(first posted 9/9/2015) Sometimes I wonder, if I grew up in America, would I be as big a fan of General Motors? I wonder this because as I look at these pictures of the front-wheel-drive, A-Body Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, my blood starts to boil. Let me share with you why these humdrum cars make me so angry.
First, a clarification: early Century and Ciera sedans, coupes and wagons earn no such ire from me. The first front-wheel-drive A-Bodies were a smart repackaging of the trouble-prone X-Bodies, and while not perfect by any stretch, they showed that GM could make a modern, front-wheel-drive intermediate that could appeal to the masses.
Then, the 1986 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable came along and blew them away. Ford’s new intermediate had all-independent suspension, capable dynamics and utterly modern styling. Ford had been in big trouble early in the decade, but they were back with a vengeance. GM, meanwhile, had been shedding market share and the red ink was starting to spill thanks to the cavalcade of poor business decisions under my least favorite General Motors CEO, Roger Smith.
New intermediates – the GM-10 cars – were in the pipeline during the mid-1980s, but they were delayed and delayed and development was mismanaged (you can read more in my article on the GM-10 Buick Regal). By the time they arrived in 1988, they came only as coupes despite a market that was clearly far more inclined towards sedans, as evidenced by the success of the Ford Taurus and GM’s own A-Body cars. Sedan GM-10s took two long years to arrive, and Buick’s Regal sedan was delayed a further year.
The GM-10 delays were unacceptable but by the time they arrived, although they weren’t the Taurus-beaters GM had hoped for, they weren’t clunkers. Greater effort had been put into differentiating the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac versions, too. At this point, GM should have cancelled the A-Body Century and Ciera. Indeed, the Pontiac 6000 and Chevrolet Celebrity were dead after 1991, having been directly replaced. But GM was seduced by the profitability of the A (for Ancient) platform and their continued sales performance. Perhaps there were political reasons, as was common with GM, like a need for their particular assembly factories to stay open or an outcry from dealers who appreciated their availability.
The Century and Ciera, though, were redundant. The gas price fluctuations of the 1970s and 1980s had indirectly created a new segment of cars – populated by models like the Ford Tempo and the GM N-Bodies – that were positioned between compact offerings like the Buick Skyhawk and intermediates like the Buick Century. Then, of course, the GM-10 models had arrived and supplanted the Century/Ciera. And yet, the A-Bodies stuck around, priced around $2-3k less than a base Regal or Cutlass Supreme and thus right in the heart of N-Body Skylark and Achieva territory. To make matters more confusing, contemporary advertising positioned the N-Bodies directly against intermediates like the Honda Accord. In effect, GM was offering three intermediate platforms!
Defenders of the Century and Ciera models built during the 1990s will say two things. Firstly, that they were dirt cheap while new. Yes, they were and they were well-equipped for the cash. Maybe that suited a type of undemanding buyer who insisted on a new mid-size car instead of a nice, used one. Perhaps the kind of person who buys all their clothes at Wal-Mart.
Secondly, defenders will praise the Century and Ciera for their excellent performance in JD Power and in reliability and quality rankings. Do you know why they scored so high? GM built them so bloody long! It would have been reprehensible if they didn’t score so high.
In the early 1990s, General Motors was struggling with corporate belt-tightening and had to close numerous factories, so perhaps the easy money generated by the A-Bodies was a bright spot in a dark time. However, it was moronic to keep the Century and Ciera around, especially considering Buick and Oldsmobile were ostensibly two of GM’s more upscale divisions.
GM executives were probably scratching their heads in the 1990s wondering why their $7 billion dollar baby, the GM-10 range, was selling so poorly. They might have blamed the rise of the Taurus, Accord and Camry, but they should have also considered those aforementioned Wal-Mart shoppers. Those buyers – perhaps GM regulars, perhaps equal-opportunity bargain hunters – were going into Buick and Oldsmobile showrooms and picking the car with the smiley face special sticker on it. Never mind the GM-10 was a better car, it cost $2k more. The A-Body had similar cabin space and a few nice, standard features, and for those so inclined, there was also a wagon (most people weren’t so inclined, as the wagon only represented a fraction of A-Body sales.) Those especially frugal buyers may also have been delighted the Century/Ciera’s base engine was a 2.5 (later, a 2.2) four-cylinder.
In an attempt to stop the red ink, the GM-10 cars were decontented in 1995. The Regal interior, for example, was stripped of any brightwork and even of woodgrain trim. It was now almost the exact same plastic-fantastic, monochromatic mess as the Grand Prix, Cutlass Supreme and Lumina. There was less money available for GM to try and distinguish between four lines, especially considering GM-10 sales had been disappointing. Again, blame the A-Bodies: some years, the Century and Ciera outsold their GM-10 stablemates.
The GM-10 wasn’t the only thing damaged by the continued availability of the Century and Ciera. Both Buick and Oldsmobile’s reputations took a hit. Sure, both divisions had reached quite downmarket already with cars like the Skyhawk and Firenza, but both Buick and Oldsmobile were trying to reinvent themselves. Buick had been repositioned as a “premium American motorcar”, and were launching more stylish and distinctive full-size sedans and coupes like the ’92 Park Avenue and ’95 Riviera. Those were premium American motorcars. The Century? Not so much. And because of the sales success of the A-Body Century, GM felt compelled to offer a similarly low-rent version of the second-generation W-Body with the same name.
If the Cutlass Ciera didn’t ultimately kill Oldsmobile’s renaissance, it was definitely a collaborator. GM had seen its once hugely popular mid-priced marque start to slip in the 1980s, and one of their first steps to remedy this was the infamous “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign. That was just the start: Oldsmobile launched their first minivan and SUV in the early 1990s, and they were positioned as more premium offerings than their Chevrolet counterparts. Then, the 1995 Aurora made a splash with its bold styling and upmarket ambitions. GM was trying to turn things around for a dying brand, but by offering the ancient Cutlass Ciera in the same showroom with its low, low price, bench seat and decade-old styling, they were acting like a paramedic performing CPR on their patient as they stabbed them. “Really?” American consumers thought, “You want me to buy an Oldsmobile? Like the one I rented on vacation, or like my Aunt Mabel’s Ciera wagon? And you’re charging how much?!”
As an Australian, I grew up with just one General Motors brand: Holden. That was a lot less to mismanage, unlike the portfolio of brands GM North America was juggling. Holden’s decisions and product weren’t perfect during the 1980s and 1990s – nor for that matter were those of Opel/Vauxhall – but compared to the woes of their American parent, Holden’s issues were almost trivial. Consequently, it was a lot easier to be a cheerleader for our domestic GM division.
Which brings me back to my initial pondering: would I have been such a GM fan growing up in America? Despite my respect for a lot of GM’s offerings during the 1980s and 1990s, on a whole perhaps I would have been too soured on the company, not just for cars like the Century and Cutlass Ciera but also their fresher products that were built with less care. Fortunately, with the significant turnaround they have achieved in recent years – admittedly, aided by bankruptcy proceedings – I believe I would likely have become a GM fan again.
Curbside Classic: 2002 Chevrolet Malibu – The Truth Hertz
Curbside Classic: 1988-96 Chevrolet Beretta – Latchkey Kid
Future CC: 2012-13 Chevrolet Impala LTZ – The Sun Sets On The W-Body
Having only Holdens and Vauxhalls here made it easier Chevrolet had departed by the time I started buying cars and I grew up in a GM family but after retirement I notice even my dad shopped at the Toyota store he got burnt by GMH so called economical offerings before from Holdens.
Call me crazy, but I’d prefer the Australian Holden rather than the American Chevrolet.
You got em with Pontiac badges but yeah better cars I reckon.
I’m not a fan of the recent Pontiac cars.
We’re on our third Aussie GM here in the States. It’s the typical “forbidden fruit” syndrome. Everyone claims to want one and when they give it to us nobody buys one.
“It’s not exciting looking” -Chevy SS
“No manual Trans” -Chevy SS (Still not selling with a manual)
“Eww that’s not a GTO” -Pontiac GTO
“I’d buy one, but _____” -Pontiac G8
The Chevy SS recently became available with a manual transmission. Considering how much of a “cult classic” the 90s Impala SS was WITHOUT a manual transmission can folks blame GM/Chevy for not offering it initially.
The mistakes GM made with the Holden-built GTO I think can be put on Bob Lutz’s shoulders. He wanted a bit more “mature” style to the GTO and decreed no hood scoops….pretty much a design trademark of the GTO. For that matter, the GTO had no iconic design cues….bad marketing move.
But I do agree, we say we want to see X car produced….but then fail to buy.
That it was an obvious relative to the departed, not very well reputed Cadillac Catera didn’t help it any either. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of hood scoops – the Holden-based GTO was attractive enough, just rental-car generic. And I knew the lack of parts interchangability with other American GM cars (long an advantage of muscle-car ownership compared to high-performance alternatives) would make upkeep expensive.
I think it’s a typical car enthusiast thing – we want one, but we don’t want to buy it new.
