Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevette Scooter – A New Category Of Vehicle

(first posted 11/11/2011. I’m on vacation this week, so there will be a few more re-runs than usual)

OMG biggest POS ever!

Drove a twenty-year old one down to Tierra de la Fuega and back – never let us down.

The engine blew up at 30k miles.

Our Pizza delivery drivers couldn’t kill them

Craptastic

Simple as a Jeep, but twice as reliable

One of my favorite weekend activities was to toss the helmet into my Chevette and go Porsche-huntin’

I’ve been dreading writing the inevitable Chevette CC, but can put it off no longer. Which is ironic, because the Chevette is a favorite for automotive web site “writers”; all they have to do is show a picture of one in the junkyard or filched from the web, throw in a couple of predictable lines about its limited power, or it being the most malaise car ever, or a reference to the Scooter’s cardboard door trim, and a torrent of colorful comments are unleashed. Works every time, even here at CC.

Feelings run strong about this car. So am I going to throw gas on the fire, or get the extinguisher?

Neither.

Why try to changes folks experiences and memories? And it’s not like I ever had one. So let’s try to gain some insight into this poor misunderstood shitbox. Starting with its origins; a little DNA analysis.

Now to fully explore every member of the vast GM T Car would be quite the undertaking. It was made in the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan, Korea, Argentina, and of course the USA,; m favorite name for it being the Daewoo Maepsy. Yes, Deawoo too; it’s an old relationship. The T-Car represents the beginning of modern GM as a major global player, and was the first of its kind, being adapted to local conditions, as well as local components. At least four totally distinct engine families found their home under its hood. But it all started with this Opel Kadett C.

Strictly speaking, the first T Car to go into production was the Brazilian Chevrolet Chevette, which was the basis for the American version. It came out in 1973, six months before the Opel Kadett C. But the T-Car was designed and engineered in Germany by Opel, and the Kadett C has developed quite the cult following there. Especially the GT/E, which had a lusty fuel injected version of Opel’s 1.9 liter engine, and earned a deserved name for itself on the Rally circuits.

The Kadett C was the third generation of a long line of Opel compacts that started in 1962 and is still going with the Astra. The C was the last generation to be rear wheel drive, and solidly upheld Opel’s rep for building well-handling cars at the time, like the highly regarded Manta/1900. It also received an all-new suspension, shedding itself of the narrow-track front transverse leaf spring setup that Bob Lutz found wanting in the Kadett B, for an all-coil setup that resulted in an eminently tossable little car. Yes, there’s some of of Bob in the T-Car and Chevette, but then he spread his genes widely.

Steering was light and direct, and driving a Kadett or any T-Car was about as fun as it got for it’s kind, in that old school rwd way, as long as the fine tuning was up to snuff. Needless to say, our dear Chevette didn’t get the fine polish the GT/E did, but the basics were always there, more or less.

The Kadett initially didn’t have the hatchback body style that appeared from the start on the Brazilian Chevette and the Vauxhall Chevette. The British ‘Vett had its own engines handed down from the Viva, and included some serious pocket rockets like this HSR.

The third main branch was the Isuzu Gemini, whose offshoots included the Holden Gemini and the Korean Maepsy. They followed the Kadett’s body styles, but there’s no doubt that the Isuzu had some of the best quality components, and certainly the most durable engines, which were shared with their pickups.

Having read about the Kadett C’s fine manners in auto motor und sport, I was filled with a combination of anticipation and dread when it was announce that Chevrolet would build its own version of the Brazilian Chevette, beginning with the 1976 model year. After the Vega debacle, it certainly seemed like a major step in the right direction: leverage Opel’s experience with small cars. I’ll never understand why the Opel 1900 wasn’t used as the basis of their small car instead. Even “Americanized”, it would have saved GM at least a couple of Deadly Sins. But when the Chevette arrived with a woody version, I saw the writing on the wall.

And the ultimate-stripper mobile Scooter didn’t help. The early versions came without a back seat! And all just to undercut the almost-equally stripper Rabbit’s $2999 price by a hundred bucks. Brilliant! So where’s the damn GTE? No such luck. In fact, the first year Chevette engine line up is particularly anemic; a 52 hp 1.4, or the 60 hp 1.6.

So for an extra hundred bucks, the 1975 Rabbit delivers an ultra-modern body, fwd, great handling, and a 75 hp engine, as well as a back seat! You think maybe VW advertising the Rabbit’s top speed was a dig at the Chevette?

