The Chevrolet Vega’s engine (CC here) became one of the all-time internal-combustion turkeys. Ironically, Chevy had an ad campaign going in advance of the Vega’s actual release date, extolling its high-tech alloys and other “delights”. Were they feeling a bit insecure already?
Beware Of False Prophets: Ironic Vega Engine Preview Ads
– Posted on November 23, 2011
Is it me, or does describing the Vega as a “little car” come across as patronizing?
Almost as though GM was saying, “Since you are unAmerican, or either too poor or too stupid to buy a real car, such as an Impala or even a Chevelle, we’ll make this little car for you until you come to your senses. And if it falls apart by 40,000 miles, that’s what you get for not buying an Impala.”
That’s exactly how new ’72 Pinto ownership made me feel. I’ll swear the whole thing was put together with sheet metal screws.
It made owning a ’77 Honda Civic CVCC 5-speed that much more satisfying.
The scary part is that my aunt’s 1977 Pinto sedan made a friend’s 1976 Vega sedan feel as though the Vega had been put together with sheet metal screws. Yikes!
‘Almost as though GM was saying, “Since you are unAmerican, or either too poor or too stupid to buy a real car, such as an Impala or even a Chevelle, we’ll make this little car for you until you come to your senses. And if it falls apart by 40,000 miles, that’s what you get for not buying an Impala.” ‘
That is, almost to the word, what a Goodwrench service writer told me. After my Shove-It had let a connecting rod fly.
There were three other Chevettes in the shop with engines out – even given that it was a big dealer; and the only Chevy store in town, those are unlikely odds. I made inquiries about any “hidden” warranty programs; and the smart-mouth service writer said: “No…nothing. But they all do that.”
“You shoulda bought an Impala.”
No, buddy, I thought, I shoulda done like the other guys at work did, and bought a Toyota. EFFFF…YOU!!!!
It was no surprise, in the end, that GM went down the drain. What surprised me was that it took so LONG…
How I remember those Chevy teaser ads!
There were a whole bunch, including one that announced the car’s name and why: because “Vega” was the brightest star in the constellation.
Another ad touted the Vega’s being shipped 90 degrees nose down in rail cars.
The theme was “The Little Car That Does Everything Well”.
Those ads were everywhere that summer of 1970. And I remember the Reynolds ad above as well, trying to add some third-party credibility to such a clean-sheet engine.
And I’m guessing the headline was a little tip-of-the-hat to Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’ 1966 album “Whipped Cream & Other Delights”…otherwise known as the soundtrack music for Chuck Barris’ “The Dating Game”…
Too bad Vega was the automotive equivalent of another Chuck Barris creation, “The Gong Show”.
As the first ad notes, the mention of Reynolds is because they developed the A390 alloy used for the block. The McLaren plug, on the other hand…
GM trying to surf on Bruce McLarens back they must have known it was a lemon years out from production so is this blame the Kiwi racer it was his idea.
Nah, they were not that clever.
To begin with, more research, more engineering know-how, and more technology went into the development of the Cruze Ecotec 1.4T engine than into any other production engine in our history.
“Because we have solved all of the problems we uncovered with the little 215 Olds V8 ten years ago.
Rover solved those problems GM gave up
There was NO problems with that 215V8, only moron owners as usual.
I beg to differ. My parents bought one of the first F-85s in 1961. The car ran hot from the time they bought it. Of course you couldn’t tell (because you got no temp gauge) until the red light came on. Which it did with some frequency. Many is the time I remember my mother pulling over, shutting it off and raising the hood so that we could sit for about 15 minutes and let the thing cool off a bit.
The only fix was to start running anti-freeze 12 months a year (not common then) but only because it raised the boiling point of the coolant. Even that was hit or miss. It was a disaster when my parents traveled to Florida one spring. A pump jockey popped the rad cap and all of the anti freeze spewed out all over everywhere. They waited 3 hours for someone to find some anti freeze in Florida before they could resume their trip.
