Curbside Classic: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette – An Econobox For Garden-Variety Americans

If one were to hold a competition for cars that get little respect, Chevette might win the grand prize.  It was cheap, no-frills transportation that sold in the millions.  It was sparsely equipped, nearly antiquated even when new, and slow.  It broke no new ground, excelled at nothing other than low price, and was seemingly everywhere.  And when the economic crisis that spawned it faded into memory, Chevettes became beater cars and were then scrapped.  But beneath its utilitarian facade lies a fascinating corporate tale of panic, strategy, disappointment, success and obsolescence, all contained in one 2,000-lb. package.

For years it seemed as if Chevettes were everywhere.  Now, though, they are almost gone, particularly early examples like this one – which makes this car a perfect lens through which to examine the Chevette’s meandering history.

Chevette’s origins lie with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo – that immense geopolitical event that sent shockwaves through world economies and brought gasoline lines to Main Street.  Between the fall of 1973 and the spring of 1974, global oil prices quadrupled, and suddenly Detroit’s bloated cars seemed archaic.  Panicky customers clamored for efficient cars, import sales surged, and experts proclaimed the era of cheap oil was over.

For the auto industry, this demanded swift, strategic action, which was not a core competency of General Motors.  In this case, however, the often-musclebound giant responded to the need for a small, inexpensive car with uncharacteristic alacrity.  In December 1973 – at the gas crisis’s peak, and a month after President Nixon urged Americans to sacrifice unnecessary indulgences to conserve energy – GM fast-tracked a new “minicompact” for North America

Specifically, the Board of Directors instructed Chevrolet to produce a version of the T-car, a vehicle then under development on other continents (including the German Opel Kadett and the Brazilian Chevette).  In choosing this route, GM prioritized timing.  Its other option – to develop an all-new car for North America – would have put the new model in production by 1978.  That was too far in the future.  A modified T-car could be ready in a mere 19 months, half the development time of a typical new car.

The task to create a North American T-car variant fell to 31-year-old John Mowrey, the Chevette project’s chief engineer.  He had quite a task ahead of him, which started with GM sending his team blueprints (and translators) for the German and Brazilian T-car plans.  Mowrey, an excellent choice for the project, was rare among GM’s staff in that he was quite enthusiastic about small cars… and predicted that “in 20 years, big cars will be a social crime.”

Chevette was far from simply a badge-engineered Kadett.  Most obviously was that while other T-cars came in multiple body styles, Chevette was developed only as a hatchback.  Mowrey’s team, in fact, created all new body panels.  They also used a modified engine, redesigned the underbody (for greater corrosion resistance), designed a new interior, and accommodated various US safety standards.

Over half a million T-cars had been made worldwide by the time North America’s Chevette debuted. They included: Opel Kadett (Germany); Holden Gemini (Australia); Chevrolet Chevette (Brazil); Isuzu Gemini (Japan); Vauxhall Chevette (Great Britain); and Opel K 180 (Argentina)

 

The GM Directors’ choice to modify a T-car for this project was far from unanimous.  Some product planners advocated FWD for a more modern layout, rather than the RWD T-car.  However, the Directors thought that having a more traditional car ready for 1976 would be better than having a FWD model for 1978.  Though controversial, this was a defensible strategy – after all, the decision was made at the height of the oil embargo when it seemed that demand for minicompacts would only go up, and RWD was hardly a deal-killer for most customers in the 1970s.

From the outset, the 1976 model year was GM’s goal, and that goal was met.  Chevette’s US introduction was held in September 1975 on the US Capitol Grounds, a symbolic location because with ever-increasing federal regulations, Washington rivaled Detroit as the nation’s most important city for automotive news.  Just months earlier, Congress enacted its Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, and at Chevette’s introduction, Congressmen received a sneak peak at what was then the highest-mileage US-built car.

The Capitol Hill debut also attempted to stir up patriotism among consumers, as GM had import buyers in its crosshairs.  Expecting the majority of Chevette sales to be “import conquests,” GM anticipated its strongest sales to be in import-heavy coastal markets.  Company strategists were ecstatic about having the first domestic car in the minicompact class.

General Motors developed its North American Chevette quickly and on target, and the car generated significant press coverage.  All that was left by 1976 was to see how customers reacted.  Unenthusiastically, as it turned out.  After an initial flurry of interest, first-year sales simply tanked.

