1975, Chevrolet Turns to Opel for the New Fuel-Saving Chevette
Chevrolet’s new 1976 model year Chevette was the American industry’s fuel economy leader. Designed by Opel, versions of the same car were manufactured at GM plants in Argentina, Brazil, and England and sold in those markets.
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In 1970, General Motors’ German subsidiary, began planning and engineering “Project 1865”, a range of small cars that would be an evolutionary step from the 1965-73 Opel Kadett. The program eventually became known as the "T-car", and featured uni-body (monocoque) construction, front-mounted engine and rear drive. The vehicle was designed to become a modern alternative to the outdated but popular Volkswagen Beetle; inexpensive for customers to purchase and maintain.
Plans were made to produce the vehicle in several locations all over the world with adaptations to meet local market conditions. The first production T-car was a Chevrolet Chevette 2-door sedan manufactured in Brazil during April of 1973. In August, 1973, Opel began production of their version, called the Opel Kadett.
Original plans for the T-car did not include sales or production in the United States or Canada. Then the 1973 oil crisis created a dramatic shift in the marketplace. Suddenly, large V-8 powered cars that were previously popular among American consumers were sitting unsold on dealer lots. Chevrolet Motor Division investigated ways to quickly bring a new model to the U.S. market to meet the rising demand for economical cars. In early 1974, GM management approved plans to produce a version of the T-car in America, to be marketed as the Chevrolet Chevette. The Chevette was rushed into U.S. production in just 18 months.
In September of 1975, Chevrolet publicly unveiled the Chevette in Washington D.C. This location was chosen because the U.S. Congress has just recently passed legislation mandating Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automotive manufacturers. The EPA fuel economy rating for the 1976 Chevette equipped with the 1.6 litre engine and 4-speed manual transmission was 30 miles-per-gallon (mpg) city and 39 highway. This accomplished GM's goal of having the most fuel efficient vehicle available in America.
Worldwide production of the T-car totaled over 7 million units, making it GM’s first true global product. Listed below are vehicles based on the GM T-car platform.
Over 1.7 million Opel Kadetts based on the T-car platform were produced at Opel’s Bochum, Germany plant between 1973 and 1979. It was the third post-World War II version of the Opel Kadett, and commonly called the Kadett “C”. Many variants were produced, including 2-door and 4-door notchback sedans, 2-door fastback coupes, 2-door station wagons and 2-door hatchbacks called the "Kadett City".
The Opel Kadett “C” was sold all over Western Europe, with a wide variety of available trim levels and equipment. There were several Opel cam-in-block and overhead cam (OHC) 4-cylinder engines available ranging from 1.0 litre to 2.0 litres.
The Kadett GT/E was a performance version of the fastback coupe available from 1975 to 1977. It had a 115 horsepower, 2.0 litre, 8-valve OHC 4-cylinder engine with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection. Upgrades were made to the suspension, brakes, rear axle and manual transmission. To qualify as a production vehicle for the rally car circuit, Opel planned to build only 1,000 Kadett GT/E coupes, but to meet demand 2,234 were built.
Baur Body Works (Karosserie Baur) in Stuttgart produced 1,240 Kadett Aero models for Opel between 1976 through 1978. This unique 2-door sedan featured a removable roof panel over the front seats, a stationary targa bar connecting the “B” pillars, and a folding top in the rear.
GM’s U.K. subsidiary, Vauxhall Motors, Ltd., produced 415,000 Vauxhall Chevettes based on the T-car. Chevette 2-door hatchback production began at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port Assembly Plant in February 1975. In 1976, Vauxhall added Chevette 2 and 4-door saloons (sedans), and 2-door estates (station wagons).
The Vauxhall Chevette was the first hatchback version of the T-car. It was designed by Wayne Cherry, who would later become Vice President of General Motors Design. The front end of the Vauxhall Chevette had an aerodynamic rake with the radiator air inlet below the bumper. This distinctive styling feature was nicknamed “droop snoot”. In comparison, the Opel Kadett “C” had a front end which tapered in toward the bottom, with a longer hood and a more traditional full width grille above the bumper.
In January 1978, the limited production, high performance Vauxhall Chevette HS 2-door hatchback was introduced. It was equipped with a 2279cc slant-four engine with two carbs, 16-valve aluminum cylinder head and twin overhead cams. The HS’s upgraded suspension, brakes and rear axle came from the Opel Kadett GT/E, and its alloy wheels from the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega. Other equipment included a Getrag 5-speed close-ratio transmission, fiberglass front air dam and rear spoiler.
