The 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?