100 years (and one day) of our Chevrolets

Chevrolet is celebrating its 100th anniversary (which was Thursday) this year. (In fact, a Chevrolet centennial ad was on TV as I started typing this, announcing the Chevy Open House at a Chevy dealer near you through Monday.)

Automobile Magazine has a great retrospective of Chevy over its 100 years:

In the year Chevrolet was born, there were 270 auto companies operating in the United States. Although Chevrolet was started by one of the best-known and most prolific names in the fledgling industry, its survival was not ensured. But Chevrolet not only endured, it prospered. It went on to become one of the few American auto brands to reach the century mark, and it was the number-one-selling brand in the United States in the majority of those years.

(Not surprisingly, Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Road and Track also have  Chevy centennial features, as do the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.)

Chevrolet’s success in the past century probably hinges on two things: value and choices. Chevy took off in the marketplace when Alfred E. Sloan, who eventually became chairman of GM, hit on the strategy of using Chevy to take on the Ford Model T’s higher-end customers — “a higher-quality low price car,” as Automobile puts it. The Free Press calls Chevrolet “the brand that became a giant by giving Americans more car for their money.”

Here’s an example: In 1955, Chevy came out with its new full-size car …

… which looked similar to that year’s Cadillac, for much less money:

The cars had similar, though separately designed, engines. Six years after Cadillac’s overhead-valve V-8, the ’55 full-size and Corvette offered an optional V-8, Chevy’s first in almost 40 years. The same basic design is available today in Corvettes, Camaros, pickups and the Suburban and Tahoe. The Chevy small-block V-8, which powered by my count four of our Chevys, is considered perhaps the best mass-production engine ever produced.

Twenty years later, those who wanted a full-size Chevrolet had three choices — the base Bel Air, the middle-range Impala and the high-end Caprice — in two-door coupe, four-door sedan (with or without B-pillar in the case of the Caprice), station wagon and Caprice convertible. The cars were available with the buyer’s choice of three V-8 engines, four radios, and manual- or automatic-control air conditioning, or neither. Buyers could choose from cloth or vinyl bench or split-bench seats in several colors. Buyers could choose, or not, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, power windows, power door locks, two kinds of wheel covers, two sizes of tires, and so on. The option list used to take up one to two pages in a car catalog.

The first several cars of my parents were Chevrolets. My grandparents owned nothing but Chevys as far as I know. My in-laws owned Chevys until Chevy stopped building the kind of Chevy they wanted to own. (More on that later.)

The Chevy thing with my parents and maternal grandparents is a bit ironic given that my aunt and uncle (on my mother’s side) were Ford owners, at least until my aunt bought a couple of Suburbans to replace the Ford Club Wagons they used to own. My uncle would call our preferred brand of car “Shove It or Leave It,” and his smartass nephew would reply with either “Fix Or Repair Daily” or “Found On Road Dead.” (So of course I replaced my last Chevy with a Ford, but more on that later too.)

My father’s first car was a 1951 Chevy with a six-cylinder engine and the Powerglide two-speed automatic, whose engine-power-sucking attributes gave it the name “Powerslide.”

Chronologically speaking model-year-wise, the first Chevy I remember is my grandparents’ 1959 El Camino, in this Aspen Green (although theirs did not have the chrome wheels or whitewalls). My grandparents bought it for my grandmother’s next-door second-hand store. After they closed the store, my grandfather drove it to work at the Department of Natural Resources nursery just outside Boscobel.

My parents supplanted my father’s collection of used and fancy, but not always reliable, cars with a Chevrolet Nova (known as a “Chevy II”) after they got married. By the time I arrived, the first Chevy II was replaced with a dark red wagon, the first car of theirs I remember. I apparently lived in Chevy neighborhoods while in Madison. The next door house (where our babysitters came from) owned a Corvair. Up the street, the father of friends of ours drove a 1969 Impala coupe. And when we moved to the house my parents built, two houses down was the first Corvette I ever saw. In the days when many people replaced cars around 40,000 miles (which was 28,000 miles past warranty and around the time when things started to go wrong), my parents then decided they needed something larger, and replaced a compact Chevy wagon with a mid-size Chevy wagon, a 1969 Nomad. The Nomad was LeMans Blue, not this green, and it had a roof rack. It didn’t have many options besides that — AM radio and a power tailgate window. It could move quite smartly, given that my father selected one from an Oregon Chevy dealer with the most powerful available V-8, 255 horsepower and 365 lb-ft of torque, attached to a two-speed automatic. (I sat behind my father, so I can tell you how fast it could go.)

