By on December 18, 2007

in-flanders-fields.jpgThe prolonged wait for the Chevrolet Volt reminds me uncomfortably of waiting for the Chevrolet Vega to appear. For GM’s sake, the outcome had better be radically different. Because no one single vehicle did more damage to GM then the highly-hyped Vega.

Beginning in 1968, three years before the star-crossed Vega finally landed, GM cranked up a huge publicity campaign for its coming “import killer,” code named XP-887. Every month in Popular Science, I read of the miraculous XP-887, accompanied by spy sketches. This huge PR build-up was unprecedented. Previously, new cars were kept under wraps as long as possible. GM was raising the expectations of the whole nation.

The Vega became a cause of national interest: if Americans could beat the Russians to the moon, GM could damn well beat back the imports.

Kinda like the new Chevy Volt.

When I finally saw photos, I began to salivate. The Vega was as cute as a button: those sparkly bright eyes, that Ferrariesque egg-crate grille, the sleek lines on the fastback coupe and that adorable little wagon. Never mind that the Vega was essentially a baby Camaro, with a low roofline that made it cramped and impractical.

Not unlike the Volt’s squished roof.

My enthusiasm inspired a friend to become a Vega beta-tester. Since the baby Chevy’s prices were rather lofty, he settled for a base two-door sedan. When he showed up with it, I experienced my first GM cold shower; actually, it was more like being waterboarded.

At a time when the imports were only selling fully equipped models, the base Vega made a pole-dancing stripper look dressed for church. Unlike the proto-bling Vegas in the ads, his car had no exterior trim, ill-fitting taxi-cab rubber flooring and grim wall-to-wall hard plastic. There wasn’t even a door on the glove box. I had never seen anything like it before because nobody had built an interior like this before.

The Vega forced GM to confront a cruel fact that it still hasn’t solved: it doesn’t know how to manufacture small cars profitably. Originally intended to compete head-on with the imports, higher production costs forced GM to price the Vega some 10 percent higher. They intended to justify that premium with an extra-well-equipped small car. But in a last-ditch effort in the losing battle with profitability, they made the ad-friendly “custom” interior and exterior pieces optional.

Kinda like GM’s plan to sell the Volt without a battery.

We opened the Vega’s hood and started the engine. An auditory form of CIA-approved torture ensued. Not only did the strangely shaped long-stroke engine “look like it had come off a 1920’s farm tractor” (John DeLorean), it sounded and shook like one too. As fond as I am of old Farmalls, this was nothing like my high school buddy’s zippy and smooth Datsun 510 engine.

And what did GM’s moon-shot program offer in the transmission department? The two-speed Powerglide first saw the light of day in 1949. It felt like half of the engine’s 80 horsepower were somehow lost in translation to the rear wheels.

Unfortunately, the standard three-speed stick was just as much a throwback to the fifties, and had such widely-spaced ratios that Car & Driver said it “feels more like a six-speed with first, third and fifth gears missing.” The fact that the Vega handled well (on glass-smooth pavement) only made the power-train that much more frustrating.

But hope springs eternal. Right from the beginning, Chevy was talking up a performance version being developed with Cosworth. They promised a 180hp Vega was “just around the corner.” When the Cosworth Vega arrived four years later, it had all of 120hp, accelerated from zero to 60mph in nine seconds, and cost twice as much as a regular Vega. Not surprisingly, only 3500 were sold. 

My friend went on to endure a number of the Vega engine’s pathological suicidal tendencies: carburetor fires, overheating, distorted blocks, oil consumption. When terminal rust set in after three years, he dumped it for peanuts and bought a Toyota.

Why was the Vega so flawed? It wasn’t actually developed by Chevrolet at all, who might (possibly) have had a (slightly) better idea of what import buyers wanted. GM gave the XP-887 job to a lofty corporate engineering group, and forced the flawed finished product on a reluctant John DeLorean, then President of Chevrolet. On his engineers’ first drive in a prototype, the whole front of the car literally fell off after eight miles.

Chevrolet had already developed a conventional small-car engine, but the GM corporate engineers knew better, and risked all on the world’s first aluminum block without steel cylinder liners.

Kinda like the Volt’s lithium-ion batteries.

But I’ve put my worries aside; companies learn from their mistakes, and lightning never strikes twice in the same place, right?

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93 Comments on “Chevy Volt: Vega Redux?...”


  • avatar
    VeryDemmanding

    Wow. The Vega sounds really bad. Because I am 28, I never had the opportunity to drive a Vega, so I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.

    Lets fast forward 15-20 years. Would you rather drive an 1989 Civic LX with 115K or a 1999 Chevy Cavalier/Ford Focus/Dodge Neon with 60K?

    I’m taking the Civic, and I’ll tell you, at 19 model years old, its still a great car. GM in the 1970′s never realized that went beyond just selling you something with 4 wheels and then moving onto the next sale.

    When I look at new cars today, even though I prefer Nissan, Hyundai, and KIA because they are cheaper to buy, I always tell people to get a Honda Civic, because they absolutely CANNOT go wrong.

    The Volt had better be as good as the Prius and Civic Hybrid, or else who is going to buy it?

  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    I’m confident that GM will produce a working example of the Chevy Volt by Easter 2008 (which what Mr Lutz said will happen).

    GM are bullish in saying that it WILL happen and that Toyota will look stupid for being big naysayers.

    The reason why I think GM will pull this off is because if GM don’t and it all becomes “pie in the sky”, then GM will lose (almost obliterate) a lot of their technical credibility. This is why this Chevy Volt project is so important for GM. Something more valuble than money is on the line for GM, their reputation. Money can come and go, but reputations are hard fought and won for.

    GM have been very vocal about the Chevy Volt being workable. The whole of the auto world are looking at them and waiting. Mr Lutz is confident that it will happen.

    However, my confidence in GM could be misplaced, because my vision of GM delivering all hinges on one important principle:

    That GM are aware that their reputation is at stake.

    Let’s face it, GM aren’t exactly, shall we say, the most perceptive company in the world. If they were, they would have seen the fuel crisis coming and prepared well in advance by diversifying their product range. To this day GM are absolutely adamant that their quality and reliability is on par (if not, better) than Toyota’s. Yet, ask them to prove it and it all goes a bit hazy. This is a true story….

    I watched a presentation by Mr Lutz where he discussed quality and reliability. He pulled a survey out which showed that Buick is now on par with Lexus (which, I’m sure it is. I don’t doubt that), but what did worry me was what Mr Lutz said next. Now I’m not quoting word for word, but here is a paraphrasing of Mr Lutz said:

    “As you can see, Buick’s quality and reliability is now the same as Lexus. And you have to ask yourself, ‘Where is Toyota in the top five makers in this survey?’ Toyota aren’t there. Our quality and reliability is now better than Toyota!”

    Erm….where does Mr Lutz think Lexus get their engineering from? Also, Mr Lutz’s reasoning was, somewhat, flimsy. He mentioned that Toyota wasn’t in the top five in that survey. But neither was Chevrolet, which is Toyota’s main competitor. Where did THEY come?

    But back to my point. If that presentation was anything to go by, I’m not sure GM are aware of what is at stake with the Chevy Volt. I hope they do deliver. Because if they don’t, they won’t be thought of in the same light again…….

