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Why This Weird Black Rectangle On The 1980s Chevy Sprint Is So Utterly Baffling

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Remember the 1980s Chevy Sprint? It was something of a strange car. It got its start as GM’s M-Car project, which was going to be a small economy car. Prior to completion, GM decided that it couldn’t make any money, so it sold the project to Suzuki to finish the job in exchange for a chunk of Suzuki ownership. That whole story is worth digging into more, but for right now I just want to focus on one odd detail of the car that came from this project: the hood latch on the Chevy Sprint.

Well, really, it’s the hood latch on the first-generation Suzuki Cultus, which was sold as the Chevy Sprint in America, because “Cultus” sounds like both “cult” and “penis” all at once, and that’s not a likely path to sell sensible economy cars in the U.S.. Sports cars, maybe.

The same basic car was also called a Suzuki Swift, Holden Barina, Pontiac Firefly, Suzuki Forsa, and a Suzuki Khyber, depending on all kinds of variables like what market and the astrological sign you were born under and your blood type, probably.

No matter what it was called, the car was a pretty conventional small hatchback city car, with a little transverse three- or four-cylinder engine (the Chevy Sprint had a 993cc 48 horsepower inline-3 – maybe the smallest mass-market engine Chevy has ever sold in America?) and pretty straightforward styling.

The car had styling differences depending on trim levels and how it was badge-engineered; Suzuki had hot-hatch versions with air dams and extra lights and different grille designs, while Chevy, which was positioning the car at the very bottom of the lineup, had versions that used cheaper U.S.-spec sealed-beam rectangular headlights, as you can see in that flyer.

But, no matter how the car was badged or marketed or if it had the top of the line 1.2-liter 16 valve engine or the smallest triple-banger, all the cars had this:

A funny little rectangle right front and center on the hood that acted as the secondary hood latch.

On the Suzukis, the latch was combined with a Suzuki badge, so it had a bit of a branding function as well. On other versions, like the Holden and the Chevy, it was just a black rectangle:

The reason this little, seemingly insignificant detail sticks with me is that I can’t really fathom why Suzuki would want to design their hood latch this way. I can’t think of another car that does a secondary (by that I mean you know how you pull that handle to release the hood, then there’s the secondary safety latch you usually have to feel around under the hood with your fingers for? That’s what I mean by secondary) hood latch like this.

The early Ford Transits had a hidden hood latch under the grille badge:

…but that was a full-on hood lock, not just the release, so it’s not really the same. And, even that was hidden; I can’t think of any other car that just has the secondary release sitting like a big, obvious button like this.

Maybe Suzuki did it that way because the company always intended to have some kind of hood badge? That’s possible, but it’s not like a rectangular hood badge was a Suzuki brand trademark; other Suzukis of this era had nothing like it:

Of course, on the Chevy there was no badge, just that black plastic rectangle. What makes this even more baffling is that there’s no way the external push-button latch deal could be cheaper than the sort of cheapo stamped-metal hood latch used on most cars, including other Suzukis:

Those things don’t have to be finished or refined like most external car trim or parts; they’re just a simple metal stamping–the Swift/Sprint-type latch has to have a mechanism similar to this, plus a plastic button, plus a bezel, plus has to be mounted on the hood–on a cheap car. I just don’t get it.

Also not helping me understand any of this is this gleefully baffling ad Suzuki made for the Swift, which our pal Murilee found a while back:

That strange black latch is one of those little details that once you see you can never ignore, and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Was somewhat easier-than-normal hood opening a big selling point of the car? Did people like the look of that little black domino sitting on their car’s nose?

What am I not getting here? Why am I thinking about this? Does this bother anyone else? Should I seek help?

Please discuss.

 

(thanks to The Bishop! Images from Suzuki, Chevy, Wikimedia Commons, eBay)

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64 Responses

  1. I have owned two Turbo Sprints and I must say that it was very nice to not have to hunt for the often sharp metal tab under the hood. Suzukis are dependable enough that you never remember exactly where the latch is located. Plus, your fingers won’t get dirty (yet) from opening the hood.

    1. why? that was a proper hot hatch of the era; MK1 Swift GTi had a 1.3 liter 16v twin cam engine making 101 HP, while weighing ca 750kg… It wasn’t fast by today standards, but it certainly was quick and nimble. I might be biased though, as I had a swift and it was a blast – you know, slow car fast!

    2. Internationally, Peugeot had already done it on the 205, so maybe that was enough for them to feel comfortable that VW didn’t own a particular set of letters (although, in retrospect, ballsy considering Peugeot raised a stink that they owned all *0* numbered names when Porsche tried to release the 901). Alternatively, maybe one of the guys that decided it was okay for Pontiac to use GTO got shuffled off to Suzuki towards the end of his career?

      1. It’s not a trademark issue, but rather that Suzuki chose the Swift–with its little sewing machine engine–to be its GTi standard-bearer!

