Burkes Met­al­works

New Zealand Classic Car - - Classic Tech -

This Christchurch-based firm was re­spon­si­ble for restor­ing this month’s cover star — Dun­can Jef­feris’ V8-pow­ered Capri Per­ana. Burkes Met­al­works has plenty of in­ter­est­ing restora­tion projects in progress, and we’ll cer­tainly be keen to keep an eye on them for fu­ture is­sues.

The pic­tured Porsche 356B is un­der­go­ing sub­stan­tial rust re­moval and re­fur­bish­ment work. One pho­to­graph, show­ing the front sheet metal re­moved to al­low for in­ner tub and outer front sheet-metal re­pairs, high­lights the level of panel work re­quired on this iconic Ger­man clas­sic. Our other pho­to­graph shows the stan­dard of ex­per­tise and crafts­man­ship ap­plied by the team at Burkes Met­al­works, with new floor pans spot-welded into place ex­actly to orig­i­nal fac­tory spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

An­other in­ter­est­ing ve­hi­cle be­ing re­stored is a New Zealand– built 1959 Mar­shal — named af­ter the son of the man who built the car. The run­ning gear of this one-off spe­cial is a Ford flat­head V8 mated to a pe­riod three­speed man­ual gear­box and dif­fer­en­tial. The Mar­shal’s alu­minium body is now in good or­der af­ter re­quir­ing only mi­nor panel work, and the chas­sis has been re­paired and re­turned to orig­i­nal con­di­tion too.

The plan is that the car’s ex­te­rior will re­tain its pol­ished alu­minium ap­pear­ance.

You know an ad­ver­tis­ing agency has done its job when four decades later the theme song for a prod­uct still runs through your mind. The lo­ca­tion was a West End theatre in Lon­don in March 1975, and Vaux­hall was launch­ing its trendy new Chevette three-door hatch­back.

I had been in­vited to the colour­ful knees-up un­veil­ing, dom­i­nated by the song, The Vaux­hall Chevette is what­ever you want it to be. Gen­eral Mo­tors would use the song as a back­grounder to the UK tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and to­day, 40 years later, I still re­late the car to the mu­sic.

So, where have all the Chevettes gone? GM built around 10,000 of them at the Tren­tham plant in the Hutt Val­ley north of Welling­ton over a five-year pe­riod, but most have dis­ap­peared. The Chevette was the last Bri­tish sourced, Vaux­hall-badged car to be as­sem­bled in New Zealand, and it was a sig­nif­i­cant ve­hi­cle in more ways than one.

Small Car Chal­lenger

This new Chevette was also a good deal bet­ter than most peo­ple re­al­ized. In­tro­duced as a hatch­back mea­sur­ing just 3944mm, the rear-driven ‘su­per mini’ would later evolve into a four-door sedan and three-door sta­tion wagon. Shorter than the Vaux­hall Viva that had been the marque’s best lo­cal seller, the Chevette was part of the GM line-up un­til 1977.

The Chevette was also one of GM’S T-plat­form world cars, based on the 1973 Ger­man Opel Kadett. Other ‘T’ cars in­cluded the Aus­tralian Holden Gemini, Ja­panese Isuzu Gemini, North Amer­i­can Chevrolet Chevette and South Amer­i­can Pon­tiac Aca­dian.

GM New Zealand badly needed the Chevette to counter the grow­ing mass of small Ja­panese cars. The brand had seen its lo­cal mar­ket share dwin­dle from an in­dus­try-lead­ing 23.6 per cent in 1972, to less than 10 per cent four years later. Chevette’s Kiwi launch in Oc­to­ber 1976 co­in­cided with 50 years of GM op­er­a­tions in New Zealand, and the fol­low­ing year a lo­cally as­sem­bled notch­back sedan be­came avail­able. Sta­tion wagon and van vari­ants fur­ther widened the Chevette line-up, but it was al­ways the hatch that the mar­ket per­ceived as the iconic model. An au­to­matic op­tion was added to the GM’S 1980 CKD pro­gramme.

Dur­ing the early years the car was usu­ally in the top-10model sales list, and in the late ’70s GM was do­ing close to 100 Chevettes a week for the 100-strong New Zealand dealer net­work. The Gen­eral’s new baby was eighth most popular car in 1978 with sales of 2475, while 1979 was the car’s best year, with 2653 sales in a larger over­all mar­ket, drop­ping the Chevette to 10th-best-sell­ing new car in New Zealand.