  • avatar

    Its amazing how the Vega slipped out of the public conscience and people at Ford are still afraid to say the word “Pinto” without a PR nightmare. Not that the Pinto was a great car but it was far, far better than the Vega.

    You don’t even see Vegas in the junkyard anymore, they’ve been crushed years ago. Even the ones here in the South rusted to bits. But Corollas, Starlets, Datsuns and Pintos (all in good shape) still find their way to the crusher to this day.

    Well done Paul! You did a great job making the Vega relevant again.

  • avatar

    Even in the 80s I never saw Vegas anymore. I actually liked the looks but I got to agree with Paul Niedermeyer that Vega did more to damage GM’s image than any other car.

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    Katie- El KaBob only looks at bright spots. If you showed him that the majority of GM brands were BELOW average (for the industry)in the same survey, or the pile of GM vehicles at the bottom of recent CR survey he would go “Hellen Keller” on you.
    I always remember that most of the Volt hype comes out of one mouth and that mouth is attached to a brain that would not recognize reality (much less truth) if it bit him in the left thigh and tore a chunk out.
    But since Bobus Maximus won’t retire until the Volt is here I look forward to 7-8 years of his entertaining stories (if GM and him survive).

    Sajeev- most never made it to the crusher, they just decomposed in someones yard and the block was recycled.
    Agree about the Pinto, I think it’s problem was that it survived long enough to reach infamy, the Vega didn’t.

    Merry Christmas folks,

    Bunter

  • avatar

    I still remember the story a friend’s Dad told me: he traded his 427cid ’67 Corvette for a new Vega Wagon to haul his family around. Even exchange! Did he ever regret that decision 2 years later!

    Bunter: you’re probably right, Ford sold too many Pintos and continued production until 1980. Everyone knows somebody who owned one. If only their chassis and engines took a sh– as quickly as the Vega’s did…

  • avatar
    Engineer

    The reason why I think GM will pull this off is because if GM don’t and it all becomes “pie in the sky”, then GM will lose (almost obliterate) a lot of their technical credibility.
    Katie,
    You may be right, but that does not mean the Volt is going to fly. If I told you your reputation depended on jumping out of the 10th story window and surviving, that does nothing to actually change the odds of surviving the fall.

    So, yes, GM will put a huge effort in. But the problem is that the battery still needs to be discovered. Think about that for a second. You can’t make discoveries happen according to a project schedule. Spending more money cannot force a discovery sooner, either.

    I’m confident that GM will produce a working example of the Chevy Volt by Easter 2008…
    We should know soon enough then…

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Helped drop a 350 V8 into a vega many years ago. We spent a fair amount of time on the body fixing things and glueing trim back on inside. It was a real piece of ****. We installed the V8 with a kit we bought from somewhere that had engine and trans mounts, and other bits for installing a chevy or ford rear end in the car. Fortunately the Th350 trans actually fit pretty well, aftermarket shifter saved us from having to figure that out. The customized radiator was not big enough and leaked. Definately a beater car, it excelled at laying rubber for yards.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Correct me if my memory has failed me but. Wasn’t the Vega Motor Trend Car of the year TWICE??
    Actually the later ones were great beaters since you could get one for almost nothing.

  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    Engineer,

    I understand your logic, but given that GM have put so much of their technical credibility on the line by saying “This is viable and it WILL work”, then nothing comes, what kind of message does that send about GM’s technical prowess?

    Most car companies, keep a lid on projects like this until, they have a workable example.

    I suppose it could highlight how desperate GM are, that even their credibility, like their profits, is into negative figures!

  • avatar
    radimus

    You don’t even see Vegas in the junkyard anymore, they’ve been crushed years ago. Even the ones here in the South rusted to bits. But Corollas, Starlets, Datsuns and Pintos (all in good shape) still find their way to the crusher to this day.

    That’s because the hot rodders have long since snatched up every worthy Vega they could find to rebuild with small block V8′s stuffed in the engine bay.

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    am I imagining that Paul said GM was going to sell this without a battery? As a cost saver or because the battery hasn’t been invented yet?

    Would you rather drive an 1989 Civic LX with 115K or a 1999 Chevy Cavalier/Ford Focus/Dodge Neon with 60K?

    I’ll take the 99 Focus with a 5speed

  • avatar
    CliffG

    Vegas still do exist. My sister and her husband just found a ’75 16,000 mile one. She intends to drive it in the winter because the goop they put on the roads where she lives literally eats cars. Interestingly, modern oils do a lot to stave off the catastrophic engine problems – aluminum block, cast iron heads???? – but when the car rusts out totally in three years it will join the rest of the “returning to nature” vehicles out on the back 40, so who cares? But yeah, I am old enough to remember the hype, and it was certainly a lot prettier than the Pinto. But goodness, it wasn’t out for 2 years before the bad news came roaring in. Replaced by the Chevette – I had a Fiat 124 coupe at that time, and seriously, the interior of the Fiat must have been 25 times better than the Chevette. Oi vay.

  • avatar
    NickR

    When terminal rust set in after three years

    I don’t have firsthand experience with the Vega, but I became familiar with it’s stablemate, the Astre. And, yes, three years seems to about right for terminal rust. The bottom of the doors and the area around the wheel wells went in year two. The rocker panels, the floors, and well everything else went in year 3. If the engine didn’t seize before then of course.

    It really was incredibly primitive, even by the standards of the day. Such a pity too, as in terms of styling it was streaks ahead of almost anything else coming out of Detroit at the time.

    Oh well.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    KatiePuckrick: The issue is really not so much whether GM gets the Volt to run; it probably will. The Volt was created to compete against the very successful Prius. That’s were the potentially big problem is. The Volt is much more expensive to produce, with a sales price being hinted at of $30k minimum. Prius sales didn’t really take off until incentives lowered the average transaction price from about $26k to below $24k.

    And the technology of the Volt is just more of a gamble, relatively speaking. GM/Lutz’s hubris is driving it to take a big risk, which even if it “works” (runs), will leave them with a substantial cost disatvantage vis-a-vis the Prius. that’s where the analogy to the Vega really hits home. Are they trying to impress us with their technical prowess, or sell cars profitably?

  • avatar
    Bytor

    I’m confident that GM will produce a working example of the Chevy Volt by Easter 2008 (which what Mr Lutz said will happen).

    GM are bullish in saying that it WILL happen and that Toyota will look stupid for being big naysayers.

    First: I don’t see where producing a working protoype sometime in 2008 is a big challenge. That says nothing of producing a viable/reliable/affordable vehicle.

    Second: Where does Toyota say they can’t produce a viable product let alone a working prototype. Seems more like semi senile Lutz is setting up a strawman.

    I only remember toyota stating the parallel was more efficient than serial. Did they say serial couldn’t be done? I don’t thinks so.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Paul Neidermeyer: Unlike sparkly Vegas in the ads, his car had no exterior trim, ill-fitting taxi-cab rubber flooring and grim wall-to-wall hard plastic. There wasn’t even a door on the glove box. I had never seen anything like it before because nobody had built an interior like this before.

    Another great article, but you must not have seen an AMC Gremlin, which debuted in April 1970 (or about six months before the Vega debuted). The interior was just as bad as the one found in the Vega. I know – I learned to drive on my father’s 1973 Gremlin.

    Juniper: Correct me if my memory has failed me but. Wasn’t the Vega Motor Trend Car of the year TWICE??

