Curbside Classic: 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier – GM’s Deadly Sin #22 – The Decline And Fall Of GM In 1.8 Liters

Chevrolet 1982 Cavalier sedan fq

(first posted 4/9/2015)    GM’s most persistent Deadliest Sin was releasing new cars that were half-baked and lacking certain key ingredients. The results inevitable were not tasty. This problem goes way back, the poster boy being the 1971 Vega, although one could argue there were earlier examples too. And it continued for way too long, until it was too late.

The result is that from a car-spotting perspective, finding first-year examples of many GM models is nigh-near next to impossible. I’ve been looking for a genuine 1982 Cavalier for years; there’s plenty of later ones still around, but the first year version with the wheezy, buzzy, gutless 1.8 L pushrod four has become a unicorn, despite the fact that some 200k were sold. But here it is, thanks to CC Cohort William Oliver. And now we can finally and officially give the 1982 Cavalier its long-delayed Deadly Sin award.

Chevrolet Cavalier 1982 ad 5half-baked but full-blown

Now before a select few of you have to reach for your blood pressure medicine, and jump in to tell me about your 1999 Cavalier that ran 389,000 miles without an oil change, let me preface the Cavalier’s sins by acknowledging two important things:

One: It did not arrive with the kind of truly horrendous problems that plagued the new X-Body cars just some two years earlier, which made them the most recalled cars ever.

Two: Like many GM cars that were made for a (too) long time, the Cavalier evolved into a fairly reliable grocery-getter. Or at least according to some of its owners.

But; and it’s a mighty big but: The Cavalier utterly failed at its intended original mission, which was to compete head-on with the Honda Accord, in performance, refinement and most importantly, in price.

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When the first Accord arrived in 1976, it roiled the US market, due to its exceptional refinement, lively performance, excellent space utilization due to FWD, and other qualities that endeared it to reviewers and buyer. The only folks that really hated it were the executives at all the other car companies. The Accord was one of the very few true game-changers.

And it sold at rather lofty prices; pretty much in the same territory that GM’s intermediate cars sold for. GM’s pathetic little litter-box Chevette could only dream of such average transaction prices (ATP). And its Vega-based H-Bodies were hardly competitive in any of these realms either. So GM set itself out to build a true Accord fighter. What could go wrong? Well, if the lessons of the Corvair and Vega had been carefully considered, GM’s execs might have shown a wee bit less hubris than they did. But that was a requirement for being on the 14th floor.

The decline and fall

The story of GM’s hubris and inability to understand the small car market, and its failure in bringing competitive cars to market is the core of Brock Yate’s book, The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. It was written in 1983, one year after the failed launch of the Cavalier, and is essentially a Death Watch of the industry and a follow-up to his seminal 1968 C/D article “Grosse Pointe Myopians”. In that article, Yates clearly identifies the insular culture that had been bred in Detroit (Grosse Point is the exclusive suburb where almost all Big Three execs lived), and predicted the trouble to come as a result.

And did it ever come.

Chevrolet Cavalier 1982 ad 2

Keep in mind that the Cavalier (and the other J-Cars) were the first serious effort by GM to reclaim the huge compact car segment since its ill-fated Vega blunder ten years earlier. GM basically ceded that market to the Japanese, but they knew they could not be a viable long-term player without a competitive car in the heart of the post-energy crisis market.

GM Executive and former Chevrolet GM Robert Lund was the executive overseeing the J-Car development. At the infamous 1981 press launch of the J-Cars, he unleashed fighting words:

We are tired of hearing how the domestic industry let the Japanese take the subcompact market away from us. We need an unconventional Chevrolet – an unconventional package with an unconventional marketing strategy – if we are going to do a better job against the imports, and we spell that Japanese. Make no mistake about it, Cavalier is an import fighter! The whole Chevrolet division is spoiling for a fight!

Well, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of ‘unconventional’ in the Cavalier. It was a a reasonably decent-looking but hardly leading-edge body with a whole lot of borrowed mechanical components from its bigger brother, the Citation (X-Body). That included suspension, brakes, steering, transmission, CV joints, numerous ancillary components, and eventually the V6 engine too. Of course it was much cheaper to just use these then tool up for lighter ones specifically designed for the lighter Cavalier.

Chevrolet Cavalier 1982

All of that borrowing from the bigger X-Body meant that these components were heavier than needed, which substantially pushed up the target weight of the Cavalier (The J-Car’s basic body was to be shared with Opel (and Vauxhall), but Opel used its own components that kept its Ascona within its weight targets).

And we haven’t gotten to the engine yet.

Cadillac 1982 Cimarron engine MM -21image by Murilee Martin

The Cavalier arrived a bit under-baked in a number of areas, but its 1.8 L ohv cast-iron pushrod four was its Achilles’ Heel, and what truly made it a failure and Deadly Sin. Ironically, it was precisely its engine that so impressed everyone with the Honda Accord: a silky-smooth alloy OHC four that simply didn’t feel and sound like the typical four cylinder. Well, Honda did know a thing or two about engines.

