By on October 14, 2019

1981 Chevrolet Chevette in Denver wrecking yard, RH front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsNorth Americans could buy the Chevrolet Chevette, featuring the finest in affordable early-1970s Opel Kadett C technology, starting with the 1976 model year. Chevette sales continued all the way through 1987, amazingly enough, because it could be manufactured and sold so cheaply.

Since the Chevette was so simple and sold in such large numbers, enough have survived that I still find them in the big self-service wrecking yards to this day. Here’s a grimy, beat-up ’81 spotted in a Denver yard last winter.

1981 Chevrolet Chevette in Denver wrecking yard, 2007 Harbor Freight catalog - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsI found 2007-tagged collector-car license plates and a 2007 Harbor Freight ad in the car, so I’m pretty sure it sat outside for the 12 years prior to arriving here.

1981 Chevrolet Chevette in Denver wrecking yard, head gasket in a can - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe can of Radiator Stop-Leak tells us that the car suffered some overheating problems prior to being parked.

1981 Chevrolet Chevette in Denver wrecking yard, automatic gearshift - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsNearly all of the Chevettes I’ve seen have had manual transmissions, because Chevette buyers wanted cheap transportation, period, and paying extra for two-pedal convenience didn’t make much sense. This car has the luxurious automatic, though.

1981 Chevrolet Chevette in Denver wrecking yard, flu shot sticker - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis beats slapping cannabis dispensary stickers all over your car.

1981 Chevrolet Chevette in Denver wrecking yard, LH front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsAn overheating Chevette that got crashed and then sat outside in High Plains Colorado for more than a decade won’t get rescued. This car might have donated some useful parts to a surviving Chevette prior to being eaten by The Crusher, though.

Car of choice for cheap priests!

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45 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Chevrolet Chevette...”

  • avatar

    Lol, looks like a few people got there money’s worth out of it, anyway.

    It’ll buff right out

  • avatar
    Dale Houston

    One of the cars I learned to drive on. As I recall, the manual transmission shifted pretty well, better than on the Ford Escort we got in the mid-80’s.

    Otherwise, pretty dreadful.

  • avatar

    I’d say that car is a rolling cry for help.

  • avatar

    Too bad the American market didn’t get the improved versions sold elsewhere. The Vauxhall version was a strong enough little car to make it in G4 rally, so the bones of the car must have been decent despite the reputation in Murka. And the “notchback” version could have given the contemporary Corolla a run for Small Sedan King.

  • avatar

    That’s about the saddest looking vehicle I’ve ever seen.

  • avatar

    Dig the mis matched wheels .

    This thing certainly looks used up .


  • avatar

    I had a college roommate that had a Chevette. He wasn’t a very good driver. One of my scarier moments was riding back from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo and he lost control of the car because of the winter ice. Car fishtailed madly before going off the road. Thankfully we ended up in the ditch without any damage. A truck stopped, the driver hooked up some chains, and yanked us right out – with me behind the wheel this time.

    Another weird one: back in my college days I was sporting an ’87 Stanza with the mighty (ha!) 2.0L engine. Stop at red light and a Pontiac T1000 (the Chevette’s twin brother) pull up next to me. The driver starts revving his engine and lurching forward. Okaaaay there. I just mashed the gas and away I went. My car was slow but not _that_ slow!

  • avatar

    Looks like it just rolled off the assembly line………

    I owned an ’80, these are complete turds, nothing to see, move right along.

  • avatar

    Could be worse. It could be the diesel version, which once held the record for the slowest 0-60 time (22.3 seconds) ever tested by “Car and Driver”.

  • avatar

    My father retired in 1987 and bought one of these because he figured he didn’t need anything more. It was a red Scooter model (but it did have a back seat) with an automatic. He soon realized that his plan was deeply flawed. Instead of selling it or trading it in he gave it to my then-girlfriend (now wife) so I ended up being cursed by that thing. It left her stranded on many occasions. It blew foamy sludge all over the engine (I could never find the source) that would then freeze on cold mornings so a hair dryer needed to be used on the carburetor to thaw it and dry it out. I eventually bungee-corded a can on the upper end of the engine that seemed to collect most of the sludge and prevented some of the issues it had.

