Ars Technica asks: Was 1980 the worst year for American automobiles? Well, having owned cars back in those days, I’ll say that if it wasn’t the worst year, it was probably in the top five. Excerpt:
Quick, what’s the worst year in American automotive history?
Recent bias might lead you to select 2008, when an unprecedented modern financial crisis slammed the overall economy and led to a government bailout of GM and Chrysler (those carmakers received $80 billion after taking a 40 percent nosedive in sales and having some 3 million jobs at risk). But the near-death experience yielded vehicles and automakers more closely aligned to consumers’ needs and desires.
Arguments could be made that 1929 proved far worse, as the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed drove many automakers out of business. But that period also yielded some of the finest cars ever produced, ones with names like Marmon, Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, Stutz, and many others. Or perhaps it was 1957, when the last of the independent automakers, Nash and Hudson, disappeared from the market, and Packard was gasping its final breath as a poorly disguised Studebaker, a company that would disappear a decade later.
No, it’s 1980. With the arrival of the second OPEC Oil Embargo the year before, a recession took hold of the country. Sales of US-made cars came in at 6.58 million units, down 20 percent from 1979, as import automakers claimed a 26.1 percent market share, up from 21.2 percent in 1979. Ford lost a record $1.5 billion as domestic sales plunged 33 percent and worldwide sales declined 29 percent. Chrysler, having lost $2 billion in the past year and a half, was in such bad shape that banks wouldn’t lend it money. Instead, Congress did, providing a $1.5 billion loan guaranteed by the federal government. Even General Motors was hit by a $763 million loss, the company’s first since 1921.
But bad numbers alone don’t earn 1980 the title of ‘Worst Automotive Year Ever.’ Having to engineer cars with new technology for the first time in decades, the Big Three struggled to meet the unprecedented demand for small fuel-efficient cars. And in the face of profits and market share declining, Detroit responded by, frankly, fielding some of the worst cars it has ever produced.
Peruse the article for a list of some of the worst offenders. And yes, my manufacturer of choice, Ford, has some well-deserved entries on that list. What Ford did to the proud old names of Mustang and Thunderbird in those years was a travesty. Fortunately, they managed to salvage some of that in the mid-Eighties; I had a 1984 Thunderbird and it was a big step up from the 1980 Fairmont-chassis abomination. But then, I had also had a 1979 Thunderbird, long, sleek and black, with a hood big enough for a soccer field, and other than the notoriously leaky T-Bar roofs, it was a pretty decent car.
But then, when I married my first wife, she had a 1972 Pinto – objectively one of the cheapest pieces of crap I had ever driven – but the damn thing was perversely reliable. It could be twenty below zero, and that car would start and run. It never ran well; the body rusted out, the doors sagged, the hood was so far out of alignment that you had to pull it to the right to close it, but the damn thing always ran. Go figure.
As to the point of this article, yes, American made cars in 1980 were pretty bad. Fortunately they’ve come a long way since, and that’s a good thing, since I’m figuring on dumping a substantial piece of cash into a new F-450 in the next few months.