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Hooniverse Wagon Wednesday – The Worst Wagons Ever Produced

Jim Brennan May 18, 2011 Wagon Wednesday 59 Comments

Welcome to another edition of Hooniverse Wagon Wednesday. The Station Wagon is a celebrated automotive variation here at Hooniverse, which is the reason why we started Wagon Wednesdays. We love all types of Wagons… Wood Bodied Wagons, Glitzy two-toned 50s Wagons, The Dreadnoughts of the 60s, the Malaise Era early 70s Wagons, Economy Wagons, Luxury Wagons, Truck Type Wagons, we seem to love them all. However, there is a group of Wagons, produced between 1978 and 1983 that are the worst wagons ever produced, at least in my opinion. They are collectively the GM Mid Sized “A” bodied wagons; The Chevrolet Malibu, The Buick Century, The Pontiac LeMans, and the Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser. How terrible were they? Let me count the ways….


This was GM’s second in a series of “downsizing” their vehicles, with the first round being their successful full-sized line-up only a year earlier. This time, the very popular mid-sized vehicles lost between 500 and 1,000 pounds, shrank by an average of just under a foot, rode on a smaller wheelbase, and were powered by engines that – at first – were no larger than five liters and with many that were smaller. This was an attempt to make “right-sized” vehicles without losing any of the interior room GM customers were expecting.

Unfortunately, there were many shortcuts in producing these smaller mid-sized vehicles. Let’s start with the engines. Available were either the Chevrolet 200 CID V-6 or the Buick 231 CID V-6 that still wasn’t sufficiently smoothed out because of the odd firing order of the 90 degree design, and they only produced between 95 and 110 HP. Next up was a 260 CID Version of the Oldsmobile V-8, and the horsepower was dismal at only 105. Next up was the equally weak 301 CID Pontiac V-8 producing between 135 and 150 HP. Then there was the 305 CID V-8 from Chevrolet that produced between 145 and 160 HP depending upon carburetor configuration. The worst engine of the lot was the Oldsmobile derived 260 CID V-8 Diesel that produced only 90 HP. This engine was used in 1979 only, and did not meet the emission standards for the 1980 model year. Over the subsequent years, the Chevrolet 350 CID V-8 was offered, as was the 231 CID V-6 Oldsmobile Diesel (90 HP), or the 350 CID V-8 Diesel (105 HP).

If you thought the engines was bad news, the transmission offerings were not much better. Theoretically, you could get a three-speed manual (floor shifted at that), or the optional four-speed manual, but very few were ordered. What was left was the Turbohydramatic 200 three-speed automatic. The 200 version was designed to be used in the rear-wheel drive GM small cars, including the Vega, Astra, Skyhawk, Monza, Sunbird, and Firenza. Using it to motivate these mid-sized family cars produced reliability problems, as you could only imagine.

But what really made these wagons truly insufferable was the fact that GM decided that they really didn’t need to offer opening windows on the rear doors. For the entire production cycle, you could not beg, borrow, or steal functioning rear windows. The only way you could get ventilation was to open the rear quarter vent windows.

The rear tailgate was a design that was almost as dumbfounding… it was a throwback to the 50’s, with the rear window that hinged up, and the gate that dropped down. The was no hatch type rear gate… there was no magic three-way tailgate design… not even a disappearing rear window into the tailgate. This was truly cost engineering at its worst. While moderately more functional than a single hatch design, it still had a feeling of cheapness. Having the tail-lamps housed within the rear bumper only added to the lack of design.

The interior also looked like it was designed on a budget, with the instrument panel simplified, and the HVAC and Audio controls housed in a centralized location. Gone was the flamboyant dash panels of the previous best selling GM cars like the Grand Prix and the Cutlass Supreme of the mid 70’s, and replaced with what appears to be Lego Blocks. The base seats were pretty austere as well, with cheap materials, and no visible support.

