COAL: 1978 Chevrolet Chevette – Finally, My First Car

NOTE: I have no photos of our Chevette…this is a very close approximation to ours.

(Please welcome our newest Sunday COAL series writer)     I have always liked cars and trucks. When I was three, which would be in late 1969, my folks told me I could already identify makes and models of cars very well. How I could do this without being able to read, and why I wasn’t a genius in later life is a mystery . My toys always consisted mostly of Matchbox cars or something transport related.  When I was 15 my mechanic brother Phil, 11 years older than me bought and brought back to life a salvage title 1975 Corvette, which he still has to this day 37 years later.  It left quite an impression on me.

But it would be many, many years before I would ever get to drive, much less own anything too interesting above workaday cars. My automotive beginnings were much less humble.  When I was 15, I completed Drivers Education.  My first wheel time after the learners permit was with my with my Dad in a stripped down, rusty, gold  1970 gold Chevelle Coupe.  My 16th birthday came and went with no license. Things were tough at that point for the family, there was a recession in the midwest, and insurance was  not cheap. When I finally got my license in my junior year of high school,  Dad was stingy with giving me the keys. When I did get the keys, it was to go to work or run an errand. I took the bus to school or bummed rides from friends to get places.

And that is how it would be for over 3 years. It would be like this until after my second year of college. Mom got her first brand new car, a stripper 85 Ford Escort sedan. Dad decided to upgrade and bought Uncle Al’s low-mileage and pristine 1981 Ford Escort Coupe, no air conditioning but with a sunroof (!!!). He thought it was a creampuff…but that’s another story.    It was a coincidence that we had a third  extra car in the late spring of 1986, and it was decided for the immediate future, I could have the 1978 Chevette that had been in family for about a year. This is what the new-to-the-fleet  81 Escort was to replace.

This car already had a rather sordid past within our immediate family. When the 1976 Impala he was driving finally gave up the ghost, Dad needed a new car. And while the need was immediate, it seemed he bought the first car he came across. The Chevette had For Sale sign on it,  close to our house, in  a shopping mall parking lot, cheap. Dad was frugal and liked holding on to a dime. He believed cars were only for transportation. He did not aspire for anything more than that, and image was not a concern.   He was, with a few notable exceptions throughout his life, a GM guy.  At rare times he could be impulsive and this was one of those times.

My oldest brother Phil, a onetime dealership mechanic, had a line on a pristine 2 year old 1983 extended cab Chevy S-10 he was encouraging Dad to buy, well cared and owned by one of his best friends, with a cap. But Mom absolutely wouldn’t hear of it.  Pickups were for farmers and hillbillies.  But I digress. He test-drove the Chevette a total of 2 miles and declared, “it drives nice, I’ll take it”.  It was a Saturday, and he went to the bank just before it closed and the transaction was completed.

In very, very short order, it developed a cracked head. Brother Phil’s response to this, over and over was this in a slow, monotone voice : “ You should of bought Richards truck”,  when Dad asked about fixing the Chevette. Dad knew he’d botched it on this one.   Despite being angrier than angry, Phil, being a good son, dutifully swapped out that block in a service bay on a Saturday and did Dad a major solid. After that, the car was reasonably well sorted by the time I ended up with it after my second year of college.

For me, at this point, I couldn’t care what sort of car I had. For the first time, I had a car I could drive whenever I wanted.  Much has been written about the Chevette, a derivative of the GM global T-Car platform, including here.   In its 12 year run, almost 7 million total units were sold around the world with slight variations, in various GM brands.   In its long model run, there were only minor upgrades to the car inside and out.  It was one of the least expensive cars around that year, starting at around $3,500.00.     In 1978, economy figures were  advertised as 28 MPG City, and 40 MPG Highway, great numbers even by today’s standards.  Looking at some old advertising, Chevy didn’t really advertise it as anything more than a basic economy car.  Here a TV add sums it up by saying “A lot of car for the money” (see link to ad below).

