird was that bad (at the time) …the Caprice was indeed an improvement. I couldn’t believe both were built by GM.
I owned three first generation J cars:
A friend’s parents were GM loyalists, usually Pontiac, but like many reacted to the second oil price shock with a violent reaction. They assigned their humoungous 1976 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham four door hardtop to their kids and purchased a loaded early Cavalier. I don’t recall if the early Cavalier had multiple trims, but I do recall the strange and stark contrast of seeing (still a luxury item at the time) a power window switch mounted to a stamped all plastic interior door panel. The car just reeked of cheap.
They typically held on to cars for several years, but in this case they dumped the Cavalier fairly quickly in favor of a new H body Bonneville.
Like other small Chevies of the ’70s and early ’80s, there was a “custom interior” option, or in this case a higher-trimed CL model that had fully-upholstered and carpeted door panels instead of molded plastic. In the ’82 model (only), this also included woodgrained dash and console, thick chrome rings around the gauges, velour upholstery (vinyl also available IIRC), and an upgraded steering wheel with “wrapped” rim. This was cheapened for ’83 of course and stayed that way.
God, these were crap. Cars that were beaters when they were just a few years old.
I actually thought they were pretty good looking, but in an almost weird full-circleism (kind of like Pat Buchanan and Dennis Kucinich both being for protectionism), similar to a 1980s Jaguar XJ6, one thought most highly of them when they were parked.
Definitely a Deadly Sin. The veritable stench of death.
Someone, I think it was Canuckknucklehead, once said that GM just didn’t like making small cars. They wanted to make big cars, and trucks. That was their core competence, and although they were forced to diversify, they just didn’t care to really put any effort into it. Every little car I’ve ridden in of theirs says, loudly and clearly “*Sigh* All right, here’s a small car if you insist. If you would just come to your senses and buy a Delta 88, …”
I think the difference between these and GM’s big cars of the same year (with a few exceptions such as the HT4100 engines) is night and day. It’s like 2 different companies.
From a Google search for “Cavalier”:
…a courtly gentleman, especially one acting as a lady’s escort.
Maybe the namers intended this dignified association?
a small spaniel of a breed with a moderately long, noncurly, silky coat.
Probably not this one, though a harsh vinyl interior would qualify as “noncurly”.
showing a lack of proper concern; offhand.
I vote #3!
My late wife (girlfriend in 1981) bought a 1982 Cavalier 2-door in August of 1981 to replace her totaled 1980 Sunbird (with the 3.8 litre- WOW.) This car was a POS from day one. Sluggish wasn’t quite the word. Loud, buzzy, and the cooling fan relay went out in the first year and caused a head gasket failure, which my girl had to pay for. She drove this monster for 6 years, and when she dumped it (on a 1987 Toyota Tercel 5-door hatch, the rare one) it was barely hanging on and almost dangerous with the CV joints starting to lock up and make the car shudder. It was awful for the whole time.
My employer bought one of the very early ’82 sedans as a company car. For reasons unknown to me (availability?), it had a manual transmission. In my opinion, the styling was fine, not ostentatious with simple lines and a generally pleasing shape — modest grille, chromed bumpers, lots of glass, and a decent slant to the rear window. The interior was okay as well, with reasonably comfortable all-vinyl bucket seats. The “great wall of China” dash in front of the passenger was somewhat off-putting though.
Paul has pointed out the car’s biggest flaw — it was gutless even in comparison to my base 1980 Volvo 242DL, which had all of 107 hp in a heavier package. The Cavalier was geared so tall that you couldn’t shift into 4th (top gear) until you had reached 40 mph on level ground! In contrast, my Volvo (also with only 4 gears, lacking the electric overdrive), could easily be short-shifted into 4th at 27 mph. This means with the Cav, you’d have to do a lot of shifting at city or suburban driving speeds on traffic-clogged roads.
Our particular car was not all that reliable, with a lot of niggling issues even though it was kept for only 4 years. Luckily, the cost of repairs was not all that high, just a nuisance to require service so often.
On the bitterly cold morning of Reagan’s 2nd inauguration in 1985, I tried to take the Cavalier from my home in suburban northern Virginia to the airport for a business trip. The carbureted 4 refused to start, so my wife had to drive me in the fuel-injected Volvo (which started without a hiccup) to the nearest Metro stop, from which I was able to reach the airport.
I considered the J-cars as a used car in the early 1990s. For about a minute. Then I went out and bought a ’87 Plymouth Reliant instead. Never regretted it.
My sense has been that if you wanted a small American car in the 1980s, the Ks were the only ones that had a decent shot of not being a disappointment.
I often wonder what would have happened if my parents had found a reliable Reliant or Aries or even a Horizon instead of the Chevette. But I think they already had a notion of Chrysler products as iffy c. 1982 and didn’t consider them. Chrysler was one brand that held onto some Boomer buyers beyond 1980.
These things were cack from day one. Anyone who was driving one past ~1985 was signalling they were a know-nothing schmuck. A low or mid level corporate executive could drive a 80s Accord well into the 90s and not be questioned. A Cavalier? Forget it.
Congratulations on bagging the ’82 Cavicorn in the wild after all these years! The J car hype leading up to their introduction was unbelievable. GM insisted that the Js were the domestic answer to the Japanese competition. Perhaps in ’79, but certainly not in ’82.
