GM’s Cobblepot: The 1971-1977 Chevy Vega

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In the popular TV series, Gotham (it’s a prequel to the Batman story) there’s an episode called “Everyone Has His Cobblepot” – a reference to something embarrassing in one’s past.Vega lead

The Chevy Vega’s is GM’s Cobblepot.   

Like most failures, it wasn’t intentional. But it was – in retrospect predictable. Chiefly because then-GM President Ed Cole rushed the car’s development. In particular, development of what would become its centerpiece – and its Achilles Heel: a new-design aluminum engine that would not use steel cylinder liners. Instead, using a new casting process and metallurgy developed jointly with Reynolds Metals (of Reynolds Wrap fame), the 2.3 liter engine block was machined to accept the pistons without the need for pressed-in steel liners. This saved weight and simplified the manufacturing process.

It wasn’t a bad idea at all.

But the execution was a clown car comedy of engineering errors.vega wagon

To save a few bucks per car – the source waters of so many problems – Chevy engineers decided to bolt a cast iron head to the aluminum block. The two dissimilar metals have very different expansion and contraction rates when heated. By itself, this wasn’t fatal. Many engines have alloy blocks and cast iron heads. But they did not have some of the Vega engine’s other design features.

For openers, the engine was top heavy. In-house, it was referred to as “the world’s tallest, smallest engine” by already-worried engineers. The engine was prone to vibrating like a Martini mixer and would also overheat – the former issue due to the tall-boy layout and a lack of sufficient counterbalancing, the latter to a marginal cooling system and a tendency to burn oil excessively.

To Band Aid (rather than fix) the engine problem, engineers fitted the car with loose rubber engine mounts, so the owner wouldn’t notice the vibration as much. But it continued to shake – and as the coolant ran low (which was not hard to do given a mere six quart capacity system and a two-row radiator) the little engine would begin to run ever-hotter. Which it was already susceptible to doing because of its siamesed bores (no coolant flowing in between the cylinders).Vega engine 1

It was like a delayed-action fuse.

What happened was the engine would shake, shake shake (cue KC & The Sunshine Band) as coolant drip, drip, dripped. The temp needle would begin its inevitable ascent toward the red zone. Oil consumption – another of the engine’s many weaknesses – would increase, accelerating the overheating process. It was like what happened after the Titanic hit the iceberg, when the first “water-tight” compartment filled up and dumped seawater into the next “water-tight” compartment.

As the Vega’s engine ran ever hotter – and began to shake ever more violently – coolant would seep into the liner-less cylinders. Where it would quickly cause catastrophic damage – coolant not being particularly lubricious. And because the engine wasn’t sleeved, a head gasket leak was usually fatal. The now-badly scored block was a throw-way.

Many buyers soon felt the same way about the Vega.vega ad 2

As a writer for Cars magazine put it:

“Tests which should have been done at the proving grounds were performed by customers, necessitating numerous piecemeal ‘fixes’ by dealers. Chevrolet’s ‘bright star’ received an enduring black eye despite a continuing development program which eventually alleviated most of these initial shortcomings.”

Emphasis on eventually.

GM didn’t do anything about the Vega engine’s fundamental design defects until the 1976 model year when a redesigned (and renamed) “Dura-Built” version was introduced. It had revised cooling passages in the block, a new design cylinder head, a redesigned water pump and valve stem seals that reduced oil consumption by 50 percent. This engine did not vibrate excessively or overheat. GM was so eager to prove the point it conducted a very public endurance test under the auspices of the United States Auto Club (USAC) in which three production-stock Vegas were driven non-stop for 60,000 miles through the scorched earth deserts of Nevada and California by teams of nine drivers in shifts, who covered nearly 200,000 miles in total. None of the cars overheated. None sucked coolant into the cylinders. Oil consumption was just one quart every 3,400 miles – high by modern standards, but a huge improvement over the original Vega engine’s one quart every 1,500 miles or so.Vega interior

GM was so confident about the Dura-Built, it offered buyers a then-unheard of five year, 60,000 mile warranty.

But it came out four years too late.

