by Karl Ludvigsen

Very special thanks to Alexander Melanson for taking the time to re-type this article from March 1978 Popular Mechanics.

As you well know, this is the age of the Big Shrink. The Monte Carlo of today is not the Monte Carlo of yesterday. It's smaller, lighter, and gets better gas mileage. You've seen the ways that the cars have been chopped down in size and weight in 1977, and 1978, you've heard that there's much more of the same still to come.

That couldn't be more true. Just how true it is you can see on these pages, where we present your first detailed look at the compact models that General Motors will be selling in the 1980s. They are radically changed--so radically that no car in the huge corporation's history has ever posed a greater potential for change in its fortunes. It could be the best thing that's ever happened to GM--or the worst.

The impact of these cars will be that strong because almost every part in them will be brand-new. They'll also be sharply different in design from anything that GM has made before, combining front-wheel drive with transverse engines and all-independent suspension. The bill for designing, testing, and tooling up for them is estimated to run up to a cool one billion dollars. In case you haven't thought about that lately that's a thousand times one million. It gives one pause.

But being radically different doesn't account for the kind of impact these cars could have on finances of General Motors. The Corvair was even more radical, and it's erratic rise and fall had little effect on the General.

A lot is riding on these new models.

These new front-drive models will be woven much more deeply into the fabric of the corporation becuase they'll be offered by four of its five passenger car divisions. They'll appear in the summer of 79 as 1980 models Chevrolet Nova, Pontiac Phoenix, OLDSMOBILE OMEGA and Buick Skylark--the basic bread-and-butter cars of these volume-producing divisions. If they don't work and work well, GM is in big trouble.

These are GM's entries in the compact car market of the eighties. They'll represent the first real attempt to redefine the compact car since that class was introduced 20 yeasr earlier, with the Chevy Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Plymouth Valiant. since then the names have changed but the cars we think of as compacts have stayed much the same. New though they are in detail, the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr are traditional compacts in size and design. But these front wheel drive GM cars are something else.

Today's GM compacts are all descendents of the Chevy II, introduced in 1962. From that the bigger and heavier Nova evolved in 1968. Known inside GM as the X-body, it was given to other divisions to sell in the early seventies [omega debuted 1972 as a '73 model] . all were facelifted, with a new hatchback bodystyle, for 75 model year. When that car came out, however, planning of it's successor was already rolling ahead.

In 1972 and 1973 the GM designers were working on a "J-Body" car to replace the Nova. They wanted it to be about the size of one of GM's German cars, the Opel Rekord. Origanlly set for 1978 introduction, the J-body was accellerated to a 1977 launching when the oil embargo hit in 1973. and when big car sales slumped in 1974 it was pushed up to 1976 1/2 model status.

Then that schedule was scrubbed in the fall of 1974 when GM planners realized they'd have to shake up their whole range of cars. That's when they got smaller starting with the Big C and B body platforms and working there way down from their. And thats when work on these front drive X-cars began. As it had done with the full size cars and the intermediates, GM set up a special design group at its central engineering staff to develop the X-body. Named to head this staff was Robert J. Eaton of Chevy and designers from all the divisions participating. But before they put their pencils to the paper, Eaton visited Opel in Germany to see what plans for the future this GM car designer was making. What he found their was what his other engineers confirmed, was the lightest and most compact design for the new X-body would have front-wheel drive and a transverse engine.

Drive through the front wheels is no novelty to GM, which has offered it in the Oldsmobile Toronado since 1966 and the Cadillac Eldorado since 1967. But these were big, elegant, and expensive cars. They'd fostered a belief that at GM front wheel drive was a costly special feature, too expensive to be used in lower-priced small cars. This was especially the view of S.E. "Bunkie" Knudsen while he held top GM jobs, and he made key top-level convertsto his belief. So it has been a major turn-around for GM to okay a line of low cost compacts using front wheel drive.

In preparing the new X-body design, Eaton's team worked with interior dimensions much like those in the new '78 GM intermediates. Their challenge was to get that kind of room in a much lighter car that would give far better gas mileage. In fact, they were given a weight target by GM management and were told to meet it "come hell or high water," as one planner put it. That target was the EPA's 2750-pound inertia weight category, the one it uses for emissions and economy testing. Making allowances for the various EPA calculations, this 2750 pounds will be some 800 pounds less than the X-bodies of today.

Sadly goes the V8 engine

One of the toughest decisions that had to be made in planning the 1980 X-body was the elimination of a V8 engine from the line. To many of us the V8 is a symbol of luxury, power and smoothness. Also, Ford offers a V8 in its Fairmont/Zephyr compact line. But the Eaton team conclude that vthe added weight and bulk of a V8 would push the new X-bodies too far over the weight limit. They went with a V6 and Four instead, placing them transversely at the front. The new GM Xs will be the first cars in the world to offer a choice of Four and Six in a transverse front-drive layout.

For the Four, they turned to the 151-cu. in. [2.5 liter] cast iron engine with pushrod overhead valves that Pontiac now produces. Originally a Chevrolet design, it traces its origins back to the Chevy II of 1962. For the X-bodies it will be lightened and offered also in a smaller 135 cu. in [2.2 liter] size. The V6 option will be a completely new engine designed and built by Chevrolet. To make it compact and improve its dynamic balance, it'll have classic 60 degree angle between its cylinder banks instead of the 90 degree angle used in the other GM V6s, which are made on V8 tooling. This neat-looking Six is expected to displace 165 cu. in. [2.7 liters].

