Sunday, January 12, 2014

Chevrolet Vega: GM’s four-letter word

Gone but not forgotten. Big Foot sightings are more common than a Chevy Vega on the back roads of Alabama. That’s why my jaw dropped when I spotted a small herd of Chevrolet Vegas gathered alongside a winding, mountain road. More Vegas were discovered as I descended terrain perfect for hiding moonshine stills. 
  I suspect these examples were hand-me-down refugees from the 1970s. All hiding from discordant owners, who had used them as storage bins or garbage cans. What else could explain the trash piled in the seats? Flat tires, missing wheels, busted glass. The neglect and abuse could not be hidden by dead leaves or fallen trees.

1971 Vega design rules
  The green Vega is a 1971 model (pictured), one of more than 270,000 that were produced during the inaugural year. Believe it or not, the Vega was Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" in 1971. Not all of them were green. This one sported GT fender badges and a surprise inside the rear of Chevy’s first compact car. A quick inspection of the hatch revealed engine parts. A maroon 1974 Vega positioned behind the green '71 makes it easy to compare the design evolution at Chevrolet during that time period. The grill and headlight area of the Vega and Camaro shared many styling cues throughout the Vegas production run. The early ’71-’73 Vegas are favorites among collectors.

Wide-mouth grill of the 1971 Vega mimics Camaros of 1970-73 vintage.

Quality small car?
  Nearly 2 million Chevy Vegas were built between from 1971-77, during their seven-year production run. Chevrolet’s first stab at building small cars was successful in terms of sales but proved to be a long-term fiasco that harmed GM’s reputation. Resale values of American-made compact cars, even ones built 30 years after the first Chevy Vega, has been laughable in comparison to their Japanese counterparts.

My first car was a 1976 Pontiac Astre, a biological twin to the Chevy Vega.

Why do I like Vegas?
  My first car was a 1976 Astre, Pontiac's 'version' of the Chevrolet Vega. These unloved underdogs of the "H-body" platform bring back fond memories. I learned to drive and do stupid stuff in that car. It had a bent fender when I bought it for $160 in 1988, and yes, it was green. 
  My dad helped me get the car ready for the road. I 'helped' by staying out of his way, mostly. Dad straightened the fender with a chain wrapped around a tree and offered to paint the entire car. A shelf full of old automotive paint, bought in bulk, for cheap was where I shopped for paint in our garage. I wanted black, dad wanted yellow. Guess who won? My dad said black would show every imperfection. 
  To me, yellow paint screamed, "Watch out! Student driver on the loose!" That color probably saved my life in the long run. 
  My Pontiac Astre would burn rubber, provided I was making a sharp turn from a dead stop. I would floor-board it every time I took off. The Astre was powered by Pontiac's 151-cid (2.5-liter) "Iron Duke" four-cylinder engine. That 90 horsepower engine was rock solid. It was a good first car. I wish I still had it.

Chevy Vegas. Driven hard, wrecked, sporting half-hearted repair jobs and left for dead.

More Vegas nearby
  I passed two more Vegas on the way down the mountain. Sitting in a yard overgrown with cars was a silver 1975 Vega GT with a mismatched door and crushed by a tree. Next to it, a red Vega and a manufactured home were unharmed.

Jody Potter
— Junkyard Life

A 1975 Chevy Vega GT smacked by a tree down was parked in an overgrown yard a half-mile down the mountain from several other Vegas.

1971 Vega tail panel emblem.

1971 Vega GT had a 2-barrel carburetor and 110 horsepower.

Vegas had an aluminum cylinder block and cast-iron heads. The original SOHC head was hiding in the hatch.

These Vegas, photographed and documented in my original 2008 story, have vanished from the woods. My Vega photos were used on many other websites. I thought it was time to reclaim them for Junkyard Life.

A 140-cubic inch (2.3L) SOHC straight-four cylinder engine powered base Vegas with a 1-barrel carburetor and 90 hp.

Busted glass, piled with trash, just another Saturday night in a Vega.

1974 Vega, check out the aluminum bumper. The Camaro also went to aluminum bumpers that year.

Know a junkyard that we need to visit? Got a car story?  
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vegavairbob said...

Car and Driver editor Patrick Bedard driver of the C&D '73 Vega GT #0 after finishing first in the C&D Showroom Stock Challenge III, 1974, "You have to admire a car like that. If it wins, it must be the best, never mind all of the horror stories you hear, some of them from me."

Motor Trend Technical Director, Frank Markus said, "Chevrolet spun the Vega as a more American, upscale car. And let's face it, the car looked hot. So can you blame us for falling hook, line, and sinker for the Vega and naming it 1971's Car of the Year?"
after driving my 6k mile '73 Vega GT in 2010 Frank Markus said, "After a few gentle miles, I begin to understand how this car won its awards and comparison tests." "Well-maintained examples are great looking, nice-driving, economical classics—like Baltic Ave. with a Hotel, the best ones can be had for $10K or less. Emotionally, Jim Brokaw summed it up in January 1972: Gremlin has power, but Pinto has the price, and a much quieter ride. Which car is best? Vega."

after driving my 2k mile '76 Cosworth Vega in 2013 Frank Markus said, "The thin low-end torque does give way to reasonable power above 4000 rpm. The dogleg-first shift pattern takes practice to use smoothly but the shifter's close gate and snickery-snick mechanical precision feel delightful. The slow-ratio steering takes some getting used to, but the manual brakes actuate at the top of a reassuringly firm pedal. I can definitely sense some of the Vega's raw, untamed nature that my predecessors described. Stylish and historically significant but ridiculously overpriced in its day and ultimately a bit unfinished, the ultimate Vega now represents a serious collector bargain."

Portraits of Automotive History "Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega" editor Aaron Severson said, "As with the Corvair, any statements about the Vega’s failure have to be carefully qualified. Chevrolet sold more than 2 million Vegas during its seven-year lifespan, which is excellent by any standards. During the difficult period of the OPEC embargo — which briefly made big cars almost unsaleable — Chevrolet sold all the Vegas they could build."

Cars in Depth May 26, 2013 said, "GM is not ashamed of the Vega and they have one on display at the GM Heritage Center."

Hemmings Classic Car editor Craig Fitzgerald said, "The idea that the 1971 to 1977 Chevrolet Vega was an unpopular lemon from day one is a myth."
Hemmings Classic Car editor in chief Terry Shea said, "The much-maligned Chevrolet Vega was ahead of its time, advancing new technology in an industry that desperately needed it in the 1970s—"Small, attractive, economical to buy and efficient to own, the sporty and thrifty little car marked big changes at GM, upending nearly 60 years of the way Chevrolet did business."
"Chevrolet did save the best for last in the form of the sublime Cosworth Vega, a sports car with an exotic double-overhead-cam, 16-valve, four cylinder engine; a suspension to match and sophistication decades ahead of most other cars."

Anonymous said...

I'm always looking for one of these cars the Chevy vega I always wanted to own one

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