On my previous blog (and probably on this blog in a few weeks) I mentioned the Christmas albums my parents got from a tire dealer. Chevy also distributed an album shortly after my parents got the Nomad:

That was quite an album for its day, featuring performers you would have heard of in 1970 — Glen Campbell, Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach.

Perhaps sitting in the second seat of station wagons is where I got my affinity for station wagons, given that the second one I’ve owned is sitting in front of my house right now. (Though it is not a Chevy, because Chevy doesn’t build the kind of wagon I wanted. You may notice a theme developing here.)

When my parents owned a blue 1969 Nomad, my grandparents owned a black 1968 Nomad. (The latter lacked the front headrests and steering-column-mounted ignition switch of the former.) So one day apparently I suggested to my grandparents that they should buy a new wagon in our Nomad’s color. So imagine my surprise when the next time I saw them, they pulled up to our house driving …

(Theirs had the dog-dish hubcaps, but not the roof rack.)

About that time (ironically, in the town where my grandparents lived) my father bought our first second car, a burgundy 1965 Bel Air sedan, powered by a 283 V-8 and Powerglide. The Bel Air was built in the days before seat belts were required to be installed in the back seat. My parents’ solution was to have my mother sit in back and my brother and I share the lap belt on the passenger side of the front seat. My father never hit anything (though someone backed into the left rear side once) while we were in the car, which was good, because the lap belt would not have prevented our faces from being rearranged once our unrestrained upper halves made contact with the dashboard.

My parents and grandparents then went in different vehicular directions. The newer blue Nomad was replaced by the first of two Novas … … while my parents moved up to the full-size level, a 1975 Caprice: This was a car. (Dark red, not black, and without the color-keyed hubcaps and with a full vinyl roof.) It was 18 feet 1 inch long, weighed 4,300 pounds, and required careful parking. (Note the huge front bumper guards; the way to get it into the garage was to drive slowly until the front bumper hit the concrete steps into the house.) On the other hand, it ate up the miles in Chevrolet-level luxury. And it was built down Interstate 90 at the GM Janesville plant, which employed one of my neighbors. This is undoubtedly where I developed my affinity for land yachts.

Our Caprice had the base-level V-8 (the same as this car), which gave it enough power for me to get two speeding tickets driving it. (Perhaps it was the fact the car was so large that its radar signature could be seen by AWACS planes flying in the Middle East.) I believe the 350 V-8 is an engine that is impossible to kill, based on my experience with the Caprice. It survived its two drivers’ thinking the other had been checking the oil (two quarts too low, not that you could tell), various brown, red and green fluid leaks, and a bird’s nest that a bird had planted overnight in the Caprice’s air cleaner. It was our first car with air conditioning, an AM/FM (but not stereo) radio and cruise control. It was the quietest car I’d ever been in, quieter than my other grandparents’ Cadillac Coupe de Ville, surprisingly. (The de Ville had those fiberoptic lamp monitors on the fenders, however.)

Old Car Memories‘ description of a Caprice convertible applies to our coupe too:

To most observers with today’s frame of mind the Caprice Classic convertible seems almost outlandish in proportions compared to today’s much smaller cars. The hood is so very long and even the shorter trunk (in comparison to the hood) looks big. The car has elegant curves and bumps unlike today’s aerodynamic sheet metal. One look at the 1975 Caprice convertible is like looking at a two-door 1957 Chevy, you know this type of styling will never be seen again on a new car. …

One can talk about the elegance of the exterior of this full-size Chevy but this car’s purpose was its large wide open space in the interior for both the front and rear seat passengers. First thing an observer will notice before entering the interior is the massive side doors on this car. These heavy doors feel stronger than a steel girder acting as a main support for a skyscraper. It’s a feeling of peace of mind for it makes you realize this car is built as strong and sturdy as a Sherman tank. … Once the side door is opened the interior space seems as big as a large hotel lobby. With seating for 6 large adults (3 up front and 3 in the back), and this is not shoulder touching shoulder type space as is the case with the modern (so called full-size) 6 passenger cars – like 3-in-a-row tight airline coach seating. There was plenty of free space between each of the 6 occupants – it was just like 3-in-a-row first class airline seating giving all occupants full elbow room. For anyone who came of age during the 1970s and 1980s when full-size cars the size of the 1975 Caprice were driven by teens, it was a common site to see 4 or even 5 teens seated in the rear seat row. Try this in a current full-size car and that car will be more crowded than the clown filled VW Beetle at the circus. And trunk space with even a full-size spare tire is nothing short of enormous. It’s a trunk when the convertible top is up, can fit a surfboard and loads of luggage and still be able to completely close the trunk lid. There are a few big trunks available today however none are as wide and long as the Caprice’s trunk space.

I have a lot of fond memories of that car. I might have had a lot of fond memories of my first car made by anyone. But I sat in the back seat of that car on family vacations to Michigan, Florida, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, not once breathing my brother’s air (or vice versa). The trunk swallowed up groceries, luggage, fresh Boy Scout pizzas for immediate delivery, my grandmother’s garden supplies, and enough other things to make you think it was a four-seat El Camino with a trunk lid. And then I got it with my driver’s license, my ticket to vehicular freedom and high-school and college social mobility. I got a thrill out of just starting the car (though the starter was deafening to anyone standing just outside the car), seeing the Gen and Oil lights with the ignition switch at On change to the Temp and Oil lights when the starter fired, then hearing the car start and seeing the busybody FASTEN SEAT BELTS light go off. The V-8 throb and the radio coming on was Chevy’s way of saying it’s time to go somewhere, Presty.

When I got my driver’s license, I drove the Caprice until I purchased my first car. I should have kept it instead of purchasing my first car. (That’s what the literary types call “foreshadowing.”)

While I was driving this Caprice, my wife was driving her family’s 1976 Impala, the last of the Chevy land yachts. Neither of these cars had today’s safety features such as air bags or antilock brakes. Both cars were involved in accidents with, respectively, a one-ton van that had to be towed away and a Renault that was totaled. The total damage to our Chevys was, respectively, a bent rear bumper and a dent.

Up until now, you’ll notice all of our Chevy experiences were positive ones. And then they started becoming not so positive. When the number of drivers in the house grew to three, my parents bought a 1981 Malibu, a demonstrator, black with wire wheel covers and a red interior.

It was a demonstration of how poorly the United Auto Workers could “assemble,” to use the term loosely, a car. We took it on what I called the Industrial Blight Tour — Chicago/Gary, Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo and Cleveland. By the time we returned, I had compiled, independent of the damage from a hit-and-run rear-end collision in Toronto, a page-long list of things wrong with the car — the Check Engine light going on and off for no apparent reason, thumping noises from the air conditioning (a concern in a humid summer), and, most comically, a broken front seat, which slid back every time Dad hit the gas and slid forward every time he hit the brake. We took it on another vacation a year and a half later, and it ran fine … every other day.

The Malibu was the second wave of GM’s downsizing its cars. The first one, the 1977 Impala and Caprice (along with the full-size  Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs), lasted, with a restyling in 1991, until GM (wrongly) killed its rear-drive large cars in 1996. (More on that later.)

The midsize downsizing was less than successful. The rear doors, for instance, did not have roll-down windows; GM removed the window mechanisms to gain rear-seat elbow room. (Which didn’t help the tall rear-seat passengers, I can personally attest.) The demo had the base V-6, which gave it leisurely acceleration without appreciably improved gas mileage. (One reason is that some genius at GM decided one way to get better gas mileage was to install incredibly tall rear-end ratios, which is similar to starting from a stop in your highest gear; you’ll eventually get to speed, several minutes from when you start.) I’m guessing  in the six years the car cursed our garage, I’m guessing it ran right a total of one of those six years.

Around this time, my next-door neighbor had a 1981 Citation, Chevy’s first front-drive car, the result of round three of downsizing. GM’s front-drive compacts (which replaced the aforementioned Nova) were called X-body cars — the X standing for “execrable” quality. When his daughter from his first marriage came to live with them, they drove us to high school. I put my hand on the B-pillar to get into the back seat, just in time for his daughter to shut her door on three of my fingers. It didn’t hurt my hand (which says something about the quality of the door, doesn’t it?), but my hand was stuck until I got her attention to open the door.

The appalling Malibu ownership experience did not end my parents’ Chevrolet ownership. My mother owned a 1985 Camaro, the first car she got to own and drive herself with no other driver. My father bought a S-10 4-wheel-drive pickup when they were building their house in Waupaca.

