By on August 4, 2009

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test.

There it is, a golden yellow Vega, seductive and infinitely irresistible, hanging from the tree of automotive disappointment. Its serpent maker found plenty of smitten takers (especially among the motor press), because the bitter truth imparted was apparently in a time-release potion: “The best handling car ever sold in America” (Road &Track). Motor Trend’s COTY. C/D readers voted it the best economy car three years in a row. And it won this C/D six small car comparison. I (mentally) bit too, having spent idle hours in 1971 with a Vega catalogue specifying a yellow Kammback GT exactly like this one. But sure enough, the sweetness of that first bite evaporated all too quickly: the apple was rotten at the (engine) core. The Vega was GM’s Watergate/Waterloo, the beginning of its inevitable end. And yet here I am forty years later, totally smitten, seriously considering biting the apple again.

Let’s step into our time machine. It’s 1971, we’re wearing bell-bottoms, and want desperately to love the Vega as much as we love peace. Its coming was hyped by GM for years as nothing less than the reinvention of the small car, GM’s version of the Apollo moon shot. Sound familiar? Well, we’ve already done the comparison of the launch of the Volt with the Vega here, in case you missed it.

Now we haven’t bitten into the apple of knowledge yet; we’re just sniffing around the delicious edges of the Bill Mitchell styled mini-Camaro to try to understand what all the hoopla, awards and press accolades were all about. Or was GM delivering its press cars with a big baggie of Acapulco Gold in the glove box? Oops; the Vega doesn’t have a glove box, as well as a few other components normally taken for granted, thanks to GM’s ever-diligent bean counters.

GM’s corporate styling was still at the top of their game in 1971. But there sure was a lot of borrowing here, although to good effect. The basic Vega sedan was a blatant rip-off of the lovely Fiat 124 Coupe.

The hatchback coupe’s roofline was heavily cribbed from the Ferrari 365 GT 2+2 The Kammback wagon owed more than a hat-tip to the  Reliant Scimitar shooting brake. And of course, the Vega’s egg-crate grille front end was a re-do of GM’s own excellent ’55 Chevy, which in turn was of course cribbed from various Pininfarina Ferraris.

The real question was why Chevy wanted such a low-slung, “sporty” car with terrible space utilization. The charming Kammback even shared the coupe’s extra-low roofline; hardly in the image of GM’s big wagons, or such practical competitors as the Datsun 510 wagon, which actually had the luxury and practicality of four doors!

GM’s President Ed Cole, a former engineer and father of the Chevy V8 and Corvair, gave the development of the XP-887 “import killer” to a corporate development group. And then forced the half-baked results on a reluctant John Z. DeLorean, General Manager of Chevrolet. The “not invented here” maxim maximized, especially as regards the engine. Chevy already had a conventional small four banger on the drawing table. But the corporate skunk works had grander (“cheaper” in GM-speak) things in mind.

GM had dropped a mint on a huge aluminum foundry operation to build the Corvair engine. And the ill-fated Corvair died in 1969. See where this is going? The Vega will have an aluminum block because…”it’s 51lbs lighter than the pedestrian and dead-reliable Chevy II four block”. Right. Well, an aluminum head on the Chevy block would have offset the (are you ready for it?) cast-iron head on top of the Vega aluminum block. A world first too, I assume. GM was determined to turn small car engine design upside down, literally. Oh well, Pontiac’s cast-iron four (“Iron Duke”) ended up replacing the ill-starred Vega engine anyway.

Since the dawn of the twentieth century, light but soft aluminum has been used for engine blocks along with durable iron cylinder sleeves. That solution would have cost Chevy exactly $8 per engine. They were planning to build millions of them. And cheapness is the mother of malfunction. So GM and Reynolds Aluminum came up with the idea to incorporate 17% silicon in the alloy, and devised a way to etch the top molecules of aluminum from the cylinder bore surface to expose the hard silicon, and voila! An eight dollars saved is an eight dollars earned!

Actually, this was only part of the Vega engine problems. Mercedes and Porsche went on to perfect this process, and now it’s ubiquitous. It was the other shortcuts that made it so, like cheap self-destructing valve guides, a tiny cooling system, a small oil pan, etc. Overheating, or oil consumption from the bad valve guides meant that the less-forgiving cooling system or limited oil capacity conspired with the fragile open-deck block, which then blew up, figuratively and literally. But that won’t be happening on a mass scale until 1973 or so, unless you’re one of the unlucky early adopters of Vega maladies.

The Vega’s engine was unusual in other ways too. It had a long stroke and big displacement (2.3 liters) for a four, and was tuned for low specific output (90 gross, 80 net hp) at a lazy 4400 rpm. The result was a big flat torque curve: 136 lb/ft of torque at 2400 rpm, more than double the Simca’s. GM wanted the Vega to have that lazy V8 feel, the secret to blowing those pesky, buzzy imports off the freeway. The result was more agricultural than V8, or in 1971 terminology, bad vibrations. A balance shaft would have broken GM’s profit targets. As did the lack of one.

One of the Vega’s earliest problems was its seemingly inexplicable tendency to explode mufflers. In a classic Rube Goldbergian way, severe engine vibration caused a carburetor bolt to loosen, causing the carb cover to jump up and down, causing the accelerator pump to pump, causing raw gas to flow down those less-than stellarly-sealed silicon bores, causing gas to puddle in the exhaust, causing said explosions, causing Vega owners to abandon their ride in mid traffic and duck for cover behind the nearest Pinto whose own explosive tendencies weren’t yet common knowledge.

But the torque was there, and Americans love deep-fried torque with their pork. Who wants to shift when you’ve got a tenderloin sandwich in one hand and a milkshake in the other while cruising I-70? GM had your number(s): the combination of an extremely long 2.53-to-one axle ratio resulted in 2600 rpm at seventy mph. Relaxed cruising indeed, and a masking of the Vega’s “disturbingly loud when revved” thrashing sounds.

But wait, you enthusiasts hoping for a mini Z28 or BMW 2002 beater, it gets worse. The standard Vega transmission is a three-speed stick, with ratios so wide that combined with that long axle it “feels more like a 6-speed with first, third and fifth gears missing. It always seems like you are starting in second, and the gaps between the gears are not valleys, but canyons”.  I have an alternate description: a two-speed stick with a long overdrive. Either way, not very sporty, considering the Vega’s sporty styling is. GM was sending mixed messages.

But it worked, after a fashion. The Vega was the second fastest in the C/D test after the wheel-spinning Gremlin, with a then timely 12.2 seconds in the 0-60 (“ringer!”). Good thing they didn’t test the automatic. Hooked up to the ancient two-speed Powerglide, forward thrust was truly glacial. I know; a good friend was a very early Vega adopter/burn victim. I drove it. It really sucked. That was all the bite of the apple I needed to feel like retching, and I began my personal GM Death Watch right then and there.

