Vauxhall Chevette L

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Keywords: Vauxhall Chevette L
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Chevette was the first Vauxhall that used Opel help to raise its standards. The ploy worked so well that Luton couldn’t kill the car off when it wanted to…

We didn’t know it at the time but the last Viva, the HC, was Vauxhall’s last wholly-designed product by the time it was launched in 1970. General Motors ordered that all future vehicles were to be Opels under the skin, starting with the FE Victor in 1972.

But the Chevette, launched three years later, was more than that. Apart from being Vauxhall’s new baby of the range, it was also the start of what would become ‘World’ cars; a basic design marketed under different brands for different Continents. Vauxhall sold it in the UK, Opel had its own of course for Europe, while the car was sold in Japan as the Isuzu 1600.

The Chevette was badly need by Vauxhall, because the Griffin seemed to be on its last legs by the start of the ‘70s. The Victor was comprehensively outsold by Ford’s Cortina, while the fastback Firenza couldn’t hold a candle to the Capri in terms of image. What’s more, the Luton cars were poorly made when compared to the German quality of Opels.

So, salvation came in the form of Opel, a quality sub BMW brand that was well respected. The Chevette was essentially a shortened Opel Kadett with a Vauxhall-designed front end. Mechanically it was all Opel, apart from the engine and transmission which was Viva-sourced.

Launched in spring ‘75 at a smidgen under £1600, the Chevette was an attractive three-door hatch that had the jump on the much awaited Ford Fiesta by more than a year. It was solely powered by the 1256cc Viva unit and initially came in base and L trims - all the customer could change was the colour. The Chevette wasn’t cheap because for the same money you could buy a larger Viva Deluxe and still get a tenner change. And, how about an Austin Allegro 1300SDL, or a nice Hillman Avenger 1300S for that matter. Blimey, even a base Cortina 1300 Mk3 was cheaper!

Nevertheless, the Chevette took off like a rocket. In cash-strapped times, the prospect of 50mpg at 50mph was enough for many to part with £1650 for the much more opulent Chevette L.

There was no way that the Chevette would remain a two-car range though and the following year it spawned a very handy estate, as well as a saloon option. However by then the soaring inflation that ruled and ruined the decade had seen the price of the three-door hatch soar to £1830; £50 less than the Renault 5 TS supermini.

By now the Opel revolution was getting into gear with the excellent Ascona-derived Cavalier, followed by the Carlton/Royale flagships and, at the end of the decade the Viva bowed out, by which time the Chevette family boasted an economy E and luxury GLS trims, two and four-doors and even a light panel van called the Chevanne.

Enthusiasts will no doubt recall the HS; still one of the most scintillating hot hatchbacks of all time. Designed to make Vauxhall’s mark in rallying, it boasted a special 16-valve headed derivative of the Firenza HP engine, yielding a claimed 135bhp (strangely only four bhp up on the HP’s single cam motor!). A stonking, if prickly, performer of RS and GTi-eating proportions the HS certainly was, but it was deemed too harsh and noisy as a road car for the big money asked – a heady £5107 in 1976. Also, the cars didn’t reach the showrooms until two years later. Too dear and underdeveloped, only 450 were made before it was dropped in 1980, around the time the all-new Astra burst on the scene. Still, in top 240bhp HSR tune it did well in rallying, even if it infringed the rules by using a Lotus engine.

The Chevette lasted just under a decade in production with hardly any development along the line. The all new Astra was the future along with the supermini Nova. But, the Chevette sold too well to kill off prematurely and almost half a million were made which was good going for Luton, with the last ones costing up to almost three times the original showroom price.

That was the headline many road test reports carried during the 1970s, but whether this was because the Chevette was that good, or that the rest of the Vauxhall range so dire, remains open to debate. Certainly, to drive, the Chevette was a blast, thanks to the excellence of the Kadett chassis which Motor simply described as “Superb”. The Viva engine, which seemed much smoother and more refined in the Chevette, only gave average performance but it was flexible and frugal. Vauxhall never bothered developing the 1256cc engine further, as it was stretched to the limit, but ace tuner Bill Blydenstein (who went on to develop the HS model) marketed a 1.5-litre crank conversion which was as effective as it was expensive.

If the Chevette disappointed then it was due to its very choppy ride, a result of the cut-down Opel chassis, which also seriously restricted rear seat room as anybody trading down from a larger Viva will tell you. And they could rust a fair bit too, especially at the front.

A great learner driver car thanks it its conventional design, it was also as easy to fix by the kerb with no special tools required. And, if you ignored the usual Viva timing chain rattle and typical Vauxhall transmission whine, a good one would soldier on for years, providing low cost motoring, just what the makers intended.

Chevettes to covet include any HS you can get hold of, as perhaps only 100 are left now. Yet you can still pick one up for around £6000, although a proper HSR can go for three times as much if it has a history. Common Chevettes still sell for a song and you do see some nice ones crop up at car shows, so the interest is there. “Conservatively engineered but well sorted” summed up Car magazine. And for a Vauxhall back in the 1970s that was praise enough.

The Chevette’s claim to screen fame has to be the 1976 film version of The Likely Lads for no other screen role for the Chevette has fully encapsulated its plaid upholstered charms. In more recent years, a special edition 1.3 ‘Sunhatch’ played a crucial role in Dr Who series, an exceptionally battered L model appeared in At Home With The Braithwaites and the opening credits of This Is England were shot over the shattered windshield of another L spec Chevette. But wider screen fame eluded this very enjoyable car – if only Bodie & Doyle had driven a 2300 HS…



Photogallery Vauxhall Chevette L:







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Vauxhall Chevette Guide, History and Timeline from ClassicCars.co.uk
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File:1979 Vauxhall Chevette L (15389450336).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
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Vauxhall Chevette Hatchback. www.lookautophoto.com
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