Skip to comments.10 Cars That [really,really] Damaged GM's Reputation (With Video)
Posted on 11/26/2008 7:02:07 AM PST by yankeedame
GM's current precarious situation didn't come about overnight. There are arguments to be made that various government regulations led to the disaster and that management can't escape much of the blame, and there are plenty who contend it was a series of disastrous union labor contracts that have put the company at risk. But there's one thing everyone agrees on: Over the past few decades GM put some truly terrible products out on the market. Unreliable, uninteresting and flat ugly, these were cars that simply destroyed GM's reputation....
1. 1971-1977 Chevrolet Vega
Legend has it that when Chevrolet Division Manager John DeLorean went to the GM Proving Grounds to get his first look at a prototype of the new 1971 Chevrolet Vega, the front of the car literally fell off onto the ground. But that bad omen didn't keep DeLorean from putting the Vega on the market.
Responding to increased import sales, the Vega showed up at the same time as Ford's similarly ill-fated Pinto. Both were relatively conventional cars by Detroit standards, with their four-cylinder engines in front sending power back to a solid rear axle. In fact, the only innovative thing on the Vega was the all-aluminum block around which its 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine was constructed.
Unfortunately, the art of building aluminum engine blocks was in its infancy back in 1971 and the unlined cylinder walls of Vega engines were scoring almost instantly. That led to lots of oil burned and early death for this engine. Throw in haphazard build quality and sheetmetal that you could practically hear rusting away, and the Vega truly rates as one of GM's great debacles.
But the Vega was actually a sales success. Chevy sold nearly 268,000 during the 1971 model year, over 390,000 during 1972, almost 396,000 during 1973, and over 450,000 during 1974 (sales finally collapsed during the 1975 model year). After all, its mini-Camaro looks were handsome and in an era of fuel shortages it was pretty stingy on gas. Plus, back then there were millions of buyers who insisted on buying only American products. But ultimately that meant there were just that many more people disappointed by the Vega. By the mid-1980s, Vegas were being junked so aggressively that some salvage yards in Southern California had signs up saying they wouldn't accept any more. When even the junkyard won't take a car, that's trouble
2. 1980-1985 X-Cars
It's hard to imagine the hoopla that surrounded the introduction of the all-new 1980 Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Citation, Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix in April of 1979. These four awkwardly proportioned "X-Body" front-drivers directly replaced GM's rear-drive compacts (of which the Chevy Nova was the most prominent) and promised a revolution in how the corporation designed and built cars. Chevy alone sold an incredible 811,540 Citations during that prolonged 1980 model year based on that promise. Unfortunately, the reality was that these four- and six-cylinder cars probably suffered more recalls and endemic problems than any other GM vehicle program.
The problem wasn't so much the basic engineering of the X-Body cars as it was that no one apparently spent any time doing the detailed engineering that determines a car's success. So customers complained of disintegrating transmissions, suspension systems that seemed to wobble on their own mounts, and brakes that would make the whole car shudder every time they were applied. There were so many niggling faults and a seemingly endless series of recalls that sales of the car almost tanked by its third year. Still, through 1985, a few million escaped to the public, souring hundreds of thousands on GM.
3. 1976-1987 Chevrolet Chevette
The Chevrolet Chevette was already outdated when it appeared in 1976. Based on GM's "T" platform, it was a primitive, front-engine, rear-drive subcompact in a small-car world that was busy being revolutionized by front-drive cars such as the Honda Civic and Accord, Volkswagen Rabbit and Ford Fiesta. It was underpowered too, originally being offered with a 1.4-liter Four making 53 hp or a 1.6-liter version of the same engine rated at 70 hp.
Chevrolet saved itself a lot of development time and money by picking up the Chevette design from GM Brazil. The Georgia-built small car was a solid sales success too, selling almost 450,000 units in 1980 alone. But it was always a car that sold strictly on price, with no real virtues of its own. And it was a huge help to Chevrolet in sneaking in under the federally mandated CAFE standards. But it also meant that for 11 years GM didn't bother developing an advanced small car specifically for the American market.
In fact, when it finally came time to replace the Chevette in 1987, what Chevrolet did was create the "Geo" sub-brand and put redecorated Isuzus and Suzukis onto the Chevette's bottom rung on the model ladder. In truth, Chevrolet has never had a homegrown vehicle in this subcompact segment since the Chevette died, and that could be one of the company's greatest missteps of all.
4. 1982-1988 Cadillac Cimarron
There's nothing wrong with the idea of a smaller, more athletic Cadillac. But it was a terrible idea to rebadge the Chevrolet Cavalier and attempt to pawn it off as a true Cadillac.
