The best-selling car in America in 1986 was the Chevrolet Celebrity, which found its way into 404,883 homes. To this day, no other General Motors vehicle has achieved such a title since then.
“The heartbeat of America is today’s Chevrolet,” was Chevrolet’s slogan at the time.
There was little to get excited about when it came to the Celebrity, but it was arguably the most important car for General Motors that year. My parents were among the many people who made a Celebrity part of their family.
On April 19, 1986, they traded in a 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier and drove home in a brand new 1986 Chevrolet Celebrity Classic from Axtell Chevrolet in Logan, Utah. The car was well-equipped for its time, offering amenities like whitewall tires, wire wheel covers, bumper guards, a vinyl roof, and 60/40 split bench seating up front which made for a total cabin occupancy of six passengers. Above, I am in the bowtie, standing with my brother Bentley.
The Celebrity at its core was a simple front-wheel drive midsize sedan that shared the General Motors A-body platform with various other vehicles including the Buick Century, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, and the Pontiac 6000. Its boxy silhouette and squared-off exterior lighting were very characteristic for the time.
The Celebrity lived from 1982 through 1990 and saw year-over-year changes to both cosmetics and drivetrains. It was available in coupe, sedan, and station wagon variants. Power could be obtained from a long list of available engines over the years, ranging from a 2.5-liter inline-four to a 3.1-liter V6 and even including a 4.3-liter diesel V6 for a limited time.
The banner 1986 model year came with confident advertising. A brochure from that year reads, “The 1986 Celebrity. The art of doing everything well. It’s a delicate matter – balance. The ability to provide impressive performance and unexpected value, to deliver adept handling and deep-seated comfort, to combine aerodynamic shape with room for six adults. A quality aspired to by many. An attribute achieved by this car – Celebrity by Chevrolet.”
The exterior saw design updates in 1984, 1986, and 1987 including changes to the headlights, grille, and taillights. A total of five different trim levels were offered, a couple of which attempted to make this otherwise cookie-cutter sedan into something performance-oriented. The Eurosport package was introduced in 1984 with black trim, red emblems, 14-inch Rallye wheels, and a heavy-duty suspension. In 1987 and 1988, an even more dramatically styled Eurosport VR was available with unique wheels, a body kit, and a blacked-out grille.
By the late 1980s, the Celebrity showing its age and GM’s focus shifted to the car’s successor, the Lumina. Somehow two of the Celebrity’s platform-mates, the Century and the Cutlass Ciera, continued all the way until 1996 before being discontinued. Celebrity sales totaled 2,153,098 units as the end of production in 1990.
By the time the hand-me-down Celebrity made it into my possession in 1997 as a newly licensed driver, it had about 140,000 miles on it. Except, the odometer only showed five digits, so it looked like 40,000. Its 2.8-liter carbureted V6 needed a few pumps of the gas pedal to come to life each morning, but it served me well for my sophomore and junior years of high school until I upgraded to a 1989 Honda Prelude.
The Celebrity was the perfect first car: Slow enough to not get me into trouble, comfortable and spacious enough to lug five friends around with, and inexpensive to own with replacement parts readily available. I invested a fair amount of money and time into the car, starting off with a $500 Maaco paint job and an upgraded Jensen CD player. I recall having to tap vigorously on the dashboard to get the speakers to work sometimes.
The crazy thing about my Celebrity ownership experience was that I owned the car twice. About five years after having sold it the first time in 1998, I sought it out again and made contact with the owner in 2003 so I could buy it back. The car’s condition had deteriorated significantly, but it ran and drove decently. My problem was parking: I was finishing my community college education and living at home, so dad didn’t care for that old car taking up space. Ultimately my second round of Celebrity ownership was short-lived – less than a year, even. The last time I checked the Carfax report, the Celebrity was sent to the junkyard within a few years of this photo from 2004.
Worthy of the Name
Was the Celebrity worthy of its name? Clearly, the car hit a home run with sales numbers in 1986, so I’d wager the answer is yes. Even though the car was common, a bit mundane, and hardly rewarding to drive (even though Chevrolet tried to advertise it as a performance car in some forms), it represented an important “win” for the brand and even now, I get excited when I see a surviving example on the road. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting another Celebrity in the future for the sake of sheer nostalgia. Stay tuned!