Curbside Classic: 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle Deluxe Sedan – In Search of a Better Face

Chevelle Deluxe images posted at the Cohort by William Rubano

We’ve covered a lot of Colonnades over the years here, but never a low trim sedan like this Chevelle Deluxe. Deluxe? Isn’t that an oxymoron, for the lowest trim version of a car? And wasn’t it a rather severely out-of-date expression by 1973? Name debasement never ended, until it did. Even the Malibu’s name got a severe debasement in 1973, as Chevrolet tried to install a new higher-trim line Laguna above it, creating three distinct Chevelles. That was a flop. As was the Deluxe; in 1974, it was just Malibu Classic.

Not only was the Chevelle going through an identity crisis, but also a facial crisis. It started out with a mediocre one, and it kept trying on new ones each year, all to no success.

The 1973 Laguna was an ill-fated attempt to push the Chevelle upwards. The basic Chevelle face certainly wasn’t going to work for that, given how “poor” it was. Chevrolet General Manager John DeLorean used a familiar trick: creating a new Endura front end, as he had done for the ’68 Pontiac GTO. Just two problems with that.

Unlike the GTO, the Laguna was a full line, with sedan and station wagon along with the coupe. And unlike the GTO, the Laguna’s face was just plain ugly. Dorky, with a hint of anteater.

Bonus points to anyone who can find a Laguna sedan or wagon; they were mighty rare back in the day. Some 13k sedans and a hair more wagons (of all types) managed to find forgiving owners. Needless to say, the Laguna was discontinued as a full line for 1974.

The Laguna coupe, which sold a bit better in ’73, was carried over into 1974, now re-positioned as an overtly sporty coupe. The popularity of the Monte Carlo and the other GM formal-roof coupes made it essentially impossible to sell a luxurious version of the semi-fastback coupe body. But its faux-sporty make-over was a bomb, as the ’74 Laguna S3 sold half the rate of the ’73 Laguna coupe.

The Laguna S3 got a new shovelnose front end for 1975, and Jim Cavanaugh’s Laguna CC takes up the story from there. But it’s not a happy one either: its sales continued to swoon, never to break out of the four digit realm the rest of its (numbered) days. But it found its calling on the banks of NASCAR speedways.

 

I’ve always been more than a bit perplexed by the front end of the ’73 Chevelle; it’s so dull, generic and unappealing. Admittedly, that was something of a Chevelle trait from day one. It’s in its DNA, as was the popular saying some years back.

 

Here’s a look backwards at the last of the previous generation, which also was not exactly known for its interesting face.

Well, the new Chevelle, scheduled to arrive for MY 1972, was intended to improve on that. Here’s a sketch by Allan Flowers from 1969; needless to say, it’s a variation of the face that the ’71 Camaro introduced and the vega perpetuated. Frankly, as much as I like those, another member of the family wearing almost the same face might have been a bit too much.

Which explains these clays or prototypes that sport the face that presumably the new ’72 Chevelle was supposed to wear. Aha! A chrome version of the Laguna nose. So when the 5 mile bumpers interfered with this plan, it was recreated in Endura and bestowed upon the Laguna, presumably because it would have been too expensive for the Malibu/Deluxe. Which in turn explains the generic face those two arrived with in 1973.

 

The solution is easy: just walk back some. It gets more interesting, especially the sedan. This came as a big surprise to me and undoubtedly a whole lot of other folks in the fall of 1972. Its airy greenhouse clearly evoked the classic six-window big GM sedans from ten years earlier, now updated with more flowing lines. And a center pillar, due to expected federal roll-over standards. That is of course where the Colonnade name came from, as in a row of pillars.

The Colonnade sedan design turned out to be rather polarizing, as it flew directly into the massive wave of ever-larger C-pillar sail panels, and a quest for privacy. The country’s mood had switched drastically since the Vietnam war and the other happenings in the late 60s, and many Americans wanted to be as sealed off from what now seemed an uglier world, rather than look at it or engage with its populace when driving down the street.  Yet GM persisted in the airy sedan roof, bringing back glassy C-Pillars on the full sized cars in 1975. It may well have contributed to the dramatic loss of the sedan’s market share to the much more enclosed coupes of the era, a mega trend that continued well into the 80s.

And then of course the sloping, airy six-window sedan body came roaring back, on the success of the Audi 100/5000 and of course the Taurus. GM was either ahead or behind the times.

The Chevelle’s rear end is certainly more interesting than its front end. All the Colonnades had rather bold, sloping tails in ’73, especially the Pontiac’s. That didn’t last either, as all of them got decidedly  more squared-up in 1974. And the Chevelle lost its one-year flirtation with twin round tail lights. Shades of FWD Impalas to come.

This Chevelle Deluxe may not scream “stripper” on the outside, but its interior can’t hide its place on the roster. As on the police or taxi cab company roster. By the this time, stripper sedans were becoming increasingly rare in the retail segment of the market. If you were so cheap, just buy a damn Vega! Or a Datsun 1200. Dealers weren’t stocking them like this in 1973, except maybe in a few select small Midwest towns that still had a high Calvinist streak in their adults.

This immaculately-preserved Deluxe screams “granny-mobile”, and undoubtedly granny didn’t put many miles on it before she stopped driving it.

I’m going to place a pretty safe bet that this Deluxe has the the 100 (net) hp Non-Turbo-Thrift 250 six. At least the venerable Powerglide was not around anymore to make the six even more sluggish.

The 307 V8 was in its last year, making all of 115 hp. For some reason, the 307 didn’t take well to the de-smogged era. In 1974, the smallest V8 would be the 145 hp 350. Of course the energy crisis changed that quickly, and in 1975, the forgettable 262 pigmy-mouse V8 made its premiere. Fortunately, by 1976 the 305, a much better compromise in the new era, finally arrived, and the 262 was sent packing after just two years. Good riddance, although it undoubtedly did the job for some with modest expectations. The 454 would be gone after 1976 too; it’s surprising that it stayed around that long.

The 1974 Chevelle got the first of its yearly face implants, or or more like face-plants. It was new, but hardly original. And it was the first blatant Mercedes grille rip-off,; I’ve commemorated that Design Milepost here, but not without a bit of controversy. Given that GM Design VP Bill Mitchell used to make snide remarks about Mercedes styling back then, this is more than a bit disingenuous.

Maybe Bill was a bit too tied up under a drafting table with one of his secretaries, and the ’74 grille somehow slipped by him. But he had that fixed for 1975, with a decidedly more generic version of a very dull grille. Must have taken all of ten minutes.

But Bill was indisposed again when the ’76 grille was being “created”. Does this look pathetic, or what? My theory is that its design was outsourced to a high school shop class to save a few bucks.

The high school kids found  apiece of steel extrusion laying out in the junk pile and cut to fit the grille surround. Bingo! I gave the ’76 Malibu Classic a Deadly Sin, in part inspired by its atrocious front end. So much for GM’s design leadership.

Bill decided to bring the work for the ’77 front end back in-house, and the results are…a wee bit better. But as far as I’m concerned, the Colonnade Chevelle was a car that kept looking for a good front end, but never found it.

So let’s end this CC with this end, the better end, that is. And let’s just say that the Colonnade Chevelle played its part in making the Olds Cutlass America’s best selling car.