X-car program pushed GM into a front-wheel-drive world
Transformation of the fleet was massive project for GM's engineering staff
For young engineers like Bob de Kruyff, working on the Chevrolet Citation program in the 1970s was akin to sailing into the unknown on one of Christopher Columbus' ships.
Before work started on the X-car program in 1976, GM's fleet was dominated by body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive cars with longitudinally mounted engines. The front-wheel-drive Citation and its sibling X cars would change all that when they debuted in April 1979.
"The Citation was in the forefront of turning the whole fleet over" to the new fwd configuration, says de Kruyff, who worked on the Citation's ride and handling.
The General Motors divisions had a lot to learn.
Says de Kruyff, now 65 and technical director of U-Haul in Tempe, Ariz.: "It's hard to believe, but this truly overwhelmed the entire engineering organization in a company the size of GM. It was the biggest program they had pulled off at the time. There was a lot of learning."
Says Don Sherman, now technical editor of Car and Driver magazine: "They had to address where small cars were going" in the wake of the first energy crisis of the early 1970s.
Sherman worked for Car and Driver at the time and was one of the first independent road testers to discover that the Citation's rear brakes locked up, a problem that would be the car's eventual undoing.
The Citation was a smash hit at first, selling more than 800,000 units its first year. But the brake problem would generate a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lawsuit, and a series of recalls would dent GM's reputation for quality. The Citation lasted until the 1985 model year.
Says John Wolkonowicz, an auto analyst and a GM historian: "The intent on the X car was fabulous. But the execution was a complete disaster."
De Kruyff remains proud of what the team achieved in moving GM toward a fleet of lighter, more spacious and fuel-efficient cars. And the program left him with priceless memories.
A centralized approach
In those days, GM's divisions did more core engineering work. So the divisions handled much of the basic work on the X-car brand variants -- the Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix.
"At that time I worked for Chevrolet, it was a real car company," says de Kruyff. "We worked on everything ourselves."
But the X-car project marked a tilt toward a centralized project approach that would grow at GM. GM's project center at the Tech Center in Warren, Mich., assigned certain divisions as leads in the development of various areas of the cars.
"Chevrolet had the front suspension. Pontiac had the rear suspension. Powertrain was technically Buick. Oldsmobile was fuel and exhaust," de Kruyff says.
When there were disputes between divisions, the arbitrator was the project center, then run by Bob Eaton, who would go on to be chairman of Chrysler Corp.
"Buick would walk in and say, 'We want your shock valving,' and we'd say, 'Screw you,' " says de Kruyff, laughing at the memory. Loyalty ran strong. "I still have a bow tie on my forehead," he says more than three decades later.
Lancia test mules
Though GM had built the fwd Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado in the 1970s, those cars had traditional longitudinally mounted engines. GM had never built anything like the Citation and its siblings, which had transverse-mounted engines and fwd.
So GM couldn't use its previous mainstream rwd Chevrolet Malibu-based cars for test mules. GM solved the problem by purchasing fwd Lancias, which were then sold in the United States. Lancia sales even enjoyed a mini spike.
"Lancia didn't know what was going on," says de Kruyff. The Lancia 164 "was about as close to the basic configuration of where we were going with the X car."
These days, superior traction in winter is taken for granted as one of the great virtues of fwd. But de Kruyff and his colleagues realized the Citation was a winter warrior by accident. During one of their marathon seven-day test trips between Detroit and the West Coast, the Chevy group stopped one wintry evening for a driver change at a rest stop near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
"That's when we discovered we could hardly stand, it was so slippery," de Kruyff says. "Holy mackerel, we couldn't believe these vehicles had that kind of traction and handling."
Members of the marketing department often went along for those road trips during later stages of development. They wasted no time capitalizing on the traction factor. In one commercial, engineers attached a snowplow to the front of the Citation. Another ad showed the Citation, rear wheels removed, pulling a large trailer.
The marketers invited Mario Andretti to come to the desert proving grounds in Mesa, Ariz., to turn a few high-speed laps. With cameras filming it all from a helicopter, Andretti lapped the track faster than anybody else had. When he came off the track, the camera crew rushed to the car and asked him what he thought.
His extremely ambiguous reply: "I've never driven anything like it before in my life."
To make matters worse, the film editors realized Andretti wasn't wearing his seat belt, so the crew had to shoot all over again.
The bounce factor
The front-engine, fwd setup meant powertrain noise and vibration intruded into the cabin to an annoying degree. GM addressed the problem by mounting the engine on soft rubber mounts. But that created another problem.
"We called it engine bounce," de Kruyff says. "When you'd be on a rough road, the whole car would bounce."
So de Kruyff and his colleagues modified the mounts. Chief chassis engineer Verne Brown would come to the proving grounds every couple of weeks to check the team's progress.
"He had a big belly. His stomach was tuned to the frequency of the engine bounce," de Kruyff says. During one drive, de Kruyff noticed out of the corner of his eye that Brown's stomach had stopped bouncing. He says he knew then that the new chassis setting was right.
That kind of validation process wouldn't pass muster in today's computer driven world, but it was all part of the Citation adventure, which changed the culture of GM.
Says de Kruyff: "I'd have to say the company probably changed for the better because of that program. The program pushed us into a lot of new processes, validation and improved testing procedures."
Says journalist Sherman of the Citation: "It was really GM's first small, front-drive, affordable compact sedan. It was hardly perfect. But as I recall, it was actually pretty good."
• Front-wheel drive
• A transverse-mounted engine
• Rack-and-pinion steering
• An onboard computer
• All-season radial tires
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.