        GT, its GTi variant, and GTO are automotive class descriptions and not model names, which is why Ferrari couldn’t sue GM over the Pontiac GTO. The funny thing is, Pontiac filed the paperwork with FIA in ’64 and actually raced it as a production car, so it was officially registered as a homologated grand touring car (Gran Turismo Omologato). Take that Enzo!

        1. The Swift/Cultus GTi is a typical GTi, marginally smaller than the norm but with more than respectable performance for the day. A Golf GTi of the same vintage has 8.6kg/PS, the Swift GTi has 7.2kg/PS. The Peugeot 205 GTi 1.6 has 7.9kg/PS. Even the Golf GTi 16V has 6.9kg/PS.
          Suzuki’s smallest hot hatch at the time was the Suzuki Alto Works RS/R Twin Cam Turbo 4WD, so “GTi” is a relatively restrained label. Fun trivia: there was briefly a five-door version of the GTi, but it was called the GXi. Never seen one outside of brochures, though.

  2. You are only confused by this because:
    a) You feel like it should have a lightbulb in it
    b) It does not have a lightbulb in it

    Because, if it had a lightbulb in it, you would not be confused.

  3. “Cultus” sounds like both “cult” and “penis”

    You are surprisingly close but wrong. Cultus is defined as “A group of people performing cunnilingus”.

    Also (sorry, can’t post pics here) shame on you Jason for not using this one little extra reference point. Go look at your Beetle’s frunk handle.

  4. A girlfriend long ago had one. She drove it like a maniac. But I don’t remember the car well enough to say for sure why it had the button.

    I’m pretty sure it was a space consideration. Things were pretty tight under the hood near the nose, and unlike the Samurai of the same year, the Sprint had a thin, flat hood. A conventional latch would probably interfere with the radiator, radiator support, and the fan shroud.

    The Geo Metro she bought after the Sprint had a curved hood that allowed space for a conventional latch.

  5. Some executive got embarrassed trying to find the standard release when a sexual joke was made, possibly referencing Dr Gräfenberg… Face saving required a redesign. The cars happy button is right up where it belongs.

  6. I know this is definitely a far better execution, but the Bentley Continental has essentially the same set up.
    You release the primary latch from inside and the center of the hood badge pops up and you pull on it to release the secondary latch and lift the bonnet.

    https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRp8yr4d30C2-_rfrHtuUn_6ysFvsB5Dm8cIQ&usqp=CAU

    This obviously works a lot better on a bespoke design, hidden nicely within the visual features of the badge, but still, same-same really.

    1. The car that’s reputation was probably tanked by a comedian in the UK…
      Rabbit Hole: Gareth Cheeseman/Steve Coogan- Ford Probe
      On the plus side if you want one it was a badge engineered Mazda (MX-6)

  7. I feel like that external button would freeze solid in a typical Midwestern winter. No real way to test it, though, because any of these sold around here dissolved like sugar cubes sometime in the early 90s.

  8. We had an ’86 Sprint in my family. It had the better looking non-sealed-beam headlights. I think the rear suspension was also upgraded for the ’86 model year. That little car worked better than it had any right to. I thought it was genuinely fun to drive. It was so light, that 48 horsepower seemed like plenty.

    Regarding the hood latch, I always thought it was a great feature. No need to get your hand all dirty searching for a more typical hidden hood latch. I wish my current car had that feature. Every time I want to add washer fluid or change the oil, my hand gets all dirty looking for that damn hidden release

  9. As a prior owner of a 1974 Jensen Healey I would have loved this. That cable from the front of the hood to u Der the dash gets bent or something you can’t get it to open without a complete replacement and it is expensive a few decades later. Give me a cheap easy access always going to work option and I will pay more money rather than the newest fancy pants crap the fails after 6 months.
    Sometimes even car guys just want shit to work.

  10. I kinda like this. I hate fumbling with hidden secondary latches, and I’m guessing this setup does away with that. Probably not that much more expensive to build, otherwise I’m willing to bet they’d have gone with a more traditional setup. Which would suck because then you wouldn’t have this to write about.

    1. Suzuki were (are?) well known for being extremely cost conscious. They won the contract to provide India with a People’s Car (the Maruti) when the Indians realized that Suzuki ran their offices without air conditioning to save money, with all their executives working in shirt sleeves. Extremely unusual in Japan. The downside is that the paint on Suzukis is always quite a bit thinner than one would have hoped.

  11. Regarding the smallest Chevy engine, as I recall, the Chevy Spark (called the Joy in Pakistan or the Lechi in China) actually had a 796cc I3, (S-Tec 13) and the I4 was 995cc (S-Tec 14). But you could blow your wad on a 1.2 liter variant hot rod, (S-Tec II 14) if you were flush with cash. Some markets got a little Polish 1.3L diesel as an option, (I just love the idea of a tiny Polish diesel for some reason) but that was never offered in North America, to my knowledge.