So why did the Ciera live on, and on, and on? It was a *huge* fleet seller. Both in company & municipal fleets, and in the rental car industry (hence the existence of the 1996 model year, fleet/rental sales only). GM made a fair profit on every one they sold, even at the cut rate prices they sold em for. It was also a cheap antidote to the Accord/Camry. You could get a better equipped Ciera (V6, Auto, AC, PW/L as standard equip) for around 12-13 grand in the 90’s. Not a bad deal, considering both Toyota and Honda were trying to recoup costs on redesigned models – thus regularly increasing their prices for cars with 4cyl’s and not much as standard equipment. Was the Gen 3 Camry a better car? Sure, same with the Accord. But Bang for the buck the Olds simply offered more. Century’s also had respectable fleet sales but I don’t recall anyone under the age of 70 ever driving one of their own, and the price was just a shade more for basically the same car with some cheesy plasti-wood on that awful Buick dash.
I had a 1988, and two 1996 Ciera’s. Loved all of them, maybe the ’88 slightly more as it had a slightly nicer interior and the not-as-annoying 3 speed auto. They were all as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning, great 6 cyl mileage – my 3.1L’s averaged 27 in mixed driving – and reasonably comfortable to drive for very cheap wheels. The only drawbacks were the lack of good cup holders, the inevitable head gasket failures, the fuel system’s intolerance to any fuel with ethanol in it, and you couldn’t stop the rust once it started.
There were retail 1996 Ciera’s too. They sold a pile of them at our two Olds dealers. They came in series I 4 cylinder and series II 3100 V6 with few options. The series I listed for 14995 and the II was 15995 which was dirt cheap by that point. It actually wasn’t the ehad gaskets that went bad on the 3100’s. it was the intake manifold gasket. I should know as we did 100’s of them over the years. Once this is done with the improved re-enforced gasket I have seen these motors live on into the 300k bracket.
And there’s your problem.
What was Oldsmobile, mid-pack on the Sloan ladder, once something to aspire to, doing in the fleet car market? Shouldn’t that have been the province of Chevy?
Plenty of profit in the short term, sure, and the dealers would have been happy (for a few years) but look what it did for the brand in the long term. Turned it into alternative-Chevy, and too many missteps like this ultimately killed it.
Will, you have tapped into what is a deliciously complicated affair for some people. You have me seriously pondering my thoughts about GM at 4:30 in the morning, so I applaud you.
As one who has been exposed to the the Many Faces of GM for a long time, I have to think about them in the same mindset as I would family. With family, you are familiar with them, you know their faults and limitations, and you can predict their behavior to a certain degree.
These A-bodies, to me, are like the uncle who is well past retirement age but who keeps working and is still quite productive. If GM was only worried about moving units out the door, these were successful. Maybe Uncle A-body’s type of work isn’t what it used to be, but if the concern is only how much money he brings home every week….
Uncle A-body did eclipse the achievements of the younger Cousin GM-10. Yet there is a certain set of people who upon walking into a car dealer, will view Uncle A-body as being more stable and settled in his life whereas Cousin GM-10 is younger, less predictable, and costs more to do the same work. If we are worried about how much money we have left every week….
I agree fully that Uncle A-body got to the point where he was farting in mixed company too often and didn’t wear his deodorant like he should have. I also fully agree that Grandpappy GM dropped the ball, but again, like family, we knew Grandpappy didn’t have the stomach for house cleaning and kept them around too long. As further proof, Aunt G-Body Cutlass hung around the house too long after Cousin GM-10 Cutlass was born. Uncles C/K 10, 20, and 30 over in the pickup division were doddery old coots, having shown up in 1973 and hanging out until 1988 – or until 1992 for the bigger boned ones. It holds true still today with Aunt W-body Impala still hanging around to do the dirty fleet work, unchanged outside since 2006, despite her progeny having been born a few years ago.
You are right on what kept them going – my old Uncle A-body Century’s window sticker had a list price of $17,500 in 1993. The old gent who bought it new likely felt like a wheeler-dealer by the time he purchased it.
With the proliferation of words I’ve used, don’t think I’m defending GM so much as rationalizing their behavior. I agree that these cars, while as right as rain and sunshine, succeeding in muddying the waters at many dealerships. However, in a not so odd occurrence, I see many more of these still around than I do any GM-10 from that period.
Excellent metaphors, Jason. Totally see it within the Cutlass “family” and agree.
Hmm… a typical nineties dysfunctional family then. Right.
Fun read though!
William, again an interesting read, but I will disagree on the Ciera. The car lasted because GM could not afford to lose the sales.
The W body came in bloated and heavy. Too much so for the four cylinder. In three years(86-89) the iron duke gained 18hp,(20%), and balance shafts partly to deal with the fact that the W body was 10% heavier than the A body. It was not enough, and except for a few Luminas, no iron dukes in Ws. So much for covering the low end of the market.
So what do you do when the expensive Ws fail right after the failure of the too small FWD full sizes. You lose all confidence in your ability to design cars. Inside GM, there were voices like stylist Chuck Jordan and executives who had cycled through GMs German Opel branch who were advocating a chase the German strategy. German cars were cooler after all and look at the prices they charge. It seemed to be working for Ford, suddenly the modern Fairlane had a German sounding name and looked like an Audi and was still selling even though it was also too heavy for the four base engine. This was how we lost the mainsteam American car. Failure and the resultant self loathing.
So, how to explain the second life of the A body. The first thing to mention is the 1990 Honda Accord. When the A body debuted, the Accord was a size class smaller. No longer, Honda had seen the incredible space efficiency of the A body and built the new Accord at what they saw was an ideal size for the American market. The four grew to over 2.0 to finally try to catch the iron duke on torque. Since they didn’t have an appropriate 6, have a high output 4 and only talk about the manual. Remember we are the cool people.
The other thing to mention in the continued success of the A body is how kick ass the Buick V6 was getting. The early 3.0 version only had 110hp. Now the 3.3 was up to 155 and was faster than a non SHO Taurus or any automatic Accord. There were balance shafts, and port injection and if anything at this point the drivetrain in an A body would be a big plus.
So why did they leave the styling alone so long. Well they had a hit with it and they were not rolling in dough any more. I also think they knew if they changed the car they would ruin it. Guess what, that’s what happened. The 97 Century was bigger with no increase in real space, but the old failure of too much weight for a four happened again. The styling was a crappy Jaguar pastiche.
The 82-96 A body was the height of eighties styling efficiency. It was as roomy as any American tank that came before or anything out of Europe or Japan. It was as light as any car this size would ever be, yet exceeded the new higher crash standards. When historians look back on car design, it will be seen as a pinnacle.
everybody that i grew up with hated the domestics. if you grew up with vegas and pintos, you would hate them, too. it’s only in the last five years that they’ve even started considering domestic cars.
I loved my Pinto! Thank you veddy much. ☺
What was not to like about a zippy 4cly, 4spd, that got 30mpg; it was the 70s after all.
no offense but the first time one of your friends gave you a ride in a civic or a corolla, it was game over for the pinto.
I had the Pinto in the early 80s as a go-to-work car; and by that time had owned a Mazda 1800, Datsun 510 SW, VW Squareback, and a Datsun B210 auto; all fairly low mileage cars.
Outside of the Mazda 1800, the
Pinto; a 1974 1600cc 4 speed, was quicker and got better mileage then all of them and would out handle them all; the 510 being a station wagon. I had ridden and driven Civics (thought they were a toy car, not for normal size Americans) and Corollas (thought they were dull and slow).
So, no; the game wasn’t over; not till the Pinto slid around a corner thinking it was a sports car. Wouldn’t mind having it now; now that i don’t have kids to drive around.
I hope you were alive and able to drive them back in 1971 before making that claim. If you were then you would know that no one would compare a 1971 Pinto to a Honda N600 and say the Honda was better.
As for 1972 I can say that I drove all three of them and the Civic and Corolla were early primitive Japanese cars with small engines. The early 70’s Pinto with 2300cc engine and 4 spd. was quite a capable car at the time. All three noisy on the road, thin doors and cheap materials. Nothing to write home about. That would come years later for Civic and Corolla.
My brother may have been one of the first to pull his 1971 2300 engine, modify it and boost the compression ratio to 11.0:1. Larger sway bars with larger tires and that car was screaming fast. Of course, at speed the road noise and thin doors became quite apparent.
Really? In a CR 78 report, they said the Honda Civic had a ” harsh almost punishing ride” and was among “the most noisy cars we have ever tested”. In the same issue they said that in spite of it’s dated design, the Pinto/Bobcat were among the “quietest and smoothest riding sub-compacts on the market”. And I also know the Honda’s from that time frame had plenty of problems, like warping front brake rotors and a propensity to rust like our domestics. Plus their AC was troublesome.
Well, they’re humdrum for a good reason. They’re durable. Among the cars I see daily, 75% are SUVs or wagons, and 25% are sedans. Nearly all of those sedans are GM A-body cars of the ’90s, and they all sound good. I see very few Ford or Chrysler products from that period.
I’ve always felt that keeping around the A-body Century and Cutlass Ciera was a mistake. If (and they likely did) GM needed the revenue generated by them, they should of just kept the Chevy version as a low-priced fleet queen as they did with the later N-body Malibu “Classic”. You’re likely correct in that the A-bodies stole a serious amount of potential sales from the W-body Cutlass Supreme and Regal. There were just so many problems withing GM I don’t know where to begin.
My own personal unfavorable opinion of GM stems slightly from these cars, but it’s more of a big picture reasoning. Cars like this, as well as other GMs of the 1990s and early-2000s always just seemed behind the times and out of touch with what people wanted. Uninspired, unattractive styling, ancient pushrod engines, cheapo depo interiors, and poor reliability and build quality. Chrysler and Ford may have had their own issues with quality, but at least they produced some inspired, emotion evoking designs during this period.
