By on February 15, 2012

The first-gen Hyundai Excel is extremely rare junkyard find, with most Excels having been crushed before they hit ten years old. The story of the Chevy Vega is similar, though most Vegas survived a bit longer than Excels did. I hadn’t seen a Vega in a junkyard for at least a decade (not counting Pontiac-badged Vega wagons) when I found this reasonably solid example at a California self-service yard a couple weeks back.
The Vega had the potential to be a good car, capable of fending off the onrushing Japanese invasion, but GM staggered through a series of bureaucratic and engineering blunders and what ended up in Chevrolet showrooms was quite disappointing.

500 pounds heavier than the original design, plagued by corrosion problems, and with a troublesome iron-head/aluminum-block engine, the Vega was also a good-looking car that got decent fuel economy. It sold in large numbers… and turned countless GM loyalists into Toyota buyers during the course of the 1970s.

Like the Corvair before it and the Fiero after it, the Vega was a great idea executed poorly. Perhaps The General would have been better off going all-out with an Americanized Opel Kadett for its Chevy subcompact.

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35 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1975 Chevrolet Vega...”

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I used to know a Chevy salesman back in the mid 70’s and he used to tell me that he had to convince prospective buyers of the Chevette and the Monza that GM no longer used that Vega engine, that is the kind of reputation that thing had.

    • 0 avatar

      GM did not admit errors. Instead, they continued to manufacture the car as they saw fit. GM depended upon a compliant American public to swallow this horrible vehicle and soldier on without complaints. GM did not respect it’s Vega buyers. That wasn’t unusual back then. It wasn’t just a GM problem, nor was it just a Vega problem. However, it became GM’s problem because it permanently damaged it’s devoted base of GM families.

      Had GM stepped up and went public and made good on the first year of this car, perhaps even pull it from productions until the problems were addressed, would have helped GM. Back in these days, the idea of showing empathy towards the Market hadn’t reached the Boardroom. What we see today in these circumstances is 180 degree from what we saw with the Vega.

      What we saw from GM is an impenetrable wall of silence. Dealers got stiffed and yelled at. Mechanics were blamed. Vegas were bad and their badness was manufactured and designed into the vehicle by an organization that came off as too arrogant or stupid to care.

      Like the YouTube clips of stupid young men yelling to the camera, “Watch this!”, and then throw themselves to a stupid doom, GM made everyone watch and paid for media to announce this incredibly stupid car stunt. When the Vega metaphorically belly flopped into a pool filled with flaming gasoline after declaring that we would all see something spectacular and wonderful, Americans raised on GM fell into shock at the Vega catastrophe.

      And GM did it repeatedly. The massive PR fiasco of the X Cars. The Congressional pronouncements on the current Edsel, the Volt. GM continues to look like a Paid Television Sales Program where Vince from Sham Wow! sets his crotch on fire, then brags about how it was intentional.

      The first generational Corvair exposed GM as an uncaring corporation hiding from involuntary manslaughter. The first generational Vega exposed GM as an organization incapable of building a quality car. The X Cars exposed GM of engineering negligence. The Volt is exposing GM as a multi-billion dollar government bailout buddy incapable of vision even when it is lit up with tons of flaming taxpayer dollars.

      Hence – the Vega!

      • 0 avatar

        What about the pre-production Vegas that covered 60k non-stop?

        One did die of a timing belt, but I do question if these Vegas were specially built, much like the press Citations that had no torque-steer.

      • 0 avatar
        johnny ro

        Great post. Reminds me of TTAC origins.

      • 0 avatar

        Tell us how you really feel about it. No, you’re right. I’ve always thought GM is a perfect example of what happens when a bunch of finance guys run an engineering company. From the beginning, GM was a group of investors who glommed onto some car makers. They might as well have been selling fertilizer, as far as it meant to them…and that has never changed. It’s the kind of crap wannabee executives learn in “business” school. They all think every business runs the same, no matter what kind of widgets are actually being produced. It’s a blind fantasy that’s been going on for a hundred years. The truth is, businesses are different and should be run differently depending on what is being produced or done or sold. Will anybody with means and power out there in the wilderness ever hear this truth?!

      • 0 avatar

        The sad thing is not much seems to have changed at GM. The deck chairs have been reshuffled a little, but the ship is still the same, and still taking on water. Not surprisingly, the finance guys running GM seem to have destroyed both the product AND the finances.

