by That Car Guy (Chuck)
As you all very well know, General Motors and other car companies use an alphabet letter to denote a body style, usually used by two or more divisions. When the unreliability of the "H"-body Vega was decided, GM went looking globally to replace the Vega by rebadging a "T"-body from elsewhere in the world. First built in Brazil in 1974, the "T" car was eventually made as the Vauxhall Chevette, Opel Kadett, Isuzu Gemini, and Holden Gemini. It was also called the Pontiac Acadian in Canada. Briefy, it was made as a pickup truck, the Chevy 500! Launched by the Chevrolet Division in 1976 as the Chevette and in 1981 as Pontiac's T1000, this is a "love-it-or-hate-it" car if there has ever been one! I bought this then-new 1978 model for reliable transportation and easy campus parking, as well as something to remember my 21st birthday by. Originally available in America only as a 2-door, "Rally" and "Woody" packages were offered. A 4-door came along in 1978, and those two trim packages were dropped. All were hatchbacks. There was a station wagon that was never available here, but I think it would have been a hit at that time! In 1978, the Pinto and Monza wagons were still available and selling strong, even though their days were numbered.
The Chevette interior was, well, "sparse" at best. Vinyl seats were standard, the optional plaid cloth pattern here was both comfy and stylishly indicative of when Disco ruled the land. In fact, this was the first set of cloth seats I ever had, and they convinced me that they were the way to go, since vinyl or leather seats are hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and usually don't last as long. This was the standard interior, the upgraded digs were as scare as hens' teeth. All Chevettes had the exposed, hard, painted metal upper door edges to bang your arm on, a trait common to cheap cars and trucks. The one-piece plastic door panels were deceiving... at first they looked like stitched and padded panels, but any touch would find them almost as hard as the aforementioned door edges. The carpeting was nice enough, even covering the hatch load floor. The mini console was handy, but the dash was a disaster. Only one size radio was allowed, and DIN-sized choices were very limited in 1978; under-dash FM converters combined with the standard AM radio were the cheapest fix. How else could you hear "Funkytown" with no static? Gauges were also virtually non-existant. All "T" cars had the 85 mph speedometer, fuel gauge, and smaller holes for idiot lights and a place for a clock. There was an optional tachometer and volt gauge, but again, try to find this. Amazingly, on the 2-doors, the rear side windows were hinged and latched! So what was in the cabin seemed to be done fairly well. Squeaks and rattles were few except for the noisy, poorly fitted hatch area.
Driving the cars was fun, but not exciting. Very soon after getting the T1000, we put a set of Michelin radials on, and from then on, I looked forward to a certain set of "S" curves on the way to work each day, as the "T" was one of the first GM cars to have rack-and-pinion steering... basically the same unit that went into the "P"-body Pontiac Fiero. I have to say that the cars' traction in snow was amazing, especially considering they were real wheel drive. During "The Great Blizzard of 1978", I drove the first car with snow pounding the floor pan. The car made it up a steep driveway that a friend's Jeep would not conquer... with bias-ply tires, no less! (These are not typical results, your traction may vary.) Please don't adjust your sets, that's a black & white picture I took of an ice-encrusted hubcap on the '78 Chevette. Powered by a 1.6-litre I-4, they made all of 70 horsepower at the rear wheels. Power steering and power brakes just weren't needed, as the cars were light enough to steer and stop easy.
In 1979, the Chevette received a front end freshening that would last till the end of production in 1987, including a new hood, rectangular headlights, and a chrome grille. 1980, the beginning of the Al Franken Decade, brought new rear quarter panels, hatch, and a tail light change, very attractive for the time. In fact, I'm going to say it here... the lines were quite similar to the first generation VW Scirocco, and neither was a bad looking car back then. As mentioned, in 1981 the Pontiac version was released, "Gussying up" the Chevette by using Pontiac badges, a dark painted grille, lowered body side mouldings, and the Chevette's "Custom Exterior" option of extra bright side window trim with matte (satin) black painted accents. The pinstripes on the silver car were my doin'. In 1982, a much-improved hard cloth-covered headliner was used.
