Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chevy's other Vette

Sometimes, people harbor an irrational soft spot for cars they shouldn’t. When I was a kid, my mom really liked driving Chevettes. She had three or four of them over the years, and never had anything bad to say about the thrifty little runabouts.

Now, at the time, I really hated them. I think they had air conditioning, but it never really worked. I think they had radios, but they never really worked. My dad used to glue old license plates under the carpet on a couple of them so your feet wouldn’t pop through the rusty floor Fred Flintstone style. Her last one, an ’85 two-door, was still around when I started driving, and I remember that you could floor it going up gradual hills and it would lose speed. Sorry, Mom, those things were crap wagons.

And yet, today I have this nagging fantasy about getting a little fake wood-paneled ’76 Chevette and upfitting it with a GM 3800 V6. Ridiculous, right? No one else would understand it, nor would they care. But maybe all that riding around with my bare legs melting to the vinyl seats wasn’t that bad after all. The a/c works in my dream Chevette, however.

Besides, Chevettes are really performance cars when you think about it. First of all, they have the word “Vette” in their name. That has to count for something. Plus, throughout the late ‘70s/mid-‘80s they used to blast them out of cannons and drive them on two wheels in the Joie Chitwood Thrill Shows. And even today, you still see huge V8’s stuffed in their naturally rust-lightened bodies burning up drag strips all over the country. Yep, those Chevettes are bad mo-sheens.

The Chevette began clogging up the fast lane on American highways in 1976, but the story doesn’t start there. GM actually started building a little coupe version of the Chevette for the Brazilian market in 1973. In was also sold in Germany under the name Opal Kadette. Eventually, region-specific versions of the Chevette in different body styles turned up all over the world.

Fuel mileage was front-and-center in the mid-‘70s, and the subcompact Chevette was an appealing choice with a claimed highway rating of 40-mpg. It may have also been an alternative to the Chevrolet Vega, which was an extremely popular small car initially, but often proved to be trouble-prone as time went on.

It’s hard to get very excited about the technology that went into the Chevette. Only three different sized engines went under the hood throughout the car’s run, and they were nothing to write home about. The hot rods would have had a 1.6-liter four-banger that churned out maybe 70-hp. There was also a 1.4-liter overhead-cam four that was good for like 60-hp. Then in 1981 they came out with a spectacular 1.8-liter diesel that clanked-out a massive 51-hp. The little buggers were bulletproof, though, and the engines would often outlast the car’s body.

Oh, they made little changes throughout the car’s run. A four-door hatchback joined the two-door in 1978. A big, egg crate grill showed up in ’79. The taillights wrapped around in 1980. Trims came and went. The Scooter was super-Spartan. The Sandpiper was surfin’-quirky. The S model toward the end of the car’s life outlined the grill with a red pinstripe to convey some sort of sporting intentions. But by-and-large, the Chevette stayed relatively unchanged for 11-years.

Sales declined to the point that the Chevette was finally discontinued after the 1987 model year. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Through its lifetime, the cheap, bare-bones Chevette managed to find some 2.5-million buyers. In 1981 alone, more than 451,000 Chevettes were sold. And unlike most little cars today, this was done with a rear-wheel-drive American-branded subcompact. The numbers are quite staggering when you think about it.

So prevalent was the Chevette that I’ll bet a lot of the people reading this article had direct, personal experience with this car, whether they want to admit it or not. And I’ll bet some of them even have sort of fond memories of the cute commuter. You really never hear much about the Chevette, but it touched a lot of lives.

The slideshow below has Chevette pictures that I’ve taken at local car shows. Just kidding. I’ve never seen a Chevette at a car show. So I had to use old promotional photos, brochures, and advertisements instead. You’ll also find a couple of pictures in there of foreign-market models, including the Pontiac Acadian which was sold in Canada, and the T-1000 which was sold at Pontiac stores in the U.S. Finally, there's a video of a 1977 Chevette blasting through a cannon at  a Joie Chitwood show. All told, it’ll probably give you more Chevette images than you ever hoped to see in your lifetime.

Also, here is the video version of my slideshow, you know, for something different ...


  1. C,

    I know it was warm today but, not so much
    for it to mess up a fellows thought process !!!

    Anyway another great article, and when you get
    the "OV"... (Other Vette) souped up bring'er
    out to the cruise nights !

    Basehor Boys

  2. The first time I drove one I thought there was something seriously wrong with it. It was like I was towing a travel trailer. Thought maybe it dropped a couple cylinders or there was a potato lodged in the exhaust. Nope that is all it had. You could hear every rotation of the tires while driving. Maybe this is the car that turned 2.5 million Chevy owners into Toyota buyers.One of your best articles ever. Thanks for the memories!!

  3. Aaahhh, but the Chevette across the pond was a whole different animal. Just google 'Chevette rally car' or 'Chevette HS' to see the Vauxhall versions. They made some neat versions of the car; just too bad we didnt get em!

  4. I worked at a local Chevrolet dealer in 1981. When Chevette's came in we had to install the antenna and the center caps. Popped on many of those. Later, I worked at a large retail automotive shop and remember that the starters were so hard to replace. My sister had a 1984, she bought new.

  5. I had a friend whose wife drove one of these as we called it a Shovvette. I drove it one time to go get take out to bring back and I kid you not I pulled out on the road like I would in my car and I thought I was going to get run over till two miles later I got it up to speed all 45mph of it I needed for that road. We use to joke and say "Does 0 to 60 in never it's a Shovvette."

  6. Craig:
    Thios one hits home for me...dated a girl who bought a chevette...I called it the SHOVE-IT (just like Super Dave said...ROFLMAO)...cause you pretty much hadd to do that to get the dang thing anywhere near 55 MPH...(uphill was a study in PATIENCE, that's for sure)...LOL.
    Luckily we often drove in my '75 TORINO (had a nice 351 CID V-8 under the hood).

    Brings back some very strange memories.

    Good post and comments.

    Happy Motoring.

  7. Sometimes it's these weird cars that resonate with people. You just never know. Thanks everyone for reading. I love looking at the comments!

  8. We kids called our dad's Chevette the "shove it" as well. It was an upgrade from the Fiat 124 that my dad had for a while. He put over 165k on the clock and only when the timing belt broke did the car leave him stranded. I learned to drive on one.

  9. My mom had one in the early mid 70s and it was Spartan for sure and on the back it said Opel Kadett. I was a teenager at the time and I loved the name. But I can’t find anything on that. Help?