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