(first posted 9/20/2012) GM had some memorable screw-ups in the ’70s, but they were merely warm-ups to GM’s main act of self-mutilation of the ’80s, during which it orchestrated its biggest-ever market share drop. There’s enough fodder in that horrible decade to keep our GMDS series going for way too long; but perhaps the saddest story is that of the all-new-for-’82 Camaro, because it promised so much and yet couldn’t escape the death rattle that permeated GM–and I do mean ‘rattle’ in the most literal sense.
Like so many GM products of the 1980s, the all-new Camaro looked good on paper and pretty nifty in glossy prints: dramatic new styling, a 300 lb. weight reduction, a new coil-spring rear suspension, optional rear disc brakes and a lift-up rear hatch that was reputedly the largest and most complex piece of auto glass ever produced. And that’s about it for the good stuff. A closer look beyond that swoopy skin and into the spec sheets quickly turned some of us a whiter shade of pale.
The standard engine was now the 90-hp, 2.5-liter “Iron Duke” four, a lumpen element that rivaled a Farmall tractor’s noise, vibration, harshness and even power characteristics. It was one thing for the four to shake, rattle and roll all the way to the Safeway in Granny’s 2,400-lb. Citation, but quite another in the case of the 600-lb. heavier Camaro.
Ah, but there still was a Z-28 on tap with an optional V8 that featured actual fuel injection! Something that GM had mastered way back in 1957, no less. A fuelie Chevy V8 in a new lightweight RWD chassis: Praise the Lord! And the Z came decked out with stripes and hood scoops guaranteed to raise a young man’s testosterone level. Unfortunately, it was a cock-teasing exercise in frustration because the Z-28 did anything but come.
Chevy’s Cross-Fire Injection system was not an update of the fine Rochester port injection unit of yore, but basically two Iron Duke throttle-body units. Calling Zora Arkus-Duntov! GM’s reluctance to do what it eventually was forced to do–offer a proper modern port fuel injection system–was hard to fathom. And easy to shut down.
In 1985, I finagled a brand-new W124 300E. Its street-light drag racing prowess was hardly high on my list of risking-my-new-job-by-leasing-an-expensive-company-car rationalizations. Then I hired a Sales Manager who drove one of these Z28s, which proudly wore its Cross-Fire Fuel Injection badges and had a husky exhaust note. He always liked to make the big tires chirp (cheep?) when he pulled out of the parking lot. Good thing there was a bit of a curb to help make it happen.
The little three-liter six in the Benz was almost half the size of the Z’s V8, and I knew my solid hunk of German steel weighed about 300 lbs. more than his pride and joy. Still, something told me I could take him out, or I damn well had better, because there was a lot at stake: Ever since I hired him, I began to have nagging doubts that his
braggadocio management abilities were as oversold as his Camaro’s swiftness. We both knew that one way or another, a showdown was coming.
The road that led to the station had once been part of the former Glendale Airport, and was as good as it got for a grudge race–about a mile long with almost no traffic, and unusually wide. One morning, we both arrived at the same time; as we turned the corner to the home stretch, we lined up side-by-side, stopped and nodded.
The Camaro’s V8 torque and lighter weight gave him a decided edge at the start, and I had a nagging sense of dread. But the high-winding six breathed deeply and sang its song; I caught up and passed him, and hit well over ninety before throwing out the anchor to pull into the parking lot. It was the beginning of the end for him, and within a couple of weeks he pulled his blubbering Z28 out of the parking lot for the last time.
Don’t believe me? In tests, the 300E pulled 0-60 times between 7.5 and 8.5 seconds, depending on the magazine. Here’s a link to a MT test of the Z-28 with the optional fuel-injected V8: 0-60: 9.42 seconds; 1/4 mile: 17.13@80 mph. Pathetic, but this typically fawning review of the times does make for an interesting time warp. Oh, right…the 1982 Camaro was MT’s COTY. That both the Vega and Citation had shared the honor might have been a giveaway; for that matter, you’d have thought GM would pay MT not to give the award to the Camaro: a hex on all their new cars.
