Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Citation – GM’s Deadliest Sin (#13)

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(first posted in 2010 at TTAC; 12/19/2014 at CC)     The 1980s was the worst decade ever for GM. It lost a full ten points of market share, starting the decade with 45%, and ending with 35%, an unprecedented disaster. Its stock over the same period dropped some 50%. And the car that kicked off that decade of hell, and helped propel GM towards its continued long term decline, especially in passenger car production, was the 1980 Citation.

So much was riding on it and its X-Body stablemates, as they represented the very future of GM: more compact and efficient FWD cars. But GM bungled it, and the Citation came to represent everything that was wrong. It had one of the most spectacular first years ever for a new car, and then it crashed, almost instantly. It makes the Vega look like a Toyota in comparison.

Chevrolet Citation Vega-Sales

Of course numbers don’t tell the whole story, but I challenge you to find another newly introduced car that did so well in its first year and whose sales collapsed so spectacularly thereafter. And that 811k in 1980 doesn’t tell the whole story: the Citation was so popular, supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Folks waited months for their deadly sins to be delivered, and Chevy might well have been able to sell a million in the lengthened 1980 MY if they could have made them fast enough. But they were so poorly built, the drop-off was almost instantaneous. By its fourth year, the Citation had dropped some 90%. And in 1985, it was all over. And how many of those some 1.5 million Citation buyers swore off GM cars forever?

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Having jumped ahead to the final outcome, let’s step back a bit and consider the setting for this tragedy. For the third time at the beginning of a new decade, GM was determined to take on the import competition. In 1960, it was the VW Beetle, and GM countered with the conceptually similar (rear engine) but bigger Corvair. It failed at its intended mission for a number of reasons, but there were no egregious issues with its quality or durability (for the standards of the time). But GM had cut corners, and had to make a series of improvements to its suspension to save face, including a substantially redesigned second generation, even though the Corvair was by then already doomed.

Vega 1971 -ad

In 1970, it was Toyota and Datsun, as well as a few fading European imports that GM countered with the Vega. Despite them all being highly conventional rwd cars, Chevrolet bungled the Vega’s engine and rust-resistance. And although build quality was certainly not up to the Japanese competition’s level, it was not atrocious, in terms of what was yet to come.

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For 1980, GM had the revolutionary Honda Accord in its visor, as well as the goal of redefining the compact American car in an all-new fwd package. The Citation and its X-Body brethren from Pontiac, Olds and Buick were the closing number of GM’s overly-ambitious downsizing drama in three acts, which had begun three years earlier.

Make no mistake: this mammoth undertaking that would result in the 1977 Caprice and the rest of the full-sized line up, the 1978 Malibu and the other midsized cars, and the 1980 Citation and friends was no less than the biggest single corporate industrial re-investment ever up to that time. GM was betting its whole future here, and we all know how it turned out.

Chevrolet Citation 1980

GM’s biggest act of hubris was in even thinking it could execute such an undertaking, given its history. And clearly, the results got worse with each act. The fact that the Citation would be GM’s first ever-front wheel drive mass-market car didn’t help. As well as GM’s perpetual obsession with the next quarter’s profit. The mega-billions GM committed to its downsizing was taking its toll on the bottom line, and the Citation was behind schedule. Switching production facilities and suppliers over to a completely new generation of cars was taking its toll. GM’s corporate culture was not in fighting trim, unaccustomed to such complex demands.


Chevrolet Citation X11 fq

Typical for GM, the Citation looked best on paper, or to the automotive writers who were suckered when they drive the most un-production-like “ringers” ever hand assembled and wrote breathless reports on the Citation’s spectacular “better than a BMW” abilities. Naturally, it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, which all too often was a portend of disaster soon to come. Not long ago, C/D’s Patrick Bedard wrote a mea-culpa about how they fell for GM’s bait.

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The Citation’s basic body package was highly modern for the times, with a very roomy interior, a practical hatchback (a notch-back coupe was available but never popular), lightweight (2500 lbs), and featuring a new transverse engine/transaxle arrangement. On paper, it was a brilliant achievement.

Chevrolet 1980 Citation_05_900

Unforgivably, GM’s greatest industrial re-investment didn’t include a new four cylinder engine. The noisy, crude and rude “Iron Duke” 2.5 L OHV four was adapted for its new east-west orientation, and shook 90 hp from its crankshaft. This alone was a colossal mistake; a properly modern and smooth new four would have gone a long way to soothe the other discomforts of the Citation experience. The Accord’s four was like an electric motor in comparison; so much for meeting the competition head on, with an engine suited for a tractor.