This was all in a car that they finally dumped when it hit 3 years old. If we had lived in the south instead of in northern Indiana, it probably would not have been kept that long. So I have at least one data point to contest your moronic owner theory. The car probably had a helluva heater, though 🙂
Glad I went rotary……that RX3 will be around for hundreds and thousands of miles…..
It was either that or the secure feeling of a Pinto Runabout…..
I fell for the Vega promotions hook, line and sinker.
I wasn’t looking to buy a car; never even went to a dealer to look at them. But I wrote a glowing letter to GM praising them on finally producing a range of small cars that appeared to be real and not just a cardboard version of their bigger models.
Only letter I ever wrote to GM (maybe they used it in further hype).
Beware false letter writers who are too naive to do their own research.
I just got a ’72 Vega brochure and it’s amusing to read. Basically it says, “you waited a year, read all the reports and tests and all your friends have bought a Vega and love it, now you should get one because they’re so great!” The later Vegas weren’t too bad though. My aunt had a ’76 Estate wagon with the fake wood on the sides and she said it was very reliable. It really is too bad about the Vega, they were really nice looking, especially the wagons. It reminds me of the CC on the ’66 Toronado: technological advancement just for bragging rights, and the implementation was not thought through.
Yeah the later ones were better because of addition of the rugged old Iron Duke.
There was quite a cottage industry that grew up around this engine, first selling anti-fouling adapters for the spark plugs, then for fitting steel sleeves.
Once sleeved, mine was very reliable and easily nudged 30mpg on the highway. I swapped out for a GT head (slightly hotter cam), but kept the dirt-simple one-barrel carb, and added tuned headers and a glass pack (I should provide the context that I was a freshman at college at this point).
Being a Southern car, the only rust problems I had were around the window glass – it became a maintenance item to pull the glass every few years to clean and repaint.
I do remember us blowing the head gasket a year or two after Dad bought the car, but I never had cooling problems while it was mine, and I owned it from late 1979 until I used it as a trade-in around 1987 or so (Buick V6-powered by that point) with over 220,000 on the odo.
There are several thorough and excellent reviews around the internets of the development of the XP887 and its ‘engine-of-ill-repute.’
Great idea; dropped ball on execution…
I can’t pass it off as just new, undeveloped technology. For instance, there was the CAST IRON cylinder head. Now, cast iron and aluminum have entirely different expansion rates. And the heavy iron head put back much of the weight the aluminum block was supposed to not have.
And…once it was determined that Chevrolet was to be the recipient of this piece of corporate engineering – it was not done in any of the divisions – the Chevy boys went and came up with their own, aluminum head as an improvement. Corporate…said HELL, NO.
Many of the problems of the Vega were the problems of the rigid, dysfunctional bureaucracy that had come to be at GM.
I think I can say Amen to that as the once proud owner of several Nissan NapZ engines. IIRC the block was steel and the head was aluminum. They expand differently with heat. Not too much abuse (overheating is deadly) and they become an excellent boat anchor. The longest lasting one I had was in the 79 pickup. It was steel all through. 81 started the Z line and I have seen several cook with treatment my chevy would have treated as lightly as a little indigestion.
The Vega never got the Iron Duke, the Pontiac Astre did for ’77 though. I’ve never understood why the Vega didn’t just get the old Chevy II 153 cid four from the beginning – a proven engine of similar displacement on the shelf.
According to John DeLorean, Chevy had developed an all-new small cast-iron four, but that Ed Cole insisted on the aluminum engine (which was designed by the corporate Engineering Staff, not the division). The linerless block was something GM had been toying with for a while — the stillborn Cadillac OHC V-12 was slated for something comparable, although I’m not sure if the Accura-Rad process used for that engine was the same as the alloy and manufacturing process as the Vega.
Vega NEVER got the Iron Duke and neither did boats!
Unfortunately they didn’t quite have the metallurgy sorted out on their aluminum blocks. They used an alloy with so much silicon in it that the silicon would come out of solution, and in theory would produce a hard surface for the pistons to ride on. Well, maybe there were too many spaces between the hard lumps of silicon, I don’t know, but it didn’t work. Between the resulting oil consumption and the aluminum block’s inability to survive for long when run low on water, the car’s bad reputation was sealed almost immediately. I remember reading that Porsche did more development work on the high-silicon aluminum alloy metallurgy and was more successful – don’t remember though which Porsche engines the alloy was used in.
