Taking The Oddball Vauxhall Chevette HSR Around Trinidad & Tobago
Photography by Kevin Singh
There are two questions I’m commonly asked when I take my Vauxhall Chevette HSR out of the garage. The first one is “What kind of car is that?” I suppose it doesn’t help that the car has no external badging except for “Chevette” on the tailgate. The question that often follows, is “Where did you get it?” And if the conversation continues, I end up explaining that the fiberglass wide body kit is all original, and it has the original sixteen valve, double overhead cam 2.3L four-cylinder engine, breathing through twin 48mm Dell’Orto carburetors.
Living on the twin island nation of Trinidad & Tobago, there are few, if any people that understand what it means to own a truly rare production car. Not rare as in the case of “This is one of only twenty Toyota FRS’ on the island,” but rare as in only one of 34 ever built, anywhere, and one of probably 29 surviving cars, with maybe less than a dozen on the road back in the UK where this car originated.
When Vauxhall launched its 1,256cc Chevette range back in 1976, its dealer-run racing outfit Dealer Team Vauxhall decided it was time to go rallying. Thus the Vauxhall Chevette HS was born. This car was powered by a 2.3L inline-four engine taken from the Bedford CF panel van, which was mated to a 16-valve twin cam head that was built specifically for the HS. A total of 400 cars were supposed to be built to meet homologation rules, but it’s widely accepted that the real figure was closer to 200. The Chevette HSR was a further evolution of the HS, with the wide body fiberglass kit, five-link rear end, and optional Dell’Orto carburetors. While 50 cars were supposed to be built to satisfy homologation regulations, only 34 cars actually were, all converted from HSes.
My dad, who was a lifelong Vauxhall fan, saw the HSR in Vauxhall’s company magazine Vauxhall Motorist, and immediately fell in love. Back then, he used to order racing parts for his Viva GT from a Vauxhall dealership called McGregor Garages, through their sales manager, Mr. Roger Fielding. When Dad enquired about the HSR, he was told by Mr. Fielding that all 50 of them were already sold, but McGregors could possibly acquire an unsold HS and have it converted to HSR spec. This was back before we had the luxury of telephone calls, and all negotiations were done via typewritten letters!
So, an HS was secured from another dealership and sent to DTV’s workshop to be converted to HSR spec, and then on to Wood and Pickett to have special Recaro seats fitted, along with matching rear upholstery. Once the car was paid for, it was shipped to Trinidad. This was in 1981. Dad kept the car for a few years, and then sold it. He bought it back in 1991, and we have had it ever since.
Owning a car like this poses unique challenges, particularly here in the Caribbean. Many components such as the secondary gauge cluster were borrowed from other low-volume models in the GM range. However, many other components such as the cylinder head, door panels, and front indicators are unique to the car, and can pose a challenge to replace. As a result, the car has never been driven as often as I would I would like, typically covering less than one hundred miles in a year, and those usually just to autocross events or the odd car show. At the start of 2017 however, I made a decision to spend more time driving the car, taking it to as many interesting parts of the country as I could; weather and road conditions permitting.
The HSR is a great car for motoring down a winding backroad. Probably the greatest appeal comes from the sound of the engine, especially above 3,500rpm. The induction roar has that unmistakable rasp that can only come from two large side-draft carburetors feeding four large cylinders through eight intake valves. The engine revs freely past the 6,500rpm redline if you’re not careful, especially in the first three gears of the close-ratio five-speed Getrag gearbox. With a four-branch tubular exhaust manifold and a single muffler, the noise out back makes sure you’re heard long before you’re seen, especially at 4:00am on a Saturday morning, which is the time I hit the road on February 11th.
My first drive of 2017 needed to be something epic, something that would take the car well beyond its comfort zone. The route would be from my home close to the western coast, north, and then east along the two major highways, and then south along the east coast, with waves driven in from the Atlantic keeping me company all the way to Mayaro Beach along the south-eastern coast of Trinidad. The round trip would be just about 200 kilometers, punctuated only by the occasional stop for photos to document the drive.
Empty highway miles are not the most entertaining in the HSR, as the short gearing limits your top speed, and even in fifth, the engine feels like it’s working harder than it should. As I exit the highway at its easternmost point and begin the drive toward the coast, the roads are typical developing-nation bad. On more than a few occasions, I crawl along in first or second, wondering if this much abuse to the suspension is really worth it. The lumpy idle of the mild race cams reminds me of what’s in store when I finally make it to the east coast though, and the road begins to open up.
It is almost sunrise now, and horizontal shafts of light begin peering through the coconut trees of the old estates. I am grateful to those farmers from a century ago for replacing the natural vegetation with a postcard-perfect view as I shift up into third and the coconut trees that line the road begin to blur, and bulge of the fiberglass bonnet flickers in the alternating bands of shade and sunrise. And there’s that wonderful noise again that makes the last half of our broken roadway fade into memory.
I stop at the mouth of the Nariva River for a few photos, just as the sun begins to peek over the horizon. This is the other reason I love the HSR; while it’s not a beautiful car in the traditional way that my MGB GT is for instance, the combination of early hot hatch size and style and purposeful flared arches that were unconventional for its time makes for a truly unique shape. At the time of its launch, Vauxhall said that the boxed fender flare design would endure for 20 years. 37 years on, and its influence can still be seen on modern designs, to the point where I am always asked who made the bodykit for the car. Locals are always stunned to learn this was how the car left the factory in 1980, especially when their point of reference for the era is usually the Mk2 Ford Escort.
The next few miles of coastline are almost completely free of traffic, and offer a rare opportunity to put the car through its paces. The corners are flat and you can see far enough past them through the trees to know that it’s safe to drop a gear and clip an apex. The pedals are straight out of the standard car, and not properly laid out for heel and toe downshifts, so you have to judge your braking and corner entry speeds perfectly for smooth downshifts. You also have to remember that unlike in your other cars, first gear here is on a dog leg, so every upshift and downshift is an exercise in mentally keeping tabs on where you need to go to find the right gear.
That’s another part of the appeal of the HSR; it’s not a purpose-built sports car where everything is designed to deliver a focussed driving experience. You have to look down and to the left to monitor your coolant temperature and oil pressure. When you drive this car, you know right away you have to work for your reward. It’s softly sprung and firmly dampened, so you have to work with the body roll, not against it. Get it right, and you can feel the weight transfer as you unload the front wheels and exit a corner with just enough oversteer to make sure you’re paying attention. Get it wrong though, and it will try to kill you, especially if it’s wet. I stop again at a small seaside village and feel very conspicuous taking pictures of the car as a few curious fishermen look on. My hands are still a bit shaky from the adrenaline rush, so I snap a few more shots, drop back into that snug Recaro seat, and aim the bonnet north for the two hour drive back home.
As I leave the last bit of coastal road behind and contemplate the next ten miles of broken road and late morning traffic ahead, I’m already thinking about my next road trip. Perhaps to Trinidad’s Pitch Lake in La Brea, or maybe even further on to the southwestern beach of Cedros. There aren’t many options for a truly epic road trip on this small island nation, but I know one thing for sure. For me, there’s only one car to make the drive truly worthwhile.