NIH Factor at General Motors

You may say that the government imposed CAFÉ is somewhat responsible for the failure of the Detroit Big Three. It is certain that Detroit brass resisted any directions from Washington, as I saw in the early 1960s. In fact, I heard that my bosses did not listen to any suggestion "Not Invented Here".

Pimping my third [A] front wheel drive X-car.

In 1960, my coworker "Chuck" was designing a car at the General Motors Engineering Staff in the Structure and Suspension (S&S) department. His car had a unitized body and a 3.5-liter V8 engine mounted crosswise under the hood, driving the front wheels. The engine was the aluminum V8 used in the Oldsmobile compact car – the F-85 Jetfire. The 2.9 liter iron 90 degree V-6 used by Buick would be available. A three-speed auto box with a torque converter handled the shifting, much smoother than the GM four-speed fluid coupling Hydramatics of that era.

The car's experimental-mule body was a slightly modified German Opel Kapitan. The whole package was almost exactly the size of the Chevy Citation introduced as a 1980 model, along with the Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega, Buick Skylark and Cadillac Cimarron.

Don't you agree the history of GM and the American auto industry would have changed if Chuck's car received permission to proceed? Instead, GM proceeded with development of my experimental XP-784 project. It was set up to be a coupe, sedan and the world's first raised-roof Vista Cruiser station wagon. The coupe made it into production as the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. I said to my boss, "Why does the world need this monster sized two door four-seat car with a huge V-8 and front wheel drive instead of the neat car Chuck was doing?"

 Basically, the Toronado, and the similar Eldorado were show-room magnets. The same E-body coupe used by Buick became the rear-drive Riviera with the cruciform (X-shaped) frame. It outsold the Toronado easily.

DOWNSIZING failure multiplied.

I came to the GMES SS department in 1955. I became, quickly the bosses' pet - good at designing then new ball-joint front suspensions and steering linkages. The air suspension systems [B] were briefly adopted with all 1958 GM cars. I can still tell you why the variable rate air springs were superior. Although the leaky things lost favor, they were the reason I became an expert designing any rear suspension without leaf springs. We tried a series of independent rear suspensions (too costly) and settled on the solid axle with the four trailing links. The air springs sat on the lower control arms, front and rear, and were sized so that coil springs would replace them if necessary.

Because I had a wide range of expertise, I was one of the groups at the Corporate Staff to evaluate several designs for a new small "compact" car to compete with imports such as the VW Beetle, British Vauxhall, German Opel and several French and Italian economy cars. We knew that Ford was planning a "Falcon", and Chrysler was getting the “Valiant” ready. The GM Pontiac division was looking at a car that became the Tempest with the "rope drive shaft" sending power from the "half-a-V8" front engine to the rear mounted independent rear suspension.

Chevrolet Engineering Center, on the East side of the railroad tracks from the GM Technical Center already had a star design: Ed Cole's 1955 overhead valve V8. In 1956, Mr. Cole wanted a "poor man's Porsche" – a small car with a flat air-cooled six-cylinder engine in the back driving an independent rear suspension. That rear-mounted transmission and swing axle system was to be shared with Pontiac's Tempest.

It did not take long for engineers to realize that the Corvair, like the VW, the Renault Dauphine, and the Fiat 500 was a poor handling car. The combination of rear weight (mass) bias and the swing axle rear suspension made for rapid onset of oversteer[C] in sharp turns, with a great risk of overturning. The SS department recommend using a genuinely independent rear suspension modeled on the one used on the 1963 Corvette Stingray. Of course, it was too expensive – they said then. It was adopted for the 1965 model Corvair, too late to save its reputation. As early as 1957 word was coming back from the Proving Grounds at Milford, that the Corvair prototypes were bad. Nevertheless, no one was willing to offend Ed Cole by saying that Chevy should not put that car on the market in the fall of 1959.    

You may think that criticism from Ralph Nader killed the Corvair. Insiders knew there were more reasons to discontinue the car until the better 1965 model was ready. The real killer was the 1965 Ford Mustang. It was more than a fancy Falcon. It had a real trunk and heater, a three-speed automatic, and an available V-8 engine. 

Chevy rushed to get back into the compact car market with the Chevy II Nova. The four cylinder 2.5 liter engine was so puny that I could kill the engine at idle by turning on the air conditioner and turning the steering wheel rapidly to load the power steering pump. This thing shared the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission with other Chevrolets. This pitiful car was ugly to boot.   

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