Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A question of quality

GM cars for sale
Imagine this 1976 V6 Buick Century Special in canary yellow. Now imagine putting 198,000 miles on it over 15 years. My brother lived the dream.

Let's talk about quality.

An earlier post on a pristine Chevy Malibu Classic prompted slick
to reflect on G.M.'s seventies-era quality control:
"I will agree in the heyday and that toward the mid to late '70s cars such as the Malibu pictured were produced when the mentality was f*** it, ship it, if they don't like it tough s***...I can remember when a car got close to the 50k mark my dad would get nervous and get rid of that car. Today, GM cars go 200k with relatively few problems, for the most part. Every once in a while a customer will say, 'They sure don't build cars like they used to.' And one of our guy's favorite response is 'They sure don't, thank god."
So we can probably all agree that G.M. cars in the '70s were not exactly finely-tuned machines. The attitude was that you drove the car a few years then got another one. But I have a real world example that's the exception to the rule — my brother's Buick.

The deal in our family was that if you made it through college, my grandparents bought you a new G.M. car as a reward. So when Matt graduated from Aquinas College in 1976, he became the proud owner of a yellow Buick Century.
So here's the scenario. You've got a young Flintoid known to frequent bars like the King's Armor who has friends with names like Bobo and Hooker with a poorly made G.M. coupe. This car's doomed, right?

Not so fast. The Century racked up 198,000 miles before it finally died in 1991. It was a little rusty, but it still had the original transmission and it never needed any major repairs. He sold it to the kid next door as a project car for $1. "It was very reliable even though that was probably the low point of Buick," Matt remembers. "It was fine. It worked."

And that, my friends, is about as enthusiastic an endorsement of a mid-'70s Buick that you're ever going to get. Especially out of my brother.

But what about today's American made cars? Jalopnic.com asked the same question earlier this summer, and home-grown autos got a lot of support from readers who agreed with slick's evaluation. For example:

"I have to put my two cents in on this one, I manage a large GM dealership Service Department, and the shift in quality I have seen in the last 5 years is nothing short of amazing. In a time where 75% of our business was warranty related repairs, now it is less that 25% and trending downward. The biggest struggle dealers now have, believe it or not, is the increased quality has reduced the amount of repair dollars, and with the reduced or extended maintenance the newer vehicles provide, there isn't a lot for us to do. We have been forced to jump on the "fluid transfer" bandwagon just to survive. It is the strangest progression I have seen in the car business in 25 years."
And vehiclevoice.com has a post declaring that crummy American cars simply don't exist anymore. And this was after the writer rented a Chevy Aveo:
"Aside from the looks and bargain basement image, this was easily a car that I could live with day in and day out. Which brings me to a point I had long comprehended in theory but only now really understand. There are no bad cars anymore. Virtually all cars – even the most basic ones out there – are competent and well built. There is no modern equivalent of the Pinto or Vega today; even the most humble car out there will get the job done, and in relative comfort. 

"As such, the product itself is becoming much less of a differentiator these days. Now, design and marketing have much bigger roles in getting people to notice the product. Today, choosing a new vehicle is much more about how it looks and how it speaks to a consumer’s wants and sensibilities than it has been in the past. Automobiles have always been emotional purchases to a degree; today this is even more so the case due to the fact that there are truly no bad cars out there – making emotional attributes all that more important."
With all this good news, maybe my brother will consider G.M. when he buys a new car. But that might be a while. He's still got the Acura Integra he bought in 1991 when the Buick Century went to the great impound lot in the sky. It's running fine, and he says it corners a lot better than the old Buick.


  1. When I learned to drive, I learned with a 73 Buick LeSabre... 'the boat'. So considering I learned to drive in the early 80's, that's a testament to how great the Buick LeSabre was. After that I only drove Buick Skylarks, and both went over 100,000. Now I drive a Ford Focus... it's as close to a skylark as you can get... it's at 45,000 now, and I'm in it for the long haul. Maybe with the oil crunch, Buick will consider making the skylark again.

