Curbside Classic: 1991 Chevrolet Lumina Euro – GM’s Deadly Sin # 18 – Where’s The Light?

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(first posted 3/3/2013)    Despite its name, the Lumina failed to bring any light to those dark years at GM when it arrived. The Lumina was a desperate effort to play catch-up with Ford’s runaway hit Taurus as well as to parry with the Camry and Accord; the result was predictably dim. It instantly joined its smaller brother Corsica as the very icons of fleet queens, a title its W-Body successors defended right to the present. Did they have redeeming qualities? Undoubtedly; but I’m hardly the one to ask. Try Hertz.

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On the West Coast, the only lots where one would see these was at Hertz and Avis; Chevy dealers didn’t even bother to stock them. And selling any Chevy with “Euro” plastered all over it to a Californian in the early nineties would have been a heroic feat indeed, after years of pushing the Eurosport Celebrity. Fool me once… 

Chevrolet was obviously looking at the Taurus when it designed the Lumina, but if they’d taken a closer look, they might have noticed that Ford totally dispensed with any hokey marketing efforts to make the Taurus seem more “euro”.  It was just “Taurus”, at least until the SHO came along, and its badging was notoriously stealthy.

Actually, Ford was probably more worried about the opposite: that folks would think the Taurus was genuinely too euro for conservative American tastes. In any case, it didn’t rely on pretense to badge and sell them, even in foreign-car besotted California. Or especially so.

Roger Smith

GM’s W-Body started out as the GM10, which got off to miserable start with the 1988 Buick Regal, Olds Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix coupes. The whole GM10 program was quite likely the single biggest boondoggle of the Roger Smith era; their development cost a mind-boggling $7 billion ($13 billion adjusted), and the goal was to build these cars in seven plants at 250,000 units per year per plant; in other words, a 21% share of the total US market. What were they smoking? Soon enough, GM would be fighting for a 21% market share for the whole company, never mind mid-sized cars.

The enormous sunk costs and subsequent pathetic sales meant that GM was losing some $2000 per car on these at the time the Lumina made its belated appearance for 1990. The old saw that GM lost money on its small cars because it had to build them to meet CAFE targets isn’t nearly encompassing enough. When asked by Fortune why GM10 was such a catastrophe, Smith replied, “I don’t know. It’s a mysterious thing.” (wikipedia)

Chevrolet Lumina 1990

Meanwhile, Ford was probably making that much (or more) per Taurus, which they were cranking out around the clock at their very cost-efficient Atlanta plant. If the Taurus is considered the car that “saved” Ford; the Lumina and its ilk were the ones that destroyed GM’s critical high-volume mid-sized passenger car business. Oh well; there were plenty of Tahoes and Suburbans to keep the lights on in “the tubes” for a while longer.

It’s ironic that the W-Body has ended up being the most enduring of GM’s platforms, given its painful birth. The 2013 Impala is the last of the line, and its replacement is coming on line as we write this. Needless to say, GM found plenty of ways to improve the breed and wring out production efficiencies over its 25 year lifespan. In some ways, it almost hertz to see it go. What will the car rental experience be like without a GM W-Body awaiting one at every airport?

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Before you leave a comment about how wonderful and reliable Aunt Mildred’s Lumina was, please remember the cardinal rule of GM’s Deadly Sins: it’s not about auntie’s car per se, but about the undeniable facts of the impact that each Deadly Sin had on the slow but steady erosion of GM’s market share, reputation, and contribution to its final demise. There’s no doubt that many Luminas gave good service to their owners; much more so than to its maker.

The one way that the Lumina was decidedly different from the Taurus was in offering a coupe body style. Well, Ford had the RWD Thunderbird, although it pulled off a rather GM-esque boner with the MN12 that arrived in 1989. After spending peanuts on the Fox-body aero-bird, Ford grossly overspent on its replacement, and struggled with its profitability.  Nothing like success to breed expensive mistakes.

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Typical for many (but hardly all) new GM cars, Lumina sedan sales started off reasonably well in its first year, with some 278k sold. That’s far off from the Taurus’ romp in the sales stats during its heyday, and it was to be the best Lumina year ever. If one were to break out retail sales, the numbers would be even less competitive. In its last gen1 year, 1994, sedan sales were down to a mere 76k. No breakout of “Euro” versions, but let’s just say that the gen2 Lumina was noticeably lacking that evocative name.

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Lumina coupe sales were always much smaller, which perhaps explains why the gen2 version cynically was given the Monte Carlo name. That didn’t exactly set its sales on fire, but who would have thought otherwise? Presumably someone did.

Since we’re intimating at performance in all this heady Euro-talk, let’s spell out how the Lumina lived up to its Euro-ness under the hood. Standard engine through 1992 was the decidedly un-European Iron Duke 2.5 four, now called (low) Tech IV. It sported balance shafts, TBI injection, and 110 hp. Take that, Honda! Oops; wrong country/continent. The 3.1 liter 60 degree Chevy V6 was optional, rated at 135 or 140 hp. Thankfully, the notorious leaky V6 intake manifold gasket was still under development in GM Labs when these Luminas were built. No wonder there seem to be so many gen1 Luminas still on the streets. Have they earned Cockroach of the Road™ status?

Chevrolet Lumina Z34

image: wikipedia

Not the legendary Lumina Z34. An ambitious effort to turn the pedestrian pushrod V6 into a high-tech wonder with DOHC four-valve heads along with numerous other changes, turned it into a 210 hp snake pit. It quickly developed an iffy reputation; good luck finding one still running anymore. Even routine maintenance, like timing belts and spark plug changes were quite expensive. The Euro name finally means something, although not used on the Z34. The LQ1 ended up having a short six-year lifespan; 1997 was its last year. Another ambitious, expensive GM effort that fell short in the long run. GM was getting really good at that.

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It may have said “Euro” on its flanks, but you’d never know it after opening the door. It was about as all-American as it got; that dash somehow even manages evoke the one in a ’63-’64 Chevy.

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But the Euro did come with a firmer suspension and fatter tires, contributing to some of that genuine euro-feel behind the wheel. Like most GM cars of the era with upgraded suspension, its chassis tuning was optimized for best results (car magazine test skid pad numbers?) on relatively smooth pavement. Hustle one through some rough-and-tumble pavement, and things start to feel more American than European.

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Door handles integrated into the B-pillar were hardly paragons of ergonomics. Some might just say plain awkward. Others, worse. Must have seemed like a good idea at the time. At least one hopes so.

We haven’t said a word so far about the Lumina’s styling. I suppose one should be charitable towards the low belt line, which at least gave it good visibility. It did make it look like the whole car had been chopped a bit, with the passenger compartment riding low in the saddle. But for the most part, it exuded lots of the GM innocuous smooth-flat-clean-dullness that was so much on display at the time. Forgettable.

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Which pretty much sums up the Lumina. Who wants to dwell on the idea of it and its GM W-Body stablemates selling at the rate of 1.75 million units per year? The quicker forgotten, the better.