Handling (and cute looks, on the pre-safety bumper versions) was always the Vega’s one dynamic strong point: “Handling is very good with mild understeer and tolerant breakaway characteristics. The biggest surprise is the steering, which is light and accurate…the Vega is quick and nimble”. And that’s the base Vega; the GT got an up-rated suspension. But it still had nothing on GM’s own Opel 1900/Manta.

C/D’s un-GT sedan version garnered heavy criticism for its interior: Klutzy hard plastic moldings and an instrument panel with nothing more than a horizontal speedometer. The floor was wall-to-wall black rubber, and all the controls required exceptionally long travel. The missing glove box. And the Pinto has a bigger back seat than the considerably bigger and heavier Vega. GM’s bean counters were all over it. But despite the cost-cutting, the Vega was not cheap; in fact it cost a full 15% more than the other competitors, and weighed some 400 lbs more. Satisfying American’s lazy highway cruising habits came at a price, as it always has.

The truth is, this comparison is all wrong given the Vega’s price point. It should have been compared to the Datsun 510, Toyota Corona, and the VW 1600. And a nicely optioned GT wagon like this one would have put it right in BMW 1602/2002 territory. The outcomes would have been all-too different.

From this 1971 comparison and vantage point, it’s pretty obvious to see how the future played out. But the Vega’s self-destructive tendencies weren’t the only reason for its demise. Once the Corolla got a bigger engine and a five speed, it ran circles around the Vega and Pinto. The VW Beetle soon died, to be replaced by the brilliant Simca-inspired Golf/Rabbit. The relatively reliable Pinto soldiered/smoldered along, until eventually replaced by the Simca/Golf-inspired FWD Escort. Chrysler jumped into the fray with the Simca-derived Omni-Horizon. And the Gremlin just became an historical oddity.

The real winners in this comparison: the Simca 1204’s DNA, which is now ubiquitous; and the Corolla, for figuring out how to satisfy Americans’ small-car hunger without the heartburn.

The Vega had a decent sales start. But its big year was 1974, when it the top-ten seller list thanks to the energy crisis as well as the top of the national shit list thanks to mass engine crises. In 1975, sales plummeted, and by 1977 “amnesia Vegatitus acute” became a new national mental health epidemic. By then, the Vega was anything but cute.

All the more reason why just finding this gem of an early Vega GT Kammback was the really big win of this shoot-out. In fact, stumbling across it became the green light for this whole 1971 CC comparo, despite knowing I’d never find a Simca. I’d seen the nose of this yellow Vega in an old garage downtown some years ago. And suddenly, there it was, sitting in front of a hand-made boutique broom company. What a perfect setting; and where else but in Eugene? Well, witches need wheels too, to go buy their brooms. And the Vega certainly was cursed from the get-go.

And this one, the first non hot-rodded V8 Vega I’ve seen in maybe a decade, is exactly the color and configuration that got my juices going while mentally masturbating with a Vega brochure in 1971: optional two-barrel 110 (gross) hp engine, four-speed stick, and that GT instrument panel with full gauges. Only the lovely GT alloy wheels are MIA.

This gem is for sale! The owner is reducing her carbon-footprint and going all-broom all the time. And it actually runs, on its original (although undoubtedly sleeved) engine. The serpent is still at work; the apple is more tempting now than ever. And the irony is not just in my (cylinder) head: driving a GM car, the very one that brought the company down, yet a car no one under thirty-five recognizes in this terminally PC town of bikes, brooms, old Volvos and W123’s is a delicious thought. I’ll just put a “powered by Biodiesel” sticker on it, ‘cause it sure shakes and quivers like an old Mercedes 240 Diesel. Or maybe convert it to an EV and put “Volt” badges on it. Mmm; delicious!

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77 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1971 Small Cars Comparison: Number 1 and GM Deadly Sin #2 — Chevrolet Vega...”

  • avatar

    What a wonderful article. Reviewing each car featured in that road test, and comparing the Car and Driver rankings to the verdict of history, was outstanding. Thank you.

    The development and introduction of the Vega, along with how GM handled the many problems, should be required reading for EVERY auto executive – no, make that every business executive and high-ranking government official.

    Kind of scary when one realizes that, over the long haul, the best American subcompact in the 1970s was probably the AMC Gremlin.

    Our neighbors had a 1974 Vega hatchback in a bilious, bright yellow color. The car had huge rust spots all over it within three years. It takes a special kind of talent to make my dad’s 1973 AMC Gremlin seem like the smart buy, but somehow GM did it!

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right! The Gremlin was the best, by far! I knew several people who bought Vegas. One poor sap had THREE of them, two hatchbacks (He and the daughter), and a wagon for mom. They were all bought together, for cash, and the problems soon began. About a year or so after they bought them, they started burning oil, and that was bad enough, but by the time they were 3 years old, all of them had serious rust around the windshield, and leaked water. One of the hatchbacks had it’s interior soaked in a big storm, and soon it developed electrical issues and it was gone. The other two were gone by the time I moved away in July 1975, replaced by two Cutlasses and an avacodo green Dodge Polara that appeared to be a police car, as it had the spotlight on it.

      Another family I knew had 2 Gremlins, and they drove them forever, into the late 80’s, with almost nothing done to them, except for routine service and batteies and belts. etc. Both were “Gremlin X” cars and they were unstoppable. By the time they had gotten the kids through high school, they were leaking around the windshield like the Vegas were, and when the last kid went off to college, the last Gremlin went off to the scrapyard. One of those kids found a purple 71 Gremlin a couple years ago in Oregon, and it’s in remarkable shape, and he drives it on weekends in the summer.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of my first car. A used 1971 Mercury Capri. Although it looked good with its silver and black vinyl roof–this car was a total POS.

    The car eventually would not go into reverse. This took some planning when traveling. The parking brake did not work which required me to carry a brick to place behind the tires to keep it from rolling down a hill.

    The a/c never got cold and using it would cause the engine to overheat. One day after hitting a pothole the engine mounts broke. Then the drive train collapsed. All of this with under 50,000 miles.

  • avatar

    The real question was why Chevy wanted such a low-slung, “sporty” car with terrible space utilization

    This is a common thing with GM.

    Their stylists made hay in the fifties and sixties with long, low, sleek cars that made the tall-roof predecessors look old. The problem is that they never seemed to realize that a) long, low and sleek does mean cramped, so the whole car had to expand to comical size to cope, and b) when fuel prices spiked, they couldn’t break from their stylistic mold and design something, tall, dorky and spacious.

    In many ways, GM has never managed to extricate itself from this design language. Most of their modern cars have low roofs, short, badly-angled rear seat cushions that result from having to carve out space for people that’s otherwise unavailable because of extreme tumblehome and coupe-like rooflines. Step into the back of a modern Buick (cracking your head on the roofline) and you’ll udnerstand this perfectly.

