Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rare, limited production COPO Chevrolet ... Citations?

COPO. For Chevrolet muscle car fans, those four letters add up to the Holy Grail. Images of '69 Camaros with 427-c.i. engines, and Yenko Chevrolet modified Chevelles and Novas immediately come to mind.

And yet, not everything labeled with that legendary moniker is a quarter-mile terror. COPO actually stands for "Central Office Production Order", and many fleet and ordinary vehicles were built through that system. They were generally ordered as a group, and they usually had some little thing that differed from the dealer order guide.

When you think of limited production COPO Chevrolets, the Citation might not immediately come to mind. But this is a story of a limited production, special order COPO Citation that you probably haven't heard anywhere else.

When the Citation came out in April of 1979 as a 1980 model, it was a huge deal. It was the very first front-wheel-drive Chevrolet, and the first front-wheel-drive compact ever built by General Motors. Some 800,000 Citations were sold in that first model year, giving this revolutionary new car one of the most successful launches in automotive history.

As with many completely new ideas, the 1980 Motor Trend Car of the Year went through some teething problems. They had poor radio reception, the A/C systems left something to be desired, and they were the subject of several recalls.

But in spite of what you may read now, the Citation had a lot going for it. They had a surprisingly pleasing "feel", and they utilized interior space like nothing else. Some of the later Citations with the sporty X-11 package and the 2.8-liter V6 were genuinely fun to drive. My mom loved Citations, and we had several of them around in the 1980s, solid cars all.

Unfortunately, toward the end of the car's lifespan, the Citation's reputation had taken a hit. Everything from the recalls to delays in production tested the patience of the average consumer, and regardless of how hard Chevrolet tried to retain these customers, the Citation's popularity was on a downhill spiral.

In 1984, Chevrolet renamed the car "Citation II". And even as most of those initial issues were yesterday's news, the car still looked nearly identical to the very first model. Chevrolet still had factories that needed to keep pumping out product, and dealers were more and more reluctant to keep these cars in stock.

My dad was the New Car Merchandising Manager for the Chevrolet Omaha Zone Office in 1984, and the directive from the top was, "do something to move Citations." And this is where the Citation II "Heartland Edition" was born.

200 Citations were specially ordered through the COPO system specifically for the Midwest region. All were well-equipped four doors with Rally Wheels, and they were all either Medium Blue Metallic or Maroon Metallic. But unlike the cars you could order in your showroom, they were all painted with a silver bottom. That's where that Central Office Production Order came in. The paint equipment in the factory was not set up for this color combination, so this special order had to all be built together to accommodate this request.

Each car was also fitted with a special "Heartland Edition" emblem on the front fender. Several local designers submitted proposals, but the designs were all shot down by GM's design team in Detroit. By the time the deadline for the ride and drive was on the horizon, there still was no approved fender badge. With no more time to spare, dad went ahead and ordered a design. The emblems were then shipped to Omaha, and applied to the cars when they were prepped for delivery--to the chagrin of the GM styling department, no doubt.

100 dealers around western Iowa, southern South Dakota, and central/eastern Nebraska agreed to buy two Heartland Edition Citations. One of them was delivered directly to the dealership, the other was sent to the General Motors Training Center in Omaha. Then each dealer attended a fancy dinner and meeting, complete with Citation engineers and motivational speaker Joe Girard.

The next morning, the dealers were greeted with 100 Heartland Edition Citations, all prepped and arranged by the Zone Service Managers. Such care was taken to the presentation, they even used guide strings to make the rows straight, and the colors were staggered in red, blue, red, blue.

Then, at the scheduled time, a police escort helped all 100 cars leave the Training Center through closed streets while the local news looked on. From there, all the cars broke off and headed to their new homes.

The Citation was discontinued after the 1985 model year, but the basic design inspired most of the new cars Chevrolet sells to this day.

I decided to write this story because 1). I have several pictures from that day that you might find interesting, 2). My dad was responsible for it, which I think is pretty cool (look for him with his bullhorn in the slideshow below), and 3). Folks might learn a little more about what the COPO system is all about. No, it's not all 427 engines and heater deletes, but there are some interesting stories there all the same.

To see all the pictures from the big Heartland Edition Citation drive-away, CLICK THIS LINK.


  1. Yep, that's your dad alright.

  2. Interesting, I always had a soft spot for Citations, mostly because my Grandfather bought one new in 1980 and later sold it to my Dad. It was the car that I learned to drive a stick on. There was something about our little Iron Duke 4-speed Citation that was different, even mechanics who worked on it said that it was more powerful than the rest. We never did anything to it, it just must have gotten all the right parts and put together well.

    I always thought they were good looking little cars, with the exception of the notch-back, and very space efficient.

    1. Very early Iron Duke engines were a modified version of the motor that was used in Jeeps. Some had different cylinder heads. On top of that, early manual transmissions actually had a bellhousing that could be bolted up directly to a V-8!!! These are extremely rare to find, I actually had one but didn't know it's value.

