We Will Certainly Be At Your Wedding, Brian

A single black and white photo of a 1982-1992 F-body Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird, seen in my district. But what does it portend?

I could bemoan the proportions. That´s pointless. Maybe a potted model history? No, thanks. The photo could lead us down a rabbit hole regarding General Motors’ body nomenclature. Considering the depth, breadth and sheer squiggliness of that byzantine horror, I am not sure if I can force myself to examine that mess.

But I will anyway. Or I will try.

Wikipedia’s first sentence on the Camarobird’s body declares: “The F platform, or F-body, was General Motors‘ small rear-wheel drive automobile platform from 1967 until 2002.”  So what the F is an is an F-body?

I made a diagram of the F-body relation to other body-architectures. That could help a bit.

Second generation GM F-body

This is the general aim of the third generation F-body: “The third generation of the F-Body was introduced for 1982, as a major redesign with a more modern look and a lighter, better-handling car.” (Wikipedia). Why does this “body” concept seem so unintuitive? The clue is that the body is not a unique geometry but a general purpose framework, in this instance smallish, cheapish sportscar.

The Chevroletness and Pontiacness is only a thin veneer. You might think the alphabetical system indicated progress. It didn’t. The same letter could be re-used for different generations of quite different cars in the way the VAG architectures or Fiat architectures didn´t (or did they – the Tipo ended up being all kinds of differernt cars though it was never given an official code name for the generic shell).

What happened with the evolution of the F-body is that product planners at GM would have looked at the second generation of F-body and said to themselves ” We think its worth really modifying this for a new series of replacement sports cars”. The brand had secondary status in this view. To judge by the 1982 Firebird case, the revision might mean the bumpers clips would be separate from the body-in-white; maybe crash protection would be better and the body designed to take only Chevrolet engines whereas the previous version of F-body also had Pontiac engines (in the Pontiacs).

The next confusing thing is that the archetypal F-body is derived from another architecture, the X-body. And the second series F-body gave rise to a one-off platform for the Cadillac Seville (K-body).

So, really these bodies aren’t archetypes at all but roughly approximate structures, stripped of personality. The bodies might be more united by their production line than the marque carried.

Platform sharing is not a strange thing and need not produce identikit cars. What is strange to me is the almost Soviet indifference to the product in the way GM used it. Almost identical bodies carried different badges; engines were interchangeable; factories could produce cars from different brands.

All the things that help a customer develop loyalty were removed. All the things that give an employee a sense of loyalty were removed: today it’s Pontiacs and tomorrow it’s Chevrolets; loyalty then gets transferred to a larger, less personal entity, “GM” and diluted. No wonder they couldn’t assemble these cars properly.

When Lancias were made in Fiat factories they were always worse: see Delta 3. I suppose these generic GM bodies were superficially effective. In the long run, the financial effectiveness undermined the financial health of the business; true for Lancia, Chrysler and true for all the dead GMarques such as Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Saturn. GM has lost so much money saving money, I sometimes think.

As I asked up above: what does the photo portend? I couldn’t tell if it was a Pontiac or Cheverolet. It’s neither, isn’t it? It’s a car with a Pontiac or Chevrolet badge.

Author: richard herriott

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

11 thoughts on “We Will Certainly Be At Your Wedding, Brian”

  1. ” GM has lost so much money saving money, I sometimes think.”

    Terrific and pointed observation, Richard.

    It’s easy to criticise the specifics of this car, but what GM did right back then was make affordable cars desirable. Or desirable cars affordable. The rampant badge engineering could be accepted if the cars had enough appeal.

    Since then, it has been managed or disorganised decline. The collapse of Saab was the worst example but many other brands have died too of course.

  2. “GM has lost so much money saving money”

    Oh bravo, that’s wonderful! It probably applies even more to BL though, who were masters of the art of spending £1000 to save £10.

    By contrast, marques like Toyota always seems to save money for realsies, and reinvest that saved money into product development.

    1. Product development is the key, isn´t it? Toyota steadily iron out faults and proceed with caution. Occasionally they create a total surprise because they can afford to. GM gives us Azteks.

  3. Richard, I understand your focus on appearance. But the Pontiac Aztek had a, er, ah, um, more cleanly styled corporate cousin, the Buick Rendezvous. I can understand the abuse heaped on the Aztek, but why was the Rendezvous spared? The two were identical twins like the Camaro and Firebird, differentiated by minor cosmetic surgery.

