The cars : Chevrolet Hatch

Only the geekiest of our readers will know what this car is, and yet it’ll look just familiar to just about everyone. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Chevrolet Hatch in 1300 and 1900 form.

Introduced by GM South Africa, this UK-designed variation on the Vauxhall Viva theme was intended to take on the Japanese and win…

Chevrolet Hatch: Viva South Africa!

Chevrolet Hatch

That side profile looks very interesting indeed. With its familiar bonnet line and distinctive wheelarch apertures, there’s no disguising the Chevrolet Hatch’s origins. However, before we go into the origins of this fascinating hybrid, here’s a little history lesson. GM’s involvement in South Africa began in 1926, concentrating mainly on its US brands – but, in the 1960s, the GMSA portfolio was expanded to include Vauxhall, adding much familiarity for UK car fans to South African roads.

The first Vauxhall sold there was the HA Viva, assembled in CKD form in the company’s factory in Port Elizabeth. Seeing as this was GM, the branding of the car changed along the way: the HA was a Vauxhall, the HB was a ‘Viva from General Motors’ and the HC was marketed as the Chevrolet Firenza from its launch there in January 1971. It proved reasonably popular from the start, offered in two- and four-door saloon forms, as well as the familiar two-door coupe and three-door estate. The Chevrolet Hatch was an HC and would be along a little later.

The engine line-up was interesting from the start, with the familiar 1159cc Viva engine powering the 1200 and a US-sourced, but locally-produced, 2507cc four-cylinder Chevrolet engine, leaving a massive gap between top and bottom of the ranges. The later 1256cc was drafted in during 1972 to become the Firenza 1300, while the slow-selling two-door was dropped from the range. This was largely how the Firenza range continued until the end of 1975.

Giving the Firenza a unique feel

In August 1975, the Firenza was facelifted and relaunched as the Chevrolet 1300 and 1900. The new design was penned in the UK in Vauxhall’s Luton styling studio, and primarily featured a revised nose with a larger grille and bolder styling. According to the brilliant Vauxpedia website, ‘this model was also considered as a facelift for the Vauxhall Viva but did not progress as Vauxhall was then busy fitting a droop snoot on everything.’

Despite its new name and bold new visage, this was very much the old HC, but with a Chevette dashboard and new 1953cc Chevrolet engine to give the range a more logical progression. Also, it was now only available as a four-door only. Although that would change very soon…

Hatching out a new plan

There's no getting away from it - the Chevrolet Hatch was oddly-proportioned, even as a design sketch
There’s no getting away from it – the Chevrolet Hatch was oddly proportioned, even as a design sketch
Chevrolet Hatch design sketch penned in Luton shows how the Chevette hatchback's rear door was integrated into this design
Chevrolet Hatch design sketch penned in Luton shows how the Chevette hatchback’s rear door was integrated into this design

Back in the UK, Vauxhall’s UK styling studio was putting the finishing touches to this interesting variation of the Chevrolet 1300/1900. The idea was a simple one – to give the South African range a more contemporary feel, and increase its competitiveness against the rising tide of Japanese imports. Although it wasn’t directly related to the Vauxhall Chevette (GM T-Car programme). the car was certainly a beneficiary of it.

So, the car would use the HC’s platform and retain its wheelbase, but incorporate all-new bodywork from the rear doors back. It was sketched out in double-quick time, and reflecting the rushed nature of the project, it incorporated the Chevette’s tailgate and rear lamp clusters to result in a rather awkward-looking truncated hatchback. The tooling for the new model was engineered by GMSA and the panels were stamped in South Africa, thus increasing the model’s local content. However, the side doors were imported from the UK, since these had not been stamped in South Africa since the 1974 Firenza facelift.

As can be seen from the brochure imagery below, it was identical to the Chevrolet 1300/1900 from the A-pillars forward, but was vastly different aft of this point. Launched in late 1975, the new car was marketed as the Chevrolet Hatch, and it was available in just two distinct models – the 1300DL and 1900SL in both manual and automatic forms. Interestingly, this three-door car was called the Hatch before the term hatchback had gained widespread acceptance, making this very much on message with the car market at the time.

However, it was already up against some tough opposition in an increasingly competitive South African car market and, despite some moderately flattering reviews, sales weren’t exactly rapid. That’s not to say that it was a bad car – far from it. It was reasonably practical, but then again, it was larger than the Chevette, and quite long in comparison with the already-popular Volkswagen Golf. As Vauxpedia states, ‘it had one major advantage over the T-Car and that was room, particularly rear leg room, as a result of retaining the HC wheelbase.’