    The Vega won for the 1971 model year. The Chevy Monza (GM’s Mustang II competitor), which was based on the Vega platform, won for the 1975 model year.

    Sajeev Mehta: Its amazing how the Vega slipped out of the public conscience and people at Ford are still afraid to say the word “Pinto” without a PR nightmare. Not that the Pinto was a great car but it was far, far better than the Vega.

    The Pinto’s mechanicals and bodywork were far superior to those of the Vega. Ford at least had the good sense to use well-tested powerplants from its European operations in the Pinto. Unfortunately, the Pinto had one huge flaw that would earn the car its place in the Automotive Hall of Shame.

    Ford worked hard to save weight and keep costs down, which resulted in a structure that was not as sound as it should be. In a 1971 comparison test that pitted the Pinto against the main import and domestic competition (including the Gremlin and Vega), Car & Driver commented on how “loose” the whole car felt because of its construction. As we all know, that flimsy construction led to a far more serious problem…

    Interestingly, a 1981 article in the Rutgers Law Review by a noted law professor pointed out that the Pinto’s death rate was in line with other cars of its type, and its rate of fire-related deaths was only slightly higher than that of other competitive vehicles. It also pointed out that the infamous memo, where Ford supposedly weighed the costs of making improvements against the cost of trial judgments, was widely misinterpreted, as the federal government required automakers to use that formula, and the memo in question didn’t even deal with the Pinto.

    The Mother Jones article that really got the whole ball rolling also exaggerated the number of fire-related Pinto deaths.

    On the other hand, while the figures showed how rare severe rear-end collisions are in real life, in tests the Pinto’s gas tank and fuel-filler neck were pretty vulnerable. A big reason that Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca is that he held him responsible for the entire Pinto fiasco.

    Both the Pinto and the Vega ended up giving their respective manufacturers’ a black eye, and probably did as much for Toyota and Honda as they ever did for themselves.

    True story – so many Vega engines were failing by the mid-1970s that one California junkyard posted a sign that simply said – No Vegas.

  • avatar
    carguy

    While I agree that GM (and every other automaker) has made past mistakes, I think it would be wise to wait until the car has actually been released and tested by both consumers and the press before we jump to conclusions. It like saying that BMW can’t produce an environmentally sound car because the 325e. Until we see it in the flesh all we can do is fill column inches with speculation.

  • avatar
    Kevin

    I inherited a ’72 Vega as my first car (in 1982). Equipped with AM radio! It had such a chronic starting problem that after seeming months of intensive work a mechanic finally installed a choke, with a lever mounted on the dash that I’d pull when starting the car.

    With no AC and a black interior it became very unpleasant as summer arrived, and even as a 16 year old I soon decided I couldn’t tolerate it. So I abandoned it to the side yard and bought a 4-banger economy Mustang (horrible branding suicide by Ford of course, but I like it then).

    Eventually my mother traded it for a load of firewood.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Bytor brings up a good point about serial hybrids (Volt) being less efficient (in continous use) than the parallel hybrid (Prius). The Volt’s potential advantage will be in city driving, and staying well within the projected 40 mile battery range. Once past that, it loses relative efficiency.

    The Vega had the opposite problem. GM designed the Vega to beat the imports in highway cruising, which is why they used a 2.56 rear axle; it gave low rpms on the freeway even with that three-speed. But that gearing was very clumsy around town; you always felt like you were in second gear starting off.

    In both cases, GM chose to empasize a certain perceived technical advantage in a top-down way, at the expense of a more balanced, real-world package. Beyond the hard-core, are folks really going to want to plug and un-plug their cars daily? I know my wife wouldn’t.

  • avatar
    jolo

    Paul wrote: “Beyond the hard-core, are folks really going to want to plug and un-plug their cars daily?”

    Everyone has seen the pictures of the car going down the road with a gas nozzle still attached to the car. Will the connection to the Volt be tight enough that there will be a new set of pictures on the ‘net? Volt going down the road with the plug and wall socket and maybe a circuit breaker panel not far behind. Can Kelly Ripa do an On* commercial for that? Will they have diagnostic trouble codes being set if you forget to unplug it? Inquiring minds are curiously yellow…

  • avatar
    BuckD

    I guess the one bright spot in the Vega debacle is that the car itself disintegrated so quickly and completely that nothing remained of it but a bad memory.

  • avatar
    tech98

    Will Lucy hold the football this time so Charlie Brown can kick a field goal?

    GM’s been promising “THIS time we’ll produce a world-beating car” for as long as I can remember, which dates back to the era of the X-Cars and the J-Car Cavalier/Cimarron.

    Unless GM has revolutionized its management culture, I suspect they’ll produce yet another “80%-good-enough” car, with egregious bean-counter corner cutting that make it an inferior product, then flog it with a massively expensive flag-waving jingoistic and puerile marketing campaign. Put your money into the product this time, not the TV ads.

    I’ve been burned by GM too many times before. I’ll wait for the 3- and 5-year reliability ratings.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I hope Phil reads this-

    My wife and I bought a used Vega in the late ’70s. We lived in Hawaii at the time. It was a wonderfully reliable car that never gave us a single problem of any kind.

    It was in two accidents, both of which were caused by the other driver. After the first, we put a junk yard fender on it and drove it until the 2nd accident. After that, it just wasn’t useable any more.

  • avatar
    crackers

    This brings back memories! My second car as a student was a 5 year old ’74 Vega that I bought for very little. I worked at a fiberglass shop part time, so I was able to hold the metal together long enough for a safety inspection. It did reasonably well for a cheap car, but after a year and half it was “fill it with oil and change the gas”. GM had a hidden warranty for rust, but you needed a lawyer to get any results. After two years, an electrical fault caused the entire wiring harness to go up in smoke. It was 13 years before I would buy another GM product. Now I will never buy another GM product

  • avatar
    Engineer

    I suppose it could highlight how desperate GM are, that even their credibility, like their profits, is into negative figures!
    BINGO!

    GM’s been promising “THIS time we’ll produce a world-beating car” for as long as I can remember, which dates back to the era of the X-Cars and the J-Car Cavalier/Cimarron.
    BINGO^2!

  • avatar
    jthorner

    There are still a few Vegas around:

    http://cgi.ebay.com/ebaymotors/1975-CHEVY-VEGA-RUST-FREE-ORIGINAL-NICE_W0QQitemZ220184533646QQihZ012QQcategoryZ6173QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

  • avatar
    jthorner

    “Will the connection to the Volt be tight enough that there will be a new set of pictures on the ‘net?”

    It should be a simple matter to make sure the car will not move until it has been unplugged. But then again, this is coming from the company which can’t make the Astra’s clock tell time in North America, so who knows.

  • avatar
    EJ

    The biggest problem with the Volt is that huge 16 kWh battery.

    From all we know the A123 battery is solid. It seems to be safe and reliable. But more proof is needed.

    It’s heavy and expensive, though. Currently it costs around $1000/kWh, so the Chevy Volt battery would cost $16K. Let’s say with GM’s volume purchase the price can be cut in half to $8K.
    Throw in $3K tax credit from the government and you’re down to $5K.
    That’s still quite expensive, but may be low enough to get some sales going.

    Over time, the cost of the battery can be further reduced.

    So, do I think we will see something like the Chevy Volt on the roads over the next decade?
    Yes.