Both the warranty and the Dura-Built engine.

If both had been standard equipment the first year of the Vega’s production life, its story might have been one of great success rather than epic failure – and lingering embarrassment. Instead, GM management – frantic to get their new economy compact on the market ahead of rivals (specifically, the Japanese – who had already established a beachhead and were rapidly moving inland) released the car before it was ready for prime time – and then spent years dodging what the company ought to have been fixing.ed cole pic

Ironically, Ed Cole was a top-drawer engineer, the man who oversaw the development of the original small-block Chevy V8 – one of the most successful and enduring designs in automotive history (the engine was first offered for sale in ’55 Chevys and continues to be produced to this day). But by the late ’60s, Cole had become management – and his agenda was making money, not designing a good engine.

It would end up costing GM a fortune – and Cole his reputation.

In addition to its vibration/leaking/coolant drinking issues, the 140 CID Vega engine also had a leaky carburetor that would gush gas – and a sticky throttle that sometime jammed open – leading to an adventuresome driving experience. Luckily, there was not much horsepower on tap (110 SAE gross in 1971; factored down to 90 SAE net in 1972).

That usually gave the owner sufficient time to think about what he was going to hit.

In addition, poorly designed valve steam seals resulted in horrendous oil consumption. Which resulted in yet more overheating, head gasket sealing problems and coolant in the cylinders.

Owners got their choice of smoke – white (burning coolant) or blue (burning oil).     Vega side view

Two epic recalls quickly ensued – but not (as discussed above) for the self-destructing engine.

The first recall was for the leaky carburetor; the second (in 1972) for the sticky throttle linkage. The latter affected 350,000 cars. Which in a way is a measure of the tragedy that was the Vega.

People liked the car. It sold well, initially – proving the concept was absolutely sound.

Then, people found out about the car. About the short-cuts and cheap-outs, any of which might have been disastrous to the car’s viability but when taken together sealed its doom.'75 Vega ad

Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of Cole – who pushed the car’s development at such a frantic pace that it was all-but-inevitable there would be major problems. And worse, that such problems wouldn’t be identified and sorted out prior to production.

Cole – who was in direct charge of the Vega project – demanded “a world beater” in Chevy showrooms within two years of project XP-877’s green-lighting in 1968 by then-GM Chairman James Roche. This was not much time to design an entirely new car from the wheels up – let alone make sure those wheels, so to speak, didn’t come flying off. The usual practice is to design and engineer prototypes, which are then extensively tested privately – so things missed (and things not done quite right) don’t become public.

But Cole was dazzled by the prospect of making a quick buck selling oodles of cars made very cheaply. Which is just what happened. Even the assembly process was paced as if on crystal meth. 100 Vegas an hour – that is, one car leaving the line every 36 seconds – was the goal laid down by Cole. And it was almost achieved (73.5 Vegas per hour) by forcing the line workers at the Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant to finish their task in 36 seconds as opposed to the formerly expected 1 minute. Additional workers were added to meet this frenetic pace – and the cars were churned out in mass quantities, in record time.Vega junked

With the results you’d expect.

Build quality was both iffy and erratic. Some Vegas were put together better than others, but all were put together pretty poorly. While the unitized skeleton was welded by machines, exterior panel fitment was done by hand – and often, loosey goosey. Which lead to leaks, which led to rust. Two-thirds of the Vegas coming off the line had to be turned around and sent back for paint repair because the paint booths could not handle the volume. The fix – higher-pressure paint sprayers – resulted in faster paint jobs that had runs and sags.

So many cars were being spat out of the Lordstown plant that conventional rail car transport could not keep up, either. So GM and Southern Pacific railroad developed a vertical stack rail car that could handle 30 Vegas at once – nearly twice as many as a conventional double decker railcar. The Vegas  – fully loaded with fluids, including engine oil – were stacked like dominoes and sent off to dealers. Chevy did fit the engine with baffles to – supposedly – prevent oil from migrating where it wasn’t wanted, but in retrospect it didn’t seem like a good idea to place a car on its nose and leave it like that for several days.stacked Vegas

Still, the ruination of the Vega – Chevy’s “bright star” – came after the cars were once again horizontal and put on the road. Where they tended to not remain for very long. If the engine didn’t self-destruct before the warranty expired, the body would rust not long thereafter.

