9 tragically flawed GM vehicles whose heroic fixes came too late
Decades upon decades passed when General Motors could do no wrong, and the products rolling off its assembly line were proof positive of its business model’s supremacy. But nobody’s perfect, and mistakes had to be addressed to meet stockholder’s expectations. GM’s design and engineering teams made some great cars with serious potential that were packed with tragic flaws—and received heroic fixes that came right before their curtain calls. It’s all rather tragic, so here are nine examples to prove the point.
1993 Cadillac Allanté (Northstar)
You gotta give General Motors credit, because when it aims for the stars, it grabs a firehose full of ideas and shoots skyward. Take a shortened E-body coupe and turn it into a bespoke V-body, then deliver finished shells from Italy’s Pininfarina to Hamtramck via a convoy of Boeing 747s known as the “Air Bridge.” One of the biggest keys to the Allanté’s failure was the drivetrain layout (front-wheel drive does not a Mercedes SL competitor make) and the mediocre performance of Cadillac’s High Technology V-8 engines.
The lack of power was finally addressed in 1993, the Allanté’s final year, by the rocket-like thrust of Cadillac’s all-new Northstar V-8. The added grunt was competitive, but 1993 also included a heavily revised rear suspension, active dampers, and revised power-steering. As we previously mentioned, the 1993 Allanté was “finally, the internationally competitive luxury roadster its creators had envisioned … albeit six years too late.”
1988 Pontiac Fiero
One of the big problems with the Pontiac Fiero, aside from the engine fires of the early models, was the promise of sporty performance, which wasn’t realized until the last year of production. As we previously mentioned, cost-cutting sealed the Fiero’s fate well before 1988. There was simply too much parts-bin engineering: The compact X-body (Citation) front suspension was flipped 180 degrees and dropped in the back, while the front suspension was lifted from the T-body subcompact (Chevette). It’s a shame that in the Fiero’s final year the necessary suspension upgrades (new front control arms, knuckles, and an all-new tri-link rear suspension, plus a wider front track and, on WS6 models, staggered wheels) and improved brakes (four wheel vented discs) couldn’t alter the course of history. These bits were precisely what Pontiac engineers intended for the Fiero from the get-go. At least we got one year of mid-engine Pontiac Excitement.
2020 Cadillac CT6-V (Blackwing)
Hate to say it, but the Cadillac CT6 is not unlike the Cimarron before it. That’s because the last examples of Cadillac’s J-body experiment indeed improved when a 2.8-liter V-6 and five-speed manual transmission were standard equipment. Similarly, the CT6 never set the world on fire, because a flagship luxury sedan needs more swagger under the hood than a turbocharged four-cylinder could ever provide. (Yes, the CT6’s standard engine was 0.8 liters smaller than what’s on tap for a 1987 Cimarron.)
The CT6 didn’t receive a proper V-8 until the 2020 CT6-V hit the scene with the similarly star-crossed Blackwing motor. Because there is still a market for upper-crust luxury sedans (think Mercedes S-Class), the CT6 deserved an optional V-8 from the start. What happened when the CT6 got it all? Both the engine and the car unceremoniously met their maker.
1917–18 Chevrolet Series D
The Series D was truly a car ahead of its time, sporting a standard overhead-valve V-8 engine that came a full 38 years before the famous small-block Chevrolet V-8. A gentleman named A.T. Stuart designed a surprisingly lightweight chassis and a rear suspension with quarter-elliptic rear leaf springs mounted in a rather radical cantilever fashion. All of which should have meant a longer production run for the Series D, so what happened? General Motors happened. It’s a safe bet that the 1917 integration of Chevrolet into General Motors ensured the premium Chevrolet V-8 could never be a threat to offerings from Oldsmobile and Buick.
General Motors EV1 (NiMH upgrade)
This one is a no-brainer: Have a look at the photo that comes with the Wikipedia definition of compliance car. The EV1 was ahead of its time and yet destined for failure. We’ve discussed the truth about this car previously, but the fact remains: The EV1 only improved toward the end, when the second generation received nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. While NiMH aren’t nearly as good as the li-ion batteries that made Tesla famous, the EV1 proves that General Motors was dead-serious about electric propulsion. And it doubled down on its efforts by improving the EV1 … before they crushed (almost) all of them.
Based on one of GM’s first shared platforms (the ubiquitous 1926–96 GM B-platform), the Viking by Oldsmobile was a short-lived experiment in premium branding for an established automaker. While this notion was successful for Oakland (i.e. Pontiac) it didn’t work out here, or at Buick (with Marquette), or at Cadillac (with LaSalle). Well, perhaps it worked a little too well for Oakland. No matter, Viking was “built to meet growing public demand for an eight-cylinder car of General Motors quality at medium price.” Talk about irony: The Series D mentioned above was doing the same for Chevrolet a little over a decade before. GM knows market segmentation can only take it so far, but market research in the Herbert Hoover era was probably lacking a bit.
2006 Chevrolet SSR (LS2)
Chevrolet’s Super Sport Roadster was a truck with a folding hardtop, styled to be a hot take on the “Advance Design” pickups from 1947. The look was great, but it rested atop a revised GMT-360 platform (shared with the Trailblazer SUV) with a workhorse 5.3-liter V-8 (300 horsepower) that ensured the SSR didn’t perform as well as some hoped.
The combination of brilliant style atop mundane underpinnings is not unlike the Pontiac Fiero’s tragic tale, as looks weren’t enough to keep questions about SSR’s longevity at bay. The asking price was steep and sales were disappointing, but the penultimate year (2005) saw the introduction of the LS2 small block V-8 (390 horsepower) and an optional six-speed manual transmission. Could this be the reincarnation of the El Camino SS? Unfortunately not, as only 826 units were sold in 2006, even with a modest power bump (+5 for autoboxes and +10 for manuals). Perhaps the future coulda been brighter if the combination of LS2 LS6 and manual transmission was available from the get-go … or perhaps power was never the SSR’s problem.
1976–77 Chevrolet Vega
I come not to bury the Chevrolet Vega, but to praise it. The early models certainly had their problems, but like most American cars in the 1970s, a cornucopia of running changes happened behind the scenes and never got the attention they deserved. This isn’t just about big bumpers and catalytic converters, as there were presumably 264 changes in 1975 and 300 changes the year after. Our nation’s Bicentennial anniversary ushered in an honest-to-goodness five-speed manual transmission, corrosion-fighting improvements, cooling upgrades, revised chassis, larger brakes, and an upgraded rear suspension. The Vega’s final year (1977) was cleaner thanks to a revised secondary air-injection system, and the insides looked more upscale with color keyed steering wheels, steering columns, and a color-matched full console. While the Vega lived a long life (and spawned the sporty Monza/Skyhawk/Starfire/Sunbird) it’s safe to say that many of the best Vegas ever made were the last ones.
2002 Oldsmobile Intrigue
I’ll let you in on a little secret: General Motors’ long running W-body platform is rather underrated, and the best of the breed came from Oldsmobile. No other W-body has the clean, modern styling and sweated the details quite like the Intrigue. No really: I mean, just look real close at that nose!
While there was nothing particularly wrong with the Intrigue, unlike other Oldsmobiles that benefited from performance upgrades (think supercharged 3800 engines), the Intrigue died three years before the wicked 5.3-liter V-8 engine (LS4) was shoehorned into the W-body Pontiac Grand Prix GXP. If only the Intrigue GLS could have the LS4 V8 tearing up the streets, violently torque-steering its owners off the road with just a touch of the traction control button and a punch to the gas pedal. Iron fist, meet velvet glove: If only the Oldsmobile division survived long enough to make this happen!