Vauxhall Chevette: Whatever you want it to be

Vauxhall Chevette: Whatever you want it to be

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to Vauxhall’s Heritage Centre in Luton to drive a selection of their cars. You can read about the experience here.

Forgoing the opportunity to drive Vauxhall’s latest metal, I instead had my eyes on the Chevette, Astra GTE and Cavalier. With the keys available for all three, I was drawn to the Chevette and went off for a ‘pootle’ around Luton.

The Chevette wasn’t a child of Luton, instead being manufactured in a purpose-built plant in Ellesmere Port. Production started in 1975 and for the first few years it enjoyed the status of being the UK’s biggest selling hatchback. In fact, it was the first British-built hatchback of its size. Over 415,000 Chevettes were sold in the UK until they went out of production in 1984. It was available as a two and three-door hatchback, a 3-door estate or a two and four-door Shatchback. Such a broad range led to the television ad campaign centred on ‘it’s whatever you want it to be’.

If I’m viewing the ad correctly, ‘whatever you want it to be’ includes transportation for nuns, pigs, geese and dogs as well as fishing trips and visits to the fairground. It’s a shame they don’t make TV ads like they used to.

The Heritage Fleet car dates from 1982 when the Chevette was in the twilight of its sales life. It was beginning to feel old and faced stiff competition from the new kids on the block, chiefly the Austin Mini Metro and the Ford Fiesta. What’s more, the Chevette was having to face up to an enemy from within in the shape of the Vauxhall Nova. These cars offered greater use of space and better fuel economy, so like the Viva-sourced 1.3-litre engine that powered it, the Chevette was dated and out of fashion. A conservative car in an increasingly extravagant era.

Chevette outside the Vauxhall offices in Luton

Earlier I used the term ‘pootle’ to describe a drive in the Chevette, because that’s what you seem to do. You simply can’t hurry a 4-speed 1.3 litre Chevette L. To drive it is to feel like time itself has actually slowed down. Even the indicators tick slowly, in a manner that’s reminiscent of a clock that’s in need of winding up.

You often hear people bemoan the fact that modern cars have taken the skill out of driving. Everything’s power assisted, nothing is too much trouble and we sit in our cars safely cocooned from the dangers that surround our every move. You can even get a heated steering wheel in a Corsa for heaven’s sake. No such luxuries in the Chevette. It’s a spartan vehicle where everything is an effort. This Chevette may have been built 30 years ago, but that was another century and believe me, it feels like it.

Klunk-Klip seat belt in the Vauxhall ChevetteUnlock the door using a key in the door (how novel) and lift the driver’s seat forward to access the rear seats. The seat itself is a weighty thing, as I’m sure countless rear seat passengers experienced when, refusing to stay in a forward position, it crashed backwards on to the their knees. No matter, time to settle in to the front seat and fasten the belt using the delightfully retro Klunk-Klip seat belt. Pull the choke out, turn the key and the little Chevette comes alive.

There’s a little puff of blue smoke from the rear and an uneven tickover that’s so reminiscent of cars of this era. Pulling away cold demands full attention, maximum revs and strong arms. The steering is heavy, the gear change is awkward and within seconds of moving away, you realise it isn’t going to be an easy drive. The Chevette splutters away, needing careful clutch and throttle control. These days, cars pamper us with smooth running right from the off. Back in the 1980s, attempting to start cars like the Chevette on cold or damp mornings required an extra 15 minutes and a huge amount of patience. A few expletives would be heard around suburbia, occasionally followed by a walk to the bus stop.

Interior of 1982 Vauxhall Chevette LVentilation, heating and cooling have also come a long way in 30 years. Even in early October, it feels hot inside the Chevette and the blowers seem woefully inadequate at cooling the car down. So you’re forced to wind down the window, which takes a full eight turns to reach the bottom. I wonder if air conditioning is the one true must-have option on a new car in 2012?

The first leg of the journey is difficult. Getting used to the car’s steering, suspension and brakes. But once it has warmed up, its basic appeal begins to shine through. There’s never going to be enough power to fully exploit the Chevette’s rear-wheel drive set-up, but it’s a car that demands properly focused driving. It seems quicker than its 0-60mph time of 16.7 seconds suggest and yet it would take a brave soul to tackle a motorway at the Chevette’s top speed of 88mph.

By today’s standards you wouldn’t class the Chevette as a particularly great car to drive. It’s pleasant enough and there’s a definite novelty factor associated with a 4-speed rear-wheel drive ‘70s tech hatchback. There’s also a real sense of involvement that’s lacking from many new cars. But three decades can’t disguise the fact that this was a value-driven supermini in 1982 that even then was showing its age. A car to preserve rather than drive then?