  12. It may have cost a bit more but I think that the convenience of not having to fumble for a hidden lever in a 2″ slot makes this idea a worthwhile one. The more I think about it, I think they should be mandatory.

  13. My family had two of these when I was growing up. A silver ’87 4-door (which was totaled like a tin-can when we were rear-ended) and then a red ’88 2-door. I always told my dad we should get a knock-off Ferrari emblem to cover up the black button. He did not find that as amusing as my 16 year old self did. That thing got like 60mpg on the highway though, which was amazing. Fun fact though, any speeds over 65 would make the whole car shake so much that a cassette tape would skip in the player. Good times.

  14. I remember selling these used in the early 1990s in Florida.

    These secondary latches worked well enough for a couple of years, at least until the Florida sun took its toll on the cheap plastic and the damn thing broke to a nub that gave no leverage against the latch. That required a lot of calls to find a dealer who carried the part, much less kept them in stock.

  15. Some random factoids;

    You could only buy a 1985 Sprint on the west coast, as a 3-door hatchback. Likewise the NUMMI Nova was sold only in the Midwest (even though it was built in CA) as a 4-door sedan, and the Isuzu-built Spectrum was only offered on the east coast (albeit in both its’ body styles from the start, 3-door hatch or 4-door sedan). 1986 model year brought a 5-door hatch to the Sprint and Nova lines and national distribution for all.

    The North American-market Suzuki branded version was called Forsa, not Cultus (or Swift as later). It was actually sold in Canada but I have no evidence of any Suzuki-branded passenger cars actually existing in America before the 1989 Swift, although the Forsa was duly listed in the EPA Gas Mileage Guide. My hunch is that Chevy was taking Suzuki’s entire quota.

    The 1989 redesign (Geo Metro/Suzuki Swift) was heavily influenced by if not entirely done at GM Design, it lost the external hood latch and also didn’t have a hatch that opened all the way to the bumper. I can also speak from experience that the transmission is beefier, I test drove a couple used Sprints in the early ’90s and they both jumped out of second and sometimes even third gear, I never had that problem with the ’93 Metro I owned for 5 years around the turn of the millennium.

    1. The Forsa was sold in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, but never in mainland USA aside from a small test run. It was still listed in many used car price guides, which always frustrated me back in the days as I could never find one for sale.

    2. 100% agree about the transmission. I learned to drive a stick in a Sprint, which was entertaining, to say the least. I was given an 87′ Nova hand-me-down as my first car and then when that bad boy died in college, I got my brother’s 92′ Metro four-door.
      For the Metro being what it was, that little guy could take a beating. I delivered many a pizza in that thing with nary a problem. As a graduation gift (and also because the old man said he would be embarrassed for me to go to a job interview in a Metro) he paid the lease for a new Chevy Prism, telling me this was the last car I’m ever getting from his wallet, haha. That Prism, which was just a rebadged Corrolla was a pretty damn good car and decently fun to drive as it was also a stick.

  16. A kid I went to school with went through two turbo versions one year. He crashed the first one into an antique hay baler after falling asleep at the wheel, and the second one got whacked during one of the rare snow storms we had there. I can’t remember his name but I remember the silly red one that hit the tractor and the bumper dangling off the back of the white one. Good times.

  17. My mother-in-law had one of those. We bought her a new stove and I managed to get it wedge in the hatch to move it home. It was friction fit and would only go have way in.

    I gave it a slap, said ‘That’s going nowhere’ and drove it home.

    1. Similar fun can be had at full-service gas stations when you’ve got an old American car with the filler behind the rear plate. There weren’t a ton of teenage station attendants who knew where to look on a ’72 Cutlass in the late ’80s. I’d let them tell me I’d pulled up on the wrong side – “oh, sorry, let me move” – and (briefly) enjoy their befuddlement once I’d moved the car.

  18. Seems sensible to me. Since you still have to pull the dingus under the dash, it doesn’t seem like an additional security risk. Why not make hood opening slightly easier if it’s not hard/complicated/expensive to do?

    1. Exactly. I owned a brown 1986 Chevy Sprint. I enjoyed the ease of opening the hood with the black button. Much better than feeling around blindly for some hidden latch.

        1. Absolutely. The Suzuki emblem was just stripped ofd and a bare black latch was left. This was, I think, the cheapest car you could buy in the US at that time. And it showed. The air conditioner was a little button you pressed to make cold air, for example. That should be discussed.

      1. But the Suzuki version, the one with the S logo, actually doesn’t look horrible at all. It’s just a wee hood ornament, appropriately understated and low profile for an inexpensive car of the era, that happens to double as something useful. The plain black ones aren’t necessarily styling triumphs, but I like the ones with the red S.

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