        On the other hand, Chrysler management has been turned over to owners that actually have some passion for cars. The new product looks good, and their focus on the product itself seems to be paying off.

  • avatar
    George B

    I’m surprised nobody bought that Vega for drag racing. It’s cheap, light weight, rear wheel drive, and you can put a inexpensive small block chevy V8 in it. That combination is almost impossible to find today.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, Chevy already did that. it was called the Monza.

    • 0 avatar

      Schwartz Extreme Performance came up with something like that for a 1972 Vega, but not for drag racing … it was for autocross racing and daily driving. Unfortunately, that Vega was totaled in an accident.

      Meanwhile, a company called Woody’s Hot Rodz is working on a 1971 Vega project, but with an LSX 454 and an Art Morrison chassis. Like the Schwartz project, this Vega is intended for daily driving and autocross racing.

      Perhaps someone could come up with a similar project for this 1975 Vega?

  • avatar

    I don’t recall these lasting any longer than Excels. The difference was that GM kept a few of the bodies in production with more durable drivetrains and different badges. A glance at my high school’s parking lot in 1984 would have revealed at least 3 cars that looked like Vegas, but I was to learn that none of them really were Vegas. They were Monza hatchbacks and Pontiac Sunbird wagons.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah, the Vega.

      I was working the auto parts counter in ’71 when these came out, our store shared the railroad track right of way with the Chevrolet dealer. No, we weren’t prepared for the run on front brake pads and head gaskets almost immediately after model launch, and neither was GM. Lots of unhappiness.

      To ride / drive one of these wasn’t too bad. They offered a “Vega GT” with low-profile tires, sporty dash with full gauges, swaybars front and back, actually fun to drive and not bad for the times. Coil springs front/back, live axle, actually a fairly smooth ride for the size.

      But oh, the issues. Aforementioned head gaskets and brake pads. Vibration so pronounced that carburetor bodies would unscrew themselves from their base. I inherited one early on through marriage: a Vega “hardtop” 2-dr sedan, no options AT ALL other than an AM radio (blank otherwise). Rubber-lined, no carpets. The 90-hp 4 single-carb version (not the hipo 110hp with the two-barrel) with 2sp Powerglide (or derivative). That instant-oxidizing blue paint, with black rubber trim around the non-opening rear windows. Smoked on startup, and needed a steady diet of Alemite CD-2 to keep oil in it. It had had the head-gasket thing early on, not repaired, so it consumed coolant at a rapid pace. It was overheated to stall, twice, before it finally burned a valve and I pulled the head. 1/16th grooves in the aluminum cylinder walls from the overheating episodes, they milled the head flat again and I put it back together after the valve job. Kept a stubby screwdriver and 5/16th’s wrench in the car to put the carb back together when it vibrated apart about once a week, Loctite or no. Finally sold it “as is” to someone who needed wheels, $200, total of 71k on the clock.

      • 0 avatar

        Car and Driver’s website has an archived comparison test of the Vega and Pinto. From today’s perspective, it was shocking how much work the cars needed as delivered from the manufacturers. Once they were sorted, it was already time to start replacing wear parts and performing involved maintenance.

  • avatar

    Wow,this brings back memories. My first new car was an orange 1972 Vega Hatch purchased for the grand sum of $2160 plus tax. Four years/42,000 miles later even though this beast was already rusting out and burning oil like crazy I traded for a new 1976 version. Actually, the ’76/’77 iterations of the Vega were much improved with an engine fixes, extensive rustproofing and an extended warranty…but it was too little too late as the Vega’s fate was sealed by then.
    I later sold the car to a friend (I was really pushing it!) and purchased a new 1978 Malibu. In the end, old ’76 Vega went 100k+ for the new owner and my Malibu was as bad a disaster as any Vega.
    Never purchased a GM since.

  • avatar

    Dad had an orange one with a white racing stripe. His worst car ever (and he sold used cars in Atlanata the 50s and 60s). Think he would give his mustangII a close second. Now he drives Toyotas without a complaint.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey my Dad’s was white with the Orange racing stripe. He’s a Kia guy now but that had more to do with the Regal than the Vega. I learned to drive in a Vega and really liked it, but yes it was the most troublesome vehicle despite excellent maintenance. So close but yet so far..

  • avatar

    “It sold in large numbers… and turned countless GM loyalists into Toyota buyers during the course of the 1970s.”