    1. Thanks- we can add the dreadful Buick to the list. Absent the Aztek the Rendezvous would have been incinerated but the Pontiac took all the ire.

    2. The Rendezvous did have a FEW differences; since Buick is a “Luxury” make, the rear suspension was a multi-link setup (Compared to the solid rear axle on the Aztek), and the dashboard was nicer. It also was whisper quiet, and near the end of its life, they added an early version of the now-ubiquitous 3.6L “High Feature” DOHC V6 as an option over the old 3.5 pushrod.

      But what people seem to forget; the Aztek and Rendezvous were more than ugly, they were also terrible vehicles.

  4. “All the things that give an employee a sense of loyalty were removed… No wonder they couldn’t assemble these cars properly.”

    As I read this I thought of British Leyland in the 1970’s, seeking to extinguish employee brand-loyalty by renaming factories and moving production as it suited. Perhaps management could have managed and nurtured this loyalty towards a better outcome, but then such things are impossible to quantify in a spreadsheet.

    1. Wasn´t Jaguar renamed Large Car Plant No.2 or some such? It still goes on. Smithwicks Brewery in Kilkenny is labelled Diageo and nothing more. That kind of thing isn´t actually rational as it ignores the fact that people are emotional entities.

  5. GM’s multiple brand strategy made more sense back in the 1960’s, when the brands (Pontiac, Cadillac, Oldsmobile) were actually more independent entities with shared components, but separate engineering. Back then, those divisions were more autonomous, and although things were “GM” products, there were tangible engineering differences between the Cadillac, Pontiac, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile.

    By the 1990’s, most of the differences were basically trim and cosmetic, maybe a little bit of suspension tuning, or option packages.

  6. All in all, rather a pointless article in my view, since all it does is rail about GM’s body designations of the past in their main market and a spot of badge engineering. North Americans had no trouble with GM’s body type designations at the time. So what’s the problem now in 2018? That the Camaro and Firebird were indistinguishable in profile? They’d been that way since their introduction in 1968. Back then, I agree, Ford differentiated the Mustang from the Mercury Cougar completely in every way but mechanically, and that lasted about five minutes or three model years.

    As for the other speculation that somehow it engendered sloppy assembly by the line workers – rubbish. That was down to poor quality stampings and parts, together with sloppy production engineering and assembly procedures, all management problems. It always is. If the parts don’t fit cottectly, or require too much fiddling or adjustment at each work station in the time allowed, it’s a management issue.

    If there was one thing the Japanese taught Detroit, it was production engineering and not having parts lying around in heaps on the factory floor. Just-in-time delivery helped eliminate the latter, while the bored uncaring attitude was reflective of management disinterest in anything but quantity of widgets produced and shipped and the bonuses derived therefrom, and the vast divide between management and blue-collar union workers who were never asked for their opinions. No quality circle chats, you were ordered to perform a task and to get on with it. About as enlightened as any feudal system ever is. Once the Japanese started eating Detroit’s lunch, it was howls of anguish all around at the ending of the free ride and Reagan did the all-American thing and instituted import quotas. So Honda first, and then the other Japanese companies like Nissan and Toyota built factories in the US to get around them. Ossified Detroit management practices gradually changed to compete. Jokes about them funny little furrin cars in the late ’50’s, the 60s and ’70s among the general populace (I mean who doesn’t want a 1958 Vauxhall Victor?), followed by the complete cynicism shown in the cheap design and assembly of the Vega and Pinto when it became obvious that Japanese cars were’t built for a $1.29 each, yet sold for the same price to the consumer, gradually weaned Americans off the bloviating pontifications of over-pampered industry executives, and to expect more for their money, including doors, hood and trunk lids that actually aligned.

    Of course, the accountant Roger Smith who became GM President, thinking himself incredibly bright, decided to robotize GM assembly and damn near bankrupted the company, losing market share as he went. The company had to retrench and rip out a lot of the “advanced” stuff while losing market share all along. Hello Elon Musk, a man with the same idea today, now assembling some Tesla Model 3’s in a tent by hand on jerry-built “production lines”. In the late ’80s, when the Ford Taurus was eating GM’s lunch, someone at Car and Driver pointed out that there were about 22 parts in a Taurus front bumper assembly, while the competing W body GM (four nameplates) introduced four years later had over 80 – or something like that. Fitting the extra parts together took extra time and cost more money, so obviously GM lacked discipline in many areas.

