Old School Economy: Chevy Chevette (1976-1987)

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In some ways, the Chevy Chevette had a lot in common with a new Mercedes – or similar high-end luxury car.

It wasn’t, for openers, front-wheel-drive. Like the Benz, the ‘Vette was rear-wheel-drive.

Theoretically, it could do a burnout.

And if the road was wet, you could!

Or, if you put something else under the hood . . .

All modern economy cars, of course, are front-wheel-drive. Most modern cars – regardless of price – are front-wheel-drive. The handful of new cars that are still built on a RWD platform are almost all high-end cars, or big cars or not cars at all (4WD trucks and SUVs).

The Chevette was rear-drive because it was a first-generation econo-box, like the Vega (also RWD) that preceded it. So was the Ford Pinto and others of their ilk, such as the AMC Gremlin.

GM and the rest of the American car industry had not-much experience with the FWD configuration, which was at the time still a mostly Japanese specialty. But even the Japanese were still making RWD economy cars – like the Datsun B210, as a for-instance.

FWD transaxles (combining the transmission and drive axle assembly into a single unit, which bolted to the engine and the whole thing sitting on top of the front wheels) are just the ticket for stamping out lots of cars, really cheaply. The layout  eliminates parts like a separate rear axle and long driveshaft connecting it to the transmission.

But it’s hard to beat a cast iron rear axle for low cost and hard-to-hurt-it.

Weight balance is better, too. And, it is just the ticket for a proper burnout.     

The rear-drive (and front-engine) layout thus presented an opportunity for hot rodders. Just as the Vega that preceded it had.

Pull the four – and install a V8.

The results were – and still are – amusing.

But of course, amusing wasn’t the Chevette’s Main Mission. Its mission was miles-per-gallon.

Chevy’s other ‘Vette was conceived not so much by the gas crisis of 1973 – though that contrived event served as midwife – but rather by the federal government’s imposition of Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) requirements.

CAFE set a mandatory fleet average fuel economy number that each automaker had to meet or else get hit with “gas guzzler” fines, these being passed on to buyers in the form of higher prices. The government apparently believing that people queuing up in gas lines needed to be forced to buy more efficient cars.

CAFE was a particular burden on American car companies – because almost all of their cars (at the time) were “gas guzzlers.” GM – and Ford and Chrysler – had to re-engineer almost their entire model lineup overnight. And prematurely retire cars (and engines) that they had invested huge sums developing but which were no longer politically correct.

The Japanese, meanwhile, built nothing but gas-sippers. Whether on purpose or not, CAFE gave them an instant – and artificial – competitive advantage via regulatory fatwa.

So, the Chevette was a crash program – an all new platform (the T body) designed and made manufacturing reality in less than two years.

The first production models  – all of them two-door hatchbacks, your choice of entry-level Scooter, sporty Rally coupe or Woodie coupe, with fake laminated metal “wood” paneling along the sides – became available in the fall of 1975 as ’76 models, just in time for the country’s Bicentennial celebrations and the official enactment of the CAFE regs.

It was also a crash diet. The ’76 Chevette weighed about half as much as a typical American car of the period – just 1,843 lbs. for the base coupe with a manual (four speed) transmission. Even the engine – made of cast iron – was light. Lighter by almost 50 pounds than the Chevy Vega’s aluminum engine – and without the latter’s tendency to melt.

Under the Scooter’s hood, a 1.4 liter four that produced a maximum rated output of 52 horsepower – about as much as a 500 CC motorcycle engine. This gave a top speed approaching 89 MPH and a 0-60 capability of about 18 seconds.

You could upgrade – in the Rally – to a mighty 60 hp, 1.6 liter four. This knocked the zero time down to just under 18 seconds and pushed the top speed to just over 90 MPH, all out.

But, slow as it was – it didn’t suck.

Well, gas.

The Chevette was capable of a spectacular-for-the-Seventies 40 MPG on the highway – without an overdrive transmission or electronic fuel injection. Only a handful of current-year (2017) economy cars use less fuel – and they all have the advantages of overdrive gearing and the precise metering of electronic fuel injection. The reason they don’t do better, MPG-wise, is because they are all much heavier – by 500-700 pounds. They have to be, in order to be compliant with the federal safety fatwas that went into effect since the Chevette’s introduction.

