Back in the early 70s, the Brazilian auto industry had already shifted into second gear and was going flat out. The problematic cars of the first generation were a thing of the past and the consumers had totally embraced the domestic cars. The idea now in the minds of the automaker CEOs was as to “fill the gaps” in their catalogs with new products, and the year of 1973/74 was pivotal to consolidate that idea.
Every brand was rolling off a new car in 73; Ford had the Maverick, a car that would become a legend decades later but during its production years wasn’t a good seller and is considered a commercial flop.
Dodge had the “1800”, a rebadged Hilmann Avenger. It could have been the right car for Brazilian Chrysler at the right time; it had a nice design, was comfortable and roomy, and had under the hood the biggest displacement engine among the small cars in Brazil, but the 1800 was plagued by quality issues from day one, issues typically related to a project rushed into production. That bad image stuck with the car for its whole (short) life.
But the other two players didn’t waste any time with questionable cars.
VW was determined to keep its leading position and in a bold move, they brought the FWD Passat, the first step towards the retirement of the Beetle platform.
If the Passat was too radical for the traditional VW customers, they also unveiled the Brasília. This Beetle in new clothes was 100% designed in Brazil and was a massive success; it was even exported to South Africa, Philippines, some countries in South America and was also produced in Mexico.
Chevy by this time was enjoying a comfortable position with its line of light trucks and pickups, and the Opala was already a favorite among the Brazilian middle class. All they needed was a small car to compete in the hottest sales segment in the Brazilian auto market .
The choice at that moment was pretty obvious. General Motors had just finished developing the “T-car” platform, a small sedan intended to be sold globally. Developed by Opel with engineering assistance from Isuzu, the car was a very good approach to give the GM customers a compact car to go through the oil crisis.
In Germany the “T-car” became the third generation of the Opel Kadett, called Kadett-C. It was unveiled to the public in August 1973 and was the last rear wheel drive Opel Kadett.
One would naturally assume (me included) that the Germans would be the first customers in the world to have the “Kadett C” available for purchase, but it didn’t happen like that; the Brazilian Chevrolet was granted the privilege to have the car 6 months before the Germans.
The Kadett “C” was rebadged as the Chevrolet Chevette, and alongside the VW Passat, was the most advanced car in the Brazilian market at that time.
In a direct confrontation with the other players like the Ford Corcel, VW Passat and Dodge 1800, the first impression was that the Chevette was more “spartan”; not much chrome around and one had the feeling of being in cheaper car. The reason was clear, Chevy was aiming against the leader of the pack, the VW Beetle. The idea was not to convince the frugal Beetle customers to buy a fancier car but to offer them a modern spartan car instead. The little 1.4 liter engine was equipped with a single barrel carb, it produced just 68hp and the only choice of transmission was a manual 4 speed.
No doubt the little Chevy was a good option; it was tightly built, reliable, good looking and beside the modest performance, the car was a pleasure to drive, thanks to the rear wheel drive, a precise shifting transmission and a well balanced suspension. But it would take a while before the Chevette become a real threat to the Beetle.
By the end of 1974, even with all the momentum created by the arrival of the new cars, the Beetle was still far ahead of the competition.
Top 3 Sellers in 1974
VW Beetle: 229,273
VW Brasília: 85,257
The Chevette was unchanged until 1976 when the sports version called Chevette GP arrived. Besides the powerful bright colors and the high performance graphics, it was nothing more than a common 68 hp Chevette.
I like to think the design guys got the inspiration from this car. Well, that tv show was very popular around here at that time.
The only Chevette I owned in my life was a golden 1978 model and I was 16 years old with no driver license. At that time my mom’s car was a 1976 Ford Corcel, so I had the privilege to have the two rivals sitting in our garage and I could perform my own comparative tests.
It was easy to notice that the Chevette was a more modern project by the design, the ergonomics and the engine. But the Corcel was a tough contender; even if both cars had the same “L” trim level, the Ford had a nicer interior with better quality material and I always had the feeling the Corcel was a more “solid” car to drive.
Both cars had the same engine displacement of 1.4 liter but the Chevette had a more up to date mill with crossflow head and belt driven overhead camshaft. The engine under the Corcel’s hood was a Ford-built Renault 12, and even though it was one generation older, it generated 75hp and could beat the crap out of the Chevette at any given day.
In the same year (1978) GM unveiled the 4 door model, intended mostly for exports since our love for the 2 doors cars would last for at least another 12 years or so.
For 1979 the good news was the cute hatchback version.
Chevy was getting the Chevette ready for another threat that was looming on the horizon, the VW Gol, the real replacement for the Beetle.