The first time I encountered a J car as at the local Pontiac dealer. I pedaled over to the lot on my Scwhinn Varsity early on a Sunday morning (in the days everything was closed all day) and there it was, hiding in back, a J2000 4 door in blue. The future of GM! But as I combed over every exterior detail and peered through the windows, I quickly realized that this was no Accord. At that time, the dealer also had a small Subaru franchise out of the back of the building, and I swung over to compare the J to a Subaru GL sedan. I knew then that something bad was happening inside GM.
The dealership continued to sell Pontiacs until ’09, briefly sold Buicks until ’10, and shut down in the big GM dealer shakeout. They had been a fixture in the community for 50 years and sold many cars to local families moving into the town after WW2. The Subaru franchise moved 10 miles south to a dedicated building by the late 80s, and went on to become very successful. In the mid 90s, they moved into an upscale, beautiful building and have remained successful to this day. The Pontiac dealer? Still sitting empty as thousands of Japanese cars sail by all day long.
Lesson learned GM?
In the late ’80s, my friend’s mom bought a new Cavalier. She was a very heavy drinker and seemed to have some mental problems. The back seat of the car was used as a trash can and the trunk was used as a kind of mini-shed. One time, it was making an engine noise, and I showed my friend how to check the oil, which was over 2 quarts low. He later told me that he asked his mom about it, and she had never changed the oil. The Cavalier made it to 48 thousand miles without ever having an oil change (and a back seat full of trash) before it threw in the towel. Of course, that wasn’t really the car’s fault.
Another time, in 1993, my 1982 Mazda RX-7 was hit at an intersection and totaled. The other guy’s insurance paid to rent me a Cavalier for a couple of weeks. It was new but felt older than my RX-7. I remember that sometimes when I came to a stop, the front end would shake excessively and loudly. Turns out, it was the ABS brakes. I was happy to get rid of it, and bought another ’82 RX-7, which stopped properly.
A girl I knew in college had an ’82 Cavalier. It was circa 1989-90 and the thing was already fairly rusty despite having spent most of its life in Colorado (originally came from Burt Chevrolet in the Denver burbs, IIRC)
Its pathetic acceleration (even with a 4-speed) was made even worse by the combination of a/c and a high altitude emissions system in a fairly low-lying area (Illinois burbs of STL). The only car I’ve ever driven that was worse than that Cavalier was another college friend’s car – a 255-powered ’82 Thunderbird.
My housemate might just have the only surviving square headlight Cavalier Estate in the Willamette Valley and having traveled all over a bunch of the Continental 48 I have not seen another. Impressive how it survived to be over 30 years old and the fact it is closer in age to 1960s cars than a 2015 model year car.
Do I remember seeing a boosted version in the U.S.? I seem to recall a neighbor owning one in the mid 90’s.
There was a turbocharged Sunbird from around 1985 or so. I thought the upgrade for Cavaliers was just the V-6, but I don’t remember for sure.
1984 was the first year of the 150 hp turbo (I had a 4 door 4 spd), but it felt like the power didn’t arrive until 1985, or 3000 rpm, and then the steering wheel would try to turn back a year.
With some more thinking, it was probably a Celebrity turbo.
I find it very interesting that Toyota and GM, who arguably make the most boring cars, generate the most controversy on the internet.
I remember reading a Motor Trend Article on one of the J’s during the 1982 year with some model year run enhancements to both the 1.8 carbureted engine and the 125C’s gearing to try and increase performance and improve driveability. They actually started off with 2.84 gearing and then switched to a 3.18 and a 3.43 for some cars. They even spoke of an enlarged 2 liter version of this engine but I have never seen such an animal for the 1982 model year. The best answer of course came for 1983 with the Brazil 1.8 OHC TBI engine and the enlarged 2 liter OHV TBI 4 banger which added much better drive-ability and a little more torque. One has to of course wonder why these engines weren’t brought out in the first place and why GM went to all the trouble designing a one year only undersized and underpowered 1.8 2BBL OHV motor.
I remember driving a 1982 Cavalier coupe and it was indeed sluggish but not nearly as bad as a 1981 Escort wagon with automatic which was deathly slow.
I wonder how many Cadavers “Sold” people on buying Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, Subbies and even Mopar K-cars for their next cars?
I was not unhappy with my 83 Skyhawk, although it was a bit small. I traded it for an 86 Electra T-type. When I bought the Skyhawk I wanted the fuel injected OHC engine with the 5 speed manual transmission think that the automatic’s performance would not be all that good. Then the electronic touch automatic climate control allowed me to easily shut down the A/C compressor for easy starts from a stop, which I usually did. The compressor seemed to suck up a big chunk of the engines low end torque.
I will be the contrarian. We had an early model year 82 4 speed manual, my sister had an 84 accord coupe 5 speed, and both cars were preceded by a 76 corolla 4 speed that completely rusted out in six years.
Compared to the creaky 76 corolla, the 82 cavalier was a luxury car. The cloth seats were well made, interior noise was relatively peaceful, and the stereo was great. The engine was not responsive – like it had a very heavy flywheel to counter vibration. Slow to rev, and definitely not happy at high RPMs. However as a teenager I ran it at top speed – low 80s – more than once. The shifter felt like a stick in a bucket of rocks.
The 84 accord was quieter, silky smooth engine and shifter, and equal (maybe better) upholstry.
But here is the difference – that cavalier never broke, never rusted (comparatively). We traded it in with 195,000 miles, minimal rust. The accord was long junked due to rust. We also had expensive timing belt and clutch repairs for the accord -compared to the cavalier.