  2. Our family inherited a 1968 LeSabre from our next-door neighbor when she died. That car was a tank. We once totaled an opposing car when it made an illegal left turn in from of my mom and she couldn't stop in time. The LeSabre had a slightly dented fender. That car also ran well over 100,000.

    Likewise, my grandfather's old chocolate brown Skylark from the early seventies got passed down through the family and also easily broke 100,000.

  3. My family, always loyal American car drivers (specifically GM) have been known to drive a car LONG beyond it's usefulness. There is the 1979 Chevette that my mother was still driving in 1997... the GEO Spectrum my brother drove beyond 225K before donating it (in fine operating condition)... As well as numerous Buicks and Beauville van's that I can't even list. Ironically, people ask my grandfather and mother to keep them in mind when they sell their 20-something cars. I "black sheeped" it in a Ford Escort in my teens - however, even that car made it to 175k when I could not resist the urge to buy a Saturn.

    Living in a city where most people I know drive foreign, I am repeatedly asked why I remain loyal...well, I just haven't had a reason not to yet. Enjoyed the post!

  4. Since my truck was taken for a joyride three weeks ago (from Glendale Hills to the east side), I've been driving my 1974 Cadillac Sedan deVille as a daily driver. I've had it for seven-and-a-half years, and although it's rusted beyond belief, it's mechanically strong. I was worried taking it to Ypsilanti last weekend, but there was no need to. It drove strong, was very comfortable and I enjoyed it. Granted, it's only at 75,000 miles, so in 25,000 (if the body holds up) it may be a different story.

  5. All these great G.M. cars! Come to think of it, the only real junker our family ever owned was a Chrysler K wagon. Pure junk.

  6. I agree with the opine about chrysler products, fersher. My Auntie and Cousin were loading tack into their station wagon-3 saddles, bridles, etc. and the damn thing slipped out of gear and rolled over my Aunt. the trannie was dropped and we found out the thing was full of metal shavings. Auntie had 2 hips, several ribs, collar bone and leg broken by the wagon. Yes, They won the lawsuit.

  7. I think the 70s GM cars were fine. I had a '72 Impala wagon and a '77 Malibu wagon that were both great cars. My dad had an 80ish Citation that wasn't. The Monza was crap. I think the GM low point for quality was the 80s. Can you think of an 80s GM car that was worth the money?

  8. hey OakPark Mark- do you ever play the Celtic harps- gut strung or metal strung? can You by chance recommend any Scots?Irish/Welsh/Cornish/sassonach Harpists, other than Sealas? Only recently have started to appreciate the Harp, even though it was the 1st Tradional instrument of all Celts. thanks-kc

  9. Dear Bustdup:

    I'm actually Celtic illiterate, so I'm sorry that I can't help. I think that the harp, in one form or another, is the original instrument of almost all cultures.

  10. The vast majority of the cars I've owned in my 40-plus years of driving were GM--over 75 of them! Sure, only about ten were new, but I do love cars and have stories for every one.

    But the best story is my Mother-In-Laws' 1999 Chevy Silverado which now has 650,000 miles on it and counting! This original V-6 engine has never been broken and still uses no oil! However, she is on her 3rd transmission and 3rd rear axle.

    So howintheheck does a 73-year-old woman put so many miles on it? Easy, she lives in Columbus New Mexico and drives for the "Wide Loads" out on the highways. You know, those chase vehicles with the yellow flasher lights and the flags flapping in the wind.

    They got the truck in Dallas Texas at the end-of-the-model-year-sale: the 2000's were on the lot! And now, August 2008 it has over 650,000 miles.

    It's not an accident, she uses full synthetic oil and changes it out at 5000 miles. Often, thats' every week! Because of her regular serviceing at a shop in Deming, NM, everything is thoroughly documented. Heck, I had a 1996 Roadmaster wagon with over 200,000 miles on it. I sold it to a 70-plus year old Buick Club member here near Flint, and he and his wife took off for Florida for a couple weeks! It now has 210,000 miles and its going strong.

    Back to my Mommy-in-Law: Who out there can hook her up to GM marketing? Can they give her a generous voutcher toward a new truck? Lets talk possibilities here.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.