To be fair to General Motors, the majority of cars built at the time were rust magnets. But the Vega’s susceptibility to metal cancer was particularly high because of the thinness of the metal, the paucity of paint (as well as its erratic application) and the inherent tendency of early unibody construction (the body and frame welded together into a single chassis assembly, as opposed to the then-more-common body bolted onto a separate steel frame) to have rust-friendly nooks and crannies for moisture to collect and fester.

John DeLorean – who was Chevrolet’s general manager at the time of the Vega’s 1970 launch – told author Patrick Wright in the 1979 book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, that he felt pressured to “tout the car far beyond my personal convictions about it.” As an example, DeLorean had previously told Motor Trend magazine back in 1970 – when he was collecting his paychecks from GM – that the Vega “would be built at a quality level that has never been attained before in a manufacturing operation in this country and probably the world.”

A tad optimistic, perhaps.'74 Vega ad

In spite of all this – even as word spread about the car’s many issues – Chevy sold Vegas as quickly as they were built. In excess of 2 million were produced over the car’s seven year production run. This works out to an average of just under 300,000 cars per year – which (today) would rank it among the best-selling cars on the market. The high water mark was 1974, when 460,374 victims… er, buyers… were found.

But despite the goodness of the idea – including attractive Camaro-esque styling contributed by Bill Mitchell (who had previously worked on the Corvette and also was the main influence behind the home-run hit 1970 Camaro) excellent handling, very good fuel economy (while the engine lasted) and a range of bodystyles – hatchback coupe, notchback coupe, a station wagon and a small business and Hippie-friendly panel delivery version – the Vega’s one-too-many flaws eventually dragged it under like an irresistible riptide. By 1975 – just one year after the sales high water mark of 1974 – the number of people willing to open their wallets for a new Vega had fallen by a catastrophic 60 percent to 207,764 cars.

The next year, just 160,524 were willing – and by ’77 Vega sales had collapsed to an unsustainable 78,402 cars.Vega mona lisa

As bad as that was, the damage done to GM’s reputation was far worse. The Vega became synonymous with shit – and shit with GM. In his 1993 book, In the Rings of Saturn author Joe Sherman noted that “by its third recall, ninety-five percent of all Vegas manufactured before May 1972 had critical safety flaws” and that the Vega’s “checkered history only reinforced the belief that GM made inferior small cars. This legacy would prove far more important than any direct impact the Vega would have on GM’s profits.”

It’s been almost 40 years since the last one left the line – and the stink still lingers.

Everyone has a Cobblepot. For Ford, it’s the Pinto. For Chrysler, it’s the Cordoba (rich, Corinthian leather and all).

For GM, it is the Vega – the biggest belly flop in the company’s long – and sometimes sketchy – history.

Vega Trivia

* Base price for the 1971 Vega was $2,090 – equivalent to just over $12k inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars. By the final year – 1977 – the Vega’s base price had climbed to $3,249 – equivalent to just under $19k in 2015 inflation-adjust dollars. The Vega had become expensive in addition to cheaply made.Cosworth Vega

* Chevy General Manage John DeLorean – in an effort to jump-start the Vega’s by-then sagging sales- tried to apply the “GTO formula” to the Vega. Just as the original 1964 GTO was basically a Tempest with a hot engine and a heavy duty suspension, DeLorean took a humble Vega and fitted it with a Cosworth-sourced twin-cam engine that featured GM’s first production car use of electronic fuel injection. The cars were all painted black with gold accents (a theme that would be used with much greater success over at Pontiac, which applied the treatment the Trans-Am). With a price tag ($5,918) almost as high as the same year Corvette’s (while horsepower – 110 – was hardly more than a regular Vega’s) the Cosworth Vega only added to Chevy’s seemingly endless problems with this car. 3,508 of them were sold and the model was discontinued after just one year.