No doubt the Accord was the better car, but for our family, the cavalier was well regarded. Definitely a cockroach – couldnt kill it.
Chevrolet ‘spoiling for a fight’ reminded me of an awkward ad campaign by Oldsmobile around the same time – ‘Engineered to Spoil You’. I remember thinking it sounded like it could infect you with some sort of physical decay or rot syndrome, or lower your IQ, or possibly endanger your soul :-).
GM was ‘spoiling’ its customers, and itself, but not in the way the ad men intended to suggest.
My experience with early J cars is limited to one. My best friend’s dad had a “fishing wagon” which was a beige 1982 Cavalier wagon. Well, all I can say was that car was durable! We put that thing through absolute torture! It ran and ran and ran until one day, at I think about 190,000 miles, it simply wouldn’t start. The motor seized and they had it junked. But that was a very reliable, durable little car. His Dad was meticulous about oil changes, servicing and such. Maybe that could have helped it last so long.
My wife’s 1986 Cavalier coupe was a great car, too. She loved her Cavalier. It didn’t have many options at all but it was comfortable and durable too. She had hardly any problems with that car in the 9 years she owned it. She sold it with about 140,000 miles on it and still comments on that car and its greatness.
I wonder if a lot of these cars were neglected and that is why they had such a bad reputation?
I think a lot of cars on the less expensive end of the spectrum end up getting treated poorly (for various reasons). Bought cheaply, by people who don’t/can’t maintain them, the cars break down. Then they get a reputation for crappiness…
We had an 82 Cavalier for just over a year. With the exception of the wheezy engine we liked the car but turned it in because the car payments were putting a strain on our one income budget. At the time GMAC was doing financing at 13%. Ouch!
My neighbour down the street is still running his 83 Cavalier as a daily work car. I should ask how many kms that rust bucket has. I’m sure his mechanical skills are the primary reason that car still travels the streets.
I had the Pontiac version of this, the ’82 J2000 in top-line LE form, and mine was from the early-production cars built in spring or summer of ’81, identifiiable by the split rear seat cushion (with console with cup holders, which saved having to supply a center seat belt). The engine was slow, and not Honda-smooth but leaps and bounds better than the Iron Duke in the ’82 X and A cars, much more refined and quiet. The carburetor was troublesome though – the Duke at least got TBI FI in ’82. Several running changes were made during the ’82 model year to increase apparent power, and in the J2000 the Brazilian OHC 1.8L FI four became available in late ’82 as an option. Even with my early OHV 1.8L, it was adequately quiet with all the extra soundproofing in the LE model.
The ’82 Cavalier could be distinguished from the ’83 if an interior shot were provided. The ’82 was the only Cavalier (or other J-car) to use chrome inner door handles and other chrome bits inside the cockpit. Chrome was banished from J-cars in 1983.
I’ve driven the Ascona 1.3 litre with 60 hp. Not fast is an understatement. Those cars was noisy, uncomfortable and not very well equiped. Not even Power Steering on the one I drove.
When I read that these cars in US (Cavalier) did cost almost as much as a Caprice, who on earth would buy a Cavalier? Well, a lot did, but I can’t find anything that this Cavalier did that the Caprice couldn’t. But, I can fint a lot of things that the Caprice could do and that the Cavalier couldn’t. Like ride, comfort, quietness, space, and long term reliability and durability, the Caprice is better.
My mother had a 1984 Cavalier coupe in two tone brown, her first new vehicle purchase. It was reasonably reliable, nimble compared to her parents’ Monte Carlo (my grandmother apparently loved driving it for that reason alone), and completely devoid of acceleration. It died midway through 1991. Despite still being able to get my grandfather’s employee discount, she has not purchased a GM car since. If the goal was to get buyers to graduate up the ladder, the Cavalier didn’t do its job at all.
It is maddening how incompetent GM became when they went front wheel drive all the time.
The X-Car had all the “conceptualization” of a great product. The intentions were there but someone let the bean counters nickle and dime the car to death. The end product was truly a horrific product and it need not have been.
The J-Cars were also brought out with the right idea. Had those cars been executed to the degree that Honda had done with the Accord pictured, GM would not have run off with over $34 billion of taxpayer money that ended up being tax and interest free.
Unfortunately for GM its incompetence continued throughout the 80’s and 90’s with dud after dud front wheel drive product that suffered from being built to look cheap and to stay that way. I marvel at the level of incompetence it took to approve these cars for production as they were. Had another $100 been spent on the interiors and other bits, the products would have almost been acceptable. A little more time and effort into interior design would have made that $100 look like $150 upgrade. ROFL.
Alas, we now have a new Malibu that looks like a lima bean complete with bait and switch pricing and the general build quality we’ve come to expect from a company that we saved and that shouldn’t have been.
True. GM had so many great ideas, but they were executed very poorly.
I marveled that they even managed to screw up coin holders in their center consoles! Back in the 1980s, you actually needed coins, for highway tolls, payphones, laundry, etc. And sitting in a toll booth (holding up traffic) trying to extract quarters from the balky plastic bits was more than a bit frustrating.
Often times you’re better off not having a feature at all, rather than having one that is poorly implemented, with the resultant perpetual frustration.
I had a 96 Cavalier that had an ongoing relationship with her favourite service advisor. Ongoing problems, head gasket, tranny failure among the most costly. She succumbed to a red light runner via a t bone, and was replaced by a Civic in 2004. That Civic is still on the road today as my son’s car, and has only needed regular maintenance over 250,000 kms.