And I mean no offense to anyone by saying this, but growing up, GM cars (not including large SUVs of course) had three core demographics: senior citizens who’d been loyal GM customers their entire lives, rental fleets, and people whose priority in a car was that it was new and cheap.
BTW, some great analogies in here Will!
Another thing not touched on yet is that in the era we are discussing, the most common GM retail buyer (especially at Olds and Buick) was a 50+ midwesterner. This group liked the conservative style and the cars were comfortable to them. The lower prices didn’t hurt either.
Younger, less traditional buyers were lapping up Accords and Taurii. Most of those Cutlass and Century buyers would have bought the newer GM-10s if that had been the only choice, because those folks would buy whatever GM was selling. But GM gave them the choice and they made it.
My Buick dealer also sold Honda’s, but not Acura. However the sales manager at one point thought I might like an Acura, which they could have serviced.
I have nothing but love for A-bodies. Despite growing up in an all-Honda household ever since my family immigrated in 1992, and having only bought imports, I definitely have a soft spot for these floaty, torquey, raspy sounding anachronisms. My first memories of an A body was our family’s first big road trip in the US back in 1994. We were on to our second Honda, an ’85 Civic sedan with no A/C and a 5spd. We loaded up the family, my brother and I were 5 and 8 years old respectively, and buzzed down I95 in our little Civic through the sweltering, humid South. We weren’t alone, our friends, an older Russian couple with their daughter, took their Cutlass Ciera “International Series.” The contrast between us crammed into our non-air conditioned little tin can (funny, I don’t remember being overly hot or cramped when I was a 4 yeard old), and them floating along in air conditioned comfort kind of spoke to their higher level of assimilation into all things American by that time. We were the greenhorns, used to driving a tired old Zaporozhets back in Siberia, to us the Civic was a sporty sedan, and the Ciera may as well have been a luxury car of the finest sort.
Later on I rode in a mountain biking friend’s A body wagon, a pale yellow Century(?), head liner billowing and brushing my head. Funny how well those things got around with a 3spd automatic, even in hilly Ithaca NY.
Lastly, I was helping friends car shop last year, they were looking at affordable wagons in anticipation of moving to California from Indiana. One of the cars we looked at was a slightly rusty but otherwise clean Century wagon. Pale blue with a blue interior. The wave of nostalgia was immense, I almost wanted to buy it for myself! Alas, the temperature gauge started to climb right on the test drive so we walked away from it.
We have two female customers in there 60’s and 70’s that used to drive Honda products. One was a 2004 Accord V6 and the other a 2006 Civic. Surprise! They are now driving 1993 and 1996 Buick Century’s! The hard seats, not so hot visibility, harsher ride quality, severe rust and in the case of the Civic, an interior that literally was falling apart, non working A/C and electrical gremlins made them trade those cars in very quickly! And I am not making this up. These were there exact words upon trade in. They love there Buick Centurys but of course wish for a little more tech. Things like fake wood trim, outdated interior appearance and exterior only seem to bother the Millennial set. A smooth running and idling 3100 V6 with snappy performance, comfortable seats, excellent visibility, a large useful trunk and a smooth quiet ride are what sold these two cars and the main reasons I suspect these cars sold so well into the mid 90’s.
America needs to make those kind of cars again.
Your right. I bought a 1990 Cutlass on ebay for $350 in 2005. It had a 3.3 V6.I put a thousand miles on it in a week. Smooth ride good in snow and not bad on gas. It had ,85k. Brought it to a friend in salvage yard who exclaimed that people would line up if they still sold it. It was an American 240 volvo
These things were supposedly highly profitable, but if a complete assessment was made, they were probably “profitable” in only the narrowest sense of the term. There’s no accounting for the loss of brand value they caused and the number of customers they repelled from the dealerships. After the Ciera went out production, the Oldsmobile brand was declared dead a few years later, and it’s not hard to draw a direct line between the events. It cost several billion dollars to shut down Olds, which certainly wiped out every cent they ever made churning out Cieras.
There was a big group of baby boomers who when they came of age, resented everything that came before. This bias was going to taint American cars no matter what they were like. Paul, perhaps inadvertently, has described the same thing in Germany, where in Germany a 72 Beetle was an uncool old persons car, at least to a 68er. At the same time the car was cool and young in America.
Judge a car by it’s merits and how it corrisponds to your tastes and needs. The judgement of the cool crowd isn’t worth a hill of beans. They put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.
The problem wasn’t that these cars weren’t “cool.” The problem was that, by 1990, they were clearly second-rate cars.
They may have been cheap, but, at one time, people willingly paid the extra money to own an Oldsmobile or a Buick instead of a Chevrolet or a Ford.
Oldsmobiles and Buicks were supposed to be cool – or at least cars that people aspired to own. People looking for the automotive equivalent of the Blue-Light Special should not have been finding what they wanted at the Oldsmobile or Buick dealer. At least, not if the GM brand hierarchy still had any meaning. These cars were one more reason why, by 1995, it largely did not.
Right, the Oldsmobile Aurora was a cool car, and it was supposed to sell to cool people. But where are you going to buy your cool new luxury car? From the dealer in the movie “Fargo”, or at the Lexus palace down the road?
GM could never walk the talk with Oldsmobile. They said they wanted to appeal to younger ‘cool’ customers, but in reality they wanted to make cheap Cieras and cars with fender skirts.
Buick on the otherhand has always been decidedly uncool, and they are still around. At least they stood for something.
When we arrived in the US in ’94, I drove a number of hire cars, including quite a few of these. I could not believe how awful they were.
Now, I understood that US roads and the needs of US drivers were different from those of Europeans, but throughout the 80s I’d driven Fords and Vauxhalls; I knew something about US GM brands, and I guess expected that a Buick would feel a bit Roverish inside, and an Olds perhaps a bit more like an executive Vauxhall.
I knew the handling and peformance would be different; but I really wasn’t expecting such horrible vehicles! Before we came to live in the US, I’d never even visited, but I had naively expected that everyday cars would have been at least as good, in their own way, as the stuff we had at home. And yes, these were rental strippos, and I knew they were old models, but still, they were Buicks and Oldsmobiles, dammit. I loved America, still do, and would have very much enjoyed owning what I imagined an Olds or a Pontiac might be. But I went out and bought a couple of Hondas.
If I had come to America, I would have had the same sort of expectations as you. And thirty years earlier, maybe Buick and Olds did fill that sort of market slot. But I think the divisions were well and truly trading on their heritage by this period.
I spent much of ’96 & ’97 driving rental cars. One of the more memorable ones was a 1996 Buick Century with a V6. I was the first rental customer to drive this particular one, and I got to complete the assembly process. The entire drivers door seal was improperly installed, causing it to fall down from the top half of the opening. It had then been closed in the door with part of the door seal in the car and part of it outside of the car. By fully removing the door seal and then working it gradually around the door opening, I was able to work out most of the unintended creases and achieve a near water-proof mating surface and wind noise that could be drowned out with the radio.
That these cars scored highly with JD Power can only be a reflection of how low the expectations of GM’s remaining loyalists were after the ’70s and ’80s. I remain convinced that cutting open the shocks and struts on the car I rented would have revealed them to be missing any damping oil. The brand new car started bouncing the second you got in and closed the door and stopped bouncing a few seconds after you got where you were going. It made cornering equal parts hilarious and dangerous. The seats were shapeless. The dashboard was a combination of 1979 finishes and 1990 Craftsman lawn tractor instruments. The engine and transmission were excellent with delivery miles. How long they’d remain that way wasn’t a question I could have kept the car on the road long enough to answer, considering the lack of shock absorbers.
I respectfully disagree Mr. Stopford with your opinion on the Century/ Ciera.
I think you are overlooking a few things in that fine article you have written(I enjoyed reading it)
First off the Centuy/Ciera while cheap, did not feel cheap. When you bought a Century or a Ciera, you got a car that while having a dated design, felt very substantial and was very roomy and comfortable. With the Regal or Cutlass, you got a car that cost more but felt cheap with all its plastics and such. You could tell they cut corners on them. The seats in the 88-96 Regal were horrible. If you compare those seats to the cheapest seats you could get on the cheapest G Body, those G body seats were still better.
I have always felt that the first generation GM10 cars in the Buick and Olds lines were pointless. A well equipped top of the line 1993 Regal sedan was only a about $1000 less then then an entry level Lesabre which was roomy, comfy and a better car all around.
Buick buyers probably took one look at all the cheapness of the Regal and saw its price and ether bought a Century to save some money or bought a Lesabre.
In fact I would argue the biggest impedance to Regal sales was the Lesabre. Looking at all the GM divisions, the only division that had a first gen GM10 car that sold in great numbers was Chevy. It is also the only division that did not have a H body car in its lineup. They had a Caprice as the only large car on offer and folks ran away from the 91-96 Caprice due to its looks.
I think the H body car took sales away from the W body. Take Pontiac, it killed off its A body(6000) in early 1991. Unlike the Celebrity/Ciera/Century, the Pontiac A body was the forgotten A body that really did not sell well. There was no big leap in Pontiac Grand Prix sales after this car was removed from sale. In 1992 the new Bonneville arrived and this stole sales away from the W body.
Now my take on the first GM10 cars were that they were total rubbish. It is the only car i know where replacing rear brake calipers was considered normal maintenance. They were also poorly built and junked at the first sign of trouble. Take a good look around, how many 88-96 GM10 cars do you see around? Probably none. Now look around and see how many 89-96 Century or Ciera that you see around. Odds are you will see one or two in various conditions on your way to work or home.
