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.