Yes, the Rabbit upset the apple cart, even for Opel back home. The VW’s package and dynamic qualities quickly made even the best of the T-cars look a bit obsolete, and the next generation Kadett had a very Rabbit-like configuration. But that came too late for the Chevette, which I strongly doubt GM ever had any intention of building in the US until the 1973-1974 energy crisis hit, as well as its offspring, the CAFE regs.

Well, necessity pretty much defines the Chevette. There certainly wasn’t any inspiration involved, which when it comes to GM, may just have been the Chevette’s redemption. Everything is relative, and although the Chevette may have been found wanting compared the the Rabbit, most Americans were still smarting from GM’s Vega debacle. Actually, 1975 – 1976 were the height of that disaster, and its likely that the the Chevette’s modest sales to start with were a reflection of that. Maybe the Chevette’s marketing wasn’t exactly in sync either. As if…

In addition to being suitable to mixing it up with vintage Rollers, the Chevette also needed to compensate for the Vega’s lingering stink. Well, the Rabbit was no paragon in that respect, so the real competition here were the Japanese, which made huge headway in the seventies. Toyota and Datsun were on a roll with their Corolla and B-210,

and Mazda even paid the Chevette tribute with their GLC. We ought keep in mind that the Japanese competition then were all rwd, and pretty primitive in terms of their chassis and packaging, the little Civic excepted. So in terms of what the Chevette was up against was not exactly dramatically better, dynamically speaking. Dramatically, I said. A GLC may have looked like the Chevette, and was sized like one, but there were too many fine details of execution as well as material and build quality to be ignored.

We’re slipping too deeply into negative territory here, so let’s find something good to say. The Chevette came with a refreshingly attractive dash and steering wheel. It may not look like much today, but for 1976, for an “American” car, this was practically revolutionary. Clean, clear, simple, functional, and even cheerful. Now if only it had a bit more go under the hood to keep the smile going. That was a particularly acute problem with the automatic. Turn on the A/C, and watch the speed drop by five mph.

No, the way to go was with the essentials. Really, the Scooter made the most sense, perhaps, as long as it came with the rear seat. Bare bones, like this veteran, whose hardboard door panels have long been recycled into Chinese cardboard boxes. Third world motoring, at its finest, and no thanks on the Woody!

I’m rather proud about finding this Scooter still hard at work a couple of blocks down the street. And I assure you, it’s far from the only Chevette still pounding the pavement in Eugene. I’m familiar with a good half dozen or so, although they do tend to be the later ones, from 1980 on. That may have as much or more to do with the Chevette’s sales spike during 1980 and 1981, when almost a million of these roach-ettes were eagerly sold to Americans flipping out about the gas spike those years.

That spike soon drooped, and Chevette sales withered away, down to a mere 46k in its last year, 1987. That was way too late to be selling this car, which was hardly fresh when it arrived. But this ad from 1984 ad proudly claims that 97% of Chevettes built in the previous nine years are still on the road! Build them long enough, and they will become…institutions.

Yes, the Chevette created a new class of car: the pizza delivery mobile. Cheap and easy to fix. And the drivers could have their modest amusements at mostly safe speeds. Yes, we deliver handbrake U-turns too.

The Chevette would have been a minor player if it hadn’t been for the second energy crisis. Nobody really wanted a Chevette. People bought them because they were foolishly freaking out about gas prices that would inevitably rise to $10 within a few years. Or they needed a cheap scooter to buy for their kids, and had a thing about it being American. Or owned a Domino’s franchise.

Anybody who was half-way serious about small cars did their homework, and bought a Toyota, Datsun, Honda, Mazda or the excellent new fwd Colt/Champ. Although the sticker prices were fairly similar (a Chevette or Civic both started at about $11k in today’s dollars), buyers often paid list or even above for the Japanese cars, and there was usually money stuffed into the glovebox of the Chevette.

These later Chevettes had 65 hp engines, and in a lightly equipped two door with a stick, could provide a certain type of honest entertainment. It helped if you were into small and simple machinery, and not too picky about the fine details. And didn’t live in the mountains. And didn’t mind fixing things that fell off randomly. And avoided catastrophic self destruction of various sorts that were inevitably experience by a certain percentage of owners. Hey, the ad didn’t say 100% were still on the road.

Makes me wonder how many are still, today. Well, from the shape of one or two I’ve seen, it might be a while before the very last Chevette disappears from the streets here. And to tell the truth, I’ll be sad when it finally happens. Who will we have to kick around?