The cars we loved.
The Chevette was one of GM’s early attempts at a humble world car. Based on the T platform, the sub-compact Chevette was called Arcadia, Kadett,Gemini and other names in various markets around the world. GM shared in development with Isuzu to some extent who sold a version of the car in Europe and Australia. The rear wheel drive Chevette was intended to be a simple sturdy car.
Simplicity insured that production would be easy and for owners repairs and maintenance would be cheap. At it’s launch in 1975, it was planned to be a kind of stop-gap for GM in the small car arena until the X Car platform was developed later in the decade. The Chevette name was supposed to remind buyers of the Corvette, but the two cars had nothing in common as one was poorly built and underpowered and the other just underpowered. Regardless of the name, millions were sold. A string of fantastic sales years in 1979 and 1980 convinced GM to keep the car around, especially due to early problems with the X-car platform that slowed Citation sales.
Chevettes were powered by 1.4 or 1.6 L 4 cylinder engines with single overhead cams. Never really producing more than 100 hp in any version, they did offer good gas mileage. Not quite the stuff of mechanical sophistication, the car that the Chevette replaced, the Vega was more advanced in that it had an aluminum engine block and even used DOHC in one version. The Chevette by contrast was simple and straight forward. Built like GM and it’s unions knew how to build a front engine rear wheel drive car. At one time the Scooter trim line of the Chevette was the lowest priced new car sold in America at around $3k.
Later versions would get small refinements, but it was never anything more than a good example of early 70’s automotive engineering, even in it’s later years. A popular diesel engine option was introduced in 1981 while options included air conditioning and power steering. A new 5-speed transmission later improved drivability and fuel economy. For fans of performance or the image of it, a S option added rally wheels, stripes and blackout trim, making the Chevette look vaguely European.
As the 80’s approached, the chrome bumpers gave way to more streamlined plastic covered bumpers, improving the cars appearance instantly. This was also the time that the Chevette’s popularity produced a clone at Pontiac called the T1000. Other versions of the Chevette, most notably the upmarket CS package sold well through the 80’s. By the closing years of the decade the Chevette had started showing it’s age in a time where nearly all subcompacts had made the switch to efficient front wheel drive systems and advanced power trains.
The Chevette scored poorly in comparison tests against more modern Escorts, Corollas and Civics. It’s amazing that GM sold the car and its Pontiac twin the T1000 up to the 1987 model year. The Chevette was never really replaced as GM had moved to outsourcing new subcompacts while it’s popular Cavalier moved slightly upmarket.
Chevettes are still popular in a niche sort of way with hotrodders and drag racing fans who shoehorn V6 and V8 engines into them. The light weight combined with rear wheel drive makes for an exciting (if not a bit scary) handling car for the not faint at heart. In its day the Chevette would never had passed for a performance car, but its attractive shape and hatchback versatility insured a following even now. Today the most desirable models would be late-model CS and S examples.
I really wanted one of these when I was in high school. A black or white S model with the black rally wheels would have been fine. A few even had dealer installed pop up sun roofs. Somehow I figured it would be my first car because they seem affordable even on a summer lawn mowing salary. My first car came years later in my junior year of college, and it was a Honda Civic (by then I knew better). I’m still a fan of the Chevette today and take note whenever I see one on the road (or junkyard). Although produced in great numbers, very few are road worthy today and would be considered rare cars by any definition.