    If the GM engineering and marketing teams had been given the challenge to design and market a small car to chase loyal customers away they probably wouldn’t have been able to do a better job ;-)

    I owned a ’76 Vega GT for about two months in 1979. Having previously owned a number of small european cars before I got the GT I’ll confirm that there wasn’t anything to GT about it… a real “bucket of bolts”. Sold it and got a ’80 2 door Diesel Dasher hatchback… nice dark blue metallic / saddle & brown interior. Had just gotten a new job with Honeywell Space Systems and was driving 75 miles a day to work and back at a time when gas was an outrageous… $1.00 a gallon!

    The Dasher was slow but steering, braking & handling were accurate & balanced… a blast in the corners… especially good going 110% onto highway on/off ramps… it’s predictable understeer would allow me to scrub off the extra speed and exit briskly even though there wasn’t much push in the tiny diesel. Considering how hard I drove it I consistently got mpg in the high 30’s… and that ride to work each day… priceless :-)

  • avatar

    I don’t know about the decent gas mileage part. I have an old early 70s Car and Driver and they struggled to get 20mpg out of their long term test Vega

  • avatar

    My brother bought a new 73 Vega and I bought it from him in 76 for $500 after it was whacked on the side while parked. I fiberglassed it up and drove it until 1978 when I junked it for $25. For spring break 1977, I drove it from Buffalo to Ft Lauderdale and back. By the time I got back, it was burning so much oil, it was nasty. I think I killed it by driving both ways 28 hours straight (with 2 buddies). While in Florida I had to have the timing belt replaced for $118.

    Then I bought a used 76 Volare!

    • 0 avatar

      Out of the frying pan and into the fire on that one?

      My Great-Grandfathers last car was a baby-blue ’77 Vega Wagon. Utterly stripped out, no power anything, AM radio, but automatic. He drove it sunny days only until he died in ’95. It still rotted out just sitting in a warm dry garage. Had something like 15K on it after all those years. I drove it a couple times in High School. Best described as “character building”.

      • 0 avatar

        I forgot to add the Vega only had 51,000 miles on it when I junked it. My 3-speed Volare (with the longest throw of any stick I’ve ever seen), rusted right through something awful.

        Did I mention my first car before the Vega was a 67 Mustang (bought in 73 for $500, sold in 76 for $150). Too bad it had the smallest 6-cyl engine I swear ever made, and it was a rust bucket to boot.

  • avatar

    When I look at that interior, I can hear the Partridge Family theme play in my head.

  • avatar

    I rented a new ’72 Vega with Powerglide in Vegas. Start out from a stop, wind that 4-banger like crazy until it finally shifts, then when it shifts it feels like I drove into molasses. Drive down the street at a decent speed and turn on the a/c, and again I drove into molasses. What a half-assed car! Memorable though…that was forty years ago.

  • avatar

    I had a 73, three speed on the floor. Within 18 months (Northern Ohio) the A-pillars had rusted away. Chevy had a secret warranty to ‘repair’ them.

    The thing was like a cheshire cat, body parts evaporating in the wind left and right. Rear quarter panel- what’s that? Rocker panels were a colorful flaking rust color. Holes opened up.

    The writer is correct. In the 70s there was a strong pro-American auto trend. I switched to a Corolla after this- the body seemed made out of stainless steel by comparison.

    You would not believe the crap the American makers threw on the public in the 70s. Every couple years we’d hear a refrain how quality was job one, or we learned our lesson.

    Maybe the American makes are better now, who knows? What I know is none of them ever paid us back for their instant-rust bucket clunker Torinos and Vegas.

  • avatar

    I knew a guy who worked at a Chevy dealership in Moline, Illinois when the Vega was being sold. All the cars delivered there from the GM factory came off the trailer, and during the winter, had to pass through a huge puddle of salt water created by a low spot in the parking lot. He claimed there was no underbody rinsing going on as part of the dealer prep.

    The parts department ALWAYS had a brand-spanking new Vega block casting right under the front counter, because they were always in demand. $315.00 and you were good to go, for awhile.

  • avatar

    I heard a rumor that the rear glass in the hatchback body style was an exact fit replacement to the Plymouth Superbird. Anyone know if there’s any truth to this?

  • avatar

    The first new car I ever bought was a 1974 Vega GT Wagon.

    Nice car, fun to drive, perfect for what I needed.

    At around 25k it overheated on a trip to Florida and from then on, got about 200 miles per quart of oil. The car was a little over a year old.