The rally car circuit success of the Chevette HS was improved upon with the 1980-83 Chevette HSR. The HSR had a much more dramatic and aerodynamic fiberglass body kit including fender flares. It also included a twin plate clutch, revised five link rear suspension, and wider wheels.
Other than the HS and HSR models, all Vauxhall Chevettes were equipped with 58.5 horsepower, 1256 cc overhead valve (OHV) 4-cylinder engine. The 1975 Vauxhall brochure claimed that “The Chevette’s gutsy 1256 cc engine will pull from 0-60 mph in 15.3 seconds.”
In late 1979, Opel introduced the next generation Opel Kadett “D” with front-wheel drive. To meet demand for inexpensive rear-wheel-drive cars, the Vauxhall Chevette was exported to Germany and other European markets. Production of the Vauxhall Chevette ended in January 1984.
The "Bedford Chevanne", was marketed by GM's Bedford commercial vehicles operation in the U.K. This van was similar to the Vauxhall Chevette 2-door estate; however it had no rear seat or rear side windows. The rear cargo area had a ribbed steel floor, and 53 cubic feet of cargo space.
GM do Brasil (GMB) built the first and the last production T-cars. Over 1.6 million Chevrolet Chevettes were produced at GMB’s San Jose dos Campos plant between April 1973 and November 1993, including 2 and 4-door sedans (1973-93), 2-door hatchbacks (1979-87), and the Chevette Marajo' 2-door station wagon (1980-89).
A pickup truck called the Chevy 500 was engineered by GMB and produced from 1983 through 1995. The Chevy 500 was common to the 2-door Chevette up to the B-pillar, with a pickup box integral to the body.
GMB produced 4-cylinder OHC Chevette engines at the San Jose dos Campos plant The engine had its roots in an Opel design, however the Brazilian version featured a cross-flow cylinder head, with a flat cover on either side of the cam carrier. Engines with 1.4 and 1.6 litre displacements were produced, and in March 1992 a 1.0 litre version was added for the lower priced Chevette Junior. In July 1980, the first alcohol fuel capable Chevette was introduced in Brazil.
The 1973 through 1977 Chevrolet Chevettes looked very similar to the Opel Kadett “C”. From 1978 to 1982, GMB Chevettes featured front sheet metal derived from the 1976-8 U.S. Chevrolet Chevette, with a hood that wrapped down to the front bumper containing twin grilles. GMB engineered new front end sheet metal for 1983 and later Chevettes, which featured flush composite headlamps on either side of a stationary grille.
GM do Brazil exported fully assembled vehicles, complete knock-down (CKD) kits and components to GM units and joint ventures throughout Latin America. The Chevette 4-door sedan was not very popular in the Brazilian market, and was built primarily for export.
In November 1974, General Motors Argentina started production of their version of the T-car called the Opel K-180. It was very similar in appearance to the German Opel Kadett “C” 4-door sedan. Its 4-cylinder engine was a “shortened down” version of a GM Argentina in-line 6-cylinder OHV pushrod engine. The “K” in the “K-180” name comes from “Kadett”, and the “180” represents the engine’s displacement of 1.8 litres.
The last Opel K-180 was built in 1978 when GM closed GM Argentina, and discontinued all vehicle production in that country. From 1992-94, GM do Brasil exported T-cars to Argentina as the GMC Chevette and GMC 500 Pickup.
General Motors had an ownership interest of Isuzu Motors Ltd., and Isuzu was involved in several T-car initiatives. In 1974, Isuzu commenced production of the T-car in their Fujisawa, Japan plant. The car was initially called the “Isuzu Bellett Gemini” and in 1976, the name was shortened to “Isuzu Gemini.” It was available as a 2-door fastback and a 4-door sedan, with exterior styling similar to the Opel Kadett “C”.
A second generation Isuzu Gemini 4-door sedan was produced from 1979-1984 with Isuzu engineered changes to the front and rear exterior sheet metal, interior and instrument panel. T-car underpinnings formed the basis for the Isuzu engineered Piazza / Impulse produced from 1981–89.
The Isuzu Gemini was marketed in several Asian and European countries. GM distributed and sold the car in Malaysia, where it was called the “Opel Gemini.” Isuzu produced T-cars were also sold in the U.S. (see United States section below). Isuzu gasoline and diesel engines were used in the Holden Gemini. An Isuzu diesel engine was also used in the U.S. produced Chevrolet Chevette.