So, are these particular models the worst wagons ever produced? Remember, we can only now find a couple of redeeming features of the Pinto or Vega wagons, and can appreciate the eccentric qualities of the Corvair and Tempest wagons. But what about these A-Body (and later G-Body) wagons from 1978 to 1983? I can’t think of a single feature that would make them desirable. What is your take?

Image Source: Old Car Manual Project

  • Festiva_Movemnt

    The Grand Wagoneer chase/ produce truck crash scene in Pet Semetary II may have been the highlight of this vehicle's existence….

    • Mark P.

      When one considers what these midsize GM wagons competed with at the time, the Ford Farimont and Dodge Aspen, all of a sudden they aren't half bad. At least they had a frame, and there are tons of them still on the road running, the same can't be said for the Ford or the Dodge.

      • Michael

        I thought the fairmont had a frame. I owned a Granada sedan and it had a full frame. They were basically the same car

  • Joe Btfsplk

    I gotta go with the "Illinois Nazi" Ford Pinto wagon from the "Blues Brothers".

  • IronBallsMcG

    I got your redeeming quality right here,
    No, seriously, right here!
    http://hooniverse.com/2010/12/21/hcoty-nominee-th

    <img src="http://hooniverse.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/wullet-hell1.jpg"&gt;
    Photo courtesy of some car blog or another.

    • Han_Solex

      I maintain that this horribly amateur photoshop experiment gone horribly awry was, in fact, my finest hour on this earth.

      Also, this is exactly what tomorrow's rapture is going to look like …

  • Tim W.

    I think by the very virtue that you COULD get a three- or four- speed in them makes them marginally cooler than a lot of other wagons…and let's be honest, now that we're all adults and no longer consigned to ride in the back, do we really care that the rear windows rolled down?
    My votes for the worst wagons have to be the '57 GM lineup…with the exception of the four-door hardtops. So much style, so little substance…

    • dead_elvis

      re: fixed rear windows – yes, we care. Riding around with the windows open, it generally smooths out the airflow through the cabin if you crank the rear window down as well as the front. Don't wanna muss mah 'do, ya know.

  • Despite their inherent crappiness, I always dug the G-bodies. Then again that shouldn't be a surprise considering my ongoing obsession with the Ford equivalent of the same car.

    An '83 Buick Regal sedan came close to being my first car, but in the end an '86 Celebrity with the 90 HP Iron Duke won out. I too was confused and aggravated by the rear windows not rolling down. In my high school years, this would have been a big issue when hauling my friends around (which I did pretty frequently because I was the first to get a license). But nowadays, I can count the number of times a year I roll down my back windows on one hand.

    • Tim W.

      My third car was an '88 Century wagon. Before I actually owned one, I thought that the Century had one of the worst dash layouts ever. Then I drove it for two years, and concluded it wasn't half bad. Mine had the 3.1? 2.8? V6, so it performed quite admirable. It also had the added bonus of being a perfect fit for my futon mattress in the way back with the seats down…

    • P161911

      My first car WAS a '81 Buick Regal. At least I got a Sport Coupe Turbo Limited. Yes, it had the wire wheel hubcaps and the vinyl landau top. BUT, it had the same hood bulge as a Grand National! It quickly got some chrome wheels and BFG white letter tires, that as a 16 year old, I thought looked great. It had a few issues, the worst one I remember was the alternator wire getting welded to the turbo piping. At 16 I spent a lot of time on boost.

  • B72

    I remember when these came out. A friend's dad picked one up. I eagerly crawled all over it to check it out. The non opening rear windows were just absurd. My friend's dad didn't know about it before we pointed it out, because who would have thought? He sold it shortly thereafter.

    I thought the lights in the bumper were smart though. Gives you a nice wide rear opening.

    • And they started showing up on a bazillion custom trucks shortly thereafter.