* One of the many Band Aids deployed to try to deal with the Vega’s numerous profound problems was a dealer-retrofitted low-coolant indicator, which first became available as a no-cost service item in 1974. Chevy also offered owners of Vegas with kaput engines the choice of a new (and just as failure-prone) replacement or a rebuilt shortblock with steel sleeves – which meant that if the head gasket leaked again (which of course it would) at least the entire engine would not have to be replaced.Vega 2

* Vegas delivered excellent-for-the-era fuel economy – averaging around 28 MPG and capable of 40 on the highway if driven gently (which also extended the interval prior to overheating and engine failure). Handling was another strong point. The car did well in SCCA showroom stock racing, beating contemporaneous rivals such as the Opel GT and Dodge Colt.

* The Vega was named after the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.

Copyright 2015, Eric Peters


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  1. My Big Sis had one…bought new in ’73 for her 16th birthday. It looked decent with the “powder blue” factory paint, but she had it painted yellow with black accent stripes (a common fad in the day) a year later. That car actually made it from Florida to California in the summer of ’75 after she graduated high school. However, that trip probably dealt it a premature death blow, as the car began to use oil afterwards and in two years time, the engine was done at 30K. She traded the thing in on a ’74 Capri with the V6 which also had 30K miles, but that rock-solid German V6, which Sis put another 50K miles on before she and her new hubby (they’re still married after 37 years with two grown kids, the “Skywalker Twins”) traded it in as well.

    Interesting story…supposedly the aluminum for the engine blocks was shipped via insulated trailer tanker cars in a MOLTEN state from the ALCOA plant in Tennessee to the Lordsburg OH plant which had its own foundry. Imagine if one of these tanker shipments had wrecked…molten aluminum, which in air, under pressure, has a great chance of self-ignition! What morons dreamed that scheme up?

    This disastrous engine did have two useful results: (1) the Cosworth Vega engine, an early TWIN OHC engine, which was far peppier than the stock version, used at times for racing and (2) GM developed the “Iron Duke”, that stolid, if unexciting 151 CID 4-banger, which reliably powered so many otherwise forgettable GM products well into the 90s to save itself in the small car market. As Dom DeLuise, prior to taking a “Treasure Bath”, would remark…”Nice! Nice…not THRILLING…but NICE.” (Staring about 1;50)

  2. Vegas will live forever as favorites in Drag Racing history. Light bodies and good aerodynamics made them a natural. Amateurs could pic them up cheap, drop in a romping V8 and fly. Street racers liked them as well. V8 conversions were popular. They would have been much more popular if we didn’t have the ridiculous emissions inspections required by the pollution Nazis.

  3. I bought my wife a Vega when it first came out, her first car. The engine self-destructed after only 18 months, this with a 36-month car loan. On top of that, the car rusted out already around the doors and windows. I complained to the dealer who insisted the problem was that we drove the car too hard (note, my first car, a Ford bought two years earlier, lasted 222,000 miles). I ran my complaint up to the region and to GM headquarters, and they all just repeated the dealers accusation.

    Both of us swore we would never again buy another GM car. We haven’t

  4. My then fiance, later husband and I both had Vegas. His was the 2 door and I had a station wagon, both of which were 4 on the floor. We actually had few problems with them and found them fun to drive and we got really good gas mileage.
    What we did have problems with was the rust. Living in the Cleveland area where they have a large salt mine and pour endless amounts on the roads in winter did shorten the lives of both of them. One day my husband took some metal things to a junk yard in my station wagon and had the guy asked if he should call him a cab. Husband had the windshield wiper fly off.

  5. VEGA! LOLLOLLOL! The biggest POS I ever owned– the 1974 Kamback. I bought it used for just over a C-note in 1982 after another HS idiot had taken it airborne and crashed it. It was still driveable, but let go of the steering wheel and it would do a perfect left circle. It leaked, the passenger door was welded shut and it was 6 colors (one being rust). One day I found the exhaust was leaking up into the passenger side wheel well and beat it, mostly closed, with a hammer. That worked until the muffler fell off and then it was fixed properly.

