Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976
Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976. Click image to enlarge

Review by Jeff Burry; photos by Bob Slusarek

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Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976

In 1969, General Motors announced plans to build a new subcompact vehicle that would be stylish and economical. Designed by GM’s corporate engineers, this new vehicle, the Vega, would fall to Chevrolet for manufacture and sale.

The Chevrolet Vega was sold from 1971 to 1977, and was introduced by General Motors to compete directly with the successful but aging Volkswagen Beetle, as well as Japanese imports from Honda, Toyota and Datsun.

The Vega came in various body styles – Notchback, Hatchback, Kammback and Panel Express, based on the GM H platform. Its conventional four-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive system with unibody construction was similar to the new Japanese imports, but the car itself was slightly larger than the Asian competition, targeting the traditional tastes of the North American market.

Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976
Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976. Click image to enlarge

This little car was one of the most loved and often criticized cars in the 1970’s. In its early years, the Vega was plagued by poor reliability, and its owners experienced additional problems that included carburetor fires, engine overheating and premature body rust. While sales were initially brisk from 1971 to 1974, these issues soon started to have a negative impact as word of them got around.

The General manager and then Vice-President of Chevrolet was John Delorean. He recognized the value of and need for an image booster for the Vega, which was being outsold by the Ford Pinto. Additionally, the imports were gaining in popularity amongst the buying public.

In the early 70’s, Chevrolet engineers had already begun working closely with a famous engine company in England, Cosworth Engineering Limited. Lloyd Reuss, Assistant Chief Engineer at Chevrolet decided that a “streetable” version of the Cosworth engine would be the ticket to improving the Vega’s image. Thus the Cosworth Vega was conceived as a sports coupe with a high performance, hand-built, all-aluminum engine sporting a unique exterior appearance.

Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976
Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976. Click image to enlarge

The power plant was a 16-valve dual overhead (twin) camshaft engine capable of producing 110 horsepower. Initial testing of the engine had it producing 185 horsepower but corporate average fuel economy requirements and EPA emissions standards strangled that more impressive output.

John Delorean decided that the 1975 Cosworth Vega would only be available in black with gold striping. Interior choices were custom black or white vinyl, and black custom cloth. The dashboard would be black with gold accent panels, sporting a plaque indicating the build number. Rubber all around would be mounted to gold 13 x 6-inch aluminum wheels.

It had been hoped by Chevrolet to bring the Cosworth Vega to market in 1974, but there was a delay in acquiring the EPA certification, and operations at the Lordstown, Ohio plant were affected by a strike at the adjacent Fisher Body Stamping Plant.

As a result, the planned 1974 introduction of the Cosworth Vega was scrapped and postponed until April 1975. Meanwhile, during this period, and even before, enthusiastic potential buyers had placed orders for the new twin-cam Cosworth. The production delay, therefore, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976
Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976. Click image to enlarge

Finally on April 17, 1975, Chevrolet sponsored a “Lordstown Media Event” in Ohio for the official production launch of the Cosworth Vega. At this time, Chevrolet quoted that the twin-cam engine was capable of producing 120 hp at 5600 rpm.

The 1975 Cosworth Vega retailed for $5,916, twice the cost of a regular four-cylinder Vega and only $900 less than a Chevrolet Corvette. A 1975 Cosworth advertisement rather optimistically suggested “One Vega for the price of two!” A total of 2061 units were produced for the 1975 model year.

For the 1976 model year, consumers could once again choose to purchase a Cosworth Vega. Little was changed from the previous model, although buyers could now select from a variety of Vega colours. A total of only 1447 were produced in this second model year, and due to poor sales, Chevrolet decided that this “special edition” Vega had run its course.

There are many theories on why the Cosworth experienced such a limited run, spanning only two model years. The constant delays in getting the vehicle to market surely had a negative impact.

Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976
Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, 1975-1976. Click image to enlarge

Another theory is that it was simply priced too high, especially in light of the detuned engine. Yet another had to do with the reliability issues experienced by all Vegas in the early years of its production. Chevrolet did resolve those issues, but they were still fresh in the minds of the buying pubic.

The Cosworth Vega today is primarily owned by people who understand just how unique an automobile it was. The vehicle included many firsts for GM. It had the first double overhead cam, sixteen-valve engine to be domestically produced and sold by General Motors. It was the first use of electronic fuel injection and the factory installed stainless steel exhaust header was yet another innovative first.

While sales of the Cosworth Vega fell well short of projections by Chevrolet (a total of 5000 units was projected to have been sold over the two model years), it is today the most sought after Vega by collectors.

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