The 1980s were one of the worst decades for General Motors. Market share tumbled from 46% in 1980 to 35% by the decade’s end. The GM X-Body was launched for 1980 and is regarded as GM’s Deadliest Sin. Fortune featured a cover story on how rampant badge engineering had become. The 1990s would see many more mistakes being made. The decade, though, started with hope. That hope came in the form of an over-budget, heavily delayed project: the GM-10 cars.
It’s easy to look back at the indefatigable rise of the Camry and Accord and scoff at the foolish domestic automakers and their inability to do battle. The GM-10 cars had a lot riding on them at the time. First, they had to once again prove GM could differentiate its cars between model lineups. Secondly, they had to prove GM was capable of going up against the mid-size juggernauts of Accord and Camry, as well as the Taurus.
The GM-10 project dated all the way back to 1982, just as GM was crafting the new FWD A-Body intermediates out of the much-maligned X-Bodies. Corporate reorganizations conspired to delay the cars; the initial coupes arrived two years later than expected, and the sedans even later. The real issue was the lack of a dedicated team and resources.
Despite GM allocating $7 billion to the project – more than double the expenditure for the 1986 Taurus, and almost quintuple the Chrysler LH cars’ investment – the project was shoddily executed. In Paul Ingrassia and Joseph White’s excellent book Comeback, the GM-10 development saga was described in sordid detail. Robert Dorn, Pontiac’s chief engineer, was appointed the GM-10 coordinator–but what good is a head without a body? Dorn had no dedicated team, and no authority over any engineers. He worked out of Chevrolet’s engineering department, next to engineers over whom he had no power.
The hapless Dorn, being a coordinator and not a manager, was forced to consult all four divisions with any proposals. He then had to request a design from the GM Styling Center. Then, he had to go to Fisher Body and component makers for specifications. The 1984 GM reorganization further interrupted everything, causing the GM-10s to fall further behind schedule. The debut of the Taurus saw a hasty 1985 exterior revision of the upcoming cars. Dorn quit in 1985, probably out of frustration and well before the first GM-10s rolled out of their factories.
Yes, one can easily argue that the days of GM’s market dominance were in the past and they should’ve focussed more on developing one good mid-size nameplate and marketing the hell out of it rather than spreading resources across four nameplates. But we have the benefit of hindsight, and GM’s slip in market share was something they believed could be corrected. In fact, they believed the GM-10s alone could account for 21% of the total U.S. car market. By 1986 though, GM had revised down projections from 1.6 million units to just 1 million annually.
Still, GM was so committed to its four separate GM-10 lines that it assigned an assembly plant to each. It was a departure from the standard practice of assembling different lines of the same platform in the same factory. That practice was desirable if, for instance, the public found an Oldsmobile’s design too challenging and didn’t buy it; that way, the company could just decrease the production volume of the Olds and increase that of the related Pontiac. GM was sure, though, there would be enough demand for each to warrant separate plants. Remarkably, the original plan actually called for three additional factories for the GM-10s!
Each of the four GM-10s had distinct sheetmetal, interiors and positioning. The Cutlass Supreme was aimed at import buyers, and had sleek, clean lines. The Grand Prix was seen as the performance option, with racier looks inside and out. The Regal was the more traditional premium choice, with a waterfall grille and a lot of wood grain and chrome. Finally, the late-arriving Lumina was the all-American choice, an unpretentious domestic mid-sizer.
The differences were more than skin deep. The Regal was the only one to receive Buick’s 3800 V6, Chevy the only one to receive the Iron Duke, and the Grand Prix the only one to receive the short-lived turbocharged 3.1 V6.
The aged RWD G-Bodies these new cars replaced had been all pretty much the same car. You could get a basic model, a Broughamantic model and a sporty model in each lineup. The only really unique aspect amongst them was the Regal’s available T-Type and Grand National turbos, although even Chevy briefly poached the turbo for its Monte Carlo. There was a Grand Prix Aeroback, but Chevy got one too. They were four slightly different looking cars positioned almost exactly the same.
There was still some overlap with the GM-10s: You could get a sporty Lumina in both wild-looking Z34 flavour or more sedate Euro trims, much like the designs of the Grand Prix and Cutlass Supreme, respectively. You could get an inexpensive Grand Prix or Cutlass Supreme with a four, albeit not the hoary old Iron Duke. And you could get a sporty Regal, with the GS trim returning. Still, GM had demonstrated a much stronger commitment to differentiation than they had in the Fortune cover A-Bodies.
The new generation of Regal attempted to retain existing Regal buyers, while also offering smoother, more aerodynamic styling. The sole initial powertrain was the venerable 2.8 V6 with a four-speed automatic. Power and torque were 125hp and 160 ft-lbs, respectively. Underneath, the Regal featured the GM-10’s new all-independent suspension with front struts and coil springs and rear struts on single trailing links. Dual lateral links were connected by a single transverse plastic leaf spring. It was a continuation of the FWD knowledge GM had developed with the FWD X, A and H-bodies.
The Regal’s wheelbase was 0.6 inches shorter than the outgoing RWD Regal, with a reduction in weight of 250 pounds and in length by 8.4 inches, but with only a few cubic feet of cabin space lost. That cabin featured a dash unique to the Regal, with wood grain applied liberally and a neat, traditional-style layout, although digital gauges were standard. A more rigid body also allowed for a cabin with less noise, vibration and harshness than its predecessor.
