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Terrible Cars That Shouldn’t Have Been Terrible: Chevrolet Vega

With the might of GM behind it, the Vega should have been great. It wasn’t.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

The Chevrolet Vega is remembered as one of General Motors' worst cars, a troublesome rust-bucket prone to gas tank fires and melting engines. It's easy to assume that the Vega was a sign of GM's hubris, cobbled together on the cheap like the AMC Gremlin for a public that would stop buying imported subcompacts as soon as there were viable American alternatives. In fact, the opposite was true. The Vega was designed and built with new processes and procedures that should have made it the most advanced small car on the market.

So how did it all go wrong? How did the Vega end up being so terrible?

The Sleeping Giant Awakens

On October 3rd, 1968, at the opening of the new General Motors Building in Manhattan, chairman Jim Roche broke with GM tradition: He talked about future product. In two years, he said, GM would introduce a revolutionary small car that would weigh less than a ton, cost less than the Volkswagen Beetle, use an advanced aluminum engine, and would be built with the most automated assembly process ever developed. GM would even develop a unique railcar to ship it to dealers.

It was a surprising announcement from GM, which was perceived as having long since lost its innovative edge to Ford. The interpretation was that the sleeping giant was awakening, and that the car—code-named XP-887—would swat away those pesky imports like so many flies.

Unbeknownst to outsiders, however, the XP-887 was creating all sorts of problems within GM's walls.

Centralizing a Decentralized Company

In the mid-1960s, GM was still closely following Alfred Sloan's system of centralized policymaking and decentralized operations. Though basic car platforms were shared, each division did the bulk of its own engineering and marketing and managed its own plants. Chevrolet and Pontiac were diligently working on their own subcompacts, but according to John DeLorean's authorized-then-unauthorized biography, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, there was a third mini-car in development. Ed Cole, Executive Vice President of GM's Operating Staffs, was bucking corporate tradition by having the corporate engineering staff work on its own subcompact. When Cole was named GM president in 1967, he forced his mini-car on the Chevrolet division in place of its own. Pontiac was cut out entirely.

Outsiders didn't know any of this, nor did they know that when Roche made his announcement, the XP-887 existed only on paper with no prototypes yet completed. According to DeLorean, when GM's corporate engineering staff finally delivered its first prototype to Chevrolet, it lasted eight miles at GM's Milford proving ground before the front end separated from the rest of the car.

Chevrolet Vega: Leader or Lemon?

That was only one of the problems Chevrolet found. Of paramount concern was the XP-887's engine. Chevrolet had developed a low-cost, short-stroke, iron-block engine, but Cole was intent on using aluminum, a choice traditionally ruled out for inexpensive cars because of the need for expensive iron cylinder sleeves. Reynolds Metals had developed an aluminum alloy that would allow sleeveless cylinders with iron-coated aluminum pistons. The engine used a long stroke for emissions and was topped with an iron head, and the result, according to DeLorean, was tall, top-heavy, and more expensive than Chevy's engine.

Besides the 20 pounds of material required to reinforce the front end, the XP-887 design did not incorporate the door crash beams that GM was installing in all of its cars. It quickly became obvious that the XP-887 wasn't going to meet the cost and weight goals promised by Roche, and Chevrolet engineers, resentful that their own design was pushed aside without due consideration, were disinclined to do anything about it.

Chevrolet Rallies Around the XP-887

DeLorean was named Chevrolet's general manager in 1969, and he convinced his troops that no matter how much they disliked the XP-887, it would be judged as a Chevrolet, and it was in the division's best interests for it to succeed. The marketing team determined that since the car couldn't make its targeted price, the best bet was to add in a few dollars' worth of trim and sell it as a premium model. They also came up with a name: Gemini, which tied into the US space program and had a familial ring ("G-M-eni").

Amazingly, most of these efforts were thwarted. Cole insisted on calling the car Vega, even though the name tested poorly, and the corporate financial staff nixed the upgraded trim. Chevrolet would have to sell a basic car at a premium price. When the Vega finally came to market, its $2,091 base price was $311 more than the Volkswagen Beetle and $172 more than Ford's new Pinto, and it was 200 pounds over its one-ton target weight.

Chevrolet Vega Meets the Press

For all the problems happening behind the scenes, media reception to the Vega was surprisingly good. DeLorean, ever the dedicated salesman, touted the Vega's highly advanced assembly process. Eighty percent of the body welds were automated, as opposed to 18 percent for a typical car of the time. The Vega's body had just over half as many parts as a full-size Chevy, and it was protected by a new six-stage rust-proofing process.