  • Mr_Biggles

    Aaaagh. The back windows! As soon as I saw the pictures the mental wounds opened up. This post has brought me back to the misery I experienced as a child sitting in the back seat of our A/C-free Malibu wagon on the way across the prairies from Calgary to Toronto in a particularly hot July. I had stripped down to my underwear, but it was almost worse because then I would alternately slide around and stick to the vinyl seats as I tried to get away from the trails of drool that the dog was leaving down the seat back as her head lolled over from the back-back where she no doubt wished as fervently as I did that she be put out of her misery.

  • Alff

    While all you say is true, this generation of Malibu is not displeasing to the eye. The hydroencephalitis-derived rear bumper notwithstanding, the lines are simple and clean.

  • tonyola

    While I agree that GM did a hell of a lot of corner-cutting on the downsized intermediates, I can't quite put them as the worst wagons ever. These wagons were in some ways the best-looking cars in the A/G lineup with clean, functional lines that avoided the awkwardness of the fastback sedan/coupes and the incipient pudginess of the notchback four-doors. I nominate for the worst wagons the 1976-1980 Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare. While there was inherently nothing terribly wrong with the styling (as least for the era) or usefulness of the design, the F-body cars had problems. The transverse front torsion bars gave a soft ride but handling was poor compared to the previous A-cars. The interiors were typically mid-malaise chintz. But the biggest problem was Chrysler's bottom-of-the-barrel late-'70s quality. The cars were very poorly put together, fit and finish were worthy of Soviet cars, things kept breaking or falling off, and the car rusted with a vengeance only matched by Chevy Vegas. I remember seeing new cars that said "Aspen" on one side and "Volare" on the other side.
    <img src="http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2425/3990089840_4bcf1d7040.jpg&quot; width=400>

    • P161911

      Didn't those hold the record as the most recalled car ever? Apparently they were a big factor in Chrysler's bankruptcy.

      • tonyola

        They held the record for most-recalled up until the GM X-cars.

      • dukeisduke

        They'd have a hard time competing with the GM A-Bodies:
        http://www.autorecalls.us/aut-03/recalls/1978/che

        My mom has a '78 Malibu Classic, so I remember most of them, and all the little "CAMPAIGN COMPLETE" stickers they put on the top of the fan shroud.

    • idiotking

      My grandfather had the sedan version (a Volare) in upstate New York, bought new from the dealer. I think it lasted five years before they had to tow it away, and there was nothing left but the frame and axles.

    • dukeisduke

      But that had great commercials! I mean, Rex Harrison singing "Unbelievable!", and Sergio Franchi crooning "Volare" – you can't beat that.

    • Age_of_Aerostar

      I work in the automotive industry. While at a vehicle assembly plant, I pointed out to a line worker that a vehicle had one decal on one side, and a different one on the other. He stopped the line, people came running, a supervisor congratulated him for finding it, and he gave me the credit for spotting the problem.

      • tonyola

        I heard a story about a man who took delivery of an early Fox-body Ford in 1978. The car was a Ford Fairmont in the front but a Mercury Zephyr in the rear. When the story got out, Ford in their embarrassment apparently offered to buy the car back or make an even-steven switch for a different Fox car (presumably correctly badged). The man refused and kept his Ford/Merc.

        • Maymar

          I had a teacher who worked for GM as a district sales manager in the late 70's – he told us about about a Trans Am that had been delivered in his zone. As I remember, it was lime green with a bordello red interior. It still sold (GM owes Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds a pretty big debt for it).

  • Hey, at least they were wagons, right? No?

  • P161911

    Wasn't the Buick 231 carbed turbo motor available on these? I know it was on the rest of the A/G body Buicks.

    • west_coaster

      I don't think the ever put the turbo engine in the wagon. If they did, the monthly car magazines would have been all over it.

    • Maymar

      Looks like in 1981 at least, it got the naturally aspirated 3.8 or 4.3, but no turbo.

  • Matt

    I would take an '84-'86 Grand LeMans wagon ANYDAY. My first car was an '85 Bonneville with a 305 and there is a special place in my heart for that car…

  • idiotking

    My dad had a full-sized '80 Chevy wagon (based on the Impala) with the 350 V-8 diesel for about two years. I think he still has post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from that experience.