It’s amazing how repetitive these GM Deadly Sins are. An obsessive emphasis on process (remember Brock Yates’ “Why should I care how you build them?”) and willingness to spend lavishly on the development and manufacturing process stages, coupled with letting the bean counters run wild on and (especially) inside the cars themselves that led to a shoddy image and selling on price.
Just a maddening unwillingness, over and over again, to learn one. simple. lesson; Put the money where the customer can see it!
There should be a button you can press that shows you the number of posts, and the number of unique contributors to CC comment thread. Tried reading through at lunch…not enough time. Sometimes the comments are almost and entertaining and interesting as the CC itself.
Some of these earlier Cavalier/Camira were reasonably reliable A friend of mine had one, his new partner brought it to his fleet it was a well worn 88 Camira 2.0 with three speed auto it did eventually die but for six months towards the end of its life it ran from Bathurst NSW to Pitt Town return daily some 200kms+each way, then the traumatic transmission gave out, and he went back to a six cylinder Commodore but while the J Camira was running it was fairly economical and started every morning.
The Cavalier is another DS that would be a great candidate for the ‘deadliest’ sin. It’s as if GM simply threw in the towel right from the start and gave up entirely on any meaningful small car development, betting their entire future on the conventional (and much more profitable) full-size car, unwilling to admit that well-built and engineered small cars was where the car market was heading. The only thing that kept them afloat much longer than it should have was their success in the SUV and pickup markets.
GM “showing up with a plastic butter knife wasn’t going to cut it” analogy sums it up very well; Honda and Toyota came to the small car fight equipped with razor-sharp scalpels.
I wouldn’t deem the J-car to be a “deadliest sin.” It needed a better engine and transmission (five-speed manual) from day one. The rest of the car was perfectly good. I don’t recall the J-cars as having any major engineering bugs. In rust resistance and crash protection (as it existed in those days), these were actually better than the Japanese competition.
GM’s sins were not releasing the car with a competitive drivetrain, and then neglecting it for too long. The car itself wasn’t beyond redemption, and, unlike the second- and third-generation Cadillac Sevilles, the basic concept of the J-cars wasn’t hopelessly out of touch with the market (except for the Cimarron, but that is a special case). Nor was this a case of GM spending lots of money to endow the J-car with unique engineering features that really went nowhere, much like the Oldsmobile Toronado. The frustrating part is that there was the basis for a greatest hit here, but GM gave up after getting the ball to the 70-yard line.
It does appear that the US versions were a worse car than was sold in other markets NZ has the dubious honour to have had the Australian Japanese and Chevrolet/Toyota J cars the best of the was the Aussie Camira the worst is a tossup between the Isuzu Aska junkheap and the Chevy the Aska had horrible roadholding the Chevy/Toyota is not much of a car being very out of date with other offerings its age.
The car itself was perhaps not a deadly sin, but it was certainly a downward step on the path to Hell. Consider this: your dad needed a cheap car in the early 60’s so he bought a Corvair. Not a bad car, but pressure from your mom to sell it mounted after Nader scandal (and she’s afraid for baby-you to ride in it) and when the darnn thing threw its weird 90 degree fanbelt for the 4th time, it was gone. So Dad bought a Chevy II and got 5 or 6 decent, happy, years out of it. Suddenly it’s 1970 or 71 and Dad needs a commuter car – he buys a Vega and loses his shirt – rusts, won’t run, can’t sell it. So, with no money he suffers into a Chevette and slogs along cobbling the little cockroach together year after year. When Mom gets a job she gets a decent 74 Nova to drive and some faith in GM is restored. So, when 1980 comes along Mom gets a new Citation and for the first year it’s OK until mom scares herself silly by spinning it because of the brakes. Dad dumps the Chevette for $100 and starts driving the Citation; mom gets a new car – an 82 Cavalier. Then problems start with it. By 1986, mom hates the gutless little thing and Dad is tired of screwing with it. A Toyota/Honda dealer has opened in town, and after one of Dad’s friend’s raves about how reliable his Toyota/Honda is, Dad takes a look and buys one. By now he could have afforded a midsize GM car but the shrunken styling of the 86’s turns him off and anyhow, he’s been burned by GM’s new ideas a few too many times by now to try one. The Toyota/Honda gives him 5 or 6 years of happy painless service before it rusts away, but even as a rusted hulk, somebody wants to buy it from him.
Q#1: What car did Dad buy in 1992?
Q#2: What do you think Dad has bought for the rest of his life?
Great comment. As I’ve posted before here my ma went to Ford after 40 years of GM. Nothing Buick makes appealed to her at 35k, she would never buy another Chevy. It was a fight between the Korean makes and Ford for her.
Lokki, a competitive drivetrain would have solved a lot of those complaints. I don’t remember these cars as having particularly bad quality for that era. There was a solid foundation for a good car here, but GM choose to let it rot on the vine for far too long when it stumbled out of the gate.