We still on average sell 2-3 of these a month and surprise- the customers really seem to like them. Now granted these customers are not 18 year olds but folks in there 40’s to 70’s looking for a nice second car or wagon that isn’t expensive or gimmicky. Most any example we have obtained does not have things falling off inside or misaligned parts like some say. The worst things that happen with these is the 3100 intake gasket which is no big deal once the new improved gaskets are installed and the previous owner would have needed to have serviced both the anti-freeze and transmission fluid. But most examples we obtain are well cared for and mostly turn key. Parts are dirt cheap, tires are dirt cheap and not much goes wrong, even with 130-160K on the clock.
I went away to college in the fall of ’92, and much to my chagrin, returned for Thanksgiving to find a silver, 2 year old, former rental fleet Ciera in my parents’ garage. It had bench seats and a column shift, and was a total southwest Florida geriatric conveyance. I wanted to hate that car. I really did. But it had a smooth V6, tons of room, and operated reliably for the years they owned it. I actually ended up liking it better than the ’97 Nissan Altima they replaced it with.
My dad was a traveling salesman & bought an 85 Buick Century with the 3.0 v6. He bought mom an 86 Accord LXi. Dad added a thicker whitewall & the Buick resembled the short 86 Cadillac Devilles at the time. You might not believe me but we all actually liked the Buick better than the Accord, especially on long trips, even me & I was 18 at the time. Mom has only bought Accords since then having owned all body styles since 86. Dad skipped around a bit but eventually became a repeat Volvo customer.
I can see why you would have liked the Buick better back then. The Accord was very small, great for the driver but not so much the passengers. Having owned two Centurys – an ’84 coupe and ’87 sedan – I can attest that they were great road cars and extremely comfortable. In fact the Accord was a compact back then vs. the mid-sized rating given to the A-bodies. Maybe today, because the Accord has grown so much over the years and is now such a big car, it would be as nice or even nicer than its GM rivals. To compare them in the 80’s wasn’t really fair to the Accord, IMO.
You’re exactly right, extremely comfy, awesome GM air conditioning and the Delco sound system was bad ass for a factory system.
I had a 1988, and two 1996 Ciera’s. Loved all of them, maybe the ’88 slightly more as it had a slightly nicer interior and the not-as-annoying 3 speed auto. They were all as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning, great 6 cyl mileage – my 3.1L’s averaged 27 in mixed driving – and reasonably comfortable to drive for very cheap wheels…
They’re durable. Among the cars I see daily, 75% are SUVs or wagons, and 25% are sedans. Nearly all of those sedans are GM A-body cars of the ’90s, and they all sound good. I see very few Ford or Chrysler products from that period…
I have nothing but love for A-bodies…
Count me in as another A-Car fan, my experiences are much the same as these. For about a decade from 1995 to 2005 used A-Cars were a great value for beater rides. Sadly most are too old now for such use.
As far as the premise that these vehicles ‘ruined’ GM’s brand I’d argue just the opposite. Along with the H-Cars, these vehicles held up what were the traditional GM virtues – comfort (especially sound AC systems), reliability, space, value – quite well. If anything it was GM’s attempts to out-Accord Honda and turn Cadillac into a BMW competitor (both on the cheap) that set them on the path to failure.
I have owned and driven the Olds and Buick, and even the nasty Chevy version…my Buick had a 3 speed auto, which was great when the transmission blew up, because it was a $750 rebuild, not a $2000 rebuild if it had been the 4 speed.
I even had several opportunities to drive a Ciera with the diesel in it…lots of torque and nice engine growl for a diesel from that era. Thanks to GM’s weird ordering process, that car had damn near every option imaginable, except power locks…the man who ordered it missed one line item on the order sheet?!
Low tech, but very popular cars. I wouldn’t mind having a Ciera wagon even now…
This very well-written write-up makes me feel melancholy. I guess these cars are being looked at as both a blessing and a curse. But my true feeling is that GM had a good profitable seller on its hands and didn’t want to mess with success. Nobody would want to mess with that, would they? And I honestly think since the mid to late 80’s GM and its brands have struggled with an identity crisis, having always tried to stretch their demographic similar to the way they are today, to try and capture younger buyers. Buicks are being advertised to the younger generations, yet I still see the white-haired older gentleman and the older women driving them!
So then you say, so what if the showroom had older folks coming in to buy a Ciera or Century? Have a good, reliable, attractive car to compete with the Accord and Camry and you will see ALL types of customers buying them. Ford’s Taurus is a prime exapmle. Have a sporty car that people want. Offer some variety. Look at Ford. They haven’t had all ages coming in to their showrooms for years? Of course they have! They have had Mustangs, Tauruses, Crown Victorias, Probes, Escorts etc. etc. near each other and each has drawn its own set of buyers. I think the main problem with GM was that they still operated on a 1960’s mentality. Have a lot of brands and people will end up buying one of them. Well guess what? You now have Toyota, Honda, Nissan etc. etc. to contend with. And the other domestic brands have gotten so much better too. You are not the only player in town! So looking back at late 90’s Buick, for example, you can see why a car like the Regal gets lost in the shuffle.
Having owned several A-bodies I loved them all even though some were better than others. My favorite was my ’87 Century Limited “T” with the 3.8 SFI V-6. What a car! I actually rented a 1995 Century while vacationing in Florida, and it was very different from my ’87. Where my ’87 felt substantial and even had a plush, rich feeling, the ’95 was like an appliance. Very sterile. It drove well and ate up the miles with ease, but I wouldn’t have wanted that car for my own personal vehicle. It felt “old” in more ways than one. So I can see how these cars were both a blessing and curse for GM. I still say GM should consolidate into the parent brand and become simply ‘General Motors’ dealers and carry only the best of their lineup. They will do a complete 180.
I really enjoyed this article. To me the most mind-blowing footnote of the whole A-body story is that in this creaky old design’s final year of 1996, the Ciera actually outsold every other model in Oldsmobile’s lineup. This was when the Aurora was out, and the powers that be were frantically trying to rejuvenate the division with new trend-setting products…but buyers didn’t care.
One of the main problems GM had back then and now makes it hard to comment on (unless your a memory savant); is model proliferation.
It was confusing to shop at the GM counter with all the models and platforms; and i had several Century’s, ’96 & 2000, great cars, dependable as the sun, but a little small inside; so went with the 2001 Lesabre; that was just right.
If GM had concentrated on 1 or 2 models per division and refined them; not change names and platforms all the time (and forgot the bad experiment of Saturn) the money saved might have kept them out of bankruptcy
+1 _ I think GM was trying to offer as many cars as possible to counter the invasion of the imports. I think if you were in the market for something smaller than the full size cars, there were too many choices.
My point exactly, too many “ok” cars, when in actuality all they need are a few great ones.
They say the reason the dropped Olds and Pontiac is to do just that – concentrate on fewer cars and do a great job with every one. I think they are pretty much doing that but they have had a few slipups.
I think the plan was actually to downsize everything (twice!) faster than Ford and Chrysler could afford to keep up, and therefore run their crosstown rivals under. However, gas prices went down and GM ended up with a bunch of too-small cars that overlapped each other.
I’d forgotten how much I liked the clean styling of the A body wagons until I was reminded by the pictures in this article. Thanks!
This was almost my car at one point. It was available, with low miles, clean, one owner car, priced in my range… the year was 2009 and I was looking for a new beater (all I could afford at the time) so she seemed right… but I did not, I repeat, did NOT want to end up with that car. Then salvation came and it was a $1200 project that looked cool, ran and shifted like a champ at 170.000+, leaked oil out of the lower intake, was developing rust at the driver rocker panel, had fresh paint, was trashed on the inside, had virtually every gadget not work, and needed a lot of accessory mechanical TLC. I was not working on my own cars at the time and standing there looking at the car I knew it was going to change. It did.
I just may have to thank the poor unwanted grey Cutlass Ciera for it.
I remember looking at these cars at the local GM dealerships in the mid-90s when looking for a used car. Couldn’t afford anything new, but if I could have, would have seriously considered an A-body wagon. Yes they were outdated, but they were still comfy, pretty well-built by this point, and had scads of hauling room in the wagons. They also looked nice – to my eye the styling was pretty elegant and still seemed contemporary. Nothing else from GM interested me at the time.
Why the hate for these cars? Lots of people felt like me and they sold well right up to the end. They were one of the bright spots for GM in the 90s.
One word explains it: fleets.
These cars were still being built primarily to satisfy the huge market in the US for fleet cars; governmental fleets, utility fleets, rental fleets, US Navy fleets, whatever…
The actual transaction prices for fleet sale kept dropping as GM had amortized their costs on them and churned them out cheaply. Fleets were paying some $12k for these at the end of the road (’94-’96).
The City of Eugene updated its fleet in about ’95 or ’96 with these, and they plied the streets carrying building inspectors and such until they were all replaced by the current Prius fleet about ten years ago.
Rental lots were chock full of these, as they competed on price and these were the size that was most often rented for business travelers, etc. That’s where I had most of my exposure to the joys of these rolling anachronisms.
Yes, some old geezers in the Midwest undoubtedly bought them too, but retail sales was an ever-smaller percentage of them in their later years. And the huge number of them that were/are still out there as beater drivers inevitably started life as fleet cars. There’s a lot of these here in that role, and I can assure you folks didn’t buy them new out here on the West Coast.