  • avatar

    The inline six engine that AMC used in the Gremlin was introduced mid-year in 1964, and only discontinued about two years ago (last used in the Jeep Wranglers, but replaced by a mini-van derived Chrysler V6… gak!) The Vega engine lasted how long? (“Oh about 20 minutes or 20 yards, whatever comes first…”)

    My pal’s brother put a small block Chevy V8 into a Vega “back in the day” in the mid-1970’s. Imagine a 16 year old snapping up a 4 year old car nowadays with money earned from after-school part time work – then buying a junkyard motor to drop into it…. does this give anyone a clue as to the massive depreciation that these things had?

    Because the engines BLEW UP. And the bodies rotted.

    My pal’s brother (naturally) goosed the daylights out of the V8 Vega, first time out, and welded the spider gears in the differential. He had an “instant positraction locking axle” (and yep, when he went around corners, it DID drag one rear tire around and scream). He just goosed it hard on a 90 degree bend and “unwelded” the spider gears. Needless to say, it didn’t last long….

  • avatar

    I worked for a Chevrolet dealer from late ’72 until mid ’74 and I can tell you the mechanical shop was “All Vega, all the time.” The warranty problems with these rascals were just over the top. Primarily due to the aforementioned engine problems but also due to slipped timing belts and, by ’74 anyway, body perforation along the tops of the fenders. These cars were really nothing more than mid-size Chevies shrunk down, the suspension design was nothing new or different, it just didn’t work that well when shrunk. And of course the craptastic engine……

    I honestly remember nothing good about these cars, including its handling; it was no great G-force generator. It was especially unimpressive in its native form with a Powerglide two speed automatic transmission. One auto writer at the time (Jean Jennings?) refered to it as ” An uninspired dog cart” which pretty much sums it up.

    It was a huge seller in 1974 but largely forgotten not long after. And for Chevrolet’s next trick…….Chevette! (UGH)


  • avatar
    Samuel L. Bronkowitz

    I think the funniest thing about this is the “GT” badge on the side. GM thinks their customers are so stupid as to believe that a simple sticker on the side of the car makes it a sporty model. Ranks right up there with the “Eurosport” models of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Put some decals on a car and suddenly it has the ride and sophisticated handling of the European competition.

  • avatar

    The Vega remains one of my sentimental favorites. I always like the looks and the handling, and the ergonomics were very good, for the day. On the GT versions, the interior trim was pretty good as well. And, the GT versions did have a glovebox.

    The best Vega that I had was the one that I put a Ford V6 engine in. It totally transformed the car.

    I’ve worked over 40 years in the car business and I have yet to hear anyone claim they worked ont he Vega. Everyone has a Corvette in their resume (ask me about the ZR-1 someday) but I never met anyone who took credit for the Vega. Perhaps is was a spontaneous birth.

    For the record, the Iron Duke engine was never offered in the Vega. The Pointiac, Olds and Buick versions that followed had that engine. Some of these cars had the Vega body, but they weren’t Vegas.

    The Vega had a number of body engineering innovations that are common today, but were reviolutionary back then. For example, the door hinges are welded to both the body and the doors. The doors could be removed by removing the hinge pins, and were removed for assembly. There are lots of other features as well.


  • avatar

    Yes, psarhjinian – all good points. Matching the shape of the heads of most GM designers…

    Go sit in virtually any GM product and you’ll feel like you are sitting in a la-z-boy recliner – half reclined. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the front or rear seat (in front seats without adjustments, of course).

    I get a neck ache and cannot sit in GM products any more, as I get “unyounger”.

    I also dislike crawling down into cars much more than I did even back in the 1970’s when I could much more easily cope with doing just that.

    And I’m not even overweight or that decrepid.

    Little wonder most overweight Americans feel as if they “have” to have massive SUV’s to jump up into. They can’t physically crawl down into cars designed by imbeciles.

    My wife’s Sonata and my Prius are comfortable to get in and out of. Just tall enough to be comfortable, with seat cushions and a proper height and shaped for real human use.

  • avatar

    Great series of articles, Ed. Brings back lots of memories.

    I never did “get” the Vega thing. My first new car was a ’72 Manta Rallye (yellow with the flat black hood), and how GM could not use the Manta as a basis for the Vega completely escaped me. The Manta was such a better piece of iron, it made no sense. I liked the Rallye so much that I got a ’75 Opel wagon as well. Blew the doors off the Kammback. GM’s US operations had (and still do) so much “NIH” going on they refused to look at a superior vehicle in their own family. Truly the beginning of the end.

    Oh, well, seeds do eventually grow into trees, and GM’s is about to hit the sawmill.

  • avatar

    Comparing the Vega to the Corvair is patently unfair… to the Corvair.

    The Corvair was a legitimate attempt to reinvent the (then) small car. Yes, it was, to some degree, strangled by the beancounters, but the designers and engineers gave the Corvair a lot of love.

    OTOH, the Vega was designed by committee. A committee seemingly led by beancounters. Pissed-off beancounters. As others have pointed out, the only potentially positive thing about the Vega is the design – which is good, but all wrong for what the Vega was supposed to be.

    The Corvair was a decent car, hampered by budget.
    The Vega was an indecent car, designed to meet a price point.

  • avatar

    This series has been the only reason to come here unless you’re a libertarian/randian/wingnut.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    eggsalad: Comparing the Vega to the Corvair is patently unfair… to the Corvair.

    Where did I do that?

    Corvair was my first car; never stopped loving it. Here’s my defense of the Corvair:

  • avatar

    Excellent series; I have a copy of the magazine in question and enjoyed waiting for each car to come up. I KNEW you’d NEVER get a Simca in the flesh!!

    By the way, it would be an interesting postscript if you could do a Curbside Classic on the Chevette; it stole more sales from the Vega than the Pinto ever did (not that the Chevette was that much better; it was just newer).

    Possibly the first instance of GM taking a halfway decent car made by one of its overseas subsidiaries, putting an American face on it and selling it as a Chevy. Too bad they didn’t try that with the Opel Manta when they were planning the Vega.

  • avatar

    I remember a group of very unhappy Vega drivers arranged a moving protest from Toronto to GM headquarters in Oshawa (about 50 kms). My neighbor called from a gas station because his vega went bellyup about halfway, we went to fetch him and saw several other vegas parked and abandoned on the 401. Most of them stayed there until the highway crew’s removed them. These were the cars to put the “rice burners”(corollas, civics etc.) in their place (1st place). Oh BTW, we picked up our neighbor in a Gremlin (Denim Ed.) the last big three car in our family garage.

  • avatar

    The Vega GT wheels weren’t alloys…they were steel wheels ‘styled’ into a 4 spoke look with a center cap. Did you really thing GM would spend the money making molds?

    I nearly succumbed to the Vega’s good looks myself. I always like the proportions of the car (and, ironically, owned several Fiat 124 Coupes over the years). Living in Pennsylvania though, the rust kindly removed virtually all Vegas from the road by the time I reached driving age. Pretty amazing that I could find lots of Fiats to play with yet only ever came across one Vega. Which blissfully was an autotragic to keep me from buying it. I still am glad I was able to dodge that bullet.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    bobkarafin: By the way, it would be an interesting postscript if you could do a Curbside Classic on the Chevette;

    I’ve got great pics of one, along with about 400 other cars; just need to get around to it.

    ddavid, stop ruining it for me!

