Why the classic Chevy Chevette entry-level subcompact car was a big seller in the 1970s & 80s

Classic Chevy Chevettes - Vintage cars

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When it comes to iconic American automobiles, the Chevy Chevette is often a name that is glossed over, but it truly holds its own special place in the annals of automotive history. Produced by Chevrolet starting in 1975 through 1986, the Chevette was the American automaker’s foray into the world of subcompact, fuel-efficient vehicles — a response to the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Chevy Chevette: Fuel economy advantage

The Chevette was a major departure from the big, heavy, gas-guzzling cars Chevrolet was known for. It was smaller, lighter, and designed to be fuel-efficient. Although it wasn’t considered to be the greatest vehicle ever made (long after it was gone, Motor Trend remembered it as “Chevy’s infamous crap-can”), the Chevette’s 1979 and 1980 models were best-sellers here in the US.

It wasn’t flashy or particularly powerful, but it was practical and affordable, making it a popular choice among American car buyers. Under the hood, the Chevette offered a humble 1.4-liter to 1.8-liter inline-four engine. While it wasn’t winning any races with its horsepower, it did deliver on fuel economy, boasting around 28-40 miles per gallon, which was quite impressive for that era.

The key Chevy Chevette selling points

The interior of the Chevette was just as straightforward as its exterior and engine. It was simple, unadorned, and designed to get the job done. It featured a basic dashboard with essential instruments and controls, vinyl or optional cloth seats, and a reasonably spacious backseat considering its compact size.

What set the Chevette apart was not its speed or luxury, but its reliability and affordability. It was a car that was easy to maintain and cost-effective to run, which was a winning combination for many American households during an economically challenging time. Over the course of its 12-year production run, Chevrolet sold over 2.8 million Chevettes in the United States.

The Chevy Chevette may not be remembered for its speed or style, but it was a car that served its purpose well. It was a symbol of its time, a testament to practicality and affordability, and above all, a reliable means of transportation for millions of Americans. It stands as an important chapter in Chevrolet’s history and an interesting piece of America’s automotive past.

Here’s a look back at one of GM’s attempts to give consumers a real alternative to the gas-guzzlers of the early seventies.

Chevette – Chevrolet’s new kind of American car (1976)

Prices start at $2899, 2-seat Scooter $2899! Chevette Coupe (shown) $3098! The Sport $3175 The Rally $3349! The Woody $3404! 

“You can get it fixed anywhere in the country.” – Autoweek, Sept. 20, 1975

“Keeping in mind that it is a small car, the Chevette interior is marked by considerable roominess.” – Road & Track, Oct. 75

“Should be a standout choice… perfectly suited to fill the U.S. buyer’s need for high-fuel-economy (and) low cost transportation.” – Popular Science, Oct. ’75

“May be the most important new U.S. car of the next decade.” – Motor Trend-Oct. ’75

“…extensive corrosion protection.” – Automotive News, Sept. 15, 1975

“…in the hardcore measurements of the marketplace — price, gas, mileage, appearance (and) overall size… the Chevette seems a winner.” – Car & Driver, Oct.’75

“Chevette is a car of the times: lightweight and thrifty… a most pleasing car.” – Road & Track, Oct. 75

40 mpg highway, 28 mpg city, based on EPA test results with standard 1.4-litre engine, standard rear axle ratio, and standard 4-speed manual transmission. Remember: These mileage figures are estimates.

The actual mileage you get will vary depending on the type of driving you do, your driving habits, your car’s condition, and available equipment. In California, see your Chevy dealer for EPA mileage figures on California emission-equipped cars.

Chevette - Chevrolet's new kind of American car (1976)

Chevy Chevette: A new kind of American car worth looking into

For a little car, our new Chevette sure gives a person a lot to think about.

THE MILEAGE CHAMP OF AMERICAN-MADE CARS. Chevette with standard 1.4-litre engine, 4-speed manual transmission, and standard 3.70:1 rear axle is rated at: 40 mpg highway, 28 mpg city EPA ratings.

(Remember–these mileage figures are estimates. The actual mileage you get will vary depending on the type of driving you do, your driving habits, your car’s condition and available equipment. In California, see your Chevy dealer for EPA mileage figures on California emission-equipped cars.)