    The other thing, THE most important of all, and not really appreciated here is the dealer system in North America. Dealers became very powerful as time went by. If a Chevy dealer had a Nova, then the Pontiac dealer down the road bleated if he didn’t have a similar car to sell, ditto the Olds and Buick franchisees, because he felt disadvantaged in the marketplace. Same at Ford, the king of making body engineering last for decades. The dealer is the manufacturer’s customer, not Mr Jones the individual citizen. Neither GM nor Ford could afford to engineer completely different cars for each nameplate model, so they offered the same car with different grilles, instrument panels and seats and often minor suspension differences, so as to have a complete line at all their dealers.

    It wasn’t rocket science, and the cars offered were inexpensive on a world scale, so there weren’t wild technical innovations, because if there was one thing Detroit kept focus on, it was semi-decent reliabilty and durability. Unlike the Europeans, I might add, who were chased out of North America quite handily (bar the Germans and Volvo and the artistes who drove SAABs to be different) by the combination of Detroit and Japan Inc. Renault had a go by buying AMC and producing fragile Renaults – that didn’t work. Rover made brand new secondhand Honda Legends known as Sterlings and that effort foundered too.

    So decades later, complaining about the old GM body designation system seems to be tilting at something with no relevance at all. It mystifies me, frankly. And the ’82 Camaro/Firebird looked brilliant compared to the dud of a Mustang/Mecury Capri that had come out four years earlier. What a load of old stodge that thing was – my brother had one and it was extremely gawky to look at and worse to drive. My beef at the time was that GM and Ford deliberately refused to import their better engineered European cars to compete with the Japanese. An Escort whomped the Pinto in 1970; the second generation Vauxhall Cavalier never made it to the US. Nor the third like that Vectra featured the other day. The same cruddy original 1982 Cavalier soldiered on until 2005 (!), when it was replaced by the Cobalt, a further lumpen mass of crud. But by then, GM under Wagener was spiralling ever down towards bankruptcy – he managed to knock off $70 billion of shareholder value in his less than decade tenure as boss up to 2008, and seemed to be baffled by it all. Literally.

    Against those sins, the body type designations of previous years was small potatoes. Who cares? I mean, really? The requirement to satisfy dealers with a full line from small to large models led the way. When Olds and Chev 350 V8s were first used interchangeably in the ’70s, with an occasional Pontiac to further confuse matters, it was all due to the immense cost of getting the engines to pass pollution regulations, something Europe didn’t burden itself with until 1992. Sure, some old Colonel Blimps US Marines Ret’d complained about finding a Chevy engine in their Olds because they remembered the 1960s advertising, but when GM standardized on making the Chevy a properly engineered pollution regulation-abiding engine, the other dozen or so V8 engines were toast, although the 454 lived on in pickup trucks where requirements were less. Cadillac always had a bespoke engine, but if truth be told, they’d have been better cars fitted with the ubiquitous Chevrolet V8, because Cadillac produced one dud engine after another during the 1980s (V8-6-4, 4100, okay 4500 and finally the Northstar DOHC V8 in the 90s, which was a real stinker). When the bespoke Chevy Corsica and Beretta, an attempt to climb out of the badge engineering morass to produce cars only available at Chevrolet dealers, came out in the late ’80s, what did it have for a standard engine but a 2.2l pushrod 88 hp heap made by Holden – this when the Family 1 SOHC engines were available from Brazil on the cheap. That was GM scattershot thinking at its worst.

    That’s my short take. You’re welcome to yours, although I feel as presented here it’s off-target, because it ignores the commercial realities GM faced or imagined they did. And ultimately failed to meet. When market share fell to 20% and below from the heyday of over 50%, all those old names could not be sustained. Exit Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn and the studiously Swedish re-engineered Opels known as SAABs. Look at the bright side – the badge engineering at taxpayer bailed-out GM is much reduced. It’s only about a third to a half as bad as it once was!

    1. Thank you for that. I can´t disagree with your longer story. Mine is simply a vignette of how GM´s body-platform system didn´t really work out. That there were fit and assemlby problems is correct but I think the blurring brand identities didn´t help one bit. The way I see it, GM developed a platform sharing strategy in a reactive way without knowing the final destination of the process.

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