    It was a manual 3-speed that I taught a friend to drive stick on, but there was only one problem, the stick had 4 shims put in it to operate so that shifting from 1st to 2nd required a flick and twist of the wrist to get it to engage. When my friend bought his first car, also a manual, had to re-teach him how to properly use a manual transmission!

    Yes, my beater! It lasted about nine months and I could go on about its many problems (such as when the clutch cable went out) but that and other stories are for another time. Suffice it to say, when it did die, I called a number of bone yards and found one that would not charge me to tow it away. It was a POS but it was my POS first car.

  6. I drove a new Vega for two wretched months long ago and far away. It was a gutless, hard-starting, poor gas mileage (around 16 mpg in town) piece of crap. Motor Trend made it Car of the Year, and I’ve disrespected MT ever since.

  7. Old Bob Spinello and his army of Vega sockpuppets are expunged from wikipedia

    Wikipedia content is free to use by anyone in whole or in part. Modified, or as published. So long as you don’t misrepresent yourself as being the website, anything else is allowed.

    Bob Spinello took this picture all by hisself for Motor Trend. Sure you did, Bob.

    My Vega GT with Pinto Runabout and Gremlin X in Amherst, Massachusetts 2010 for Motor Trend Classic photoshoot.

    The exciting times of driveby spammer Vegavairbob who pathetically hypes his own unparseable drivel in the comment sections of other men’s websites.

    – Come on Bob. Cut the crap and just be yourself and stop all the false accusations and lies. You’re just another brokedown obsolete douchebag like nearly everyone else on the internet. Why not try just being a human being and see how that goes?

  8. Dear Eric,

    My feelings exactly.

    The Vega was a classic case of a great concept with catastrophically bad execution.

    The idea of a mini-Camaro was great. If only the build quality had been ensured it might even have become a classic.

  9. You’re flawed article doesn’t hold much water. You used much text from referenced material from my Chevy Vega Wiki and Vega Wikipedia articles but you draw you own conclusions on the engine which are incorrect. The cast iron head saved money (the car was already hundreds more than the VW and Pinto, but it also gave the engine added strength and rigidity. Improvements did not take until 1976 either. They began with emission controls and drivability improvements annually from 1972. Over 300 more improvements in 1973 alone. Your conclusions are bullshit just like the rest of the crap on the internet.Clover

    • Too bad the Vega’s engine held so much water!

      Yeah, they made many “improvements” over the years. Too bad they were necessary….

      I guess you couldn’t tell. I actually liked the Vega… the idea of it, its styling. But it was executed disastrously. Do you seriously take issue with that statement?

      PS: Corvair ex-owner here. Another basically good idea that suffered from the all-too-usual GM cheap-outs of the era…

      • eric, I had a friend from Dallas, Wall actually, who had a Cosworth Vega. Even though it was a bit smaller CI wise, it made 35 more hp than the original. Seems like those cars got some different suspension too or maybe it was just his. I recall it being pretty fast. The color was close to BRG…..looked good.

        • The Cosworth Vega was very cool. But it was also very pricey! Almost as much as a same-year Corvette and the Corvette still offered decent power/performance, if you ordered the optional L-82 350. IIRC, it had 200 hp that year – so 90 more than the Cosworth.

          Still, the Vega was light and handled well and had a lot of potential. That engine was damned near a custom-made/hand-built race engine. The header was a thing of beauty…

          • Yep, my buddy had always been a sports car guy, had an MG B in college and went to the peace corp, got that Vega on his return. After a couple years he bought an F 100 I razzed him about, at least get an F 150. I can’t remember what came after that if anything but the ’80 or so Gymkhana ‘Vette, nice car for he and his wife. They had something else with it, can’t recall it. Then after having two children he bought an E 150, really weird for him. I guess we all have our strange cars.

    • You’re a spamhole who adds links to other people’s hard work that reference your useless Scheiße.
      Your comments should be deleted you leeching scumbag. You should be blocked from this and every other website. And you should be reported to your ISP.
      Fick Sie Clover!

