One of the most important chapters in the history of General Motors began in the spring of 1979, when the first examples of a radical new replacement for the aging Nova appeared in showrooms. This was the 1980 Chevrolet Citation, a front-wheel-drive compact with the interior space, fuel efficiency and authentic Detroit styling needed to repel those pesky imports then flooding into American ports. We saw an example of the 1980 Citation hatchback sedan (the best-selling configuration) in this series last spring, and now we’re following it up with a much rarer two-door notchback coupe from the same year.
The Citation (and its siblings, the Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark) scaled in at about 800 fewer pounds than their Nova predecessors, lopping off about 20 inches of overall length. Inside, it provided the kind of space Americans expected from much bigger midsize sedans, and the modern suspension design offered a comfortable ride.
Here was a Detroit car that sipped gas, didn’t take up a huge amount of space, and felt like a proper American machine inside and out.
Geopolitical events sent gasoline prices skyrocketing at just about the very moment when the first Citations became available, leading to gas lines and fuel rationing in the United States. Americans bought more than 800,000 Citations during the 1980 model year.
A great success, right? Unfortunately, an onslaught of highly publicized quality problems and recalls ruined the reputation of the Citation family in a hurry. GM had slipped a fleet of hand-assembled ringers to the automotive press prior to the production cars hitting the street, which resulted in rapturous reviews of a vehicle that didn’t drive much like the torque-steering, erratic-braking machines that reached the general public. Sales crashed in a hurry, the Citation was gone after 1985, and the 1980s ended up being The General’s worst decade ever in terms of market-share loss.
But let’s imagine that we’re still in the optimistic days of 1980, when the Citation would show the world that Detroit was back. You could buy your new Citation as a hatchback with three or five doors, or as a snazzy two-door with a trunk. Just under 150,000 Citation coupes were sold for the 1980 model year, versus nearly 700,000 hatchbacks, and so these cars are nearly impossible to find today.
This is a Club Coupe, a version with nicer standard features than the base coupe. The MSRP for this car was $5,214, or about $19,952 in 2022 dollars. The price for the spartan base Citation coupe was just $4,800 ($18,368 today). That was a lot of car for the money, especially compared to such imports as the 1980 Accord three-door hatchback, which cost $5,949 ($22,765 now). The cheapest possible 1980 Toyota Corona (the four-door sedan with four-speed manual transmission) cost $5,649 ($21,617 in 2022 dollars), while even the wretched Fiat Strada hatchback retailed for $4,881.
Every 1980 Citation model except the non-Club coupe came with an AM radio as base equipment, which was most unusual for a cheap compact at a time when even a scratchy, single-speaker AM radio added hundreds of bucks to the out-the-door price. This car has air conditioning, which tacked on $566 to the price (around $2,166 today). It must have been a real headache to install an aftermarket deck in that vertical radio location.
It has a three-speed automatic as well, a $337 ($1,290 today) upgrade over the base four-on-the-floor manual.
According to the owner’s manual, the yellow EMISSIONS indicator appeared over the odometer (on “some cars”) when either the oxygen sensor or the catalytic converter was due for replacement. I wonder how many years this one has been visible.
Yes, that’s a 2.5-liter Iron Duke four-banger under the hood. Essentially one cylinder bank of the Pontiac 301 V8, the Iron Duke ran rough but held together fairly well by the standards of its time. This one was rated at 90 horsepower and 134 pound-feet.
For an additional $125 ($478 now), 1980 Citation buyers could get a 2.8-liter V6 engine with 115 horses and 145 pound-feet. Most did, although the spike in gas prices caused by the Iranian Revolution resulted in more demand for Duke-powered Citations than GM had expected. Believe it or not, it was possible to buy new Camaros with Iron Duke power in 1982 and 1983.
As a final insult to the Citation, it was outlived by the then-breathtakingly obsolete Chevette (which remained available through 1987). However, the design of the X-Body platform lived on (in slightly enlarged form) as the huge-selling Chevrolet Celebrity and its corporate kin, with production continuing all the way through the 1996 Oldsmobile Ciera.
The first Chevrolet of the 1980s, with an advertisement featuring music seemingly lifted from a 1971 TV show.
Fits in three-quarters of a parking space, while providing room for five reasonably comfortable adults inside.
Yes, you could get a CB radio as a factory option in the ’80 Citation. Designed, engineered and styled right for the 1980s.
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