At my local Rad-era car meetup, Triangle Rad, there’s someone who brings in a beautifully preserved Chevy Celebrity wagon. I see the car, and I appreciate that it still exists and all that, but if I’m honest, all it really does is remind me of how powerfully I don’t give a shit about the Chevy Celebrity. The shits I don’t give about these cars are some of the finest ever crafted by human colons. My apathy is just that intense — a bright, burning intensely beige glow of who-gives-a-shit. That’s because I was surrounded by all manner of Chevy Celebrities growing up, and they were very much the NPC of cars. In the grand salad of the automotive landscape, they were iceberg lettuce. They took up space, filled in the holes, and were the means by which people could start in one place, sit for a while, and end up in another. There was one Celebrity, however, that did sort of stand out, at least a little bit: The Celebrity Eurosport VR. These weren’t great cars, but they’re interestingly revealing cars — odd artifacts that give an insight into the American automotive mind at that time and place. In short, they’re Glorious Garbage.
I guess I should talk about the basic Chevy Celebrity first, huh? I may as well. Built between 1982 and 1990, the Celebrity was part of the GM A platform, its first front-engine/front-wheel drive mid-size platform. They sold over two million of these things in their various body styles – sedans, coupés, and wagons. The reason I felt like I saw them everywhere is because they very much were everywhere. The most common setup for a Celebrity seemed to be the three-speed auto with a 90 horsepower 2.5-liter Iron Duke engine. Not exactly pulse-quickening.
They also came in diesel versions and with 2.8-liter V6 or a 3.1-liter V6 at the very end, but I don’t think most people bought these for the performance or driving dynamics. I think most people bought these because the Celebrity was A Car.
Of course, that wasn’t enough for at least some of the designers and engineers at Chevy, who felt there needed to be a more engaging version of the Celebrity, and, in what I can only read as a strange act of national insecurity, this version was called the Eurosport. Because, I suppose, at the time, Europe was more associated with cars that emphasized performance and driving engagement, the most obvious example of which was likely the BMW 3 series. Maybe some Audis, too?
While generally the same basic shape, the Celebrity was very much not a BMW 3 series, but I think that’s what the designers and engineers and marketing people were targeting. Seeing exactly what was done to the basic Celebrity to “Euro-ify” it is pretty fascinating, because I think it gives a glimpse into what GM’s people felt the crucial differences in American and European car design were. Looking at the result, you’d think the biggest defining trait of Europe was a severe distaste for chrome and a love for black paint.
As you can see, mostly the Eurosport just blacked out all the chrome on the door handles and window trim and bumpers, added some red accent lines around the car and on the seat piping, and, boom, it’s like you’re spending a week in Berlin.
Aside from blacking out the chrome, the Eurosport also got a black steering wheel, heavier-duty suspension, and the option of the 2.8-liter V6 engine making a fiercely adequate 130 hp.
I mean, the blacked-out/red detailing-look wasn’t bad, but I’m not really sure how it equated to European. I guess the Volkswagen GTI did some stuff like this? And, sure, Europe generally didn’t have the same fetish for chrome everywhere that America had – I mean, nobody did, really. Also, they missed out on an easy way to enEuro-ificate the car: add amber rear indicators! But no, GM wasn’t willing to go that far. Don’t forget, on the Vega they put in amber rear lenses and then cheaped out on putting bulbs behind them.
Now, this mild Euro-ization, which added about as much Europe to the car as spreading a bit of Nutella on the car and letting it complain to you about how we don’t appreciate the National Parks System in America, just wasn’t enough. Chevy wanted a halo Celebrity, so they needed to do something more.
GM looked to a smaller company called AutoStyle to help them out, and started the process in 1986 by building a show car called the Celebrity Eurosport RS. This one-off added a lot of body kit plastic to the lower nether regions of the Celebrity, giving it a sort of Euro-tuner look, like what Alpina might have done if they wanted to make BMW feel jealous, or at least a little less secure. The engine was 3.3-liter V6 with an alloy block that never actually made it to production.
Reaction to the show car must have been pretty positive, because starting in 1987 anyone buying a Celebrity sedan – or, significantly, a wagon! (and the next year, the coupé) – could shell out an anus-clamping $3,500 for the VR option package, which was the production interpretation of the RS show car. For reference, back in 1987, the VR package would have cost about $9,500 in today’s money, and this on a car that started at $10,265 (about $28,000 today), so we’re talking tacking on a third more of the whole price of the car for this advanced Euro-ization.
So, what did all that cash get you, exactly? There were the styling changes, most notably, including the new bumper skins with air dams and the other stuck-on ground effect plastics, but most noticeably is the strange grille-delete option. Yes, the grille was replaced with an odd silver-ish blanking panel, because who wants all that superfluous air getting into that 2.8-liter V6? I guess the enlarged under-bumper air intake provided enough cooling, and maybe there was some aero advantage to swapping that grille for a wall.
The engine and suspension in the VR weren’t any different than the normal Eurosport, so we’re still talking about 145 hp and getting from parked to 60 in about 9 seconds. Not terrible, but hardly amazing, even for the era, and certainly nothing to Compuserve-message home about. The VR in came in black, silver, white, and that Code Red color from Corvettes and Camaros. You could get it with a five-speed Getrag manual shifter, or, if you hated yourself a bit, a four-speed automatic, and, if you hated yourself a lot, you could even get a three-speed auto shoved in there.
The Celebrity was never really planned on being a car where people would be shifting their own gears, so there wasn’t a nice big tachometer offered. The manual VR really demanded one, leading GM to make one of the most gloriously half-assed tachometers ever:
Look at that! In the little window normally reserved for the automatic’s PRNDL indicator, GM developed a tiny, tiny LED-based tachometer. You drop about a third the price of the whole car for this VR package, and GM was still too cheap to design a new instrument cluster with a real tachometer? Think how much better a couple of round gauges would have looked in that cluster, with a nice big, graphic tach! As it is, all GM proved is that they’re absolutely loath to let a perfectly good hole in the dash go to waste, no matter how tiny.
So, if we’re re-capping here, what’s the overall take on the Celebrity Eurosport VR? It was a boring-ass car with some kind of silly faux-Euroification and body kit plastic that had some mild performance enhancements, but very little that justified the huge cost of the option package, especially since the regular Eurosport drove about as well. That all adds up to the Garbage part of Glorious Garbage nicely. So where do we find the glory?
I think in this case, all the glory comes from this one significant detail: you could get all of this stuff on a wagon.
A fast (ish) tough-looking wagon available pretty much anywhere in 1980s America was a glorious thing. Hell, it still is! A wagon that was roomy and useful and could do all the wagon things but still let you jam a gearshift around and make mouth vroom sounds when you threw it into a corner, your un-seat-belted children smacking their heads against window glass with screeches of delight and maybe some pain as they slide around that back seat like a hockey player’s teeth on the ice.
Of course, hardly anyone took advantage of this incredible wagon-tunity offered them, since only a bit over 1600 Celebrity Eurosport VRs were actually sold.
There was no way the Celebrity Eurosport VR was ever really competition to the actual Euro cars from BMW or Audi or Mercedes or even Volvo, but in a way, I like that they tried. Sure, it was sort of a Halloween costume for an American family car to dress up like a 3-Series, but if you’re having fun, who gives a shit, right?
The Celebrity Eurosport VR was, objectively, garbage. But, put all that crap on a wagon, and then, somehow it transforms into something magical! Still pretty shitty, yes, but magically shitty. Or at least shitty with an optional rear-facing jump seat.