If you’ve ever seen a 944 or 968, they had the “Vega” engine setup with the liner-less aluminum block. The idea was sound, but again the execution was off…
My 924S (944 engine) is 24 years old and has 127K on the clock. The engine’s still solid, I check the oil regularly, it uses about a pint in 2-3000 miles. So far, no complaints.
One wonders why GM made such a fuss over the Vega’s aluminum block, yet turned around and used cast iron for the heads. That had to do wonders for the engine’s tendency to shake violently, not to mention the vehicle’s overall center of gravity. How differently would things have turned out had the decision been made to take the more conventional approach of cast iron block and aluminum heads?
Worse still, the same mistake was repeated in 1983 with Cadillac’s infamous “HT4100” engine, which was also notorious for oil leaks and an early death if overheated…
The Cosworth Vega engine did end up with aluminum heads — DOHC 16V heads, at that. There’s a whole other saga…
I love to listen to all the bleating about the Vega. A ’73 Vega was my first modern car (I’d been using a ’37 Buick Special as a summer driver up to that point). Now, I ended up with that as a college graduation gift because dad (an ex-Chevy dealer) wouldn’t consider an MGB or Fiat 124.
I considered it a very good car. Kept it for three years and 45,000 miles (in our family, back then, you traded in every three years for a new one). Ran it all three seasons in SCCA B Sedan autocross on the local level (Presque Isle region PA), never to any great shakes. Then again, when the guys from The Autocross Group in Pittsburgh came up with a BMW 2002 and 1600 with heavy suspension modifications, everybody else was racing for third. And the one time that TAG didn’t show up, the B Sedan podium was Vega GT, 2.0 Pinto, Vega GT (mine) – and the ‘official’ autocross for season points was rescheduled for the following weekend, and we were given cheap ass trophies, patted on the head, and were told to come back the following weekend to try ourselves against the big boys.
I haven’t had anything to do with the SCCA since. They really couldn’t stand all those American cars that showed up to run, but they needed our entry fees.
I have very fond memories of that car. Admittedly, had I attempted to get a fourth year out of it, I’d have probably had somewhat different memories later. I noticed a wisp of smoke from the exhaust when I traded it in . . . . . on a ’76 Monza 2+2. Which was also a very enjoyable, reliable car (four cylinder, 5 speed). And meanwhile, dad had picked up a year old ’76 Vega hatchback (Iron Duke, automatic) that gave him decent if lackluster service for the four years he kept it.
No, it was the fourth visit to the well that finally bit back. A ’79 Monza Kammback wagon (V-6, five speed). Easily the worst car I ever owned as far as mechanical niggles, but still a wonderful driving car (I’d ordered it with every suspension option available, was attempting to build a sport wagon but GM cancelled the fully instrumented dash on me without warning shipping the car with the standard speed/gas gauge). Just the same, for ’82 I discovered Dodge and that covered me for the next twelve years.
So, sorry guys. While I can easily see the Vega as a seriously flawed car, personal experience is definitely not in the Austin Marina, Plymouth Volare, etc. category.
I had a good friend in college who raced SCCA in his Vega hatch. He discovered if you popped the hood (hinged at the front of the car), it would rise about 6″, and the car would settle down with much better downforce, thus better handling.
I had the sedan (notchback), and it was an excellent handling car. I did do some tweaking to the suspension over the years, and out-hooned both a 2002 and an Audi Quattro in ‘vigorous’ street and highway encounters, and after the 3.8L transplant, left a Maserati driver with a very surprised look on his face one afternoon on the way back to town after viewing races at Road Atlanta.
Maybe it was just because it was my first car, but by certain metrics, it was one of the most fun cars I’ve owned over the past three-plus decades.
You got it. The Vega was probably the best handling little car available back then (remember the year Car and Driver won the Showroom Stock race with the ’74?). Putting a conventionally engineered 1.5-2.0 liter OHC or DOHC engine under the hood would have created something of a world beater, or at least American competition beater. I absolutely adored mine. The only complaint I had was that I saved dad a bit of money and stuck with the standard interior – which taught me to never again buy a GM car with the base interior.