Luckily for GM, the government was only mandating MPGs back in the mid-1970s.

The original three-door hatchback was tiny on the outside: 158.7inches long – about six feet shorter than a Buick Electra 225 sedan. You could almost fit the ‘Vette int he trunk of the Buick.

It rode on a 94.3 inch wheelbase. 

That is a small car.

How small?

The current (2017) Hyundai Accent  – also a three-door hatchback – is 172 inches long overall (that’s more than a foot longer) and rides on a 101.2 inch wheelbase.

Yet the Chevette has about the same legroom for the driver (41.5 inches vs. 41.8 in the Hyundai) and vastly more room for cargo – 76.4 cubic feet vs. a puny 47.5 for the Accent.

The ‘Vette’s backseats, though, were not the place to be – unless you were cargo. Just 28.7 inches of legroom (the Accent’s back seats have 33.3 inches).

Oh, and that assumes you had back seats. They were an extra-cost option in the Scooter.

But it was also really nimble – a good thing, given how often it was called to get out of the way of speedier cars.

At its 1975 press introduction, Chevy boasted about the car’s tight (30.2 foot) turning circle – which is tight, even by the standards of 40 years later. The 2017 Accent’s turning circle is 34.1 feet – almost four feet wider.

The Chevette was also cheap. The advertised base price of a ’76 Scooter was $2,899 – vs. $14,995 for a new Hyundai Accent. Of course, the Hyundai comes standard with air conditioning (the ‘Vette came with pop open rear vent windows) a six-speed manual transmission and a six-speaker AM/FM/satellite radio/Bluetooth-enabled stereo (the ‘Vette came with an AM radio and a speaker) plus rear seats are included.

If you upgraded to the Rally, you got arm rests in place of pull straps, the larger 1.6 liter engine, exterior graphics and a rear swaybar.

Almost 200,000 cars were sold during the first two model years – success enough to prompt Chevy to expand the range in ’78 by offering a four door model that was a couple of inches longer overall and had a more passenger-friendly back seat. This was also the first year for the HO (High Output) Chevette, which got an uprated version of the 1.6 liter four, now making 63 hp – which pushed the car’s top speed to 94 MPH and got you into the fifteens, zero to 60. More important, there was just enough power now to run an AC compressor – and that became an option for the first time. You could get power brakes and an AM/FM radio (still single speaker), too.

People laugh today, but Chevy was laughing all the way to the bank. By late 1979 – about three years into the Chevette’s production run – almost half a million had been sold.

GM continued to tweak and improve the car as the years rolled by. In 1981, an Isuzu-sourced 1.8 liter diesel engine became available. It didn’t have enough power to to turn an AC compressor – so you had to do without if you wanted the near-60 MPG this car was capable of. That’s better than any current car – including hybrid cars. But plan ahead when accelerating – if that’s the right word. As languid as the gas-engined Chevettes were, the diesel variants were paralytic, needing at least 20 and as many as 30 seconds before achieving 60 MPH.

Which was not far off the car’s top speed of around 75 MPH.

People loved the ‘Vette nonetheless. So much so that GM decided to sell a badge-engineered version under the Pontiac label – the T1000. This car was also sold in Canada as the Acadian.

Sales continued strong until the mid-1980s, by which time the now-almost-ten-year-old platform was looking and feeling its age. A new crop of FWD economy cars – in particular, Chrysler’s K-cars – offered things the ‘Vette could not, such as a flat interior floor pan which allowed three across/six-passenger seating in a car not much bigger, overall, than the Chevette.

But you couldn’t do a burnout in a K-car.

Much less put a V8 in the thing.

At least, not easily.

They truly don’t build ‘em like they used to… .

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  1. Who cares if it was boring, the possibilities are endless. It would certainly make a great drag car after fitting a supercharged/turbocharged small block Chevy V8 engine into it. And then add some NOS.

  2. OT: The new administration is going to reexamine the odious rampup of CAFE standards:

    “We’re going to work on the CAFE standards so you can make cars in America again,” Trump told a cheering crowd of auto industry workers. “We’re going got help companies so they are going to help you,”

    “We’re going to be the car capital of the world again” he said.