Admittedly, GM was a more ambitious with the optional engine: the nigh-immortal 60-degree V6, built until 2010 in China. In its first incarnation here, it had 2.8 L and 115 hp (110 beginning in 1981).

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And in 1981, the sporty X-11 Citation was graced with a bumped-up HO version, which churned out 135 hp. Just the ticket to fully display the Citation’s truly prodigious torque steer and other entertaining characteristics, some of them quite genuine, especially in later model years.

Since quietness was always disproportionately high on the list of criteria for GM cars, and because neither of the Citation’s engines were intrinsically quiet and smooth, extreme measures were taken to isolate them from the passenger compartment. The front subframe that carried the drive train and front suspension was attached to the body with very soft rubber mounts. This led to a remarkable sensation during acceleration.

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It felt as if your favorite X-Car was composed of two separate components (which it sort of was), or to take the analogy further, it felt like the body was a semi-trailer hooked to the back of a semi-truck. Floor it, and the truck tractor started heading one direction (left, if I remember correctly) while the trailer both followed as well as tried to keep the truck from running off the roadway. Amusing, sort of. I had the chance to do it several times a day, in my Skylark company car. And I got quite good at it: kind of like crabbing an airplane. I did used to wonder if one day my car’s front sub frame would just fully detach and head off into to the median by itself; it sure seemed to want to very badly.

One might eventually get used to that, and if you had a good running V6, these cars could feel pretty lively given their light weight. But what goes fast must slow down, eventually, especially in LA traffic. And that’s where the fun disappeared, in a cloud of burning rubber. GM made almost the same penny-ante mistake with Citation as with the Corvair. Then, they left off a $14 camber-compensating spring. Now it was a $14 (?) rear brake proportioning valve. Drivers complained, NHTSA sued GM, which GM ended up winning in 1987, way too late: the perception/sales battle was then long lost. My Skylark with wider tires and wheels wasn’t too bad that way, but I once drove a four cylinder Citation that was highly prone. Let’s just say that my old Peugeot 404 had a very effective ride-height sensing rear proportioning valve even though it was rwd, and the Citation didn’t, with 60% of its weight on the front.

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That was just for starters (and stoppers). In between, a seemingly endless rash of maladies made these cars recall kings and queens. Transmission hoses that leaked and cause fires. Various driveability issues: fuel injection was deemed too expensive; meanwhile the two-barrel carb on the V6 was the most complicated and expensive fuel mixing device Rube Goldberg was ever commissioned to design. (A replacement cost over $1000 in today’s money, as I well know).  Shifting the manual transmission was like sending messages to a distant cohort in secret code via carrier pigeon. The X-Cars had to be recalled numerous times.

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The Citation interiors were hard and cheap. Sundry pieces of trim were prone to suddenly disassociating themselves from the rest of the car, in shame perhaps. Starting on day one. General build quality varied greatly, somewhere between miserable and mediocre. Cost cutting resulted in skin cutting from rough edges. Within one model year, the word was out and the jig was up: the Citation was a lemon.

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In a truly cynical move, GM found the pennies to add a “II” suffix to the Citation in 1984, even though anyone would be hard pressed to see any difference. Enough fools fell for the Citation II to bump sales by 5k units that year, before they realized that it was just a Citation Too.

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What really must have burned GM with the Citation’s flame out was that Toyota was dealing with the exact same challenge: to convert its RWD Carina/Corona lines to fwd. The all-new Camry appeared in 1983, just as the Citation was crashing. Ironically, the Camry had a distinctly Citation-ish look to it too, especially the hatchback. But looks can be deceiving. First year Camrys are considered solid and long-lived. I can think of no better example of the contrasting state of affairs that predicted their makers’ respective trajectories in 1983 than these two similar and yet so different cars. GM’s Death Warrant Exhibit A.

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Perhaps we should just leave it there, but there is a relevant if ironic postscript to the Citation: it became essentially immortal, in new garb. The Chevy Celebrity and its A-Body kin were nothing more than a Citation inner body and platform with a new exterior suit, although the doors undoubtedly interchange. The magic of a restyle and a little attention to working out the most blatant kinks resulted in a long-lived career (through 1996), at least for the Olds and Buick versions. And eventually they got fairly reliable…just a bit too late.

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But the A-Bodies are just the most obvious genetic offshoot. Let’s face it; just about every fwd GM car built since the first Citation that torque-steered its way off the assembly line has X-chromosomes in it, to one degree or another. The Citation was GM’s starting point with the fwd car, as well as the beginning of its end.


Related reading:

1971 Chevrolet Vega: GM’s Deadly Sin #2

1986 Toyota Camry: Toyota Builds a Better Citation, Forever