The excitement for the 1971 Chevrolet Vega started a year early, with teaser ads showing all of the technology and design features. As an 18 year old, I was eagerly awaiting the introduction of the new Vega. What could possibly go wrong with such a thoroughly engineered and tested car? Not much I surmised. GM was a great car company and I was tired to Chrysler’s old design of the Duster. The bait was on the hook and I was ready to bite. The Little Car That Does Everything well. What could go wrong, this was Motor Trend magazine’s CAR OF THE YEAR!!! Before you answer that question, read further.
In June of 1971, I got my new Vega. Truly a stripper special car in red that cost $2,000 out the door. Nothing in options except an AM radio and a TorqueDrive automatic transmission. What’s a TorqueDrive? It was basically a Powerglide transmission that you had to manually shift from 1st to 2nd at about 20 MPH. Ford’s and Chrysler’s small cars had 3 speed automatics, but GM was still in the Powerglide lane. My sister was going to be using the car at times, so a stick was out of the question. The pictures below are what my car looked like in red.
The styling mimicked the Camaro and I still consider the styling to be attractive today 47 years later. It was much better looking than the Pinto and had better interior room. It also had the famous GM flow-through ventilation system with a perforated vent in the trunk lid. In theory, it was supposed to provide continuous ventilation in the cabin. In reality, you couldn’t tell the difference. The fan switch on the dash could never be turned off, only to the low position.
Mechanically, the new 2300 cc engine was an engineering marvel, with that silicone impregnated cylinder walls that eliminated the need for steel cylinder liners. Too bad that this technology was ahead of its time. Although I never had a problem with that aspect of the engine, many others experienced severe cylinder wall wear when the coating bid a premature adieu. Other competitive cars had a coolant recovery bottle, but, not the Vega. So I added an aftermarket one to resolve any potential problems. The only problem I had with the engine was the oil filter. The first time I went to change the oil, I could not get the filter off with an oil filter wrench. Finally had to stab it with a large screwdriver to get it off.
Body wise, the first signs of rust appeared on the top of the front fenders about a year after purchase. Hmmmm, what’s this I wondered. A couple of months later, it was quite obvious what it was. Then the lower fender started to repeat the process followed by the lower part of the rear quarter panels. My first experience with the joys on Bondo. Turns out that the boys at GM saved a few pennies on rust protection by not providing any. Still, the car was still performing well and looked good after Bondo repairs and paint. The TorqueDrive transmission never gave any problems, although passing anyone on a two lane road was fun. Maybe 20 minutes after you decided to pass, would you be able to complete the job. Ahhhh, life in the slow lane teaches you patience. Something an 18 year old doesn’t have a lot of.
The interior wore well, although the black vinyl seats were always toasty in the summer. The steering wheel continually leached plasticizer during the summer, forcing you to keep a rag handy under the seat to wipe it clean. The rear seat was somewhat comfortable, but had to get into.
In 1974, the car met its inglorious end. I had been asked by a neighbor to park in their driveway while they were on vacation so that the house looked lived in. Since the car did not have a temperature gauge, there was no way to tell if the engine was overheating. Overheat it did and warped something related to the head gasket. I would have said that the head warped, but this was a cast iron cylinder head on an aluminum block engine. That would have been highly unlikely. It managed to leave its mark on the driveway by belching oil on the driveway. I managed to get the car started and brought it back home. Then I had to go clean the neighbor’s driveway to remove the oil stains.
Dad took one look at the car and declared that it was done. My younger brother had been looking into a V8 conversion for the car, so it was donated to him. He found a Buick aluminum V8 (pictured below) from the early 60’s that fit along with an automatic transmission. The car had good power with the only downside being the shift pattern for the transmission was PNDLR not the PRNDL that the car came with. You had to keep that in mind every time you entered the car. It soon met its demise when the engine burned a piston and the car was scrapped. The junkyard kept asking if it had a V8 because if it did, they didn’t want it. The answer was NO and they took the car.
In the end, the Vega was the car that only did one thing well. It disintegrated so far so fast that as a three year old car, it was worth $0. The next car would be back to the future.