Notes and Curiosities: GM in Britain in the early 80s.

In 1981 GM went to all the trouble required to get type approval for a range of their US-market cars, on the expectation that customers might want to buy them.

1981 Chevrolet Monte Carlo: source
1981 Chevrolet Monte Carlo: source

GM picked a small range of cars to lure customers: two Cadillacs, one Buick and three Chevrolets. At the top of the list sat the 6 litre V8 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. The Sedan de Ville d’Elegance cost a little less for a little less length. From Buick´s list of cars, GM chose the Century Limited with a 3.8 litre V6, for just under £10,000.  Upsetting the hierarchy, the Chevrolet Caprice came (as saloon and estate) with a 5.0 V8 and cost more than the Buick, a few hundred pounds. Finally, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo with the same engine as the Buick but had two fewer doors and cost a shade more. All quite baffling.
Of course, the price is not really the thing here. The Buick offered another level of quality than the Chevrolet Caprice saloon and another character. That said, it still inverted the actual ranking of the cars for no real gain.  One wonders why GM bothered to

1981 Buick Century
1981 Buick Century “our little limousine,” said Buick.

go with the Century when the Electra might have been more appropriate and then choose a Chevrolet model from a size down. That’d be the Monte Carlo then.

1981 Buick Centry: source
1981 Buick Centry: source

Casting around for alternative models that preserve the GM hierarchy shows that below the Monte Carlo, GM has nothing that British buyers might want: they were extremely reliant on large cars that differed little from one another, particularly among the Chevrolet, Olds, Pontiac models. Perhaps a sensible range might have run from Monte Carlo with a V6 to a Buick Century V6 saloon and estate on then to the Cadillac pairing. The Caprice is the car that confuses the matter. We all might ask now as then, what were they thinking.

(Autocar reviewed the GM range in an edition in July 1981 which I might have to track down. Also, if you read the advert the word “roadable” is used. This word is not current any more. And the advert takes great pains to tell the reader that there is not a Buick engine in the car but a GM engine from various divisions.)

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

12 thoughts on “Notes and Curiosities: GM in Britain in the early 80s.”

  1. GM’s half-hearted attempts to sell in the UK have always bemused me. I own two left-hand drive vehicles which I’m fine with, but the sort of people who are being asked to spend £70,000 on a Cadillac CTS as an alternative to an A6 Audi, won’t countenance that compromise.

    But I do admit to always having a liking for the targa roofed Monte-Carlo.

  2. I looked up the word roadable and it seems to apply to aircraft that can be driven on the ground also. That ’81 Monte Carlo makes me think of Denzel Washington’s car in the movie Training Day. There is something about it I quite like… Maybe those flared arches?

    1. It seems from usage that it refers to handling in some way: to be able to maintain a steady, balanced and comfortable ride under different conditions, says one dictionary. It is a compound of ideas that in subsequent years have been separated.

    2. It has to be a Buick. The Electras of the period had a lot of charm. Only the top-spec Caprices dodge my Chevrolet-avoidance policy. There’s a lot to be said for a low-carbon future but I am sure no-one will offer electric vehicles with the cheerful loopiness of these 70s dinosaurs. GM were much better at these cars than Chrysler. Fords, in my view, really got with the malaise program as enthusiastically as Chrysler and offered some thrillingly mediocre shapes. GM pulled ahead and managed some entertaining cars.
      By the mid 80s the Cadillacs and Buicks were clearly the best American made cars.

  3. Silly terminology. I expect every car I drive to be road-able. But maybe I would have thought differently 40 years ago.

    1. Yes, it does seem the lowest denominator for a car. Wow, it actually starts, can find its way round a corner and stop. How absolutely roadable.

    2. It is a bug bear of mine that motorsport people refer to ‘road cars’, to distinguish them from the vehicles they produce. Nope, they are just cars. Being designed for the road is a legal requirement.

  4. Baffling is the word for this selection of cars to be sold in Europe all right. Not the performance versons by any means. Underneath, the Monte Carlo and the Buick Century had exactly the same chassis, the A body. At the time the Monte Carlo appeared like a blight on the landscape to many, but time has erased the stupidity of its design through familiarity. The separate chassis were so lightly made they rusted out, and local industries popped up repairing them in the nineties as the cars themselves were popular, probably because of the Jet-Puft ride. At least the Buick did have a Buick engine, the 231 V6, before it was thoroughly optimized almost a decade later when it was already over 25 years old. Usually here, the Monte Carlo had the 305 V8 engine, same as the full-size Chevy.

    My opinion, stated before, was that the full-size Chevrolet in Caprice Classic trim was the class of this field, but hardly suited to duty in the UK, primarily due to its length, and its awful front seat where the structure could be felt at the base of the spine. It managed to feel both more precise and have a better primary ride than its smaller underdamped cousins like the Buick/Chevelle/Monte Carlo/Olds Cutlass/Pontiac whatever. The latter weighed only 75 kg less despite being significantly smaller externally (don’t believe Internet specs 40 years on), because the running gear was the same, essentially, the suspension not so artfully applied.

    Spent many thousands of miles touring the USA in a ’78 Caprice Classic with the F41 handling package and a 350 4 barrel V8. One time, a great whirring noise occurred at the right front wheel. New wheel bearing at Sears Auto Center, installed, $26. Back to wafting serenity.

    The comments tell the same story I’ve been propounding.

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