November 24, 2021

QUESTION ASKED: Was 1980 the worst automotive year ever?

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.

Read on for the horrors of the 1980 model year including — trigger warning — the Chevy Citation:

 

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