Dad bought Mom a gray two door in 1985 when he finally had enough of her ’79 Mustang’s issues. Back then I thought the car was beyond cheap; they bought it for $8,500 and change and it was stripped. 4 speed stick, Vynl/cloth seats, no a/c, no rear defogger. The only options it had was the high end ETR Delco am/fm stereo and power steering. Rough and loud. It ate clutches every 35,000 miles. The washer fluid lines never worked right. Rusted way beyond any other car I’ve seen then or since. Yet, looking back on my Mom’s Type 10 coupe, it honestly wasn’t as bad as I remember it then. It got great gas mileage, and outside of the clutches, never left her stranded. They got 9 years out of that car, and for a GM of that vintage, that’s pretty damn good. The interior actually held up supprisingly well. In comparison to her Mustang, it was a revelation. The Mustang left her stranded easily over a dozen times; Ford never could figure out why other than it was “something” to do with the fuel system. That Cavalier still soured my parents to GM, however. Dad thought it was the epitomie of a shit box, and Mom was more than willing to move on to an Acura. And they even bought another Ford in the 1990’s regardless of the Mustang’s flaws.
I love reading these Deadly Sins so much, I should definitively get that book with the development of the Cavalier. This sin seems particularly unforgivable, as GM must have been finishing its development as it was clear they had screwed up the launch of the Citation. They should have learned! Also, why not releasing the Cavalier with the Brazilian engine from the start? And how couldn’t GM in the US make a decent 4 cylinder engine for soooooo long when it was the key to making a class leading small car, and they had Opel and Isuzu to learn from?
The Isuzu connection also makes me wonder. Up to what year GM could have bought up Honda or Toyota and solve all its small cars problems, instead of misguidedly try to compete against the Japanese and loose?
I think Honda would have been a rounding error on GM’s balance sheet in the early to mid 60’s.
The Lada was an outdated design indifferently assembled with tough and easy to fix engines. VAZ sold 15 million worldwide, but never in the US. Was the Cavalier the American Lada?
Perfect the 1.8 is not, but you don’t need a tech to keep it going and to me that is a HUGE plus SIMPLE IS GOODhttp://cimg.carsforsale.com/432928/45D43E81-A000-4384-B383-C1FA45E24449_29.jpg
I had the honers of owning a 1982 Chevy Cavalier with the 1.8 4 spd manual as my first car. My parents bought it from my aunt in 1988 for $800, I ended up with it in 1993 as my first car until it gave up its spirit in 1995 with what felt like the roughest 112,000 miles. Besides it being under powered the fact it had a carborator made life a nightmare to own it. Even with a new carborator it never felt truly safe. It was impossible to start then impossible to keep running. Things broke on this car that I could never think of happening. The worse l, the throttle cable breaking while pulling out into traffic.
The one thing that may throw one off as you can see in the photo. It was a hatch back with the incorrect nose clip. My aunt had an accident and they had an easier time finding the parts from the other body styles. I eventually painted the car white as the original maroon faded and peeled right off the car.
Definitely an experience of the worse 1st car the made me appreciate every and any car I have owned to follow.
I am one of those people who hates wasting money on new cars. I’ll buy a car new and drive it until it the wheels fall off or it becomes economically unfeasible to continue owning it.
My first new car was a ’73 Pontiac Firebird. Big engine. Loads of fun. “G” force power. Super handling and fast. Had it past 145 mph once and it was still gaining speed. Car ate rice burners for breakfast. 240 “Z”? Laughable! Air conditioning was poor, but it ran and ran and ran. No trade in value after 8 years so I kept it. Still have it. Still runs, 210K plus miles and never rebuilt it. Still fun to drive 45 years later and still has unbelievable power.
I bought a brand new ’82 Cavalier made in ’81 in January of ’82. Came with 5K miles on it. Was an executive car I was told. The car was fully loaded and was only missing 3 options, aluminum wheels, a sun roof, and a cassette player. Sticker price was about $12,000 if I remember correctly but since it was a dealer car I got it for considerably less.
Worst problem was below zero cold starting – it wouldn’t! If you tried, you would have to change the spark plugs. Cleaning them wouldn’t work – they had to be new. I removed the choke plate, drilled two large holes in it and the problem was solved. Started every time after that for the life of the car.
True that 1.8 had NO power. I took it out to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado- Once! Best I could get out of her was 32 mph upgrade flat out full throttle, 1st gear, volcano heat reading on the temp gauge on I70 westbound. The trucks and motor homes were quite upset trying to pass me.
But on the flat Illinois prairies after a couple of miles head start I could bury that speedometer and wind that needle way past 85. She could and did that all day long with the tachometer reading in the 4000 range.
Once when the car was quite old, the misses brought her home and shut her off. The whole car disappeared in a cloud of steam as it sat dieseling away. I asked her how long this had been going on. “Oh about 10 or 15 miles!”. New lower radiator hose and the car was none the wiser. Another time the wife got home and the engine was knocking quite loudly. Didn’t sound like a bearing, seemed to run ok, so I revved her up high and held it. A carbon chunk came free of a piston top and broke up and the engine was back to normal.
In the winter it was impossible to get the car stuck in snow. I tried. Other cars ( Toyota’s and Honda’s included ) would be spinning their wheels trying to get up the hill in the town I lived in. I would simply pass them all and toot the horn laughing. My other daily driver was a rear wheel drive car and I had been one of them.
I have never laughed so hard as when my little boy and I found an empty unplowed parking lot and did “donuts” in reverse.
I owned that car for about 16 years, and over 180K miles. I used to change the oil every 5k miles and it seldom needed any additional oil between changes.