  10. Gotta wonder what the hell was GM thinking. Both the Corvair and the Vega had such nice lines, good handling, and technological innovation. If they hadn’t been sabotaged by GM’s catastrophic, “screw the buyer” cheapness, GM might have captured Honda’s yet to be established rep for slick, well engineered, fun to drive cars.

    But to save a few miserable bucks per car, they totally deleted reliability and durability. And tarnished GM with a reputation for building shit product, which endures to this day.

  11. Hey! Don’t slag cordobas like that! They were great cars compared to shit box vegas. They had V8 rear wheel drive, you could even get a big block! If you want to compare shitty vegas to crappy mopars you have to compare the vega to any of the mid to late 80’s K cars! It’s like chrysler totally didn’t pay attention to what G.M.’s vega and ford’s pinto did to those companies reputations in the 70’s and went and made the same mistake in the 80’s. They even dragged out the charger and challenger names for a couple of crap boxes! But the cordoba has to be compared to monte carlos, grand prix and the cutlas of the same time.

    • My FIL had a very eclectic taste in cars. Seems like it was something weird every year. I want to say we showed up in ’78 and he had a 76 Elite, very clean used car fairly much what you’d expect, numb steering, sloppy shocks and the old 351 with a Slushomatic. Parts bin thing, controls right out of leftover Ford supplies. Next year or two, he gives my MIL a slightly used Cordoba, another leftover parts car with much robbed from the generic Ford parts bin like electric switches and such. Seemed like a bit better than the Elite(if he hadn’t bought one, I wouldn’t even remember they’d been made……74-76, the Elite that is) but no rich Corinthian leather nor anything else to remind one of Ricardo Montalban. Once again, numb steering but a much better transmission behind the V-8. My MIL hated it, not just cause it was a cheap Chrysler product but because it was a backhand gift. She had always driven nice GM cars and considered the cars of the other 2 inferior, which they were. She was a “Body by Fisher” person. I never liked the idea of “giving” a spouse something they had to pay for either unless one was really gaga over some car but didn’t want to spend the money or buy it themselves or just for their own pleasure. Seemed like it would have been memorable if the chime for keys in the ignition with the drivers door shut would have said ” de plane, de plane, de plane”……and that was a sad ending too.

    • I believe that even Mopar got “smart” on the ‘Doba” (that, and it was essentially a Dodge Charger SE or a Plymouth Fury with plusher upholstery, especially that “Corinithian” leather, and nicer trim) and not only did they NOT bother offering the anemic (strangled by emissions) 225 Slant-Six (just 95 ponies as the 49-state edition, and 85 measly ponies in CA) or even the 318 two-barrel. However, starting in ’78, when the “B-body was otherwise coming to an end (Plymouth was the Gran Fury, and Dodge the “Magnum”), in CA, you could not get the 360, which was the standard engines for the Cordoba (the 400 big block, last of its kind, was optional, but dropped after ’78), as CARB wouldn’t certify it, not even for cop cars! Cordobas and the other Mopar B-bodies in CA came with only the 318 four-barrel, which still moped along at 165 horsepower.
      Those old beasts were long in the tooth, even then, though, and Chrysler didn’t have the money to re-design them, AND they dropped the “battleship” C-bodies, which weren’t selling well over fears of high gas prices in the late 70s.

      What Mopar DID do, in explicably, was come up with two products lines which would have one saying, WTF? They came up with their flagship RWD line the “R” bodies (Dodge St. Regis, Chrysler Newport and New Yorker, later Plymouth Gran Fury), which were a boxier, staid version of what was the same wheelbase as the old B-bodies. I think they were actually decent looking and a great value, but other than police fleet sales, they were IGNORED by the public. Mopar also quietly morphed its failed “F” body line (Dodge Aspen, Plymouth Volare) into the “M” body, which gave us the last of the V8s with RWD once everyone else started going to tranverse-engined FWD…as Mopar did with the “K” cars and the stretched iterations thereof, including the minivans! This gave another generation of “squid cars”, with the Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury, and luxury-minded old Grandpas bought a few Chrysler Fifth Avenues. They were indeed solid cars, but quite DATED in appearance. Once Chrysler had bought out AMC, mainly for its Jeep lineup (they continued the Renault-designed cars built in Kenosha as the “Eagle” brand for a few years, which they also branded the FWD cars built at Hammtrack or Brampton, Ontario, intended for the old AMC/Jeep dealers they got in the ’87 buyout), the RWD cars were done, with sluggish ’88 sales necessitating a brief ’89 production run until the engines and drivetrains were used up.

