The 1973 GM T-Car was a genuine world car, sold on 5 continents under the Opel, Vauxhall, Isuzu and Holden brands, among others. But while it wasn’t the last “world car” platform from General Motors, the T-Car variants were not universally replaced by a second generation of the platform. Instead, Opel and Vauxhall went their separate ways. A new, front-wheel-drive platform known as the R-Body underpinned the T-Car’s Isuzu, Chevrolet and Holden-badged successors.
Compared to the T-Car platform, the R-Body’s scope was much narrower and the commercial success of its variants a mixed bag. Although GM’s European operations were out of the project, the new platform was developed with both GM and Isuzu involvement with styling by Giugario. Isuzu sold their R-Body as the Gemini or, in North America, as the I-Mark. Although sales were relatively consistent, just one more generation later Isuzu ceased manufacturing passenger cars. They had already pulled out of the European market, the R-Body Gemini only offered for a truncated run.
Chevrolet offered a rebadged I-Mark in North America as the Spectrum; there was also the identical Pontiac Sunburst in Canada. The Big 3 were finding it difficult to profitably build small cars. Chrysler had been selling Mitsubishi models as captive imports since the 1970s and General Motors decided to sell some captive imports as well. However, their strategy was much more convoluted than smaller Chrysler’s: the old T-Car was sold until 1987; the global J-Car was introduced in 1982, following the compact, domestic X-Body and later supplemented by N/L-Body compacts; a venture with Toyota produced the California-manufactured Chevrolet Nova; and GM also offered rebadged Suzukis and Daewoos. It seemed like a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” strategy.
At Chevrolet dealers alone, buyers could choose between Chevette, Cavalier, Sprint, Nova and Spectrum. With such a dizzying variety of small cars, the Spectrum was often overlooked; the Cavalier was by far the strongest seller of the group. Available as either a three-door hatchback or four-door sedan, the Spectrum was launched in 1985 in only 16 eastern states. This was because of voluntary import restrictions that limited GM to only 29,500 Spectrums when they really wanted to import in excess of 200,000. The Spectrum was then rolled out to the rest of the US in 1986.
Chevy’s little Isuzu came only with a 1.5 overhead-cam four-cylinder engine (70 hp, 87 ft-lbs). A turbocharged 1.5 (110 hp, 120 ft-lbs) was available in 1987-88 on the Spectrum and 1987-89 on the I-Mark. While the R-Body was much more modern than the T-Car, its engineering was conventional in the new front-wheel-drive order: MacPherson struts up front and a transverse twist beam at the rear with trailing arms, with rack-and-pinion steering and front disc/rear drum brakes.
A small car buyer in a Chevy dealership was spoilt for choice but the Spectrum wasn’t necessarily the most compelling. In 1986, Chevy’s small car range opened with the 3 and 5-door Sprint three-cylinder at $5,380. Then, the Chevette 3-dr was priced at $5,645. Cavalier sedans started at $6,888, the coupe a couple of hundred less; the hatchback was only offered in higher trim levels. The Nova was priced at $7,435. Where did the Spectrum fit into all of this? Smack bang in the middle: $6,658 for the hatch, an extra $300 for the sedan. The Spectrum wasn’t as stripped out as some base model imports were but you still had to pay extra for power steering and a radio. Standard transmission was a 5-speed manual with a 3-speed automatic optional. These were still the bad old days in terms of slushbox’s fuel efficiency vis-à-vis stickshifts: while the manual achieved an EPA-estimated 37/41 mpg, while the auto managed only 31/33 mpg, although that was still an exceptionally class-competitive number.
The Cavalier was hardly the final word in refinement but the Spectrum wasn’t a little limousine, either. The 1.5 four had to be worked hard and the result was plenty of noise. The ride was comfortable but the handling was thoroughly unexciting; Popular Mechanics called the handling “woozy” and the shifter and steering “vague”. It was an average little Japanese import, no more, no less. Even the sportier turbo model was unimpressive: Car & Driver, in a 1987 comparison test, ranked the I-Mark Turbo 9th out of 10 similarly-priced sport compacts. Although powerful, it had a “rattly, clunky” feel the testers felt was out of place in a Japanese car; it was also criticized for high noise levels and “vaguely insecure” handling.
In Chevy showrooms, when the Spectrum was compared with the Nova – a car with almost identical power output and similarly uninvolving dynamics – the Spectrum looked like good value. But the Cavalier, inferior build quality aside, must have seemed like a screaming deal to Chevy buyers: an almost identical price but a larger interior, a similar equipment level in the base model including window defoggers and power brakes, and slightly more power albeit with a heavier curb weight. This was a time before the Cavalier truly became a relic: its mechanicals dated back only a few years, it looked handsome and it was keenly priced.
The Spectrum far outsold its Isuzu-badged counterpart, the I-Mark. After all, Isuzu had 520 dealers in the United States in 1985, while there were 5,120 Chevrolet dealerships. In the I-Mark’s best year, Isuzu sold 32,300. But for all of Chevy’s talk of importing and selling 200k Spectrums a year, the largest number they sold was 99,370 in 1986, then selling between 60-80k until 1989. Voluntary import restrictions had handicapped GM’s import efforts in the past and perhaps they continued to play a part in the Spectrum’s sales performance despite their regular extensions. To paint a larger picture, the domestically-manufactured Nova managed 152,915 units in 1987 to the Cavalier’s 307,028. In 1986, Chevrolet managed to sell 103,244 Chevettes and 357,093 Cavaliers.
