“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” – William Shakespeare
I doubt when Shakespeare first thought of this line that he was thinking about General Motors. Yet the General embodied this statement during the tumultuous 1980s, a time when its market share dived off a cliff into an abyss it was unable to climb out of until the 2009 bankruptcy. The Lumina seen here is one of the many cars of that era that sent GM on that long downward spiral. When over 7 billion dollars in 1980s money was spent on developing a modern-day Taurus fighter, expectations were naturally high. That’s a lot of money, analysts said. GM must see the Taurus and other midsize cars as a legitimate threat – so there’s no way they’ll screw this up. Right? Well, those analysts hearts must’ve fell when the half-baked GM10 cars first rolled into showrooms in 1988. And one of the flag-bearers for the initial mediocrity was the “Euro” Lumina, an attempt to add international flair to an otherwise staid car in the hopes of higher sales.
But first, the GM10 platform. The platform was designed between 1982 and 1988, during the tenure of GM CEO Roger Smith. This is a man whose legacy consists of eliminating the autonomy of the divisions and attempting to turn every car save the Corvette into FWD, among other things. The GM10 program was to replace the RWD, mid-size G-body coupes and sedans with modern, FWD vehicles. In theory, this was a fine idea. The G body cars had debuted in 1978, and their old-school architecture, technology and styling was dated by the end of the 80s. However, the cars (specifically the coupes) had been extremely popular. They reflected an aura of luxury muscle, with their confident, handsome styling and their V8, RWD configurations. The Cutlass Supreme and the Buick Regal especially resonated with buyers – the Cutlass offering the sporty Calais, Salon and 442 trims, and the Regal cementing its legendary status with the 3.8 Turbo motor, which in top-spec GNX trim could beat a period Ferrari in 0-60. Yes, the Gs were old by the mid-late 80s, but they had character, spunk and style.
This led to high expectations for their replacements. When the GM10 (or W body in GM parlance) was finally revealed in ’88, reception was lukewarm. Many were disappointed that a car with such a high dollar investment debuted with old, lackluster powertrains and coupe-only body styles – the four doors wouldn’t show up until 1990. Even with only the two-doors available, GM was hoping to move over half a million W cars for the 1988 model year, a number they predictably fell short of. It is also interesting to note that no Chevrolet version was introduced in 1988. Rather, the debut models were the Olds Cutlass Supreme, the Pontiac Grand Prix and the Buick Regal. The Lumina wouldn’t arrive until 1990.
These moves showed how out of step GM was by this time. The 1980s were a time when the coupe had fallen from its place as the family car to a specialized niche becoming more and more reserved for sports cars. The big full size coupes (Impala, LTD, etc.) had all been discontinued for nearly nonexistent sales. The seminal Taurus hadn’t even offered a coupe. The G-bodies had managed to maintain strong sales, but they were no longer the bread winners like they had been ten years prior. A coupe-only debut left many heads scratching.
To increase volume and to give the Bow Tie brand a W body, the Lumina debuted for 1990, and was offered both as a sedan and a stylish coupe. The 2.5 Iron Duke I4 was the standard motor, though the 3.1/3.4 V6s could be checked off on the options sheet. The anonymous but modern design of the sedan meant GM was hoping for a volume seller, but the car was too little, too late. Both the Taurus and the Camry were redesigned for the 1992 model year, and the Honda Accord was new for 1990. These were the top dogs of the mid-size car market, which saw high sales and stiff competition. As such, these cars all offered better fit and finish and higher quality design inside and out than the Lumina. The Lumina was also saddled with door-mounted seatbelts, as it didn’t get an airbag until the 1995 redesign.
To try and increase sales, GM debuted the Euro trim for 1991. Offering stiffer suspension, color keyed accents and unique wheels, the Euro trim was designed to emulate those qualities that GM believed buyers found attractive in foreign cars. Standard was the 3.1 motor, with the 200 horse 3.4 optional. The stiffer suspension offered noticeable handling benefits, though at the expense of ride quality.
Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the fact that it is still, in fact, a pig. And so it was with the Lumina Euro cars. Though they offered cool-looking trim and wheels and firmer suspension, it was still a typical GM FWD car through and through, from the base bench seat/column shift (Buckets/floor shifter were optional) to the blocky dashboard design and door mounted belts. Mediocre powertrains and build quality rounded out the package. The bigger motor and better handling made for an improved Lumina, but it was still Euro only in name.
By the 1994, the final year before the redesign, the Lumina saw sales tumble from over 300,000 in inaugural 1990 to a shade under 100,000. 1995 saw a redesigned Lumina that lasted through the end of the decade, when the name was put to pasture. Today, Luminas are seldom seen thanks to the “ride hard and put away wet” mentality that owners of cheap, disposable used cars often have. Seeing the low beltline and tasteful, uncluttered styling is very refreshing in today’s jellybean parking lots, but this clean survivor of a Euro coupe is nonetheless reminiscent of the darkest days of GM. The automotive world initially had high aspirations for the W body GM10s, but instead found only cheap plastic and shattered hopes. Expectation is the root of all heartache, indeed.