    Brought it back to the dealer. Complained to GM.

    “Sorry kid. You’re out of warranty. Can’t help ya.”

    After a while, I yanked the engine and dropped an Olds V6 into it (an easy swap), drove it around for a year or so, and eventually sold it.

    Since then, I’ve owned VWs, MG’s, Datsuns, Fords, Hondas, BMWs, Audis, Mazdas, Volvos, and a bunch of other makes. Most bought new.

    Never bought another GM product, and I doubt I ever will.

  • avatar

    I will preface my following comments by saying I understand people’s dislike of the Vega. It’s reputation is well deserved. Still, having spent most of my single-digit years being shuttled around in the bak of my mom’s ’73 Kammback, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Vega. It lasted us 10 years, and although in the end the vinyl wood grain was holding it together, I loved that car. The newer ones lost something from a styling perspective with the 5 MPH bumpers, but I would still take a pre ’74 model to tinker with.

    The underlying issues with the Vega that ultimately turned the Vega from a revolutionary car to a car that caused a revolt were how it was designed (or more importantly, by whom) and engine that was not to be.

    While there was a certain amount of parts commonality within GM, up until the Vega the divisions were treated more or less as independent entities. The Vega, on the other hand, was designed and engineered by GM corporate and forced on Chevrolet. Chevrolet’s reaction was to treat it with a certain amount of disdain and to nickel and dime it from the get go. Half-assed rustproofing and a Lordstown plant legendary for sloppy workmanship also contributed to less than stellar quality.

    Most of the extra 500 lbs. came from that 140 c.u. sleeveless aluminum block/cast iron head abomination. The Vega was originally designed around GM’s RC2-206 Wankel rotary engine. When it was determined that the rotary wouldn’t meet emmissions or fuel economy goals, GM went with the hastily designed lump they had. The Cosworth engine option, originally planned for 1972, was based on Cosworth’s 2-liter race engine of the day. It started with 170 horsepower, but by the time it reached production, it was detained for longevity and choked by emmissions equipment down to an expensive 110 net horsepower.

    The Vega was GM’s ultimate “what could have been” car. Image a properly rustproofed Vega line with a rotary engine or a proper Cosworth engine available. What would our opinion of the General be today?

  • avatar

    Same place it is now.
    Their Next Big Deal was the X-car platform, and we all know what a disaster that was.

    • 0 avatar

      GM found time to unleash a few hundred thousand vehicles powered by Oldsmobile diesel engines during the era. They also put out variable displacement V8 Cadillacs that tarnished the brand over night and followed it up with the poorly engineered and short lived HT4100 aluminum block V8s. The Monza and its clones that followed the Vegas with conventional engines were a few hundred thousand buyers last visits to GM dealers too.

  • avatar

    My Mom had the 1976 version of this car, but in the Kammback wagon body instead. She bought it used n 1978 in like new condition in that lovely metallic brown with the tan interior. I can’t recall if full vinyl or if it had cloth inserts but it DID have AC and the automatic, though by 1976, was it a 2spd or was it a 3spd?

    At any rate, we had little issues with the car other than it was slow and the carb DID need to be rebuilt and the mileage was so, so for its size and displacement. I think we drove it from ’78-’83 when it was replaced by the 1983 X body Buick Skylark.

    I think I only got to drive it a few times while learning to drive with my learner’s permit but never truly got to drive it, but spent many a time riding in it though.

    I’ve always liked the basic styling of the cars, especially the 71-73 fastbacks and the wagon and skip to 1976 when the grill louvers went over the front turn signals and the rear taillights had the amber section, a look I liked much better than the cheesy square units found on this car.

  • avatar

    If you asked Akio Toyoda what his favorite car is, he’d say the Chevrolet Vega.

  • avatar

    I was being nostalgic and looking up cars I drove as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I found this site and my first three cars were all being discussed (badly at that). Now I feel like I had a bad start in life. My first car at 16 was a vega. It was a hand me down from my step dad. I thought I was big time. Soon after I got it, the reverse went out. Everywhere I went I could only go forward or we’d push it back. I still proudly drove it until my little brother got hold of a black marker and drew giant smiley faces all over it. the car was white. Next my Mama got me a Monza. I loved this car and it would fly. I got married at 19 and my first car then was a Sunbird,which I also loved, until my husband totaled it exactly 1 month after I got it. From what I am reading , he did me a favor.

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