    This was easily the worst car I’ve ever been affiliated with.

    • 0 avatar

      I knew a girl in college who had a early 80s automatic “Scooter” model Chevette. I helped her quite a few times when it was being stubborn about something. (The funniest one was when the wipers wouldn’t shut off.)

      Her IT major boyfriend was clueless about mechanical stuff but she was loyal to him.

      Oh well, what might have been.

  • avatar

    I saw one of these on the road just a couple of years ago, proudly wearing a “1977” license plate. I’m surprised anyone would put in the effort to keep such a nondescript car on the road that long.

  • avatar
    pale ghost

    I guess the General didn’t expect them to go over 100K – saw no need to spend the extra nickel for a six digit odo. Curious if this was 93k or 193k.

    • 0 avatar

      No one expected much more than 100,000 miles out of a car when they were carbureted and had extra fuel washing oil off the cylinder walls on cold startup. 5-digit odometers hung on well into the ’80’s and even to the early ’90’s on some vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      Canadian market ones (or at least the ones I drove) had 6-digit odos, but then again, surpassing 60k miles isn’t an inconceivable feat.

      The ones I drove were all over 250k kms, although I’m not sure by how much, as the odometer usually stopped working around then.

  • avatar
    Jason Bright

    These things were freakin’ everywhere around here in the late 80’s to early 90’s. They earned the disparaging nickname of Welfare Wagon due to their low used prices (I guess). My parents owned half a dozen over the span of around a decade, including a diesel ‘Vette that was converted to gas. There’s still 2 rolling around my city. Every single one I’ve ever seen, including the 2 that still exist in y city, were automatics. I knew a manual was an option but I always assumed no one ever took up that one

    • 0 avatar

      The manual was standard, not an option. By 86 the auto was a $425 option according to Consumer Guide.

      ‘Nearly all of the Chevettes I’ve seen have had manual transmissions, because Chevette buyers wanted cheap transportation, period, and paying extra for two-pedal convenience didn’t make much sense. This car has the luxurious automatic, though.’ Absurd silly assumption and not based in any sort of factual evidence.

      That’s not how most Americans bought cars. Manuals were standard but

  • avatar

    Man, oh man. We had these at our driver’s Ed track in high school. They were absolutely ideal for teaching high school kids how to drive in the 1980s. They were unbelievably slow. Incredibly cheap interiors. The had (I think) a three speed transmission that was just awful. I would slash my wrists if I had to DD one today.

    They made my VW Rabbit seem like a sports car.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    “Nearly all of the Chevettes I’ve seen have had manual transmissions”

    My experience has been the opposite. I have NEVER seen a manual.

    • 0 avatar

      My experience too. The most important time for econoboxes was the late ’70s and early ’80s, and manuals were quite popular in imports, Escorts, and Omnis; but not Chevettes where I lived. They were purchased by GM diehards who might have been trading in two-speeds.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      That too was my experienced. Usually purchased by retirees, die hard GM loyalists or the children of GM only homes. Who would ‘never purchase a Japanese car’. Or who believed that FWD was a passing fad.

      The Scooter (stripped down, no back seat) version was advertised but I have never seen one, and believe that they were generally just a ‘bait and switch’ advertising gimmick.

      Chevettes were however cockroach cars as they could be driven in a decrepit condition (which occurred fairly early in their life) for a considerable length of time.

      • 0 avatar

        Ah yes, the Scooter. Back when I worked for New York Telephone(yeah, back then!)one of the company cars I had for a (thankfully short) time was a Scooter. Probably the cheesiest car ever made. It had cardboard door panels. The roof started to rust through right above the drivers head. A Yugo would have put it to shame.

    • 0 avatar

      Also agree – at least with my small experience with them. My college roommate and his sister both had Chevettes with automatics. And their father was a GM worker. My Nissan Stanza got a lot of flack from him and ill-tempered looks.

  • avatar
    Big Wheel

    Ahhh, the memories.

    My first car. Actually, first two cars. First one I had was a hand-me-down from my brother, I think it was a 1982, four door, in luxurious two-tone blue! Must have been an “upper” trim model since it had AC. Slow as dirt, but the four-speed manual was fun. I ended up crashing it.

