When I think back on all the years, makes and models of cars that I have found interesting over the course of my life, there’s a thread of individuality that runs through many of them. Sure, included in those vehicles are such universally loved machines as the 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle, Fox-platform Ford Mustang, and various GM F-bodies that I have previously written about. But for every Pontiac Grand Prix or Cadillac DeVille that has captured my attention and imagination enough to spur me to put pen to paper, there has also been my long-professed admiration for cars like the 1974 – ’78 AMC Matador coupe, Renault Fuego, or even the U.S.-spec Mazda Cosmo in that throwback article that reran just a couple of weeks ago.
By referencing those last three vehicles, I am in no way implying anything about their inferiority. It’s just that seeing any of them in the wild with my own two eyes just isn’t going to happen, even in a huge metropolis like Chicago. These are vehicles that automatically intrigued me by their relative rarity even thirty years ago. It’s not just because I tend to have a flair for the dramatic that I am drawn to stories of tragedy. This goes beyond that. With people, for example, I will always find someone who has suffered and triumphed over unfortunate circumstances inherently more interesting than someone who has simply been just A-OK! for most of his or her entire life.
With cars, I look with fascination at ones that missed some crucial mark, whether in their styling, engineering, target market, price, or some other important criteria. I once spent the bulk of a five-hour Amtrak trip from Chicago to Flint, Michigan reading what seemed to be everything there was to be found online about the Leyland Princess on my smartphone (thank you, fellow CC contributor Roger Carr, for sending me down that path). What was wrong with Harris Mann’s styling? I genuinely like the wedge look in its application on the Princess. The Hydrogas suspension leaked? There are only a handful left in the world in running order? How did it all go wrong? Oh, the humanity!
c. 1991 Chevrolet Cavalier RS convertible. (Flint suburb) Burton, Michigan. Friday, August 19, 2011.
On the opposite end of such machines with entertainingly complex workings, history, or failings, there are cars like the white one in the leading photograph: a Chevrolet Cavalier from the final year of the first J-body’s thirteen-year production run, which was also the last year the Cav was offered as a wagon. I’ve stated before and will say again that the Cavalier was omnipresent on the streets of my hometown of Flint in the 1980s when I was growing up. Witness the non-pristine, blue Cavalier RS convertible above, which was spotted in a Meijer parking lot when the car might have been twenty years old at the time.
I recently posed a question to friends and acquaintances on social media requesting a show of hands from any individuals who had never owned or driven a Cavalier, or had known someone who had. Not a single person answered. It’s possible that no one cared enough to respond, but I highly doubt it. Don’t call it a “Crap-alier”, because if you spent any considerable amount of time of driving age in the Midwestern United States in the ’80s or ’90s, you know you drove one, and whether you enjoyed it or not, you know it did what it was supposed to do. You may have even resented its reliability.
If someone had told me, maybe even five years ago, that in the future I’d be writing about a white Cavalier station wagon (with rust) as a topic of interest, I would have told them to reshuffle the deck. Even when this car was new, I’m hard-pressed to think of any other vehicle of its time that would better encapsulate the utter parental squareness and absence of flavor than this one. It’s a white car with black, rubber bumpers. It’s a car in a body style that had been in production for over a decade, and which looked the same for most of its life, save for its front clip. And, lastly, it’s a wagon.
It’s not even the kind of station wagon that’s so over-the-top that it’s cool, like a big, old Ford Country Squire, or even a K-car based Chrysler Town & Country with simulated wood on the side like Mrs. Bueller’s car in that famous John Hughes movie set in Chicago. This is the car in which your mom would pick you up from Science Olympiad after school after she had made the rounds selling her Avon for the afternoon. This is the car in which your family took road trips during summer vacation, with the cargo area piled high with all of your luggage and belongings visible through the ample glass area to every single driver and passenger who passed you on the expressway. (And there were many who did.) This is the car which announced to anyone who saw it that your one working parent didn’t make quite enough to afford a Celebrity.
None of this means that I don’t respect the Cavalier, or this particular Cavalier, in 2020. I do understand that like many GM products of this era, not enough research and development had been done on the original J-cars prior to them going on sale, with the Cavalier being introduced in May of 1981 as an ’82 model. Paul Niedermeyer labeled the original Cavalier a “CC Deadly Sin“. I don’t dispute Paul’s take on the trajectory of the Cavalier in terms of its original mission and release versus what ultimately became the reality of the car falling short of initial expectations. I am here, however, to sing the praises of an uncomplicated, economy-minded small Chevy that had finally gotten it right at the end of its ancient product cycle.
Let’s also look at it. Its styling is refreshingly simple, clean, and (to reuse this word) uncomplicated. Its lines seem to make geometric sense, without any embellishments or flourishes put on it seemingly to make it project any sort of attitude or image. It certainly looked passe in 1994, but that was twenty-six years ago. In 2020, I think it looks pretty darned good for the “generic GM” look of the Irv Rybicki era. It was interesting to me that a Honda CR-V was parked in front of it, as the Honda is the modern, upper-scale version of the type of car that replaced the small wagon. The CR-V is taller, has a smaller footprint, and looks at least as usable in terms of cargo capacity.
The Cavalier was redesigned for ’95 into a much more slippery, modern shape, but the wagon didn’t return. By then, Ford’s rival Escort, which made its U.S. debut seven months before the first Cavalier, was already in the fifth year of its second-generation, which also included a wagon through ’99. Chrysler never bothered with a subcompact wagon, as they offered the slightly larger K-based Plymouth Reliant / Dodge Aries / Chrysler LeBaron wagons – and had too many minivans to build and sell to keep up with demand. I remember thinking “it’s about time”, when the new, ’95 Cavaliers hit the street, but part of me felt a little bit of nostalgia in saying goodbye to the old model I had basically grown up with.
This model was a ’94 as determined by a license plate search, and was one of just over 18,000 wagons made that year, out of a total of about 272,500 Cavaliers which also included 147,500 two-doors, 8,000 convertibles, and 99,000 four doors. Sales actually fell by over 40% for ’95 despite prices that were only incrementally higher on the redesigned cars. The Cavalier’s impressive sales for ’94 reminded me of how the Cavalier’s predecessor, the rear-wheel-drive Monza, also went out with a bang, with a solid 169,400 units sold for its extended run of final-year 1980 models, at the end of a decade’s worth of H-bodies that began with the pretty-but-problematic Vega.
At the end of the day, specifically the Wednesday a couple of weeks ago on which I spotted and photographed it, this Cavalier earned my respect not only for being in such apparent fine, working condition, but also for its ability to turn my head at all. I have observed many discussions around the future state of everyday cars like this one as potential collectibles, and while I can’t fathom right now the idea of a pristine Cavalier wagon fetching five figures in the future, I have seen Ford Pintos recently get there. It only took a few decades. In the meantime, I wish this Cavalier and its owner many safe, happy days of getting things done.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Wednesday, September 2, 2020.
Click here for related reading on this generation of Cavalier.
Brochure pages featuring the 1984 Cavalier wagon are courtesy of www.oldcarbrochures.com.