    Can it compete with the Toyota Prius?

    The Volt uses no gas in the city. Even on a 200 mile trip, say, from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe it might use less gas than a Prius. Advantage: Volt.

    The Prius is cheaper. Advantage: Prius.
    The Prius works fine with smaller batteries, that can gradually evolve in size, as battery technology and cost permit. Advantage: Prius.

  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    The Volt uses no gas in the city. Even on a 200 mile trip, say, from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe it might use less gas than a Prius. Advantage: Volt.

    Now that you got to Lake Tahoe how do you get back without a charge?
    What happens if you get stuck in traffic behind a serious accident?
    What happens when you miss calculate your load/range ratio?

    The Prius works because Toyota was actually smart enough to know that an all electric car is NOT what the public wants. Until there is are service stations that will be able to charge the battery in the Volt in less than 5 minutes all over the place the Volt will be a losing proposition.

    It is one thing to run out of gas in a car that can be filled from a gaas can on the side of the road. It is something entitely different to run out of battery power in a vehicle that is just DEAD without a charge! What might be a big hassle is now a major fuck-up that will require a very expensive tow.

    Correct me if I am wrong but does not the Prius’s gasoline engine still function without the aide of teh electrical motor and battery pack? This redundancy of systems make the prius a much better fit in todays world.

  • avatar
    oboylepr

    Until we see it in the flesh all we can do is fill column inches with speculation.

    Yes and no! This is mostly true of all new projects whether they are cars or hotdogs. BUT, we are talking about GM here. GM have a long and sordid history of promising fireworks and then shooting blanks as the very fine article by Paul points out. Someone speculated on whether substantive change in GM’s corporate machinations had happened or is happening and I think the answer is clearly no. There is no reason to believe that GM’s corporate culture has changed, learned from it’s mistakes, taken on a bit of humility nor is it likely to happen unless they fire everyone down to engineer level including rabid Rick and especially loony lutz! What characterizes GM is Hype, boilerplate, arrogance (extreme at times)and a propensity to produce 80% cars (with the exception of the Corvette). As this is what we have come to expect of GM, increasing numbers of people take what they say with a truckload of salt especially when Lutz is the mouthpiece!
    The Volt is a good concept and I would like to see it work but I am not holding my breath. In any case, with GM’s financials in the state they are in, I doubt that the autogiant formally known as GM will even exist in 2010 unless a miracle happens. So start praying for one ASAP!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    whatdiiknow1: The Volt is a hybrid, and has an on-board generator that feeds the batteries and electric motor. It’s not a typical electric car that way. It’s total range is the combination of about 40 miles on straight battery power, and some 300 miles from the gas-fueled gen-set.

  • avatar
    altdude

    My mom had an orange 1972 Vega wagon. She thought it was a cute car, but it broke down constantly, and always was overheating. Pretty amazing that I saw a yellow coupe in decent condition, for sale a couple years ago. Then again maybe there was a reason it was for sale…

    She replaced her Vega with a Buick, which had a check engine light that kept coming on- after about a year she replaced that with a Lancia Beta coupe, which wasn’t much more reliable- but at least it was fun to drive!

  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    Duh……

    Thanks Paul!

    Now I will go and pull my ____ out of my____!

  • avatar
    Juniper

    As far as “will people be willing to plug it in every day?” You are willing to do things based on what you get back. If people have a daily driving habit that usually does not require the engine to start, and seldom if ever have to buy gas, I think they will. It will become part of the normal routine of getting home and into the house. think about what you do now when you get home from work. Turn off the lights,Grab your bag, get out, lock the car, etc. etc. Plugging it in will just be one more item. AND your wife and mine won’t have to pump gas or even go to the gas station. (not that she does now)

  • avatar
    timd38

    I had a two Vegas. I put a V8 in one and kept it for 20 year….

    The reason that GM came out with the 350 diesel was to prove that they could come out with an engine worse than Vega!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Juniper: “(not that she does now (pump her gas))” You’re right; one of her favorite things about Oregon is that we have no self-serve gas(!)

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    Oops, not paying attention makes me look like an ass.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Paul Niedermeyer: Beyond the hard-core, are folks really going to want to plug and un-plug their cars daily? I know my wife wouldn’t.

    It isn’t a question what folks want, so much as it is a question of will folks do it? In sub-zero weather, I don’t like plugging and unplugging my car’s headbolt heater into an outdoor electric outlet. But I do it because I want it to start on frigid mornings.

    If your wife (and other potential Volt buyers) want to get better gas mileage, using the charged battery and electric motor to supplement the gas engine, they’ll plug their cars in. If they don’t give a damn, they won’t.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    The Volt uses no gas in the city. Even on a 200 mile trip, say, from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe it might use less gas than a Prius. Advantage: Volt.
    Remember, electricity is not free. So comparing gasoline consumption is only part of the picture.

    OTOH, at ~$0.15/kWh and assuming the Volt would typically use 50% of the 16 kWh battery, a charge will still only cost $1.20. If the Volt could do a 40 mile trip on that, it would be impressive.

    The Prius would burn close to a gallon of gas on a 40 mile trip. Any bets that gas will drop to $1.20/gal anytime soon?

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    WhatEVER happens with the Volt, which WILL be a flop (knowing GM’s ways for the last 25 years), it will NOT change MY view of GM. I will always think they stink!

  • avatar
    taxman100

    My brother in law had a 75 Vega – by then it was a great car, as all the issues had been resolved.

    He still misses that car.

  • avatar
    beken

    My very first car was a 1974 Vega with 4 speed manual transmission. It was not the Vega GT so it had a single barrel carburator. It did a top-speed of somewhere around 112 MPH. I was in highschool and taking auto-mechanics and it was a great project car. I learned to rebuild carburators, change clutches and clutch cables, in-tank fuel pumps, adjust valve lash (every 2 to 3 weeks, change gaskets, rebuild engines and install steel liners, and finally, body work including welding on new sheet metal. I sold the car with 120,000 miles on it in good running condition and bought the first 1985 Pontiac Fiero 2M6 in Canada which I still have and drive (amongst other cars also). The truth is the Vega had all the promise of a world class car if GM had only done a bit more work and not taken all those shortcuts. The simplicity of design made it easy to work on if it didn’t have such a propensity to leak and burn oil.

    The Volt has all the specs to be the game changer in automobiles, but GM has all the capability to have not learned a single thing in 4 decades….and destined to repeat.

    Good article. Thanks for pointing out the parallels.

  • avatar
    Unbalanced

    I drove a red ’72 Vega wagon for years. Very cool looking car. Unlike modern vehicles, the Vega generated a limitless number of entertaining stories, since you never knew where a stift stick would shear off or an engine explode.

    One similarity with the Volt: the Vega consistently got 200 miles per gallon. Of course, that was of motor oil.

  • avatar
    AuricTech

    I see a basic problem with the Chevy Volt’s concept, as a business model:

    Let’s assume for a moment that the Chevy Volt meets or surpasses all current* expectations. For the purposes of discussion, we’ll assume that the Volt will at least meet its target of 40 miles battery range. We’ll also assume that, between income tax credits, fuel savings and money on the hood, the average Volt owner will break even cost-wise between the Volt and an equivalent gas-sipper at the 5-year mark (assuming that both vehicles are financed for 60 months at equal interest rates). To be generous, we’ll even assume that the Volt’s fit, finish, amenities and performance are on a par with an equivalent vehicle driven exclusively by burning dead dinosaurs.