Fuel economy was also improved: 20/29mpg, up from 19/24mpg, on the base G-Body Regal V6. A slick drag coefficient of 0.31 definitely played a part in that. There were no high-performance options, though: Buick’s new “traditional premium” positioning spelled the end of souped-up Buicks like the Grand National and GNX. Even the available Gran Sport package, which featured firmer suspension tuning and 197/70R-15 GT+4 tires, had a plusher ride than the Grand Prix and Cutlass Supreme and less direct handling. The Gran Sport, though, did feature alloy wheels, black-out trim and other sporty visual tweaks.
The GM-10s’ launch was rocky. The Regal lineup, mystifyingly, was even later to receive a sedan than the others; it would come for 1991, a year later than the others. GM had launched the coupe earlier than the sedan, despite the objections of dealers, because of its history of strong-selling personal luxury coupe lines. The market was shifting, though, and the core consumers for intermediates were in their child-rearing years. At the time, Taurus didn’t offer a coupe, nor did Camry. GM probably should have seen it coming: Sedans represented only 38% of the total car market in 1980, but by 1988 they were at 56%.
Those family sedan buyers were also concerned about safety. Despite the availability of optional anti-lock brakes and standard four-wheel disc brakes, airbags were a no-show on the Regal equipment list until 1994. This was a puzzling omission, as even the moribund Dodge Diplomat had a standard driver’s airbag at the time of the Regal’s launch.
Still, the GM-10s were met with praise from critics. The Grand Prix received the most buzz, winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1988. The Regal was regarded as a competitive offering, with a smooth, quiet ride, competent handling with little body roll, and a spacious interior. The only criticism was leveled at the 2.8 V6’s fairly low power output, especially considering the 3,200lb curb weight; 0-60 took around 11 seconds.
By the early 1990s, GM was suffering badly. They had the lowest profits per unit and the highest overhead. Between 1989 and 1993, GM recorded $18 billion in net losses. Buick was the third-best selling domestic make in the early 1990s, but overall volume was barely half of mid-1980s levels.
The GM-10s certainly didn’t add to GM’s profit margins. Blown-out development costs, including investment in new factory machinery and tooling for four factories, and slower sales would see GM lose as much as $1,800 on every GM-10 car it sold. GM shed mid-size market share, too. Between 1985 and 1992, GM’s share of the American mid-size market sunk from 59% to 34%, while Ford’s grew from 21% to 31%.
The Regal and its GM-10 counterparts required 50% more labor to build than a Taurus, too. GM Chairman Roger Smith had bet the farm on investing in a lot of new, modern, automated machinery, but it was ill-suited to the aging factories it was installed in and cost more to operate. Within a few years of the GM-10 launch, plant managers dumped a lot of the automated equipment. It was money down the drain.
Quality and reliability were patchy at first, too. Nine recalls were conducted for the first six months’ worth of GM-10 cars. There were defects with brakes failing, hoods flying open and wheels falling off. Quality and reliability were improved, but the Accord and Camry were still showing the domestics how to build a solid, well-finished intermediate.
GM had to recoup their losses, and the GM-10s went under the knife. The Regal’s unique, traditionally-styled interior was replaced in 1995 with one of the parts-bin, molded-plastic messes that were, sadly, becoming the norm at GM. Wood grain was gone from the dash and door panels. Outside, chrome brightwork was removed. Other visual tweaks rendered the Regal completely anonymous; perhaps more modern, yes, but also far more bland.
There were some mechanical improvements, though, during the Regal’s reign. Its sophomore year saw the 2.8 V6 replaced with a 3.1, with an extra 15hp and 20 ft-lbs of torque. This 3.1 would gain 20hp and 5 ft-lbs in 1994 as well. In 1990, the Buick 3.8 was added as an upgrade engine, exclusive to the Regal, with 170hp and 220 ft-lbs; this would increase by 30hp and 5 ft-lbs for this generation’s final year.
Still, GM seemed to shoot itself in the foot by continuing to sell the dated 1982-vintage A-Body Century. Buick effectively had two mid-sized offerings, and the Century – which certainly appealed to older buyers – had a list price $2-3k lower than the Regal. While the Century was undoubtedly more profitable, it provided senseless showroom competition.
Debut year sales pipped the previous year’s G-Body sales, with almost 130k units produced. Production would slide, though, to 88k units in the Regal’s sophomore year, and down further to 54k units for 1990. Unit production would then seesaw between the 80k range and over 100k. Contrary to GM’s initial predictions, the Regal coupe would represent a paltry 18% of total Regal production by the end. More tellingly, though, the decrepit Century would outsell the Regal from 1992-95.
Every single photo in this article of a Regal on the street is one I photographed over a year in NYC. GM-10 Regals and Olds Cutlass Cieras are by far the most common pre-1995 cars in the city. The working theory behind Buick and Oldsmobiles being more common today than, say, contemporary Chevrolets, is that they initially had older owners who drove their cars less and took better care of them. That seems logical. Their ubiquity also suggests that these Regals were pretty reliable cars.
Overall, the Regal was afflicted by the same problem as the other GM-10s. Had they launched on time, they may well have caused more of a stir. Had a sedan been available from the start, they would have better met market demands. They offered a refined application of GM’s FWD engineering and modern styling, as well as plenty of engine and trim choices. They also offered the most visual differentiation ever between four separate GM lines. Sadly, though, the GM-10 story was one of time and money mismanaged.