In 1970, GM began running teasers for an upcoming sporty compact, to be unveiled on September 10. “We’ve got it the way we want it, and we think you’ll like it,” one of the ads touted…
In concept, project XP-887 had every potential to fulfill the lofty promises GM was making…but unfortunately, corporate politics and cost reduction hobbled things right from the initial decision to ram a “corporate” engine and design right down Chevrolet Division’s throat.
John DeLorean inherited the whole foul-up far too late to overcome the inevitable results of the “not invented here” syndrome that ran strong throughout his division, though he did push as hard as he could for building a quality vehicle. “While I was convinced that we were doing our best with the car that was given to us, I was called upon by the corporation to tout the car far beyond my personal convictions about it,” he recounted in his book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors.
All that aside for the moment, the very handsome-looking Vega Number One (shown above) did finally roll off the assembly line, the first of 2,113,929 H-body cars (including the Vega, Cosworth Vega and Astre) to be built over seven model years. The H-body platform would eventually be re-skinned, re-engined and renamed Monza (along with its badge-engineered siblings Starfire, Skyhawk and Sunbird), resulting in a grand total of around four million H-body vehicles produced over ten years–not a shabby run at all.
GM and Chevrolet would steadily improve the Vega, addressing many of the issues that affected the early production cars and, by the end of the production run, actually had a decently appointed and reliable vehicle. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common progression with GM: Great idea; lousy execution; fix the problems after public outcry; immediately discontinue the car because no one wants it by that point.
There’s plenty of detailed reading on the Vega around the web, both good points and bad. So given the Vega’s horrible reputation, was it really deserving of the 1971 Motor Trend Car of the Year Award?
I say, “Absolutely!”
Consider the following recognitions the Vega won in addition to the 1971 COTY:
1971, 1972, 1973: Car & Driver Reader’s Choice Poll: Best Economy Sedan (Vega)
1971, 1972, 1973: Car & Driver Reader’s Choice Poll: Best Super Coupe (Vega GT)
1973: Motor Trend Economy Car of the Year (Vega GT) “Vega was judged warm and comfortable, with a good finish.”
1974: Motor Trend named Vega one of the Top Ten Selling Cars
1975: Motor Trend chose the Vega as “One of the top 10 cars to own in a gas crisis.”
1975: Motor Trend achieved over 50 mpg from a specially outfitted “Super Vega” project car
Popular Science named the Vega “One of the easiest cars to service” in the early 1970s.
When you consider the times and what the Vega was competing against, (and the fact no one yet knew what issues were lurking under that front-hinged hood), the Vega really was a deserving choice. It had great styling that remains fresh to this day, excellent handling for an economy car, and fuel economy that rivaled that of the Beetle. When optioned correctly, it was really quite a nice-performing little car. Of course, optioned incorrectly all its shortcomings were immediately apparent.
Our family owned four Vegas (including a non-titled parts car), starting with the 1971 Notchback my Dad bought used in 1972. After being sideswiped by a drunk driver, the ’71 sat in the back yard all summer (when I wasn’t doing donuts in the field behind the house while Dad was away!), and was eventually put to rights by our high school’s auto repair class.
The “silver grey” ’73 GT Kammback was purchased used that same summer, with A/C and the Powerglide transmission –it was one slow puppy compared with the ’71, which had the optional four-speed Saginaw (the only option on that car!). The green ’72 Kammback above was probably purchased to capitalize on the growing knowledge we had for keeping these cars running.
The ’71 became my car during my senior year in high school, and though Dad had already rebuilt the engine once, at around 50K miles, it was belching oil smoke again at just over 80K miles—I used about a gallon of oil every two weeks and bought anti-fouling spark plug adapters by the gross! So, over Christmas break I drove both the ’71 and ’73 (which had been sidelined by an accident) up to the vocational school where Dad was now Director, and did my first-ever engine swap. Dad had rebuilt the ’73 engine with steel sleeves, and it proved to be pretty reliable for the rest of the time it was in the ’71.
The Vega proved to be a very flexible “platform” for my own interests, and you can see the results in the above photo: CB radio, check! 8-track player, check! Analog amplifier, check! “VEGA” key fob, check!
I had more fun than you can imagine with that CB radio and an under hood-mounted speaker—the photo shows how we decorated the car one Halloween (complete with a bat wing on the CB antenna on the trunk) and drove around “growling” at little kids in the neighborhood.
The summer before my final year in college, I decided to do another engine swap, this time to a Buick 3.8-litre V6. I had been in an accident that smashed up the driver’s side of the car (for the second time), so I figured a new engine wouldn’t be all that much more work (hah!).
Engine mounts came out of a junkyard V8 Monza (and bolted right in, thanks to the common platform), the original “postage stamp” radiator got swapped for one from an aluminum-block V8 Tempest, and the old 4-speed was replaced (after a bit of sledgehammer work) with a THM350 automatic. After a bit of sorting out, it proved to be very reliable and incredibly fast, despite being stock and rated at only 110 hp.
The interior was upgraded with a Vega GT dashboard, as well as a Recaro-designed front driver’s seat out of another junkyard Monza (the most comfortable auto seat I’ve ever sat in). I cut out the metal bulkhead behind the back seat and replaced the seat itself with one from a Kammback, so I could fold it down and have a “pass-through” trunk.
Finally, the car got a full respray, along with appropriate cosmetic bits to dress up the outside. I wish I could have afforded a turbo Buick, but I had to settle for painting on the logo instead.
My Dad taught me to keep logs of my vehicle mileage and expenses, and I still have a few of them left from the Vega. This one is from before the Buick swap, and even with a pretty aggressive driving technique, I was still getting 23+ mpg in Atlanta traffic. My all-time high was about 30 mpg on a long road trip.
By the time I graduated, I had put over 200,000 miles on the car, and had purchased a used ’82 Cavalier Type 10 hatchback (the J-body successor to the H-body). The Vega got used less often, and eventually was offered as a trade-in when I bought my first new car, a Suzuki Samarai.
Of all the cars I’ve owned over the years, only a few really got under my skin and became much more than a conveyance between work and home. My 1971 Vega is one of them. It was my first car, and the classroom in which I learned the skills of a mechanic, which continue to pay dividends to this day. I can still close my eyes and drift back to the days of black vinyl seats under a hot Georgia summer sun, tanned arm on the door, and a driving beat blaring out of the cheap 6×9 speakers in the back…
So yes: I, without hesitation, give my CCOTY 1971 nomination to the Vega. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was just what I (and eventually several million others) needed at the time.