    Given all that, I have one question:

    As an apartment dweller, exactly how do I charge my Volt’s batteries, other than by running the durn thing’s engine? Am I expected to run several hundred feet of extension cord from my third-floor apartment down to my Volt? If so, how can I prevent other residents from using my electricity at my expense? If not, who will pay to add a secure charging station for my vehicle, at either home or work (the main places my present vehicle spends time stationary)?

    *Pun intended, of course.

  • avatar
    50merc

    And the funny thing is, the ad slogan for the underachieving Vega was “The Little Car That Does Everything Well.”

  • avatar

    What the makers of the “Volt” dont realize or maybe they do in that this vehicle will need to be plugged into your home electrical outlet at night! Just think how much your Electric bill will be? and also Hydro is not cheap no matter what Country we all live in either, time has not come really!

  • avatar
    Macca

    Thanks for the link, jthorner. Quite entertaining.

    “…has no rust at all…”

    then:

    “…you will see there is [sic] a few places were [sic] the paint has came [sic] off and it is rusty looking but there are no holes…”

    Talk about an important caveat. To be fair, that particular example does appear to be in top-notch shape for a Vega.

    That (horrendous) speedometer appears to have been in use well into the 1990s at GM…

  • avatar
    KixStart

    The PowerGlide was not the only transmission, a 3-speed stick was available. Everybody else had a 4, of course. GM has historically been very parsimonious with their cogs.

    I got to drive one so equipped back in ’74 or so – not a bad car but then nothing to write home about, either. Better handling than some things but nothing like a Fiat, say.

    As to the future…

    And the Prius is avaible today. Advantage Prius.

    And in 20010 or 11 or 12 or whenever, the Volt will still be a First Model Year Experiment from the company that built the Vega. Advantage Prius.

    And let’s not forget that the Prius is a moving target. It will probably offer significantly better fuel economy in 2009. And when Li-ion is available for the Volt, it will also be available for the Prius.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I’ve seen both sides of the proverbial equation. The Prius is truly an exceptional product… but it took nearly a decade for it to become popular in the North American market. It’s still not very sought after in the EU.

    The Volt may be the car that gets GM back at the forefront… then again, maybe not. None of us really know if the plug-in hybrid concept will take root in this market. I still have to admire GM though for having the courage to pursue it in a non-half azed way. There are a LOT of companies out there that are making billions and pay precious little thought to the long-term future.

  • avatar
    rtz

    A Glide in a stock Vega… I wouldn’t even consider a Glide today unless I was pushing over 1,000hp to take advantage of it.

    http://www.atiperformanceproducts.com/products/trans/pg/index.htm

    “and lightning never strikes twice in the same place, right?” “Beginning in 1968..”

    Just another 30 year cycle taking place and repeating itself.

    GM should make the 40 mile(should aim for more) bat + unlimited gen range Volt they currently plan on.

    They should also make an all out performance model, and an extreme range all electric model.

    http://www.autobloggreen.com/2007/12/18/current-eliminator-v-sets-new-world-speed-record-153-6-mph-f/

  • avatar
    factotum

    Even on a 200 mile trip, say, from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe it might use less gas than a Prius. Advantage: Volt.

    Except in the Volt, you’ll need to start it and let it idle so that it’ll build up a full charge in order to ascend Echo Summit. In the Prius, you’ll be able to go immediately, though laboriously.

  • avatar
    Hank

    Perhaps the amazing thing is that they sold 2 million Vegas. Seems the public learned the lesson ultimately, but at 2 million sales, they were slow learners.

  • avatar
    Bytor

    (from Engineer) OTOH, at ~$0.15/kWh and assuming the Volt would typically use 50% of the 16 kWh battery, a charge will still only cost $1.20. If the Volt could do a 40 mile trip on that, it would be impressive.

    That 16kWh battery also is a finite resource and you just burned one cycle. How many does it last? 2000-3000?

    At current rates that battery is probably $15000 and say it lasts 3000 cycles. That is still 5$/cycle.

    Your 40 mile trip is now up to $6.20. Does that still look impressive? Even my 1999 ZX2 can do a 40 mile trip in under $6.20.

    GM will have a niche here for creating the first mass market range extended electric car, but because it is not only a new model but the first of its kind (from GM no less) I expect significant growing pains.

    In range extended operation, how will it handle climbing a long grade. It will probably have to crawl up because the genset will almost certainly be of limited power. How annoying will the genset be when it kicks in? In short how well is this going to work once you go beyond the electric range. It seems in genset mode like it will make fairly poor setup.

    Also how will GM possibly make a profit and/or sell this at a competetive price given the huge expenditure on the battery + a bunch of other custom components (electric drive system+genset).

    How will the battery be warrantied and how long will it really last?

    I am sure these will sell well if they meet the $30k target and I look forward to reading review about usage, but I won’t be lining up to buy one.

  • avatar
    rocket88

    the Vega was supposed to have had a Wankel engine. GM mothballed all the tooling (which had cost 165 million plus a 50 million paid up license from NSU/Wankel) at the last moment due to the fuel crunch. Or so the story goes.

    Im late posting this, maybe someone else has already

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    rocket88: It was the Monza, a 1975 derivative of the Vega platform, that was supposed to get the Wankel.

  • avatar
    fallout11

    My parents bought a new dark green Vega fastback in 1972. It died an ignomineous death sometime in 1974 (seized engine).

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Bytor,
    You raise some valid issues. Still, to get the full picture one would have to do an analysis that would include vehicle depreciation. Won’t be possible at this point, but generally not good for GM.

    Still, the $5/cycle ($0125/mile) is a lot of dough. It is interesting that the Prius seems to have skirted the issue of battery life (so far?). With the Volt, the battery range would be more important (and obvious), so any hick-up would be noticeable. Add to that a rush to market, experimental new technology and things get exciting risky.

    Bottom line: I agree, I won’t be in line as a test driver, thanks.

  • avatar
    wsn

    Engineer said
    OTOH, at ~$0.15/kWh and assuming the Volt would typically use 50% of the 16 kWh battery, a charge will still only cost $1.20. If the Volt could do a 40 mile trip on that, it would be impressive.

    You assumed a 100% efficiency from the plug to the battery and that is wrong.

    The battery cannot charge instantly, and should be viewed as a capacitor. Only a very small fraction of the plug output is actually stored. The rest is dissipated as heat. That’s why the battery always warm up substantially after a charge.

  • avatar
    AGR

    Vegas were wonderful and inexpensive “beater” especially the station wagons which were versatile to haul all sorts of stuff.

    The oil consumption was excessive, the benefit was that you could recycle your friends old oil in your Vega. It was counterproductive to put new oil in those engines. Since the electric fuel pump had an oil pressure switch, even if the engine ran out of oil, it would run out of gas and stop.

    Great beaters to go from A to B in a commuter application. You could leave the keys in the car, nobody would even think of stealing it.

    If the Volt become the next Vega, it will be a great “beater”, nothing wrong with that somebody must be the provider of “beaters”.

  • avatar
    rtz

    factotum typed:

    “Except in the Volt, you’ll need to start it and let it idle so that it’ll build up a full charge in order to ascend Echo Summit. In the Prius, you’ll be able to go immediately, though laboriously.”

