The cars we loved.
If you remember the early Eighties, you might recall one of its most enduring automotive trends, the “Pocket Rocket”. So called because manufacturers had taken what were once weak little econoboxes and stuffed them with more powerful engines, much like they did in the 60’s by dropping big engines into intermediates to create the Muscle Car era. The pocketrockets were a bit short on muscle and cubic inches (or litres) by comparison, but their light weight and sometimes sophisticated suspensions meant that they could equal old Muscle Cars in the straight line and certainly best them when the road got curvy. Defined mostly in the beginning by the likes of the Rabbit GTi, Civic Si and Corolla SR5, the genre was dominated by Japanese and European cars.
GM took notice but seemed unable to wield a home-grown example from its stable of Chevettes. Even though Chevrolet may have started the trend in the near modern era with the Cosworth Vega, it never developed the concept to really cash in on it the way the Germans and Japanese did (then there was the issue of reliability). During the ’70s half baked attempts to make the Sunbird or Monza sportier, only resulted in appearance packages. The smallest of GM’s home grown cars, the Chevette was rear wheel drive so a performance oriented version would not have been keeping with modern trends of front wheel drive. The Chevette had some potential, but it was never realized from the factory.
GM like any big corporation outclassed in a low margin segment, sought out expertise from its global partners, many whom had been building small cars for decades. For GM, those partners were a revolving door with Isuzu and Suzuki entering and exiting in short model year increments. The changing partners never disrupted car sales, but would eventually be brought under the umbrella of a new brand called Geo.
Before Geo came about, Chevrolet had been working closely with Isuzu since the early 70’s when it developed the T platform (Chevette/Kadette/I-Mark). No one thought to make a truly sporty version from that platform for the American market until 1987/88 when a version of the I-Mark was marketed as the Chevrolet Spectrum turbo. Like the I-Mark, it was available as a four door sedan or three door hatchback, all with front wheel drive. Often the Spectrum (like the I-Mark) turbo cars had body colored wheels in true 80’s Japanese fashion. It’s 1.5L DOHC engine made 110 hp. A year later Isuzu added LS behind the name of its top I-Mark and bumped up displacement to 1.6L. With 125 hp and Lotus tuned suspension, it was a formidable road car.
At this point the I-Mark distinguished itself further from the Spectrum performancewise by moving slightly upmarket. A sporty normally aspirated car called the RS was a more popular seller. It was closer to the Spectrum in that it used the 1.5L engine. The Sprectrum would only be available for two years. With such a short run, the Spectrum Turbo was never really given a chance to get any market traction. The media recognized its performance potential and odd placing in Chevrolet’s line up, but buyers stayed away, even though the Spectrum sold better than the I-Mark.
The Chevrolet versions would continue with base SOHC normally aspirated 1.5L (70 hp) and the rare turbo with a SOHC configuration. European tuning and the DOHC would never make it to the Chevy branded car. As a value leader, the Chevy product planners had no intention of going the high dollar route of Isuzu by calling in tuners like Lotus. The volume of sales of the Chevy branded Spectrum in base form made Isuzu’s exotic version possible, but both cars sold in relatively small volumes compared to the less advanced but wildly popular Cavalier/Sunbird. The Isuzu cars were loaded with plenty of electronic bells and whistles that the lower priced Spectrum did not have. As a result the Spectrum had a lower price. That coupled with the vast Chevrolet dealer network meant that far more Spectrums were sold than I-Marks which would explain why it possible to see more of them on the road today than I-Marks. That of course is relative, as they were so few sold that its likely that more are in scrap yards than on the road.
At the time they were simple, reliable and easy to repair and maintain. Prehaps more so than Chevrolet’s mainstream products in a time when GM quality was hit or miss. These cars deserve better, yet are mostly forgotten except by all but a small devote group of I-Mark/Specturm enthusiasts.