  12. I built 5 vegas in the 80’s. 3 hatchbacks 2 wagons. 1 wagon looked just like the picture, beige. They all got 350/350 with a 8″ ford rear end. My Dad still has 1 of the wagons. It runs low 11’s. The others all ran 12’s on pretty much stock eng./trans.. I also did 2 monzas, a chevette and a pontiac astra [vega clone] for friends. Never paid more than $200 for any of the cars and never had more than $2,000 in the complete build. The 80’s! Great time, great time. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  13. GM sure didn’t learn much from the Corvair debacle barely a decade earlier. Lot of the same general mistakes with both Vega and Corvair. Throwing them on those trains like that just takes the cake, wow, what a dumb idea. When they screw up, they screw up big.

    To this day, GM small cars still aren’t that great, at least compared with the competition.

    • richb, back in those days I was frequently at Chevy dealerships for one reason or the other. Their body shops would be filled with new Vega’s. Why? You could see the cars hanging in those boxcars and they evidently made great targets. Some would have more than one bullet hole in them.

  14. I think I know where the writer of Napolean Dynamite got that line for Napolean, he must of known an engineer at GM back then. I can see it now, Ed Cole walking away after explaining something to the engineer. Engineer with his forehead in the palm of his hand, both elbows on his desk, and a “uhhhh, IDIOT!”

    • A very humorous thought injected into a very hilarious movie. Hadn’t thought of it in a while. Thanks, I think I’ll buy it and watch it again. It will be on my “watch once a year or when prescribed by a………professional” list.

  15. I had a low mileage ’74 Vega GT that I bought for $20 in 1980. I had the engine sleeved and replaced a few maintenance items. No rust. It was a comfortable little car but that engine was noisy and rough. Bolted to a Powerglide, running the A/C made it almost undrivable. At least I got my money out of it when I sold it.

    Repackaging Vega into the Monza series, et al, was genius. At least the bugs were mostly fixed.

    • C C I saw a lot of Vegas live fairly long lives but mainly the manual. The Powerglide stuck on that little 4 just killed it. It wasn’t the only car to be killed by an auto either. Ford’s C6 sucked up a prodigious 70 hp, killing the performance of nearly everything it was hooked to. A GM turbo 400 would generally hit for less than 50 hp and the 350 was rarely over 35 if that. Two similar powered cars of the same weight. It wasn’t a guess which would win if it was a Turbo or the C6.

      • The great thing about the Ford C6 and the GM TH400’s were how simple and strong they were. Even though they sucked up a ton of power, they were damn near bulletproof so long as you didn’t overheat them.

        • A simple C6? They have over 800 parts and the DIY help sites demand two 8X4 plywood sheets to hang parts on….but most try to discourage C6 rebuilds since it takes so many specialty tools and it’s so complex.

          I can tell you from experience I’ve been in some serous binds due to the C 6. I nearly took the leg off a coworker trying to get a pot on top of a pole, only about a 20KA, a small one but the New Ford truck wouldn’t get it quite to that last1/2″ to hang on the pole and instead just sat there with me matting the fuel pedal and wouldn’t move in the soft dirt(not stuck, just more torque than it had), a situation a 454 with a Turbo 400 would have easily pulled. I don’t base my bias on anything other than experience.

        • Hi Pedro,

          I am a big fan of GM’s THM2004-R. It was used mostly in the ’80s and was one of GM’s first modern overdrive four-speed automatics. Its virtues include:

          * Steep overdrive gearing such that you can run a 3.90 or even a 4.11 rear and still have a very highway-viable car that’s also a terror 0-60 and in the quarter mile.