  3. My neighbor once told me that his brother used to have a diesel Shovette, and that it got 60MPG. I didn’t believe him (About the MPGs…not about his brother having one :D)- Guess he was right after all! Somehow, I’m thinking that my 27HP tractor with the 3cyl. Mitsubishit diesel in ‘er would probably run circles around the diesel Shovette though….

    • Hi Nunzio,

      The mileage of those late ’70s-early ’80s-era diesels was phenomenal. But they were almost unpowered – you looked for holes in the floorboard, so you could Fred Flintstone the car moving…

      • How much of that was because the speed limit was 55 though? My old Subie XT with the blown head gasket did just fine at 55 and got about 40 mpg, not so much at 65, especially going up hill.

        • 55 was widely – almost universally – ignored.

          Keep in mind how light that car was – and how little rolling resistance it had.

          I wish I had the resources to do enlightening projects such as buy an old Chevette and upgrade it with TBI and overdrive, make a few other minor tweaks… and see what kind of mileage it would deliver…

          • Eric, TBI usually does little or nothing for MPGs. Remember when it first came out, when one year a car had a carb, and the next year that same model would be TBI? The TBI version usually got the same, or even a mile or two less to the gallon than the carbed version- I mean, after all, what’s TBI? Just essentially an externally computer-controlled carburaetor with a steady flow of gas.

            And actually, if the TBI had been pitted against a simple old-fashioned carb, instead of the monstrously complex Rube Goldberg-esque EPA-compliant contraptions of the time, the TBI would probably lose big time.

            The only place I ever saw TBI having a real positive effect on MPGs was in the EPA’s “estimated economy” ratings- and we all know what BS that was back then.

            • Agreed, Nunzio –

              The big upside (for the non-wrencher) is that TBI is “set and forget.” No need to adjust for seasons or altitude. But, I’m with you… carbs are easy to adjust and if you can do that, you have no need for all the electronic stuff that comes with…

  4. When my wife and I got married (’89) she had an ’84 Shove-it that she bought new when Fred (the VW Squareback) was no longer worth repairing. It either had lousy calipers, or MIdas saw her coming and just replaced one or the other every time she took it in. And the timing belt did go once, but as someone else mentioned, not an interference engine. Other than that, it was still running well at 150K when it got crunched on the Belchway.

  5. I drove one of those shoveits from Indy to Nashville, in a driving rainstorm, with 5 people in it, at speed averaging 80+ mph. No handling problems or problems of any kind on that trip. That was back in the mid 80s. I wouldn’t call it a good car, but on that trip it performed admirably.

  6. It seems that fuel injection is perhaps 30 percent more efficient than carb cars, measured in mpg.

    So these cars could perhaps 55 mpg with injection.

    The early 80s Honda civics could reach those figures as well.

    The Obama mobile is supposed to get in the 50s as well. But with weight being bloated from safety requirement and emissions crap,
    It might have the same performance as the Chevette.

    Now consider what a modern Chevette clone could do if left as basic and bare bones. Like an old vw beetle. It could have modern braking and handling, a modern stereo.
    The engine would the same pitiful amount of horsepower, but a two cylender.

    If safety requirements and emmissions were kept at “Good Enough” 1995 levels, the cars would get great mpg, because of decent yet simple injection.

    Such a car might still be as slow as the chevette, but might be a basic car which gets 80mpg.

    But of course, we can’t have it.

    I really wonder how many people would buy a car as basic as the Chevette today. Probably not very many.

    • Hi JV,

      “I really wonder how many people would buy a car as basic as the Chevette today. Probably not very many.”

      I agree – but only because our debt-based system enables people to live vastly beyond their means.

      If people bought what they could afford – and lived within their means – a car such as you describe would be a big seller.

