From the Corvair to the Cobalt: GM's lackluster small-car legacy
The Vega was General Motors' main small-car offering for much of the 1970s. Like many other GM small cars of the past half century, Vegas were star-crossed products.
"They had some design flaws," admits Morgan, former president of a national Vega club with about 400 members.
The Vega is on a long list of small GM cars since 1960 with mediocre — or worse — reputations. The list features the Chevrolet Corvair, Chevette and Cavalier. It also includes a long series of rebadged offshoots, such as the Pontiac T1000, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron.
Some simply flopped. Some were big sellers, at least for a while. But taken together, the offerings left a powerful impression that small cars are not GM's strength.
That rap has steered millions of potential customers away from GM. Today, the company's reputation for mediocre small cars has prevented GM from fully capitalizing on sky-high gasoline prices.
And worse: The struggle appears likely to continue.
The beat goes on
Today, the latest versions of the Chevrolet Cobalt and Aveo are ranked at or near the bottoms of lists of compacts and subcompacts, according to the July 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, published by Consumers Union.
"They're just not competitive," says David Champion, the magazine's senior director of automotive testing.
By contrast, in other segments, GM has impressive new products, such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Buick Enclave and Cadillac CTS, he says.
Looking back, Champion says, the original Saturn S series, introduced as a 1991 model, was a really good car. But, he adds, "They just let it out there to languish so long, and then they redesigned it as the Ion, which is abysmal at best."
The Ion, built in the 2003-07 model years, has been replaced by the Astra, a rebadged Opel. Although the Astra is an established and successful model in Europe and Australia, U.S. consumers tend to be wary of reworked imports.
Champion contends that the dearth of well-regarded small cars from GM means young, first-time buyers look elsewhere — and then don't come back.
GM is "losing those people at a very early age," he says.
By contrast, companies such as Honda are graduating their customers from the Civic to the Accord, Odyssey or Pilot and then to Acura, Champion says.
Ironically, that strategy is right out of GM's playbook of the past, when it groomed customers to move up from Chevrolet to Pontiac, Oldsmobile or Buick and eventually to Cadillac. Champion suspects that GM's difficulties are rooted in a long-standing corporate disinterest in small cars.
Some GM retirees confirm the suspicion.
Dave North, a GM designer from 1959 to 1991, told Automotive News that for a long time executives thought the company could not make money on small cars. There was a "mantra" inside GM, North said: "Let the (Japanese) have that."
Top brass only got worried about import brands when upscale Lexus and Infiniti entered the field, he said.
Other analysts think GM's struggle with small cars went beyond profit worries — it was cultural. Executives, engineers and designers were conditioned to build big cars and resisted lessons from overseas.
Former GM design chief Chuck Jordan, 80, a tough critic of GM after he retired, says early Japanese imports were "cheap, tinny-looking cars," but the import brands soon learned about quality and about ride and handling.
For too long, U.S. companies had no incentive to change, he says. "I guess engineering thought the Japanese weren't going to stay, or BMW or VW production was too low to worry about."
Former GM President Lloyd Reuss says small cars have been challenging for a lot of companies, not just GM. And he is correct that history's highway is littered with small cars, perhaps better forgotten, from companies other than GM.
A Time magazine list last year of the 50 worst cars ever made included such small-car offerings as the Renault Dauphine, Ford Pinto and American Motors Gremlin and Pacer — as well as GM's Cadillac Cimarron and Chevrolet Chevette and Corvair.
The Corvair is most commonly remembered as a key subject of Ralph Nader's 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed. But the Corvair, like the Vega, also has its defenders and fans.
The Corvair Society of America boasts a membership of about 4,700 people, says organization President Tim Mahler.
"Corvair got a bum rap," adds automotive historian Richard Langworth. Although it had "teething troubles, conceptwise, my God, it was light-years ahead of Valiant and Falcon."
The Plymouth Valiant, Ford Falcon and Chevy Corvair were the Big 3's answers to Americans' first big fling with small cars, inspired by the Volkswagen Beetle and Rambler American.
Langworth contends that Nader did not kill the Corvair; the Falcon and the sporty but relatively economical Ford Mustang did.
"It just could not compete with those conventional cars," he says.
So even when GM tried to get ahead of the market with the innovative Corvair, the automaker was frustrated in the end.
The Vega, debuting in 1971 as GM's next major import fighter after the Corvair, had its own problems — including assembly by a notoriously disgruntled work force at Lordstown, Ohio.
Additionally, conflicts within GM management led to ill-advised compromises, such as putting a cast-iron head on an aluminum block engine with marginal cooling capacity, says Morgan, the Houston accountant and Vega club leader.
Still, Morgan and his club celebrate the limited-edition Cosworth Vega, sold in 1975-76 with special all-aluminum engines.
"The more I got into it, I thought, wow, 16-valve engine, electronic fuel injection. This was in the '70s," he says.
Over the years, Morgan has had more than two dozen Vegas — Cosworth and otherwise — or related models, like the Monza.
But at the moment, he acknowledges, perhaps fittingly, "I don't have any running."