By Jim Schwartz
My 16th birthday was getting close, just two short months from being able to get my driver’s license. It was May of 1989, and the time had come to start shopping for my first car. A family vacation to California the previous winter had set my sights on finding a Volkswagen Bug. By the late ’80s, the old VWs had just about disappeared from the roads back home in Wisconsin. But in southern California, they seemed to be everywhere. I was drawn to their small size, their simplicity and their very dated but unashamed styling.
The problem came when I told my dad, a devout Chevy man, that I wanted a VW Bug. A very strong “Buy American” man, in addition to his Chevrolet loyalty, he would have none of it. I still remember his simple counter offer to me: “How ’bout a Chevette?” Now, I didn’t know a whole lot about Chevettes at that time. I knew they were small, and I knew that there were lots of them around (this was the late ’80s, after all), but that was about it. Despite my lack of knowledge, I agreed to look for a Chevette as my first car. It seemed like a fair compromise.
A few weeks later, Dad pulled into the driveway with a little brown two-door Chevette. As chance would have it, a co-worker of his was selling a 1984 Chevette and let my dad take it home for the day. That not only allowed us to see if I’d like the car, but more importantly, if I could drive the car. You see, this Chevette had a five-speed manual transmission and I had never driven a stick shift before.
Out to some seldom-used country roads we went. Dad demonstrated to me how the clutch and shifting worked and then it was my turn to give it a try. Well, what transpired was a sort of lurching and bucking that professional bull riders must feel, followed by the stalling of the engine — over and over again. But with never-before-seen patience, my dad just kept telling me: “try it again.” Countless attempts later, I was getting the hang of it and my launches became fairly smooth. Feeling good about myself didn’t last long, though, as my next lesson was starting off on an incline without rolling backwards. More bucking, lurching and stalling ensued, but eventually I gained that skill as well.
That little Chevette took a lot of abuse during my “training.” And as strange as it sounds, I felt as if my dad wasn’t the only one exhibiting patience with me that day. The Chevette seemed eager for me to learn to drive it, firing back up immediately after each stall, taking the punishment and willing to take more. A bond was being formed, a bond between a young car guy and his first car. Obviously, once I learned how to proficiently drive the Chevette, I bought it.
The next month or so was nearly torture for me. I owned a car, but didn’t have my license yet. Hours were spent in, around and underneath my Chevette getting to know everything I could. I read the owner’s manual cover to cover, bought a Hayne’s manual to learn about the inner workings of the car’s systems, and with my dad’s help, I learned to change the oil, spark plugs, filters and other maintenance.
With some research I discovered that despite there being a million Chevettes on the road, my particular car was somewhat a rarity. Only a very small percentage of Chevette’s had the five-speed manual as most were automatics or four-speed manuals. Mine also had the Exterior Sport Décor (Chevy option code Z13). Not very common on Chevettes, this was strictly an appearance option which added Chevette “S” decals and eliminated nearly all the chrome/bright work, replacing it with blacked-out trim with red/orange accents. This was a common styling trick with U.S. carmakers during the ’80s to give vehicles a sportier, perhaps more European look.
The day came when I finally received my license and the newfound freedom that I felt was unlike anything I had experienced before. I had many memorable times with that Chevette; My first date, my high school graduation, heading off to college for the first time with the car packed to the gills and countless road trips with my buddies.
Throughout my ownership, the Chevette was an incredibly reliable machine, never once breaking down or leaving me stranded. It always started, even on those Wisconsin winter mornings when the temperature was 20 degrees below zero. I absolutely loved my faithful Chevette, no matter what others thought about it. Admittedly, being a Chevette owner required having a bit of a thick skin; I took my share of ridicule and there was no shortage of jokes. Nicknames like “Poor Man’s ’Vette” and the “Shove-It” were just the beginning. I remember some friends making a spoof of the song “Little Red Corvette” by Prince that went something like “Little Brown Chevette….Baby you’re just too slow….Yes you are…”
After three plus years and more than 40,000 miles I (regrettably) traded in my Chevette. Now, nearly 30 years have passed since the day my dad pulled in the driveway with that little car, and I still miss it. Since then I’ve owned more than 80 cars and I could probably tell a story about each one of them. Nearly all of them were faster, more valuable and considered “cooler” than my Chevette. But if there’s one car I could have back again, it would no doubt be my very first car, my little brown 1984 Chevette. I keep hoping that by some miracle, it has survived all these years, perhaps stashed away in a barn somewhere. And someday I’ll see it for sale alongside the road or on the internet. I would no doubt buy it and bring my first car back home with me where it belongs. Certainly there are those who’ll wonder “What’s the big deal…it’s just a Chevette?” but it was my Chevette, and I will forever have an attachment to it.
The story of my first car proves that any car can turn someone into a “Car Guy” (or Gal). It doesn’t have to be a GTO, Mustang, Camaro, Bel Air or Challenger. A car that is seen as “cheap”, “dorky” and “ugly” by most car enthusiasts can cause another to fall in love. They say that love is blind and I would agree with that, with one small change: I’d say that “First Love is Blind.”
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