At the end of the 1970s (which I covered in part 1 of this article), GM had recovered somewhat but was still in a tough spot. Fuel efficiency needed to continue to go up, while pollution had to go down. Most anti-pollution measures drove fuel economy down, so everyone was in a tight spot. Domestic automakers were in a worse spot than the lighter and more advanced imports were, though.
The 1980s Started Looking Better
Domestic manufacturers did manage to copy the imports successfully on one thing starting in the late 1970s: front-wheel drive. They had to do this because they were running out of ways to make cars smaller and lighter. Anyone who has sat in a Chevrolet Monza knows that the transmission tunnel takes up a lot of room, and making cars even smaller would make it pretty hard to keep putting 4 people in it, let alone 5. Going lighter and smaller was the only way to keep cars getting better MPG without upping pollutants. Less weight and drag was the best solution for the time.
At first, GM screwed this up. The GM X Platform (the first front-wheel drive GM vehicle) had major brake issues and ruined the reputation of cars like the Chevrolet Citation, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix, and leading to expensive recalls. GM’s subsequent front-wheel drive platforms were better.
Electronic fuel injection also helped GM massively improve the efficiency and power of its Iron Duke and helped the new (and very reliable) 60-degree V6 engine succeed. GM also managed to use its expertise in the Hydra-Matic division to make decent transmissions for its front-wheel drive vehicles. The 3-speed THM-125c was followed up by a 4-speed transmission with overdrive, lowering highway engine speeds and increasing fuel efficiency.
GM’s manual transmissions were still pretty clunky, but it bypassed that issue by purchasing whole transmissions from Isuzu and Getrag (now called Magna PT). The Getrag 282 in particular performed pretty well aside from some third-gear synchro issues in the earliest versions. Most younger drivers who got these third-hand (myself included) just learned to live with it in our long out of warranty cars, and carefully shift to avoid any grinding.
Better catalytic converters were also a big factor in automakers like GM getting out of the squeeze it was in, allowing it to relax more on engine designs and focus more on improving the vehicles themselves.
I don’t mean to insinuate that GM’s quality was perfect in the 80s, but it made a lot of progress and got back into the game. It had issues with some vehicles, like the innovative and efficient Pontiac Fiero’s fires (mostly caused by an Iron Duke with an undersized oil pan), but all in all, GM came a long way from where it had been in the 1970s in terms of both quality and desirability.
The company even started trying new things that the imports weren’t doing, like experiment with mid-engined vehicles built on space frames. The result of the space frame experiment (the Pontiac Fiero) was a very safe vehicle with reasonable performance and fuel economy for its time (once they got the early fire issues fixed up, and gave the vehicle better engines and suspensions).
Complacency Sets In As the 80s End
The oil and gas price issues ended, technology improvements made emissions less of a problem, and the pressure to keep improving eased up. This is where GM really went to hell.
The bean counters killed innovative vehicles like the Fiero, just as they were improving and hitting their stride. Cost cutting measures led to flimsy interiors, suspension problems (especially with the Lumina), and safety became a bigger and bigger problem for GM’s vehicles. GM’s new Saturn division held a lot of promise, as it was going to use the Fiero’s space frame technology to create safe and damage resistant cars. Instead of putting the money in to make them as solid as the last Fieros built, the company cheaped out and ended up with vehicles with rather poor crash test ratings.
While the vehicles were usually reliable, they were unpleasant to drive and often outdated in the early 90s. For example, a 1992 Lumina (I drove one of these in high school) had a slightly improved version of the V6 engines GM was building in 1980 and the same 3-speed transmission without overdrive. Many vehicles only had an 85 MPH speedometer and had no tachometer. Suspensions were sloshy, many of the vehicles had a lot of body roll, and they’d droop in the back drastically if you pressed on the accelerator too hard.
Would the vehicle die or break down? No. Were you happy driving it? Also no in most cases.
In the late 80s and the early ’90s, GM went all in on front-wheel drive, even when it made absolutely no sense to do so. Every non-truck vehicle, from the smallest Geo Metro to the largest and most luxurious Cadillacs with V8 engines got front-wheel drive.
The V6 engines in most vehicles also started showing their age through the 90s. Better fuel systems, better computer controls, and increased displacements in some cases kept the output and efficiency improving in the following years, but GM started running out of room to improve these engines, while experiments like the 3.4L DOHC V6 led to greater performance but poor reliability.
The remaining high performance rear-wheel drive cars, like the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, were discontinued and replaced with nothing as the 21st century began. GM awkwardly crammed some 5.3L V8 engines in front-wheel drive cars, but it just wasn’t the same.
Embracing Profitable SUVs While Scrapping EVs
Given the low performance and awkward feel of GM’s outdated and boring front-wheel drive cars, it should be no surprise that many people started buying other vehicles that GM was still building well: SUVs. Technological improvements also helped vehicles like the Suburban, Tahoe, Blazer, and S-Blazer drive more like cars while still keeping rear-wheel drive and V8 engines that had gotten a lot more powerful since the ’70s. As more people bought these larger vehicles and didn’t buy cars, GM largely let cars stagnate while making big bucks on SUVs in the 90s and 00s.
With profits rolling in and gas prices low, there just wasn’t any incentive to do anything but relatively minor improvements to SUVs for two decades while car quality stagnated. Corporate culture claimed to value quality, but factory managers would routinely do things known to degrade vehicle quality to keep production volume up.
At the same time, California had had enough of automakers refusing to embrace new technologies. Pollution in coastal cities was getting worse, while vehicle efficiency stagnated. To comply with a mandate to sell EVs, GM put an experimental car based in part on the Fiero into limited production. I’ve driven a lot of miles in a Fiero and have sat in an EV1 to do homework (that’s another story), and the cars are eerily similar.
The EV1 wasn’t a great vehicle, though. Owners loved them, but they had poor crash test ratings (like Saturns) and until near the end of production, had primitive batteries. The vehicles, like everything GM was building in those days, were front-wheel drive and built to cut costs. As soon as GM could get rid of the government mandate to build EVs, it not only ended the program but took back all of the leased vehicles and sent them to be crushed in Arizona.
In the last part of this article, I’m going to cover GM’s continued slide into front-wheel drive hell and their very subpar push into building EVs.
Featured image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica