The Class of 1982: Beyond Zuma 9

Photo courtesy of the Ford Motor Company.

The world did not end at the Pacific Ocean.

I knew this was true. Some friends went outward beyond the ocean to places I could only dream of going. Australia was of keen interest to me – it continues to be as such. Even a divided Europe – thanks to a post-World War II disagreement – provided a far view of things we could never have.

If you read my tweets, I have a global perspective when it comes to the automobile that is still rooted in this land I am a citizen of. I argue whether a certain product could do well in a certain general market or the possibility that General Motors could shore up their entire Latin American lineup to be aligned with the rest of the world. It takes good research and an understanding of markets to at least give some form of intelligent observation towards recommendations.

In the world of 1982, the automotive industry mainly had its foothold on the so-called Industrialized World. This grouping included both sides of the Berlin Wall. As much as the Americans and British would rather not admit, the Soviet Bloc were trying hard to make vehicles for their most privileged comrades – thanks mainly to the Agnelli family and a few sympathetic French automotive executives.

In Reagan’s America, anything associated with the Soviet Union was off limits. The President of this time was an old Cold Warrior who would make the case to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev later in the 1980s to “tear down [the Berlin] wall!” They did, actually – in 1989.

Before we got to that speech on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, the American automotive market was about to see some change in the marketplace that would transition some Europeans brands out while welcoming new Asian competitors in. This was great for the marketplace, except it was an interesting transition to be certain.

In 1982, we were months away from Fiat closing up shop in North America. Only the Spider 2000 and X1/9 would remain under an independent distributor using the carrozzeria’s names as brands – Pininfarina and Bertone to be exact.

Outside of the borders of the United States of America, things were slightly different. The automotive industry also felt the impact of a recession and other related geo-political storms. Still, some significant vehicles popped up to make things more interesting. It appeared that, in some cases, the past was all but gone for some products.

For example, the Citroen GS was introduced in 1970 as a modern stopgap product bridging the 2CV and the DS. Though it would continue through a few more years, consumers wanted a much more modern product with advanced design and less quirkiness. Since Citroen merged with Peugeot, the new BX would be the first byproduct of a shared thinking that retained some of Citroen’s tenets of design and engineering while providing some form of normality for mainstream consumers. In other words, Citroen and Peugeot developed a series of engines to be used in midsized models that would see their way in the new BX.

Citroen asked Marcello Gandini to share his vision of a modern Citroen. The BX was it – sharpened lines with retained quirkiness that still identified the hatchback as one with double chevrons. Gandini also embodied the future – if not the 1980s – in this folded and angled car. Plastics were introduced on the outside for weight savings – another vision of the future. Yet, Citroen held on to its hydrapneumatic suspension for the BX. In a world where maintenance costs began to rise and complicated components would take its toll at the service desk, owners felt dismayed when having to refill the suspension oil or to replace suspension components altogether. It would be one of the last Citroens with such a suspension.

Photo (c)1982, 2012 General Motors.

General Motors already rolled out the carpet for the J-Body in Europe and North America. They were far from finished with the global small sedan as one specific market was left for its debut – Australia. The universal switch to front wheel drive may not revolutionary, by now. But, the Holden Camira was indeed a welcomed change from the usual rear-drive big cars that made the Lion-and-Ball sustainable.

The JB Camira was not perfect. Various quality issues dogged the Camira’s legacy, despite having a successful first year. The biggest Achilles’ heel was its 1.6litre engine. For an Australian-built car of its time, the average driver was used to engines that offered plenty of torque and room to roam. The 1.6litre had to be revved so much in order to catch up with everyone – not particularly pleasant anywhere in Australia.

In the meantime, the J-Body arrived in Brazil with a Chevrolet bowtie, a European body and a slightly different name – Monza. The Monza took on the Opel Ascona C body, but offered a different lineup that was more attractive to South American tastes. In particular, Brazilian consumers preferred two-door models than four-door ones back then. Monzas were popularly sold in two-door sedans and hatchback coupe models, while other South American markets favored four-door sedans.

By its introduction in Australia and Latin America, GM’s vision for the J-Body was complete. It had a full compliment of the compacts in North America, ranging from the basic Chevrolet Cavalier to the luxurious Cadillac Cimarron. Both Vauxhall and Opel had their Cavalier Mark II and Ascona C – respectively – received in Europe with a good clip of sales. In fact, the Ascona became the best selling car in West Germany.

Perhaps the most significant vehicle to be introduced during my senior year in high school of anywhere on this planet was the Ford Sierra. It would change Ford for the entire decade.

Before the new Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar hit American showrooms, Ford already had a global design strategy that would transform ordinary squared vehicles into “jelly molds.” In order to harness efficiency, aerodynamics would play a keep role to attain improved fuel economy as well as better on-road stability. Ford understood this as much as every automaker on the planet. Yet, for one of the world’s biggest automobile companies to execute a design philosophy that would reach around the world would be a serious undertaking – and a massive risk.

The Sierra was designed to replace the Cortina/Taunus – a cornerstone of Ford in Europe. It introduced the first midsized hatchback in the company’s lineup for the same market. A coupe was also developed – eventually becoming iconic in its own right. In all, the Sierra moved the bar for Ford worldwide, but not without its detractors. Still, the Sierra set the tone for a series of global products that would change the landscape of the automotive world – culminating in the Ford Taurus.

The Sierra did stir up more than its design. A sports hatchback was added to the line in the form of the XR4i – the kind of variant that was missing for the Cortina/Taunus in years. The XR4i was intriguing since it could have opened up a new market for Ford despite it sharing space with models destined for company fleets. Its 148HP 2.8litre Cologne V6 motivated the jelly-designed sports hatch. Eventually, the XR4i would make its way stateside as part of a sub brand for Mercury – Merkur. It would be the only taste we would have of this radically brilliant model.

No matter the continent or country, it just seemed that any new vehicle debut would eventually find its way to this market. The obvious exception was the Citroen BX – years removed from being denied a waiver from new Federal regulations thwarting further sales of the French brand. The idea of globalization took root about this time, though it would be a limited scale in the automotive industry. There were still markets that required distinctive products based on regulatory tenets.

Some might say that 1982 yielded much more than the Citroen BX, Ford Sierra and Holden Camira. There were many models that were introduced in 1982 that would eventually make their way into the USA in 1983. That was how things have always been for international models – a lag to ensure that every model that would be for sale in the USA met Federal emissions and safety standards. The Volvo 760 arrived for 1983 with BMW’s E30 3-Series right behind it. The first generation Toyota Camry would make its way by mid-1983. It even took a bit longer for Mercedes-Benz to introduce its small W201 – the 190E – over on this side of the Atlantic.

From the lifeguard station called Zuma 9, the Pacific Ocean seemed like an accessible portal to the world. Its waves break with surfers trying to conquer the power of the tide. Sun worshippers from both sides of the Santa Monica Mountains plotted their escape from the mundane in true Southern California fashion. Elsewhere, the world revolved without the aid of an Internet or mobile phone signals or advanced satellite transmission. Cable had just arrived in Reseda – with MTV as our main focal point.

Yet, only a select few of us have ever set eyes on a Citroen BX. That was never in the sphere of our thinking – maybe perhaps mine and a few other budding automotive enthusiasts. Yet, the shoreline at Zuma Beach was indeed a portal of a world a few of us were aware of.

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