Several factors caused this early sales disappointment.  Most importantly, the crisis that spawned the Chevette had faded away.  By 1976, gas prices had stabilized, and big land yachts came back into vogue after a brief hiatus.  Small car sales, while still significant, ceased their rapid growth.  This, of course, was unfortunate timing for the Chevette, and something over which GM had no control.

But not all of Chevette’s initial struggles resulted from external events.  One internal problem, for instance, was that GM overestimated consumers’ appetite for frugality.  Chevette was cheap, but not necessarily a good value compared to its imported competition.  With standard equipment that was sparse even for its class, Chevette offered few advantages over the Rabbit, B-210, Corolla or Civic.

GM kept Chevette’s base price as low as possible, assuming that customers would appreciate the stripped-down content.  They estimated, for example, that the bargain-basement Scooter model in the above ad (equipped with rubber flooring and without a rear seat), would account for 25% of total Chevette production.  But for 1976 that figure was just 5%.  It turned out that even economy car customers wanted a certain amount of creature comforts – and Honda, Toyota and VW were more responsive to this desire.  GM addressed the value issue in later model years, but for 1976-77 value-for-money was a noteworthy drawback for Chevette vs. its competition.

Another early stumbling block was dealer apathy.  Chevy dealers were often indifferent about Chevette sales, and overtly steered prospective customers to larger (more profitable) models.  This was widespread enough to alarm GM, which responded by bringing sales personnel from across the nation to the Wilmington, Del. plant where Chevettes were made, hoping to instill more pride among the sales force in this little car.  GM stressed in these sessions that small car buyers are sophisticated people who know what they want, and that “trying to bait-and-switch… is not necessarily a good idea.”

GM Chairman Thomas Murphy (left) and President Pete Estes (right)

 

Little could disguise the fact, though, that the 1976-77 Chevette was a huge disappointment.  Before its release, Chevrolet General Manager Robert D. Lund predicted 300,000 annual sales, but within a few months he halved that prediction.  Given this harsh letdown, it’s interesting to see how GM executives publicly reacted:

  • Lund himself dubiously declared that although Chevette was not capturing as many import sales as predicted, the model’s primary goal had really been to keep existing Chevy customers who wanted a smaller car.
  • GM Treasurer John R. Edman was probably less than forthright when he claimed that “despite some indications to the contrary, we consider the Chevette a success.”
  • Chevrolet’s Marketing Director, Tom Staudt, put a holistically positive spin on the Chevette, pointing out the car’s “across-the-board impact” on the industry, and claiming that it provided GM with a “halo” for its efficiency efforts.
  • But the most revealing comment came from Chairman Thomas A. Murphy, who said that while he was pleased that GM executed its Chevette program quickly and with great agility, “There’s no way you can sell something to a man who doesn’t want it.”  “Garden-variety Americans,” he added, “don’t want small cars.”

Murphy’s comment wasn’t an isolated remark.  Former GM Design Studio Chief David North told Automotive News in 2008 that the prevailing mantra inside GM during his 1959-1991 tenure was to “let the Japanese have” the small car market.

These types of comments explain much about General Motors’ difficulty producing successful small cars.  Many in GM’s upper hierarchy simply didn’t see the appeal, and Chevette’s early flop appeared to confirm this for them.  Such complacency, however, was fraught with danger.  It validated the naysayers’ opinion that small cars were a losing proposition, and blinded the company to market trends that suggested otherwise.

With that background, let’s examine our featured car from Chevette’s second production year.  Chevette’s general appearance presented an uncluttered, upright design that bore a mild resemblance to VW’s Rabbit, one of its chief competitors.

Chevette was narrow (3” narrower than a Rabbit), with an interior somewhat hampered by the RWD configuration, but GM made several accommodations for greater comfort.  The car’s relatively high roofline led to adequate headroom, and GM ensured that the seats were mounted high off the floor so passengers wouldn’t sit with their knees uncomfortably high.

Overall, Chevette’s interior was a composite of crude and comfortable (higher-trim levels received fake wood trim and nicer upholstery), and also between international and Detroit aesthetics.  The bare metal door trim, however, served as a constant reminder of the car’s cheapness.

The rear seat offered a bare minimum of room and comfort for the day.  The seat could fold down, which provided ample room for two people and their luggage.

Four adults could theoretically fit in Chevette, but in such a circumstance, the driver’s 6’3” friends probably wouldn’t be friends for long.  And under such a load, Chevette’s 88 mph top speed would have been a good bit lower.