  • avatar

    Paul Niedermeyer :
    August 4th, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    eggsalad: Comparing the Vega to the Corvair is patently unfair… to the Corvair.

    Where did I do that?

    Could be my bad. I assumed that “GM Deadly Sin #2” made GM Deadly Sin #1 the Corvair.

    So fill me in. If the Vega was the 2nd deadly sin, what was the first?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    eggsalad, Here:

    But the GM Deadly Sins are not arranged in order of their deadliness, or chronologically. Just as I find them and am inspired to write them.

  • avatar
    Joe Chiaramonte

    Hindsight generates such sweet irony. This set of articles leads us to wonder about both GM and C/D, “What were they thinking?!” Only as we peer backward, can we see that these cars were all at the very bottom of the pit we’ve climbed out of (mostly) to where many small cars now sit.

    And, what a flag in the muck this Vega represents.

    My BIL worked for many years at a Chevy dealership, and in an extreme example of family forgiveness, he’s still welcome at family events after selling one of my sisters a 1971 Vega GT (requiring a quart of oil every three days), PLUS selling my mother a 1972 Vega hatchback with the 2-Speed (count ’em, two!) automatic.

    We used to call the lime-green 72 the “Vaguely” in reference to its engine (or lack thereof).

    One trip to Yosemite in that car stands out: the engine kept stumbling at or past 55 MPH. Speed would drop to about 10 MPH when faced with any hill. Observed MPG dropped to 4. That’s not a typo.

    When we got back to our mechanic, he popped off the distributor cap to find a veritable snow cone of metal shavings under it.

    The car was slapped together with such grace and precision that the squeaks, rattles and shakes would give the driver a facial tic within five miles. I can still hear the timber of the plastic-on-plastic screech from the gauge pod in my head 35 years later.

    But, hey, it sure looked better than a Gremlin!

  • avatar

    It was about 1974. I had grown up in a oddball household where my father had bought two Bugattis and Maserati on the cheap (total cost for all 3 about the cost of a Caddy) and had a Cadillac for a daily driver (my mother was paralyzed in ’48, and the Caddy’s soft ride and power windows were the deciders).
    And so I bought my first brand-new, out on my own, paid for it myself, car: a green Vega wagon. I changed the oil regularly and never had a bit of problems with the engine. From growing up with exotics and having had on my own a string of third hand clapped out Anglias and a Cortina (without my father’s eye doctor practice to pay the bills), I knew about the cost of their repairs and parts, about such fun as putting American brake fluid in an Anglia and dissolving the brake seals….Look Ma, Stewart drives into a T intersection five miles and minutes later and…no brakes!. So American! Yay!
    The only real beef I had with it was the horrendous axle tramp (which couldn’t be doing anything good to the drive train). I eventually put in control arms to cure that.
    I care for and listen to my cars…mostly they’ve reciprocated the attention. It was rust that killed the Vega.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Stewart Dean, Chevy started making improvements to the engine within a couple of years. The first thing was better valve guides. For the 1976 model year, they unveiled the “Dura-Built 140”, a more thoroughly revised version, with a 5 year/50k mile warranty. It was too late by then.

  • avatar

    As I mentioned in my look back at the Chevette, we had one of these in lime-green back in 73-74 for exactly one year.

    To be fair, it got smashed into while parked in front of the house, and not totaled. My dad always claimed that led to the overheating. Knowing what we know now, I rather doubt it.

    I just remember being carried out to it once (hey, I was three give me a break).

  • avatar

    and an instrument panel with nothing more than a horizontal speedometer.

    When they added the gas guage, that was the GM Full Instrumentation Package in that era.

    Also, style always trumped form at GM in those days. Another example was the full size wagons that came out in 1971. Although the clamshell tailgate was sleek, it required an ungodly slope in the back window that really hurt the shape of the cargo area. And with the tailgate eliminated, cargo carrying was hurt again. Although Chevy had outsold Ford for years, Ford ruled in wagons back then.

    But the Vega. I remember seening these when new and reluctantly concluding that the Vega was going to kill the Pinto. But within about 3 years in my northern Indiana climate, Vegas started to revert to ore. Pretty sad when a car could make a Pinto look rust resistant. A neighbor had a 73 in about 1976 or so. I thought the rust would get it first, but then a tow truck came because it wouldn’t run any more.

  • avatar

    The Vega could have been a decent enough small car relative to what else was available for the money in 1971 (emphasis on “relative”). For the want of literally a few hundred bucks in parts and materials, we might still see a couple of these buggers running around today. As it was, it was stunning how few of them you saw by the 80’s, especially considering how many were sold. To see one now is almost like spotting a unicorn.

    How the same company that made components like the bulletproof Super THM 400 transmission could make the cursed Vega engine only a few years later is simply beyond me.

    On top of all the other maladies outlined in this article, Vega bodies were an iron oxide festival from the day they were made. I particularly recall how quickly the cowling and A pillars rotted out, unusual even in road salt-encrusted Michigan. What few Vegas weren’t taken out by their engines were finished off by terminal body rot. Again, a few design changes and a few scheckels spent toward some better materials could have mitigated the problem.

    Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Vega has been and will remain the poster child for the aphorism “Penny wise, pound foolish”.

    The coup de grace was the abysmal build quality… weren’t they churning them out at something like 90 cars per hour? Even if you gave a crap, how could anyone do decent assembly work at that rate?

    And did GM learn anything from the Vega fiasco? Look no further than the Olds diesel, installing THM 200 transmissions in full size cars and last but not least, the simply spectacular X cars!

    So far as styling, I have always been a sucker for the shooting brake. The Vega Kammback still looks kinda cool, but knowing what I know, only from a distance. Too bad about that.

    Thanks for the story! I learned a few more tidbits about the Vega engine than I knew before, always useful for gearhead conversations at the bar.

  • avatar

    I bought a used 73 Vega with the 2 speed auto. to drive back and forth to college in 1977. Had some rust in the rocker and rear quarters when I bought it. When I took it to the body shop for an estimate the guy said it had already been repaired once. 4 years old and already on it’s second sheet metal repair, I think it came from the factory with rust as standard equipment.

    Would drive the 180 miles one way to school in Vermont, had to stop half way for half a tank of gas and to add a quart of oil. Used to keep 3-4 quarts of oil in the back just in case I had to drive home in a hurry.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    But, but, but … it won the C&D comparo!

    And, and, and … it was the the 1971 MT Car of the Year.

    Sniffle, sniffle, sniffle … the Vega was a great car hampered only by a, a, a …. perception gap!

    Falls on floor sobbing.

    Maybe someone will restore this one:

    Or, you could drop $17,500 on this rare example:

  • avatar

    @Paul Niedermeyer :

    Sorry, Paul.

    Dunno how you’re gonna keep this list down to 7.

    Side note: People say “GM cars were better ‘before\'”.

