GM Went To Shit In The ’90s & Didn’t Really Recover (Part 1)

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In a recent article by CleanTechnica site director Zachary Shahan, the continued fight between industry and government over emissions and fuel efficiency standards gets covered. GM, Toyota, and FCA are all doing what they usually do. This got me to thinking about a critical mistake GM is making that it has made over and over again through the years.

In the headline, I say that GM went to shit in the ’90s. People familiar with GM’s history know that the problem really started in the ’70s, but the company actually had a fighting chance to get things right during the ’80s. The victory of the bean counters in the late 1980s led to decades of continued quality issues, crappy designs, and ultimately the bankruptcy of 2009.

At a more fundamental level, though, GM keeps making the mistake of copying designs that work for other companies, but are fundamentally incompatible with the company’s corporate culture. The result? Poor copies of foreign cars get selected by the bean counters for production while the company’s truly innovative designs get discontinued. This exists (and continues to exist) in the form of junky front-wheel-drive shitboxes.

This Started in the Malaise Era

The roots of the problem developed in the late 1970s, called the Malaise Era by many automotive writers. Until that point, GM had some pretty good things going for them. It had a solid set of reliable and simple engines that powered the company’s big cars. The Small Block Chevy was used across several brands, and it was a simple iron block with a pushrod valvetrain. The Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac (Often called BOP) part of the company had the very solid “Fireball” V6 that was sold off to AMC. GM also had a lot of experience building reliable and simple inline engines.

It was doing OK, but its cars were only getting 12 MPG on average.

The 1973 oil crisis spooked the company like a horse, and its subsequent missteps proved disastrous. To its credit, GM did see it coming. A year before the embargo, the company had an in-house research group called the Energy Task Force (ETF), and it predicted that the supply of oil was going to go through some serious uncertainties in the near future. This pushed the company to start looking harder for ways to not only make smaller and lighter cars, but to build lighter and more efficient engines.

GM’s “Alien Dreadnought” Moment

The company had already started doing this for other reasons, but it wasn’t going well. GM falsely assumed that Japanese companies wouldn’t get their quality game together, and companies like Toyota and Honda surprised it. Imports, which were now reliable, more efficient, and cheaper than GM’s heavy vehicles, were eating away at market share. To try to beat back the imports and take the market share back, GM forced the Chevrolet division to build the Vega.

In many ways, this foray into building lighter cars was like Tesla’s “alien dreadnought.” GM’s plan was very innovative and ahead of its time — perhaps too far ahead of its time. The company planned to introduce a lot of computerized automation in the process, simplify the vehicle’s body, use an advanced six-state rustproofing process, and use a new aluminum block four-cylinder engine with no iron sleeves. Had it got this all right, the Vega would have been an amazing vehicle that would have pushed GM ahead of the competition.

Corporate infighting caused a lot of problems getting the vehicle into production, but once those were ironed out, many of the new things it tried didn’t work out. The rust-proofing process failed, and cars were rusting far too quickly after they got into customer’s hands. The innovative sleeveless engine warped and cracked, and either burnt oil or went up in flames. Cars were seen all over spitting out nasty smoke as the engines destroyed themselves. It was bad enough that many car enthusiasts bought a busted Vega for cheap and transplanted a reliable V8 engine into it, ultimately creating a small and light car with big power.

While this was great for people building race cars, it wasn’t good at all for GM. It had to change course, and fast. The company knew from the ETF reports that it couldn’t go back to doing what it was doing in the 50s and 60s, and the Vega’s reputation destroyed any ability to sell it. The oil crisis further cemented it into the corner.

Fixing The Mess

To get out of the mess it was in, GM had to redesign the Vega (and its Pontiac sibling, the Astre) into a set of new vehicles that could succeed. The result was the redesigned H-Body, with nameplates like the Chevrolet Monza, Pontiac Sunbird, and Oldsmobile Starfire. GM gave up trying to fix the problems with the aluminum four-cylinder, despite some success, because nobody wanted to buy a vehicle with an engine that had such a bad reputation. It also abandoned attempts to build a Wankel Rotary engine. Instead, it went back to its roots and bought the tooling back from AMC for the “Fireball” V6, ultimately producing the 231 cubic inch Buick V6. This was eventually renamed the 3800 (roughly its displacement in cubic centimeters). It also built a new iron-blocked efficient four-cylinder engine the way it used to build inline engines. This engine was nicknamed the Iron Duke.

While not as high tech and amazing as the Vega’s aluminum overhead cam engine would have been, this proved to be a solid move for GM. These revised low-tech engines powered small cars into the 1990s, and had solid reputations. The company also took a cue from enthusiasts and offered high performance versions of the car with V8 engines. The Chevrolet Monza Spyder, with its black widow decals, was a solid performer.

GM was still in a precarious position, though. It had some better vehicles in production that could somewhat compete with the onslaught of higher quality imports, but they were still not as efficient and the quality was still lagging behind. Government pressures to increase efficiency and lower pollution continued to play against each other, putting GM in a tough spot.

GM was still in the game, but it knew that it would have to play a lot harder in the 1980s if it was going to survive.

In the second part of this article, I’m going to cover their advances of the 80s and then cover the ways in which things went to hell in the 1990s. In Part 3, I’ll cover how those issues are still hurting “New GM” today.

Featured image: The Bolt EUV and Bolt EV, photo by Chevrolet.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1775 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba