Tuesday, June 15, 2010

San Francisco Street Sighting - 1978 Chevrolet Chevette

It was the mid-1970s. Detroit was still rolling out hundreds of thousands of ginormous boats with no end in sight. Smaller, imported cars were slowly taking a larger share of the market. And yet, in the years after the OPEC oil embargo and gas crisis of 1973, American cars in general failed to get much smaller or lighter. Compression ratios were lowered and catalytic converters were added, improving fuel economy and reducing emissions by neutering whatever power the engines previously made. Some call it the Malaise Era. During this era, Detroit was on a slow learning curve, figuring out the hard way that people shopping for new compact cars didn't want to spend their hard-earned money on poorly built junk. Chevrolet's first compact of the 1970s was the Vega, a good car but for its poorly designed, failure-prone engine. In 1975, Chevy released the Chevette, a three- or five-door hatchback with a four-cylinder engine and rear-wheel-drive. The Chevette was cheap, simple and crude even for its time. This was both a blessing and a curse, because the little cars were terrible to live with but often wouldn't die. Most Chevettes I've seen were rusted, faded and in sorry visual condition - much like this blue 1978 example - but they run. People even race them in small-time rallies and ice races. Some even drop in a V8, install a roll cage, beef up the rear end and take it drag racing.

A friend of mine owned a 5-door Chevette, a red 1980 model. It served him well, but was eventually sold a few years ago and then left until some hooligans smashed all the glass out of it. A sad end for a faithful little car. This one, however, appears to be a daily driver earning its keep. It has a relatively recent license plate, probably installed around 1990. The plate frame from Ellis Brooks Chevrolet on Van Ness Avenue may well be original. The hubcaps are clearly not original. As with many old San Francisco cars, this one suffers from rust. I can't tell if that's because of the car's cheap construction (painting inside the body panels makes a huge difference) or because of a general lack of maintenance.
Few people will tell you the Chevette's a fantastic car. It wasn't made to be fantastic. It was basic transportation for very little money, and you got what you paid for. Some have survived mainly because their owners have taken care of them. This one appears mechanically sound and will probably run for years to come if it receives proper maintenance at regular intervals.

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