The early 1980s were hard times in Detroit. The oil shock, high inflation and new government regulations made for a difficult design and engineering climate for the Big Three. Chrysler needed a government loan to continue operating, and GM and Ford resorted to difficult compromises and “badge engineering” to keep product lines and indeed, entire brands, afloat.
The folly of this approach became apparent to everyone in the business world the week of August 22, 1983, when Fortune magazine ran a cover story that featured four offerings of GM’s A-Body cars lined up next to each other. Each sedan was maroon in color and remarkably similar in profile. Only a close look at their badge would reveal which GM division the individual cars represented.
General Motors, and to a certain extent, all of Detroit, was humiliated. Here was badge engineering at its worst - revealing the lack of imagination and design quality that GM so proudly trumpeted in its advertisements.
"That cover really stung," recalled Chuck Jordan, GM's legendary chief designer from 1986 to 1992. "It was kind of unfair, but it made things really clear."
Lloyd Reuss, later GM's president from 1990 to 1992, would later say about the photo: "It was sort of a wake-up call.”
The situation was made even worse by the series of imaginative and futuristic concept cars that General Motors was producing for auto shows at the time. Born in GM’s new state-of-the-art wind tunnel that came on line in 1980, the cars previewed a sleek streamlined future for GM products, while inadvertently mocking the staid boxy sedans that would be found at the local GM dealership. The first of these concepts was the four door Aero X, and then the Aero 2000, and the Aero 2002. Each was a wind cheating semi-teardrop shape.
However, each of these concepts was a non-running prototype- basically a full-scale model. There needed to be a workable concept – a running car. The Aero 2002 was soon adapted to real world conditions and the Chevrolet Citation IV was the result. The car was named after the production Citation of the time, a rather nondescript compact that was nonetheless efficient in packaging and pioneering in front wheel drive for Chevrolet.
The Citation IV embodied the lessons of the Aero cars: sleek aero shape, flush mounted glass and door handles, a grille-less front with engine vents under the nose, and wheels that were moved outward to be almost flush with the surrounding body panels.
At the nose, the curving wedge shape made for a minimal front surface area. The headlights were placed behind transparent flush mounted lenses (not legal in the U.S. at the time). Below the headlights were the turn signals, and between these were three ventilation slots for the passenger compartment. The radiator, as mentioned, drew its cooling air from a slot below the bumper.
At the side the car showed off its wind tunnel heritage. The hood and windscreen were kept at the same angle (68 degrees) for minimal air disturbance. The cab forward architecture allowed for a long tail to aid in the distribution of air as it left the surface of the car. The flush mounted glass allowed for a large, sleek glasshouse, although this somewhat compromised by the need for windscreen wipers and side mirrors. On the Aero 2002, all wheels had spats covering at least half of the wheel surface. This made for great aerodynamics, but was totally impractical on the road, so the Citation IV removed the spats up front and retained the rear set.
The strongest feature of the car, beyond its aero shape, was the long “beaver tail” in the rear. Here GM found a compromise between the aerodynamic experiments of Paul Jaray, who advocated long pointed tails for cars, and Wunibald Kamm, who advocated a truncated tail design. The Citation IV had a long tail, but it was cut off in an abrupt vertical Kamm shape. The tail was the most controversial part of the Aero 2002 and the Citation IV design. The earlier Aero X and 2000 has short tails.
The resulting aerodynamics were impressive for the time. The Aero2002 achieved a remarkable Cd of 0.140. The street version of the Citation IV was 0.265, just slightly lower than the new Chevy Bolt (0.312), but higher than today’s Toyota Prius (0.240). A modified version of the Citation IV lowered its Cd down to 0.185. And of course, the Citation IV was much sleeker than its production cousin of the time, which sported a brick-like Cd of 0.432.
Powering the Citation IV was 2.8 litre V-6 that could be found in the production Citation. However, due to the lowered hood of Citation IV (some 130 mm), fuel injection, a lower wider radiator and other modifications were necessary to get power underneath all the sleek aerodynamics.
On the interior, the wide doors opened to a spacious four seat cabin, although with limited headroom in the rear it would be more accurate to describe the seating as 2+2. The loud red décor and rainbow striped seats seemed a bit dated for the time, and have not aged well. But the seats were an early experiment in thin-line construction, although they limited in their ability to adjust for different body sizes.
At the instrument panel, a lighted display with bar graphs and digital numerals greeted the driver, as well as a heads up display at the windscreen. Fingertip controls were mounted to the sides of the steering wheel in clunky assemblages that nonetheless anticipated sleeker systems that would follow a decade later.
The Citation IV never made it to production, and even its namesake, the production Citation was retired soon after. GM continued to produce sleek aerodynamic concepts such as the Buick Wildcat and Oldsmobile Aerotech, but these cars were designed with more of an eye towards racing rather than just cheating the wind.
The production car the Citation IV would influence was more than a decade away, the innovative and controversial EV-1, General Motors’ first foray into the nascent electric car market. The EV-1 would be another episode of GM infamy, as documented by the film Who Killed the Electric Car?
Still, to look back at the Citation IV was to glimpse a much different Chevrolet – one which might have been sleeker, more efficient and more futuristic. If this vision had been realized and combined with the electrics of the EV-1, what a different General Motors we would have today.