These cars were the Ladas of America.
I actually thought about the iron curtain level of introspective obliviousness that offered up that steering wheel and dashboard in 1996. “Ladas of America” indeed.
I worked at a Honda-Olds-Saab dealer in 1989. Even then, the Cutlass Ciera was an archaic throwback next to the Accord that was due to be replaced in a month or two.That GM was till making it deep into the fifth generation Accord’s run having launched the A-bodies about the same time the second generation Accords arrived said it all. GM was satisfied that anyone who would ever leave them had been driven out by the stuff they’d sold over the past twenty years.
Was the A-body even meant to exist? Or was it just GM successfully finding a way of selling X-cars to people that might have known better?
“Was the A-body even meant to exist? Or was it just GM successfully finding a way of selling X-cars to people that might have known better?”
Interesting thought, and this was sort of in the back of my mind as well – especially considering the level of overlap these had with the X cars and former A / now G cars in the showroom.
Given that these were in showrooms by fall 1981, the FWD A had to be in some sort of product pipeline before the X cars hit the market. The idea that they may have been rushed a bit is more plausible. The RWD A had been on the market for only 4 model years, 2 model years after the first refresh when the FWD A came out. The ’79 – ’80 oil price spike undoubtedly made the FWD A look like salvation – and GM was correct that this sort of car became “standard” car for the 1980s. The ability to rely on the G,B,C,D,E cars for sales had to be in serious question with CAFE and unstable oil prices looking like monsters in the rearview mirror.
I agree it seems like GM may have pulled the A’s forward in response to the ’79 oil shock. I think the rush job was seen as a smart move given that people were afraid that gas prices would be much higher in the early 1980s.
The speed-up did throw a lot of chaos into the mix, however. The old RWD A bodies weren’t through with their cycle, which should have lasted through MY83, with new designs for MY94. Perhaps the FWD A’s were originally envisioned for that timeframe? At that point, according to the time-tested GM practice, the old As would have been entirely replaced, so you wouldn’t have been squeezing in additional midsize models.
The other timing during this period that seemed to get completely screwed up was for the full-size B/C bodies. They were originally intended for MY83. Had those boxy designs debuted in the Fall of ’82, instead of for 1985 and 1986, they would have felt more timely. Of course GM would have needed to stop selling the old RWD cars alongside the new FWD ones, which would have seemed more palatable in the early 80s when fears of gas price spikes were fresher.
Didn’t you wrote an article about these same cars more than a year ago and they were proclaimed as “The Official Cars of the Chelsea Projects”? Some of the photos looked like within the surrounding neighborhood of that same Chelsea area in lower Midtown Manhattan.
That was a great article. Those darn cars are still littered all around the roads of Florida by the dozen! I swear, every time I go out I see them everywhere. I’ve read other articles on them too, where they compare the reliability to that of the Corolla and that they just keep on ticking. I had a friend that owned the Buick Century on this body and even if with being a seven year old vehicle when he bought it second hand, he paid next to nothing for it. From my own observations watching the transformation from the K cars which the old folks around the towns by me were driving, were jumping platforms to these cars, and like you said, they were so affordable and any tight budgeted senior could probably afford one without much loss of zeros in their bank account each month.
So here we are, twenty years since their demise and these cars are still all around, and heck I still see “buy here pay here” advertise some here and there, which I imagine were originally old person owned, and currently super low mileage vehicles, possibly still with nice luster on that original paint if not beaten by Florida’s sun.
Great article, but William, here in the states the Tempo and Ns were compact cars. They did not invent a “new” segment. My family had both: an 84 Ciera that my parents owned and my 86 Calais: different segments completely.
The Tempo, Xs, Ns and Ks were all between 176 and 180″ long. The As were approx 190. The first category is compact. The second intermediate. The Accord only grew to that size later in the decade. The Js were “subcompacts” until the Cavalier gained new styling and length that put it at 182″.
That the Ns were priced higher came from the fact that they were initially planned to replace the Monte Carlo, Grand Prix and Toronado, well documented by the car rags at the time. Chevy opted out and got their own version with the Corsica/Baretta. Also a “compact”. A perfect example of what you describe.
The Ns were also targeted at Yuppies GM thought were cross-shopping BMWs. Called “New Values” customers, they were a demographic straight out of GM’s corporate bubble.
They were therefore, trimmed and priced in a way to give them a “premium” image [in GM’s eyes that meant lots of velour and imitation Euro flash]. And they were BOP’s compact entries in the market. A segment that had existed since the late fifties via AMC [and George Romney coining the category’s name ] and from 1960 with The Big Three.
That my “Father’s Oldsmobile” made me a fan of GM was because it was well trimmed, efficient in space and fuel, comfortable, rode well and was very very quiet. Core values for many customers [and rental agencies], and desirable aspects even today.
The early As [and Xs] suffered from rack and pinion “morning sickness” where there was no power assist on first start up that only came back online after some time on the road.
As well the GM three speed auto with lock up torque converter would blow a sensor and act like a manual trans in 3rd gear coming to a stop with jerking and a horrible noise.
Many transmissions were replaced, rather than repairing the TC switch which caused the problem in the first place. I unknowingly did this with my Citation II. Happened on the Calais: disconnected 15 years ago and running just fine today.Live and learn.
I saw an early Celebrity stalled in the street that couldn’t be restarted because of the ignition switch refusing to turn.
And we’re all “price sensitive”. Not just people in the mid-west. I would suggest that if anyone is not, pay MSRP on your next new car.
Today, the size of the A Body is as large as I would ever want to go. For me anything larger would be a waste of space, room in my car port and unnecessary. How mid-western of me.
Though I am a CA native, it’s more of having had a family that lived through the Depression. Spending restraint is in my DNA. But it’s something that seems to be derided on every automotive web site I visit, as if all the people posting had unlimited resources to pay $3000 more for a “better” car…. They forget how many pizzas they’d have to deliver to make that $3000 nut themselves.
Again, William, a great article. But remember: GM lost money on every GM 10 because the development costs were so high. Another reason the As lasted as long as they did, whether they were retail or rental. Cash flow is king.
I’ve never done any size comparisons, but I always thought of the GM J-bodies and Escort/Tracer as subcompacts; the GM X-/N-bodies and Tempo/Topaz as compacts; and the GM A-bodies and Taurus/Sable as midsizes. All of these cars had more-or-less directly replaced earlier models which had occupied the same classes.
The era right before this one was more confusing, when each American manufacturer downsized different segments at different times, and designs sometimes got repurposed as something other than what they had started out as (e.g., a design originally intended as a compact being turned into a midsize).
In the ’90s, as traditional American full-size cars were de-emphasized, as there was some tendency for the other classes to grow larger, and as Japanese cars more closely aligned with the traditional American segments (e.g., the Camry and Accord growing into the same size as American midsize cars), there was some shuffling around. In this era, I began to hear cars that I would have historically considered to be subcompacts (or their successors) referred to as “compacts”, cars that I would have historically considered to be compacts (or their successors) referred to as “midsize”, and cars that I would have historically considered to be midsizes (or their successors) referred to as “large” or “fullsize” cars.
I hear what you are saying and EPA classifications would agree: a Cavalier would be a subcompact. However, without growing substantially, that same car came to be referred to as a compact in the 90s. And there was almost always something smaller than an Escort/Cavalier (Festiva, Metro). The N-Body segment is also now dead. Hence, why I refer to Tempos and Corsicas as “tweeners”… And again, Japan didn’t bring their tweener cars here.
“Subcompact” was something of a big tent in the ’80s, it took in everything from the T-body Chevette to the J-body which was substantially roomier, more expensive, and pretended to greater refinement.
I think you may be a bit hard on the buyer demographic that bought these retail. Calling them Wal-Mart shoppers, not aspirational, etc. seems unnecessarily derisive. Lets’s face it, some of these buyers were also buying small early Accords, Corollas, Tempos, base Taurus, etc. Hardly aspirational fare, but all cars that had reasonable price tags and were bought by people that were being responsible with their money. Some people recognize a bargain when they see one. Some of those bargain shoppers liked buying cars that came from an American company. These are values that deserve a measure of respect.
That said, the aging of the A bodies was certainly part of a tempest of poor business decisions at GM, leaving them with way too many marginal products instead of a more limited line of class leading products. The problem started with the RWD A bodies being re-designated as G bodies. The moment that happened in the fall of ’81, just about everyone could smell the crisis of confidence GM had in its own new products.
By the time the W came along, there was insanity in product overlap, the stupidity of distractions like Saturn and the various captive imports was well established, and the folly of adding GEO, Hummer and SAAB to the mix were all in the bleak future. GM had effectively banned themselves from any bestseller lists as their products were cannibalizing themselves in a spectacular manner.
My in-laws bought a Century A-body somewhere around 1988 or so. It had room and moderately plush upholstery, and that really was the extent of its good points. I guess it was fairly reliable, but its soft ride was compromised by a Jello-like jiggliness, its four-cylinder engine was barely adequate, and its handling was decidedly lackluster. (For contrast, we were driving a 1984 Mazda 626 at the time.) The thing just looked a bit cheap, too. My father-in-law was disappointed; he thought a Buick was supposed to be just a bit special, and this car sure wasn’t special.
