Self-loathing is a common indication of manic depression, and a warning sign for potential suicide candidates. If these ads from 1985 are any indication, both Chrysler and GM should have tried to kill themselves by now. Fortunately they. . . oh wait, damn.
As we’ve noted previous installments of Out of Print, by the 1980s the imports weren’t just taking the domestic car maker’s lunch money, they were pantsing them in PE and giving them swirlies in the boys room after school. There were attempts by the U.S. manufacturers to counteract the incursions of the Japanese on the low-end- with there higher quality and equipment levels, and the Europeans at the high end- with their more aggressive handling and sporting nature. Most notably Ford, with the introduction of the “World Car” escort, and later the game-changing Taurus/Sable twins tried to compete head-on.
But change takes time, and GM wouldn’t take a serious swing at the Japanese imports until 1989 when they introduced the Geo brand- which sold predominantly imported cars. Chrysler had been on the ropes for the latter half of the ’70s, and their infamous government bailout and K-Car-led resurgence in the 1980s didn’t include a solid plan to address consumer tastes which had shifted, led by experience with foreign makes.
All the Japanese you need to know
The most expedient method to counteract the insurgent imports was to take a me-too position, as shown in these ads from the March 1985 issue of Motor Trend . In the case of the Chrysler ad, they take the tact of defeated combatant- these cars are promoted as Mitsubishis first and foremost, despite the fact that they are sold through Dodge and Plymouth dealerships. Any pretense that these are from an American company is thrown out the window- because Chrysler perceived that the cars would be devalued in the consumer’s mind if presented as such.
All the Japanese you need to know– is at once a raised white flag of surrender, and an indication of what was recognized as a key selling point in the ’80s. American cars had developed such a crap reputation by then, that the only competitive move they felt valid was of the if can’t beat ’em, join ’em kind.
The ’80s brought transition to GM as the company attempted to shift mid to large product from lumbering rear-wheel drive to a more modern fleet of front-drivers. Seeing both accolades in the press, and sales on the lots going to the likes of Volvo, Audi and Mercedes, all of whom were introducing lower-priced models that were more closely priced to GM’s bread and butter product line, but with greater panache, they did what they could, and brought out trim packages that approximated what they thought were the most appealing features of the European makes.
Black-out trim replacing chrome, blackwall tires in lieu of white-walls, and heavy-duty suspensions in place of the marshmallow fluff that underpinned most of their cars- that’s what made for Euro-ness in Detroit’s mind. Ford had done this in the mid-’70s, to little success, as having a Euro-Granada was like getting a lap dance from your grandmother- wrong on so many levels. But GM gave it a try, and here we see an example, as applied to the mid-size and mid-western Chevy Celebrity. In this case it did include some nice alloy wheels- in an era when full-wheel covers were considered an upgrade. GM also applied a two-tone paint and red-bead in the rub strip- as red is the special code for performance, after all 90% of all Ferraris are painted that.
Inside was standard sansabelt-wide seats and skinny steering wheel, which was loosely attached to the front wheels. All in all a me-too approach, and one that didn’t fool anybody.
The history is writ large with how the American auto industry lost its way. These two ads, from an early period of their decline, are demonstrative of some of the causes that they are circling the market-share drain today. There are many reasons that the imports stole share from the domestics- The Americans were too big to make rapid changes, Unions stymied efforts to improve, the decision makers got hooked on the Cosby Show, and couldn’t talk about anything else at the office. Regardless of the cause, the effect has been pretty devastating to the U.S. car makers, their employees, and all that touch the industry in this country.