    Second car I believe was a 1984, red two-door, & more of a base model although I’m not sure if it was the Scooter model. The glovebox didn’t even come with a door – it was just a hole in the dash. After watching the owners manual slide around going around corners, I put the manual in the door pocket. Black vinyl seats that were hotter than Hades in the summer – had to put towels on them so I didn’t scorch my legs. But it was fun to drive, even if it was dirt slow. Only real problems I had with it (besides being a Chevette) were a timing belt failure (fortunately not an interference engine) & a plugged catalytic converter at 49,000 miles (barely covered by a 50,000 mile emission warranty).

    I always loved telling people I drove a “vette”, only for them to laugh when they saw the actual car.

  • avatar

    An individual who may or may not now be related to me by marriage discovered a weakness with the manual transmission Chevette:

    If you leave the vehicle in neutral with the engine running and forget to engage the parking brake and exit the vehicle to ‘grab a few things’ from inside the house, it is possible for the vehicle to roll. If you do this often enough, it could possibly roll down a hill. A steep one. With trees at the bottom. (Fortunately spaced 8 inches wider than the body of said Chevette.)

  • avatar

    A guy stationed at MCAS New River had one of these on base around 1991. He accessorized it with hot pink rims & wiper blades. We called it the “Tough Guy ‘Vette.”

    Yeah, these were thick as fleas when I grew up. Can’t say I was ever jealous of any family that drove one. We were poor, but not THAT poor.

  • avatar

    My mom put about 180,000 miles on a dark red ’81 4-speed 5-door, equipped better than this one (which still meant manual everything and no A/C). Most of that came from a 100-mile round trip commute to law school; it was her post-divorce-new-career car. It broke a lot but was always cheap and easy to fix. She finally replaced it with a used ’88 Accord in ’91.

  • avatar

    A co-worker in the mid 1980s had one of these. I remember him getting a plugged main jet and a locked up rear axle. Overall though, he figured it was the cheapest 4 wheel transportation going.

  • avatar

    The Chevette. Nice. All the reliability and build quality of an early generation T-34 tank with none of the ergonomics or plush interior appointments. GM’s reputation for engineering and quality got a richly-deserved shove down the staircase for that motorized debacle.

  • avatar

    Friend of mine bought on of these abominations some 30 years ago. He was proud of the purchase and asked me to take it for a ride and confirm his good taste.. We get out on the road, he asks “What do you think?” I said “I think it shut off.. It won’t move!” He replies with “No!! just press harder!!!” I pressed that pedal with as much force as to kill a 3 pound cockroach.. Still wouldn’t move. I pulled over and used the Titanic-inspired-feeling tiller to turn it around and take it back. I never got in that car again.

  • avatar

    My fool brother bought one of these, drove it for a week, and discovered the rear axle was misaligned by 1.5 inches. Dealer blew him off claiming there was nothing wrong with the car, and he kept it for a couple more years until so many things failed (driver’s seat even broke) he couldn’t get to work reliably. Then the damn fool bought a S10…

  • avatar

    Selling thoroughly obsolete, poorly built cars is a great way to gain brand loyalty. The C-Kadett platform was antiquated even when it came out in 1973, using it to sell vehicles in the US in 1987 is mind-boggling.

  • avatar

    The Fort Worth, Texas sticker – I wonder if that was from some unit based at Carswell AFB (now NAS Carswell JRB)? Or from the General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) plant that was then building F-16s?

  • avatar

    Having driven a couple of these in the past, the thing that stood out to me was that the steering column was off-center vis a’ vis the driver’s seat. I could see that being hard to get used to.

  • avatar

    1982 Pontiac version (T1000) with GASOLINE power and 3 spd slushbox.

    Foot to the floor 0-60 30.0 sec
    Passing 45-60 12.8 sec

    Good GOD that’s slow.

  • avatar

    I learned how to drive a manual transmission in the chevette. ALL my cousins in Louisville ky had one literally all of them from brand new chevettes to…. One of my cousins drove from Louisville to visit us in Nyc (the brand new chevette).

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