The entire market would be hard-fought in the 1980s. Detroit found itself battling not only a deep national recession early in the decade, but also a horde of Japanese competitors, which had already captured lots of U.S. sales territory with low prices, top-notch workmanship, and superior reliability.
Though the economy began recovering after 1982, import penetration reached record levels by mid-decade -- some 35-40 percent of the total U.S. car market -- despite price increases prompted by a weakening dollar.
Much of the Japanese gains came at the expense of AMC, Chrysler, and Ford, but GM had problems of its own and suffered lower volume, too. Chevrolet's withered to about 1.6 million units for 1981, when the market was still relatively good, then to a bit under 1.4 million for 1985-87.
Meantime, the division had decided to switch rather than fight, and began selling a pair of small Japanese models with bowtie badges. But in domestic production, Chevrolet maintained its traditional number-one rank only through 1987. It was then overhauled by an increasingly aggressive Ford Division. Dearborn as a whole out-earned the General for the first time in 40 years -- and on only half the volume.
Chevy's mixed fortunes in the '80s certainly weren't for lack of product or canny marketing. GM's long-term downsizing program ushered in a spate of smaller, more-efficient new Chevys, yet old standbys were allowed to carry on so long as sales were decent.
Continuing modernization saw fuel injection (both single- and multi-point) replace carburetors on many engines, which increasingly became V-6s and inline-fours. Yet V-8s were still part of the picture, as were performance cars -- once demand for them returned around 1984.
Reflecting these trends were those three division staples of the '80s, the Monte Carlo, Chevette, and Caprice/Impala. The last saw little change following a mild 1980 "aero" reskin that freshened the basic '77 styling even if it did little for mileage as claimed. Hoods were lower, rear decks higher, and coupes exchanged their sharply creased wraparound backlights for flat panes.
Sedans used V-6s, either 229-cid Chevy or 231-cid Buick, as base power though 1984, then a 4.3-liter (262-cid) Chevy V-6. There was also a diesel V-8 option, the trouble-prone 350 Olds engine, canceled after '85 as Americans bathed again in a sea of cheap gasoline. Most of these big Chevys carried the reliable 305 small-block V8 (usually standard on wagons).
Coupes were dropped for '83, revived for '84, then dropped again four years later. The venerable Impala name was gone by '86, as Caprices had proliferated into base, Classic, Classic Brougham, and Classic LS Brougham models.
Chevy was wise to retain big rear-drive cars once Buick, Olds, and for a time, Pontiac dropped them, for they were strong sellers even in the worst of times. And when times got better, so did Caprice/Impala sales, rising from a decade low of about 185,000 units for 1982 to nearly a quarter-million a year for 1983-87. Production then dropped below 200,000, though that was still far from shabby.
The humble Chevette was similarly little changed through the '80s, an increasing sales handicap in the fast-moving small-car sector. Model-year '81 was the production peak -- nearly 434,000 units -- after which assemblies tapered off steadily each year. Yet even the swan-song '86s managed over 100,000 sales, and the lack of change enabled Chevy to keep the lid on prices.
Appearance updates were confined to a full-width grille and square headlamps for '79, bigger taillights for '80. Major mechanical changes were limited to a five-speed manual option from 1983 and an extra-cost four-cylinder diesel (from Isuzu) that was rarely ordered, probably because it made a slow car even slower. Though few mourned its passing, the Chevette had done an able job. It was simply time for better things.
The same could be said of the 1978-vintage Monte Carlo, which departed during 1988. Here, though, there was reason to mourn. A handsome '81 facelift, similar to the big Chevys', was followed at mid-1983 by a revived SS bearing a smoothly raked new nose and a 305 V-8 tuned for 175 bhp (later upped to 180). You also got a beefy suspension with fat raised-white-letter tires, plus bold exterior graphics and trunklid spoiler. Things were pretty plain inside, but luxury options weren't long in coming.
If far removed from late-'60s muscle, this new SS was hardly your typical mid-'80s Monte. In fact, it was the starting point for Chevy's latest racing stockers, which began cleaning up in NASCAR and elsewhere.
To help its teams do even better, Chevy released an SS "Aerocoupe" at mid-1986 bearing a huge, compound-curve backlight that allegedly added a few more mph on the long supertracks. It only lasted through 1987, and only some 6200 were built -- which only makes this a gilt-edged future collectible.
As ever, the most-popular Montes were the luxury sort; they were even called Luxury Sport from 1986. All sold well: more than 187,000 for '81, over 90,000 for 1982 and '83, an average 120,000 a year thereafter. Chevy might well have kept the decade-old coupe going a little longer but, again, it was time to move on.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices