Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
“It happened just before Christmas of 1973
," said Paul King, Chevrolet's then chief passenger car engineer, "and we didn't even have any blueprints we could read. Everything from Opel was in German and everything from Brazil was in Portuguese. We spent some time over the holidays getting things sorted out."
And when a then young engineer named John Mowrey came into Paul King's office at 8.30 am on his first day back at work, January 4, 1974, he was told "You've got a new job." That marked the beginning of an intense 19-month program that culminated in the production of the first American Chevrolet Chevette on August 18, 1975, the first of hundreds of thousands of little three-door autos - the smallest made in large volume in the United States since the Crosley.
The Forward Planning Department
In the decade leading up to the release of the Chevette, design proposals for small cars were regularly rejected. The 1976
Chevette was then the smallest and lightest car ever made in the US under the Chevrolet name. The only car built under the Chevrolet aegis that was smaller was the “Little Four” of 1912 and 1913, which was shorter in wheelbase and lighter in weight. The Chevette became widely known as the "T-car" because it fitted into the T-body slot in the GM line-up.
It was common knowledge, since the Chevette program began at Chevrolet early in 1974, that it was derived from that of the T-body car already made by GM and its affiliates in six other countries. Appropriately, this car traced its beginnings to a memo headed "World Car Concept" that originated in March, 1970
in the Forward Planning Department of GM's Overseas Operations Division.
Opel's engineering staff, under Chuck Chapman, was picked to design the new car because it was chiefly to be a Kadett replacement and would use the basic chassis layout of that car and its cousins, the Ascona/Manta Opels. A completely new overhead-cam engine was designed by Opel for the car, and this was the one that powered the first T-body car to go into production, the Chevrolet Chevette in Brazil in March, 1973
version, still using the original Kadett
pushrod four, was introduced in August, 1973
. Other editions were then being prepared for 1974
launchings: the Opel K180 for Argentina, using a Chevy four reduced to 1.8 litres; the Isuzu Gemini, with Isuzu's own power train; the assembly of the Gemini here in Australia by Holden, and a three-door hatchback model for Vauxhall using its existing Viva engine. This was the state of play at the end of 1973
when GM made the decision to commit several hundred million dollars to the production tooling of a new small car.
Chevrolet had some small-car designs of its own on the drawing board then, but none that could be made ready in time for the 1976
model year, an early target that had been set in response to the boom in small-car sales that followed the Arab oil embargo. When the other options were reviewed it did not take long to settle on the new Opel T-body design. It was not a Chevrolet at heart, but, said Paul King, "fortunately we thought it was a good car." It did not hurt that the responsibility for translating this polyglot motorcar into Americanese fell to John Mowrey, who had been in Japan in 1972
helping Isuzu prepare its version of the T-body car.
The model chosen was the three-door hatchback, which was not then even fully engineered by Vauxhall. The engine had to be made larger, to suit the American demand for air-conditioning
, and had to be produced in much greater volumes than those attained in Brazil with the same basic design. A place also had to be found to build the Chevette. Though it was far from the geographic centre of the US market, the chosen assembly plant was the one at Wilmington, Delaware, which had previously been building the big cars whose sales had fallen so suddenly. There Fisher Body set up its line to build the Chevette integral bodies, including an army of Unimate robots to weld the under-body parts together. The Chevette engines were also made in Flint, Michigan, on a new line established at Chevrolet's V8 engine plant there.
Two transmissions were offered on the Chevette. Standard equipment was a four-speed gearbox of Opel design whose case, including the front cover and clutch housing, was of aluminium. All four forward speeds had quiet, constant-mesh helical gears, which was normal, and so did the reverse gear, which was not standard practice at the time. GM's Hydra-Matic Division supplied a then new Turbo Hydra-Matic optional transmission for the Chevette, dubbed the THM 200. It was a simplified three-speed automatic
box with a 9-inch torque converter. It managed to be smaller and lighter than any other US-made GM automatic
by substituting stamped steel internal parts for some formerly made of cast iron.
Under the bonnet of the Chevette was the most modern engine then built in the United States. It was a very neat and clever in-line four that was lighter than the Vega four, in spite of the latter's aluminium block. So many changes were made in this engine that no parts were interchangeable between it and the Brazilian Chevette, the only other GM T-body car that used this basic power unit. In its base form the engine had the same dimensions as the Brazilian four: 82.0 x 66.2mm for 1398cc. Instead of a depressed piston crown it had a flat crown that brought its compression ratio up to 8.5 to one. For better performance in automatic and air-conditioned form Chevy offered an optional version with the same bore but a longer stroke (75.7mm), that brought the displacement up to 1599cc.
To assure adequate strength in the nodular iron crankshaft with this longer throw the size of the rod journals was increased for both versions of the crank, while the mains remained at a 5 cm diameter. The net power output of the base engine was 39kW at 5200rpm, and its maximum net torque was 98Nm at 3600rpm. These figures rose to 45kW at 4800rpm and 115Nm at 3400rpm for the long-stroke (but still oversquare) 1.6-litre option. Starting with the existing T-body shape, which they had had quite a lot to do with, GM's stylists worked out a new front end that made the Chevette stand out both among Chevrolet's offerings and in the welter of small Japanese imports then invading America. The base model Chevette’s simplicity appealed to a lot of buyers, especially when they saw the base price tag of $US2695. Among the elevated prices of the 1976
cars it represented a real bargain.
Behind the Wheel
Contrary to what many claim today, the Chevette was in reality a pleasure to drive - provided you judged it on other compacts available at the time. The steering
feel was very direct and positive, and it was quick enough to give the Chevette a sporty character, with a very tight turning circle. Chevrolet did nothing to upset the basically sound handling
of the Chevette, which carried its 54/46 front/rear weight distribution on 155/80 x 13 tyres. (Bias-belted tyres
were standard and radials optional.) The Chevette was a car you enjoyed taking through turns because it responded to the bit so eagerly, leaning noticeably but not disturbingly as it tracked straight where you aimed it. The brakes
were not as good in the flesh as they appeared on paper; big 25cm discs up front with drums at the rear. The problem was that it was easy to lock up the back drums, which would threaten to swing the rear end around.
Not very quick off the line, but a reasonable 10.3 seconds to 100 km/h in a Chevette with the 1.4-litre engine and automatic
box. It up-shifted nicely enough at 5000rpm but when pushed much past the posted speed limit it would completely out of steam. Naturally fuel consumption was a pressing question for cars built after the oil embargo. At release Chevrolet had an EPA-certified 40m pg highway rating for the Chevette Scooter. The figures then were 28mpg on the city cycle and 37 on the highway, for a weighted average of 32 miles per US gallon. In the real world, that meant a Chevette owner could expect to get closer to 30 than 20mpg in their everyday driving, with a manual box and the 1.4-litre engine.
The Chevette Rally
The Chevette Rally 1.6, included a 1.6-litre (98 cu in) engine in lieu of the 1.4-litre (85 cu in) overhead-cam four-cylinder, rated at 60 hp (45 kW) instead of 52 hp (39 kW). The Rally also featured a suspension with rear stabiliser, along with special body graphics. Through model year 1976, the Chevette Woodie carried wood simulating sheet-vinyl trim and upgraded interior/exterior trim. The Woody model has become quite scarce, especially in higher condition grades. Chevrolet marketed the Chevette Scooter model with a MSRP of $2,899, without a rear seat or glovebox door. 9,810 Scooters were built, versus 178,007 regular hatchbacks. Buyers could choose either a fully synchronised floor-shifted four-speed manual transmission or optional Turbo-Hydramatic. Chevettes had rack-and-pinion steering, front disc brakes, a front stabilizer bar, 13-inch tires, tri-colour taillights, front bucket seats, and an onboard diagnostic system. Swing-out rear quarter windows were optional.
Chevrolet Chevette's engines offered 57 hp (43 kW) or 63 hp (47 kW). The Scooter hatchback included a rear seat. The Sandpiper trim package included “reef” patterned interior, deluxe door trim, cream gold or antique white exterior colours and an exterior Sandpiper logo just behind each door. 1978 models had a revised grille with a grid design, grille and headlight frames chromed for standard models, a four-door hatchback riding a 97.3 inches (2,470 mm) wheelbase was added — two inches longer than the two-door — and this version accounted for more than half of Chevette's nearly 300,000 sales. The 1.4 litre engine and Woody were dropped, while a seperate fuel door was added, and the TH-180 Automatic Transmission replaced THM-200.
