Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Chevy Citation

Back in the 1980s - it might have been 1980 exactly - I went away to a Boy Scout camp for a couple of weeks.  It was an okay campout but not my favorite.  In fact, in retrospect it's my experience with Boy Scouts that pretty much ruined camping for me.  Not that I ever saw much attraction to camping, here I have a perfectly good house with refrigeration, plumbing, electric lights and a door on the bathroom.  You want me to give all that up why?  That last question never got answered to my satisfaction.

Anyway.  Scout camp, two weeks.  Get back and drag my sorry self and my gear toward  That's not the family car.

Up until this point the family car had been few different things.  There had been an Opel Kadett from 1967 and a SAAB 96 from 1970.  The Opel was a tiny little two-door sedan, conceived in its present form as GM's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle.  The SAAB was a slightly larger two-door sedan, and it looked like nothing else.  I have compared it to a VW Beetle, if the Beetle were made of Play-Doh and allowed to stretch and smooth out a bit on a warm day, but that's really not fair.

So I was expecting a ride home in either of these cars.  A dinky little German econobox or a slightly less dinky Swedish...hmm...I've never known exactly what kind of car you'd call the 96.  Anyway.

Dad led me to a Chevy Citation.  I was very excited.

By now the Citation isn't well remembered.  It had a few bad recalls that tainted its image, and it was not powerful, and none of its problems were well addressed by GM.  But at the moment it was an utterly new car, beautifully silvery gray and exuding that indefinable aura of freshly minted wheels.  It smelled new, of course.  And wonder of wonders, I got my own door.  A four door car, at last.

I'd been hearing ads for the Citation on the radio, and seeing them on the TV.  GM went all-out with the Citation's ad campaign, educating the public on just how good front wheel drive is for the average driver, how much roomier it makes the car, et cetera.  From the back seat, I could see they had a point.  There was still a hump between the rear foot wells but nothing like what was in the Opel.  The car seemed outlandishly wide, but after years in the back seat of compact European cars, anything would have felt big.

In later years I discovered the Citation, though billed as a compact car, had more interior room than a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.  I believed it.

The trunk was crazy.  It was huge, with a flat floor and access into the interior through a seatback that folded down and, really weirdly, I didn't see any exposed metal back there.  The old cars were pretty bare in the trunk, but the Citation presented you with more carpet.  It was a finished space.  I felt almost guilty to toss my grungy backpack and crusty boots in there.

It didn't take long for some of the charm to wear off.  Dad had chosen a car that had neither air conditioning nor a radio.  Eventually we had a radio installed, but in the Citation the radio slot was vertical.  I had never seen that before, and I still don't recall if it required a special radio or we simply got used to reading the dial sideways.  But air conditioning simply never appeared, and that stunk.  The DC area gets pretty hot and muggy in summer, and when we took long road trips in that car we were tearing along at interstate speeds with all the windows down.  Subsequent research suggests that the fuel economy doesn't suffer as much from running the air conditioning as it does with running with windows down.   And of course the rear windows didn't roll all the way down anyway.

The rear seat had a few other unpleasant surprises.  In typical in-town trips you might not ever notice, but on long highway rides you'd discover that the seat belts takeup reels didn't do anything but take up.  When Mom noticed this she stopped calling them seat belts and started calling them anaconda belts.  Exhale and the seat belt would cinch up a tiny bit.  Shift a little, cinch up a little.  Eventually the seat belt had a tight grip on you and you couldn't move another inch, at which point you had to release it, let it all the way into its reel to reset, and start over.

The Citation was saddled with the Iron Duke engine.  The Duke isn't a bad engine on its face but it had several features that made it less than stellar.  For starters at 2.5l displacement it was a biggish four-banger, but for all that displacement only yielded 88 horsepower.  So for all of your gritted-teeth tolerance of the big four's vibration and rocking, you got very (very) modest power for your pains.  You could opt for the 2.8l V6 which was good for 40hp more, but I don't think my Dad has owned anything but a four-cylinder car in the last 40 years.

The Duke eventually morphed into what was called the Tech IV engine (ridiculed as the Low Tech IV) and finally saw yeoman duty as the base engine in the Chevy S-10 pickup.  The Duke wasn't all frowns: back in the day you could build a Duke with power out the wazoo if you didn't mind wrenching your own: the Duke is a Pontiac design, and Pontiac was at the time the GM brand with the most sporting image and hardware.  The Super Duty Four started with a heavier-duty Duke block with thicker castings, bigger bearings and a solid forged cranked to replace the lighter duty economy minded hardware.  Choose your parts right and you could build a Duke that would displace over 3.0 liters, pump out a mighty 300 horsepower, and shock the daylights out of anybody looking into the engine bay and seeing an Iron Duke under the hood.  At the time it was even a halfway economical thing to hotrod, since there's some parts commonality between the Duke and other Pontiac engines of the day.  The Super Duty Four is still available from Kansas Racing Products.

But we didn't have the Super Duty Four.  We had a Duke.  It got the car down the road.  It ran through a four-speed manny tranny, which also got the car down the road...until the time one of the shifter cables snapped.  Dad shared that story: "Well, the shifter just laid right down.  Flop.  I waggled it this way and that until I felt it go into a gear and I thought, hey, maybe I can get somewhere.  Turned out to be second gear and I figured that would probably suffice.  Drove it all the way to the shop in second gear.  Took about half an hour to go five miles."

I liked the Citation in spite of its foibles.  As much as I like the Citation, I liked the Citation X-11 even better. With vastly superior handling and a functional active hood induction system, the first X-11 spanked the contemporaneous European sport sedans with its power and handling.  It was surprisingly quick and nimble and was a force to contend with on the rally circuits.  If I had the parking space and could have a Citation today, I would.  If I could have an X-11, I most definitely would.  Though history has been unkind to its memory, I liked the Citation.  It was a good car.

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