      • Eric – I wonder about the ability to source the Isuzu 1.8L diesel, fix it up, and find an old C-Vette (that one doesn’t have to be an self-centered asshole to drive)that has a sound body…everything else could be restored, as, being 30-40 years old, it’d have to be. The advantage, in CA, is that pre-1998 diesels require NO SMOG! You heard me…NO FUCKING SMOG CHECK IN CALIFORNIA!
        There’s be only so much that could be done to get “oophm” out of that oil burner, but who would care? For a car that’d cruise around Northern CA, it’d be the “Shit”, at least until it gets to 100° F, like today. Another, like the ’66 Plymouth that my son and I are restoring (we’d stripped off all the old paint by now and are working on taking off the fenders and trim), retro vehicle for SIMPLE, RELIABLE transportation, that I can give “CARB” (California Air Resources Board”) the “Finger”!!!

  7. Those first three generations of GM small cars; the Corvair, Vega and Chevette, probably drove more American buyers to Toyota and Honda than anything else.

    Of course, by the late ’70s, American full sized cars were perfectly capable of doing the same thing.

    • Hi Mike,

      Unfair to the Corvair! It was actually a damned good little car; vastly superior to the VW Beetle – and I have owned both. The Corvair had a heater that worked (without the attendant carbon monoxide poisoning) good power (the Beetle didn’t) and – provided you kept the tire pressures right – it handled exceptionally well, especially relative to the average car of its time.

      • The American car makers of the day were arrogant sons of bitches. They developed small cars in the early 70s to keep the new breed of “Baby Boomers” whom were out of high school and/or college and didn’t want a big old ‘sled’ like their parents drove (kinda like NO ONE of my generation initially voted Republican, one’s PARENTS did, you HAD to vote for McGovern or Carter just to piss your folks off, the Libertarian Party didn’t even come about until 1971 and was obscure for its first 20 years). The VW Beetle still sold well but was getting “long in the tooth”. European imports, at least the cheap ones, were LOSING market share. The Toyotas, Datsuns, and (by ’76) Hondas, were solid little cars that were “zippy” and reliable. The American car makers put out crap because they were inefficient and hard-pressed to not lose money on Vegas, Pinto, and Gremlins. Chrysler didn’t even bother to produce a domestic compact until 1981 with the K-cars, fairly soon, that’s most of what they sold! Instead, they started with a captive import, designed by Leyland, built in Spain, called the “Cricket”, and it was a joke. Finally, under the “if you can’t beat ’em, join em” mantra, they made a deal with Mitsubishi and sold scads of Dodge and Plymouth Colts. The US Car makers arrogantly believed that the Baby Boomers would tire of their “Jap Junk” once they had burgeoning families..surprise! Not only did the US birth rate drop dramatically, but the Japanese car makers came out with LARGER, and BETTER cars (like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord) that captured the mid-size sedan market!
        The trouble with American car makers was that they were in bed with the politicians, both to quell labor troubles (the Democrats effectively working both the UAW and the “Big Three”), and too slow and disinclined to change, until it was too late.
        What’s sad is that all along there was AMERICAN MOTORS, and it did well for quite a while, making decent compact cars out of Kenosha, WI. It’s most famed President, George Romney (father of Mitt) declared most of Detroit iron to be “overweight and unnecessary” and not what the “working man” wanted. And AMC, having bought Jeep, which became it’s bread and butter, did quite well in the 1970s when gas prices rose. Of course, then they had to build the Pacer…another idea that looked great on paper, but once it was denied the GM-source Wankel (conspriacy, anyone?) that was it…the Pacer fisaco effectively killed AMC, and even the Concorde (the first compact Crossover vehicle before there was the term) could save the foundering company from first an ill-considered merger with Renault, then being sold and dismembered (all Mopar wanted was the Jeep) by Chrysler.

        • DOUGLAS??? Good synopsis there, but was that a copy & paste job?

          “Cricket” should’ve been “Arrow”; and Eagle was the “crossover” (4×4 version of the Concord[no “e”].

          But that really was a nice synopsis- pretty much about as much info as one could get by reading a few books on the subject, or having lived through it. Although I do think the appetite for small cars had more to do with the oil embargo and gas shortages, than any supposed Boomer rebellion. In-fact, it seemed to me that those early Jap cars were being primarily purchased by the 30-something to middle-aged crowd, while the typical high=-schoolers, and young adults were more into the used (or new, if they could afford it) Muscle cars….with some geeky college nerd types being into the little Jap cars…but not the primary consumers of them.