The Opel-designed Family II SOHC four was of course the obvious engine to adapt to the Cavalier (and was available on the Olds, Buick and Pontiac versions). It was a modern design with an alloy head and ran reasonably-refined, if not perhaps in Honda territory.

But after an internal battle described by Yates, Chevrolet decided not to go that route, just like they chose not to use Opel-designed engines for the Vega. In a cost cutting move, Chevrolet cobbled up a new four cylinder, later called the ‘122 Engine‘. It was highly conventional, not all that different from the architecture used on its small block V8s for almost two decades. Essentially, it was an in-line four version of their 60 degree V6 engine, as debuted in the X-Cars, sharing some of its internal components.

It churned out 88hp, but not happily. And at that 1981 press introduction, the most immediate reaction from the journalists that first drove it was: where’s the zip? There wasn’t any; the overweight Cavalier was hamstrung by its wheezy carburated engine that buzzed at higher engine speeds, and just didn’t deliver the goods. It was a good two seconds slower than a five-speed Toyota Corolla.

Chevrolet Cavalier 1982 +CX5160-SV-0004

Speaking of, there was no five speed manual to be had on the J-Cars. And by 1983, the Accord already had a four-speed automatic. The J-Cars would have to wait too many years before either of those were available on them. So much for spoiling for a fight; showing up with a plastic butter knife wasn’t going to cut it.

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In fact, although GM targeted the gen1 Accord with its Cavalier, by the time the Cavalier arrived, Honda’s substantially improved gen2 Accord was already out, a car that was praised for raising the bar on refinement yet again. And of course, Honda kept up a steady barrage of new Accords every four years or so.

The result was that Chevrolet’s pricing for the Cavalier was totally out of line with the market, which could smell the difference between a genuine Accord and a flawed pretender. Initial sales were as sluggish as the 1.8 four, and Chevy, as usual, had to make some quick and desperate adjustments to keep it from tanking. Content levels and average prices were lowered, and a new low-end ‘Cadet’ model was introduced.

CC 87 018 12001987 Cavalier interior

This all set the Cavalier on a trajectory that it would maintain in its very long life: as a low-end car sold on its price and not on its qualities. Which turned the Cavalier into a $5 billion dollar blunder, since it never really became a profitable car line for GM, and its development was very costly. Which only sunk its reputation that much further. Undoubtedly it was the failure of the Cavalier and J-cars that gave Roger Smith the cockimany idea to create Saturn. Which of course ended up making that $5 billion dollar blunder look like success in comparison (Saturn lost some $12 billion over its life). How about getting it right the first time? Or making it right, instead of starting a whole new company?

Chevrolet cavalier 1983_silver

The 1983 Cavalier arrived with some critical changes in an effort to rectify the most glaring deficiencies. The engine’s capacity was increased to 2.0 liters, and TBI was added to improve driveability. Although torque got a little bump, horsepower stayed the same, at 88. And in 1984, that number dropped to 86. And then to 85 in in 1985. So much for any real progress. And engine refinement was hardly improved either. The Cavalier was saddled with a mediocre engine, except for the rare later V6 versions.

The four cylinder engine eventually got a major revision in the form of a new cylinder head a decade or so later, and a bump to 2.2 liters as well. But it will never be remembered for its Honda-like silkiness or enthusiasm.

Chevrolet 1982 Cavalier sedan rq

When I first saw this brown Cavalier CS sedan, I wondered if it really was a 1982, or perhaps a 1983, which looked identical. But I distinctly remembered the 1983 proudly proclaiming the improved TBI 2.0 L engine on its rear end. This one lacks that.

Chevrolet 1983 Cavalier 2.0 badge

And I found proof that the ’83s do have that badge, in this shot from oldparkedcars.com, as well as some others. Yes, we have us a genuine 1982 Cavalier 1.8. A car that was introduced by GM with very high expectations, and proceeded to fall flat on its face, once again.

Of course the real unicorn is the 1982 Cimarron, with the identical 1.8 engine. Murilee Martin found one in the junkyard (appropriately enough), but on the road? I’m quite sure I saw one a couple of years ago, going the other way on a divided road, driven by an older guy who undoubtedly bought it new. But there was no way to catch it, despite its slowness.

Chevrolet Cavalier 1982 _Postcard

The 1982 Cavalier was the last time Chevrolet even pretended to compete with the Accord and such, until recent years. It effectively threw in the towel, and had to eat its fighting words. The NUMMI joint venture gave Chevy a genuine Toyota to sell, not that it made all that much difference. And the Cavalier became the poster boy for the decline and fall of GM.