  • P161911

    The Lada Riva Estate might give these wagons a run for their money in the worst wagon category.
    <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/Lada_Riva_1500_Estate.JPG"width=500&gt;

  • OA5599

    You should try that with my car. I went to the ATM Saturday on the way to a race. I was behind on my kid's allowance, so I handed him a $20 bill.

    As we rode to the track, he stuck the $20 against the window glass, for some reason beyond a parent's logic. His fingers slipped, and the bill slid through the gap and down to the bottom of the door.

    I could have pulled the door panel at the track to recover the money, but I'll let him sweat it out a bit to teach him a lesson.

    • Age_of_Aerostar

      you could teach him another lesson too… how to remove the door panel himself.

      • OA5599

        He helped me replace the power window motor a few months ago. I'm sure he could pull the door panel, but I think he would be less damage-free than me.

  • topdeadcentre

    On the other hand, the A-body Maliboat/Cultass/Zentry/Lemons depreciation was so drastic and their used value so low, they enabled thousands of college students and minimum-wage earners to own a car.

    If I recall correctly, parts weren't hard to find in junkyards in the 1980s and 1990s, and they weren't crazy-difficult to work on, either.

  • All good points, Jim, but fixes for most of those shortcomings are possible with the proper upgrades…
    <img src="http://www.stationwagonforums.com/forums/gallery/files/8/1/GNW2.jpg&quot; width="500" />

    • P161911

      You had me up to the wheels. Are those Dayton type wire wheels?!?

      • Probably. That's the only picture I've seen of that particular example.

  • Smells_Homeless

    Why don't you just buy the ElCo? They're exactly the same underneath. You may be on to something with the panel wagon though, but you'd have to use the two-door doors to make the proportions right.

  • Smells_Homeless

    I've owned or built at least 6 A/G bodies, so they feel like home to me. Sure, they were slapped together initially, but that's really not that big of a deal, and as has been mentioned, they're sickeningly easy to make fast. Just watch for rear frame rust. I swear they came with a "tilt rear bumper" option.

  • dukeisduke

    If I'm not mistaken, the A-Body wagons could be had with a 350 4-bbl mated to the Turbo 350 transmission.

  • dukeisduke

    Gee, let me see if if I can rattle off all of the things that went wrong with my mom's Malibu:

    Half-a-dozen new blower motors, due to the mounting with the shaft placed vertically, causing rapid bearing wear;
    The notorious THM200, which was later replaced by a rebuilt THM350;
    The poorly-designed turn-signal stalk/dimmer switch, replaced twice;
    Four new coil springs, since the originals sagged after just a few years;
    The dome light switch wiring routed over the parking brake ratchet, causing the insulation to wear off, shorting the wires and blowing fuses;
    The crappy A/C system with the R-4 compressor that wears out every few years, and the center vents that loosened, always pointing upward;
    The mouse fur headliner that fell down after a few years (even though it was parked in the garage, shaded by huge pecan trees);
    The vacuum-operated heat riser valve whose tack welds broke, causing the butterfly to rattle loudly at idle (a $200 dealer-only part!);

    Not to mention all the craptasticness, like the fan shroud put together *with staples*, and the light blue metallic paint (it's a light blue/dark blue two-tone) that faded and started flaking off after just a few years.

    • Tim W.

      GM turn signal stalk/dinner switch – once famously described in a car magazine as sounding (and feeling) like a wine glass stem breaking every time you used it. A more appropriate description I cannot think of…

  • RichardKopf

    They're RWD. They will accept a plethora of V8s. They can handle.

    No, they're far from the worst anything.

  • Exactly.

    I'm too young to know better, so when I see the stats of RWD, V8 powered, reasonable size, lots of parts swappability…I get all giddy.

    The idea that a car could just be so defectively engineered and assembled as these notoriously were just doesn't sink in.