The compact J-Car program was already well under development at GM by the time Cadillac decided it wanted a version of its own. With little time on its hands and no desire to spend much money, what they came up with was a Cavalier with a different grille, a slightly modified interior and some hydraulic dampers between the body and front subframe. Otherwise, the 1982 Cimarron was powered by the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine as the Cavalier, backed by either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission.
Cadillac tried to sell the Cimarron as a domestic alternative to cars like the BMW 3 Seriesthat was just pathetic. Not surprisingly, practically no one fell for it and the Cimarron never sold well. But to many people, this proved that GM at the time had little regard for the storied and significant Cadillac brand.
5. 1991-1995 Saturns
Saturn was GM's attempt at a do-over. Starting with a fresh plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., and a fresh labor agreement in that location with the UAW, the idea was that GM would create a fresh dealer network that would sell fresh new products in a refreshingly straightforward manner. It didn't quite work out that way.
Actually GM did a rather good job of setting up the plant, dealers and "no haggle" sales schemes - Saturn buyers really did seem to enjoy shopping at and buying from Saturn dealers.
But Saturn's cars were thoroughly mediocre. Built around a steel space-frame with plastic body panels bolted on, there were gaps between the panels big enough to stick a hand through. Yes, the plastic panels were resistant to collision damage, but they discolored and faded quickly, and as they aged, they cracked. Beyond that, the first Saturns had four-cylinder engines that sounded like threshing machines but didn't make a lot of power. These cars were nothing special in either handling or looks, and they were neither particularly space- nor fuel-efficient. At least they weren't unreliable. But Saturn's cars were simply no match for competition from Honda, Toyota, Mazda and a half-dozen others.
So GM, which got so much right when launching Saturn in 1990, blew the opportunity to build a new, loyal customer base by not getting the product right.
6. 2001-2005 Pontiac Aztek
When Pontiac introduced the Aztek crossover vehicle for 2001, it was actually getting a jump on a new market. Unfortunately, however, the Aztek was just about the ugliest thing anyone could remember being unleashed on America's roads since the 1958 Edsel. No, that's not fair the Edsel was way better looking than the Aztek.
Pontiac had shown the Aztek in concept form back in 1999 and, generally speaking, the reviews were excellent. But while engineering the concept vehicle as a production machine, GM took an incredible wrong turn: the corporation decided to base the new Aztek on the existing platform of its front-drive minivans. And because the minivans had certain dimensions that would be expensive to change, the Aztek wound up with some of the most awkward dimensions imaginable. For instance, the minivans' tall firewall and resulting high cowl worked fine on those plain boxes, but left the Aztek appearing tall, narrow and oddly fragile.
Compounding the mistake of was the Aztek's horrid shape, and the whole thing was covered in awful, gray plastic cladding. Hideous.
In its defense, the Aztek was roomy and versatile and had solid, easygoing road manners. But that was nowhere near enough to compete with the Japanese crossovers.
7. 1978-1985 Oldsmobile Diesel V-8s
From the late 1970s and into the early '80s, Oldsmobile sold the most popular car in America: the Cutlass. Olds was on a sales roll; it seemed nothing would be able to stop the division. Then came the Oldsmobile diesels, and stopping is exactly what they did best.
Instead of designing a new series of diesel engines from scratch, GM decided to base its new diesel V8 architecture on the existing gasoline Oldsmobile 5.7-liter V8's. Of course the modifications were extensive in order to handle the 22.5:1 compression ratio of diesel operationmuch stouter iron block, new cylinder heads, reinforced bottom endbut it was still a series of modifications rather than a clean-sheet design. Soon after the 5.7-liter diesel V8 debuted in Oldsmobile full-size 88 and 98 models (during 1978), the engines started tearing themselves apart.
That extreme fragility was despite the fact that the 5.7-liter diesel option cost between $800 and $1000 extra per car and only made a puny 120 hp and a stingy 220 lb-ft of peak torque at 1600 rpm. In short, these engines were awful. But the 4.3-liter version of the diesel V8 was even worserated at only 90 hp, it was somehow even more fragile.
The diesel V8s (and a short-lived diesel V6) were eventually offered throughout most of the Oldsmobile line and spread to the other vehicle divisions as well. And when the engines inevitably blew up, the cars they were in would either head to an early death in a junkyard or have a more reasonable powerplant swapped in.
