One of the things I enjoy most about business travel is the ability to explore new-to-me places once the day’s work is done. My current job afforded my first night’s stay in all-American cities like Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska – both of which I loved. There’s something liberating about being able to ditch my suit and tie in my hotel room after smiling, listening and talking all day, putting on comfortable clothes, and hitting the pavement with my trusty Canon.
It was on one such trip several years back that I discovered this Cavalier notchback while walking around downtown Des Moines. I was positively mesmerized by the sight of this once-facelifted Squarevalier, but at the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why I found it so utterly fascinating. Several things later dawned on me. This car was the look of every high school parking lot and shopping mall of the early 1990’s. This was the car featured in myriad Showcase Showdowns on “The Price is Right”. This car was 1980’s America.
Another thing that struck me was that despite its terminal rust situation, the body on this sporty, little J-car was bone-straight – and I’m not just talking about the linear styling. After walking around it several times, I couldn’t find any noticeable dents. That’s usually an indicator of some degree of pride of ownership, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this is / was a one- or two-owner car. It was a paradox in a parking lot, with rust everywhere but no dents and a super-clean interior.
These square-rigged Cavalier notchback coupes did absolutely nothing for me back in the day. I avoided looking at one of these as a potential used car purchase in the early ’90s when I had decided I’d had enough of my hand-me-down ’84 Ford Tempo which didn’t like to stay running when at a stop. I did like these Cavaliers in hatchback Z24 form, especially in red with the orange graphics, but there were just so many of this generation, everywhere, all the time, that I suppose I had just learned to tune them out in the autoscape. There are still some rounded, latter-day first generation cars still running around (in decreasing numbers), but most of the early Cavs appear to have vaporized, which made me take notice of this one even more.
The ’85 Cavalier was the best-selling car in the United States that year, with over 383,000 sold. Powered by an 88-hp 2.0L 4-cylinder, this Cavalier would have edged decisively ahead of my same-horsepower, 400 lbs.-heavier 2.3L 4-cylinder ’88 Ford Mustang LX at any stoplight. My poor, slow, lovable Mustang was a cheap ticket to the nosebleed seats – a ponycar masquerading as an economical excuse to own something attached to its storied nameplate. (More on my Fox-stang later.)
Since I took it there, I have no doubt that four-cylinder versions of the Cavalier and Mustang were cross-shopped more than a few times by customers who thought the Escort was just too basic and/or dowdy-looking. The U.S. version of the “world car” Escort never seemed to measure up to the Cavalier in terms of style or substance, from the get-go. In base form, especially, the comparison wasn’t even close. Aesthetically, it was Pinto-vs.-Vega all over again and more often than not, looks matter in the youth market which includes such economy-minded cars. Also, the base Cavalier-Mustang comparison isn’t completely far-fetched if you consider that the Cavalier succeeded the Mustang II-competitor Monza in Chevy’s lineup.
To my eyes, this is a clean, purposeful, honest, well-balanced design. This particular model year, the last for the “Type 10” variant which was replaced by the RS for ’86, is when the look of these cars seemed fully realized. The enlarged taillamp clusters with amber turn signals and horizontal strakes had just the right amount of “80’s tech” about them. The subtle, red accents on the body-side trim glowed like neon. The Spirograph-look wheels on this car were another really nice-looking element. While I thought the ’88 restyle was a really commendable effort to bring the 7-year-old Cavalier (especially the coupes) in line with GM’s aero design language – especially with its new, Beretta-esque rear, there was something that irked me about the way the C-pillar didn’t connect smoothly with the rear quarter panel. The pre-’88 models now look better to me, with their blunt front and rear fascias and upright rooflines.
Taking a closer look at this car, I’m wondering if I’m waxing poetic only out of a temporary fit of nostalgia. I do miss the days of the 1980’s when the U.S. top-ten sales charts of passenger vehicles included a majority of American nameplates. Of all the small Chevies built in the forty-four years since the Vega made its debut for model year ’71, I feel like the Cavalier nameplate had the most potential to stick around and still be with us today. Most people I know who owned or drove these Cavaliers seemed to like them, even if they didn’t fawn over them. I don’t remember a lot of Cavalier trash-talk (that wasn’t related to the Z24 and whether someone else’s sporty small car was faster).
In the dusk of downtown Des Moines, and even despite its severe acne problem, I found this Cavalier coupe not only more alluring than some of the cars that later took its subcompact spot it in Chevy’s lineup, but also a really nice-looking car in its own right. True to its mission, it provided basic transportation wrapped in a no-nonsense shape that was both sporty and thoroughly modern. As American (and the same color) as a pair of faded Levi’s, this example was a welcome, familiar sight that made me want to search for a good, mid-80’s Pandora station. Here’s to a car that was everywhere, then nowhere, all at once.
Photos are as taken by the author in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
Thursday, October 11, 2012.