As oil prices soared, car designers scurried to shave pounds, inches
Crash program had mixed results; as one designer said: 'It took us awhile to get it'
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
He wasn't happy about how the design was taking shape.
Looking over the work, General Motors design chief Irv Rybicki said, "There's nothing wrong with this car that another foot of length won't fix," recalls Porter, now 77 and retired.
But GM President Jim McDonald, also in the design studio huddle, had the final word. Porter remembers him saying, "I've just come from Washington, you guys. Bill, don't add one millimeter to the overall length of this car."
He didn't. And that Riviera, which came out as a 1986 model, was a flop, Porter told Automotive News in a recent interview.
"You can't take three feet off a car and God knows how many hundreds of pounds out of it and expect to appeal to the same market," said Porter, even though philosophically he favored smaller, lighter vehicles. He was with GM from 1957 to 1996.
But GM had many hits, as well as some misses, in its extensive and often risky attempts to shave pounds and inches from cars that for decades had gotten longer, wider and heavier. GM's downsizing of cars has been called the largest re-engineering effort ever undertaken in the industry.
The downsizing program involved years of engineering and design work and billions in investments. It stands as evidence against a common assumption that GM resisted at every turn societal interest in and governmental pressure for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Ahead of the pack
Automotive historians note that GM executives were planning smaller, lighter vehicles well before Congress and President Gerald Ford enacted the first fuel economy law in 1975.
After the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, "they did some major redesigns, and they were the first company to do that," acknowledges Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen and a frequent critic of automakers. She was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1977-81, when the first fuel economy standards were implemented.
Among the successes were the full-sized 1977 Chevrolets — the Impala and Caprice, which were at the forefront of the first big wave of downsizing. They were nearly a foot shorter than the 1976 models and weighed about 600 pounds less.
Despite the crash diet, GM marketing emphasized more headroom, more trunk space, more rear seat room and more efficiency. The GM products proved popular with customers and critics.
Chevrolet sold 628,000 full-sized cars in 1977, up from 455,000 the year before, Automotive News reported.
Despite subsequent successes, top GM designer Chuck Jordan said the early-1970s downsizing mandate from management caused culture shock inside the corporation.
"It took us awhile to get it," he said in a recent interview with Automotive News.
Adding beefy, federally mandated bumpers to downsized cars was a special challenge. "The engineers and designers have figured out how to get around that stuff. But back in the '70s, we didn't have the technology," he said.
Nevertheless, the downsized Caprice looked great; a smaller Eldorado didn't, said Jordan, who succeeded Rybicki as design chief in 1986.
Some historians call the 1975 Cadillac Seville the first of the downsized vehicles, but it actually was a heavily re-engineered Chevrolet Nova, a compact that was in part meant to compete with Mercedes-Benz. But the first Seville did help to prove that American car buyers would pay more for a smaller package — if it was well executed.
Change begat change
Because downsizing had to be done in phases, it created some strange situations. Full-sized cars, made smaller for 1977, weighed less than those in the segment called intermediate. Those cars, such as the Chevrolet Malibu and Oldsmobile Cutlass, got smaller in 1978. Personal luxury cars, such as the Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Riviera, were trimmed for 1979.
Additional rounds of downsizing followed, along with a corporatewide shift to front-wheel drive, which saved more weight and space by eliminating a long driveshaft and tunnel.
While the era of downsizing often is associated with the onset of GM's decline, there is scant evidence of that. At the time the company was also beset with various experiments: outsourced engineering, diversion of resources to comply with federal regulations and several major corporate reorganizations, veterans of the period say.
Former designer Dave North said it was "not so different from today's circumstances, where a lot of iffy things were happening, closing down plants and a lot of layoffs. So there was kind of an air of frustration."
Still, North believes the 1979 personal luxury cars, which were meant to be signature efforts for retiring design chief Bill Mitchell, looked good and sold pretty well. Some people even learned to like the bustle trunk, which appeared on the 1980 Cadillac Seville.
Designers were especially happy when they created cars that stirred controversy, added North, a GM designer from 1959 to 1991. He is 72 and retired in Billings, Mont.
Designer Porter said downsizing would have been more difficult in an earlier era. He said that design chief Harley Earl's airplane shapes would not have lent themselves to trimming as well as Mitchell's "folded planes."
Porter liked one of his downsized designs so much that he still has one. It's a 1985 Buick Electra.