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Junkyard Gem: 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 Convertible

Detroit (and Kenosha) stopped selling Americans new convertibles after the final 1976 Cadillac Eldorado left the showroom. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the end of a glorious era of American exceptionalism as a result (keep in mind that the resignation of a president and the Fall of Saigon had just happened). European manufacturers still offered new convertibles here after 1976, of course, and then Chrysler resumed selling new ragtops for the 1982 model year . . . but that pause in the availability of new American-made convertibles made such cars feel special, even a bit devilish, for most of the 1980s. GM’s Chevrolet Division resumed building Corvette and Camaro convertibles (for 1986 and 1987, respectively), more than a decade after the last 1975 Corvette and Caprice convertibles were sold, but the humble Chevy Cavalier convertible beat them both to the showrooms. Starting in 1983 and continuing all the way through 2000, Americans and Canadians could buy a brand-new open-skies Cavalier, and I say the raddest of them all was the 1989 version. Here’s one of those cars, found in a car graveyard between Denver and Cheyenne.

The second generation of Cavalier debuted for the 1988 model year, and only the hot-rod Z24 could be had as a convertible. 

As far as I can tell, all Chevrolet convertibles sold during the 1980s had all their top-related hardware provided and installed by the Automotive Specialty Company (also known as American Sunroof Company or American Specialty Cars) in Warren, Michigan. ASC also built Toyota Celica convertibles around this time.

I found what looked like Chevrolet-badged aluminum chessboards inside the car, stamped MADE IN BELGIUM. Did Chevrolet offer Belgian-made metal chessboards as an accessory?

It turned out that those “chessboards” (which have the correct number of squares for playing chess or checkers) were the square center caps for the extraordinarily rad 14″ aluminum Z24 wheels, standard equipment on the convertible. Square center caps! Naturally, I bought one of them for use in any chess tournaments I host in my garage.

Lesser Cavaliers had a 2.0-liter four-cylinder as base equipment, but the Z24 got the fuel-injected 2.8-liter V6 engine. This one was rated at 125 horsepower when new.

GM made some good engine-displacement badges around this time, with the very best being the “Candyland Edition” 3.1 badges on the early-1990s Pontiac W25 Sunbird. No single throttle body here, folks!

A surprising number of buyers of 1980s Z24s took the five-speed manual transmission, despite the slushboxification of America being well underway by that time, but this car has the optional three-speed automatic. The price tag: 415 bucks, which comes to around $1,015 after inflation.

It appears to have begun its career at Lynch Chevrolet in Burlington, Wisconsin.

This car has options galore, including power windows and locks.

The original buyer almost certainly bought the “Preferred Equipment Group 2” option package, which cost $1,426 ($3,488 in 2022 dollars) and included air conditioning plus this nice Delco auto-reverse cassette deck with five-band EQ. Without this radio, how would it have been possible to enjoy the hits of the era?

How much did the whole car cost? The MSRP before options on a 1989 Cavalier Z24 convertible was $16,615, or about $40,650 today. You could buy a new IROC-Z Camaro coupe for just $14,145 that year, though the IROC-Z convertible cost $18,945. Keep in mind that the Cavalier was Chevrolet’s cheapest US-market new car in 1989 (the Suzuki-built Chevy Sprint, Corolla-based Chevy Nova, and Isuzu-built Chevrolet Spectrum had become the Geo Metro, Geo Prizm and Geo Spectrum that year, while the Chevette got the axe two years earlier), with the Hoi Polloi Edition Cavalier VL Coupe listing at just $7,375 (just over 18 grand now).

This car’s final owner decided that doing front-wheel burnouts until a tire burst would be a fitting sendoff for such a fine performance machine.

Don’t drink and drive, folks. Please. And even if you aren’t driving, avoid airline bottles of brandy just on principle.

Just 155,834 miles on the clock. The body is pretty straight, there’s no meaningful rust, the top looks reasonably nice, and the interior isn’t trashed. There are Z24 aficionados out there, but none of them rescued this car before it came here.

It was truly the Heartbeat of America. I was daily-driving a British Leyland product at the time, so perhaps these commercials didn’t get through to me so well.

Just like gumbo, if it doesn’t burn… it ain’t hot. Wait, are you supposed to burn gumbo?

This ad is for the previous-generation Z24, but the air-guitar work (and unfortunate bandanna-around-the-wrist late-1980s fashion statement) makes it a must-watch anyway.

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