A version of the T-car called the "Saehan Gemini" was built by General Motors, a GM joint venture. South Korean production began in 1976, with a design based on the 4-door Isuzu Gemini. It was marketed as the "Saehan Bird" for export markets. In 1982, the joint venture was renamed "Daewoo Motor Company, Ltd." From 1983-1986, the "Daewoo Maepsy" was produced, based on the second generation Isuzu Gemini.
There was a pickup truck version called the "Saehan Max" (later called the “Daewoo Max"). The development of the Max was separate from the Chevy 500 pickups produced by GM do Brasil. The Max had doors common to the front doors of a Saehan Gemini 4-door sedan, while the Chevy 500 pickup had a longer cab featuring doors common to a Chevrolet Chevette 2-door sedan.
General Motors – Holden’s Ltd., built a version of the T-car in Australia called the Holden Gemini. The Gemini was fitted with an Isuzu 1584cc 4-cylinder OHC engine featuring a cross-flow aluminum cylinder head, cast iron engine block, and chain driven cam. From 1981 through 1985, an Isuzu 1.8 litre OHC 4-cylinder diesel engine was also available.
The Holden Gemini “TX” 2-door fastback coupe and 4-door sedan models debuted in 1975. Wheels Magazine named the Holden Gemini as 1975 Car of the Year, and it quickly became Australia’s best selling 4-cylinder car. The design of the first generation Gemini (TX, TC, and TD versions) was derived from the Japanese Isuzu Gemini.
In 1978, Holden’s famous Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS), was added to the Gemini, improving the car’s handling capabilities. Panel van and 2-door station wagon body styles were added in 1978, with rear body stampings derived from the Vauxhall Chevette. From 1979 through 1985, the second generation Holden Gemini (TE, TF and TG versions) shared revisions developed by Isuzu for the Gemini.
General Motors New Zealand Ltd. (now Holden New Zealand Ltd.) assembled the Vauxhall Chevette from 1976 through 1981. Complete knock-down (CKD) kits were shipped from the U.K. for assembly at the Trentham, New Zealand Plant. All Vauxhall Chevette body styles were available, and each was equipped with the 1256cc OHV 4-cylinder engine. In 1979, Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) from the Holden Gemini was incorporated into the New Zealand Vauxhall Chevettes. From 1981 through 1985, the Holden Gemini was exported from Australia to New Zealand.
The U.S. Chevrolet Chevette was produced from October 1975 through December 1986, with total U.S. production exceeding 2.5 million units. Initially, only available as a 2-door hatchback, a 4-door hatchback was added for the 1978 model year. The 4-door immediately began to outsell the 2-door, and continued to be the most popular body style for the rest of the Chevette's U.S. model run. The Chevrolet Chevette was the best-selling car in America in 1979 and 1980.
All U.S. Chevette gasoline engines were produced at the Chevrolet “V-8” engine in Flint, Michigan, and were very similar to the 4-cylinder OHC engine used in the General Motors do Brasil Chevette. From 1981 through 1986, the Chevette was also available with an Isuzu 1.8 litre OHC 4-cylinder diesel engine. Initial U.S. production of the Chevrolet Chevette was at GM's Wilmington Delaware Assembly Plant. As demand grew, production was added at the Lakewood, Georgia Assembly Plant near Atlanta.
GM of Canada sold the Chevrolet Chevette, and also marketed a very similar car called the Pontiac Acadian. Previously, the Acadian name was used in Canada on a Pontiac version of the 1962 through 1971 Chevy II/Nova. All T-cars for the Canadian market were assembled in the United States.
Pontiac Motor Division wanted a T-car in America. However, GM management would not approve a Pontiac version of the car, primarily because Chevrolet had little trouble selling all available production. Pontiac was finally given approval for a U.S. version of the T-car in 1981, called the "Pontiac T1000". The name was later shortened to "Pontiac 1000". The Pontiac T1000/1000 was also sold along with the Acadian at Pontiac dealers in Canada for the 1982-1985 model years.
Opels were imported from Germany for the 1959-1975 model years as the entry-level product at U.S. Buick-Opel dealers. By 1976, importing Opels from Germany had become cost prohibitive. Buick was able to import the first generation Isuzu Gemini from Japan at a more competitive price. Since the Opel brand was established in America, the Isuzu Gemini was badged as the "Opel by Isuzu" for the 1976 model year. From 1977 through 1980, they were called the "Buick Opel". Both 2-door fastback coupe and 4-door sedan body styles were available. In 1981, Isuzu started its own U.S. dealer network, and sold a version of the second generation Gemini as the "Isuzu I-Mark."
The following is a summary of product features for the T-cars produced in the United States. Except where noted, all information given below applies to both the Chevrolet Chevette and the Pontiac Acadian.