COLLECT. CHEVROLET VEGA
by Bob Hagin
March 15, 1996
In late 1970, I was entering into a collision course with the owner of the Datsun dealership where I was employed as the service manager. As the bread-winner for a large family (seven little folks at home), I was naturally apprehensive and went looking for another shop in which to park my tool-toter.
Since the Datsun dealership was close to our local Chevy dealership, I nipped over during a lunch break to see if there were any wrench- bender berths available (there weren't) and on my way out, took the time to do a cursory examination of the new General Motors "import-fighter" (a popular Big 3 phrase at that time), the Chevy Vega. It was a neat package since GM styling was always the best but that particular example had one flaw that I found amazing. Even sitting on the showroom floor and exhibiting under 100 miles on the odometer, it was beginning to rust around the rear window. In my innocence, I asked the salesman why they didn't put one on the floor that wasn't rusting. "We have a truck-load of them back there and they're all that way," was his terse response.
To me, that was a bad omen for the future of the neat little car. It had been conceived in '68 to drive back the VWs, Datsuns and other "foreigners" that were already taking almost 40 percent of the total new car market in California.
In theory, the designers of the Vega had done everything right: crisp American styling that obviously drew from the second-generation Camaro; tight independent suspension up front; a solid axle in the rear mounted on coil springs; a comfortable cockpit that could carry a couple of kids in the rear; a 2.3 liter engine that should put out an easy 100 horses. And it came out ahead of its cross-town competitor, the Ford Pinto. It could be had as a coupe, a three-door hatchback, two version of a two door station wagon and even as a sedan delivery wagon.
The engine was particularly interesting to me as a a mechanic. The block was aluminum and the pistons ran directly on specially prepared cast-in aluminum bores. The head was iron and sported a single overhead camshaft with easily-adjusted "bucket" cam followers. All things considered, the Vega was a great idea that had one major glitch. It was produced at a very bad time in contemporary American automotive history.
Cost cutting had preempted quality control at GM in the early '70s and the Vega assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, was a prime example. The average assembler had less than 45 seconds to do his or her job and the "hurry-up" pressure was always on. When the allotted time got down to 40, slowdowns and even industrial sabotage began to occur and a crippling three-week strike was called in March of 1972.
Mechanical problems and recalls were other sources of early Vega headaches. The Holly-Weber carburetor leaked gasoline, the rear axle shafts had been cut too short and lost wheels, and the undercooled engine tended to burn oil and blow head gaskets. These problems on top of the early rust-outs.
But Chevrolet soldiered on bravely with the Vega. Quality got better over the years and in '74 Chevrolet offered to replace or repair any failed Vega engine under a retroactive 50,000 mile warranty. By then the engine failure problem had been trace to block rigidity and a lack to cooling passage capacity plus an undersized radiator. The bore "pickling" process hadn't been refined either, another problem that was solved by 1974 but many machine shops around the country had already cured the problem for individual owners by installing old-fashioned iron sleeves.
Unfortunately the reputation of the Vega was past repair. The little import-fighter was counted down and out and by 1978, the Vega was gone.
Well, that's not exactly true either. The body styling was rounded off to produce a more contemporary "sporting" profile in '75 and was marketed as the Monza along side the more prosaic Vega versions. Besides the upscale styling, the Monza could be had with a couple of V6 engines as well as two V8s, one of which was the ubiquitous 350 cubic inch Chevy small-block. Needless to say, the additional muscle made this Vega-in-a-party-dress a very spirited performer albeit a bit nose heavy. The Monza (along with Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac clones) remained on the market into the early '80s.
Another variation on the Vega theme was the now-famous Cosworth Vega Twin-Cam (the subject of one of our previous features) with its high-tech 16 valve cylinder head and speed-tuned suspension.
It's interesting how time tends to soften history and I'm now beginning to see Vegas if not made ready for auto shows, at least the subjects of street restorations and altered as "restorods."
The sad saga of the Vega is one of the text book examples of a good idea that went wrong and I hope it found its way into the educational files of General Motors. It's a story that should be located right along side that of the equally ill-fated original Chevrolet Corvair.