In typical GMSA style, it didn’t last on the market – with the Chevrolet Hatch going off sale in July 1978.

Keith Adams


      • Like the AMC Gremlin it looks like a quick and cheap solution to fill a gap in the market, not a bad effort certainly better than the Viva coupe. Was the suspension raised as well?

        • Looks-wise, it’s nowhere near as attractive as the Viva/Firenza coupe, but in terms of where the market was headed, it’s much closer to what people actually wanted to buy.

        • AMC made the Gremlin by reworking a Hornet chassis & fitting a rear hatch.

          Chrysler did a similar rework of a saloon with the Sunbeam, which was built around a a cut down Avenger floorpan.

  1. I’ve found the outposts of manufacturers in places like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand & Latin America seemed to come up with some very odd & interesting models, often mixing off the shelf & home produced components.

  2. A similar philosophy to Chrysler’s Sunbeam. In a bid to get a hatchback to market, Chrysler based the new car on Avenger underpinnings.

    • Actually back before that, and closer to this concept.

      Before Chrysler pulled the plug on the investment in 1970, there was plans that the Avenger would spin off a whole range of variants, such as a Coupe etc. Included in these variants was intended for a compact lift back variant that would retain the front of the Avenger but have a cut short lift back tail.

      If you look at the Sunbeam pages on this site, you can see one of the styling proposals (a set of pictures which were released in the launch brochure for the car) which is a Face-lifted Avenger hatchback.

      One of the reasons they could move so quickly with the Sunbeam, was because they had the work on the Avenger lift back as a start point.

  3. Another interesting car… It looks rather OK on the bottom 2 pictures (Viva HC style front wings and a Chevette rear hatch.) Yes the front does resemble a mid 70’s Ascona. I love reading about and seeing these old models.

  4. I guess the equivalent we made in the UK was the Chrysler Sunbeam, taking a saloon car of a similar size to the Viva & grafting a hatchback onto the rear.

    • That was original intention with Avenger Liftback that was proposed as one of the Avenger spin off variants before investment got cut in the 70s.

      But the Sunbeam whilst it uses a lot of Avenger pressings including the 2 door, door skins, it has a different screen angle and larger glass area (it feels quite different to sit in an Avenger v Sunbeam, with Sunbeam feeling what felt at the time a modern glassy interior, but would feel like a greenhouse now) with all new glass including window screen and front window frames.

  5. Not only is the hatch the same as the Chevette, so is the advertising tagline “It’s whatever you want it to be”.

  6. What a fascinating hybrid! You think it’s a Chevette derivative, then see the long nose and realise it’s not!

    The BMW 3 series Compact has similar proportions…

  7. I think the dodgy chrome trim which hides the join with the rood and the rear of the car shows it was done on the cheap.

  8. I wonder iif Vauxhall had remained independent of Opel.if this is what the Chevette would have become over here, a Viva with a truncated hatch rear. Quite an interesting looking car, but I prepare the Opel based design from 1975 as it looks neater. However, the South Afrcan version did have a bigger engine option, something that could have been offered in the UK, as the 1.6 Opel and 1.8 Vauxhall slant four were available.

    • Yes I agree, the UK built Chevette looked just a little bit nicer and better again when fitted with the Cavalier MK1 style headlamps. If only the UK cars had the choice of more engines than the 1256cc

      • @ Hilton D, the Chevette looked better with the recessed lights to me, but even with the 1979 update was still a good looking car, and never dated as much as the Viva. I think after 1979, when the Viva was replaced by the Opel engined Astra, the 1256cc Chevette was seen more as a budget car, and for the 1256 was a bit tappety, was an economical and reliable engine.

    • They could be Rostyles – in all silver finish. I had a Viva with silver / black Rostyles which looked great after re-painting

  9. There was also a Chevrolet Chevette launched in America at the same time that looked like the European hatch version from the sides, but had a typically American front end with big bumpers and headlights. Unlike the British Chevette/ Opel Kadett, this came with the option of a four door hatchback, but no saloon version. Also after a slow start due to oil prices stabilising and sales of traditional full size American car sales rising again in its early years, the Chevette underwent a sales boom during the 1979 energy ctisis and remained popular until it was cancelled in 1987.