          • Yeah, some of the specifics are a little off. A few miscellaneous items…

            Chrysler produced a domestic compact, the Valiant, for the 1960 model year and many considered it the best choice in its segment for many years. The company did not produce its own subcompact until the introduction of the Horizon/Omni, which was based on a Simca, instead filling in with imports.

            In the U.S. the Plymouth Cricket was actually a Hillman Avenger. Hillman was part of the Rootes Group, not Leyland, which was part of Chrysler Europe in the 1970s. The car was built in the UK, not in Spain. British Leyland’s entry in the 1970s U.S. subcompact market was the much maligned Marina, a truly atrocious excuse for an automobile. (Sold as a Morris in its home market, as an Austin in the U.S.)

            In the early 1950s the only successful domestic compact was the Rambler. (In the late 1950s AMC’s George Romney very publicly referred to the products of the Big 3 as “Gas-guzzling dinosaurs.”) Other early 1950s attempts at compact cars such as Kaiser’s Henry J, the Hudson Jet, and the Willys Aero didn’t work out as well. However in 1959 Studebaker brought out the Lark, which was briefly successful, and in 1960 the Big 3 brought out an array of compacts with engineering ranging from mild (Falcon) to wild (Tempest, Corvair). The domestic compact car was a hot segment in the early 1960s.

            As you note, AMC’s 4-wheel-drive “crossover” (the term not having been used yet) was the Eagle, based on the Concord, which was based on the Hornet. (I have one.)

            I do not believe there was any “conspiracy” to pull the rug out from under AMC with GM’s cancellation of the rotary engine. The main reason for the cancellation was the Wankel’s poor gas mileage during a period when gasoline prices were rapidly rising. GM had to change some of their own plans due to the cancellation. We’ll never know for sure but it is unlikely that the Pacer would have done any better with a radical and unproven GM engine. At least the old Rambler SIx was dependable. (In hindsight AMC should have funneled its scarce resources into updating its core products Instead the company blew its wad on the Matador Coupe and Pacer.)

            Once the Japanese invaded in a big way it was pretty much game over for business-as-usual in Detroit. (Compare, say, a 1971 Datsun 510 or Toyota Corona with a Pinto or Vega and the reason is obvious.)

            • Jason, wasn’t the Wankel notoriously non-durable, too? IIRC, the whatchyamacallsits [Wankel counterpart to a normal engine’s piston rings] had sealing issues, or wore too quickly or something, making the Wankels toast with quite low mileage?

              I caught the Omni/Horizon omission too. First Chrysler came out with the foreign-built rebadged Arrow/Champ and early Colts….then, I the Omni/Horizon disposable pieces of crap…errr….wasn’t it not until like ’83? I think the K-cars debuted the same year, too.

              And of course the minivans in ’84.

              AMC finally was getting on the right track with the Concord and Eagle (I learned to drive in a Concord, and I’d love to have an Eagle wagon now!)….but all their flops of the 70’s were just too much for them to overcome. Between the atrocious styling of the Matador of the mid 70’s, to the weird and not-so-efficient Pacer; and their other smallish, lack-luster cars that excelled at nothing in particular and got crappy gas mileage for their size….it was just too late to save themselves despite finally getting a clue.

              • Early Wankel engines had terrible problems with the rotor seals. In fact warranty claims against failed rotary engines in the groundbreaking Ro80 was a major factor in ending NSU’s existence as an independent company. (NSU was acquired by VW in 1969 and ultimately became part of Auto Union/Audi.) I think the early Mazda rotary engines had their problems as well, but it was the reputation for poor fuel economy that really killed it off in the American marketplace.

                GM claimed they had the durability problem licked, but who knows. They also made that claim about the aluminum Vega engine when that car debuted. I expect that even if the basic design was sound, by the time the bean-counters got done with the GM rotary it would have been yet another disaster.

                AMC’s problems can be traced to the early 1960s when George Romney left the company to enter politics. His successor, Roy Abernethy, was a big car guy who thought he could go after a piece of the Big 3’s action. He was wrong.

