Cheval Buccaneer (1980-1985)
1980 Cheval Buccaneer CL 5-door
It’s the year 1980 and the Pittsburgh Steelers win their fourth NFL title, the Rubik’s Cube makes its international debut, Ronald Regan is elected, and the Cheval Buccaneer makes its debut (well sort of). You see, the Buccaneer actually made its debut in mid-1979 as a 1980 model, making the 1980 model year an extended one. In that extended period of time, Cheval managed to move an impressive 763,398 units. However, the story does not end there, the Buccaneer was so popular that supply struggled to keep up with demand; some customers had to wait as long as four months before they received their Buccaneers. However, like all cars, the Buccaneer had its flaws…huge flaws. By the Buccaneer’s fourth model year, Cheval only managed to sell 78,934 units and by 1985, only 63,907 units. So, what happened? Well let’s go back in time.
It is 1971, Toyota has its E20 Corolla, Datsun has its 510, and then there was an assortment of other European subcompacts. After observing the playing field, Cheval releases the Vegamont to much CM fanfare. However, despite winning the Trending Auto’s Car of the Year, the Vegamont struggled with poor fuel economy (relative to its competition), suspension issues, and poor corrosion resistance. Despite all of those issues, the Vegamont was actually a good car (relative to most of its American competition), unlike the Buccaneer that would follow it.
For 1980, CM had the venerable Honda Accord in its sights, as well as the goal of capturing the American FWD compact car market. The Buccaneer and its XA-Body sisters from Imponte and Venturi were the closing act of CM’s ambitious plan to downsize all of its compact, midsize, and full-size car lines. As a matter of fact, the 1980 Buccaneer and its sister models ended up being one of the largest corporate investments ever up to that point. Some would say that CM’s greatest act of hubris lied in the fact that they thought that they could execute such a massive undertaking, given its history. The fact that the Buccaneer would be CM’s first-ever front-wheel-drive mass-market car didn’t help. The billions of dollars CM committed to its downsizing program was beginning to take its toll, and the Buccaneer was falling behind schedule. Being typical CM, they were unaccustomed to such complex demands.
1981 Buccaneer Sport Hatchback
On paper, the Buccaneer looked good, or to the automotive writers who were swooned by the Buccaneer’s “good traits” and wrote eager reports on the Buccaneer’s “Mercedes-like” handing. As expected, it won Trending Auto’s Car of the Year, which is usually a presage of the disastrous events that were soon to come.
The Buccaneer’s overall body package was very modern for the time, with a very spacious interior, a workable hatchback body (a coupe was also available but it was never a great seller), relative lightweight (roughly 2400 lbs), and it debuted a new transverse engine setup. Again, it looked great on paper.
1983 Buccaneer CL Coupe
Inexcusably, CM’s greatest corporate investment didn’t include a new four-cylinder engine. The loud, rough-running “Iron Hammer” 2.5 L OHV I4 was modified for its new east-west orientation and squeezed out 93 hp from its crankshaft. This act alone was a massive mistake; a “proper” modern and smooth new four would have gone a long way to subdue the other discomforts of the Buccaneer experience. In comparison, the Accord’s E engine was like an electric motor; so much for taking the imports head-on.
1984 Buccaneer X-22 Sport Hatch
Truthfully, CM was more ambitious with the optional 2.8 L OHV 60-degree V6. This engine made its debut in the Buccaneer and produced a scant 107 hp. In 1981, the sporty X-22 Buccaneer was given a “High Output” version that produced a mere 114 hp. Since quietness was high on CM’s list of criteria for their cars and because neither of the Buccaneer’s engines known for being smooth-running or quiet, drastic measures were taken to separate them from the cabin. The front subframe that contained the drivetrain and front suspension was attached to the body with foam (that’s right, foam) and soft rubber mounts; This setup created a very “tractor-trailer” like ride.
Now let’s cut into the cake. Over the course of the Buccaneer’s 5-year career, there was an almost endless rash of recalls. Bad brake lines, transmission fires, ride quality issues and one of the most complicated and expensive fuel delivery systems CM has ever designed (keep in mind this system involved the use of a carburetor instead of fuel injection); one of these systems would cost almost $2,000 in today’s money.
Buccaneer interiors can best be described as “hollow” and cheap. Various pieces of trim were prone to cracking and disintegrating when exposed to a generous amount of heat. From day one, overall build quality varied, somewhere between disappointing and passable. All it took was one model year to realize that the Buccaneer was a lemon. In a truly desperate move, CM scraped some pennies together to add an “MK II” suffix to the Buccaneer in 1984, but the damage had already been done.
1985 Buccaneer CL Deluxe (Left) and a 1980 Buccaneer CL
Ironically, despite the quality issues, the Buccaneer would become “immortal”, in new clothing. The 1982 Cheval Futura and its AA-Body kin would end up sharing most of the Buccaneer’s components while addressing many of the quality issues that plagued the Buccaneer.