    • It is surprising in retrospect the 5-door hatchback was used only on the Chevrolet Chevette instead of other T-Car variants like the British Chevette / German Kadett C, whereas the latter two received 2/4-door bodystyles that were curiously omitted on the Chevrolet Chevette which along with the 2-door coupe would have probably been better received in the US market.

      Had the Chevrolet Hatchback carried over the Slant-Four engines, it would have been interesting comparing it to the 2.3 Chevette.

      • 2-door coupes and 4-door saloon T-cars were available in the US as “Buick Opel by Isuzu”. These replaced the Opel Ascona and Manta, which were considered to be too expensive to import from Germany. I have a photo of an Australian market Isuzu Gemini sedan with a 1.8-litre 16V four, which must have been quite entertaining to drive.

  10. One American subcompact that did very well in its 11 year life was the Plymouth Horizon, an Americanised version of the European Horizon that did away with the rattly Simca engines in favour of a Volkswagen Rabbit engine that offered better refinement and decent economy. The Horizon arrived at the right time for Chrysler, which was in severe financial difficulties and suffering falling sales, and the 1979 energy crisis saw sales really take off among patriotic buyers who wanted good gas mileage but refused to buy Japanese. Also when the oil crisis eased and America came out of recession, the Horizon became popular as a second car or as a cheap runabout for teenagers.

  11. Sources on the “penning” of Chevy hatch sketch at Luton? That information appears to be based on claims made on a Vauxhall-dedicated site on the internet, which itself does not bother with supplying corresponding sources. The aforementioned site appears to be basing the claim on a photograph of a Chevy Hatch “prototype”, which pretty much looks like the production model, but happened to have a UK plate on it. The site also makes a very tenuous link between the Chevy Hatch’s front bonnet styling with that of an early 1970s Luton “prototype” coupé that never made it into mass production, which instead went to the Firenza coupé.

    What is clear, however, is that the Chevy Hatch styling was influenced by two things: 1) It was to *capitalize* on the success of the preexisting Vauxhall Viva sedan and Can-AM coupé clones in the South Africa, which were *budged as Chevrolets*. Those clones were given a front bonnet/grill treatment that was consistent with the front bonnet/grill styling that was trending on larger Opel models of the mid-to-late 1970s. It is not different from the way, say, Mercedes Benz front bonnets/grills across a passenger car range were often similar, thereby evoking “family ties”.

    The Chevy Hatch was to share the same front bonnet/grill treatment as its sedan and coupé counterparts, which themselves, were mimicking the front bonnets/grills of larger contemporaneous “Chevy” clones of German Opels. Two things therefore, inspired the styling of the Chevy Hatch:

    1) Since the “Chevy-badged” clones of the Vauxhall Viva and Firenza [sedans and coupes], respectively, were successful in South Africa in the mid 70s, it was thought that “playing it safe” with a style that was essentially a “spin-off” those [preexisting] models would be the way to go. 2) FURTHERMORE, this would mean that not too many *new body panels would be necessary* for the new hatch (which would become the “Chevy Hatch”). In other words, GMSA could cut costs where the tooling for body panels were concerned.

  12. The Viva HC-based Chevrolet Hatch inevitably leads to the question of whether the T-Car was originally intended for the South African market during its development? Particularly as heard the South African T-Car was one of a number of planned cars by GM and other manufacturers for the local market for that were canned at the last minute during the 70s and 80s.

    It is strange GMSA were able to build a localized version of the mk1 Cavalier as the Chevair, yet were forced to make do without a locally built T-Car. Also find it interesting GMSA were said to not be fans of either the Vauxhall Slant-Four (below 2-litres) or Opel CiH (below 1.9-litres). Which left both the Hatch and Chevair with a large gap in the engine range between the 1256 yet below the 2-litre Chevy 153, similar to the Vauxhall Chevette.

  13. I so want one of those.

    My first car was a 72 Viva (2 dr SL with vinyl roof and Rostyles).

    And it was a great car (for me, 17 at the time) so surely if Vauxhall had added it to the range it would have been a fair success as by 71 hatches were the future and this hatch preceded the Chevette by 4 years giving it a fair time on the market for little investment. The proportions look very Chevette and the Chevette was RWD and used the 1256 engine out of the Viva.

    • My second car was a ’72 Viva X14 with Rostyles / metallic green. Good memories of that car despite its shortcomings. I always thought the Viva / Magnum estate cars were good looking too.

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