Once underway, drivers found Chevette’s suspension to be very competent, with unequal-length control arms in front and a solid axle in back, similar to GM’s other T-cars.  The car’s springs provided for generous suspension travel, and delivered minimal wheel hop (a common complaint with leaf-sprung small cars of its day).  Overall, Chevette’s handling was agile, its steering taut, and the ride comfortable and stable.  In fact, the suspension was this car’s most endearing driving attribute.

Power was its least endearing attribute.  Early Chevettes came with either 1.4- or 1.6-liter versions of the same engine, sourced largely from the Brazilian Chevette.  Either engine made for a slow car.  Our featured car came equipped with the optional 1.6, which put out 63 horsepower.  Though no 1970s subcompact was fast, Chevettes were downright lethargic – particularly when things like an automatic, air conditioning and extra passengers were added.  Chevette’s iron-block engine, though, did prove to be reliable.

As for comfort, noise, roominess, etc. – these were largely mid-pack for its day.  A 1978 Car and Driver comparison of seven econoboxes summed up the early Chevette by describing it as “the median car in both Fun and Utility.”  Road & Track echoed this mediocrity: its 1978 long-term Chevette report was insipidly titled “It Did The Job.”  No more, and no less.

There were some small innovations, though.  Showing its international roots, Chevette was the first US-built metric car.  It was also the first American car to feature a multi-purpose turn signal stalk, called “Smart Switch,” which included wiper/washer controls and a (probably rarely used) headlight flasher.  The front seats featured a novelty as well – inertia-type locking mechanisms that enabled passengers to move the front seatbacks freely to access the rear seat without needing to push down a separate lever.

While largely similar to the introductory year, 1977 Chevettes such as our featured car benefited from a few driveability refinements, such as revised cam timing, taller axle ratios, and a modified braking system.  Importantly, both engines gained a few sorely-needed horsepower.  Trim versions were shuffled too – with the odd Woody model being replaced by the Sandpiper (above), which came replete with graphics of the eponymous shorebirds on the car’s rocker panel.

Our featured car is a standard Chevette (not the budget Scooter, or one of the special models), with the 1.6 and automatic, but otherwise containing few options.  Such a car would have listed for about $3,500 in 1977.  Though the list price was low, the imports still outflanked Chevette in terms of value.

The lack of outstanding qualities in a crowded subcompact field made for another unhappy year (sales fell by 29% to just 133,000), and at the close of 1977 it appeared that Chevette would be an utter failure.

Such pessimism was premature.  For 1978, GM added a 4-door model, and prices/equipment were adjusted to offer better value.  This was the key to success.  It took three years, but Chevette finally approached the 300,000 mark that its makers had hoped for from the beginning.

Source: Standard Catalog of Chevrolet, 1912-2003

Buffeting this popularity was the 1979-80 oil crisis and subsequent recession, which brought market impacts once again favoring inexpensive, efficient small cars.  Chevette’s high-sales mark came in 1980, when the then-5-year-old model sold nearly 450,000 units, making the stodgy, slow Chevette one of America’s best-selling cars.

At that point, GM had momentum in the competitive small car field.  If it had replaced Chevette then with a more modern FWD model, the company could have carried that momentum forward.  However, that did not happen.  From Chevette’s 1980 sales peak, GM begun a steady descent into irrelevancy in North America’s economy car market.

Chevette production continued with minimal updates until the 1987 model year, by which time it was thoroughly obsolete.  Ultimately, Chevette developed a reputation as a rather conservative choice for an econobox – it was domestic, RWD, and as Consumer Guide put it, “unimaginative to an extreme.”  This was far from the import-fighting car targeting young coastal buyers that GM imagined in the mid-1970s, but it was a niche nonetheless, and 2.7 million customers bought Chevettes over the 12-year model run.  One might say that Chevette was the economy car of choice for the “Garden-variety Americans” that GM’s chairman contended did not want small cars.

Ironically, when Chevette production ended, GM was left only with small hatchbacks produced by its Asian partners.  The anointed import-fighter that first failed, then thrived, and eventually sold nearly 3 million copies – was succeeded by the very imports it was created to battle.

Was Chevette a success for General Motors?  Yes and no.  It’s hard to call a car that topped the sales charts a failure, and GM’s quick, focused effort to get the car to market in just 19 months was a splendid example of corporate agility.  Chevette’s failure lies with GM’s inability to follow up on its success.  If GM had put as much vim and vigor into improving Chevette as it had into developing the car in the first place, then the history of North America’s small car market might have been much different.

 

Photographed in Arlington, Virginia in August 2017.

 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Chevette Scooter: A New Category Of Vehicle   Paul N