1.4-LITRE 4-CYLINDER. A new smooth and quiet engine with hydraulic valve lifters. Its dis-placement: 85 cu. in. The 1.4-litre engine is designed for efficiency and surprising drive-ability. A 1.6-litre engine is also available.

Chevette is international in design and heritage, incorporating engineering concepts proved around the world. The Chevette Coupe (shown above) seats four people, with space for luggage behind the second seat.

ALSO: AMC Gremlin cars from the ’70s: The vintage subcompacts with the memorable name

Chevy Chevette - A new kind of American car worth looking into - January 1976 (2)

ACOUSTICAL INSULATION. Sound insulators are layered on the lower dash, front floor, rear wheelhousings and rear quarter panels. Then more spray-on sound deadener is applied to other key areas.

HIGH STRENGTH BUMPERS. They’re lightweight steel, mounted directly to shock absorbers, which in turn are mounted to strong underbody rails.

STANDARD 4-SPEED. A new transmission was specially engineered for the Chevette. It’s fully synchronized and has a floor-mounted shift lever.

FULL COIL SUSPENSION. The front suspension is mounted on a shock-isolating heavy-gauge crossmember. Shock absorbers are outboard-mounted. There.’s a front stabilizer bar, too. The rear setup has a new torque tube drive axle for ride smoothness.

PROTECTED BY 17 ANTI-CORROSION METHODS. Standard on every Chevette: There’s a wax base spray that helps protect against corrosion on the inner side of doors, rocker panels and rear panels.

Epoxy paint covers the Chevette’s coil springs because it expands and contracts better than less costly, ordinary paint. Plastic inner fender liners protect outer front fenders from thrown road objects. These plastic liners are highly corrosion resistant. Street salt and mud find it hard to build up in them.

Zincrometal is a pre-coated metal which has the dual advantages of combining a 2-coat corrosion-resistant system on the inner side with long-lasting paint adhesion on the outside. It’s used in cowl, hood and roof. Rocker panels are galvanized metal.

And zinc-rich primer goes on critical Chevette body areas for extra base protection against rust and corrosion before the final Magic-Mirror color you choose is applied.

FULL-WIDTH HATCH. You can slide a four-foot-wide piece of plywood into the back of a Chevette. Dual hatch supports are pneumatically operated.

Chevy Chevette - A new kind of American car worth looking into - January 1976 (1)

Chevy Chevette: It’ll drive you happy (1977)

43 highway/31 city

Smile: You’ve just read the highest EPA estimates for any car built in America. Ever.

Chevy Chevette It'll drive you happy (1977)

The $2999 Chevy Chevette (1977)

It’ll drive you happy: Read it again and brighten your day some more. $2999.

Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price for this 4-passenger Chevette Scooter including dealer preparation. Priced higher in California. Tax, license, destination charges and available equipment additional.

A surprising price for a car full of surprises: Over 38 inches of front seat head room. (More than many intermediate-size cars.) A cargo volume of 26.3 cu. ft. with the rear seat folded flat. Over 6,000 Chevy dealers handy for parts and service just about everywhere.

ALSO SEE: Look back at the Chevrolet Vega, the subcompact car Chevy produced from 1970 to 1977

The 2999 Chevy Chevette (1977)

The Chevy Chevette will drive you happy(1977)

On October 2, Chevrolet will introduce a new kind of American car. (1977)

It will be international in design and heritage, incorporating engineering concepts proved around the world.

Its gas mileage will be rated at 40 mpg highway, 28 mpg city. That’s based on EPA test results (with standard 1.4-litre engine and 4-speed manual transmission). The mileage you get, of course, will be strongly influenced by how and where you drive.

Its wheelbase will be about the same as a VW Rabbit’s.

It will have more head room than a Toyota Corolla, more leg room than a Datsun B-210.

It will be basically a metric car. And, as you know, the metric system is on its way to becoming the standard American measurement.

It will have one of the shortest turning circles in the world.

It will be protected by 17 anti-corrosion methods.

It will be able to carry cargo up to four feet wide.

It will be the only American car of its kind.

In California, see your Chevrolet dealer October 2 for EPA mileage figures and engine/transmission combinations available on California emission-equipped cars.