    Before what? Even in the 50’s, when GM owned 50+% of the market, the cars were crap. It just happened that “crap” was the best thing going. My dad was a HUGE GM booster, and even he was surprised when a 50s-60s GM car crossed the 100k mark.

  • avatar

    February, 1975, young couple, 13-month old son, new house, 2nd son born day after we bought the Kamback. What a POS (the car, not the son). So many problems in such a short time.

    I have never considered a GM product since, and never will. This is a typical GM story, and no doubt a significant component in their present problems.

    I hate Obama for bailing them out. They should have died.

  • avatar

    Regarding the supposed travesty of the GT badge:

    These cars handled. On your usual Sunday afternoon autocross (man, how I miss the death of blue laws) at the local closed shopping mall parking lot they were very competitive in SCCA B-sedan – unless a BMW 2002 showed up. At which point everybody raced for second.

    Contrary to all you complainers, I have very good memories of my silver and black ’73. It served me well for the three years I had it. Yeah, it was using oil by trade in time, but that included three seasons of competition.

    • 0 avatar

      With a few ‘upgrades,’ even the mighty 2002 was attainable in a Vega (BTDT)…

      While in college, I cut a coil off each spring in my very base model ’71 coupe, replaced the stock front sway bar with one from a V8 Monza, and eventually replaced the sleeved 2300 + 4 speed Saginaw (30 mpg!) with a Buick 3.8L + THM350. The base dash also got replaced with a GT dash, and the driver’s side seat was replaced with a Recaro out of another Monza.

      Aside from having to rebuild every major subassembly in the car over the years (the U-Pull-it folks knew me by first name), plus having to pull the glass, sandblast and repaint the channels every two or three, it was, and still is, one of my favorite cars. Had over 200K on it when I “traded” it in around 1987.

  • avatar

    I owned it’s successor, the Monza. It had to be towed to the dealer so often that AAA cancelled my road service. The dealer loaned me a Chevette once and it died. Traded it in for an 4WD Subaru in 78 and gave the Monza to my brother who promptly totalled it.

    That car is a major reason (but far from the only one) that I still would have trouble buying a car with a GM nameplate on it.

  • avatar

    ah, gm. purveyor of cars who are the automotive equivalent of the gorgeous girl/guy who is dumb as a sack of hammers.

    of course, the bad publicity of the vega and its shortlived engine paved the way for the introduction of the chevy monza. with the same engine. unless you opted for the v8 with the one spark plug which could not be changed without disassembling half the front clip. unless you just drilled an access hole through the sheet metal, which some folks further down the ownership food chain did.

  • avatar

    I can’t believe nobody mentioned the cosworth vega.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    quasimodo: I can’t believe nobody mentioned the cosworth vega.

    I’m living in hope of finding one, because it deserves its own full story.

  • avatar

    “The best handling car ever sold in America” (Road &Track)

    Apparently they had never driven a Porsche?

  • avatar

    Mine was a ’72, just like the one in the photo except red red red. Man what a great car. My friends and I have had lots of cars since, but the Vega is still all anyone ever wants to talk about.

    Like the time when we were driving down 280 to make a secret show by Neil Young and the Ducks in Santa Cruz and that explosion we all heard over the blaring 8 track was my engine going out in a blaze of smoke and glory for miles behind us.

    Or when my buddy and I picked up the car with its rebuilt engine in San Jose and drove all the way back to San Francisco on El Camino, 50 miles of red lights every two blocks, since the mechanic said the engine needed it. Except that the puddle in the rear passenger seat-well from when the car had been sitting in the mechanic’s yard was filled with mosquitoes, which ate my pal alive the whole way (they just seem to prefer some people). I’m telling you, it’s hard to concentrate on the road when you’re laughing that hard.

    Or how about when I was coming back from L.A. on 5 and the whole gear shift rod sheared off, giving me a panoramic view of the transmission at work. Almost made it back too, if only that lady in front of me on 13 in Berkeley hadn’t stopped on a yellow light that she could easily have made. Still pissed off about that.

    Or even when I finally sold the car after seven years of adventure to a nice young woman in Santa Monica whose mechanic tried to stop her after checking out the engine : “la cabeza es mala.” But she bought it anyway. After all, it was roja, roja roja.

    So I replaced the Vega with a Corolla, my all time biggest automotive blunder. Damn, that thing was no fun at all.

    Naturally, as soon as I got some scratch, out went the Toyota, in came a Fiat Spyder. That was more like it. Come to think of it, my friends and I still talk about the Fiat too.

  • avatar

    severe engine vibration caused a carburetor bolt to loosen, causing the carb cover to jump up and down, causing the accelerator pump to pump, causing raw gas to flow down those less-than stellarly-sealed silicon bores, causing gas to puddle in the exhaust, causing said explosions,

    You know, that is really amazing. If you wanted to devise a way to make that happen deliberately, you probably couldn’t. This alone was worth reading the article for…I laughed and laughed.

    But within about 3 years in my northern Indiana climate, Vegas started to revert to ore.

    Ah yes, fond memories of what road salt did to these cars. My girlfriend had the Vega’s stablemate, the Astre. Same as you, within three years you could see the road through the bottom of the doors.

    I always laugh when I read about automakers drive to build ‘green’ 100% recyclable cars. GM has a 30 year headstart in that department. You even saved the carbon output of taking it to the wrecker.

  • avatar

    In 1982, my neighbor parked his rusting Vega w/a seized engine on the front lawn with a “FOR SALE” sign. To this day, to the perplexment and frustration of each succeeding homeowner, grass will not grow on that spot.

  • avatar

    My sister, who knows nothing about cars, bought a Vega. She had to run the A/C winter and summer just to keep the inside habitable.
    I had an Opel Rallye, with the black hood. First car I ever bought. Ran really nice, but just try getting the Buick dealer to do any work on it! “Service” consisted of trying to get me to trade up to a Buick!
    I never went there again.

  • avatar

    the whole gear shift rod sheared off

    This wasn’t just a Vega thing. In 1971 my Boy Scout master had a 68 or 69 Ford Cortina that he had to shift with a pair of Vice Grips after the shift lever snapped off near the bottom. The late 60s english Ford Cortina would be a great curbside classic candidate. Probably every bit as rare as a Vega today. Between that Cortina and the Vegas and Pintos of the early 70s, its no wonder that I never became much of a small car fan.

  • avatar

    Hey Ed ….. how about a curbside classic comparison between a Lotus Cortina and a Cosworth Vega??

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    racebeer: Hey Ed ….. how about a curbside classic comparison between a Lotus Cortina and a Cosworth Vega??

    Paul’s the name. Love to; know where there are any?

  • avatar

    Hindsight generates such sweet irony. This set of articles leads us to wonder about both GM and C/D, “What were they thinking?!”

    In the case of C&D, they weren’t. They don’t have the buy their cars, so flaws don’t really matter to them. You get a car from the press fleet, you review it, you send it back. It’s funny when they do get a car with genuine mechanical problems because they really don’t seem to care (eg, they’ve given first place to BMWs with non-functional brakes).