Before I rag on too much about the Camaro’s limp ways, I will admit that Chevy eventually dealt with that problem. By 1985, the Viagra-popping IROC Z had 215 hp, and by the end of this generation, in 1992, it packed all of 245 hp–not exactly the momentous numbers that would come with the next-gen F-body. But isn’t that the usual GM way? Bring out a brand new POS and piss folks off, then eventually improve it after having lost–permanently–a huge chunk of the buyer base. It was GM’s patented formula for losing market share.
If the driving experience wasn’t quite earth-shattering, it certainly was nerve-shattering. My one and only drive in a Camaro of this vintage almost made me puke. It was an unanticipated rental, for a multi-day conference in Houston, that sported the V6 that came standard in our featured RS. Sadly, it is all too easy to rag on the 2.8′s pretentious, semi-burbling exhaust that raised utterly unfulfilled expectations.
I had never actually gotten into one of these F-Bodies, and the experience was a letdown of the worst kind. Naturally, I had been spoiled by my tall, comfy and superbly-built Mercedes, but I also was quite familiar with the contemporary Fox-body Mustang GT, which had a fairly practical body and reasonably good build and materials quality.
Lowering myself into the Camaro was akin to getting into a Disneyland kiddie ride: The “car” felt like it was a malformed, cast-plastic replica of what a real Camaro presumably was. I found myself sitting on the floor of a black-plastic lined tomb with the worst visibility and most wretched dash I’d ever encountered. And once under way, everything creaked and groaned: Was this the new cart for the Haunted Mansion?
The ride was about as supple as a roller coaster, but I admit it had a pretty sharp turn-in that enhanced the amusement park theme. It might have been mildly amusing for about five or six minutes, given the car’s lack of any genuine power and profound ride quality compromises. I also like having a rear seat that is actually accessible and usable, as well as a genuine proper luggage compartment instead of a tray like the one you put your shoes in at the TSA line. That biggest-ever piece of automotive glass covered the smallest-ever automotive trunk. That kind of sums up the Camaro right there.
Well, the faithful sure fell for the new Camaro, and sales shot up for the first two years, topping a spectacular 250k in 1984. Then the painful reality of horrible build quality, mechanical ailments, cheap interiors and getting shut down by German taxi cabs set in, and sales began their long plunge. The Mustang was discovered to be the Camaro’s polar opposite in almost all these qualities, and thrived. The Camaro shriveled, along with the rest of GM in that decade of decline.
Postscript: I wasn’t planning to re-run this today, but I’m deeply involved in building a new house and there’s nothing else in the hopper. And it just seemed like the right time. I realize my perspective and experience is not going to jive with some others’. So be it. I don’t pretend to be objective; who is? If you want statistics, they’re available elsewhere. Each car has many different stories to tell, and I tell mine.
In closing, I add the words of one 1985 F-Body owner, who left them as part of a detailed comment the last time around. Is his story typical? Hopefully not. But it is representative of how GM managed to lose millions of buyers in the 1980s and beyond. Keep in mind that by 1985, GM was already four years into building the third-generation F-Body.
By TTAC Commenter “carnick”:
The very first new car I ever owned was the kissing cousin of this car, a 1985 Firebird with the 2.8 V6 and a 5 speed stick. I just finished grad school (for the second time)…and I had a job starting in a month, so in that time had to find something more reliable than my Renault 5. With $54 in my pocket, and the $500 I got for the Renault, the options were limited (even in 1985). Then GM came along with one of their clever marketing schemes – a ‘credit card’ sent to new graduates, which let you buy the GM car of your choice for no money down and 5 year financing (the amount they would finance depended on your income).
Well, that was like a gift from the pagan gods to me. I made the rounds of Chevy and Pontiac dealers, had a bullseye set on the Camaro and Firebird from the start (the Corvette was way out of reach for my starting salary). Unfortunately, I soon discovered that a V8 in any F-body was also out of reach of my wallet as well. So, the best combination I could afford was a Firebird with the 2.8 V6, but at least with a 5 speed (I rationalized that lots of European “sports” cars had 6 cylinder engines, plus other than off-the-line torque, the V8 really didn’t feel that much faster).