    Why not just have the Volt plugged in the night before so it’s fully charged up? No need to let it idle.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    rtz,

    Factotum and bytor brought up an interesting point and it’s one the engineering of the Volt must address.

    Suppose you live in Denver and plan to drive to Rifle, which is on the other side of the Rockies. But, first, you have 40 miles of errands in Denver to do. When you finally turn west and hit the hills, you’ll have an empty battery. And you’ll be climbing a long grade.

    Either the engine is really big and can both charge the battery and drive the car up the hill with many kilowatts of power, in which case it’s a large, heavy engine with a big radiator, etc, or the engine won’t be able to both climb the hill and charge the battery. How will this impact performance? If they go with a small engine, to maximize the range and fuel efficiency, it seems likely that performance is ultimately compromised.

    OK, not everyone’s going to drive around Denver and then climb the Rockies but this is an engine/battery management issue that must be considered by engineering.

    This is also probably why Toyota said that they weren’t interested in pursuing a Volt-like vehicle and would stick with HSD and that eventually caused Lutz’ “egg on the face” rejoinder.

  • avatar
    EJ

    Bytor,

    You want to calculate the cost per mile.

    That’s pretty tricky and depends a lot on how much you use electric mode (if you don’t use it much, the battery is a wasted investment).

    Let’s assume the battery lasts the life of the vehicle. And you use it for 6K miles/year (that’s 150 trips of 40 miles).

    With gas at $4/gallon (in San Francisco) and 50 mile/gallon efficiency (like the Prius), those 6K miles in gas mode would cost $480.

    So, that large battery is allowed to add $480 to your yearly car cost (depreciation, interest, insurance) to break even.
    Or ~$6K over the 15 year life of the vehicle.
    Can that cover the cost of the battery?
    Not easily.

    I think to get a big breakthrough the cost of the battery needs to drop to around $100/kWh, a factor 10 lower than today.

  • avatar
    Bytor

    I know it is a tricky calculation but I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t left out in cost/mile calculations. It is still the elephant in the room IMO.

    When people look at electric and say pennies a day to drive, I like to remind them that this is not the whole story.

    But I am excited by all the battery research. In ten years we will probably have some very nice batteries that make electrics very viable and don’t scare the heck out of us on replacment cost.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    So, that large battery is allowed to add $480 to your yearly car cost (depreciation, interest, insurance) to break even.
    Or ~$6K over the 15 year life of the vehicle.
    Can that cover the cost of the battery?
    Not easily.

    I think to get a big breakthrough the cost of the battery needs to drop to around $100/kWh, a factor 10 lower than today.
    Nice job Bytor & EJ!

    I think you just exposed the Achilles heel of the Volt. Earth calling Major Tom Bob Lutz!

  • avatar
    nino

    Just a reminder:

    The technique and material used to make the Vega aluminum engine block, was later used by Porsche, Mercedes Benz, and BMW in their alimunum engines.

    The Vega GT of 1972 was the best handling car built in America. It could also give some imports (BMW 2002 anyone?) a run for their money.

    The Vega was the first American car with front disc brakes as standard equipment.

    The Vega pioneered new techniques in vehicle construction, robotics, and vehicle transport that helped modernize vehicle production.

    Yes, Vegas rusted out, so did many other cars of the time, but the Vega was the first to offer a rust warranty.

    The 1976 Vega was the first car in the world to offer a 5 year, 60,000 mile warranty on its powertrain.

    The Vega was a successful racing car. It raced as a drag racer (with small block V8s) and as a rally car with the Cosworth engine. The Cosworth engine itself not only had the highest output for an American built 4 cylinder engine at the time, but was also a very successful engine in many forms of midget racing in the US. It competed successfully up until 1985 and a bit beyond.

  • avatar
    nino

    The main flaw with the aluminum Vega engine laid not with the aluminum block, but with the IRON cylinder head that was attached. The overheating sensor was positioned in the head. When the sensor indicated that the car was overheating, the aluminum block was already toast.

    The engine was supposed to have an aluminum head of cross flow design, but it was nixed at the last second due to cost considerations. Had the Vega engine had the aluminum head, we might be hailing it as a great engine design.

  • avatar
    nino

    And for those that were saying the Pinto was a better car, the only thing the Pinto had were better engines that came from their European operations. Otherwise, the Pinto was flimsy and a terrible handler. The other strange quality of the Pinto was that it was better aerodynamically going BACKWARD than it was going forward.

    Only the Pinto wagon offered a little more than the comparable Vega in that it was nicely proportioned, had a little wider stance and was a better looker than the Vega wagon.

  • avatar
    Tagamet

    Hey Bytor, is that the Bytor I remember from days gone by? Hope so. I’m not nearly as concerned about the cost of “filling up” with electrons, if I can drive through gas stations on all electric and SMILE at the people feeding their vehicles. The new nanotech silicon Li-on written up by Stanford Univ staff holds HUGE promise. As with all things technological, the price WILL come down. Although I’m pulling (hard) for the Volt being successful, I think Toyota will release a parallel hybrid in 2009.
    The first batteries have already been delivered to GM and (so far) are meeting specs. As many have said already, GM just can’t afford to flub this one. Survival is a great motivator. Just like on the reefs (g).
    JMO
    Tagamet

  • avatar
    shaker

    The Volt needs a 100-mile range on batteries to be considered a “primary” vehicle by most Americans; even that’s pushing it a bit.

  • avatar
    peoplewatching04

    My parents had a Vega that miraculously lasted into the 80′s. Fumes would draft into the interior when the heat was on, making it necessary to keep the windows open during the winter. After it rusted to bits, you would think they’d do their research and get a better car. But they bought a Ford Fairmont. Anyway, this car was the main reason that neither of them will ever buy a GM product again.

  • avatar
    Bytor

    Tagamet. Not sure. Your handle sounds familiar. It is hard for me to keep track I open my opinionated mouth on many boards…

  • avatar
    geeber

    nino: The Vega was the first American car with front disc brakes as standard equipment.

    The 1963 Studebaker Avanti had front disc brakes as standard equipment, as did the 1965 Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental. The 1965 Chevrolet Corvette had four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment.

    nino: Yes, Vegas rusted out, so did many other cars of the time, but the Vega was the first to offer a rust warranty.

    The Vega was far worse than other cars in this regard. It offered a rust warranty because it had to – the car’s reputation for early rustout was terrible.

    nino: The 1976 Vega was the first car in the world to offer a 5 year, 60,000 mile warranty on its powertrain.

    It had to offer that warranty because its reputation for premature engine failure was widespread by 1976.

    nino: And for those that were saying the Pinto was a better car, the only thing the Pinto had were better engines that came from their European operations.

    It also had a much nicer interior, and it wasn’t nearly the rust bucket that the Vega was.

  • avatar
    fallout11

    Further, the Pinto’s 2.3L mill soldiered on in various (improving) forms for another 25 years.
    The Vega’s motor was DOA.

  • avatar
    Macca

    Wow. There’s even someone ready to go to bat for the woeful Vega, their comments replete with factual errors and skewed logic. Kool-aid alert!

  • avatar
    nino

    I should’ve stated that among regular production cars (which the Avanti and Corvette certainly were not), the Vega was first with standard fron disc brakes.