      I also had a 1980 v6 with 4-speed. Floor and rocker panels were GONE. The front bench seat rested (balanced) on the exhaust tunnel!! But that car could drive through a foot of snow and get great gas mileage. The interior was like that of a minivan. It handled being jumped more than once without damage, and ultimately, it all ended in a violent crash, and kept me safe with only small bruises. All without ABS or airbags....

    2. You likely had a rare combination of the modified Jeep Iron Duke with the rare V8 bellhousing!!

    3. My first car was a v-6, 4 on the floor. Bench up front, hatch in the back. Never quit, never failed, best vehicle i ever owned(including my rangers and beetles). I went to work one day and my mom sold it because my sister wouldn't drive it. Still hope to find another.

  3. I have one! my first car, solid and funy

  4. I've been driving a Citation since 1989. Started with a 1981 4-door, had three '85s since (now down to two). Great car to drive. Too bad the frame doesn't last through Canadian winters.

  5. Awesome, too bad no 2 door models got that option. I never liked the four door style very much and got my 85 x-11 in need of some restoration soon enough.

  6. Super article on the COPO Citations...thanks for posting it. Saw a white ’82 or so X-11 notch-back coupe on I-435 going around KC about 15 years ago. Only one I've ever you recall if your family dealership ever sold one? Even the X-11 hatchbacks are quite rare now, of course. My son's first car was an '81 X-11 hatchback. It had as many or more special parts as a Z-28 Camaro of that period.

  7. Interesting story. Back in 1980, few non-exotic cars would accelerate from 0-60 in under 10 seconds. Even the V8-versions of Mustang GTs and Camaros didn't get there. According to Road&Track tests, Citations would. I bought one, the first X-11 version which was mostly decals and boy-racer stuff; the "hi-po motor, bigger wheels" X-11 package would be a year or two later.

    What I remember about my cars (yeah, I had two as the first one locked the rear brakes on water and ended up turtle-ing) includes the handling (great cornering on smooth roads, harsh ride otherwise with the F41 sport suspension package) and the various recalls and extended warranties. A couple years after buying the second car, there was a class-action suit about the brakes locking up (well, d'uh, I know that after owning two!), recalls for the emergency brake cables sticking and the clutch self-adjusting mechanism, extended warranties on transmission shifter forks (how was 1st to 3rd, a W-I-D-E gap when the fork for second wore out!), and IIRC the rack and pinion steering,...

    But, it was fun when it worked!

  8. Interesting article. I knew what COPO meant, but had never known of any COPO Citations! Actually, the Citation was a good little car for what it was. The nameplate suffered a lot of bad press needlessly, but American car magazines just LOVE to try and kill American car makers;
    And make damn sure that people who don't know any better send their money and jobs to asia...
    Anyway, as you stated, the later X11 was a really neat car that was a terror in SCCA Showroom Stock racing for awhile. Really wanted one back in the day, but never got around to it.

  9. I owed a 1984 white Citation II PJ. It was great. It was a real treat to drive after driving a 1970 Caprice for 5 years. It had excellent gas mileage for the time (Caprice got 8 mpg).

    I used it on summer camping trips. I used to fold the rear seat down and it created 6 feet of sleeping space.

    I sold it in '86 and you know, I still miss it. The citation got a lot of bad press, but mine was a really good car. I haven't had a chevy since.


    1. Sorry to hear you did not enjoy your '70 Caprice. My story was opposite. I bought a '70 Impala used in '72. Best car I ever owned and traded it in on a Citation new in 1982. The citation was so so, went through front drive axles and cv joints left and right. The V6 never ran smooth as the 350 in my '70.

  10. These limited cars are the best especially those classic cars.

  11. A friend from college had a really nice X-11 Citation. It was a great car!

  12. Add my name to the list of happy Citation owners. I bought my first one in 1980 and drove it hard and fast for 160,000 miles. Then I bought newer models for my wife and college-age children. I was very disappointed when GM dropped the neat little compact and I had to adjust to other less road-able vehicles.
    But last September (2013) I had a real surprise. An old Chevy dealer in Peirce, Nebraska had 500 trade-ins to sell at auction. Among them were a few cars that had never been sold, including a 1981 Citation with six miles on it! That's right, 000,006 miles. You may be assured that I went to the auction where I won the bid on this rare treasure. It was a 4-speed manual (meaning it was towable) so I towed it home. It had been parked in grove of trees and was badly weathered so I am now restoring it to showroom condition. The car is quick, fun, easy on the gas, and brings back many happy memories.

  13. Tough little cars! I am now in the process of putting a '94 supercharged v6 with a 5-speed in my dad's '84 x-11...

  14. I still drive my 1984 today its only got 68thousen on her and she's a stater every time she eats them fords.