Automotive History: The Many Faces of the GM H-Body

(first posted 1/28/2013)      The Chevrolet Vega’s genesis goes back to the fall of 1959, a point in time up to which the compact car market was primarily served by imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle and a few domestics, including the Studebaker Lark and Rambler American. The Big Three saw an opportunity and jumped into the market in 1960 with the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant, all of which saw some levels of success.

By the end of the decade, the Studebaker and Rambler marques were effectively gone from the US Market, and cars like the Chevrolet Nova, Ford Maverick and AMC Hornet, while deemed “compacts,” were really only small versions of traditional mid-size cars designed to seat six. Powertrains may have started with thrifty four and six-cylinder engines, but V8 engines were also on tap. These were certainly not the compacts of a decade previous, and it was becoming evident that there was a new opportunity in the true subcompact car space.

By the mid-1960s, both Chevrolet and Pontiac had small car concepts on the boards, but Ed Cole, then GM Executive Vice-President, had also started a small car development program using GM’s corporate engineering and design staff, which was presented for review by Chairman James Roche in 1967. As interest in moving forward with a sub-compact grew, Cole’s design was chosen over the Chevrolet and Pontiac Design Studio concepts, making the Vega the first car at General Motors to be a “corporate” car as opposed to a divisional one, a move which was not well received by the staff at Chevrolet Division.

Meanwhile, John DeLorean had been reassigned from head of Pontiac Division to the Chevrolet Division, which was behind schedule on the 1970 Camaro, Nova and Corvette, and was also bleeding from fallout over bad publicity on the Corvair. DeLorean played by his own rules, which rankled many at GM, but he was also an effective manager, and made dramatic improvements at Chevrolet in short order.

In the middle of all those challenges sat Vega. The car was already on the “prime path” to production, so other than making a few tweaks here and there, and implementing a rigorous quality inspection routine, DeLorean really couldn’t hope to do more—Vega would have to ship “as-is.”

 A series of teaser ads led up to the launch of Vega in September, 1970, and initially, four variants of the H-body were available. While the Notchback sedan and Kammback wagons shared rooflines (and thus doors and other components), the more popular Hatchback had a lower roofline and shared a fold-down rear seat with the Kammback. The cars were identical from the cowl forward. The Panel Express model (CC here) was a bit of an odd duck—basically a stripper with only a driver’s seat and steel panels in place of the rear quarter lites, it was designed to be a light delivery truck, and if my memory is correct, was actually listed in Chevrolet’s literature as a truck, not a car. This variant represented about 2% of H-body production.

A GT version of Vega could be ordered, which brought a little more power (110hp vs. 90) through use of a two-barrel carburetor and slightly “warmer” cam grind, along with full instrumentation on the dash.

All Vegas were designed to be transported vertically on specially-designed rail cars which could hold 30 cars instead of the 18 a standard auto carrier held.

DeLorean and Chevrolet Division were still trying to make Vega into something worthy of all the hype, and in 1972 built a prototype with an aluminum-block V8, which ran sub-14 second quarter miles as tested by Hot Rod Magazine. It was not to be, however, repeating the rejection Chevrolet Divisions had experienced in 1968, which its own in-house engine design with an aluminum head (shown above in the XP-898 concept car which utilized many Vega components) was passed over for the cast iron head engine used in production.

In 1973, Vega was lengthened slightly by adding three inches between the front bumper and grill (with a steel filler panel to improve the aesthetics). 1973 would also bring the introduction of the Pontiac Astre to Canadian markets. Astre is French for “star,” a play on Vega’s name. Astre would be offered in the same configurations as Vega, only with the Kammback being called the Safari and an SJ trim level topping out the options list.

1974 and federal regulations brought a fairly substantial restyle to the growing H-body line due to the 5mph bumper mandate.

Astre’s taillights adopted the Firebird’s from that model year as well.

In February, 1974, calendar-challenged GM launched the Spirit of America special edition Vega, essentially a paint and decal package, presumably intended to capitalize on the upcoming American Bicentennial.

Around this time, GM was pressing ahead with plans for a rotary-engined Vega, but as more and more problems surfaced, including rising gasoline prices, it became obvious that the rotary was a dead end as an option in an economy sub-compact car.

1975 would bring some fun options to the H-body offerings, starting with the Pontiac Astre L’il Wide Track option, designed to spice up sales a bit.

Chevrolet, after missing its initial deadline, would also finally introduce the Cosworth Vega in 1975.

The Panel Express was dropped from the option list at the end of the 1975 model year, and the Monza was introduced alongside the Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Starfire.

Things got really confusing with the Pontiacs, as you had the Astre in 1975, which was still based on the Vega design. 1976 brought the Sunbird, and either my search-fu is off, or it appears the initial Sunbirds were also Vega-derived.

To make things even more confusing, the Sunbird wagon continued to use the Vega Kammback design up through 1979.

1976 saw the cancellation of the Cosworth Vega, and the introduction of the limited-edition Nomad Wagon (note the restyled rear quarter window treatment).

Not wanting to miss out on the Broughamification of America™, the Vega Cabriolet Notchback was tarted up a bit to fit the bill.

Little changed in 1977 as the original H-body cars were phased out, the Monza and derivatives having taken the baton by this point. Remaining Vega components were used up by offering a Monza “S” version in 1980—it was essentially a stripped-down Vega with a restyled grill.

Monza was offered in several trim options for 1977, including the Mirage (shown) and Spyder (in either the Z01 Package, which had some hardware upgrades, or the Z02 Appearance Package). Base engines were still the Durabilt four, but an optional 145hp 305 c.i.d. V8 could also be ordered.

1979 brought a restyled grill to all Monza models except the 2+2, and was the final production year for the H-body, after a total of around four million vehicles produced for all makes, models and variants.

After a two-year hiatus, Chevrolet would introduce the successor to the H-body platform, the Chevrolet Cavalier and its four brand siblings. The J-body would be in production for over twenty years with well over 10 million units produced.

One could effectively come to the conclusion then, that the H-body experiment was GM’s “practice run” for the sub-compact car market. They truly did hit the mark in several areas (styling, handling, decent price and economy), but were hobbled by the end results of corporate politics and cost-cutting, which resulted in the Vega in particular receiving such a black eye that it never really recovered, despite having become a decent quality car by the end of its run. Monza and its siblings of course benefited from all that (and one can’t help but wonder if the name and styling change were intended as a move to slowly back away from Vega’s reputation).

The H-body platform turned out to be highly flexible, supporting a wide range of engines and stylistic variants, which were effective in keeping the sales numbers reasonably high, and for a decently-long production run as well.

GM, emboldened by its success with the H-body experiment, would press on with renewed energy, to the point where the J-body cars truly were “badge engineered” without regard to brand promise and expectations (Cimarron by Cadillac, I’m looking at you).

GM in the 1960s created some pretty wild and unique cars, and the brands still stood for something. The 1970s were the H-body decade, and it’s obvious to us now (hindsight being 20-20) that perhaps it was Ed Cole’s decision of 1968 to pursue a common-platform “corporate car” that indeed was the very moment that GM changed paths and truly started the decline that eventually killed the company.