GM’s X-Cars: Anatomy of a Miserable Failure
They were supposed to change the automotive landscape, and they did—just not how the General planned.
ow bad does your car have to be before it attracts a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice? Welcome to the story of General Motors’ X-body project, started in the late 1970s as a response to the onslaught of front-wheel-drive imports that were making inroads thanks to a combination of affordability, reliability, and high fuel economy.
Initially, there was a lot of internal excitement at America’s largest automaker for what promised to be the light that would lead GM into the future. Yet right from their 1979 on-sale date, and all the way through their ignominious retreat from the market by the middle of the next decade, GM’s X-car family provided a master class in how not to engineer, build, or handle defects for brand-new automobiles. This was the peak of the General’s reach overextending its grasp as it tried to remain relevant among a rapidly changing landscape by packaging technologies it hadn’t mastered as cheaply as possible in cars it rushed to market.
Although Cadillac and Oldsmobile had experimented with front-wheel drive in the past, it had always been in the context of enormous luxo-barges featuring traditional longitudinal engines. The edict from the top brass that kickstarted the X-car project was to create a unibody platform that could accept transverse, small-displacement engines and offer substantial improvements in fuel economy, cabin space, and assembly costs. It was square-one for General Motors, and inspiration came from an unlikely source: front-wheel-drive Lancias that were purchased and dissected to provide clues as to how the X platform should unfold.
Pressure was intense to get the X-cars—which would be given to the Chevrolet (Citation), Oldsmobile (Omega), Buick (Skylark), and Pontiac (Phoenix) divisions—into showrooms as quickly as possible. This meant not only a significantly shortened development cycle, where testing of the radically new chassis and drivetrain setup was given the shortest possible shrift, but also a centralized engineering approach where each division would be expected to play nice and contribute to specific aspects of the project.
Forward-thinking, at least at first blush. The realities of pulling together a car where Pontiac was responsible for the rear suspension and Chevrolet the front were something else entirely. Rather than a vehicle that functioned as a complete system, the hodgepodge of ideas and executions would contribute to its sensational fall from grace.
Initially, the 1980-model-year X-body was a smashing success. More than 800,000 examples of the Chevrolet Citation alone would be sold during that heady early period. This was bolstered by enthusiastic reviews from the motoring press, who had been provided with a selection of hand-assembled, near-perfect non-production-spec models to test. Still, it quickly became apparent that the vehicle’s sales figures represented a pyrrhic victory at best. General Motors soon would be at odds not just with its own customers, but also the U.S. government.
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