In all the years I had this car, the only major surgery was the two CV joints in the front axles. That was the only two times the car left me stranded and I needed the Big Hook. The car also had a problem with a transmission solenoid the would lock the torque converter. Was a cheap, dirty, oily fix that was just a royal pain to repair. Tires and brakes were the main wear items. When I sold the car everything on it still worked, the power windows, the silly wiper on the hatchback window, the cruise control,the power steering, transaxle, ball joints, etc, and the air conditioning had never needed a recharge and was still cold. The carburetor did need occasional fiddling, but generally worked well. I never replaced the shocks or struts. The car rode well when the tires were good, and the handing was about even with the Toyota that I had test driven when I first purchased the car. The Toyota did have considerably more power, but I bought this Cavalier sight unseen and really couldn’t back out of the deal.
If I had known about replacement door skins I probably would have kept the car longer, but I didn’t. The doors had rusted so horribly that the Wife said the car was embarrassing. The rest of the body was rust free. I finally threw in the towel and sold the car. Perhaps I was just lucky after reading all of these comments, but I found the car to be practically indestructible, economical, and completely reliable.
Yes. Except for the lack of power, my old Chevy Cavalier was a success.
Just incredible. In Europe, the Cavalier/Ascona with family II ohc engines were massively popular, they were literally everywhere in the ’80s. All the big company fleets used them for their salesmen and they were a big hit with private buyers too- plenty of room, good handling, reliable,comfy and performance wise they blew contemporary Fords into the weeds. This was the car that had Ford worried when they introduced their Sierra- all their customers promptly abandoned Ford and bought cavaliers.
I owned a base model 1982 Cavalier with the smallest engine, a 1300, even that was by no means a slow car. 0-60 was around 12 secs and it would do 100mph, also capable of 40mpg. The larger 1600 and 1800 were equally good performers for their size.
These were a really well thought of car and fondly remembered by many here in the U.K, they were THE family car of the ’80s.
U.S manufacturers never did cotton onto the idea of, if you have a captive import from a successful European division, NOT messing about with it for U.S consumption.
If you got the Cavalier we did, you’d have loved it.
Want to make fools out of brand new chumpstangs, “Dodge” Challengers, and “Viagra boy” vettes? Smoke their ass in a first year H body. 6.6l, 8 mpg 63k original miles. Junk? Give it your best shot, I’ll wait for you at the next light. Piece of sh*t J body? Nope, got one of them too. No car payments, no annual taxes, 35 mpg, handles sick, droptop, and beast of all, MINT. Eat it clowns. When you’ve been a mechanic for 40 plus years, you KNOW what to drive. Never owned a foreign car, and never will. Longevity speaks for itself.
35+ year old J
That is awesome! The Type 10 front end if I remember correctly.
When I was young ~17yo in 1991 I had a 1982 Cavalier 2dr coupe. 4 speed manual, manual steering, manual windows, manual locks, am radio, no a/c.
I bought it from my uncle with a bad clutch. I would not move and had to be towed.
I learned how to put a clutch in a FWD the hard way. I was so broke I opted to just buy a remanufactured clutch disc and put that in. Yes, back then you could buy a remanufactured clutch and there were core charges on them.
The thing was a gutless wonder. The check engine light was perpetually on but it ran fine. The thing had a mountain of emissions crap under the hood. GMs very early CCC system. Feedback carburetor. AIR injection. EGR. Vacuum lines all over the place. It was obnoxiously loud because the exhaust manifold had HUGE cracks in it. (again, broke kid had no money nor sense to find a used one and fix it.) I drove the wheels off that thing.
It seemed like it would go FOREVER on a few gallons of fuel!
Lots of good memories in that piece of crap!
“GM should have brought over Opel designs!”
Well, they did, J car is one. Along with the Daewoo LeMans, Cadillac Catera and Saturn LS. Many others in 2000’s.
So even if the Vega used an Opel design, would have been like the Cavalier, dumbed down for US costs.
The J platform is not an Opel design. It was created in Detroit, but conceived so that GM’s overseas subsidiaries could adapt and use it too. The US version used a lot of X-car chassis and other components, thus making it heavier than than the Opel and Isuzu versions. They used their own suspension, brake, engines and transmission.
The company I was working for had a fleet of X cars and to keep from losing the fleet contract, the Chevy dealer began replacing the Citations with Cavaliers and J2000s. I was surprised to see a smaller car replacing the larger X cars, but the huge Chevy dealer in Denver was probably desperate to keep our business during the Citation fiasco.
I remember the Cavaliers were practically being given away. I do believe a lot of us didn’t want another small GM car after break downs in the Citation fleet, and I suspect that many auto buyers had, by this time, discovered that the FWD GM small cars had some major problems. This impacted the Cavalier, I believe, in looking back.
Still nice looking cars, but the JCars still required that you sat low to the floor like a Camaro. After a year with the Ford Futura, I felt that the Cavalier and the J2000 to be quite a step down in comfort, size and performance. I used the new J cars in the fleet but wouldn’t take one for my long distance trips.
I lived in Golden and had to climb a Rocky Mountain foothill west of Denver to reach my apartment on Sims Landing. So, I had to floor the accelerator pedal once on Rt 6 West up the hill. It is a nice climb and gave you a chance to feel how well a car could perform. All the drivers coming off I-25 and heading west towards Lakewood and Golden needed to do the same – gun their cars up that hill.
The Cavalier sounded like it was going to explode. The incredible noise, pinging and grinding coming out from under the hood as it accelerated up Rt. 6 West was very worrisome. Like the Citation, GM was telling us that their engines, for fuel efficiency, were set to lean burn which caused the engines to knock and ping. What I heard and wondered was if I was going to be able to even make it up that expressway hill at over 45 miles per hour. I could reach that speed and then some, but the noises from under the hood were absolutely horrible. It was new? It sounded like this new?