8. 1981-1984 Cadillac V-8-6-4
There was nothing wrong with the theory behind GM's attempt to turn Cadillac's throttle-body injected 6.0-liter V-8 into an economy engine during the 1981 model year. The technology was called "Modulated Displacement" back then, and the idea was that as engine load decreased, fewer cylinders in the engine would actually be fired to produce power. In other words, at full throttle, the "V-8-6-4" was a V8, as it reached speed it became a V6 and when cruising it was a V4. That was the theory; in reality, most of the time these engines were just broken. Conceptually it's almost identical to what GM is selling today as Active Fuel Management on some V8s.
The old Modulated Displacement system worked by altering the rocker-arm fulcrum so that intake and exhaust valves on particular cylinders were held shut by their springs. Unfortunately the solenoids and primitive electronics that were supposed to make this work rarely worked themselves. And even when the V-8-6-4 was running on all eight cylinders it was only making a laughable 140 hp.
Even though GM abandoned the V-8-6-4 in everything except limousines after just one year, the damage was done. Here was one more half-developed, cynically marketed technology that GM just couldn't make work.
9. 2003-Present Hummer H2
Going strictly on functionality, the Hummer H2 is a capable machine. It's very good off-road, it rides reasonably well on-road, it's plenty powerful enough, can tow a lot, and will hold a few people and a lot of their stuff. And since it's based on the same platform as GM's full-size SUVs, the corporation makes a lot of profit on every one it sells. Function, however, isn't the H2's problem.
The problem with the H2 is that it's proudly politically incorrect in an era when the forces of political correctness are winning. The H2 gets crummy fuel mileage, its looks come straight out of the military at a time while the military is fighting an unpopular war, and it's freaking huge. Some people may actually like peeving off their neighbors by being rebellious in their vehicle choice, but an antisocial image is tougher for a large corporation to pull off.
GM was introducing the H2 (and establishing Hummer dealerships) at just about the same time that Toyota was taking the green-tech high ground with vehicles like the Prius and other hybrids. The H2 came to embody GM's presumed environmental callousness and the environmentalist fringe was vandalizing both Hummer dealerships and random civilian-owned vehicles. But worst of all for GM, when gas crested past $3 a gallon, the H2's sales cratered and they haven't recovered.
The Hummer H2 is a self-inflicted headache GM doesn't need.
10. 1997-1999 EV1
Even today, the two-seat GM EV1 remains one of the best-engineered, best-working pure electric vehicles ever released to the public. With clever engineering throughout its aluminum structure, an incredibly aerodynamic body and a whole bunch of lead-acid batteries, the first-generation EV1 was able to go maybe 75 miles if driven with extreme care. The second-generation EV1 with nickel-metal-hydride batteries upped that range to about 150 miles.
The problem with the EV1 was that it was almost impossible to drive in traffic with anything approaching the ideal technique the car needed to stretch its range. So its real world range was often down around 40 miles and driving it was often a white-knuckle thrill ride as the driver tried to stretch out every last electron to make it to a charging station.
GM built the EV1 to satisfy a mandate from the state of California that 2 percent of a manufacturer's fleet sold there be zero-emissions vehicles (that number would rise to 10 percent by 2003). However, the EV1 and electric vehicles built by other manufacturers finally convinced the California Air Resources Board that the zero-emissions mandates weren't achievable by then-current technology. This led to the cancellation of the mandate.
So GM canceled the EV1, and when the leases on the 1117 it had produced ran out,GM took them back and crushed them. To the committed environmentalists who had leased one, that was completely unacceptable. And suddenly the world was full of conspiracy theories about why GM "killed" the electric car (see the movie clip below). If the Hummer H2 makes GM seem callous toward the environment, the way GM handled the EV1 makes the company seem downright hostile. It's been a public relations nightmare.
However, the experience GM gained by producing the EV1 may pay off in the long run as many lessons learned with that car are being ported over to the new 2011 Chevrolet Volt.
Sometimes even the darkest clouds can have shiny silver linings.
IMO anything GM puts out hurts their reputation.
Much of the hole GM is in is because of decades of poorly made crap that they foisted on us. They felt entitled to our business. This gave rise to Japanese companies who made better cars. GM is making better cars than before but in few segments are they as good as the Japanese. People like me who American companies drove into the arms of Honda aren’t switching back without being given a gigantic reason and so far GM’s products aren’t at all compelling enough to win me back. I’m very, very, very happy with my current company and you don’t change horses in mid-stream without good reason.
“Cadillac tried to sell the Cimarron as a domestic alternative to cars like the BMW 3 Seriesthat was just pathetic. Not surprisingly, practically no one fell for it and the Cimarron never sold well. But to many people, this proved that GM at the time had little regard for the storied and significant Cadillac brand.”
