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Everyday Iron: 1983 Chevette

Cars are kind of like people. Some seem to have been born with various health problems, others drink or eat themselves into an early grave; some are overly cautious and don't take any unnecessary risks to life and limb while others jump out of planes or off of buildings all for the thrill of looking death in the face ChevetteIronand living to tell about it -- or not. And still others seem to do everything right but still die before their time.

And then there's that really annoying group, the ones who smoke and drink and carouse till all hours, eat whatever they want in whatever quantity, never exercise, and otherwise engage in all manner of bad habits. . . . .and still live to a ripe old age. I recall an interview with one centenarian from some years ago who attributed her long life to "cigarettes and black coffee." You know the type. And probably hate them as much as I do.

For this edition of Everyday Iron we have a seemingly indestructible car that by all rights shouldn't still be on the road.....and yet it soldiers on some 30 years after it was produced: a 1983 Chevette. It's owned by a neighbor of my mom's from a smallish 'burgh in south central Wisconsin -- you know, the place with harsh winters and abundant road salt. I don't know all that much about it, but I'm pretty certain it didn't reside in a garage its entire life. The owner isn't particularly assiduous in terms of caring for it, but she hasn't ignored maintenance either. It's got some rust but not nearly what one might expect, and the rear quarter panel there has been repaired (poorly) at least once.

Still, it's got no major accident damage, hasn't been extensively repaired or restored, and still runs at least marginally well. The owner has put only 61,000 miles on it in all that time (no long road trips) and reported that it's recently developed a small oil leak. It's a little slow starting in the morning (*ahem*) and doesn't exactly sound like a Ferarri, but it gets her where she wants to go with a minimum of fuss and bother. Not bad for $3,000.

I have to say, this car just tickles me to no end. There's something plainly adorable about it and its kin. The lines seem simple and functional, saying "I am a compact utility car" and little else. And who doesn't love a trooper?

--Anthony Cagle

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In the 80's, when Chevettes weren't that old yet, I put a lot of miles on 2 different examples - both with manual transmissions. Full disclosure: neither of them were mine, they belonged to friends.

First thing I learned: the driver's footwell was so narrow, I couldn't wear my regular sneakers (not enough width, so my feet couldn't operate the clutch and brake at the same time). I wore narrower shoes.

Second thing I learned: finding the gears was a trial-and-error process. No guides or springs or anything to help figure out where 3rd gear might be hiding.

While GM had to start their small car development process somewhere, this was a pretty entertaining starting point (and I use that description generously). In comparison, my '81 diesel Rabbit - while slow in comparison to pretty much anything - was pure driving pleasure!

WOW! I remember my Mom learning to drive (just a few years before I did in '86) in her Chevette... black with red interior. Talk about some memories. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to drive my parents cars but by 1986 she'd moved on to a 1974 Ford Mustang II (red w/white interior) that I ultimately received.

Ah, Chevette memories. What a hoot!

I forgot to add that i'm utterly amazed that this Chevette has survived living outside in Wisconsin. That is record worthy.

I actually had one of those back in 1992 for a few months, a bright red '82 3-door with a 4-speed. It had 126K on it and I managed to snag it for a mere $80 from a co-worker. The car ran... but it had definitely been flogged and abused (hard). The turn-signal stalk had been torn off (never did get the story behind that one), so you had to reach inside the steering column to signal a turn or activate the high-beams - plus the wiper switch had been relegated to a toggle switch underneath the dash. And someone along the way had added super-bright fog lights in front of the grille with lights bright enough to land a 747 in dense fog.

So, in keeping with the car's tradition, I drove the hell out of it too for about 5 months. One time even took it on a 500 mile road trip and other than just being plain uncomfortable (like Larry said - narrow footwells, rode like an oxcart and didn't have A/C), it never missed a beat. It was the perfect to-and-from work car (at the time).