                An interesting footnote in the American market was the Crosley subcompact. The postwar Crosley was equipped with a 4-cylinder overhead-cam engine and, in 1949, 4-wheel disc brakes. Way ahead of its time, but once the postwar seller’s market evaporated Crosley could not compete with larger vehicles that didn’t cost a whole lot more. 1952 was Crosley’s last year.

                • Ah! Thanks for the info, Jason. Yeah…take anything GM says with a grain of salt when they stray from old reliable technology and try to do innovative new stuff….. When have they ever been able to fix anything? All they seem to be able to do is botch stuff up- then, or now. Even just a mild re-do of old tried and true…. 4-6-8? 350 diesel? HT 4100? LOL…

                  Too bad AMC strayed from the Rambler. They had a real winner there.

                  Crosley though? Ppphhhtt! You can’t really consider them in the same class as real cars- they were more like toys, or at the very most specialty vehicles- I mean, who would drive one on a daily basis? Not enough room for people or cargo. They were like early city cars/commuter vehicles, when a market for such didn’t exist.

                  Funny thing: My mother had these friends who were into RVing. When I was young, they sent this picture of someone they encountered on one of their trips who had a converted coach bus, with just a slightly modified Crosley they kept in a luggage bay and hauled around for use when they’d park the bus. I still remember that photo. I think the mod was that the top (including windshield, etc.) would come off so they could slide the little car into the bay under the bus! Wish I still had the pic!

                  • Well, the Crosley was not quite as ludicrous as the King Midget. 🙂 And it did have some interesting technical aspects for the time. Crosley also sold the first American postwar sports car, the Hot Shot.

                    Immediately after the war and for a few years after you could sell just about anything with 4 wheels and an engine and Crosley didn’t do too badly for a while. Best year was 1948 with nearly 25,000 sold. Sales plummeted though as the seller’s market evaporated.

                    During the war, with gasoline rationing in effect the even smaller prewar 2-cylinder Crosleys were highly prized if you could find one. (Only about 6000 were built.)

                    • Hi Jason,

                      It’s interesting, isn’t it? How few people make the connection, I mean. They will talk fondly about quirky old cars like the ones you mention but never ask why such cars are not made to today. Nor get angry when they are told they are not allowed to make them today.

                      Just this one slice of what was America – and within living memory – gives us a taste of the freedom we’ve lost.

                  • There are bus RVs built that way now. With a small car in a compartment. They are well into six figures. Some maybe 7.

                • Hi Jason,

                  I test drove several new Mazda RXs powered by the rotary; an extremely fun – and shockingly thirsty – engine. IIRC, it was less than 2 liters and drank about as much fuel as a current 5.7 liter Hemi in a Charger!

  8. The Chevette was my uncle’s last car, he died in 2002.

    He had also bought my father’s Chevette, and proceeded to let it rot in his driveway. I guess it would have made a good parts car. It was a later version, a 4-door.

  9. The Chevette was my aunt’s last GM car. It spent so much time at the Chevy dealer broke down, she hated that car. Thirty years later she still refuses to buy anything GM due to that little turd box. The Chevette probably made her a Honda customer for life.

  10. Ha! Memories. The Pontiac T1000 was my first car and what taught me to drive, it was also a manual transmission, which was awesome.

    I still remember it as the second worst piece of crap I ever drove (second only to a Geo Metro). The car seemed to be made from compressed rust that was only looking for a reason to fall apart. The timing belt had a habit of shredding (thankfully, it was a non-interference engine), but you get pretty sick of the hood getting bent when you fire the air filter housing into it. The brakes barely worked – no power assist, you really had to mash them, and I still loved doing stupid stuff with that thing. The interior was awesome too, everything was the worst kind of vinyl, and didn’t actually have hinges on things that opened, you just bent the thin plastic “hinge” until it broke off.

  11. Call me crazy, but I never thought the chevette or pinto were all that bad. Especially the pinto wagon, as mentioned the front engine/RWD arrangement is preferable for a lot of reasons if you like to drive rather than just ride. These were transportation appliances and as such worked magnificently. The new stuff has lost sight of the idea of an economy car, just as the average consumer has lost sight of real economics.


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