On October 2, Chevrolet will introduce a new kind of American car - September 1977

The 1978 Chevy Chevette: It’s a lot of car for the money

1978 Chevy Chevette 4-door hatchback sedan

The ’78 Chevrolet Chevette – December 1977

MORE: AMC Pacer Wagons from the ’70s: The compact hatchback with a unique design

78 Chevrolet Chevette - December 1977

The ’80 Chevrolet Chevette models for the new decade

Vintage 1980 Classic Chevy Chevette car (2)

Chevette available custom interior shown with available carmine/oyster custom cloth upholstery and other available equipment.

ALSO SEE: Check out these classic 1970s Chevrolet Camaros

Vintage 1980 Classic Chevy Chevette car (1)

Vintage 1980 Classic Chevy Chevette car (3)

Vintage 1980 Classic Chevy Chevette car (4)

1980 two-tone Chevy Chevette cars

1980 two-tone Chevy Chevette cars

For the same reasons you buy one Chevy Chevette, some companies buy a thousand (1981)

Chevy Chevette’s built for some demanding customers.

The Bell System, for example, has over 6,000 Chevettes at work. Professional stunt driver Joie Chitwood stars Chevy Chevette in over 200 Thrill Show performances a year. Falcon Parcel Delivery runs their Chevette fleet 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And Chevettes in service with Pacific Car Rental have accumulated over 1,125,000 miles in the past five years.

MORE: ’70s Chevy Nova cars: Hatchbacks, police cars & more classic compact Chevrolets

Now that’s a lot of miles to cover. And that’s one of the reasons why you can count on the 1981 Chevy Chevette. It’s built to economically go a long way, for a long time.

Remember: Compare the “estimated MPG” to the “estimated MPG” of other cars. You may get different mileage, depending on how fast you drive, weather conditions, and trip length. Actual highway mileage will probably be less than the estimated highway fuel economy. Calif. est. lower.

Chevrolets are equipped with GM-built engines produced by various divisions. See your dealer for details. And Chevette’s low price helps make it the best-selling small car in America. So if you’re buying or leasing one car or 1000, think about a car that’s capable of accumulating a lot of miles. For not a lot of money.

’81 CHEVY CHEVETTE. ONE TOUGH SON-OF-A-GUN. Chevy Chevette fleet cars for Bell System, Pacific Car Rental, Consumers Power

Chevrolet Chevette fleet cars from 1980 (2)

Chevrolet Chevette fleet vehicles for Falcon Parcel Service, Alamo Rent-a-Car, GTE

Chevrolet Chevette fleet cars from 1980 (1)

Chevette fleet vehicles for Greyhound Rent-a-Car, 3M, General Rent-a-Car

Chevrolet Chevette fleet cars from 1980 (3)

DON’T MISS: Ford Pinto: The bestselling sub-compact economy car from the ’70s & ’80s (and its fatal flaw)

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Comments on this story

5 Responses

  1. Whatever the exact opposite of a “muscle car” is, the Chevette was it. I had a friend who had one in the 80s, and my father had one as a loaner car. In both cases, the Chevette struggled to get up hills. Once or twice I was convinced we wouldn’t make it.

    1. I agree 100%. My sister had a Chevette in the 80’s as well. It got you from point A to point B but that was about it. I also remember driving it once and super hot air would blow onto your driving foot.

  2. I had a 1977 Chevette. Purchased it New. Ran good for a few years then had starter problems. Purchased several new starters but never fixed the problem. I push started that car for FIVE years. A friend reworked the starter with copper and finally the problem resolved… but by then I ready for a new car. But great memories 🚘

  3. I drove a 1972 Chevy Vega GT (from my dad) and it was arguably a better driving car than my friend’s new 1976 Chevette. The Vega was more comfortable, faster acceleration and smoother on the highway. The Chevette had better MPGs but it was slow and plain. The Chevette had multiple mechanical problems and was too expensive to repair My friend sold it and bought a used VW Beetle with better results

    1. As 1970s American cars went, Vegas were pretty good. A friend of mine used to call them “baby Camaros.” But it’s little wonder that this was around the time that people started buying Hondas, Datsuns (now Nissans) and other imports. The US automakers didn’t figure out how to build efficient, high quality cars until the mid 1980s.

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