Right after it turned over 131K, however, the clutch went south on it. I pondered getting it changed out, but I figured that car was pretty much at the end of the road anyway so I junked it and got $50 for it - not bad considering I paid only $80 for it 5 months earlier. I like to think I certainly got my $30 worth out of it!

I'd love to have that car.

I'm pretty sure she'd sell. . . . .

Around '83 or '84, my then girlfriend (now wife) wondered what to buy. Her dad worked at GM and was able to get a deal (of sorts) on a Chevette. I don't remember what it cost, but it had two options - a five speed manual trans and pop-out back windows. It was OK, just. We drove it for a while, but it was a disappointment. As a previous poster mentioned, narrow footwells for one. The mileage was nothing great and the top speed was maybe around 80 or a fraction more. We might have had it for a year or slightly more and then got rid of it. I don't even think about it any more.

In 1978 I had a co-worker who was very proud of his new Chevette. It was white with no options. The thing that stood out to me is that it had absolutely NO brightwork...except for the door lock key hole.
The bumpers were brushed or painted steel, no window trim, cheap wheels.
It was the time of high interest rates, higher gas prices and smog-strangled cars. I thought it represented the end of our love affair with cars.
Of course in the early 80s, things got worse before they got better.

The last time I saw one of those was shortly after they stopped building them. My neighborhood was full of Thunderbirds and Chevelles, so I never experienced once of these in person.

I've seen a few rust bucket 'vettes driving around here in the 'burbs of Minnesota. But driving a Chevette is a bit like riding the bus. You don't do it because you want to, but because, regrettably, you have to.

Al is right, from time to time I see them on our Minnesota roads as well.

They are pure automotive evil. Having had more of them than I care to remember being inflicted upon me by high school friends, I never want to sit in one again. Unreliable, poorly built, and incredibly uncomfortable. With the Rabbit from Europe (and others there) and all the Japanese offerings, it is staggering to think this is the best GM had to offer in this class.

At some point in my distant past I designed and constructed a dual 12 inch sub-woofer enclosure for the rear hatch on one of these. While the car was an absolute turd, you could hear it for about a mile before you saw it. That small space & the angles in the back made a powerful enclosure space. Plus, it helped vibrate the rust off the car.

I once drove with two frineds across a big chunk of hte lower 48 in a four door Chevette. Strange but true: if you you were 6 feet or over, there was nowhere in the entire car, no matter how you contorted yourself, where you could stretch out your right leg. Just couldn't be done. Excruciating after a while.

And yet the Chevette was a mild improvement over the Vega, dark days indeed. My parents looked at one of these in 1982 then promptly bought an Escort. As bad as the Escort was (it was reliable and got good mileage, just coarse and slow by today’s standards) it was in a different league compared to the vette. The 1980’s was the Empire Strikes Back of car decades, the transitional period between dark and light. It was bad but things were getting better and by the end of the decade the wrongs of the 1970’s were forgotten

If the Vega was a sub-compact, could the Chevette be considered a sub-sub-compact? And IMO they were vastly superior to the Vega. The T Body cars were international; the Vega was also sold in Canada for a while, but they never went to Europe... they would have rusted apart on the ship going over there, what with the salt water air and everything.

I still say (As per my 2009 post [ http://www.carlustblog.com/2009/02/the-tbody-cars-chevrolet-chevette-and-pontiac-t1000.html ] ) that the Chevette had the pieces/options to make it a nice small car... but to keep it a price leader, all you could find were strippers.

Pity.

I love how, no matter what model of American car posted, people amazingly remember how "crappy" and "poorly built" they were based off a ride they took in one back in the early 80s and how much superior a Japanese or German import was.

Status quo of storytelling.

I took my driving test in one of these. The examiner got in the car and.... it wouldn't start. Finally got it fired up and passed the first time.

The course in my town was on the streets, and the route was well known so you could practice it. Toughest part was a 3-point turn. Even tougher without power steering. My arms got much stronger while practicing that one. Couldn't have done it if that car had been much bigger.

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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