The Humble Chevette – the Most Prolific World Car Ever?
By Andy Bannister
It’s a rare car that can pull off the trick of appealing to buyers in every corner of the world. Perhaps the original VW Beetle is the classic example, but let’s hear it for the different approach taken by the humble Chevy Chevette – or more properly, the General Motors T-Car.
Mostly unloved and forgotten now, the T-Car design spawned what must have been a record number of derivatives with a bewildering array of marque or model names, all built on a humble rear-while-drive platform and snapped up gratefully by buyers during the fuel crisis of the 1970s and on through the next decade.
Americans will be most familiar with the Chevrolet Chevette, launched in three-door hatchback form in 1975 as GM’s answer to the energy crisis. Back then people were ditching large cars in droves as fuel prices spiralled – a situation which has an uncanny echo of today.
The Chevette was no all-American hero, however. It began life in 1970 as a project by Opel in Germany, which was looking to develop a third generation of its popular little Kadett (which has been sold with limited success by Buick dealers in the USA).
Opel at the time offered a huge range of Kadett body styles, so the little car was initially developed as two and four-door saloons, a three door station wagon, and a very pretty coupé which could be ordered with a hot 1.9-litre engine from the Manta in place of the standard 1.2 unit,
The T-Car was always planned to be made in more markets than just Germany, and must have seemed like a godsend to GM management as the economic problems of the 1970s began to unroll.
Schemes were rushed through for the company’s factories around the world to offer a version. At the time, GM divisions in nearly each and every country seemed to go their own way, and this resulted in many and varied derivatives of the T-Car.
Brazil just beat Germany off the mark, launching the very first T-Car in spring 1973, also known as the Chevrolet Chevette. Opel followed suit with the new Kadett later that year.
In Britain, GM’s Vauxhall division still retained its design independence and planned its T-car as a three-door hatchback, copying the concept from smaller front-wheel-drive rivals like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Launched in 1975 as the Vauxhall Chevette, this was the first hatchback T-Car, but many more would follow.
Vauxhall’s version had the company’s dull 1256cc engine from the Viva but actually looked quite modern and funky for 1975, pioneering a fashionable sloping front end the company called “droop snoot”.
An early British brochure hardly pitched it at young people though, with a car full of nuns pictured inside enjoying the newcomer’s charms. Later, though, the company did launch a surprisingly hot rally-inspired version, the 2300HS.
Back in America, Chevrolet unveiled their Chevette hatchback in September 1975 in Washington DC.
It looked very different from the European models, with federal bumpers and sealed-beam headlamps and featured various upscale custom options including a vinyl roof and a “woody” version with exterior fake wood appliqués.
At the time the 1.6-litre car was the smallest ever American Chevy and looked tiny compared to the company’s previous smallest offering, the Vega. It sold like hot cakes despite for some reason Chevrolet deciding not to adopt the sedan body style offered elsewhere.
In Canada, a Chevette clone called the Pontiac Acadian, keeping alive a traditional name, was offered from the start. In the 80s the USA also got its own Pontiac 1000 version of the Chevette, allegedly slightly sportier and more luxurious.
Down in South America, the successful start of Brazilian production was soon followed by the launch of more strangely named variants, often with unique styling features.
Ecuador had the Aymesa Condor, Uruguay offered the Grummett Color, and in Argentina the car was known as the Opel K-180, although later models had GMC as the marque name with the Chevette badge.
Even Japan was involved, with GM’s Isuzu offshoot productionising its version of the T-Car as the long-running Gemini sedan and coupé.
This was briefly exported to the US in an early form as the Buick-Opel and came back a few years later under Isuzu’s own badge as the I-Mark.
Holden of Australia also made its own Gemini, closely related to the Isuzu version, whilst in South Korea the car was built locally as the Saehan Bird and later the Daewoo Maepsy.
Commercial vehicle versions were also offered around the world, such as the Bedford Chevanne in Britain (a panel van based on the Vauxhall estate) and there was a choice of pick-up derivatives, including the Chevy 500 in Brazil and Daewoo Max in Korea.
The USA – which would ultimately build 2.5 million Chevettes – introduced a five-door version in 1978 , a body style unique to North America (the Canadian Pontiac got it too) thanks to an extended wheelbase. It helped the baby Chevy’s US sales peak at 451,000 in 1980.
A year later, the diesel Chevette was launched, with an economical unit courtesy of its half-brother the Isuzu I-Mark.
By that time the car’s basic design – never radical even in its heyday – was ageing badly. In 1979 it had given way to a new and far more competitive front-wheel-drive Opel Kadett in Europe, although demand from traditional rear-wheel-drive customers kept the British version going until 1984.
In North America, the poor old Chevette and Pontiac 1000 limped on years after their use-by date, latterly being GM’s competition against the low-priced Yugo and Hyundai offerings and the almost-as-ancient Dodge Omni. Their last US model year would be 1987 by which time the cars which had helped GM through some very dark days were seen by many as little more than a joke.
It was left to the Brazilians, who had launched the T-Car on an unsuspecting world, to see out its final days. Production of a version called the Junior with a puny 1.0-litre engine continued there until well into the 1990s, and in Brazil the Chevette design is now a much-respected base for customisation.
The T-Car was undoubtedly a phenomenon worldwide, a chameleon-like vehicle which could adapt to almost any market and take on its own local identity. Its simple, frankly rather dull, underpinnings made it a safe bet and a reliable means of economy transportation.
Whilt its sales never remotely approached the VW Beetle or Toyota Corolla, it was GM’s first truly global car and possibly the most ambitious attempt at delivering such a project the world has ever seen. Current efforts, like the soon-to-be-launched Ford Fiesta, look half-hearted in their ambitions, by comparison.
For this alone the Chevette and its worldwide band of brothers deserve to be remembered a little more fondly.
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