But we knew the Citations were worse. So I had a lot of hope for these little J cars. I had a lot of hope that GM would fix what was going wrong with their small FWD cars. But I didn’t want to be their guinea pig anymore with the Citation and now the Cavaliers and J2000.
Sad to report, the Cavaliers and the J2000 didn’t show themselves to be much better than the Citations they replaced. When it came time to drop my long term lease, I was first given a Mercury Cougar sedan for six months, and then a Ford Escort. Both much better cars than either GM products.
Odd coincidence, seeing this post today. Was just parked by a “late 80’s” . I’d guess, Cavalier wagon this afternoon.
Was quite surprised when I spotted it.
Intersection of “Fessenden St/Connecticut Av NW , in DC.
In a September 1981 comparison test, Popular Science and both reviewers Jim Dunne and Ed Jacobs, chose the Dodge Charger 2.2 over a 1.8 litre-equipped four door Pontiac J2000. Primarily, because of the performance advantage of the 2.2 litre in the Dodge. As well as the Charger’s better handling.
I did have a Cavalier, a 1996. I did not get reliable service from it. Major component failures at 54,000 kms sealed the deal with me and the General, moreso in that they made me pay a good portion of the repairs.
It did cart our son to college for a year prior to its departure from our garage.
The saddest thing of all was that GM probably had as much, if not more, engineering expertise as anyone in the world. Yet the seemingly constant flow of half-backed yet outwardly attractive (mostly) cars from the ’50s to even today belie the fact that they possessed such world-class talent. Starting with Fred Donner, the beancounters have much to answer for. And despite them, some brilliant cars were still occasionally able to see the light of day. But looking at the potential, one can only wonder…what if.
Sad reading. The GM executive mindset in those days is just plain alarming.
They thought this J-car was good enough? The European one coming out of Vauxhall and Opel would have been, maybe, but…. it wasn’t the same car.
X-car suspension pieces? Sure it kept cost down, but – weight? When you’re trying to save fuel?
A rough noisy low-powered pushrod four? Sure there are good pushrod engines, but this wasn’t one of them. Why even develop this thing? The Opel OHC should’ve gone in all of them.
Did management never look at the competition? Drive the competition? Or did they only consider US-built cars as competition? Did they not notice the rising tide of buyers attracted to imported cars, and ask why that was happening? Were they not aware of their product’s shortcomings?
Did they even care?
Or were they still living in the 1930s when you could count on having a GM buyer hooked for life?
I think the Fourteenth Floor Mob should have been kicked up the backside all the way to the unemployment line, before they had a chance to do any more damage.
They felt foreign cars were only ever bought by weenies and dirty hippies and communists;real Americans bought real (i.e., American; specifically GM) cars—thus it was always, and thus it always would be, as written in the Bible. See for yourself.
Did not notice this the first go round, but the feature car is not an inaugural year car; there were no CS Cavaliers for 1982. In 1983 the CS supplanted the former top-trim CL to adjust for the wildly optimistic pricing with the original cars, and lost much of that model’s content, specifically the high trim interior. Those missing features became optional in a “new” CL custom interior group that basically returned a CS back into the former CL, while still allowing for comparison shoppers to see a lower competitive starting price for a “well equipped” Cavalier. If the feature car had that CL interior group, CL badges would replace the CS scripts so as to not complicate things any further than necessary…
Always referred to these cars as ‘The Official Car of Domino Pizza’…thought it belonged in a blister pack hung at the checkout line, next to the disposable lighters and batteries. That being said, it could have ended up being a sensible vehicle, if it hadn’t been hampered by a weak engine and the resultant low expectations that followed.
I see all these references to X body suspension sharing. I don’t believe that was true. The J/N/L cars shared suspension components, while the X cars shared components with the A bodies. Front and rear suspensions of the J cars and X cars are completely different.
Front calipers and rotors swap, but I’m not sure how much weight savings would have resulted from a different design.
Much of the weight difference between the Opel Ascona and the Chevrolet Cavalier was down to regulatory compliance. The German car had plastic decorations for bumpers. The US car had 5-mph impact bumpers that were great for sloppy parallel parking, but bad for any impact above 5 miles per hour while adding what was often hundreds of pounds right where you didn’t want them. 1982 Cavaliers also had door anti-intrusion beams and emissions controls that Asconas did not. I suspect Cavaliers also had more sound insulation to meet US expectations and muffle their thrashy engines.
People often say that the Cavalier shouldn’t have had an engine whose primary benefit was to GM in the form of reused tooling. It’s hard to argue that point, except that the Pontiac J2000 actually had the OHC Opel engine, and it too was dog slow. By the time the 1.8 liter OHC engine was federalized, it actually made four less horsepower than the 1.8 OHV engine in the Cavalier. Popular Mechanics achieved 0-60 in 18.9 seconds with a J2000 automatic. A four speed would have been quicker, but that is still four or five seconds slower than what Japanese competitors with automatics were achieving.