Ignorance was bliss back in the day because 2-3 simple and inexpensive options would have probably dramatically changed the way this Buick rode and drove. The 2.8 MFI or 3.8 Buick SFI V6 would have given this car much more power and smoothness and the 27 dollar suspension option would have firmed up the ride along with a nice 195 tire upgrade over the smaller P185’s. Buying a base stripper 4 cylinder car for a lower price gave the consumer what they payed for essentially. The way a car was optioned back then could make or break that car.
Excellent and thought provoking article. I personally have a love/hate relationship with GM. When I was a kid, I loved them. They were mighty, they were the market leaders, their cars were prevalent, not as fleet specials for the discount bin, but as desirable products. I remember going crazy for the downsized cars in 1977 (I was 11 and a huge car nut), thinking that each and every division fielded something on-brand and excellent. I liked the downsized mid-sizers for ’78 too (Aerobacks excluded, those mystified me). I thought the E-bodies for ’79 were cool, and I even got caught up in the X-car mania, before everyone realized how bad the cars actually were.
I guess it was around 1980/81 that the curtain pulled back for me, and suddenly the Wizard was no more. Rather than GM being a kingdom filled with all-powerful masters of the automotive universe, I came to realize GM was a sclerotic mess run by a bunch of risk-averse midwestern accountants who didn’t particularly like cars, and assumed their customers were gullible. The warts of their late ’70s products were becoming evident (Olds Diesel, X-Cars). Their new cars, especially the J-Cars, were really weak.
And then you had these A-bodies. While they were a definite improvement over the X-Cars, they were blasted at the time for their lookalike designs. At least each of the X-Cars looked like it came from its respective division. In contrast, the A-bodies looked depressingly similar. It was hard to fathom why you would pay more for a Century than a Celebrity. However, they were good enough when introduced, and GM hadn’t finished going through its 9 lives back then, so the A-bodies would have been sufficient to get GM through the mid-1980s. Without question, though, these A-bodies should have been replaced in 1988, with a full range of W-body sedans and coupes (I won’t get into the merits of Ws vs As, except to say the W was not as good as it should have been, and they were sized too big).
Based on the timelines GM used to follow, at least in the 1960s and 1970s, significant revamps would happen every 6 years or so. While the Japanese brands came to beat that benchmark with major redesigns every 4-5 years, the 6 year bogey was still competitive. But GM dropped that, and started keeping its cars f.o.r.e.v.e.r. That is not the sign of a winner or a leader. At best, keeping a mix of old and new products leads to confusion and cynicism. At worst (and in reality) it keeps away the best prospects and customers, and encourages cut-rate thinking among bottom feeders. Not the foundations for prosperous, long-term success.
So that brings me back to these ancient A-bodies. Products that were decent enough in the early 1980s became woefully out-of-date as the 1990s rolled in. For me, these cars became a symbol of the complete wreckage of a company I had once so admired. While it is easy to blame things on Roger Smith, I think the cancer had metastasized before he became CEO, and his appointment was actually a symptom of the sickness, not its cause. That said, I shudder when I think of the money Smith wasted on W-body development, on Saturn, on the Hughes and EDS acquisitions, on the ridiculous B-O-C, C-P-C reorganizations. Imagine if that money had been spent instead on making world class engines and transmissions. Invested in styling studios that knew how to draft differentiated offerings for each division. Imagine if GM were still run by car guys leading divisions (like the 1950s and 1960s, where they were held on a tight leash by Finance, but did get to guide their own destinies to a reasonable degree), instead of being beholden to the low-cost, bureaucratic machinations of centralized groups like GMAD and Finance, who had absolutely no contact with customers.
As an American, it was (and is) incredibly painful to watch. I do not believe that the “new” GM has turned the corner either. The buff books suddenly want to believe that their mojo is back (looking for ad dollars still I guess), but consumers seem less enthusiastic. GM’s trucks, SUVs and CUVs sell well enough to families looking for workhorse vehicles, but it will be interesting to see how loyal they will be over time as their automotive priorities change. Old men seem to love the new Corvette. Livery fleets are fans of Cadillacs. And that’s about it for GM. Even here in the Midwest, which is the most domestic friendly part of the country, you are more likely to see a Corolla than a Cruze. Toyota is America’s car company today. We can thank products like these A-cars, and the thinking behind them, for that sad state of affairs.
I think you have good insights. I’m close to your age (I turned 10 in ’77) and I had a similar view of the GM cars of the period — loving them and then growing a bit more disillusioned each year, until by my college years I wanted a Honda (and eventually got one.) The difference between a Honda or Toyota and a GM car is much smaller than it was in the ’80s, but it’s still there, and I don’t think GM is all the way back. It may never come back all the way, no matter how good the products get.
It would’ve helped if the GM-10s had been either a) best-in-class at launch, or b) a relatively inexpensive refresh of the A-bodies. Along with being available as sedans at launch of course.
GM in the Roger Smith ’80s had an uncanny knack for spending unbelievable, record-breaking amounts of money on new designs that were meh cars, and the GM10 especially was like Donald Trump’s hair; it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not, for what you’re spending on it you should be getting better results.
I’ll second the point about fleet sales, in the mid ’90s my neighbor was a vendor merchandiser for a beer distributor and had a Century wagon as a company car. Much joking was made about how anyone looking to buy one privately would’ve taken one look at the dashboard (with its’ strip speedometer!) and told the salesman “Sorry for the misunderstanding, I’m looking at *new* cars.”
A great article that puts these cars into perspective.
The Buick and Oldsmobile A-bodies could almost be Deadly Sins. These cars are rolling reminders of GM’s failure to properly manage its stable of brands and regularly update models.
It was bad enough that GM kept these cars long past their sell-by date, but it was even worse that it kept the Buick and Oldsmobile versions while phasing out the Chevrolet Celebrity and Pontiac A6000. Buick and Oldsmobile were supposed to be the upscale, aspirational brands. Oldsmobile, in particular, became identified with the Ciera, which had evolved into a 1990s version of the Plymouth Valiant. They were reliable by the 1990s, but, as the article notes, any car in production that long without major changes should be reliable.
Oldsmobile didn’t reach the heights of its success in the 1970s by selling dated-but-reliable transportation devices. People once aspired to own an Oldsmobile. It was hard for Oldsmobile to convince buyers that it was a legitimate upscale brand when these were sharing showroom space with an Aurora.
The problem wasn’t that these cars weren’t “cool.” The problem was that these cars were definitely second-rate, and were a visible sign that something was seriously wrong at GM.
While I’d agree that offering them as “Premium” Olds and Buicks was dumb… That’s probably what I would have had Chevy offering as their only mid-size offering. If I was going to create my idea of GM for 1993 it would have been, in todays dollars:
Chevy: (Budget brand)
Cavalier $12-18k (no V6!)
Pontiac: (Sporty Brand)
Sunbird $14k-20k (V6 optional)
Grand Prix $22k-$25k
Oldsmobile (Import Oriented)
Better Saturn $15k-$22k
Cutlass Supreme $22k-35k
Aurora-Style Luxury Sedan $35k-$40k
Park Avenue: $40k-50k
Small 3-Series competitor: $40k-60k
Medium 5-Series Competitor: $60k-80k
Large 7-series competitor: $80k-95k
S-Class Competitor: $100k+
Because really, what happened to GM was something I’d call compression. Sometime in the 40s GM pointedly decided to drop two segments: the bottom of the market, and the top of the market. And they did that without actually dropping any brands.
In order to create a 5 rung ladder of a small distance, it needs to be compressed. Chevy should have always been a skinflint division, with cars built and engineered for skinflints- i.e. Dacia. Pontiac should have been a “Performance” divison, selling only cars with superior performance- no small engines, no base models. Oldsmobile should have been positioned strongly as a Toyota competitor. Buick should have remained in the market that Cadillac eventually occupied by the mid 90s. And Cadillac should have been a premium division that competed on quality, and did not target volume.
Because there is a need for a car like the Century and Ciera. I like the idea of a big, solid, cheap car. But thats not something for a premium brand. But I’m fond of the Lada Signet, which is a vastly superior product to the A-Body.
William – This is a great perspective, however I must repsectfully disagree. If anything, the Ciera and Century extended sales for Olds and Buick respectively that they would not been able to claim. The elders who flocked to the A cars would not have bought GM-10s; they would have gone to Camry, Accord, or perhaps LeSabre and 88.
I look at my own aunt and uncle, diehard GM fans, and was excited to hear they bought a new ’93 Buick. My next visit I was rather dismayed to find that they bought the Century, not the Regal. But my uncle, deciding to give GM once last chance since they had had a lot of problems with their ’80 and ’86 Skylarks, based their decision on Consumer Reports and word of mouth from their friends. The only other domestic car they considered was the Dodge Dynasty.
Oddly enough, after my uncle passed away my aunt bought a Camry because the Buick was falling apart after 15 years.
The A didn’t hurt GM-10 sales – GM’s well-earned reputation for half-assing engineering and reliability did.
There used to be a Century wagon in the area where I grew up (NW Europe). 5-year-old me thought that woody wagon looked just like my grandfather’s Malibu, a ’79, I later learned. My grandfather agreed. Little did I know that car may very well have been brand new at the time, and would still be delivered new for quite a few more years (this is the early ’90s were speaking of). Seriously, a new car that looked just like a >10yo one? My impression became that all American cars must look old, and that that, because my grandpa liked it, and grandfathers are always right, is apparently a good qualification.
Around that time, on the insistence of my grandma, that Malibu was swapped for a grey-import Topaz (!), one of def <1000 in Europe. At least the Malibu was a good car, best you can say of the Topaz was that it was well equipped (but not cheap here).
