Unsung Heroes : Vauxhall Chevette
Keith Adams takes a sideways look at one of the sheds that littered the highways and by-ways of the UK. Forgotten today, the Vauxhall Chevette was once the apple of England’s eye.
And back in the summer of 1987 – for better or worse – Keith Adams also succumbed to the Griffin’s charms.
The General comes good…
I’ll never forget my first encounter with a Chevette. I was 17-years old, a studying my A-levels at the Blackpool & Fylde College of Further Education, and my best mate Pascal had decided he was going to buy a cherry red example on sale at R&B Motors on the way into school. Until that point, our favoured transport in was our pushbikes, or the number 9 Leyland Atlantean, and cars were still something very much associated with our parents. It was the autumn of 1987, and motorised transport was absolutely needed. So when we saw the £350 R-registered saloon for sale, we had to have a look. Or my mate did. He was better with money. Bicycles weren’t that bad anyway.
Anyway… to the Chevette. He was keen as mustard, and although he’d never admit at the time that car was going to be bought however it drove. And so it proved. We had a quick look round, prodded the rust bubbles, looked under the bonnet, and asked for a test drive. Surprisingly, the garage owner just threw the keys over and said – ‘help yourself’. I thought ‘how cool…’ but I am sure the vendor was just relieved that WBV 777R was off his forecourt. Even if it was only temporary.
To cut a long story short, the car was bought and Pascal, bless him, suddenly discovered the joys of liberation – and I found envy was a tough feeling to deal with. Truth be told this Chevette was a nail – and although the engine was spot on, the brakes ground, the gearbox rumbled, and its body was fizzing away before our very eyes in the salty Blackpool air. And we both loved it. Still it taught me the basic art of bodywork repairs – and the use of Isopon P38 – and it taught him that RWD Vauxhalls were unstickable. In the dry at least.
As you’ll see from the photo above, in the wet, it could understeer with the best of them. And one fateful day after college, it ploughed off a 90-degree right and straight into a concrete bollard. Good job the girls from our Psychology class didn’t see our shame. Ouch.
But my love of these cars had already been established at that point. And despite Pascal moving on to Rover SD1s (good man), I remained loyal to Vauxhall for a year or so, first getting myself a nice Cavalier Mk1, then following it with a Bright Copper Metallic Chevette GLS (below), and then another Cavalier. Since then, I’ve had a few more… and obviously I can blame my repeat purchases on the the fun I had in them during the wonderfully uncomplicated days of 1987 and ’88. Truth be told, my heart still skips a beat if I see one littering the streets in re-runs of Minder – and I am not averse to watching the film The Likely Lads? just to see Bob and Terry’s exploits in their mint hatch-cum-caravan combo.
Britain enjoyed a similar and enduring love affair with the Chevette, hard as it is to believe today. Every street corner, supermarket car park and, yes, college was full of them. And rightly so. Because here was a Vauxhall that when it arrived on the UK marketplace in May 1975 was able to hold its head up high, and buyers didn’t need an excuse to buy one. The styling was clean and contemporary thanks to Wayne Cherry and Geoff Lawson’s reworking of the GM T-Car Opel Kadett’s front end. Out went the German car’s bluff nose and round headlights, and in came a dramatic droop snoot first seen on the Special edition Firenzas.
The UK look went further than that, too – because the UK styling studio also devised a clever hatchback rear end that significantly improved the T-Car’s practicality, turning it into a slightly cramped RWD faux supermini – making it the UK’s first mainstream challenger in the sector. Yes, now you didn’t have to buy French or Italian if you needed to join the smart city set – it was built in Ellesmere Port in Merseyside from the outset. The Chevette three-door ended up being such a successful interpretation of the T-Car theme that Opel ended up taking it back for the Kadett – aptly calling it the City.
And today, we tend to think of Vauxhalls as rebadged Opels, but back then, there was genuine UK input into the Chevette’s running gear, too. The platform, running gear and body after of the A-posts might have been Opel-esque, but the engine was the same venerable old pushrod 1256cc 56.5bhp unit fitted to the Viva – characterful tappet rattle and all. But fitting it made perfect sense for Vauxhall – the UK was still churning out these engines in their hundreds of thousands, and it was a well known quantity in the trade – despite needing imperial spanners all round.
But the combination just worked beautifully – it was tough; it was perky (15.5secs to 60mph and 90mph were nothing to be sneezed at in 1975); it as fun to drive; and it was economical. In short, how could you not want a Chevette? And soon the little Vauxhall was selling in its droves. And when joined by the Cavalier Mk1 later that year, Vauxhall suddenly found that not only could it sell every car it made, but buyers were actually queuing around the block for the privilege. A very different situation to a few years’ previous when the company was on its knees, with a seemingly destroyed image, thanks to those rusty Victors from the 1950s and ’60s.
The Chevette also came with a pretty fully stacked range – and by June 1976 (it was a hatchback only at launch) you could buy it in base, E and L trims initially with the GL and GLS coming later, and as a three-door hatchback, two- and four-door saloon, estate and panel van (known as the Bedford Chevanne). So there were lots of bodies and trim packages (tartan being a favourite for those lucky enough to afford the L or GLS), but sadly only the 1256cc engine was offered. If you wanted anything bigger, you needed a Cavalier.
Well, until the wonderful HS came along in 1978.
So, it was cheap, simple, stylish and adaptable. And likeable. Young drivers liked it for its light controls, positive gearchange and good visibility, and it soon became a driving school favourite. Chevettes also went the other way, too, being favoured by more mature drivers – especially towards the end of its production cycle. Compared with its main rival, the Ford Escort Mk2, the Chevette possessed a feeling of genuine solidity – possibly because of its German DNA – while you knew where you were in that no-nonsense interior and smart, sparsely calibrated instruments (in a British designed dashboard). The seats were also firm and supportive, and you sat relatively low with a legs-akimbo driving position – and it all felt terribly grown up.
And who can forget all those Chevannes keeping the British TV viewing public in working TVs, thanks to the fine effort of the Visionhire and Granada rental fleets, and their engineer drivers?
Throughout its life, Vauxhall tinkered with the Chevette in order to keep it fresh. The company continually played with trim levels and equipment, while keeping the sheetmetal and engines stubbornly unchanged. In late 1979, those charismatically bezelled headlamps were glazed over to become flush in the way they always should have been; and in 1981, the ES (for Economy Special) models were launched to fight the Fiesta Popular and Metro City. This back to basics approach was caused by the post-1979 recession, and ushered in the return of vinyl seats and a bargain basement £2884. Wonder how many are left today?
As it happened, the Chevette outlived its German counterpart by quite a margin. The Kadett D arrived in September 1979, with its UK counterpart, the Astra following on the following Spring. But this was a more upmarket car – so even when production of the Astra arrived in the UK in late 1981, the Chevette remained in production right up until 1984, by which time the Vauxhall Nova – and senility – rendered it finally obsolete. But not after it had gained a loyal following, and nearly half a million UK sales.
The Chevette also ended up being sold in Europe – firstly as a rival to the Kadett, then sans Vauxhall badges as its replacement. What the Germans would have made of those imperial nuts and bolts is anyone’s guess. And being a T-Car, the Chevette also shared its underpinnings with all manner of cars across the GM empire – from Brazil, via Japan to South Africa. The most interesting of the T-Car off-shoots no doubt being the Isuzu Piazza…
And in the UK as we approach 2012, the Chevette rapidly approaches endangered species status. The HS and HSR are all set for immortality thanks to their Group 4 rally status (and dashing good looks), but will the standard car live on to make it to all-time classic car status? If there are people out there as passionate about them as I am, don’t bet against it!