The “hatch” never got the attention from the Chevette buyers and became nothing more than a “collectible” version decades after.
Thrilled by the growing sales numbers, GM gave us in 1980, another version, the 2 doors station wagon.
The car was called “Marajó” after a tropical island in our coast; it had a good cargo capacity but then again with the gutless 1.4 engine, performance was its weak point.
The Marajó could easily stand its grounds against most of the others station wagons we had at that time, like the FIAT Panorama shown in the picture, the station wagon version of the 147.
But the Marajó would be mercilessly beaten by the Ford Corcel “Belina” with its new 1.6 motor.
By 1981 Chevy would again revive the sports version of the Chevette. At this time the hatchback version was wisely chosen. The car was called Chevette S/R and the package was kinda nice, only offered in black with silver details or the other way around.
But the real good news was under the hood, a 1.6 liter engine equipped with dual barrel carb and redesigned intake and exhaust manifolds. The power jumped to 82 hp. The new S/R was a totally different kind of Chevette and the little car could keep up with its competitors without much trouble.
The weak performance of the Chevette was always the biggest concern among the customers and it took a while for GM to accept that a bigger engine wouldn’t hurt the image of “economy” car and it could end up helping to boost sales.
For 1982 GM did what everybody was hoping for, they offered the the S/R engine for rest of the Chevette line up.
For 1983 the Chevette received a major facelift bringing it closer to the newest GM car at the time, the Chevrolet Monza which was the Brazilian version of the Opel Ascona (GM J car.
The Monza came to the market in 1982 and became a huge success. The car was the first Brazilian “midsize” to reach the number one spot on the sales chart. It outsold the competition in 1984, 1985 and 1986.
And then the magic happened; after 10 years the Chevette fulfilled its mission,and in 1983 it finally beat the sales of the VW Beetle.
Of course the situation in 1983 was a bit different than in 1973. The Beetle costumers were already migrating to the Gol and the Chevette was now a complete line of cars with 2 and 4 doors sedans, hatchback and station wagon. Yes, it took all that effort to kick the Beetle’s butt.
In 1984 an optional 5 speed manual transmission and even a 3 speed auto were available .
But the real surprise this year was the Chevette pickup, called “Chevy 500”. The rear wheel drive was a good advantage over its competitors and the little truck sold quite well.
GM kept improving the performance of the 1.6 engine but other than that the Chevette didn’t received any other major modifications.
By the mid 1980s all the others automakers had already unveiled their new generation of compact cars like the Ford Escort and the Fiat Uno. The Chevette was inevitably getting old. Chevy decided to squeeze a few more years out of the car focusing it again on the “entry level” segment.
The Marajó was killed in 1989 as well as other “fancy” versions.
Interesting fact: between 1989 and 1998, Brazilian GM produced the Chevy “Kadett” and for a few years we had two generations of the car, C and E sharing the market at the same time.
The Popular Cars
In the early 1990s the Brazilian government and the automakers came up with a plan to offer more affordable cars for those people who never thought about buying a brand new car.
Tax incentives were offered to either the buyers and the builders and a new class of cars were made available for the public. Very spartan cars equipped with 1.0 liter engines.
Performance wise the best car of the bunch was the FIAT Uno; after all, the car was born as a 1.0 L but all others Brazilian cars at the time had to be adapted and have their engines downsized to 1000cc.
Chevy came up with a cute name for the 1.0 version of the Chevette : “Junior” and in 1992 the car hit showrooms across the country. Obviously performance was dismal to say the least. If customers had a hard time dealing with a 1.4 liter engine producing 68 horses, image now with a 1.0 engine producing “50ish” horses.
If the Uno was the best, Junior was the worst.
But it didn’t matter anymore, Chevy decided to pull the plug and the production ended in 1993, the same year they started to produce its replacement, the Chevy Corsa.
The Chevy 500 was kept in production for two more years until the Corsa pick-up was done.
After 20 years and 1.6 million units sold, the Brazilian GM closed one of the most successful chapters in its history.
The Chevette enjoys a special place in the hearts of the not-so wealthy enthusiasts, specially the first generation years, ’74-’79.
And the little Chevy also is a very popular platform in drag racing in Brazil, thanks to the rear wheel drive configuration.
During my years selling high performance parts, I have seen Chevettes powered by a variety of engines, from the popular 2.0 VW to the 250 in line 6 Chevy and 5 cylinder FIAT Marea.
Since performance was never the brightest of the Chevette’s attributes, it is always a pleasure to see one crossing the drag strip under 8 secs.
This one powered is by a turbo 16v VW engine.
The Chevette lives on, and with a rather different image than in the US.