Yes, we owned three of the cars cars shown here. For years we lived frugally, and have seen some payoffs lately by doing so. The two-tone 4-door here belonged to my mother; she drove the car for years, even with a peculiar shudder in the drivetrain. Between 25 and 35 mph, the car had a strange vibration, probably in the driveshaft. We never had it fixed because it was not chronic, and we didn't want to put a penny more into the car than we had to... we just lived with it. Hers was a 3-speed automatic, both of mine had 4-speed manuals. All three cars had air conditioning; the heaters worked all right, except there wasn't a bi-level vent and floor setting... it was either one or the other. So your tootsies froze while your upper body and face were warm or visa-versa, unless you fiddled with the air flow controls every few minutes. But at least her car had rear doors! Getting in and out of any 2-door coupe is tough; try it in one of these microbes. I have avoided owning any 2-door car that has a back seat since I owned a Chevette - even my last pickup truck has four full-sized doors.
OK, that's the good news. So, how could a car that was the best selling car in America in 1979 and 1980 take such a fall from grace? Simple... in America, GM did virtually NOTHING to improve or update this car like the Europeans (A Vauxhall Chevette is shown here), and the competition simply overran it. The "T" was hardly cutting-edge when it was new! Other than relocating nameplates, body-coloring bumpers, and adding the mandatory Central High-Mounted Stop Light (CHMSL) 3rd brake light, almost nothing was done. In 1984, Pontiac dropped the "T" and simply called the car the "1000". Also, dealers carried only poorly-equipped models on their lots... goodies like a 5-speed, tilt, remote control mirror, intermittent wipers, rear defroster, rear wiper, roof rack, nicer interior packages, AM/FM radio, and better wheels were available, but have you ever seen them? If you got air conditioning, tinted glass, and a radio, feel lucky! Had Chevy and Pontiac used the items already available in their parts bin to upgrade the cars instead of hiding the fancy pieces from the public as well as updating the cabin, these little cars would surely have gained more respect in the market. But, sadly, their strategy of chopping the price in 1987 to $4,995 to compete with the Hyundai Excel and Yugo GV only placed the "T" cars lower on the automotive food chain.
Then there was the Chevette Scooter. As if the regular Chevette wasn't spartan enough, GM decided to take off all of the exterior trim, cheaply paint the bumpers, limit colors and equipment, remove the glove box door, use unbelievably flat interior door trim, install vinyl flooring and vinyl hatch floor covers, and remove any plastic chrome from the dash. Mechanically they were the same, but many options were not available. In 1976, the first year, a back seat was optional. *Sigh*, what were they thinking? Has a more plain-looking car ever been offered? Sure, it was a low-price loss leader, and Chevrolet thankfully dropped the Scooter in the 1984 model year.
Quality was another issue. I really enjoyed and occasionally miss the little brown car... enough that its memories prompted me to buy a T1000 as soon as they came out. What a mistake! From poor assembly and bad materials to criminally stupid dealer service, this is the car I've most regretted owning in my life! Almost immediately after getting the car, I had to go to a dealer and receive a fender badge the factory forgot to put on - my first recall! There was not enough material in the headliner to fold over and finish itself. The dealer scratched the driver's inner door panel, then repaired it by painting the hard moulded burgandy plastic which, of course, immediately flaked off. The carpet had a flaw, so they replaced it... the new rug was installed crooked, and they did not reconnect the hand brake lever when they handed it back to me. A strange dent appeared in the hood while at the dealer like somebody had... sat on it. The passenger's door had a wind noise, so the idiot at the dealer rolled down the window, put his knee inside the door, pulled the window frame in a bit thus cracking the paint, and left a dent in the door where his knee was. The list goes on... Maybe the increase in production volume between 1978 and 1981 was why the second car was not as good as the first. Just spit 'em out, and we'll fix 'em later. *Sigh* again.
So, in my usually worthless opinion, with more standard equipment and a new interior, a "T" car could have been almost fun to own, maybe even springing a cult following. It drove well, was good on gas, and sold as cheap as it got. But with the car not being offered with frills and dealers treating you and the cars like unwanted stepchildren, it seems like an automotive opportunity was wasted here.
A mountain climber! Parked at Newfound Gap in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Tennessee/North Carolina border, my little brown car with skis still had the stickers in the window if you look closely: -------}
That is a 1976 or 77 model beside me.
Sorry about the multitude of pictures here, but these things came in a lot of different varieties!
--That Car Guy (Chuck)
Here's a link to some Australian Holden Geminis, aka Chevettes, from Down Under: http://www.chevettes.com/gallery.php?section=au -It's amazing what's both familiar and foreign to these cars!
Wikipedia supplied the European Vauxhall Chevette photo.
The Scooter and 1976 Woody are from The Chevette Photo Gallery.