(car pictured is a 1981; the story is about a 1980)
(first posted 10/26/2012) My GM’s Deadly Sins Series has generated more than a bit of controversy. I called the Citation “GM’s deadliest Sin” Of the over 200 comments, maybe a few disagreed with the Deadliest-Ever judgment; and so it is. Nevertheless, it’s good that nobody ever asked me about my personal experience with an X-Body, because I drove one for two years and it really wasn’t all that bad. How ironic is that? Now, mine was a Buick Skylark, and maybe there’s some magic to that name. It also might just have been luck. Or that I’ve sold out and now get paid to write nice things about GM? Maybe my benefactors will be willing to kick in a little extra if I called this one a GM’s Greatest Hit?
The X-Cars were GM’s most important automobiles ever; they were the platform from which the company would vault into the modern era. They were the third, final and most-important step in GM’s massive downsizing program of the late ’70s (in fact, that program represented the largest investment by an industrial corporation since WWII). Despite being considerably smaller, lighter and more efficient, each newly downsized GM car was mandated to maintain or expand the interior dimensions of its predecessor.
The first step resulted in the excellent and beloved B-Bodies, in 1977. By slimming down so painlessly, these full-sizers got big American cars back on the track they rather foolishly abandoned in the late ’50s.
New A-Bodies replaced GM’s mega-midsize Colonnade cars in 1978. There was some considerable toe-stubbing with these: Unloved Aerobacks, undersized transmissions, non-opening rear windows, feeble engines…but the coupes were a hit, and when the restyled sedans appeared, they became a staple of the American automotive diet. Neither a Greatest Hit nor Deadly Sin, this A-Body was merely a snooze.
Step Three was the X-Cars. Here were GM’s first modern front-wheel drive cars, internationally sized and configured, which were to be the giant leap forward into a future that would usher in an endless stream of GM front-drivers. The rather bold, modern and cleanly styled Citation hatchback (as well as the fairly rare Citation notchback coupe), looked quite unlike the rest of the Chevrolet family.
In contrast, the Skylark broke no new stylistic ground. Essentially, it was a compressed version of Buick’s bigger, rear-wheel drive sedans. Overall, it really didn’t work out so well, but all the traditional Buick stylistic cues (except portholes) were present and accounted for. And, of course, there was its size. In a rather remarkable feat of downsizing, the new Skylark was 19″ shorter and almost 800 lbs lighter than its predecessor (below), but had bigger interior dimensions in virtually every category. Of course, the RWD NOVA X-Bodies were hardly paragons of space (and weight) efficiency.
The Skylark not only looked quite unlike the ill-fated Citation, its sales trajectory was decidedly different. as well. The Citation had an explosive first (extended-length) year, but sales quickly wilted in the face of numerous glitches, recalls, cheap materials and a quickly-spreading word-of-mouth reputation. All in all, it was nowhere near ready for prime time.
The Skylark was the second-best selling of the X-factors, with the Pontiac Phoenix and Olds Omega a rather distant third and fourth, respectively. But unlike the other three, all of whose post-1982 sales fell off a cliff, the Skylark hung in there reasonably well, almost tying the Citation in 1982 and beating it thereafter. But why? Maybe it’s the demographic: Let’s face it: Unlike the other X-hausters, the Skylark’s mini-Electra styling clearly targeted an older demo. So what was I doing in one?
As some of you might recall (it’s been a while since my last installment), in 1977 I found myself in LA, working in various production department capacities for KSCI, a new TV station owned and run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s TM organization. I was driving a white Peugeot 404 sedan, and Stephanie drove a 404 wagon.
One of the station engineers was a GM true believer, and had bought various GM cars for different TM organizations as a fleet purchaser. In 1980, he ordered four almost-identical white Skylark Limited sedans–probably unlike any other Skylark Limiteds ever built–for the use of a bunch of TM twits that were “running” the station and living in a couple of expensive rental houses in Brentwood.
The option box had been duly checked for every possible heavy-duty and performance item, including the 110 hp, 2.8-liter V6, automatic, heavy-duty suspension, higher-effort power steering, wide wheels shod with plump 205 70R-13 “performance” tires, transmission cooler, HD cooling system and anything else that caught his engineer’s fancy. They were loaded; not in the usual way, but well-equipped for both drivers and passengers, with cruise control, tilt wheel, A/C and other amenities. I shudder to think of how much they must have cost–they might have been the most expensive Skylarks built that year.
