The "T"-Body Cars: Chevrolet Chevette and Pontiac T1000
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 became obvious, 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 even 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 truly "love-it-or-hate-it" car. 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 also 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--though their days were ultimately numbered.
The Chevette/T1000 interior was, well, "sparse" at best. Vinyl seats were standard; the optional plaid cloth pattern featured in my car 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. They convinced me that cloth seats are 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 unless, of course, they are fine Corinthian. This was the standard interior; the upgraded digs were as scarce 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-existent. 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 a car with those options. 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 my T1000 was fun, but not exactly exciting. Very soon after buying the car, we put a set of Michelin radials on. 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 T-body 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-liter 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 easily without them.
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. The 1980 model year, the beginning of the Al Franken Decade, brought new rear quarter panels, hatch, and a tail light change, all 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 moldings, and the Chevette's "Custom Exterior" option of extra bright side window trim with matte black painted accents. In 1982, a much-improved hard cloth-covered headliner was used. The pinstripes on the silver car were my doing.
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 three-speed automatic, both of mine had four-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 buying 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 as the Europeans did (a Vauxhall Chevette is shown at left), 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) third brake light, almost nothing was done. In 1984, Pontiac dropped the "T" designation and simply called the car the "1000".
Dealers also carried only poorly-equipped models on their lots. Goodies like a 5-speed manual, tilt steering wheel, 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 in your "T" car, feel lucky.
Had Chevy and Pontiac updated the cabin and used the items already available in their parts bin to upgrade the cars, the Chevette and T1000 cars would surely have gained more respect in the market. But, sadly, GM's 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 the Scooter was identical with other Chevettes, 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? Thankfully, Chevrolet 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 Pontiac released them. 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. The dealer scratched the driver's inner door panel, then repaired it by painting the hard molded burgundy plastic which, of course, immediately flaked off. The carpet had a flaw, so the dealer replaced it--the new rug was installed crooked, and the dealer did not reconnect the hand brake lever when they gave me back the car. A strange dent appeared in the hood while at the dealer--it's as if somebody 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 explains why the second car was not as good as the first. Just spit 'em out, and we'll fix 'em later. Again, sigh.
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 was sold incredibly cheaply. But with options difficult to find and dealers treating their customers and the cars like unwanted stepchildren, it seems like GM wasted a golden opportunity here.
My little brown car was a mountain climber. It's pictured here parked at Newfound Gap in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can see the stickers in the window if you look closely. The silver Chevette next to me is a 1976 or 1977 model.
Sorry about the multitude of pictures here, but these things came in a lot of different varieties! Wikipedia supplied the European Vauxhall Chevette photo. The Scooter and 1976 Woody are from The Chevette Photo Gallery. Also at the Chevette Photo Gallery, you can see pictures of Australian Holden Geminis, the Down Under Chevettes. It's fascinating to see how they are both familiar and foreign.
--That Car Guy (Chuck)