1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback

My then-fiancée (now ex-wife), as a recent immigrant from the Philippines, did not know how to drive at the time we were dating. I did expect (seriously hope) to have a family shortly after we were married. My fiancée did not want to learn to use a clutch, even after she learned to drive, and the Chevy Luv was not suited for a family car. So, shortly after we settled into our house in the South Bay San Diego area, we went out car shopping. I was particularly looking for an inexpensive (econobox) car with automatic transmission that would be suited for a family vehicle.

I spotted a car ad in our local newspaper one afternoon from a local Chevy dealer. After diner that evening my fiancée and I went down to check it out. The car in the ad turned out to be a brown 1980 Chevy Chevette hatchback with an automatic transmission. It looked like a typical American-built econobox very popular at the time. It wasn’t very attractive, didn’t have any spectacular engineering features, but it did have an automatic transmission and was in my price range. We drove it home late that evening.

The next morning, I hopped in to drive it to work, and it would not start. I called into work (assigned to a submarine tender) and then called AAA towing service. The tow company showed up and managed to get it started, suspecting a bad starter motor. I drove it directly back to the dealer’s repair shop. A while later, the mechanic came over and explained the car had a faulty starter motor that would cost about $300 to repair.

I had purchased the car “As Is,” meaning no warranty, but California also had the infamous “Lemon Law,” which allowed a buyer to return a car to the dealer within three days for any reason. I decided I was not going to pay for a new starter the day after buying the car, so I tracked down the Dealership Owner. I briefly explained the problem – purchased last night wouldn’t start this morning, $300 estimate for replacing the starter. The owner, a sour-looking person, asked me “Did you buy it as-is?” I answered “yes, but I was told it was in good mechanical order. I will not pay for major repairs on a car I just purchased yesterday.” He looked at me hard, and then bit out “Fine.” I watched him go over to the repair shop and bark out “put a rebuilt starter in that Chevette and get it out of here.” I felt pretty good, wining one over a dealer.

The first long trip we took in it was a drive to Las Vegas, a few days after we were married. It ran okay, and was also the first time I used cruise control. A few weeks after we were married, I found a driving teacher for my wife, she learned to drive, got her license, and from then on the Chevette was mostly her car.

The car ran reasonably well over the next few years but did require occasional repairs that challenged my mechanical ability. One day my new bride told me that a red light on the dash had come on – the brake light. Alarmed, I asked her if the brakes worked. She answered yes, but I decided to take it for a test drive anyway. I slowly backed out of the driveway, applied the brakes, and the car didn’t even slow down; the brake master cylinder was completely empty of brake fluid. I still don’t know how she was able to stop the car coming home.

In the spring of 1989 I received orders to Naples, Italy. As part of our overseas move we were authorized to ship one car. I had purchased a brand new 1988 Isuzu LS pickup a few months earlier and did not want to bring that overseas while still making payments. So, we opted to ship the Chevette.

In September 1989 we drove the car up to the military shipping point in Long Beach, California. My wife’s cousin followed us up there, and after we dropped the car off brought us to the airport to fly out. We arrived in Naples in early October, 1989.

The car arrived in Naples, Italy in late December. I went through the bureaucratic hassle of registering the car as an “AFI” vehicle, under Status of Forces (SoF) agreements, which kept me from paying a 100% import duty on the car. Being an AFI car also earned me duty-free gasoline coupons which saved approximately $5 per gallon of gas on the local economy prices.

The following spring we had a small fender-bender with the car, not uncommon for Italian driving. While driving on a secondary highway (the Domiziana) a car suddenly stopped right in front of me. I couldn’t stop in time and ran into the rear of the other car crushing our right front corner and headlamp. The other local Italian-built car was much worse for the encounter.

I couldn’t get the parts needed to fix the car locally but I was able to at least get a replacement headlamp by calling family back in the U.S. The accident shook up both my wife and I. We also realized just how difficult it would be to make any major repairs to the car should it need them. After a bit of discussion we decided to buy a local European vehicle. Due to Status of Forces (SoF) rules we could not own two AFI-plated vehicles, so we knew we would have to sell the Chevette. After a bit of shopping we purchased a nice Mercedes diesel sedan that my wife really liked.

I placed an ad in the local base newspaper to sell the Chevette and several days later were contacted by an army couple who had just arrived. They test drove the car, we haggled a bit, and the car was sold. My wife couldn’t watch the car being driven away – it was her first car.

I did see the Chevette several times afterward during the two-plus remaining years we lived in Italy. I honestly don’t know if it ever returned to the U.S.

Ron Charest

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