That one was a stunner! Slap a Caddy badge on a god-awful Chevy Caviler and pretend its like a BMW!
But anyone who bought an Aztec has only themselves to blame!
My first car was a ‘72 Chevy Vega. What a POS! I had to put a quart of oil in it everytime I filled the gas tank.
“gave rise to Japanese companies who made better cars.”
And the Chinese who are busy innovating by trying to make more fuel efficient cars.
They forgot to add the late 70’s into 80’s trucks rusting away.
The people I know who own Hummers love them. And they love them because they are SO politically uncorrect. The Hummer has a great underground following.
It is an excellent car off-road and has great towing.
It is also a status symbol (like the people who drive $100,000 Mercedes). It makes people heads turn. And the people who buy $70,000 Hummers don't really care too much if gas is $3 or $5 dollars a gallon.
The Hummer is never going to be the #1 car in America (or even #30). But GM makes a profit on everyone and there is demand for them. Too bad other GM cars are not like that...because you put a string of cars like that together and all of a sudden you have a profitable company.
At this point just thinking about GM makes me mad.
Best car I ever owned was a 1973 Cutlass “S”. Once the pollution control junk was ripped out, the Pontiac 350 engine was simplicity itself to tune, it was OK on gas and it was very, very fast and extremely reliable.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to. More’s the pity!
It may show a bad misreading of the market. While GM was building land yachts they were ignoring the small car market. When gas went up the Japanese had all sorts of stuff ready to go and were able to pounce all over them.
GM was introducing the H2 (and establishing Hummer dealerships) at just about the same time that Toyota was taking the green-tech high ground with vehicles like the Prius and other hybrids.
I have to throw the BS flag on this. Toyota and Honda both came out with some very poor milage monster trucks and SUVs at this same time also...
“IMO anything GM puts out hurts their reputation.”
I would have to disagree with you on one product - The Corvette. Only because of the amount of care and PRIDE that goes into the entire process of that car makes it a good one that is full of modern technology - of course at a premium price.
My first car was a 1973 Vega. Install a relief tube under the drivers seat while stationed in Texas. This piss-mobile was perfect for a dumb beer drinking fool . Shipped it to the Philippines where I had the alum. motor cylinders bored and steel sleaves installed. Ran HOT! .. Sank the car in a river and shipped it back to USA .. Finally gave the pissmobile away in 1990 ..
I called my parents Citation, The dominoe effect car. Once you got one thing fixed, it wouldn’t be a week until something else went wrong.
And my mother almost died in a Chevette from a crash that wasn’t going more than 15 mph. She ended up practically under the hood. She never would get into anything else like that and drove a Olds Cutlass until she passed away a few years back.
Heh, heh, tried to polish a turd, huh.
I need a pick up to haul a chord of wood, 4 wheelers, equipment, dirt, etc.
GM produces the best line of pick-ups (IMHO) to accomplish that, maintain their value, and offer very decent maintainability in that regard.
I buy a fuel efficient car for my wife to get back and forth to grocery shopping, errands, and her work. I buy a vehicle for my purposes that can do the work, be maintained, and offer good resell value when it is time to replace it. GM has offered such vehicles for what I need and I do not apologize to anyone for buying them and using them.
Unfortunately, my folks fell for it. They had the Cimmaron for a little over a year before dumping it. I had to drive it once and it was the most gutless car I’ve ever driven. Merging onto the freeway was a white-knuckle experience.
That's a big part of GM's problem: The notion that you must pay a premium for quality. Other car companies have proven time and again that quality need not be a luxury.
“I would have to disagree with you on one product - The Corvette. Only because of the amount of care and PRIDE that goes into the entire process of that car makes it a good one that is full of modern technology - of course at a premium price.”
The problem with the Corvette is its market segment. They produce only one true world class car and it happens to be in a very low-volume segment. What GM needs is a world class car in the Accord/Camry bracket.
I owned a Chevette during the last big gas crisis during Jimmy Carter’s reign...
3-4? speed manual transmission and peppy litle engine, stripped interior, AM radio no airconditioning.....
I drove that thing like a maniac in Washington DC traffic and parked in the tiniest spaces.
Loved that little car, bought it new from the dealer for $2995
Abused the heck out of it (60K miles) until I sold it in 1982 for $3400
Funny, I had a 1978 Honda Civic that I had to do the very same thing. And the 1991 Toyota Camry that I gave away to my neice also needed a quart per fillup by the time it died.
i’ve had 2 Vegas, a chevette, (plus a Caddy Fleetwood HT4100, which isn't mentioned but should be on this list)
Yeah. I was young and stupid. But hey, it was The Gas Crisis...what can I say.