And for a few years, my father owned a 1962 Impala convertible, the only Anniversary Gold (commemorating Chevy’s 50th anniversary) non-SS convertible we had seen before or since. Somewhere there are photos of me driving the convertible with my grandmother as the passenger, as well as with my then-girlfriend (now wife) as the passenger. Driving a convertible is a cool experience, with the unrestricted outdoors going by you as you motor down the  road.

Meanwhile, I concluded after 130,000 miles, and given that gas prices were at the ridiculous level of $1.40 or so a gallon, I should get something more economical. So I gave up the Caprice and bought a 1988 Beretta GT. I conclude that it was built by the same UAW “workers” who (mis)assembled the aforementioned Malibu.

During my two years of ownership, it would occasionally peg the temperature gauge at H, making one think the engine was melting down in front of me. Several mechanics could neither prove nor disprove that it was overheating. It also had electrical gremlins that left my then-girlfriend (now wife) impressed at my colorful vocabulary when I had to stop somewhere in Iowa to get a new fuse, only to have the new fuse pop immediately upon installation. (If I remember correctly, the fuse controlled a minor function, the turn signals, and something else.)

When I had to replace the front brakes at 68,000 miles because they were rusting from the inside, that concluded my interest in owning the car. When you are simultaneously making car payments and paying repair bills, you have made a poor vehicular choice.

The last family Chevrolet I got to drive very much was my in-laws’ 1991 Caprice, the last of their several large Chevys, and a car very analogous to our old Caprice (down to the dark red color). Certainly the ’91 Caprice’s looks were an acquired taste, but it was a solid car that accelerated pretty well, handled better than you’d think, got decent gas mileage, and was comfortable, with, again, gargantuan trunk space.

Chevy has made some decisions during my vehicle ownership lifetime that have been incompatible with my ownership needs of the time. I replaced the Beretta with a 1991 Ford Escort GT. Chevy didn’t make anything like an Escort in those days — a three-door hatchback where actual adults could sit in the back seat. (Jannan owned two Pontiac Sunbirds, Pontiac’s version of the Chevy Cavalier, whose two-door back seats were meant only for the vertically challenged.) The Escort was replaced by the first of our two Subaru Outbacks. Chevy did not then and does not now make a mid-sized all-wheel-drive station wagon. The second Sunbird was replaced by a Honda Odyssey. Chevy has never made a minivan designed one-fourth as well as the Odyssey is designed. (Chevy’s first attempt at a minivan, the Lumina APV, has been called the “Dustbuster” due to its visual similarity to a hand-held vacuum cleaner.)

The irony is that Chevy does sell traditional rear-wheel-drive sedans. Just not in the U.S. If you live in the Middle East, you can buy a midsized Lumina, which in Australia is called the Holden Commodore (even with a wagon). You can buy a Caprice in the Middle East or Australia, but Chevy hasn’t sold a Caprice in the U.S. since 1996. (The Caprice is starting to be sold here as a police car, however, partly in response to Ford’s dumb decision to discontinue its rear-drive cars, including the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor.)

Today, other than the Corvette and Camaro (neither of which we’ll be buying any time soon), Chevrolet really sells no car I feel compelled to even look at. The current trend is what are called “crossover vehicles,” which, as compromises, probably don’t do anything particularly well. My interest in Chevy’s small cars is less than zero, and when it comes to the Volt, my one experience in a hybrid car (Lexus’ answer to the Toyota Prius) makes me most disinterested.

The Chevy we probably should own, but are not likely to anytime soon, is the Suburban, the longest running nameplate in the world’s auto industry, having been built since 1935. It seats up to nine, which is more than minivans can seat. (One problem of being a family of five is the limits on the number of people beyond your family that you can take in your vehicle.) It has V-8 power, which compared to some engines of today is like owning your own nuclear power plant. It can be purchased with four-wheel drive for our always interesting winters. The Suburban is listed at 15 city and 21 highway mpg, which is close to our minivan (and better than the Caprice and Impala we drove, even though it’s the same size), and it can run on E85. Unfortunately, it cannot be ordered with a diesel engine,  since Chevy hasn’t seen fit to develop its diesels beyond its heaviest-duty pickups.

The other Chevy we should have is a car I saw at the 2010 Green Lake car show. I don’t know who owns it, I didn’t see it there last year, and of course I don’t have enough money to buy it. But when the weather gets nicer …


14 thoughts on “100 years (and one day) of our Chevrolets

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