At the end of the day, GM’s European product owed quite a bit of its advantage to US market regulations. The Japanese cars performed better because they were better engineered than European or American cars, not because European cars were unfairly disadvantaged in their transitions to the US market. Does this mean that GM could never have benefited by leveraging Opel products? The Bitter SC performed better than any Cadillac during its time on the US market, and it used a federalized version of Opel’s luxury inline-6 mounted in Opel’s chassis. For some reason, GM waited until the Opel Omega was an also-ran in Europe to prove that the people who wanted the celebrated Opel Senator to be imported or produced here were wrong.
The Holden Camira was most surely a Holden Deadly Sin and a penalty box stinker of a car. Holden like GM in the USA had over 50% of the car market in early 1960s to being bailed out by GM headquarters for $500 million in 80s.
Still, 40-odd years later I can’t believe my parents traded a mint 1983 Mitsubishi Sigma SE 2.6 auto with air-con, and power steering (brought new) for a 1984 Holden Camira SLX (Australian J car and slightly used) with 1.6 (Australian-made Family II motor 88 hp and 93 lb⋅ft) auto and no power steering, air con that could only be used on flat terrain. Mitsubishi traded with 40,000 miles and no issues. I still wonder if my father had actually test-drove the Camira, the Sigma (98hp and 139 lb⋅ft) wasn’t the quickest car but oh my god, Camira is the slowest car I’ve ever driven. Harsh, everything cracked and grown. The engine loved a rev but I think a Briggs and Stratton lawn mover engine had more refinement. Unreliable (it had only about 7-8,000 miles when brought), constantly overheating which only improved after the mechanic bypassed the thermostat (after it was replaced 3 times). The only redeeming feature was its handling, but for a rock-hard ride, it should handle well. Replaced by a 1990 fuel injected 4 speed auto Mitsubishi Magna, amazing both cars designed in the 80’s, Magna was a revelation.
My father has some weird car trading history and even today in his 70’s still buys a great car, then the next car is crap. VW Beatle to FC Holden, traded for a new 1968 VF Valiant Pacer to a 1971 HQ Belmont (Kingswood stripper) wagon. Then traded for a new 1977 Mazda 323 (after ordering a Holden Torana SS V8 but changed his mind). From the Mazda to a 1980 GH Chrysler Sigma 2.6 (no replacement for displacement. 1300cc to 2600cc) wagon. Then to the 83 Sigma. I think I’ve inherited his car-buying craziness.
Good one, Travis. In hindsight that is a hard trade to understand. Also in hindsight, it was probably common though. Holden had always been weak in the midmarket, and it looked like they finally had a decent four. To read the magazines you’d think it was an Alfa with Holden badges.
But Aussies were used to driving with torque. The 2.6 Sigma was all about torque. The Camira, in 1.6 form only at first, had to have the snot revved out of it to get anywhere. Any Camira always sounded busy, very busy. Sure it thrived on revs and gave good performance stats, but the noise – well, you know.
The Sigma was a refined version of a package that had been on the market since ’77. Plenty of time to get all the bugs ironed out and fine tune it for Aussie driving conditions and preferences. And it was tough – you saw them everywhere. The Camira was a new design, unproven, and as it turned out, not a good bush car. Not in the tradition of anvil-tough Holdens of old. The Sigma they traded was probably still going strong when the Camira was scrapped.
Magna – no comparison! We had a manual ’89 (which replaced a truly awful ’83 Corona) and an ’00. Best cars ever built in Australia.
When I realized I couldn’t fit in the Fiero and still turn the wheel, I test drove a top trim ’84 Cavalier that I remember as reasonably refined and comfortable (good, plush seats), but slow. I was driving a ’74 Fleetwood, so bad NVH would have stood out. The interior in the Phoenix hatchback was so poorly finished, I never even drove one.
I ended up overcompensating and buying a 4 spd Turbo Sunbird, which was fun to drive but a mistake, particularly with NoVa traffic. The problems I remember were 2 clutches in 4 years, a noisy accessory belt, and a lot of turbo lag and torque steer once it arrived. I sold it to my brother when I got a wonderful ’88 Bonneville SE, and he blew the turbo in a year (I had the oil changed before 3000 miles religiously). They didn’t offer the turbo with the wagon, which I would have preferred.
We knew several people whose Honda engines failed at 50,000 miles, but that may have been in the late 70s. I never felt like I’d be Spam in a can if I wrecked the Sunbird, not true about my brother’s later Civic.
In 1982, I was a young man with a new degree in hand, and I purchased a Cavalier from Bud Wolfe Chevrolet in Indianapolis, and the sales lady must have spotted me as easy pickings. The problems with that car drained me and my wife financially. I have never looked at a GM vehicle since then.
Wait… I have questions.
First, the Cavalier was overly heavy and under-engineered because GM tried to take parts-bin stuff put together into a new car economically…
But then at the end of the article you say “Which turned the Cavalier into a $5 billion dollar blunder, since it never really became a profitable car line for GM, and its development was very costly.”
How was it’s development costly??? I understand the $5billion is the development and losses selling, but this seems to be a disconnect for me
There’s more to “development” than just reusing a few parts from another car line. The four cylinder engine was new, as were of course the whole body, interior and everything else. Reusing some parts just made those specific few parts cheaper. Plus GM’s development costs back then were notoriously high.
The real problem was that the only way to recoup GM’s investment would have been if the prices stayed high enough, as originally planned. But the J cars met a tepid reaction and prices had to be lowered. And over the years, the adjusted prices kept coming down in relation to the Japanese competition. GM was building them at a loss, for many years. Why? They needed the CAFE credits from their small cars to offset the low EPA ratings of their trucks and SUVs.