          * No got-damned computer. One of the few modern OD automatics that does not require one. There is just a single 12V pigtail for the lock-up converter.

          * Bolts to many GM classic V8s without an adapter plate.

          I have one in my ’76 Trans-Am. The only modification necessary was sliding the transmission crossmember back a few inches. I was even able to use a stock driveshaft!

          It was a little weak in stock trim, but can easily be built to handle a lot of power – and torque. Mine has stood up to the 450-plus ft.-lbs. of torque made by my Trans-Am’s 455 (7.4 liter) V8 for the past ten years!

          • The first year of the 6.5 Turbo Diesel for GM I think was ’92. They put the 700 R4 in them and, as far as I know, everyone that was worked took a dump immediately, like with the window sticker still on some. GM fixed ’em. I don’t know how but they did. They may have simply changed them to the 80 series. It sure let Ford get back in the game when their name was mud. Powerstrokes had a lot of problems behind the engine.

    • Both the Vega and the Monza could have been successful if they’d had the engines that came out just a FEW years later; the GM 151 4 cyl OHV “Iron Duke” (which actually lived up to its name) and the Buick-designed 3.8L V6. I wonder what the hell GM was thinking to create that 4-banger monstrosity that went into the Vega; I suppose it was the best they could do after they had no success with their ill-fated rotary engine project (which was also to be supplied to the AMC Pacer, and that car’s need to use the AMC Six, though a great engine in its own right, got away from the original concept of a “big” small car). What I never understood is that GM was stuffing its 250 CID Chevy Six into all GM compacts, having killed off the Pontiac OHC derivative of it that actually had some “giddyap”, and in the 60s had a decent, if decidedly under-powered 4 cylinder version, which, at 153 cubes and 90 hp, could at least have done no worse than the ill-fated Vega 2300.

  16. “the Vega ‘would be built at a quality level that has never been attained before in a manufacturing operation in this country and probably the world.’”
    Maybe Delorean was right, but the quality was a record low, not high.
    “the engine would shake, shake shake” – then bake, bake, bake.
    This was (IMNSHO) a good looking car. Too bad.

    • Hi Phillip,

      I concur – I always thought the Vega looked good. It was, after all, very similar to the same era Camaro – and the Camaro of that period was a gorgeous car!

      • They were nice, all right. But my personal favorite Camaro was the 68 – maybe just because I was a sr. in HS.

        • PtB. there was something about the ’68 as well as the Firebird I really liked. The ’69 and ’70 were good looking cars too, esp. the RS, SS version with the hidden headlights. The Tunnel Ram FB was distinctive too. I used to detail one for a girl I knew. She dogged it around and when i’d get through with it I’d take it out on the highway and drive the piss out of it. When I returned it it would be running like it should. I doubt the difference was lost on her. She probably wondered how I tuned it so well. Back then a tune-up was waiting for most cars in the form of a heavy foot for 10 miles or so.

      • Hey Eric – I got a request yesterday from LinkedIn to recommend you. To the list of skills they had already assembled, I added “Cutting Through the BS.” Not sure how they will handle that, but I consider it one of your best qualities.

      • eric, I thought the Vega was a nice looking car. A guy up the road in Idalou built conversion kits said to be very good. I was sorely tempted to build a street machine. I liked the stationwagons, had a lot of room. Friends had various versions but the SW was my fav, not only for looks but seating and cargo. I don’t recall being cramped in one. When the back seat was flat the entire rear of the car was flat. I’ve slept in one quite well at extra-legal speed. Open the back door and every dog around would jump in. Dogs have some way of knowing dogmobiles. Open the door on a Wagoneer and dogs that had never seen one would pile in, same for Suburbans.

      • eric, I’ll post this here although it’s aimed at anyone interested. I have found a Ventura, probably ’78 or so, Looks good, original blue paint with twin white racing stripes. All original and a great body. Even the paint could be cleaned and waxed and look good. I can see into the interior driving right by it on the highway, close to a stop sign so I’m going slow. It all looks good although I haven’t stopped. If anyone is interested, I can get the phone number that’s on the For Sale sign. Garden City, Tx. is its home right now.


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