Ini­tially, the Vaux­hall out­sold ri­vals like the Honda Civic and

road­hold­ing and han­dling bet­tered the Kadett equiv­a­lent be­cause of less rear body over­hang and bet­ter weight dis­tri­bu­tion. In my orig­i­nal road test I com­mented about the good steer­ing feel, lack of body roll and mild un­der­steer when press­ing on, as well as the pre­dictabil­ity and fine bal­ance in wet con­di­tions. “There is never any sud­den loss of grip or con­trol, and even if the driver backs off while ne­go­ti­at­ing a cor­ner at high speed the un­der­steer will change only grad­u­ally to over­steer. A very safe car and great fun to drive, while crosswinds have lit­tle ef­fect.”

Some sort of com­pro­mise had to be reached with the sus­pen­sion, and while the han­dling and road­hold­ing could not be faulted, the car’s ride tended to be harsh and a lit­tle bouncy on all but the smoothest of roads. Front disc/rear drum brak­ing was pow­er­ful and pro­gres­sive.

Rear seat legroom was a lim­it­ing fac­tor, but the driv­ing po­si­tion was good, although the brake pedal was too high and legroom in­ad­e­quate for tall driv­ers. The Ger­man Opel-de­signed seats were well shaped, but in facelift mod­els the front seat backs were carved out to gain some much-needed space for rear-seat pas­sen­gers.

Bri­tain’s First Hatch­back

The Chevette broke ground for usu­ally con­ser­va­tive Vaux­hall at a time when hatch­backs were thin on the ground. This was the first Bri­tish hatch­back, a year ahead of the Ford Fi­esta, and pre­dat­ing Ley­land’s Mini Metro by five years. Vaux­hall sold 415,000 Chevettes in the UK, and New Zealand joined Ecuador and Uruguay as the only three ex­port mar­kets as­sem­bling the model. Lo­cal build stan­dards were up to mid ’70s lev­els — that means, not very good. The Chevette es­tate I eval­u­ated on lo­cal roads in 1980 had poor paint­work and doors that needed slam­ming, un­like the Uk-built equiv­a­lents that were much bet­ter built.

While the car was me­chan­i­cally sim­i­lar to the Kadett, there was no doubt designer Wayne Cherry pro­duced a bet­ter-look­ing model with its droop-snoot nose and tidy rear-end styling. Amer­i­can-born Cherry came with im­pres­sive cre­den­tials as a mem­ber of the de­sign team on the orig­i­nal Ca­maro and Pon­tiac Firebird and the 1966 Oldsmo­bile Toron­ado. Cherry, whose per­sonal cars in­cluded a Fer­rari and an el­derly Roll­sRoyce, al­ways wanted the Chevette to have a sporty look, and in the ’80s he was still driv­ing a spe­cially mod­i­fied ex­am­ple as his daily driver — a 2300 HS fit­ted with F1-style side skirts and a deep air dam.

Seven years af­ter the ar­rival of the Chevette, Cherry reck­oned the car was stand­ing the test of time. “It’s a fairly sim­ple de­sign but I am still very pleased with it,” he said. “The styling hasn’t dated much, the en­gi­neer­ing and the in­tegrity of the car are good. In a way it’s a clas­sic — just a nice, su­per lit­tle car. If we were do­ing it over I don’t think we would do it any dif­fer­ently.”

Hav­ing been sec­onded to Vaux­hall in the UK dur­ing 1965 for what was in­tended to be a tem­po­rary as­sign­ment, Cherry ended up work­ing in Europe for 26 years, be­com­ing re­spon­si­ble for the de­sign of all GM Euro­pean pas­sen­ger cars. He went on to be­come GM vice pres­i­dent of de­sign at head of­fice be­fore re­tir­ing in 2004.

Chevettes are sim­ple, re­li­able cars and are easy to work on, with fea­tures like bolt-on front guards and easy ac­cess in the roomy en­gine bay. The won­der of it all to­day is their scarcity on our used-car mar­ket. Good ex­am­ples fetch around $4000, while the rare, be-spoil­ered 2300 HS com­mands high prices in the UK. The most likely prob­lem will be rust around the sharp edges of the nose.

The Chevette’s time­less styling makes it one of the bet­ter Bri­tish cars from the ’70s, and it prob­a­bly should have done bet­ter in New Zealand. It was, per­haps, ini­tially living in the shadow of the Viva, or was seen by con­sumers as a last relic be­fore GM NZ switched from Vaux­hall to Holden. Ei­ther way, it was a very good car, more de­serv­ing of a big­ger im­pact on our mar­ket.

GM NZ used Denny Hulme to pro­mote the facelifted Chevette in its pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial

Paul Adams in the GM Dealer Team Chevette 2300 HS on his way to sec­ond place in the 1981 New Zealand rally cham­pi­onship

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