    Edmunds, at least, buys their long-term cars from dealers. Consumer Reports buys their entire fleet at retail. This is important to consider when you read the reviews.

  • avatar

    It is obvious you have an affection for the car and the fact that it’s The One that got your attention way back when is destiny.

    Whatever valve/cooling issues that still exist on your particular example can be solved with modern improvements without ruining the character.

    It’s up to people who care about cars to keep older examples (good and bad) around to see. If the money is right and you really want it, you should buy it.

  • avatar

    Ahhh, the Monza! I remember thinking at the time:

    “Why did GM rename it? It’s just a re-skinned Vega, isn’t it?”

    Chapter 11 had already started, I just didn’t know it yet.

    I am one of those who thinks the Vega styling was heads and shoulders above the rest of the crowd in 1971. I think it’s still stylin’ even now, almost 40 years after it’s intro. The exterior style could be confused by any under 30 year old as being from any of the three previous decades. Too bad GM dropped the ball so badly on this one.

  • avatar

    Hi Paul …. don’t know what I was thinking with the Ed deal. Just a case of brain fade.

    Anyway, found a Lotus Cortina that still might be for sale in Kentucky. Maybe one of the B&B in Louisville could check it out (if it is still for sale … or maybe find the new owner).

  • avatar

    Then there was the windshield washer pump. Press the button on the dash-hard. It was the pump. I actually like it, I could modulate the strength and placement of the stream on the windshield. The problem was the pressure would blow the hoses off of their fittings under the dash and siphon washer fluid all over said driver’s legs. I routinely reached under there and pushed on it to snug it up, and remembered to not push the pump too hard.
    Took care of my 71 110hp 4speed sedan, and it went 185,000 miles on two clutches and one new cylinder block,and other minor repairs. At the end it was using a quart of oil every 1000 miles. The dry Colorado air must have warded off rust. I had only one spot below one C pillar at the seven year mark when I parted with the car.
    I actually very much loved the car.

  • avatar

    Everyone thought my dad had lost his mind when he sold a new metallic gold ’74 Astre “wagon” to our good friends and next-door neighbours, with whom we shared a driveway. The engine problems were already known, but it turned out he’d promised them a no-questions-asked new engine if they had any issues. Two new engines later (in less than two years) he bought his way out of the headache by swapping them even for a used Caddy. On the other hand he also sold a new hatchback Astre (improved ’75 model) to his brother (my uncle) who drove the car pretty much trouble free for almost six years until the rust did it in.

    Thankfully I didn’t get my license until 1977 and my closest brush with the H-body was a one-month stint with a Pontiac Sunbird (an Hs-body Chevy Monza clone, perhaps sold only in Canada?), while waiting to take delivery of my real first car … a 1977 Triumph TR-7 … one of the few cars that could actually make a Vega look reliable. In fact I’m pretty sure the month wait was so they could drag it over from old Blighty along the bottom of the ocean floor–just in case Lucas (the Prince of Darkness™) hadn’t done his job in the factory!

  • avatar
    Dr. D

    Whoa…I recall a girl friend who purchased a bronze Vega brand new off the Chevy lot. This was 1972. I recall the life, er…uh very short life of the car. She had to trade it off at the 11th month of ownership, reasons: engine was smoking and failing, transmission was beginning to act weird, rust forming, pieces and parts literally falling off the thing. In the end she was almost afraid to drive this thing-and she didn’t trash her cars. The best part is yet to come. She traded it at the same dealer she purchased, they took the car in trade and quietly sent it packing to a salvage yard-not even one year old on the road!!!

    Is that some sort of record??? who knows.

    Of course the flip side is I had a 1973 Pinto wagon, couldnt kill the darn thing, 175,000 miles, engine and trans never messed with. toughest thing I had ever owned and I trashed and thrashed it trying to kill it.

    Isn’t life grand.

  • avatar

    I owned a `1974 Pontiac Astre’ of same color as above, until 1985. It was a base notchback with a 4 speed manual transmission. It also had a glove box. It made for a great high school shop class project. I learned body work, replacing sheet metal and painting to fix rust. I learned to rebuild an engine by boring and putting steel sleaves in the cylinders. I was constantly adjusting the valves…every 2 to 3 weeks in fact. I replaced my own clutch and timing belts and did my own carburator rebuilds. When I sold the car (somebody paid money to me for it), the only thing that was still original on it was the battery. Delco made great batteries back then. I also managed a top speed run and got the car to 112mph. I’m amazed I’m still alive today. It wasn’t a very good car, but it wasn’t that bad either….or maybe it was.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Nice review. The side and rear styling is very clean and well proportioned. The headlights are horrid, sadly.

  • avatar

    How could the Vega have any flaws — after all, when the car came out the advertisements called it “The small car that does everything well”.

    I’d love to know the inside story of the Vega’s many deficiencies. Bean counters are always blamed but I have to think sheer incompetence on the part of engineers had to be a big factor.

  • avatar

    Ah, yes Vega memories…

    “Fill the oil, check the gas”

    A buddy had a 1973 GT Wagon, Green with black vinyl interior. 4-speed, thank God.

    Handled surprisingly well, for the day. Cornered relatively flat and didn’t plow mercilessly like most Detroit iron of the day. Credit the Wide Oval bias-plies.

    No A/C, not that it would have worked worth a flip anyway.

    Had great times in that car; it was traded in 1979 for a new Sunbird coupe. His graduation “present” from his cheap dad. Horrible, boring POS. At least the Vega had character. Mostly bad, but character nonetheless.

    Me, I had a 1963 Chevy II Nova. 230CID 6, powerglide. Handled much better after a set of Michelin XZX’s.

  • avatar

    My dad was a HUGE GM booster, and even he was surprised when a 50s-60s GM car crossed the 100k mark.…

    Did anything back then reliably make it past 100K? People of my dad’s generation always considered this a milestone. Today, anything can cross this threshold. Other than you occasional Mercedes, was there any brand that easily eclipsed 100K without rebuilds? Just thinking of how poorly carbs managed fuel, cylinder washdown seems like a given. My dad said ring jobs were a common repair. In all my years of driving, I removed only one head.
    Being that I was not even 10 when this gem (which was supposed to be called Gemini…GM Mini…get it…) was built, one can’t help but wonder how so many basic problems existed. Most running gear on intermediates/full size cars back then were bulletproof and way more durable than what came from across the pond, let alone Asia. How could any prototypes not exhibit these problems during durability testing? Did GM simply ignore their engineers just to save money? Did it not dawn on anybody that customers would begin to look elsewhere? Back then, the quality of assembly was fully dependent on the workers (unlike much of the robotic assembly of today) and the workers often didn’t give a shit for a variety of reasons.
    I’m glad that I never had to deal with first generation small cars. My first car was a ’72 Fury and it was reliable as an anvil and it didn’t show any rust until it was 15 years old…impressive for pre-rustproofing days…and it was put into storage with over 250K on the clock…what was Detroit thinking with these little POS’s…I guess their heart was never into the small rides…
    Funny to think that when my parents considered their first Japanese car,they were dissuaded because the dealer was a long distance away…today, the nearest GM dealer to me is 20 miles away, yet major Japanese dealers are but 5 miles…

  • avatar

    Wow, this vehicle brings back memories-and not good ones, either. What amazes me is how virtually all of the automotive press missed out on this thing. When Chevrolet first released the Vega in 1971, the press was jubilant over the features of the Vega and rather down on the Pinto which was regarded as a simple and crude device. If memory serve me right, John R. Bond (who published Road & Track) got into hot water with the Federal Trade Commission by claiming it was the best handling automobile built in the U.S. at that time.
    Within a few years when all the problems of the Vega started coming to the surface-engine problems, body rust, poor overall quality to name a few..and nobody in the automotive press would openly admit they’d really missed the mark on their evaluation of this vehicle. Maybe I was young and naive at the time, but I’ve been rather suspicious about how the major automotive magazines report on their experiences with automobiles and now rely primarily on Consumer Reports.

