The 1982 J-Body cars (Chevrolet Cavalier, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac J2000, and Cadillac Cimarron) were GM’s first competitive front-drive compact line. Coming hot on the heels of the successful launch of Ford’s Escort and Chrysler’s K-cars the year before, GM needed a hit. Their first attempt had been the X-Body cars, which were slightly larger front-drive compacts launched in 1980. The X-Body cars sold well their first year but then tanked due to quality woes and recalls. Happily for GM, the same issues were not present in the J-Body cars and the Cavalier, along with various badge-engineered siblings, sold well up until the early 2000s. That said, first-generation J-Bodies, sold until 1988, have become increasingly rare. Cavaliers still exist, but Firenzas, Sunbirds, and the like are hard to find. Even harder to find are cars like this one. The first-generation Cavalier was facelifted after just two years on the market and gained dual square headlights. That means this example, parked in Cambridge, MA, is from 1982 or 1983. It is in remarkably good condition for a “disposable” car close to 30 years old.
Because of cars like this, it’s taken Hyundai years to claw back their reputation. The Hyundai Excel was the very first Korean car sold in this country. It came in at under $5000 new and sold very well in 1985, its first year, but it quickly earned a reputation for terrible quality. Even as Hyundai’s cars began to match first the Big Three and then the Japanese around the early 2000s, many people wouldn’t even consider buying Korean. Even now, with cars like the Sonata and the Elantra universally acknowledged to be a viable Hondoyota alternative, Hyundai still has to offer a 10-year warranty to win over skeptics.
However awful it was, the Excel still put Hyundai on the map outside of its home market, and somehow enough bargain hunters kept buying them through 1994 to keep Hyundai USA a going concern even as Yugo, its main competitor, became a literal punchline and retreated tail between legs. It’s instructive to remember that at the time, South Korea was in fact a backwards, repressive dictatorship, so the Yugo comparison is rather apt.
However, while many Excels were sold, it’s very rare at this point to see any around, even the second-generation 1990-1994 cars. The car you see here, which was parked at a shopping center in Dorchester, MA a couple years ago, is a first-generation model. Some googling seems to show that the recessed headlights are unique to the GLS sedan model from 1985-1987, while the hatchbacks, non-GLSs, and later cars all have flush headlights. It’s hard to know though because even Google has few pictures of Hyundai Excels. They were mostly consigned to the scrap heap long before the internet was invented.
The most unique thing about this Excel is that it exists, 20 years after it rolled off the assembly line, and stranger yet is still driving about town. I haven’t seen another running first-gen Excel in years. Of course, the true holy grail is the Mitsubishi Precis, a badge-engineered Excel that was sold from 1987 on. Crappy rebadged cars are always a rarer and better spot than the original. I’ve seen one or two second-gen Precises, but I fear that there literally may not be a single first-gen Precis left in the world.