The extravagance was ironic, given that the station was falling into financial distress. The TM movement’s headiest days had ended in the late ’70s, and the station really couldn’t afford to broadcast Maharishi’s lectures and the daily “good news” anymore. The station had been cut off financially and told to swim or sink: It was sinking fast.
I had an idea, one that sparked a palace coup. The outcome was that one day in the spring of 1981, I found myself the General Manager of KSCI, and I had my choice of the Skylark harem. I tried them all out, and one clearly ran lustier than the others, so that became “mine”. Hey; it’s a free car! And with air conditioning, no less. I duly sold the 404 to the GF of a coworker, and aged 28, became a Buick driver. Not exactly the typical demographic.
Mine had a blue interior like this one, but seeing it was a Limited, it had a much plusher one, with “loose pillow” upholstery and such.
Like this, actually. Its superficial similarities to the Citation were not nearly as obvious, but underneath that tufted upholstery hid a Citation seat, including a wicked steel bar that crossed the seatback near the lumbar region. I never took the Skylark on any really long trips, but it made itself noticeable all-too soon. The Skylark was about as different as a car could be from the Peugeot, the seats being perhaps the most extreme example.
This example has the Iron Duke 2.5, not a 5 liter. Bad choice; its agricultural ways were all wrong for what should have been a world-class new car. It was just one of the many shortcuts that cut away at GM’s market share in the eighties. Anyone who had ever driven (or just heard) a Honda Accord’s sewing-machine four could only chuckle (or cry) when first encountering an Iron Duke.
I drove the roarty but smooth-enough V6 Skylark hard, and never failed to be impressed by its torque-steer on my daily full-throttle run on the Santa Monica freeway on-ramp after the staging lights turned green. Actually, it was more than that; call it “front sub-frame steer”. In an effort to give the X-Bodies that traditional quiet GM big-car ride, the front subframe was mounted to the body with a number of very elastic mounts, might have been Silly Putty. The whole front end shifted to one side, but it picked up its skirts and hustled right along, given that we’re talking about 1981. The V6 X-Bodies were brisk for the time.
And with its quick steering and HD suspension, the little Limited surprised a few folks I engaged with to make the miles go faster and the smiles come faster. It was essentially a Citation X-11 in Buick drag; only the fat tires gave it away. Never seen one equipped that way again.
And oddly, our Skylark fleet didn’t have the common malady of abruptly-locking rear brakes, which was dangerous, and threw quite a few X-Bodies into the ditch, if not the rear end of the car in front of it. Did it have HD brakes? Was it the big tires? Or?
For that matter, I don’t remember the Skylarks suffering from any particular typical Fragile-X Syndrome issues. Now, I didn’t have to deal with any service or maintenance costs, and I’m not really sure of how trouble-free the whole fleet was, but for the two years I had mine, I have no lasting memory of any memorable problems or issues. Not paying for anything may have colored my memory, but you know if it had been a POS, I wouldn’t have waited all these years to write it up, eh? It struck me as a typical new American car at the time: not exactly lovingly put-together, but seemingly reliable enough. Have I lost credibility in my GM-railing ways?
The Skylark really was impressively roomy for its stubby length, and anyone that’s ever sat in an A-Body from 1982 to its long-overdue end all-too recently will confirm that they’re adequately roomy. Yup, the A-Body is nothing but an X-body with more glass, longer front and rear end, and European-influenced styling. If you can’t fight ’em, join them. I mean, try to look like them. It sure lost that stubby look pretty effectively. And as we all know, these cars eventually ended up being indestructible; it just a decade or two to get there, in typical GM fashion. Who’s in a hurry?; “bankruptcy is not an option”.
Although I had some fun in the Skylark, it being my first somewhat “fast” car, I never developed the slightest bit of genuine warmth for it. I fundamentally hated its mini-Electra styling, and its faux-plush interior was only skin-deep. By 1983, the station was making lots of money to fill Maharishi’s coffers, so one morning on the way to work, I decided I needed and deserved a change. I was done with the dorky Skylark, and when I pulled into the office parking lot about an hour later, I was behind the wheel of a new 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, one of the first in West LA.
Now you all be nice in the comments; I don’t want that check from GM to bounce.