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Car Spot: The Chevy Vega

A car that rusted right off the assembly line

It was a car that was doomed almost from the very beginning. Code named the XP-887, the Chevy Vega was meant to stop shoppers from buying the many cars being imported from Japan that got great gas mileage but when GM’s corporate engineering staff finally delivered its first prototype to Chevrolet, it lasted just eight miles at GM’s Milford proving ground before the front end fell off.

Vega Pro-Street driven by one of my coworkers at the golf course I work at during the summer months.

When John DeLorean was named Chevrolet’s general manager in 1969 with the project already late in developement, he convinced his staff 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. They tried naming it the Gemini, which tied into the US space program at the time but GM president Ed Cole insisted on calling the car Vega, even though the name tested poorly.

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Introduced in 1970, the car couldn’t make its targeted base price of $2,091 which was $311 more than the Volkswagen Beetle and $172 more than Ford’s new Pinto, while AMC’s Gremlin’s base price was $1,999. It was also 200 pounds over its one-ton target weight.

Despite all this, the automotive press loved it. It was Motor Trend magazine’s 1971 Car of the Year. After that, it was all downhill.

In 1972 Chevy recalled half a million Vegas because rear axle shafts could separate from the housing, causing the wheels to literally fall off. But that wasnit it, 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. Yikes.

An undiscovered defect in the new rust-proofing system left the underside of the front fenders unprotected. In typical GM fashion to save money it had rejected plastic fender liners leaving Vegas prone to rapid corrosion not only in the fenders, but rocker panels, lower doors and front suspension parts as well.

The train wreck continued with its engine. If it got too hot the cylinders would distort, wearing the coating on the walls and forcing coolant past the head gaskets and if a Vega owner didn’t keep the coolant topped off, the Vega could, and often would, destroy its own engine. Chevrolet did its best duck and cover by extending the engine warranty and retrofitting an overflow bottle and low-coolant warning light, but not before many owners got replacement engines to go with their replacement fenders.

Oh and one last goofy GM idea, how the cars were transported. General Motors and Southern Pacific designed “Vert-A-Pac” rail cars to hold 30 Vegas each, compared with conventional tri-level autoracks which held 18. The Vega was fitted with four removable cast-steel sockets on the underside and had plastic spacers—removed at unloading—to protect engine and transmission mounts. The rail car ramp/doors were opened and closed via forklift. Vibration and low-speed crash tests ensured the cars would not shift or suffer damage in transit.

Despite all this fun and games, Chevy managed to sell just over 2 million Vegas before the plug was pulled in 1977. Compared to 3.1 million Pintos, which had its own set of problems, and 671,475 AMC Gremlins. Still this car has a loyal following like the owner of this Vega who had stuffed a 427 V8 in it and owns two more. The most valuable Vega is the Cosworth. Chevy only built 2,061 cars in 1975 and 1,447 the following year. Perhaps that was because of its $6,000 price tag. Today, it’s easy to find a low-mileage Cosworth Vega. According to Hagerty, one in Excellent Condition sells for around $15,000 so if the Cosworth Vega was a Vega for the price of two when it was new, now it’s about the price of ten.

Be sure to check back next Friday for another one of my car spots and have a great weekend.