Back in the mid 80s’, at least here in the rustbelt, this car was everywhere. Winter beaters, high school and college kids or regular folks just looking for basic transportation, and it was an automotive cockroach. It seemed every family you knew either owned one, or had owned  one at some point. Some were awful, some were legends, but Chevrolet sold 300,000 of them in 1978. My college roommate recalled driving from Michigan to Florida in one for spring break, pedal to the floor down and back, and it made it back without complaint. Some people drove to 200,000 miles. For others, it was a completely disposable short term car. Our family Chevette would be in this category.

Ours  was the a back of the lot stripper, even for a Chevette. It had a 4 speed manual transmission, rubber floors, sticky tan vinyl seats, AM-only radio  and sort of a gold/bronze color. Of course, no air conditioning. I cannot recall how many miles it had on it. At 10’ viewing distance, you could say it was in nice shape, but there were dime to quarter sized rust spots emerging on the lower extremities, masked by the color of the car. That would soon prove to be ominous.

So, my driving impressions, despite all the historical bashing were actually quite positive. I taught myself to drive a manual in about a day or so;  I can say that the driving experience would have been far worse with an automatic. It was not peppy, but did get out of its own way. Owing to its European roots, it did corner and turn well, as it was barely 2000 lbs.  Inside, it was as expected, hard plastic all around, but it was well laid out.  There were oddities. Sometimes when you were shifting, the gear shift knob would fling off into the back hatch area…the thread being worn out, so you would have this gnarly bolt sticking out of the shift boot and you’d have to find the knob at the next stop. The horn did not work. The bucket seat bolt cracked several times in the summer on the drivers side and would flop back. You could not turn the fan completely off…on hot days you’d always have a noticeable flow of hot air belching out at your feet.

My job that summer was Park Attendant Supervisor for the City, having to go check on workers in 20 city parks. It was a good gig overall. I was paid 8 hours a day and was on call from 2 to 10,  but you didn’t really have to work 8 . They  padded it slightly to help cover your gas expenses. Driving at least 30 miles a day, the miserly Chevette was perfect for me. It never failed to start nor left me stranded, save for a time when I flamed it our after driving through a deep puddle after a heavy rain…but even then it sputtered back to life in 30 minutes after drying out.

As it turns out, my days with the Chevette and the cars time in the family were numbered. In August, it was getting close to the time where I’d need to head back to college.   I wanted to go see some buddies up in Michigan’s Thumb for an overnight weekend visit. It was about 100 miles each way, an easy straight-line drive up M-53 north through farm country. It was there I tested the maximum velocity of the car on a quiet stretch. Screaming and winding out, it would go about 82 miles an hour, and that was all she had, but it did so without complaint.

It got me there and almost back, flawlessly until somewhere around Imlay City, 40 miles from home,  I heard a  sudden, horrible  scraping sound emitting from the back of the car. I was able to pull into a service station, where a mechanic looked underneath and discovered that the entire rear passenger-side  axle strut/stabilizer had ripped away from the unibody structure. The entire axle was now being held to the car at three weakened weld points, thanks to the rust.  There was a jagged 12” x 12” hole in the floor as the substructure of the car was so riddled with rust.  The car was shot! The mechanics low cost solution: wrap a bunch of intertwined wires underneath, through the hole and over and under the door sill , to hold the stabilizer bar in place, sort of.  You could close the door over the wires but he advised against doing that too many times lest you weaken the wires.   He took pity on me and  didn’t even charge me and I was back on the my way home.

Upon getting home, I showed this to my Dad, a moment I was dreading. “ G*dammit, what the hell did you do up there!?! You were out joyriding and screwing around weren’t you!?!”.   I most certainly did not. He was mad, but there was nothing behind it, no real anger, because Dad new painfully well: this car was a mistake from the start. He looked at the “integrity” of the coat hanger fix, and deemed it reasonably secure and knew it would probably get me through a few more weeks of work.

Through the summer, I had some delusions that maybe the Chevette could come back to school with me. Having a car up there on campus would have been nice, but an extravagance.  I am not sure how much longer Dad had the car after Labor Day ’86.  With his and hers Escorts now in the garage, he really didn’t need it so I’m sure it went right to the junkyard. One thing was a certainty: I was carless once more.