@ syke: Was that not a Nova evolved four cylinder engine in the Monza. I had the misfortune of buying a 77 starfire. I seem to remember hearing about options in it’s cousins while conducting last rites on the Starfire 231 that caught on fire.
Memory fades with the hair but if I remember correctly that Monza 4 was a pretty good engine and not aluminum.
Yep, the forever and a day Iron Duke. It ran alright both in my Monza and dad’s Vega.
My big complaint about the Monza is that while my Vega could be made to act like a sport sedan, the Monza wasn’t capable of anything more than a grand tourer. It was too heavy and sluggish for autocross, but I had a good time rallying it for it’s three year stint in the garage. It didn’t get used for autosport more than that, although partially because I’d gotten my first motorcycle in ’76, and was in the first steps of my next 32 year obsession (I still ride, but not as much as I used to).
Yeah, the Iron Duke was good old conservative technology: cast iron block, cast iron head (I’m fairly certain but could be mistaken), and OHV. Which is why it worked . . . . . . unspectacularly.
Anyone who autocrosses is undoubtedly meticulous about maintaining coolant and oil levels-Something most people don’t do. In light of the cast-iron, neglect-resistant engines of the day, this type of indifference wasn’t seen as a great sin.
My uncle told me that back when they were new, he really wanted a Vega GT wagon. His first car actually wound up being a plain-jane 1971 Mustang fastback. Later on, when he met my future aunt, she had a ’76 Vega Estate that was a pretty good car.
The Kammback was the best of the line. I went thru the ’70’s with a father who was still determined that we were going to remain a Chevrolet family (the first two cars were graduation gifts, he provided the loan for the third). As I was somewhat enamored with the Volvo P1800 sport wagon, it was my attempt on the ’79 Monza to take the Chevrolet parts bin and build an equivalent.
I picked the V-6, five speed, GT dash, wide tyres, heavy suspension option. It started to go wrong when GM decided that the GT dash would only be available on the 4 and V-8, didn’t notify the dealer, and shipped me the car with the standard speedo/fuel gauge combination. Within three weeks the carburetor had started acting up, almost stranding me and my fiancee outside of the movie theatre. By the winter of 79/80 the paint on the lower body started to flake off.
By the summer of 80, I’d gotten all the problems taken care of, but was completely disillusioned with the car, even though it was an excellent handler and not a bad driver. The V-6 had fairly good power for it’s size. Just then same, I started looking at other brands for my planned ’82 car. To hell with family tradition and loyalty. Plus I was married at that point and no longer under the family thumb.
Only to have my father show up with an ’81 Dodge Omni! Great, he’ll forcibly limits my choices in car, but allows himself all the freedom he wants. Probably decided he didn’t want to troublesome turkey like the one he stuck me with.
Next cars were: ’82 Omni, ’85 Caravan C/V, ’79 Ford Fiesta S, ’82 Ford Escort GT with the Michelin tyre option. Didn’t have another Chevy until I bought a used S-10 in 2000.
The final laugh was seeing that Monza sitting on the Dodge dealer’s used lot for 25 months (no joke) after I traded it in on the Omni. At that point, I was looking for something used so we could go back to two cars, and was almost tempted to give him a lowball offer on the car. Better the devil you know . . .
A neigh bor had the first Vega I ever saw, Army Green…. It was so ugly, I couldnt believe when he bragged that it was 500 cheaper even than an Impala! Can you imagine pickin the Vega in 1971 was it? The Impalas were like Coupe Devilles in those days relatively. But at Chevy prices, u could go all out on a Caprice but Impala was the sweet spot.
i WAS nOT iMPRESSED AS AN 11 YEAR OLD. i THINK HE HAD TOTALLED A 1968 cUTLASS prior to gettin the vega. The Idea was Hed Be more careful if his life depended on it. He Had it For A Long Time . Actually traded it in on a (lemme Consult FBook…)NM