In retrospect, I should have gone with the Datsun B-210
They're hoping on the Chevy Malibu for that.
Oh, like the Yugo and the Renault Dauphine were so great. Funny, when I think of the worst cars ever made, i think foreign every time.
You guys got to get a grip. You claim to support our military, and yet you would gut all manufacturing from out nation, making us even more vulnerable once a pro-America government is back in power, and dependent on other countries for military equipment.
i remember all of that junk. i worked with a guy that had a citation and he looked like his car.
not to mention, he had a brain fungus.
gm’s prototypes always made me look and sometimes want, but they’d build some pos.
I never even came close to buying one. In fact, the first time I saw one, I threw up in my mouth a little.
My wife had a ‘72 Vega when she was in college. I remember having to check the oil at every fillup because it seemed to burn almost as much oil as gasoline. Finally got rid of the thing when the timing chain broke — just wasn’t worth the hassle.
I've even been looking at Cosworth Vegas to see how much they go for.
“You guys got to get a grip. You claim to support our military, and yet you would gut all manufacturing from out nation, making us even more vulnerable once a pro-America government is back in power, and dependent on other countries for military equipment.”
It is not our job to by from American companies if they do not make high quality products and if other products are better. It is the companies job to provide products we want to buy.
I got stopped outside Guthrie, Tx and the trooper claimed I was doing 65 in a Cavalier. I said, "No disrespect intended, sir, but I don't think this thing will DO 65!" I still got the ticket, thought.
Detroit scoffed at W. Edwards Deming, so he went to Japan to spread American innovation free from UAW constraints. If Japan had been fat at the time, like the UAW, Deming might not have had as easy a sell. Detroit has not been desperate enough to change their culture - yet.
The problem with the Corvette is its market segment. They produce only one true world class car and it happens to be in a very low-volume segment. What GM needs is a world class car in the Accord/Camry bracket.
You are so right and I assumed all that was implied. The thing that cracks me up about GM and the MSM is that every so often the press claims that some new GM product is hand over fist better than Accord/Camry - last year it was the new Impala/Malibu - then after all the hoopla all you can hear is crickets chirping.
In the past, GM vehicles typically had problems with electical components after 40k miles. Ford’s weak spot was usually the transmission at 60K. I swore off (and at) both many years ago.
You know I had three of those Chevettes, which I bought for 500 bucks or so each used and I came to know it so well from the work that had to be done on them that I came to have a perverse affection for them, although some features of the design, such as the placement of the A/C compressor, were quite stupid.
The vehicle that put me over the edge about GM is also one I kept when I bought a new Hyundai in April-my 01 Aztek. It had all the usual Aztek failures, and yeah it’s ugly, but you never had to look at it while driving it and it is versitile and fairly frugal. My beef with GM was a transmission that died early at 60K and the attitude at GM customer service about it. I’d have been happy if they’d have gone 50/50 with me but they weren’t interested in helping at all. The rebuilt transmission has gone twice the distance of the old one.
But here’s the probllem with GM. Over the first 3 years, the following items failed-transmission, AC, fuel sender, lower intake manifold gasket, battery, O2 sensor, rear hatch struts, body control module-and the air cleaner housing is the worst item to deal with ever. To get the Aztek I traded a Suzuki Sidekick that went 120K on gas, oil, spark plugs and one set of brake pads. And GM sold it’s stake in Suzuki....
Honestly, I love my GM Chevey Avalanche. 60,200 miles and not a single problem, used it to tow campers and sailboats, firewood, 4x4 on snow and ice, backcountry and city driving. Throw the 3x kids in the back seat after school and they’re not crowded... I’ll happily buy another one it’s been such a good work vehicle.
Very close to my own sentiments. I own a Mazda, and it's a great little car. I also own a 2001 Dodge Dakota with more than a quarter million miles on it. Of course, it was a Daimler product, so it's still running.
No matter what the big 3 do from now on, until they get rid of the UAW, I won't buy another new vehicle made by them. In fact, I'm trying to reduce my entire organized labor footprint as much as possible. The union label means it stays on the store shelf when I see it.
The first car I ever owned myself was a used Chevette back in 1981. The driver’s side floor rusted out which was a common thing to happen to Chevettes.
I “obtained” a street sign that fit perfectly where the floor panel rusted out.
Great article, but it would be even better if it mentioned the other marques that GM invested-in and proceeded to damage through insane product and technology choices.
Subaru, for example. One word: Tribeca.
If there’s one thing to hope for, it’s that Detroit has learned two key lessons from the Japanese: listen to the customers, and sweat the details. They can compete when they pay attention.