COAL: 1973 Vega GT – Were They Really That Bad?

Vega 1973 gt fq sm

Hi, my name is Joe and I’m a (former) Vega owner. When I sold my VW Super Beetle in the spring of 1974 I purchased a lightly used (11K miles) 1973 Vega GT (still couldn’t afford that 240Z). I had been a faithful reader of the “car buff” magazines for a good number of years, and I knew all about the Vega’s reputation for marginal build quality and oil consumption. Being young and dumb I didn’t care; if you squinted hard enough the Vega, especially the hatch back, it looked enough like a three quarter scale Camaro to be appealing.

Vega 1973 gt int

The little Chevy certainly was more fun to drive than its VW predecessor, it handled a lot better and, while not really fast, was quick enough to at least keep up with traffic. With the Vega GT you got the “high output” version of the 2.3 liter four and the four speed transmission. You also got the fancy instrument panel with a tachometer and more gauges than the standard speedo/gas gauge that was the norm on lesser Vegas. Ironically the only gauge not included in the package was one for oil pressure, the one instrument that would have been most beneficial in the long run.

Vega 1973 GT curve

Despite a few flaws I found the Vega very entertaining to drive; it was relatively light and it handled well enough, especially considering the relative lack of power. The little car was at its best on a winding road, one where you could maintain your speed between 35-65 MPH. Using second and third gears this allowed one to keep the engine in its sweet spot, not so slow that it would bog and not so fast that the four cylinder thrash became an issue. The biggest problem was the gear spacing in the four speed; there was a tremendous gap between 1st and 2nd gears. You could wind the engine to the red line in first, shift as hard and as quickly as possible to second, and the engine would still bog down. If any vehicle ever cried out for a good five (or even six) speed transmission it was the Vega.

In the beginning oil consumption was not a particular issue. At first the Vega was using a quart of oil every 500-600 miles; that was right in line with several of the cars I had owned before so I thought little of it. In any case oil was cheap then so I just carried a few quarts with me and added more oil as necessary. As time went on the oil consumption did increase but it was still not that bothersome to me, I just added oil when needed. In any case I couldn’t really afford to have the problem taken care of so I learned to deal with it and moved on.

By this time my personal life was in somewhat of a mess. I had gotten tired of working 65-70 hours a week in the fried chicken restaurant so I had moved back to my home town in order to return to school. As it happened the place where I ended up living was about 40 miles from the college campus which meant a lot of driving for me. The only job I could find was working third shift in a convenience store that was about half-way between my house and school. I would get off work at 7:00 AM, drive the 20 miles to school, sit through my classes, and then have to drive the 40 miles home around noon. In theory I would then try to study before going to bed but I was usually so tired that I just crashed when I got home. Most days I would end up sleeping until time to go work so not much studying ever got done. As a bonus I had no social life; nearly all of the people I knew growing up had either gone away to school and not returned, were married, or both. After a couple of months of this I knew that I had to make some changes to keep from going crazy.

After giving the matter some thought I decided to join the Air Force; I would get away from my home town, have a steady (if minimal) income and maybe even learn a marketable skill. By this time the Vega had accumulated some 35,000 miles, thanks to my 80 mile/day commute and various side trips. It was probably grateful for the down time while I went to basic training and then technical training school. The car sat at my dad’s house from February, 1975 until that July. In theory my father was supposed to drive the Vega occasionally to keep everything working but I suspect after his initial trip in the little beast it stayed parked. By 1975 my father was long past the point where he wanted to shift gears for himself or drive a car where he was sitting only a few inches above the ground.

CC 132 174 800

After completing my Air Force training I returned home on leave and started to prepare the Vega for its cross country trip to California. By now the Vega’s oil usage had reached a quart every 200 miles; which meant that each tank of gas required topping up the crankcase with oil. To better monitor the oil situation I bought and installed an oil pressure gauge to supplement the warning light. Being congenitally cheap I purchased the least expensive gauge I could find. Naturally this was a mistake as it came with a plastic oil line instead of copper; a couple of days after installation the plastic line blew off the fitting, spraying oil all over the engine. Fortunately the resulting smoke alerted me to the problem and I shut it down before losing too much oil. My friend and I took the fitting off and reinstalled the oil line, thinking we had fixed the problem. I drove around town for a week or so without the line blowing off so I thought I was good to go.

Then the day came for me to start on the trip to my duty station, Travis AFB, California. I had to be there on a Thursday so my plan was to leave on the previous Friday, and then proceed by easy stages to the west coast. That fateful Friday I got up, loaded the Vega with what I needed (clothes, books and records mostly) and headed west. I made it almost all the way to the Illinois state line, less than an hour away, before the oil line blew loose again. The good news was that I was at an exit and was able to coast off the interstate and out of harm’s way. The bad news was that this was long before cell phones and I ended up spending a small fortune on phone calls trying to find someone to come and rescue me. Of course since it was Friday morning everyone was at work; after several hours I finally reached the wife of the guy who had helped me install the gauge to begin with. When he did get off work that afternoon he brought some copper tubing and some more fittings and after some effort, we were able to fab up something that would hold.

Vega 1973 gt rq

Once I did back on the road things were uneventful and the cobbled together oil pressure gauge and fitting held. About halfway across Kansas, I got too sleepy to safely continue. I pulled into a rest area off of I70 and just crashed. I was able to rearrange my stuff so that at least I could lie down in the back of the car, even if it wasn’t especially comfortable. I managed a few hours of sleep before the rain came and I had to shut the windows; the resultant stuffiness made further sleep impossible so I just sat in the front seat until dawn. When the sun came up I found a place to eat breakfast and resumed my journey west.

The remainder of the trip to California was mostly uneventful. I had never been west of St. Louis before and driving across Wyoming, Utah and Nevada I started to realize just how big (and empty) the United States are. A couple of things stand out from this trip; one, driving west the driver’s side of the car is on the south. As a result it is very easy for the driver’s left arm to acquire a nasty sunburn; I eventually resorted to wrapping a towel around my left arm. The other thing that stood out was that people in the west didn’t pay much attention to the 55 MPH speed limit that was the law then. Driving across Nevada going 65-70, about as fast as I would trust the Vega, I saw a black speck in the rear view mirror. When it got closer I could tell that it was a Nevada state police car; he passed me at a high rate of speed and never even glanced at me.

I made it to California and settled into a daily routine. The Vega continued to use more and more oil; when the consumption reached a quart every 100 miles I knew I had to do something. I researched having the motor rebuilt but the cost was out of reach on my budget. I was contemplating the best way to get rid of the little beast when a buddy bought it from me. Bob had just gotten married, was on orders to Germany, and wanted a relatively economical car to have there. He ended up spending around $1500 having the engine rebuilt, getting the seats recovered and installing a high quality stereo system. The Vega did make it to Europe but came to an untimely end; about six weeks after it arrived someone ran a stop sign and crushed the passenger side. No one was hurt but the car was no longer roadworthy and had to be scrapped. I would certainly never buy one today but it would be fun to drive a Vega on a sunny afternoon and run up and down through the gears.