The Chevette’s time was finally up in 1987 and Chevrolet, although not replacing it directly, had provided a suite of vehicles for Chevette buyers to choose their replacement from. In Australia, however, the Holden Gemini was a direct replacement for the perennial T-Car Gemini, a regular fixture on the sales Top 10 lists. But, like GM did in North America, the new FWD R-Body was offered alongside other cars of its size. There was a reason for this: there was no five-door hatch.
In the United States, a subcompact or compact can sell even if there’s only a sedan available. In Australia, at least from the 1980s onward, no five-door hatchback variant being available often relegates a small car to niche status. Frustratingly, the only hatch developed for the R-Body was a three-door and Holden declined to manufacture it, given its limited appeal to young family buyers. The old T-Car Gemini had come as a three-door wagon, three-door panel van and two-door coupe. The all-new RB Gemini would go it alone with a single sedan available in SL (fleet only), SL/X and range-topping SL/E trims; base price was roughly a $1,000 higher than the out-going T-Car. Perhaps Holden thought it would sell just fine considering the bulk of T-Car Gemini sales had been the sedan, but they didn’t consider the extraordinary success of the Mazda 323-based Ford Laser hatch or the exceptional sales performance of the Corolla range.
Small car buyers looking for a Holden hatchback had a similarly-sized and similarly-priced option available: the Astra. Confusingly unrelated to the Opel Astra, the Holden Astra was instead a locally-manufactured, rebadged Nissan Pulsar with the same anaemic engine and dated design. Despite a huge dealer network, the Astra was a disappointing seller for Holden. They must have been perplexed why their small, Japanese-developed car sold so much worse than Ford’s. In early 1985, Ford Australia launched the new “bubble-back” KC Laser that further entrenched the Laser as one of Australia’s most sought after small cars.
In its first year, just over 10,000 RB Geminis were produced. In 1986, a horrible year for the Australian car market, a meager 5,865 were sold, the Astra hatchback mustering only 6,192. The Gemini, once one of Australia’s best-selling small cars, was proving to be a tremendous disappointment with sales down roughly 50%. In contrast, the Corolla sold 29,125 units in 1986, the Laser 25,152. If you included the related Ford Meteor sedan and wagon, Ford’s small car line sold 33,799 units. Critics were also underwhelmed by the new Gemini, especially its predictable yet dull handling and its mediocre powerplant (the turbo was not offered here) although it was praised for its improved space efficiency.
In only its second season, rumors were swirling of the Gemini’s demise. The Australian Government’s Button Plan was being implemented, with the aim of reducing the number of separate platforms manufactured by Australian automakers and the eventual goal of reducing tariffs and opening up the market. Holden had to reach an 85% local content target that the Gemini couldn’t hit, and the Astra and Pulsar were built together locally. When Holden announced the next-generation Astra would receive the Aussie “Family II” four-cylinder engine instead of the Gemini as well as a sedan body style, the little R-Body sedan’s time was up.
The RB Gemini wouldn’t live past 1987, the same year the new Astra hatch and sedan (pictured above) landed in Holden showrooms. The R-Body survived until 1989 in other markets, however. In 1989, the Chevrolet Spectrum became the Geo Spectrum as Chevrolet consolidated its Japanese imports under one sub-brand.
The first-generation R-Body had one last hurrah with the 1989 I-Mark RS. Packing an all-new, double overhead cam, 16-valve 1.6 four-cylinder with 125 hp – more than the turbo 1.5 – and 102 ft-lbs, these sporty new I-Marks had a suspension tuned by Isuzu’s recent purchase, British sports car manufacturer Lotus. With much improved handling and a sweet, rev-happy engine, the RS seemed like the car the I-Mark (and Spectrum, and Gemini) should have been all along. Chevrolet didn’t receive a version and it came too late for Holden.
Neither Chevrolet nor Holden would sell a version of the Gemini’s successor, sold in North America as the Stylus sedan, although its coupe and hatchback variants were later sold as the Geo Storm.
Once Isuzu pulled the plug on passenger car production, they shifted to truck and SUV-only model ranges but continued to sell passenger cars – rebadged Honda products – in the Japanese market.
The Big 3 American automakers all picked different partners from Japan. Some worked better than others: Ford’s involvement with Mazda resulted in several successful models and Chrysler’s ties with Mitsubishi also bore fruit. But although GM philandered with the Japanese, courting Toyota, Suzuki and Isuzu simultaneously, it was the latter that proved somewhat disappointing. Isuzu may have screwed their cars together well but they often lacked the level of mechanical refinement in Mazda and Honda vehicles. For undemanding buyers, if not enthusiasts, the Gemini/Spectrum/I-Mark ticked all the appropriate boxes: well-built, reliable, fuel-efficient. But its general, unremarkable competence is why these never really engendered any strong feelings and were swiftly forgotten by many people.