Chevette: Vauxhall's Saviour ?

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Luton joins the small hatchback set with a pretty, new, three-door, coupe/estate

Vauxhall have added to the growing European band of small hatchback saloons with the new three-door, four-seat Chevette, which goes on sale in Britain on May 2nd. This departure from conservative Luton-thinking should revive Vauxhall’s flagging fortunes and reassure their continuation as a separate entity within General Motors, despite the ageing rumour that the Detroit parent would hand over their European operation as a whole to Opel.

The Chevette takes it’s name from the Brazilian-manufactured Chevrolet version of the Opel Kadett, to which it otherwise bears no exterior resemblance. But many components are shared with the Kadett, including it’s excellent suspension system, steering rack and even front seats and windscreen. All these components will be made by or for Vauxhall in Britain, but will be interchangeable with the German made Opel parts, easing the replacement parts problem across Europe.

Luton designers can take full credit for the attractive hatchback body. It’s air-dam front end with it’s rectangular, recessed head-lamps , the first in the world to use moulded plastic reflectors, has obviously been greatly influenced by the high-performance “droop-snoot” Fireza coupe. Steady speed consumption figures show this nose to be aerodynamically very efficient, for the 1,256-c.c. Viva engine which powers the Chevette has given 50.76 m.p.g. at a steady 50-m.p.h., and 42.56 m.p.g. at a steady 60 m.p.h.

This four-cylinder four-stroke (80.97 m.m. bore x 60.96 m.m. stroke), push-rod engine delivers 58.5 b.h.p. DIN at 5,600 r.p.m. and 68 lb.ft. DIN at 2,600 r.p.m. in it’s latest guise. Developments in the interests of economy have left the b.h.p. figure at the same level, but given a 5 lb. ft. boost to the torque figures; they include a thermostat controlled exhaust-heated air-intake system, bigger heat transfer ports and revised jets in the single Stomberg carburetter. Drive is transmitted through a 7.25 in. Viva clutch and 4-speed gearbox via a split prop shaft (the rear section of which is enclosed in a torque tube) to the Kadett live rear-axle. Additional axle location is provided by twin radius arms, a Panhard rod and anti-roll bar, and suspension is by coil springs and angled telescopic dampers.

Kadett front suspension is made up of pressed steel short top wishbones, and longer bottom wishbones,coil springs, telescopic shock-absorbers and a stiff anti-roll bar. The steering rack is mounted ahead of the wheel centres.

Clever body design has enabled Vauxhall engineers to place a wheel at each corner for better handling, a BMC-pioneered layout which we are more used to seeing on front-wheel-drive cars, including the new VW Golf, tested elsewhere, which too has a hatchback facility, albeit with a choice of three or five doors. The Chevette’s overall length is 12 ft. 9.5 in., is some 7 1/2 in. less than the Viva and overall width is down by nearly three inches to 5 ft. 2.2 in. The wheelbase is 7 ft. 10.2 in. with a track, front and rear of 4 ft. 3.2 in. Upon these dimensions a usefully versatile body has been constucted. The wide-opening tailgate, with heated window, is hinged at the top and counterbalanced by hydraulic struts. When the seat is in position the full-width load platform offers 8.9 cu.ft. of space, beneath which is the flat 8.4 gallon fuel-tank and the spare wheel and tools, accessible after three awkwardly placed Dzus fasteners have been released to remove the steel floor panel. Converting the Chevette to an estate car is the easiest of jobs, unlike most such arrangements, the rear seat cushion does not have to be folded out of the way before the squab, located securely by two simple wheel-arch mounted catches is lowered. In this condition the load-space is increased to 18.6 cu.ft. the wheel-arches and fuel-filler pipe intrude somewhat, but angling the shock-absorbers has prevented them from creating a nuisance like those on the Golf. A deep lip at the rear impedes loading.

There are two versions of this new model, the Chevette and the Chevette L, although the basic version is far from ill-equipped. It’s vinyl seat-trim is replaced, in the L, by a brand new woven, plaid-patterned fabric seat upholstery, the L’s luggage bay has carpet trim instead of PVC, and this model also has additions of a clock, cigar-lighter and opening rear quarter-lights. Features such as reclining front seats, accurately adjustable by turning a knurled knob, and heated rear screen are common to both models.

It doesn’t seem to be very widely realised how good is Vauxhall’s contemporary corrosion protection on all it’s cars, more thorough than that of any mass-production manufacturer we know of. Careful avoidance of rust and mud traps was made in the Chevette’s design and beyond that there is a ten-stage anti-corrosion process, which includes the use of special welding creams and sealants during manufacture, zinc coating of exposed panels, the application of zinc-rich primer to other panels, followed by de-greasing and the spraying and baking on of a phosphate solution before submersion in a 5,000-gallon tank of anti-rust alloyed primer. More special sealers are applied after this process, the interior of the sill panels and the body underside are coated with a grey epoxy-based primer-surfacer, aluminised bituminous wax is sprayed into the body sills and the entire underside is covered with a baked on sealer sound-deadener. Seven gallons of primer and acrylic lacquer are applied to each body. Axle/suspension assemblies are finished in anti-rust alkyd, zinc-plated pipes are used to serve the dual-circuit hydraulic braking system and the exhaust system is aluminiumised. Finally, the complete under-body and engine compartment are sprayed with wax for added protection.