    I don’t remember the 1965 T-bird or Lincoln having them as standard though.

    In my opinion, the General tried with the Vega. They used advanced engineering on the motor and in producing the car and by 1974 they had pretty much eliminated many of the problems that the Vega had. The General did with the Vega many of the things we complain that they don’t do now; constantly refine and fix the problems until they get it right. The extended warranties by 1976 I feel showed that they had made progress with the car.

    It’s possible that I’m a little partial to the Vega as I’ve driven many derivatives of the car including a 3.5 liter aluminum V8 version that had 200HP and weighed less than the standard car that was a dream to drive then and would be a competitive drive today. I also got to drive a roadster based on the Vega with the crossflow cylinder head on the Vega block which was really something special.

    Many who criticize the Vega I feel do so more from anecdotal references than from any actual experiences with the car. The rust problem with the car for example, was greatly alleviated by adding inner fender liners in 1974 and beyond model years. Yet, all you hear is about how badly Vegas rusted (true from 1971 to 1973)

  • avatar
    Macca

    Sounds like the ‘advanced engineering’ on the engine wasn’t advanced enough, or at least the bean counters didn’t let the final product get all the advancements the plans called for. I’m not sure you could call any aspect of the Vega ‘refined’, either.

    “It’s possible that I’m a little partial to the Vega as I’ve driven many derivatives of the car including a 3.5 liter aluminum V8 version that had 200HP and weighed less than the standard car that was a dream to drive then and would be a competitive drive today. I also got to drive a roadster based on the Vega with the crossflow cylinder head on the Vega block which was really something special.”

    So you drove various non-stock Vegas…that’s obviously a different experience than the other 99.9% of Vega owners. Perhaps your various experiences disprove the idea that ‘you can’t polish a turd’.

    What you don’t see about the extended warranties is that by 1976 – only 5 years with the Vega on the market – the cars were deteriorating so fast, and problems so rampant, that GM had to offer that warranty just to get people to even think about buying one of these things. Had they addressed many of the issues? Apparently. But that alone wasn’t enough to break the stigma that these were truly crappy automobiles.

    You know things are bad when it only takes a few years for a car to get such a (justly deserved) reputation. Just like the spin on the Vega being the ‘first car to offer rust warranty’ – that’s not really something to boast, the General had to offer that warranty. If every car from that era rusted as bad, how come there are plenty of non-restored early-70s cars on the road today without terrible rust?

    Today, with information sharing what it is, it doesn’t take long for reliability issues to become public knowledge…but for the Vega to earn that reputation in the early 70′s really tells you something about the commonness of its issues.

  • avatar
    geeber

    nino: This is what Car & Driver said in a comparison test of six 1965 luxury cars that included the Lincoln Continental:

    “Kelsey-Hayes ventilated discs are standard on the Lincoln and the Thunderbird and optional on the Mustang – a fact that we heartily applaud.”

    In The Complete History of the Ford Motor Company by the editors of Consumer Guide, this entry is recorded for the 1965 Thunderbird:

    “More significant was the standardization of front disc brakes, something this weighty personal car had long needed.”

    Here is what Motor Trend said about the 1966 Lincoln Continental at its introduction:

    “A jump ahead of most, Lincoln offered front disc brakes as standard equipment last year.” (Which would have been the 1965 model year)

  • avatar
    nino

    The Vega was originally advertised as having a “throw away engine” that you simply replaced every 50,000 and in fact, early Vega parts catalogs showed no separate engine parts save for a complete engine assembly that I believe cost around $400. Needless to say, this marketing angle prove to not be the success that was anticipated and was pulled rather quickly. This, along with real world problems with the engine, cemented the Vega’s reputation in peoples’ minds.

    Understand that I’m not saying that things were rosy with the car. My point was that GM put a lot of high technology into the car and its production. When problems became evident, they tried to do something about it. Maybe it is because of this experience that GM had with the Vega that they became “gun shy” about introducing new technology in its cars.

    You’re right that the Vegas I have driven are non-stock factory “hot rods” (the roaster wasn’t even a Vega, but an experimental body chassis combo that used a Vega motor with the not produced cross flow aluminum cylinder head), but the ease of these conversions by both the factory, aftermarket, and individuals, I believe point out the flexibility of the design as well as a longing “what if”.

  • avatar
    nino

    geeber :
    December 22nd, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    nino: This is what Car & Driver said in a comparison test of six 1965 luxury cars that included the Lincoln Continental:

    “Kelsey-Hayes ventilated discs are standard on the Lincoln and the Thunderbird and optional on the Mustang – a fact that we heartily applaud.”

    In The Complete History of the Ford Motor Company by the editors of Consumer Guide, this entry is recorded for the 1965 Thunderbird:

    “More significant was the standardization of front disc brakes, something this weighty personal car had long needed.”

    Here is what Motor Trend said about the 1966 Lincoln Continental at its introduction:

    “A jump ahead of most, Lincoln offered front disc brakes as standard equipment last year.” (Which would have been the 1965 model year)

    I stand corrected

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Personally I hope GM pulls of the Volt and that it is a big success. The architecture makes great sense. Train locomotives have for a long time used electric motors to power the wheels and a big diesel engine driving a generator. No mechanical transmission. Volt takes that architecture and adds a battery pack which can be recharged from a wall plug and incorporates regenerative braking.

    Volt makes much more sense than a pure electric car since it is completely compatible with existing infrastructure. I hope they pull it off. If they don’t, one or more competitors will. In 20 years people will look back on the big debate over the new 35 mpg CAFE rules and laugh at how primitive those expectations really were.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    nino: “The Vega was originally advertised as having a “throw away engine””

    If only there had been that much truth in advertising. If GM had even suggested that the Vega engine was diposable, it would have been the kiss of death. Don’t forget, the Vega was priced at least 10% higher than its competition, and was positioned as a “premium small car”. To even have suggested that the engine had a limited lifespan, the Vega would have been dead in arrival. As it was, the reputation of engine problems is what killed the Vega. Chevy’s extended warranties came to late; by ’75, the Vega was dead meat, and sales had plummeted.

  • avatar

    nino: You’re right that the Vegas I have driven are non-stock factory “hot rods”… but the ease of these conversions by both the factory, aftermarket, and individuals, I believe point out the flexibility of the design as well as a longing “what if”.

    I see your point, in theory. After all, I’m a Fox Chassis fanatic.

    But when spreading the Fox gospel I point out that Fairmonts and Mustangs take decades to die. Vegas were dead in the water by the time 1975 rolled around.

    And they deserved their rep: not being born when the Vega arrived, I’ve only seen salt eaten Pintos from Colorado fare better than Texas-born Vegas.

  • avatar

    Then again, Nino might be on to something. ERTL did make a 1:18th scale Vega and overlooked all the other forgettable 1970s compacts. Maybe they know something we don’t, or maybe it’ll make a good drag car for model car hobbyists with an overabundance of free time.

  • avatar
    doctorv8

    Another wonderful read, Paul. I can only hope for GM that the Volt is less ill conceived. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist….

    @nino:

    I should’ve stated that among regular production cars (which the Avanti and Corvette certainly were not)

    You’re probably the only person who doesn’t consider the Corvette a regular production car. Considering the one millionth Corvette rolled off the assembly line in 1992….’nuf said.

