Remember the Great Vega Hunt? Paul was looking for surviving, running, non-garage queen examples of Vegas with the original 2300 engine. This 1974 Chevrolet Vega I photographed in Washington Heights in Manhattan may just qualify.
You can split the lengthy run of the Chevrolet Vega into three phases: the slim-bumpered Vegas of 1971-73; the 1974-75 models with their restyled front and rear ends; and the 1976-77 models with their much-improved Dura-Built 140 engines. This ’74, therefore, has the heavier bumpers of the later cars but without their mechanical improvements.
For all their problems – and they were legion – the Vega was still a hot ticket in ’74 thanks to the oil crisis and ensuing high gas prices. 1974 proved to be the height of Vega popularity with 460,374 units produced. The following year, sales were slashed in half.
Part of that may have been the introduction of the Vega’s shapely Monza cousin but the Vega’s extensive recall record had also caught up with it. Despite having been on the market for a few years, the Vega still suffered from engine leaks, excessive oil consumption and overheating. For 1976, Chevrolet finally ushered in the extensively-tested and publicized Dura-Built and a much longer warranty but the damage had been done and sales had tumbled.
276,028 Vega hatchbacks were produced in 1974, outselling the notchback by 4-to-1 and the surprisingly popular kammback wagon by just over 2-to-1. Remarkably, the Vega managed to pull off 5-MPH bumpers rather well – it helped that they didn’t look merely stuck on, and that the Vega had been treated to a new front end design reminiscent of the ’74 Camaro. It took until 1977 for Ford to give the Pinto a visual refresh that better integrated the hulking big bumpers imposed on it by government regulations.
Though the Pinto was homelier than the Vega – and though it suffered issues of its own – the Ford outsold the Chevy in ’74, production totalling 544,209. The Pinto had consistently outsold the Vega though Ford had cause for alarm when the Pinto, too, suffered a huge sales decline for ’75. This was well before the famous Mother Jones article was published in which the little Ford was called a “firetrap”. Yes, domestic subcompacts were decidedly dire in the 1970s. It’s no wonder the Japanese were well on their way to dominating this and many other segments in North America.
What a pity GM had skimped on the engineering budget for the Vega as it was a pretty little thing and relatively fun-to-drive. For 1974, there was a wide range of Vegas to choose from including GT versions of the hatchback and kammback, a new, plusher notchback called the LX, a “wood”-panelled Estate wagon, and a delightfully incongruous Estate GT.
This example is just a regular ’74 hatchback with the optional three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic auto but the standard tune of the 140 cubic-inch four, producing 75 hp and 115 ft-lbs and using a 1-barrel carburettor. The GT models had a 2-barrel carb and produced 85 hp and 122 ft-lbs that year. The standard transmission was a three-speed manual but there was also a four-speed manual available. The two-speed Powerglide auto was gone by ’74.
Like unreliable Oldsmobiles killed diesels for Americans, did memories of self-destructing Vegas and self-immolating Pintos kill the image of hatchbacks? Hatchback Pintos and Vegas far outsold their booted brethren. Fast forward ten years from this Vega, however, and notchback Cavaliers, Stanzas, Camrys and Accords were outselling their moribund hatchback siblings.
This Vega was certainly a find. But when Paul conceived the Great Vega Hunt, he stipulated we should be looking for Vegas equipped with the original 2300 engine and ones that aren’t garage queens. With this Vega’s vanity plate and clean exterior, it looks a little too perfect (or about as perfect as a Vega can look). There may be a mismatched wheelcover but mark my words, this Vega is well taken care of and I doubt it’s ever parked on city streets for long or driven in the winter. No, this neat ’74 won’t win me the trophy for the Great Vega Hunt. Perhaps my next find will.
Photographed in Washington Heights, Manhattan in 2014.