  • avatar

    Other than you occasional Mercedes, was there any brand that easily eclipsed 100K without rebuilds?

    I’d say Volvos (which were considerably cheaper compared to Benzes back in the day than they are now), qualified. Very under-stressed engines (even for a long time after they started bolting turbos on them). Lots went 200+ with nothing but brake and exhaust work.

    The reputation of the bricks (and I would include the 140-series and Amazons) was for many years very well deserved. (Disclosure: I’m a former Volvo dealer, but no longer in the car business).

  • avatar

    Hello all!
    The Vega 3-speed was actually the exact same gearbox as the Opel 4-speed MINUS A GEAR!!
    Like another poster, I had a ’72 Opel Manta Rallye, and it was light-years ahead of the Vega in all areas of technology, such as it was at the time.
    For you gearheads:
    1) The cam timing belt was tensioned by sliding the water pump across its paper gasket.
    2) The 4 cylinders were siameesed together–but this open-block design didnt have the cylinders supported at the block mating surface in any way. These engines wore out head gaskets from the cylinders vibrating back and forth.
    3) To get the torque, the cam lobes were extremely pointed, and valve adjustment was done by turning a tapered Allen screw in the side of each lifter. intake clearance was .015″, exhaust was .030(best I can remember–in ’77 I was a tech at a Chevy dealer), and these engines were LOUD.
    4) These engines vibrated so much that an 8-lb counterweight was bolted to the transmission tailhousing.
    5) The rear brake shoe adjuster was basically a 1-time use part. Special tool required, or you were DONE.
    The Manta and 1900 sedan were poor-man’s BMW 2002s. The Vega wasnt even a poor man’s Opel.

  • avatar

    Terry . . . .
    Your post jogged my memory. I was aware all along that the manual transmissions were Opel. At one point I had some of the parts needed for service, the 3rd gear syncros in my hand. I was calling a mid level manager to see what the hold up on the remaining parts might be. Even after telling him I was looking right at the packaging and it said GM and Opel, and “manufactured by Opel” on it, he still absolutely denied the fact it was an Opel transmission, stating the the Vega was a 100% American built car, and that was one of the selling points about the car.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    terry and ttacgreg,

    GM Saginaw transmissions replaced the Opel units after ’73. And Opel had a three-speed unit in Europe too. The Powerglide was replaced by the THM after/in ’73 too.

    The block design was intrinsically flawed, apart from the aluminum bores. Thanks for the additional details.

  • avatar

    Oh, well, one can not win them all (or, in the Vega technology’s case, any). But, I must admit, it was a beautiful car to look at, until it rusted away, right in front of one’s eyes…

  • avatar

    “The side and rear styling is very clean and well proportioned.”

    I would say that it is anything BUT proportional. From a designing standpoint, the wheelbase is too short, the rear wheels pushed too far forwards towards the bulkhead, the front wheels is positioned too far forward, the rear overhang is too big, and the roof too low and flat. It has all the design traits of a mini pony car, and none of the traits needed for a small economy car. It is beautiful, it has a racy stance, it is sleek in the longer, lower, wider fashion. But proportional? Not for its intended purpose as an import beater. The body hardpoints was made to full use in the Datsun 280Z-beater, the Chevy Monza. And that should speak all of proportions…

  • avatar

    My father often reminisces about his teenage years as one of the “car people” in the greater Los Angeles area. He actually doesn’t remember the Vega being all that bad a car; having sleeves installed in an engine or replacing it with a V8 weren’t that big a deal, he says, and other than that they were about as good as anything else. Vegas were considerably cheaper than everything else at the time (and rust was never a problem in California), so some engine work was never even close to enough of a hassle to make Vegas a bad used-car proposition.

  • avatar

    golden2husky: Did anything back then reliably make it past 100K? People of my dad’s generation always considered this a milestone. Today, anything can cross this threshold. Other than you occasional Mercedes, was there any brand that easily eclipsed 100K without rebuilds?

    The Mercedes models of those years had their problems, too. During the 1960s, American cars were, as a whole, the most reliable cars on the market.

    It was quite common to reach 100,000 miles in the 1960s full-size and intermediate cars (with a few exceptions – the 1961-63 BOP compacts were interesting cars with some teething problems) without any major problems.

    Most American cars during that time were bought by people who often didn’t even bother with oil changes, let alone regular maintenance, while imports were more likely to be bought by enthusiasts who paid attention to such things.

    Put a 1960s Mercedes in the hands of a typical 1960s Chevrolet owner and it wouldn’t last for 40,000 miles.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    In 1976, I drove a 1970 Chevrolet taxi in San Diego that had 400k or 500k miles on it (the mechanic forgot how many times the 99k odometer turned over). The engine had been rebuilt along the way.

    Slant six Mopars were good for several hundred k miles, and were very popular as taxis, and as reliable long-running used cars in the sixties and still today.

    My ’66 Ford F-100 has turned its odometer at least once, probably twice.

  • avatar

    Regarding impregnated aluminum: “Mercedes and Porsche went on to perfect this process”. Well, yes, but not before Porsche had to replace thousands of 1997 Boxster engines for porosity.

    @Detroit-Iron: I would absolutely believe that a Vega outhandled any Porsche you could buy in 1971. The chrome-bumper 911s were terrifying to drive at speed. Let history show that the first decent-handling street Porsche was the Audi-built 924.

  • avatar

    That craigslist ad that was quoted contained a sentence that bugs me worse than anything “It ran when parked.” Of course it did, idiot, or you couldn’t have parked it. When did you park it, yesterday or twenty years ago. /rant

    I rented a Vega with Powerglide in Las Vegas. Scream up to about 30 or 35 in Low, then it shifts to High and you’re at idle speed and well below the torque peak. Drive down the road, the a/c (which did still work) cuts in and it’s like you drove into molasses. What a car.

