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.

  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.

  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.