More use of Aluminum

Initially, both engines will have cast-iron blocks and heads. Some parts, such as intake manifolds, will be aluminum from the start of production and others will be converted to light metal as experience with it use is gained. Chevrolet is carrying out a massive expansion of its aluminum die-casting plant in Massena, N Y., to meet the demands of the X-body program. To pass the tougher emissions standards taking place in 1980, the larger engines will have air pums as well ast Catalysts. And for those who want perfomance, turbochargers will soon become optional.

A lot of the Massena aluminum will go into the X-body transmission housings. All of them will be die-cast of aluminum. The new automatic will be a new Turbo-Hydramatic Type 125, with torque converter and three speed forward speeds and the manual will have four sychronized speeds. It'll be made at Chevrolet's Muncie, Indiana plant.

Since the engine will be offset to the right of the car, the trans-axle units will be to the left, extending out from helical "ring and pinion" gears taht drive the differential. With all the shafts placed transversely, there's no right angle turn like that in a normal car's rear axle. This according to Pontiac General Manager Alex Mair, gets rid of a 40-percent loss of effieciency cuased by the conventional rear axle.

With such a compact power pack, the design group could pare down the X-body's exterior dimensions. They set its wheel base at 103.5 inches, two inches shorter than the Ford Fairmont, and gave it an overall length of only 174 inches a full foot shorter than the Ford. The X-body width is expected to to be 68.6 inches, and its height 55.1 inches.

By U S standards, this is an inch or two on the tall side, but times are changing, people are to sit up straighter if cars are to get any shorter.

As one GM stylist told me, "The American designer is becoming more and more Europeanized. They're getting used to seeing the gas tank under rear passengers, to a higher car." In its proportions, the X-car is more European than American, and in its dimensions it's midway between the Ford Fairmont and the new Plymouth Horizon.

More 'European' influence

European methods were also put to work in the running gear under the x-body. At front it's suspended by MacPherson struts, with coil springs, steered by rank-and-pinion gear. Power steering will be an option with the four, and probably standard with the heavier V6. Both the power steering [made by GM's Saginaw] and the front struts [AC/Delco] are already being tryed out on this years new, exciting Omni and Horizon; GM sells those parts to Chrysler. Coil springs and tubular shocks are also used at the rear, wher the trailering-arm suspension resembles the design used by the VW Rabbit. Brakes will be disc in front, and drum in the rear inside 13-inch wheels.

As if to top off the European influences on this new compact, the stylists gave it a decidely continental looking. Most so are the bodystyles that Chevrolet and Pontiac will share [artist renderings where shown, though very much unlike actual thing] : Fastback two-door and four door sedans with a lift up hatch at the rear. They have a six-window design and deepside glass seen on the latest Italian and German products. For Buick and Oldsmobile there will be a more fomal and conservative notchback design. These have conventional trunk openings.

Station Wagon may come

In the way it manages to do so well, GM will give each car special features to play up its divisional identity. Pontiac, for example is considering the use of the new Davisorb S/L urethane bumper system. This use plastic alone to meet the bumper rules, with no metal inserts or energy-absorbing cylinders. With this bumper, the Phoenix could have a highly distinctive front end design.

No station wagon as such is part of the initial x-car lineup. Instead GM will use the front-drive components on a seperate chassis which it calls the MPC, for Multi-purpose carrier. The idea behind the MPC is to build a single basic vehicle, with forward steering and a sliding door at right, that can serve as either a van or station wagon. GM planners feel that this will come closer to fitting the changing lifestyles of te younger buyers who'll be interested in the X-body cars. Both Chevrolet and Pontiac will have wagon versions of the MPC in time for the beginning of the 1980 model year.

After these X-body models, GM has to deal with the question of its F-body cars: the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird/Espirit. These are based on the present X-body chassis, so when that goes out of production early in 1979 those very sporty cars will be be obliged, for economic reasons, to switch over to new X-body parts. but many at GM, both designers and engineers, fought hard against the idea of front wheel drive for cars like the Camaro and Firebird. Yet any other arrangement wouldn't take advantage of the low-cost parts that were being tooled for large-scale production for the X-body.

Tested foreign cars

To weigh the alternatives, the GM engineers tested prototype cars plus samples of existing cars--Lancias, VW Scirioccos, Alfa Romeos--all with diffferent drive layouts. They decided that rear-wheel dirve layout was the best way to go with a sporty car. For 1981 introduction, they're readying a new F-body line that will use the V6 engine in front powering a rear axle, probably in the conventional manner. Some designs being evaluated have independent rear suspension also. And it's still not too late to rule out a transaxle setup.

In the looks department, future Firebirds are expected to hold up todya's high standards. The stylesbeing developed for it and the Camaro have subtly curving, rounded forms instead of the blocky angular shape so popular in Europe today. The '81 F-bodies will both look and be highly aerodynamic, truly streamlined. It almost goes without saying that cars like these will be offered in turbocharged form, performance to match their looks.

Detrioters have been startled by the openness with which GM has been testingits X-body prototypes, even on the roads outside of its Milford Proving Grounds. And many Lancia Beta sedans and coupes are being used as rolling test beds for the engines and transaxles. It seems likely that GM is giving the X-body its most thorough preproduction check out in recent years, precisley becuase it does realize how essential it is that the cars work right from the start.

X-bodies must prove successful

In the spring of 1979, the X-body models will start rolling down assembly lines at GM plants in Oklahoma City, Terrytown NY and Willlow Run Michigan. After that, they must keep rolling in the hands of happy owners. On the scale of the X-body, GM can't afford the legal entanglements of the Corvair of the dismal service reputation of The Vega/Astre. These new Novas, Phoenixes, Omegas and Skylarks have to be debugged before production starts, not afterward. Alot of GM's very blue chips are riding on this throw of the dice. They'd better not come up snake eyes.

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