Rear of 1982 Vauxhall Chevette L

It’s possible to draw comparisons with the Dacia Sandero Access. Both are basic, offering little in the way of fanciful frilly bits. And yet, it’s the Sandero’s safety features and the way in which Dacia has extracted the maximum amount of power and fuel efficiency out of its 1.2 engine that shows how far car manufacturing has come. For all of its basic charm and nostalgic qualities, you’d think twice about strapping your children into the back of the Chevette and asking your wife to drive them down the M1.

Today, I want the Chevette to be preserved as a piece of motoring history. A glimpse back to a different era where a passenger door mirror, a quartz clock and a push-button radio were considered to be options to get excited about. The Chevette is a demonstration of how far the motor car has come in a short space of time and yet, it somehow makes me feel nostalgic for a time when driving was free of distractions and cars were less disposable.

But like Mr Jones in this advert, I’d have the HSR in my stable.


Written by Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

The chief waffler and person responsible for getting PetrolBlog off the ground in February 2010. Has a deep fascination of cars from the '80s and '90s, especially if they originate from France. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

14 Comments

  1. Simon Hingston

    Aah a car with a choke! Been at least ten years since a car with choke for me and that was a Triumph 2000. Very interesting to hear what it felt to go from a modern into what is not, to my mind, old enough to be a classic but still very much from another era.
    Excellent call on the HSR.

  2. Rafael

    I never liked Chevettes, but it´s a very iluminating article about how was driving then, and now.
    I got my license in 1995 with my sister´s 1981 Renault 5 and I remember how difficult was driving it smoothly. Particularly heating, ventilation, defrosting, wipers and soundproofing were pathetic. That car rusted even in my very dry part of south Spain.

    1. Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Ha! I’m concerned that some of the cars to feature on PB this week haven’t been to your taste. I need to work on that! ;)

      You make a pertinent point about the Renault 5. We’re all guilty of lusting over cars from a different era, often forgetting the issues they came with. On so many occasions I’d be faced with a lottery as to whether my Viva or Capri would start in the morning. The slightest bit of damp and I’d be out there with the WD40.

      Different times.

  3. gordon

    nice article, a proper trip down memory lane, chokes cold morning starts, rubbish heaters and steamed up windows certainly something I don’t miss. I can remember a friends never ending welding sessions every MOT in his Vauxhall ‘Shovette’ :)

  4. Olly (@Captain_Peanut)

    Fond memories, my first car was a black X reg Vauxhall Chevette. I was given it in a bit of a state at 16 and popped my mechanical cherry getting it up and running with my dad.

    As you have said, starting it was an experieince in itself. The choke on mine would never twist to lock so I had a stash of clothes pegs in the front to keep the choke out. The steering did require Popeye like arms at low speed but it did get better once it was moving, it was never what could be described as direct though!

    Despite its failings it was iconic during my time in the sixth form as mine was the only rear wheel drive car and we had a huge gravel car park. Most lunchtimes were spent in a haze of dust and donuts with grins a plenty.

    As for motorway driving, I did a trip from the Kent coast to Newquay in mine and vowed never again. It was pitifully slow going (especially if any kind of incline was involved) fully loaded, although this was in some respects lucky given how feeble the brakes were, and the strain of several hundred miles on the red line meant regular stops to allow the poor engine to cool down whilst endlessly topping up oil.

    I had intended to source a nice big Rover V8 for it but a kindly old gentleman took offence to it’s rear end on a motorway, writing the car off and putting an end to any plans :(

    All grumblings aside, I’d love to have one again for nostalgias sake but, like you, it would have to be the HSR!

  5. Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

    Enjoyable read Gav, and always interesting hearing about older cars like this.

    I’ve still not yet owned a car with a manual choke – the Beetle, in all its 1974 glory, actually has an automatic choke. Does need a couple of pumps on the gas pedal to help it start though, so it’s not entirely free of quirks.

    Seeing that Chevette’s interior makes me pine for a time when cars had interiors in colours other than black or grey. I know white is creeping into a few cars these days and cream leather has never really disappeared, but I always liked the blue interiors in Fords, and the red of some BL products and Vauxhalls. And brown, even.

    The token dashboard strip in many modern cars doesn’t really cut it. I want coloured plastics! VW really missed a trick not offering entirely coloured interiors in the Up. Would be the perfect car for it – a nice, simple interior, like that Chevette, where you could appreciate a splash of colour.

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