  • avatar
    doctorv8

    @Sajeev:

    I have one of those ERTL Vegas in my collection. Remarkably realistic….has a little cancer on the rockers already, IIRC. ;-)

  • avatar
    nino

    doctorv8 :
    December 25th, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    @nino:

    You’re probably the only person who doesn’t consider the Corvette a regular production car. Considering the one millionth Corvette rolled off the assembly line in 1992….’nuf said.

    I always thought that Corvettes were anything but regular.

    The Vega sold over 2 million units from 1971 to 1977

    The Corvette sold 1 million units from 1953 to 1992.

    Hardly what you could call “regular” production.

  • avatar
    nino

    Paul Niedermeyer :
    December 23rd, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    nino: “The Vega was originally advertised as having a “throw away engine””

    If only there had been that much truth in advertising. If GM had even suggested that the Vega engine was diposable, it would have been the kiss of death. Don’t forget, the Vega was priced at least 10% higher than its competition, and was positioned as a “premium small car”. To even have suggested that the engine had a limited lifespan, the Vega would have been dead in arrival. As it was, the reputation of engine problems is what killed the Vega. Chevy’s extended warranties came to late; by ‘75, the Vega was dead meat, and sales had plummeted.

    I wish I still had that magazine ad copy.

    At the time, I was working at the Chevy zone office on LI and we just looked at each other in amazement when we saw the ad.

  • avatar
    doctorv8

    So how many units a year qualifies for “regular” production? 300,000+? Is the aformentioned 1965 Lincoln Continental a production car by your definition?

  • avatar
    Chopper man

    I agree with the writer of this editorial on many points; however some misinformation about the Vega first needs to be addressed. If you would believe all that is written today about the 70s cars in the modern press, it seems the Vega was the only car that rusted out. Nothing could be farther from the truth. All early ’70s GM cars had corrosion issues. However you never hear about the rust the Camaros or Chevelles of the same era had as it is only politically correct to bash the Vega, after all the Camaro may be written about again real soon and we need those advertising dollars. All early 70s GM cars were rust buckets. This is one fact you never hear. The Vega did contribute significantly to automotive corrosion resistance. Starting with the 1975 Vega, GM implemented corrosion resistant metal alloys and new metal finishing methods. They also refined the Vega design to seal out moisture. These changes were successful and the knowledge gained was used in other model lines. The journalists always miss this fact. What I find humorous is the picture of a Vega used with this article. It is of a 1975 Vega! I don’t see the terrible rust that was supposed to be the bane of all Vegas. That’s because as I previously stated the rust problem had been fixed by 1975. It’s also humorous that the writer bemoans the replaceable engine concept. He complains that the engines were designed to be replaced every 60,000 miles. In Japan this concept has been institutionalized. Japanese engines are regularly removed from ALL cars at 60,000 miles. This has even spurred an industry where cheap Japanese takeouts are exported to America and regularly installed into American ‘Japanese’ cars. GM could have sold this concept if they would have dropped the price of the cars some more. Instead they spent the money on advertising when they should have simply told the truth. They tried to sell a car that didn’t exist. The Vega was much improved by the end of its production, however as correctly stated it was too late to fix the Vega reputation. But the writer never clearly states that the problems of the Vega were ultimately solved. When it comes to the Vega “Truth about Cars” is still only telling half truths. Now where the writer and I agree is that the Vega was designed as a disposable car. They cost a few thousand dollars when new. In today’s world there is no comparable car, as even the Cobalt is not designed to be disposable. The problem with the Vega is that the marketing people convinced GM’s management to LIE to sell cars. The problem as correctly stated was that the Ad Men had hyped the car too much. The expectation created in the mind of the consumer was clearly not achievable. So GM sold the car with the typical wink and nod of a new car salesman. The Vega was designed to be a basic transportation car. You buy one, drive it for three to four years and throw it away! So did it meet its intended design? It was cheap, easy to drive and the car had good lines. And in my opinion it met the design objectives. Show me a comparable car today – You can’t because America has rejected the disposable car concept as people are more willing to invest 6 years of their income into car payments. Has GM learned anything from the Vega episode? In the writer’s opinion they have forgotten their history. He argues that the Volt is the same old GM song, promises, promises and more promises which will never be realized. But this time the situation is a little different. In the Vega, GM clearly designed a different car than they promised. If GM had made a few more initial refinements, spent a little more money on materials, and designed the car they advertised, or advertised the car they designed, it may have been a smashing success. Unfortunately they told the salesman’s lie. With the Volt, GM is designing the same thing that they are promising. Now if GM is going to repeat past mistakes, and the hype surrounding the Volt is again just another basket of lies, they will probably be buried by their competition.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Chopper Man, at that price point, the Vega was most certainly not going to fly as a “disposable car.” The VW Beetle, not a disposable car, was just about the same price. As was the Pinto. Those two weren’t great cars but people expected to drive them past 60K miles.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Chopper man,

    I’ll try to address (rebut) some of your points:

    Yes, rust problems were rampant, but the Vega quickly acquired a rep for being worse than average, perhaps because of shortcuts (thinner steel, sealing, etc.) Worse than average is not good enough, especially in conjunction with other problems.

    I never wrote anything about “replaceable engines”; another commentator made the claim that they were designed/advertised that way. That is simply not the case. I also never said that the Vega was designed to be “disposable”. Any suggestion by GM that the Vega and/or its engines were designed to be disposable would have been the kiss of death. If you read Chevy’s brochures of that time, you’ll see lots of claims about durability. Also, keep in mind, the Vega was priced 10-15% higher than the VW and most other small cars; it wasn’t all that cheap, for the times. ($2300 vs. $1800 for a Corolla)

    Keep in mind that the Vega’s #1 competitor was the VW Beetle, which made its rep on reliability and longevity.

    You’re misinformed about the claim of Japanese removing their engines after 60k miles. It’s just not true. Here’s what happens there: Japan has very strict car inspection programs, and there has been a strong societal pressure to buy new cars every three to four years (that’s fading quickly now). Anyway, the combination of these two forces results in many Japanese cars being scrapped with low miles, and the engines are taken out and shipped to the US, where different attitudes prevail. These cars in Japan are NOT getting new engines installed; they’re being melted down for steel.

    I didn’t say GM has forgotten its history in regard to the Vega; but I am encouraging them to learn from it, and keep in mind that their history of introducing new technology has been very spotty (Olds diesel, V8-6-4, etc.) I truly hope the Volt works well out of the box, as it will be an interesting addidtion to the automotive scene. GM can’t afford a slip-up; that’s my point.

  • avatar
    davejay

    For two years in the late 80s, I was driven to high school every day by a neighbor in a beige Vega wagon. He was a mechanic at a Pontiac dealership, and had purchased it long ago for very little money (from a dealership customer he’d maintained the car for since new) and had what rust there was repaired and the car repainted, then put iron sleeves in the block, bypassed the emissions system, and kept it in the garage whenever there was snow/salt on the ground.

    In that configuration it was fast, and fun, and not terribly unpleasant to be in; he would tell me stories of working on Vegas when they were new and he was a newly-minted mechanic, with stacks of crate engines in the corner for the steady parade of Vegas that came in with warped blocks — only to have the same cars come back in for another, because the new engines had the same problem as the old. When he took it for mandatory smog testing, he would run it on alcohol, then drive home and rebuilt the carb.

    As far as I know, he still has it.


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