The High Output Version
"HO" High Output version was available in addition to the standard 1.6 litre featuring a modified head and larger valves
/cam profile. "HO" package also includes dual outlet exhaust
manifold. Prices dropped and more standard equipment was added for 1978
. In 1979
, the Holley
two-barrel carburettor was now standard on all models. The front fascia was face-lifted with a flat hood, no longer wrapping down to bumper. New for 1979
was a large chrome grille with Chevrolet "Bow-Tie" emblem and square headlights. P.A.I.R. air injection system was introduced to improve catalytic converter function at idle.
An "Active Passenger Restraint System" was introduced in small numbers as an option which featured lower hanging dashboard, automatic seat-belts and a centre dash console. Chevette sales totalled more than 451,000 units — a figure that would rank it second only to Chevy's new Citation, which had a much longer model run (sales had started in April 1979
). Consumer Guide testers managed "an honest 29 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway." The 1980
rear fascia was revised with a squared-off hatch, wraparound taillights with combined, single coloured turn signals and a round gas filler door.
, a Diesel engine option was new with a late 1981
availability - (1.8 litre Isuzu
unit). New styled steel wheels with centre caps were offered and the previous wheel/hubcap design was discontinued. U.S. models received a new Computer Command Control feedback system on gasoline engines. The H.O. option was discontinued. EST (Electronic Spark Timing) was used on 1981
models only in place of manual timing advance. A new engine cylinder head
design (swirl-port) is introduced to improve low-end torque and fuel economy. The Pontiac T1000 was introduced which shared all body stampings with Chevette, featuring a chrome centre w/black trimmed grille & headlight buckets as well as standard chrome window trim with black area fill. Power steering was a new option (automatic trans. & A/C only) as well as a 3.36 axle ratio (standard on T-1000 models).
The Active Passive Restraint system was discontinued. New lighter weight bucket seats were introduced that lacked much of the lower support of the heavier "panned" seats. A new adhesive-based, thinner windshield seal replaced the lock-ring type. Chevrolet sold 433,000 Chevettes in 1981 and 233,000 in 1982
models featured a five-speed manual transmission option on gasoline-powered two-door cars (standard with diesel). The Scooter was newly available in four-door hatchback. New GM THM-180C (THM200C for diesel model) automatic transmissions, which include a locking torque converter for greater fuel mileage. Introduction of pump driven A.I.R. system in late model year replaced P.A.I.R. to help efficiency of the catalytic converter.
A new catalytic converter introduced with an air inlet for forced air injection from the air pump. A new one-piece cardboard based headliner, with updated over-head dome light, replaced the vinyl liner. Pontiac T-1000 received unique grille, body moulding and vertical lined taillights as well as an alloy sport wheel option. GM of Canada's Pontiac Acadian, a rebadged Chevette, received all the T-1000's Pontiac-exclusive features from this point on. 1983
Chevettes had a makeover for the front and rear fascias, Chevette CS introduced. Black finished grill and trim moldings replaces most chrome pieces. Scooter and base Chevettes featured black bumpers and end-caps while the higher-end Chevette CS models included colour-keyed bumpers and caps with chrome bumper inserts as an option.
Scooter and base models featured black-only grill and headlight buckets while CS models feature argent coloured trim. Chevette S model introduced as a cosmetic package that includes black painted styled-steel wheels and red-accented grill and mouldings as well as over-sized decal emblems in red. Front bucket seats featured new adjustable knobs on the sides, but lost the reclining levers of previous years. Interior trim was also blacked out with new black door handles and black plastic window regulators. Integrated cassette deck optional with stereo package. Chrome strip on dashboard available only on CS & S models until end of production. Deluxe door panels were discontinued, all models featured plastic door panels, however base and Scooter models still featured laminated cardboard cargo area panels.
The "Diagnostic Connector" was removed from wiring harness. For 1984, the Scooter was discontinued. The T1000 was renamed "1000". 1985 carried few updates from the 1984
models. In 1986
, the Chevette base model was discontinued leaving only the CS and the S, which featured a third brake light and an instrument cluster "Service Engine Soon" light, replacing the previous "Check Engine" light. In 1987
, Chevrolet dropped the Chevette S model and the diesel engine option (324 sold in 1986
) and dropped the Chevette price to $4,995. Sales fell to just over 46,000 units, and production ended on December 23, 1986