Curbside Classic: 1983 Chevrolet Cavalier Wagon- 20/20 Hindsight 30 Years Down The Road

It is really hard to think of the cars of my Childhood as classic cars. But I write this 90 days from the point I turn 30. So sits in the realization that the variety of wheezing penalty boxes the Big 3 used to respond to the 3rd (or 4th?) tidal wave of overly competent imports from Europe and Japan are now “classic” cars.

While I am lucky to not have arrived around the same time that General Motors began offering the revolutionary and disastrous X body cars, a good number of the seeds for the J car(s, from Chevrolet to Cadillac and from Asia to Australia the same basic car was produced) came out of this damned prophet of front wheel drive mainstream American Sedans).

Unlike its most direct competitor, the Ford Escort, the commonalities of all J cars on all continents were far more numerous. An interesting side note about the Opel version: It barely lost out on the European Car of The Year award to the Renault 9 (which as you should remember, as the Alliance/Encore went on to become one of Motor Trend magazine’s more dubious choices for Car of The Year in 1983).

One big difference (and perhaps mistake) was the usage initially of the droning OHV version of the Chevrolet developed “122” Engine. While the Ascona went with a freer breathing (albeit smaller) Opel developed OHC 4s for their J bodies, all General Motors versions of the J bodies debuted with a 1.8L OHV 4 with 88 horsepower. Given how many J-Bodies were equipped with Turbo Hydra Matic125s and weighed in close to 2,450+ lbs, it’s no surprise that 0-60 times were as sleepy as 16+ seconds, if not worse.

The upsized 2.0L version in our photo car did little to improve things, and you need a very clear chart to memorize which in the flurry of 4’s went where, from the 1.8 Turbos at Pontiac and Buick to the classic GM overkill of shoehorning the 2.8L V6 in a bunch of performance variants in 1985. Now at least the Cimarron could move out of it’s own way, perhaps the only 1985 Cadillac to do so.

The addition of the V6 to the line-up reflected one memory of late 1960s Muscle cars. Along with blinding straightline performance for their place in the market (the later 3.1L cars could hit mile a minute in under 8 seconds), the new drivetrain highlighted a genuine Crudeness of the J-car platform. Their torsion beam rear suspensions hammered over bumps instead of smoothing them out . The slight injection of torque brought massive torque steer to the front.

Given American drivers had a good 20 years of more sophisticated driving machines in their memory (sometimes from General Motors themselves) it’s easy to see how many people were turned off by the harsh surroundings of most J-Cars and moved on to other makes and models. I would hazard a lot of first time car buyers from families of the absolute last of the General Motors faithful gave the J car variants a chance, and after a few years moved on to a array of other cars.

And if they did stay in the General Motors fold they ended up in the slightly larger, but equally unrefined N-bodies (Grand Am/Cutlass Calais/Someset-Skylark and the Corsica/Beretta) which were the same cars, in starchier suits. Well you could get a short deck 3800 in those (the 3300) and the Beretta was handsome enough… but…. they were equally poorly behaved little penalty boxes that tried (and failed) to portray an upscale vibe you can’t really get with a 3 speed automatic.

There’s a lot of cars that can be considered the nail in the coffin moment for General Motors in the decade between 1980 and 1990. The J-Cars, the entry point that GM needed to garner a new generation of drivers utterly failed. They weren’t as roomy or flexible as the aging Omni/Horizon twins, nor significantly cheaper than a really cheap K-car. And they weren’t as well baked as some of the offerings in Chevrolet showrooms.

The sign of how lost General Motors was came out of a factory I’ve passed by hundreds of times in Fremont. The Nummi Joint venture produced the recast Nova, and although far more pricey that the Cavalier, it reflected a better approach to the dilemma of producing a small sedan than General Motors could figure out in house. More sprightly, more fling-able, longer lasting and more durable, it was like nothing in the General Motors line-up. Although Ford would wholeheartedly follow this approach with their all new Escort being a mildly disguised Mazda 323, Chevrolet moved the “Nova” to Geo with a bunch of other raggamuffin Japanese/American Cars from Isuzu and Suzuki.

Chevrolet offered the same basic penalty box with incentives through 1994 before they actually made any changes. But as most know the changes were only skin deep, and two virtues, the V6 and the Wagon disappeared with the 1995 restyle that borrowed heavily from the Opel Calibra Coupe.

If most people think of the GM FWD A bodies as roach like, what can the Cavalier (and its long suffering Pontiac Partner) be? They went 24 years without any major change underneath the skin, just minor tweaks and additions of features to keep them barely relevant and legal to sell. Sure, like the A-bodies, some of the mechanicals finally became durable, but not a single Cavalier encouraged first time car buyers that moving up to a larger GM car meant things would improve out of the penalty box stage.

The Cavalier was apathy taken a step too far, and even a bigger disaster than the downsized C and H body cars could ever be. If not the deadliest sin recorded here at Curbside Classic, I nominate it for Top 5 status. Anyone else want to sign the petition?