For whatever reason these cars attract the bling treatment around here:
Wow. Im thinking CV shafts will NOT like those angles! But when you can buy the car for peanuts…you can afford to replace parts often.
I think I agree with you, William, about the fact that GM should have discontinued or revised these cars to keep up with the times. In my limited experience they were designed to drive like big GM cars of the late 70s/early 80s, as well as to look like them. If you cared at all, that felt old by the time I started driving in the late 80s–the Taurus had racecar worthy steering, compared to these.
Looking at the pictures, though, these cars look far, far more attractive than I remembered. Part of it is not having to look at the fake wire wheel covers that went on so many of them. Another part was the redesign, getting rid of that extremely abrupt back window from the early A cars. (My working theory is that if GM just advanced everything it did by about 6 years and subtracted out 1984-1990, everything would have been better. So, A-cars debut with redesigned body and depart about 1990: not so bad.) And finally, I’m not thinking about pinky steering and body lean.
I’m a little surprised to be thinking such nice thoughts on the appearance of one of the cars that made me think less of GM, at the time.
Is anybody else quoting Fargo in their head while reading this?
“How’s that Ciera workin out for ya?” haha
Excellent article by the way, I enjoy this site because of articles like this. Reading in-depth info about these misery boxes makes me understand, hate, and admire GM more all the time.
At least as a teen in the 1980’s in the SE USA I don’t recall seeing many base units except for government agencies. The fully loaded Century and Ciera sedan were popular among retirees (including my grandfather who traded for a new Buick every couple of years his entire adult life). These buyers didn’t want the “European” looking GM-10’s or Taurus, it was just a different time. My orthodontist was probably in his early 40’s in the late 80’s and he too bought a loaded Ciera sedan, burgundy on burgundy. We carpooled to school with his kids and I remember thinking how quiet and comfortable it seemed compared to my mom’s 1980 240D. There was also a new navy on navy Ciera sedan in the carpool group! And the woodie Century and Ciera wagons were EVERYWHERE. Maybe we got them all in the SE USA, but they were literally in every other driveway in my neighborhood, usually beside “dad’s” Audi or BMW. By the mid to late 80’s they were very popular as the B wagons were deemed too big/old fashioned and the minivans had not taken over. The G wagons had been very popular with the housewife set and these A wagons replaced them. And no one had an SUV much yet, unless they were rich with a country home, in which case they had a Grand Wagoneer.
They were all over Upstate, NY during the 90’s too and I still see them most every day driving around in various sorts of condition.
Perfect timing. Came across this convertible last week in denver. Perfect condition. I wish I could have stopped to look closer
Helps to have the correct picture.
Pics appear identical and that is a very nice car, much nicer than the 4-door. I’ve never seen a convertible version.
I have zero problem with these cars. Zilch. For ‘sedan people’, they were the perfect car. Cheap, conservative, reliable…what else do you need? These things were as honest of a car as you could get…right there with the original K cars and later the Spirit/Acclaim.
Some of you are touching on the ‘real problem’ with these, and from where I sit giving every division of GM an A and a W sedan is just plain stupefying. These absolutely fit the image of Chevrolet (the everyman’s car) and Buick (catered to much older very conservative Midwestern types). Pontiac, being the sporty and exciting marque and Oldsmobile being wrought into the import fighting division were horrible places to find these boxy simple yet proven cars. The W body sedans made sense there and they sold pretty well as Ponchos and Olds’. The coupe variants of the W body were diversified enough to fit in each respective lineup. Seems that the smart move would’ve been to commonize the platform for these pseuedo-pers lux coupes with the contemporary F bodies. A little class, a little trash and V8 RWD available for all.
I have to wonder…what if the EPA and NHTSA laws were re-written so that once a platform is introduced, it only has to conform to the regulations for that model year, no matter how long the platform is used? If that were the case, GM could still be cranking out these A bodies and any hint of an issue or a bug in the system would be LONG dead and forgotten. Think the VW Beetle, Jeep CJ series or even the Ford Ranger. That would free up the automakers to update/improve on only the things they deemed worthy of changing. With the lions share of the development costs long amitorized, they could simply crank them out and sell them significantly cheaper than Korean imports. Yes, it would be a dime store, bargin bin fleet queen destined for the most cheapskate of customers…and of course older more technology-averse buyers who are simply more comfy with what they already are used to….but better to have them buying YOUR El Cheap-O special as opposed to hyundais and kias, eh? Just a thought.
Cheap, reliable, dated powertrains, drab cheaply constructed interiors, old chassis dating back nearly 25 years ago, numb steering and Novocaine injected shocks/struts and the majority of it’s drivers of the elderly set. Yup sounds much like the current Toyota Camry which is often praised as the second coming and continues to sell like hotcakes. Obviously this type of vehicle is still popular today and the Walmart shopper analogy has been used to describe the typical Camry buyer in several articles written about it. Heck the XLE trim level even still comes with fake wood trim on the interior and dash, the most interior color chosen is grey and the most common trim level is the LE with it’s cheap plastic hub caps- just like the A-bodies during the 90’s!
This Century is one of those models that we europeans had dreamt about as we had (and still have) very limited access to these ones. Few dozens came as private imports mostly… Once I drove a swiss reg. 4 door Ciera saloon V6…that was an amazing ride as well as a swiss reg. Woddy Century Wagon! Some 19 years ago I kept in my hands then newly released Nat.Geographics with Century ads inside. Those ads pounded my heart… I think these (Ciera, Century, 6000, Celebrity V6’s) are all extraordinary cars of the ’90’s.
I bought a used 89 Century to use as a second car in 99. It already had 120K on it then & I was 19 years old, so I wasn’t very gentle with it @ all. I sold it in late 2000 & would see it on the road until recently…couldn’t have been that bad of a car.
The A-bodies were popular here in the rural Midwest because (a) they were available for purchase, (b) they had room for 4 or 5 without much crowding, and (c) with the 4-banger, they could get 30 mpg if you didn’t accelerate too hard. They were bigger than Tempos and K-cars, cheaper than the GM-10s and FWD B-bodies, and good luck finding a Taurus that could do 30 mpg in those days.
That said, they were cars people settled for, not really ones they wanted.
One of my dad’s friends traded in a honda civic for one of these. The guy did a lot of traveling with his church and found the civic to be really loud and tiring to drive more than three hours. The dealer gave him a good deal and a very generous trade in. He proceeded to drive it for 200,000 miles. It was roomy, quiet, and the highway mileage wasn’t all that worse than the civic. Sometimes comfy seats and a good a/c are all you need.
Here’s a survivor Diesel Celebrity I found in Decatur TX last month. Still in fantastic shape.
Got this mint Cutlass 2dr last week.
I could not agree with the assessment. Tauruses were beautiful but many were trouble prone – one friend’s ’88 spent 8 months out of twelve in the shop. The Olds Cieras in the ’80’s could feel like baby Caddys – and no, those of us that favored the A bodies were not Wal Mart people. I had both the A and W bodies – I liked my Regal (got 426K before trouble found us) but the A bodies got good mileage, and at least with the 2.5’s were trouble free – four Celebs including 3 wagons, each reached nearly 280k, the Ciera wagon was at 537K (no maintenance either) when it gave way from rust. The A bodies lasted long because they represented reliable cars with great value – and were the cars we remembered and liked that our parents drove. The Aurora was beautiful but trouble prone, sadly, or Olds might have come back.
BTW, Corsicas and Berettas were also fine autos, fun to drive for basic cars, comfortable, predictable, and quite reliable. We had a ’94 Corsica 3.1, drove it to 346k before trading for a larger car, and our son not that long ago had a ’95 Beretta, which had over 300k when we bought it, Five years and 40k more before rust finally got it.
We never had head gasket or intake gasket issues with these. Some of the 2.8;s in the late 80’s had some issues. Post 1996 GM;s had intake gasket problems, but so did many other manufacturers. The gas thing only happened on 3.1’s, if ethanol went over 10% because the single oxygen sensor thought the excess oxygen due to alcohol meant it was getting rich and leaned it out – put some non ethanol gas in to help, and the issue went away.
Here’s what it was like for a GM fan in the 80s and 90s.
The next one is gonna be where they hit it out of the park!
Next one comes,,,tons of media hype,,,, it’s better than the last one but nowhere near as good as Ford or the Japanese. This was a cycle that went from 1980 to the gm bankruptcy.
And you could see the hubris of GM in the interior designs. Oh yes you could see them thinking “were gm, #1 in the world, we’ll tell the customers what they want” and you got such akward bizzare unergenomic layouts composed of cheap materials. It was just sad. Best example was the 1990 pontiac grand prix with the hvac controls the size of a phone number pad next to the driver. Horrible to use and horrible design. blegh
Oh and my dad had a 89 Century Wagon. It was the worst car ever. Cramped, hot, 70s interior. Just awful for ridigin in as a kid. I was so happy when he replaced it with a taurus wagon. That was his last GM car. It wasn’t unreliable, just totally unlikeable.
The A Bodies made money….full stop…end of story.
That’s why they were kept around.
Just like Chrysler did in the 80s with the K Cars and L cars, kept them around while the replacements were on the market….because they made money!!!!
Didn’t BMC do the same with these cars/divisional brethren thru the 60s and 70s; Mini, the 1100, 1800. Kept them on the market way too long, and BMC didnt make any money on the MIni or a pittance on the others????
