1973 Chevrolet Vega Estate
1973 Chevrolet Vega Estate
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The Chevrolet Vega was introduced during the second wave of the American auto industry’s attempt to vanquish imported cars from North America. The first wave, which included the 1960 compact Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Chrysler Valiant had slowed the imports, but led by the VW Beetle they soon recovered.

The 1971 Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto, and the 1970-1/2 AMC Gremlin were the second wave of import fighters. Like the first, they would have mixed results.

While Ford’s Pinto was quite conventional, as the Falcon had been, General Motors chose a bolder path with the Vega. It was like a repeat of the unusual Corvair philosophy, although not as daring. Thus, while Ford used its well-proved English 1.6 litre overhead valve, cast iron 4-cylinder engine as base power (a 2-litre overhead cam four was optional), the Vega got an all-new overhead cam, aluminum block four.

In an unusual move, the Vega’s engine had its pistons running directly in the silicone impregnated aluminum cylinders, not in the iron sleeves normally used.

GM began promoting its new car in the fall of 1968 when it announced that in two years the corporation would introduce a small, economical car tailored to American tastes, one that would effectively compete with the imports. Unfortunately the optimism would turn out to be premature.

John DeLorean, Chevrolet Division’s general manager when the Vega was introduced, was very candid in his book, On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors. He called the Vega a poor design engineered by the central corporate engineers, then foisted onto a disgruntled Chevrolet.

DeLorean called the engine “a relatively large, noisy, top-heavy combination of aluminum and iron which cost far too much to build, (and) looked like it had been taken off a 1920 farm tractor…” He said “Chevy engineers were ashamed of the engine.”

When the first prototype Vega arrived at Chevrolet from the central staff, DeLorean had division engineers test it at GM’s Milford, Mich., proving grounds. The results were devastating. “After eight miles, the front of the Vega broke off. The front end of the car separated from the rest of the vehicle,” said DeLorean. “It must have set a record for the shortest time taken for a new car to fall apart.” It was an inauspicious start for GM’s new baby.

In spite of Chevrolet’s misgivings, DeLorean was determined that he and his staff would make the best of building the Vega. To the public it was a Chevrolet, no matter who had designed it, and its reputation would reflect on the Chevrolet Division.

The Lordstown, Ohio, Vega plant was to be the most modern and automated in the nation. Intense quality control with phalanxes of inspectors would monitor fit and finish, and identify problems so they could be quickly rectified.

But trouble soon surfaced. After only 24,000 Vegas had been built, the plant was hit with a two-and-one-half month strike. The Vega’s first year sales momentum was effectively destroyed.

The second year wouldn’t turn out to be much better. On Oct. 1, 1971, General Motors placed all Chevrolet assembly under the management of the GM Assembly Division (GMAD). Chevrolet no longer built its own cars, and therefore had lost control over their assembly.

GMAD was a tough division with a record of labour problems. Upon taking over Lordstown it confirmed this by laying off 700 workers. There were union allegations of a work speed-up, and the plant atmosphere became poisoned. The term “Lordstown Syndrome” soon epitomized all that was wrong in American labour relations; the poor little Vega was caught in the middle.

Once in the hands of owners, the Vega did little to dispel its star-crossed birth. There was an early recall of 132,000 cars to correct a carburetor fire hazard. Aluminum cylinder blocks were subject to distortion due to overheating, cylinders were prone to premature wear causing high oil consumption, and the lightweight block caused noise and vibration. In addition to all this, the body proved vulnerable to rust.

The performance of the Vega was only modest in comparison with much of its competition. Road & Track magazine reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration of 16.5 seconds, 2.6 seconds slower than the Datsun 510, and 3.1 slower than the Toyota Corona, although it did edge out the Volkswagen Super Beetle and the 1.6 litre Ford Pinto.

The Vega never reached the predicted 400,000 sales per year, although it hit 395,000 in 1973. During its first four model years it was outsold by approximately 83,000 units per year by the Ford Pinto.

Despite an attempt to spruce up the image with the introduction of the twin overhead cam, 16-valve, fuel-injected Cosworth Vega in 1975, of which only 3508 were built, the Vega died largely unlamented in 1977.

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