Curbside Lazarus: Chevrolet Citation – The Car That Launched 22 Million Camrys To Date

Chevy Citation

Some people claim they recently saw Bigfoot, some saw Elvis, but nobody ever seems to snap a clear picture.  Yet the Lazarus effect is real wherein a random species commonly thought extinct manages to rear its head and surprise the world’s population from time to time.  Well, the other day I saw a Chevy Citation and managed to take a few pictures to prove it.  Some may say this was the most successful car Chevrolet ever built.  And it may well be, with the proviso that those “some” people are Toyota employees and this car was extremely successful in going a long way toward selling 22 million Toyota Camrys over the ensuing four-ish decades with over 13 million of those in the United States alone.

But let’s be magnanimous for the moment (we have time) and just stare slack-jawed in wonder at this amazing sight here in the year 2024 on a public road.  An honest-to-goodness Chevrolet Citation from one of the first years of production, still apparently running under its own power and presumably by now over its initial teething troubles, such as they may have been.

Chevrolet Citation

Or maybe not, after all the car is parked in the overflow street outside of the junkyard, with its owner likely looking for something inside for their car.

Curbside Classic’s history is certainly well intertwined with the Citation; many a word has been penned on the subject, some of those by my own hand.  Were they all ugly words?  Certainly not!  The idea behind the car itself was modern and inspired at the time (a front wheel drive car for the masses in the new decade!), the styling isn’t bad at all (and has stood up over time), and the fabled GM marketing machine certainly worked its magic to help push over 811,000 of these cars off the dealership’s lot in its first model year of 1980.

Alas, it all came to a halt too quickly, too soon, to the point that the second year’s sales crashing to a total of 413,000 (a number that would be cause for bonuses, raises, and promotions at most other makers) can only be considered a complete failure.  It got worse from there with the cumulative sum total of the next four model years (’82-’85) only totaling 5000 more cars than that second year’s total.

Chevrolet Citation

I can’t quite decide the year of this one, the amber in the taillights tell me it’s a very early car, yet I believe the grille (further below) is from at least 1982.  (Edit: It appears to be a 1981 model…) One or the other could of course have been changed over the years; I do know it’s not newer than 1983 when it was renamed the Citation II.  What’cha talkin’ about, Willis?  Yes, Chevy thought its buyers would be so stupid that they’d re-flock to a replacement of the seriously maligned original with the only real change the addition of a roman numeral “II” after the badge.  Hardly, some Americans do actually make decisions that benefit themselves in the long run.

1985 Toyota Camry

Where buyers instead started to flock was toward another car model starting with the letter “C”, that being Toyota’s Camry.  While there was a vehicle in Japan based on the Toyota Carina called the Celica Camry that actually started production for their market in 1979 (the same time that Chevy started production of the Citation), the standalone Camry didn’t grace our shores until the 1983 model year.  Well, wasn’t that convenient!  The example above is actually a 1985 model but the changes from 1983 were minimal for that first generation when two body styles were available; a four door and a five door that in fact looked a lot like the Citation itself.  What wasn’t minimal though was its ramp up to success.

While the first year saw 52,000 sales, the second year grew to 93,000, then 128,000 in 1985, 151k in ’86, 186k in ’87, 225k in ’88, 255k in ’89, 283k in 1990, and eventually to some 470,000 sold in its best year of 2007, with many (most?) of them being built here in that very American state of Kentucky since 1988.  Even today Camry still manages to move almost 300,000 examples a year with the 2023 total being just under 291,000.  That’s all just in the United States, mind you, worldwide the nameplate has been adhered to the tail of some 22 million examples over the last 44 years.

Of course someone will point out that the random example of a Camry I showed above is in the junkyard.  What a piece of shite, obviously.

Well, no, here’s the gauge cluster from it.

I’ll embiggen it, the number itself though is already embiggened enough.  Yes, that reads 380,682 (and .9) miles (not the wimpy participation trophy kilometer distance measurement) for a vehicle built in the dark ages of 1985 just after Morning in America.  While of course not every Camry manages to reach that number in its lifetime, most buyers when they hand over their cash and sign on the dotted line for one likely feel pretty confident that their new Camry has that potential inside it.  (How many miles do we really think that Citation on the street has on it?)

Many Citation’s buyers on the other hand were mostly trying to lick their wounds by the end of the first year of their tenure with it, I shan’t bore you with the litany of issues there were to be contended with, we’ve covered the saga in depth multiple times already.  I had to look up what replaced the Citation in Chevy’s lineup after it was boo-ed off stage, and it turns out to have been the Corsica after a gap year.  Yeesch.  Not exactly something that lit the world on fire either.

Of course the Chevy Celebrity and its multiple inbred corporate cousins took many of the Citation’s bones and over the next decade and a half continually improved them and turned into a bit of a cumulative success, while though usually trading on price rather than pride or much else.  At any rate, I don’t believe a 1988 Celebrity for example features in the rotating collection of cars shown in the front lobby of the GM’s Renaissance Center Headquarters.  (Actually I have absolutely no idea if there even IS a rotating collection of cars in the lobby but if so I doubt it includes a Celebrity, not even a Eurosport wagon version…never mind the Corsica or the Citation)

Chevy Citation

Interestingly (or perhaps ironically), photo-bombing this picture is a very recent example of the car that a modern Citation should and could still be taking on today (in theory), the Toyota Camry.  As I took this last shot I realized someone was in the car, swiftly curtailing my inner Annie Liebowitz impulses – I was initially hoping to get pictures of the interior and of that magnificent wheel/hubcap and tire with seemingly more sidewall than wheel itself…

While I’m generally mostly ambivalent in regard to the majority of Chevrolet’s as well as Toyota’s products (I’ve owned multiples of both and generally been quite happy with both), there’s no denying that this Citation was an exciting sighting.  Sadly that is due to its almost complete extinction, this is the first I’ve seen on the road in likely two decades (as opposed to in the junkyard where they are still seen, if rather uncommonly).  Early ’80s Camrys?  There are still several doing daily driver duty in my town.  And they’re still selling hundreds of thousands more new examples of them every year.  What could have been, Chevy, what Could. Have. Been.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Citation – GM’s Deadliest Sin (#13) by PN

Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Citation – Murphy’s Law by Joe Dennis

Curbside Gift Idea: 1981 Chevrolet Citation – For That Special Someone by Jim Klein

Curbside Recycling: 1981 Chevrolet Citation – How Many Could Still be Left Out There? by Jim Klein

Curbside Recycling: 1980 Pontiac Phoenix SJ – Pontiac Flips America The Bird by Jim Klein