Didnt Europe also do that with the Avenge/Alpine/Horizon used basically the same cars named Rootes-Chrysler-Morris-Talbot?
You’re shocked GM did this with the A body; c’mon!
These are STILL common in local car classifieds, though their numbers are on the decline, mostly rust related issues finally take them off the road. I just saw a decent looking driver with working heat and AC sit around on facebook marketplace for a few days listed at $1200 before selling for $600. Talk about some cheap A-B transportation!
Maybe you just had to be there at the time, but clearly these cars were targeted quite intentionally at the elder market that actually wanted a bench seat, spae, an unfussy quiet engine (3800), comfortable ride, and were priced well yet durable. The gratuitous Wal-Market cracks aside, they were the generation that made this country what is was, for good or ill. America is not Australia, the audience was and is quite different. We knew many folks ages between 50 to 80 who had these cars and loved them, and the fact that they were, in important respects, some of the best-built GM cars of those times was in no small way a factor.
The image GM may have been wanting for Buick and Olds is irrelevant, these folks loved these cars, they WERE the fathers bought the good old Oldsmobiles of yore, and before they passed from the scene they were happy to buy yet another one as they met their needs perfectly, the primary purpose of an automobile. And when done with them have passed them on to 2nd and 3rd owners who have since benefited from that basic goodness, witness the numbers of them still roaming the roads.
FWIW the majority of these didn’t have the 3800, but more commonly the Chevy 60 degree 3.1 v6, 3.3 (Destroked 3800), or the 2.5L 4 cylinder. All of them were very decent un-fussy engines though so your point very much stands.
Yup, exactly. In the 1983 where-are-they-now TV movie “Still the Beaver”, June Cleaver has a Cutlass Ciera. As I was saying: yup, exactly.
I am on my 2nd Ciera. Both were local public auction purchases. 1st was a ’95, 4 cyl.w/55k on it. Did some long overdue maintenance, drove it conservatively and got 25k out of it commuting in a year and a half, while enjoying the virtues of a plush interior, soft highway ride, excellent a/c and fuel economy in the high 20’s. Replaced only because poorly repaired quarter panel rotted away.
The current one is a ’96, 6cyl with 76k. This one was beaten hard, driven until it wouldn’t run, or brake anymore.
Have yet to enjoy it, doing the intake gaskets today.
For $700, inexpensive parts and my labor, I am pleased with myself.
Haven’t cleaned it up as much as I would like yet.
Love these ancient GMs. No problem with them at all. The GM 10 weren´t all that wonder also, and I do not believe that giving up the A-bodies would have done that much by the GM 10. Good cars. Accomplished their many roles with economy and reliability. I´d like to have one.
Love these ancient GMs. No problem with them at all. The GM 10 weren´t all that wonder also, and I do not believe that giving up the A-bodies would have done that much by the GM 10. Good cars. Accomplished their many roles with economy and reliability. I´d like to have one. These car are almost American poo culture Icons…..
The only person I knew who owned one of these was a colleague who was 40 going on 70. Not cognitively, but socio-culturally. Pretty much everyone else I worked with there drove Honda’s or Toyota’s. And that was 35 years ago. But you know, I still see these A Bodies on the street regularly, Olds or Buick, never Chevy or Pontiac. They just keep going. I think for domestic cars of that vintage, only full-size pickups and Ford Rangers are more common here. Certainly not many first or second gen Taurii to be seen.
You’re reminding me of a kid I went to high school with in the early ’90s. He was 17ish going on 45ish: full head of hair, but combed over. Sensible wardrobe with plastic-framed glasses, khakis from Joslin’s, etc. No backpack for him; he carried a briefcase. Drove a ’77 or ’78 Electra…monogrammed on the driver’s door.
Hmm, that does describe me pretty well….
Old(s) soul also would work.
edit: unfussy quiet engine (3800) … 3300 not 3800
GM needed these cars to offset the failures they experienced in other markets. They should not have been available as an Oldsmobile or a Buick, but they were and those brands suffered as a result of carrying an obviously obsolete set of wheels. GM didn’t commit to the GM 10 program and the GM 10 cars weren’t dynamic enough to set themselves apart from these old clunkers. The GM 10 cars were to be an evolutionary design, so they weren’t distinctive. It was wrong for GM to keep the old clunkers around.
GM quality wasn’t strong enough to justify the prices of their newer cars. Everyone knew that GM could build a Century, a Ciera, or a Celebrity – and they were bargain priced. GM attracted people who needed a replacement car, not people who wanted something new and exciting. With every purchase of a GM 10 car, new owners had to wonder why they didn’t buy the car they already knew that was cheaper, and knowing GM, more dependable.
No one bought these old cars because they wanted them. Instead, these cars filled fleets, rental fleets, government fleets, and had the image of a pair of men’s white briefs. GM should not have done that, but they did. Thanks, Roger Smith for making GM as exciting as a pair of my father’s Fruit of the Loom.
BTW: the comments in the original posting about fleets might well have been true in import obsessed California/West coast, but not so much in the South, East, or Midwest. In MD I personally knew at least 4 owners of Century/Cieras who had bought them new. Yes, all of these buyers were over age 50 (one 83), all bought fairly loaded versions, but in the end all of them were quite satisfied with their cars after a number of years. One Dad gave their white ’92 Century 3300 at 78k miles to his daughter, who then proceeded to drive it through both college and grad school, finally selling it with 230,000+ miles and relatively minimal problems after 7 years of satisfactory ownership. I know this because she married my son. Against my advice she then bought a used Audi A4, which she quickly regretted, and now owns a Mazda CX9
Oh dear, GM caught the British Leyland disease! It all sounds scarily familiar.
Keeping a car in production long after its sell-by date (Morris Minor), on the premise that “There’s still a market for it”. Never mind what it says about the company….
Bringing out a larger and dearer new model that doesn’t quite line up with the previous model in the marketeers’ cross-hairs (Austin A60 vs Austin 1800), so the old one remains in production just in case.
Bringing out a new model in the wrong body style first (Princess no-hatch, Ambassador hatch), and taking ages to introduce what the people really wanted.
I’m sure there are other parallels as well; these were just off the top of my head.
Looks like somebody didn’t learn from what had happened over the other side of the pond.
The Cutlass Ciera and Buick Century were older styled cars in the 1990s but they were cheap and reliable. Some people still liked the upright styling. Other car companies have sold two lines of cars in the same “class” before. The 1975-1977 Ford Maverick was sold along side the Granada that was supposed to replace it. The Granada and the Fairmont were both sold by Ford Dealers in 1978 thru 1980.
Another thing to remember was that the W-Body cars of 1988 such as the Cutlass Supreme and Buick Regal were replacing the 1978 vintage RWD Cutlass and Regal sedans and personal luxury cars that were sold through the 1987 model year. The Chevy Monte Carlo which was RWD was technically replaced by the W-Body FWD Lumina. So the A Bodies were good sellers and the early W bodies were kind of a flop for GM. Made sense to keep them in production. By 1996 they did seem “long in the tooth” but the price was right for some buyers and they were a known commodity. Buyers new they had the bugs worked out of them a long time ago. This is important to many buyers. Sometimes living on the “trailing edge” of change is a good thing. Many A Body buyers in the 1990s followed this philosophy.
These cars had one redeeming value to them. They, especially the v6 models were excellent in the snow. I think the combination of the softer suspension, with the heavier v6 made them great for rutted, snowy roads. The ABS brakes also worked well in the ice, compared to the ABS in Ford, or especially Chrysler products of the early 1990s.
My GF had a 1995 Olds wagon with the v6, and not until I got my AWD 2008 Honda Element, did I drive a car that did as well as these. It was defiantly better than my 1998 4 cyl Camry in the snow, and while I did not have snow tires, I always put all season Michelins on my cars, so it wasn’t just the tires in my case.
The Buick Le Sabre’s were also great in the snow too. I always wondered if after the X car fiasco, someone at GM told them to test the cars in the snow first, then on smooth roads.
Twenty years ago I happened to have an ’89 Grand Prix and a ’95 Ciera. So I had the chance to compare them back to back.
Grand Prix: More solid feeling body and chassis. Maybe because it was a two door. Better mpg from the 2.8L. It was a five-speed as well. Smooth clutch. Good seats.
Ciera: More power from the 3.1L. Kind of loose suspension and body. More room from the 4door. Seats were cheap and thin. Auto was nice and when my wife and I drag raced, it blew my doors off though I was driving the GP stick as tight as one could.
Slow car racing is fun!
My opinion was the W-platform GP was the superior car in every way except power.
Well, duh, right?
InThe RWD A bodies were designed under the direction of Bill Mitchell. The Malibu especially shows off the “sheer” look. The FWD A cars (preferably introduced in “84) should have been an update of that look/proportion/stance- sans wire wheels, etc. Major effort should have gone into the interior- benchmarking the Accord: orthopedic bucket seats, broadcloth upholstery, etc. German/Asian look. Under this scenario,no need for the poorly designed GM 10s.
My aunts 91 Ciera would fly on the highway. A/C was stellar.She was a low low mileage driver then; car lasted till 2003.
“… I still see these A Bodies on the street regularly, Olds or Buick, never Chevy or Pontiac..”
Main reason was the B/O were for sale until 1996, many years more than the last C/P models.
And yeah, many in MW were satisfied with them. My cousin liked borrowing my aunt’s Century so much, that her first car at 25 was a used 1990 Ciera, and she kept it 7 yrs.