Thursday, February 20, 2014

History of the Chevrolet Vega - the little car that did everything well

In 1981, my mom had a ’76 Vega Kammback.  I distinctly remember the night during a particularly cold, Omaha winter, when she wanted to come home from her job at Norman’s Shoe Store and the orange wagon wouldn’t start.  Dad and I went out to rescue her, and between the bitter cold wind, darkness, and rage-filled swearing coming out of my dad, I learned to hate the Vega.  At eight years-old, I didn’t know about the car’s reputation, or the recalls, or the safety concerns.  I just knew that the air conditioner wouldn’t cool off in the summer, and it wouldn’t start in the winter.  Of course, now that I’m older, I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for the Vega.  They were great-looking little cars.  They were actually pretty innovative.  And everyone seemed to have one.  That’s why today we’ll take a look back at “the little car that does everything well.”

You better believe that General Motors had high expectations for their new compact when it debuted in mid-1970 as a ’71 model.  Even the teaser advertisements made it sound like the eighth wonder of the world.  They promised a car that was very small, very roomy, very nimble, very fugal, very speedy, and very stylish.  And for the most part, Chevy delivered on those promises.  Motor Trend named the 1971 Vega as their “Car of the Year.”  It was undeniably handsome.  It handled like a sports car.  And it was well-packaged for such a small car.  The Vega was all-new from the ground-up, and it had some very modern technology built into it.

But modern technology can be problematic if it hits the market before all the bugs are worked out.  The biggest issue was with the engine.  The Vega had a lightweight, die-cast aluminum engine block.  The overhead-cam, 2.3-liter four-cylinder was developed by GM, Reynolds Aluminum, and Sealed Power Corporation.  This was matched up to a cast-iron cylinder head, with less than favorable results. Not only did it vibrate and shake, but it was prone to overheating.  Many-a-Vega met their demise early in their lifetimes. They had a number of recalls, and confidence in the much-hyped Vega began to fall.

The method of assembly was very modern as well, often to the car’s detriment.  The Vega was built in the Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio, and it was billed as the most automated assembly plant in the world.  As the Vega gained popularity, production was increased.  As production increased, defects increased.  Everything from minor assembly to paint quality suffered.  GM laid-off hundreds of workers along the way to save costs and improve efficiency, and the survivors often didn’t handle the situation very well.  There was a month-long strike in March, 1972.  The Vega marched on, but these issues were taking their toll on the car’s real and perceived quality.

If it seemed like there were a lot of these cars running around back then, it’s because there were.  In May of 1973, the one-millionth Vega rolled off the line.  To put this in perspective, it took Chevrolet 39-years to build the one-millionth Corvette (a 1992 model that recently fell into a sinkhole at the National Corvette Museum).  It only took two years for the Vega, which was commemorated by a limited-edition model that was available in Chevrolet showrooms.  Between the Vega hatchback, notchback, Kammback wagon, and panel (which Chevy referred to as a “truck”), total production in the nameplate’s five year run was a whopping 1,966,157 units. 

As you may have guessed, most of the serious problems had been worked out of the final Vegas, but due to the perception people had of the earlier cars, they were also the slowest sellers.  Five-mile-per-hour bumpers appeared in 1974, which gave the car a completely new look that mimicked what was happening on the Camaro.  Galvanized steel and inner-fender panels addressed some of the corrosion problems that plagued the earlier cars.  And a major overhaul of the engine design for the 1976 model year prompted Chevy to offer a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty.

But today, it’s the special models that really excite enthusiasts.  The high-priced Cosworth Vega was a factory-built pocket rocket that paired a fitting engine with an already sporty platform.   Cosworth Engineering in England developed this car’s DOHC cylinder head, and the sophisticated, 16-valve Cosworth bumped horsepower from 90 to 110.  The Cosworth Vega also got a torque-arm rear suspension, positraction, and stabilizer bars.  They built these for two years—1975 and 1976.  The ‘75s were all black with gold trim, but Chevrolet opened up the color palette in year two.  Only 3,508 Cosworth Vegas were built during their two-year run, and they tend to be pretty collectable today.

The lightweight Vega was also popular as an upfitted muscle car or drag racer.  Racing superstars like Grumpy Jenkins and Bruce Larson tore up the drag strips in Pro Stock Vegas, and companies like Baldwin-Motion and Yenko were beefing these cars up with big V8s and superchargers.  This newspaper advertisement from Baldwin-Motion is trying to sell 350, 427, and 454-c.i. street-legal Vegas.  Can you imagine what kind of beasts those would have to be?  Today, these special Vegas are not only rare, but they tend to command more attention at car shows than contemporary Mustangs, Camaros, and Chevelles.