    On the other hand, my 75 Monza fastback with 262 V8 and 4-speed was one of my all-time favorite Chevys.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Jack Baruth,

    Porsche and Mercedes pioneered the successful use of silicon-aluminum blocks back in the late seventies, with the 928 and MB V8’s. Both those engines had an excellent rep for longevity, at least in regard to the basic internals. Just about every alloy block engine in the last twenty years or so in the world has used it. Porosity is a different problem , to my understanding.

    John Bond of Road and Track was a notorious kook; and his statement regarding the Vega’s handling was not taken seriously, except by the FTC, which sparked and investigation.

    “Handling” is too broad a concept to apply the phrase: “best handling car ever sold in America”. Just saying it makes the comment and commentator suspect. There are too many parameters, and without specifying them, it’s an empty quote, and one that many drivers of other cars at the time would take offense (or laugh) at: BMW 2002; Alfa Romeo GTV; Camaro Z28; Mustang Boss 302; just to name a few.

  • avatar

    oh yeah, i forgot; from my experience with a lot of rental vegas at the time: the first car i ever experienced where you couldn’t turn the fan off, presumably to meet some kind of federal fresh air requirement.

  • avatar

    capdeblu :
    August 4th, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    This reminds me of my first car. A used 1971 Mercury Capri. Although it looked good with its silver and black vinyl roof–this car was a total POS.

    The car eventually would not go into reverse. This took some planning when traveling. The parking brake did not work which required me to carry a brick to place behind the tires to keep it from rolling down a hill.

    The a/c never got cold and using it would cause the engine to overheat. One day after hitting a pothole the engine mounts broke. Then the drive train collapsed. All of this with under 50,000 miles.

    I also had a 1971 Capri. Mine had the 1600 Kent engine. I had the same problems you did plus the following:
    –Seat back broke while going up a hill cause me to fall backwards while going up a hill.
    –side window fell out while driving.
    –shifter came off in my hand.
    –blew black smoke like one of 007’s cars
    –headlight switch caught on fire.

  • avatar

    You managed to resurrect memories of my experiences with my Fiat 128 coupe and the Vega in the same story. While living in New Hampshire from 78-80 my room mate bought a 72 Vega notchback. Seven years of Eastern salt had eaten through most of the usual places and it had recieved a lot of fiberglass ‘bodywork’ coverd with a cheap sliver metallic paintjob. But it also burned oil like a tramp steamer, so we decided to rebuild it ourselves. We stripped it down, pulled the head off and then the block out of the car without an engine hoist.
    The bare block was delivered to the machine shop by myself we managed to easily tuck it in the trunk of my 128. Yes, it was sleeved.
    I think the first word that came to mind when driving the Vega was that the engine was ‘asthmatic.” It should have easily out performed my little Fiat based on size alone.
    And if the troubles with the Vega weren’t enough they were carried on through the Monza, which my Bostonian friend nicknamed “the Monstah.”
    The Kammback was a neat looking little car for its day and not a bad concept. Execution of the concept of course was the issue.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    @Paul Niedermeyer: This is a terrific writeup; I’m going to pick a few nits now, but I’ll buyyabeer next time I’m in Lane County.

    GM’s corporate styling was still at the top of their game in 1971

    Styling is subjective, but you can’t seriously say this until half the tube of airplane glue is…uh…dude…wait, what? GM’s corporate styling tripped and fell off the floor in 1971, viz the newly obese, bloated, ungainly-from-any-angle ’71 Caprice/Impala. Ingvar has done a good job describing the specific elements of the Vega’s maldesign.

    cast-iron head on top of the Vega aluminum block. A world first too, I assume.

    Chrysler put about 50,000 slant-6 225 engines with die-cast aluminum open-deck blocks (with high-nickel iron sleeves) in late ’61 to early ’63 passenger cars, including one of mine. Every one of ’em had an iron head. They work well and reliably — surprisingly so, given the infancy of bimetal engines and 1961 head gasket technology — and gave no especial trouble to those owners who used glycol coolant year round; that was still a tall “if” in America in the 1960s. Had aluminum not cost so much more than iron, slant-6s made of the latter material would’ve become the seldom-seen variety instead of those made of the former.

    136 lb/ft

    This reads “A hundred and thirty-six pounds per foot”. You mean 136 lb·ft. If religious beliefs prevent you using the correct mid dot, then “136 lb. ft.” or “136 lb-ft” are acceptable substitutes.

    you couldn’t turn the fan off, presumably to meet some kind of federal fresh air requirement.

    No such requirement exists, nor ever has. This idea of the blower fan coming on whenever the ignition’s switched on seemed to catch hold across Detroit in the early ’70s; I don’t know who first did it. The idea was to pressurise the interior of the car slightly so all air leaks would be from the inside out, thus minimising dust ingress and wind whistle. This was probably cheaper than sealing the car properly. The automakers hyped it as a great new comfort feature, but it was definitely not universally popular. Chrysler printed a TSB in 1973 or ’74 explaining how to disable the full-time blower, but as far as I know GM told complainers to go hang.

  • avatar

    Drove one of these with a corvette 350 and a dana rear. Lots of fun.

  • avatar

    Another great trip down memory lane. In late ’74, my parents committed grievous car-buying error #2. Having watched a ’71 Pinto dissolve before their eyes in 3 years and bequething it to me, they went out and bought a Vega. Argh.

    It had a 3 speed auto and no headroom in back. The engine throbbed like no other I have ever driven. Thrashing noises doesn’t quite describe the sound of piston rings scratching themselves to death on the cylinder walls. The engine itself looked like an unpainted hot water radiator newly liberated from its mould.

    After they had it for 3 years, I took it to the bodyman for some freshening. He wouldn’t even come out of his garage to look at it! A lot of persuading, and he relented and looked at it. Scratched his head again and again. Nothing wrong with it at all. Didn’t need any work. No rust, canya believe it?

    Nor did that engine use any oil.

    Naturally, three weeks later, a car failed to stop at a sign, and my Mom T-boned the Chevelle at 35 mph or so. Ruined the Vega and the Chevelle, and broke my Mom’s collarbone.

    Then they went and bought a Mercury Zephyr, whose 200 cubic inch six actually had less advertised hp than the Vega. (89 at 2900, it was a hottie!)

    When that croaked 8 years later, it was Mazda 626 time. What a difference.

  • avatar

    Your yellow Vega Kammback is probably a ’72. Short bumpers with the “VEGA” badge. The ’71s had a script “Chevrolet Vega 2300” badge. ’73 is when the bumpers were extended, IIRC.

    We had four over the years: coupe, two Kammbacks and a hatch for parts.

  • avatar

    Dad bought a dark green, notchback Vega when I was 15 with a learner’s permit. With 3 of us over 6’2″ we actually fit! At my request, I spent my 16th birthday driving it with my Mom in the front seat and my girlfriend in the back seat.

    With the Vega, I learned to:
    1. drive a stick
    2. wash and dry it in 8 minutes flat for date

    I remember Dad stomping around the kitchen complaining he bought an economy car but the insurance company was charging him “sports car” rates due to the gear ratio. Combine this with 2 teenage boys on the policy and I’m sure the rates were high!

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