It was a 20-something’s wet dream car. Bright red, with a 2-tone red and gray interior and red lighting everywhere (which my girlfriend at the time – and now wife – called tackier than a cheap whorehouse). My first paycheck went to real “mag” wheels, a 5 spoke 3-piece forerunner to the real wheels of today (I had to get rid of the “wire wheel covers” – on a Firebird!).
Paul, I completely second all of your comments on build quality (such as it was). That fowl started rattling itself to death within the first month. It was obvious that GM didn’t expect to sell many sticks, because the shifter boot was the cheapest, flimsiest, tissue-paper thin excuse for plastic I had ever seen. It would crack and split every month. I literally brought it back to the dealer 10 times in the first year just to have the shifter boot replaced (I eventually tired of the regular visits, and had an upholstery shop make one out of decently durable material).
I vividly remember water leaks around the stylish ‘frameless’ windows. The fit of the door glass into the roof was less than exacting (about a 3/4 inch or more gap all around), which, in GM’s typical way, they “engineered” by fitting inch-thick foam weatherstripping gaskets (which I think they also did on the Solstice/Sky – time-tested and proven!). Which would pinch and get caught in the window, and then leak like a reamed out sieve. I would bring it back to the dealer just about every week for another attempt at replacing the weatherstripping and keeping the interior dry (hey, it was my first new car and I was going to get my money’s worth on warranty work).
The best example of GM engineering prowess was when the engine started leaking oil like a worn out colander – right after the (at that time very short) warranty period expired. Like, a quart every 300-400 miles. The service manager cheerfully explained to me that “they all do that” because the engine had virtually no gaskets in it. In a typically short-sighted GM cost-cutting move, some bean counter somewhere calculated how much money they would save by using liquid sealant in most of the engine gaskets (valve covers, oil pan, etc.) instead of gaskets (I’m sure it must have been at least $2 or $3 per car). So, behold, the gasketless wonder, assembled with liquid sealant (which I suspect was specifically “engineered” to get through the warranty period but not much further). However, he even more cheerfully informed me that GM did sell a “gasket kit” and they would be happy to partially dismantle the engine and fit gaskets wherever there were not any – completely at my cost, of course.
Overall, in the first year I brought it back to the dealer 46 times. It became a regular Monday thing. I was heartbroken. I had owned many 1960′s and 1970′s GM cars (including Camaros) which were fantastic, and was thrilled to buy my first new car. But it would be my last one from GM.
With the 5-year no-money-down financing, I was way upside down on the loan. I didn’t have the ready cash to sell it and pay off the difference, so I had no choice but to keep paying it off until I got close enough to the balance. Which eventually I did, and then sold it – to my boss (I left the company very soon thereafter). As soon as I sold it I bought a 2-year old 1984 Honda CRX, followed by my second new car, a 1988 Honda CRX, and never looked back at GM.
My experience was far from unique. All of us in the waiting room of the dealership on Monday morning, bringing in our problems of the weekend, swapped very similar stories. There were a lot of guys like me who grew up loving GM iron from the 60′s and 70′s, and were just aghast at what had become of GM’s cars in the 80′s. I loved the old GM cars, but I haven’t set foot into any GM dealership since that Firebird fiasco 25 years ago, and doubt that I ever will for the rest of my life. GM lost millions of buyers forever with their insane cost-cutting.
Roger Smith specials. I guess that’s what happens when you have bean counters running a company. They make decisions based on income statements and balance sheets, and assume that hey, look at this nice revenue line, let’s just reduce costs and presto!, more profit. They don’t understand that if you don’t give customers a reason to buy your product, and instead give them reasons to not buy your product, the revenues are going to go down a lot faster than the expenses do. Which is exactly what happened to them, and why GM’s market share over the past 30 years has had the trajectory of an Iraqi MIG augering into the desert.
I remember reading an article at the time which interviewed both Roger Smith, and Toyoda-san, the head of Toyota at the time. Each was asked, ‘is your company in business to make cars, or to make money’? Smith answered, ‘of course, we are in business to make money’. Toyoda answered, ‘we are in business to make cars, and by making the best cars in the world, we will make money’. While Toyota has had its problems lately (they caught some GM virus), I think the general path both of those companies have taken over the past 30 years shows which strategy works best.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.