I remember my Dad carrying me out to a little greenish-yellow station wagon when I was two. We had that car a little more than a year and that’s my only memory of it. This puts me in rare company: one of the few Americans with a positive memory of a Chevy Vega. My parents would not be in that group. One rear end collision and one melted engine, and the Vega was gone. If I missed out on the joy of picking rust scabs, at least I got to sample the full majesty of the Chevette. Was it a bad car? Was it a match for the Vega? To steal a line from “Bloom County,” it wasn’t that bad, but Lord it wasn’t good.
The car in question was a blue Chevette hatch, my bud Joe's family car. Joe’s parents weren't poor as much as they were deeply frugal. When it was time to join the growing ranks of the “two car family,” they added a posh red Chevette to their stable. I became very (not to say over) familiar with the blue Chevette. At first, I rode shotgun. After I got my driving license, I became the Chevette’s wheelman. Joe didn’t get any kick out of driving (understandably); he was perfectly happy handing that job on me. He also palmed-off testing his home-built rocket-launchers on me, but I digress.
Aside from its unabashed expression of its owners and manufacturers’ penny-pinching, there was nothing particularly “wrong” about the Chevette’s interior. Speedometer, gas gauge, idiot lights and a glove box with no lock. Done. The seats were made of vinyl specifically designed to sear beachgoers' skin. The gear change was a mess and you had to use your whole hand to flick the turn signal. We referred to the back seat as the torture chamber and, by God, it was.
Driving the Chevette was like a dream. The car liberated us from our families, blessing us with the freedom that all young drivers feel when they first set sail for the big wide world. Not that it was pleasant. The Chevette looked and drove like a slightly jumped-up pedal car. There was none of the gliding heft of The General’s larger vehicles. Nor was there any of the sure feedback of other hatchbacks. Our Accord was getting on, and was never all that fast, but it felt like a car, not a toy. It was as if GM execs created the Chevette simply to justify their disdain for “those tinny foreign cars.”
The Chevette’s utter lack of get-up-and-go was remarkable. You could floor the 1.4-liter four and get nothing more than a slightly louder rattle. It wasn’t THAT slow (we had a VW MicroBus), but there was no power reserve. The Chevette’s anemic power delivery and iffy feedback (despite lacking power steering) made for careful driving. As for top end, the little Chevy might hit 60– downhill with a tailwind. Since we mostly stayed in town, the lack of top speed wasn’t much of a factor.
While the Chevette was stable to the point of catatonia in normal driving conditions, the rare occasions when I drove it in the rain were nigh-on religious experiences. Trying to guide an underpowered, numb feeling, lightweight rear wheel-drive car sitting on narrow tires while keeping track of other drivers without an effective window defrosting system evoked all the terror beloved of slasher movie audiences. I don’t think I ever drove the Chevette in the snow. If I had, I’m sure I would have remembered it. On the plus side, the Chevette proved to be a fairly reliable ride that withstood teenage abuse and neglect.
Looking back, I don’t think the Chevette deserves to be lumped-in with that era’s epic failures: the Ford Pinto and the Chevette's immediate predecessor, the Chevy Vega. No question: the Chevette was never the best car in its class (Dodge Omni, VW Rabbit, AMC Gremlin, Toyota Tercel, Renault Encore), nor was it the cheapest (especially if you added the options other cars offered as standard). The Chevette stayed in production as long as it did (1976 – 1987) to fill a “hole” in GM’s line-up, and then prop up CAFE ratings.
The Chevette wasn’t a failure for what it was. It was a failure for what it could have been. The Vega was horrible, but it was a start. Its replacement (Chevette and the Monza) didn’t move the game forward on any level other than reliability (and only relative to the Vega). No front wheel-drive, no style, no aluminum engine, no disc brakes– nothing that said small and inexpensive can be beautiful. In fact, the Chevette marks the point where the imports started to run away from the domestics, as Detroit turned their back on small vehicles and once again stuffed their pockets with cash from larger ones. Now there’s a memory for you.