Vauxhall had a terrible corrosion reputation to live down and the efforts which they have made to do so are worthy of every praise. Certainly there is no other British mass-produced car which is as well protected as the Chevette, a point which potential customers should bear in mind. Such thorough protection at the manufacturing stage must surely be better than after sale corrosion treatment.

Our acquaintance with the Chevette has so far been brief, but pleasing. Firstly we had an all-singing, all-dancing American style introduction to it at the New London Theatre, and we hope that the Chevette proves rather more successful than the last car announced on that Drury Lane stage, the ill-fated Lotus 76. Later that week we were allowed to try a bright red, Greenock registered Chevette L, for a couple of hours around the lanes of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

First impressions were of the very pretty lines and the excellence of the acrylic lacquer paint finish. The wide doors make for easy access to the front seats and that to the rear seats tolerable. The driver is faced by a small and comfotable padded steering wheel, a massive binicle containing the clear instruments, warning lights and two vents for the powerful through-flow ventilation, which exhausts itself above the rear window. Heating too is very effective, includes a two-speed fan and is easy to operate. Light dipping, horn, flashers, two-speed and “pulse” wipers and electric screen washers are controlled by handy steering column stalks, the handbrake is conveniently between the seats. There are arm rests on the doors, and the stubby gear-lever falls conveniently to hand, endowed with a light and positive action, third and fourth being inclined well over towards the driver. Small pedals are decently spaced and the clutch, like the steering, of which more later, is ultra-light, making this a car well-suited to women drivers.

Roadholding and handling of this new Vauxhall is quite superb, if not up to the standards of an Alfa-Sud. There is a safe amount of understeer to stabilise the car and when driven harder on fast roads it becomes neutrally well-balanced. Tight corners taken enthusiastically on slippery roads cause the tail to step out of line, but the front end stays where it should and correction is easy. Some Chevettes are being produced on Michelin ZX tyres and others on Goodyear G800 Custom Rib, both types of 155 SR 13 in. size; the test car had the Goodyears and roadholding would probably have been even better on Michelins, which seem to be in their element on small, rear-wheel-drive cars. Michelins too might have improved the steering, which was light, smooth and positive with no lost motion, but lacked something in feel.

Girling calipers on the 9.37 in. front disc brakes and Opel 7.87 in. x 1.77 in. self-adjusting drums (fitted with GM-France wheel-cylinders) provide really excellent stopping power. Servo-assistance is standard on both models, as is the split hydraulic system which is fitted with a Teves brake proportioning valve to ensure front-rear brake balance.

By the standards of many continental 1300 cars (well 1,256-c.c. is near enough to 1300) , the Chevette’s performance is not startling, but will meet most demands. Vauxhall claim a 0-60 m.p.h. figure of of just over 15 sec. and a maximum speed of around 90 m.p.h. The test car seemed quite happy to cruise at 80 to 90 m.p.h., and when over 100 m.p.h. showed up on a downhill grade the willing engine sounded far from strained. In the gears 35 m.p.h., 52 m.p.h. and 72 m.p.h. showed on the speedometer before valve bounce was hinted (no tachometer is fitted).

Disappointingly, Vauxhall have managed to create a brand-new design which inherits some of the resonance of other models in the range, though any semi-estate or estate is at risk in this respect. The engine gets very buzzy when revved hard, but on the credit side there is very little wind noise and the transmission vibration which mars the big four-cylinder-engined Vauxhalls has been avoided.

One-up without a load the Chevette’s suspension is firm and taut, perhaps a bit too hard at the back, but it rides well. On rough surfaces we would have appreciated softer seats to cushion the blows. In fact we weren’t at all happy with the seat squab, which was too firm and too flat, providing insufficient support for the back when driving reasonably quickly.

On the whole the new Vauxhall ought to become a worthy best-seller to improve the company’s fortunes. It’s a splendid, if not quite perfect, effort, and though we wouldn’t specifically categorise it as such, for it can be described as anything from a small estate to a sporting coupe, we would praise it as the best shopping car available from a British manufacturer. It’s competition on more open terms depends on it’s price, which has not yet been divulged. On the assumption that it won’t be more expensive than the Viva range, so will fall somewhere around £1,350 to £1,400, it will find itself in sharp competition with the versatile, though smaller, Renault 5TL at £1,327, but should well undercut the Citroen GS Special at £1,549. But we mustn’t forget that the cost of spares, insurance and maintenance will be to the Chevette’s advantage.—C.R.

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