    I mean, sure, the styling is bland..but it's also inoffensive. I could rock a Chevy Malibu classic with an e-rod LS3 + 6MT combo…until the door handle broke off in my hand and the headliner melted in the summer.

  • njhoon

    My Mom had a 79 Buick Century Wagon with a 4.9 liter in it when I was in high school,. I loved it! It was a very capable car; It did 22 donuts in the snow (the record), hit a deer at 80 mph and still drove home, haul 4 high school kids with coolers to many concerts, get air over the rail road tracks. had a huge back seat area "Wink, Wink", was very tail happy in the rain or snow so it taught me about over steer and under steer. It did all that on just two transmissions and two steering boxes (rail road jumps). I also recall the windows went half way down, but I really don't remember.

  • sam

    I think the rear suspension is some sort of "three link or four link" setup. I saw some old rat rod on one of these chassis because the guy liked that set up. I think the worstest wagons are the cavaliers ect. It is to bad chevrolet was not producing higher quality stuff at that point in time though.

    • Lack Thereof

      Rear suspension is the same 4-link setup as the rest of the A/G bodies. Similar to the fox-body setup.

      They actually can be made to corner very well.

  • craymor

    Yes, but when you get to replacing the starter motor on a six month schedule it gets to be a pain in the ass when you're 16~18 years old and driving around in your parents crappy wagon. it doesn't matter where you brought the starter from, you still have to pull of the exhaust manifold to get it off…..

    now a days I wouldn't mind having one to hoon around in, but back then, god no!

    And I didn't even have my license back then, my mom had one, and one of my older friends had one, I was just helping out a friend/ride…..

  • G Mulholland

    Bought a 1980 Grand LeMans wagon in 1982. After attempting to climb the hills in Pittsburgh with the stock V6, I came home and began plotting an engine swap. Over a year, I built a 383 Chevy and a Turbo 350. That was easily installed with just a few adjustments, and we enjoyed the car for years. Both boys drove it thru high school; I finally sold it to pay for SHO repairs. The engine still sits in my buddy's shop.

  • Wolfe

    To call the g-body wagon the worst wagon ever is just foolish. I picked up a 83 cutlass cruiser this last spring ran it all this summer and i love it. I got rid of the v6 and put a olds 307 with a turbo 350 tranny its got bucket seats with a dark maroon interior its got a hot hughs dupont paint while rolling on ss craigers. while your complaning about down sizing and less wieght my car goes right around most big v8s. I think there one of the best wagons to be built for speed handleing and confort.And have yet to say anything negative about them. I think the worst one built was its predicesor the cutlass ciera wagon.. The unibody front wheel drive would make any hot roder want nothing to do with it.

  • TimC in Tennessee

    I had a 78 Malibu Wagon that was factory V6/3 spd stick on floor with bench seat, I gave $300 for it and a month later put a 355/4 spd in in…………..man I miss that SLEEPER!!!

    In the market for another if ya know of one in SE TN / N GA…….email "a355ranger@comcast.net"

  • Trent

    Not to be rude, but Jim, why do you have such a hard on for GM…every time i get on your blogs your complaining about the GM slant backs of the late 70's, and now I see here about the GM worst wagons ever built…..How many cars have you built sir, its always easy to stand off on the side line and complain when you have no idea about the inner workings of any company and the reasons why they do, and or have done what they thought was best for the co. and the consumer at the most cost effective way possible at the time. If you hate these cars so much, why the hell do you keep blogging about them, and concentrate on the ones you do like,……just saying……have a good day
    Trent

  • All I can say is I like my G body Cutlass wagon. Lightweight, same wheelbase as a 1st gen Camaro, tons of aftermarket support, and my car eats Miatas for lunch at the autocross. http://www.streetlegaltv.com/features/car-features/battle-wagon-ben-meissners-1979-olds-cutlass-cruiser/

  • Eamon

    This wagon series is all G body. No A series in there