Curbside Classic: 1990 Chevrolet Lumina – Suddenly It’s 1960 (In Reverse)

The 1986 Ford Taurus changed everything when it came to the mainstream American midsize car.  It is not a huge exaggeration to call it the Chevy Impala of the 1980’s.  Just as the Impala would vault itself far beyond the competition, the Taurus did something similar for the next generation.

In 1955 Chevrolet introduced its new V8 engine, thus matching the one feature that had distinguished Fords for decades.  Over a period of twenty-five years Chevrolet parlayed the success of its 1955 model into a near-monopoly on the coveted Number 1 sales spot in the US – hence all of those USA-1 license plates affixed to the classic Chevys that crowd America’s car shows.  When we used to have car shows, anyway.

Chevrolet’s dominance was never greater than after Ford tried to out-Chevrolet Chevrolet with the large size and forward style of the 1960 model.  Ford’s gambit failed and that entire 1960-64 generation of “regular” Fords fell far behind the cars found in Chevrolet showrooms.  How far behind?  This far:

Chevrolet vs. Ford 1960-64

Production totals of standard models of Chevrolet and Ford, including station wagons, 1960-64


So what does all of this ancient history have to do with the 1990 Chevrolet Lumina?  It is proof that what comes around goes around.

We all know that the ’86 Taurus was a smash hit for Ford, replacing a decent but not terribly competitive LTD based on the aging Fox platform.  Front wheel drive was the new normal and while there was plenty of room to carp about some of the details of the Chevy Celebrity, few argued that it was not a good car.  But after the Taurus something needed to be done for Chevrolet to recapture the momentum in heart of the new car market.

We have written plenty here about the “GM-10” debacle, that plan for a new groundbreaking midsize platform that was going to set the standard for what a midsize car should be.  Hugely over-ambitious, way over budget and deeply behind schedule, the Pontiac Grand Prix, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Buick Regal versions began to roll out of factories in 1987.  Inexplicably, it would be two more years before Chevrolet got its own version – the Lumina.  And to co-opt that great advertising line from the 1957 Plymouth, Suddenly it was 1960!  But instead of re-living the Chevrolet version of 1960 the Lumina got to try out the Ford version.

Lumina v. Taurus 1990-94

Production totals of Chevrolet Lumina and Ford Taurus, 1990-94


Like the 1960 Ford, the 1990 Lumina had a reasonably promising start – if being outsold by the Taurus could be considered as reasonably promising from within the gates of GM.  But just as the Ford of the early 1960s went into a comparative sales funk and stayed a distant number 2, the Lumina did the same thing as the rest of the first generation cycle played out.  Except for that final year – where the 1964 Ford finally started showing some signs of life, the 1994 Lumina rolled over and played dead.

Like the 1960-61 Ford, the early Lumina was not a bad car.  It was simply a not very appealing one, either inside or out.  Where the Taurus was the definition of a modern car in the segment, the Lumina seemed to be looking back to the early 1960s for inspiration, satisfying die-hard Chevy buyers but few others.

That wide (and largely content-free) dash reminded me of the one in the ’63 Bel Air wagon my father had when I was a kid.

But its stodginess factor in the early 1990’s suggested the even less appealing Ford version of 1960-62.

Outside, Chevy’s stylists tried a hat tip to the triple taillight era which may have been the car’s best feature.  The front certainly was not, with an awkward grille that would be thrown down the memory hole after the first production year.

Another Lumina styling feature that harkened back to the Ford of the early 1960s was the styling of the greenhouse area.  The large glass area, low beltline and thin C pillar looked very un-Taurus (and not tremendously upscale).

Sort of the way the mid-level Fords looked in the first couple of years of the generation we are examining.

Autotrader Ford Taurus

Chassis dynamics was another area where Chevrolet seemed to be looking back to the glory days of 1962.  The problem was that in 1962 “Chevrolet” and “chassis dynamics” were two words that were never used in the same sentence.  While the standard Taurus wowed the auto journalists with its high level of chassis competence (particularly for an American mid size car) the Lumina did not, unless a buyer popped for the optional “Euro” suspension, which Popular Mechanics’ testers found to be only marginally better than the Taurus’ standard setup.

General Motors was in a difficult period when the Lumina debuted.  It was as though they felt the need to prove that they were still the leader in automotive style by going in a direction that ran counter to where style trends were actually going.

If the Fords of the early 60’s did not do anything horribly, they also did nothing particularly well.  Except for one thing – they were tough cars that stood up well to abuse.  The Lumina seems to have followed this parallel also.  And like the old Fords the later ones seemed to be better in this way than the early ones.

I suppose the biggest difference in the cars we are comparing is that where Ford truly upped its game with the new 1965 model, the second generation Lumina did not.  The 1995 Lumina would be a popular car with midwestern GM retirees and rental fleets, but it would not do anything to improve Chevrolet’s appeal to those looking for a competitive midsize sedan.

I have sat on pictures of this first-year Lumina for a long time, not really knowing what to say about it.  The car simply didn’t interest me – a state of mind I shared with quite a lot people back when these were new.  I have finally decided that this Lumina was not so much a cause of Chevrolet’s 1990’s malaise as a symptom of it.  General Motors’ increasingly sclerotic systems and dysfunctional management were like a sort of auto manufacturer’s Alzheimer’s disease in which the company was gradually losing the ability to do the things that once came so naturally to it.

In the age-old Ford vs. Chevy (or Chevy vs. Ford, if you prefer) sales war, things looked rosy for Chevrolet at the beginning of the 1980s.  But after swapping the lead in a couple of close years in 1988-89, Ford’s passenger cars took over as the perennial USA-1 in 1990 and has never been threatened (domestically) since.  The Taurus was the start of an epic turnaround in the fortunes of the Ford Motor Company.  The Lumina, on the other hand, was the beginning of Chevrolet’s descent into the status of perennial meh-mobile.  Looking at this car (and having spent time around multiple Taurii) it is not hard to understand.

Further Reading:

1990-94 Chevrolet Lumina – Not Quite Saving the Best Till Last – William Stopford

1991 Chevrolet Lumina Euro – GM’s Deadly Sin #18 – Where’s The Light? – Paul Niedermeyer