Car magazines liked the 1971 Vega's styling and handling. Power was meagre at highway speeds but significantly better than the Volkswagen Beetle, and braking stability was noted as the only serious problem. The Kammback wagon (which wasn't really a kammback) was particularly well-liked. MotorTrend named the Vega as its Car of the Year for 1971. Aside from its price and weight, it seemed that GM had delivered what Roche had promised: A well-built, competitive minicar.

Behind the scenes, however, a bad situation was getting worse. Chevrolet had gone to great lengths to ensure its Lordstown, Ohio plant could match the imports for quality by hiring additional quality-control staff, designing a computerized system to alert assembly staff to defects as soon as they were found, and extensively test-driving the first 2,000 cars made. The Vega got off to a strong start, but with only 24,000 cars built, the UAW went on strike against GM for two and a half months, cutting off the supply just as the first Vegas arrived at dealerships. With production constrained, 1971 sales fell about 150,000 units short of Chevrolet's forecast—and below sales of Ford's new-for-1971 Pinto.

With the 1971 model year effectively shot, Chevrolet focused on '72, optimistic about new economic policies from the Nixon administration that would put American subcompacts on a more even economic footing with the imports. But just after production of the 1972 models began, General Motors transferred control of Lordstown from Chevrolet to the General Motors Assembly Division. In order to cut costs, GMAD eliminated 700 jobs, including several quality-control positions, and scrapped the computerized defect-feedback system. The UAW accused GMAD of trying to get more work out of fewer workers and called a strike. A classic union-versus-management struggle erupted, with GM in the role of the bad guy. The headlines captured the imaginations of the young buyers to whom the Vega was supposed to appeal.

Discovering the Chevrolet Vega's Engineering Flaws

Right about this time, the severity of the Vega's problems was becoming apparent. Chevrolet recalled half a million Vegas in 1972. Rear axle shafts could separate from the housing, causing the wheels to literally fall off. Faulty brackets on the single-barrel carb jammed the throttle open. The optional two-barrel engine could backfire violently enough to split the muffler, blowing hot exhaust on the fuel tank and causing it to expand, rupture, and ignite.

An undiscovered defect in the new rust-proofing system left the underside of the front fenders unprotected. GM had rejected plastic fender liners to save money, and Vegas suffered from rapid corrosion—primarily of the fenders, but rocker panels, lower doors and front suspension parts could also be affected. One dealer told Automotive News that he was touching up rust spots on brand-new Vegas.

The Vega's best-remembered problem, however, was its infamous melting engine. The engine didn't actually melt, but if it got too hot the cylinders would distort, wearing the coating on the walls and forcing coolant past the head gaskets. The former problem increased oil consumption (exacerbated by faulty valve stem seals) and the latter increased the frequency of the overheating issue. If a Vega owner didn't keep the coolant topped off, the Vega could, and often would, destroy its own engine. Chevrolet extended the engine warranty and retrofitted an overflow bottle and low-coolant warning light, but not before many owners got replacement engines to go with their replacement fenders.

Chevrolet Fixes the Vega, But New Problems Arise

Chevrolet managed to iron out the bulk of the Vega's problems between 1973 and 1974, and even came up with a decent performance version, the 1975-76 Cosworth Vega. Despite all the damage done to its reputation, the Vega sold reasonably well—2 million examples over seven model years. By the end of its run in 1977, the Vega was a simple and reliable, if somewhat dated, economy car.

But the Vega was also an axe wielded by the Corporation to cause more damage. Pontiac, which had been working on its own small car in the late '60s, was given a version called the Astre. The automotive press saw it for what it was: A dressed-up, overpriced Chevrolet. This experiment in badge engineering set the stage for GM's upcoming disaster, the ill-fated front-wheel-drive 1980 X-car.

Why was the Chevrolet Vega so poorly executed? DeLorean blames its corporate origins, the fact that it was forced on Chevrolet with minimal engineering and marketing input, and the ill-timed GMAD takeover of the Lordstown plant. The Vega's innovative design and manufacturing advances had promise, and it's impossible to say if Chevrolet's own small car would have been any better. One thing is for sure: The Vega was a promising car that turned out to be truly terrible.

1971 Chevrolet Vega 2300 Hatchback Coupe

 

1971 Chevrolet Vega Specifications

ON SALE September 1970
PRICE $2,090
ENGINE 2.3L SOHC 8-valve I-4/90 hp @ 4,800 rpm, 136 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm (110 hp/138 lb-ft with 2-barrel carburetor)
TRANSMISSION 3- or 4-speed manual, 2-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan/hatchback/wagon
L x W x H 169.7 x 64.5 x 51.2 in
WHEELBASE 97.0 in
WEIGHT 2,181-2,270 lb
0-60 MPH 16.8 sec (base sedan), 13.8 sec (GT hatchback), 19.0 sec (automatic wagon)
TOP SPEED 105 mph