The Chevrolet Vega was a very significant piece of automotive history.  On one hand, it was a bold, innovative step for General Motors during the infancy of small car popularity.  On the other hand, it was plagued with enough issues that it did harm the company’s reputation as a serious source for these types of cars.  History hasn’t been kind to the Vega, but at one time, it ruled the American small car landscape.  Pictures of Vega advertisements are in the slideshow below, or click this link for a nicer version.

7 comments:

  1. When I was a kid, my dad bought a new '75 Astre GT. I loved that car. I thought it was cooler than mom's '69 Firebird at the time (probably because of the color). It was an ok car. That rust sure came on strong!! My aunt owned a '72 Vega, red with the wide white stripe. Her car was the coolest car owned by anyone I knew!! (as a 6 year old)

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  2. A co-worker dropped a blown 454 into his Vega. I drove it once. It was very fast and loud. He didn't drive it much.

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  3. In high school shop class I remember working on a friends Vega after he dropped a V-8 in it.

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  4. GM was real close to having a world beating car with the Vega. If they didn't have the steel head gaskets that all corroded in the early cars, adequate radiators and better valve seals I think the reputation would have been quite different. Luckily these deficiencies are all pretty easy to correct. I still drive a Vega every day in Houston traffic and get around 30 MPG doing it. Have not touched the inside of an engine since the mid-90's. Great looks, good handling, good MPG, easy to work on, rear wheel drive, cheap to own....what's not to like ?

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  5. GM was real close to having a world beating car with the Vega. If they didn't have the steel head gaskets that all corroded in the early cars, adequate radiators and better valve seals I think the reputation would have been quite different. Luckily these deficiencies are all pretty easy to correct. I still drive a Vega every day in Houston traffic and get around 30 MPG doing it. Have not touched the inside of an engine since the mid-90's. Great looks, good handling, good MPG, easy to work on, rear wheel drive, cheap to own....what's not to like ?

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  6. My first car was a 73 Kammback. I loved it. I am currently looking for one. If anyone out there knows where one is, you can contact me by email at boone337@bellsouth.net

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  7. Thoughts on the Vega as it nears its 50th anniversary.

    The Vega may have been GM's least expensive car in 1970, but with an investment price tag of $200 million (a billion in today's money), it was GM's biggest investment to date. It's not widely known (or remembered) how ingenious the technology was on many aspects of the car and its factory. From the way it was designed; 50 GM engineers assigned exclusively to the XP-887 (the car's project code), to the way it was manufactured; modular body with 418 fewer body parts than its full-size Chevy counterpart, and 90% of the body welds performed by Unimate robots. Even the way it was shipped, hanging on end, thirty to a railcar was more efficient.
    The Vega 2300 aluminum-alloy block, the car's most controversial feature decades in the making, was injected with silicon, which after a cylinder bore etching process, worked better for the pistons to move on than pressed-in steel sleeves (which were used on the 1961-63 Buick/Olds Aluminum 215 V8), Silicon has a hardness of "7" compared to diamond at "10."
    Here are the facts: The head gasket failures (about 8%) and overheating problems were rectified before the 1972 model year. All Vega owners got a 5 year /50,000 mile engine warranty. The premature fender rusting was addressed with thousands of sets of fenders replaced by Chevrolet at no cost; On 1973 models, inner fender deflectors were added; 1974 models had full inner fender liners and for the 1976 model year, galvanized steel was extensively used. The durability of the engine was improved on the 1976 models with revised cooling slots for the block and other revisions to the cylinder head. A 5 year/60,000 mile engine warranty was included on the engine newly renamed "Dura-Built 140."
    History probably would have been kinder to the Vega if it weren't for the internet. Most printed reviews have been forgiving from the beginning as well as in retrospect. Maybe because they were written by car experts who are more likely to appreciate the car's advanced engineering and clean, timeless styling. But on the internet, everyone is an "opinionated" expert. They're opinionated alright, but do they know what they're talking about? Not always. The internet reminds me of the National Inquiry. You have to be selective and look for reputable sources like "Motor Trend Classic" and "Hemmings Classic Car." if you want accurate, unbiased information.
    Motor Trend Technical Director, and friend, Frank Markus​ said in the Spring 2013 issue of Motor Trend Classic, "Overblown. The China Syndrome might have overhyped the TMI (Three-Mile Island) incident as bad press might have exaggerated the Vega's woes."

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