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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two words: beautiful nightmare..
So what was the cause of the oil consumption. Prem wear in the rings ?
It was the aluminum block, without cylinder liners that were causing problems. With today’s coatings, it’s OK, but back then, not so much!
The primary problem was that started engine problems was that GM fitted a too-small radiator (penny-pinching), so that when the engine got a bit hot (not even actual overheating), the open-deck aluminum block warped slightly, leading to premature oil burning, as the cylinders were no longer true. Also, the valve stem seals were feeble, which also caused oil consumption.
There were other weaknesses too. But Chevrolet addressed them, and when the “Dura-Built 140” version came out in 1976, with a revised block with larger cooling passages, better valve stem seals, redesigned head, quieter valve lifters, new water pump, thermostat and a few other changes, it resolved pretty much all of the problems, although it still ran roughly.
The Nikasil treated aluminum bores were a first, but soon adopted by many other manufacturers, and have become ubiquitous. They probably would have been ok in the Vega if the other issues had been properly addressed.
I really like the looks of the early Vegas. Too bad they weren’t good cars!
That orange one in your pictures, Joe, is like my dream Vega, if there is such a thing.
Those engines, in addition to being half-baked, were pretty hideous. No wonder so many people went the small block route, although I did see one with a Buick 215.
Is this family of the Opel Manta ?
The Opel Manta/1900 was the car the Vega should had been.
I owned two of ’em; I should know.
Sadly, no. It didn’t share anything of importance with them, having an ill-conceived aluminum block, iron head engine of awful refinement and short life. The platform is unique too, with rust issues relating to its novel assembly and painting process. I don’t know if any of the axle, hub or brake components were shared with Opel, but there was enough that wasn’t for the Vegas to have one of the worst reputations of any mainstream car ever sold in the US.
I once owned a 72 Vega Panel Express the same orange as the car here. Vegas used the manual transmissions from Opel, IIRC.
My Vega had the “high output” engine, 4 speed transmission, and no other options so that it had just a driver’s seat and a sticker price of $2,400.
No. Nothing shared with the Opel Ascona/Manta except the manual transmission for the first two years.
Here’s the full story on the Opel/Vega relationship: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1975-opel-1900-ascona-what-the-vega-could-have-been/
Always liked the looks of the Early Vegas, especially the GT. However, working in a gas station in the late 70’s, I saw way too many pass by pumping smoke out of the exhaust pipe.
Once word got out, a whole generation of baby boomers jumped from the GM ship and moved to the Asian imports.
I have 3 memories of the Vega from my teens.
1)My boss bought a new 2-dr panel delivery wagon in that same burnt orange color. It was merely a wagon w/o the rear side glass. A salesman at heart & having no mechanical ability, he immediately broke the gear shifter as he didn’t know he needed to lift the lever below the knob to access reverse.
2) One morning, the car’s horn just started BLARING, while parked, with no one in it. I ran out, popped the hood & ripped one of the battery cables off.
3)An acquaintance who received an inheritance (at age18) purchased a new Black Cosworth Vega (weren’t they all black?). Being a pot smoking, juvenile delinquent, HE, immediately beat the snots out of that Cosworth. I remember burnouts & driving down twisty’s faster than the car could handle the corners. I’m lucky to be alive! I don’t remember how long the Cosworth lasted?
This is the first I’ve heard of a Cosworth Vega being driven! It often seems like all the people that “bought one Vega for the price of two!” stuck them in storage from day one, waiting for a value increase that won’t come until tornadoes have destroyed 90% of them.
A Panel Express wasn’t “….merely a station wagon with the rear windows blanked out”. The Panel Express had only a driver’s seat as standard, the front passenger seat was an optional extra. Behind the front seat (s) was an enclosed bin with an access door where the passenger seat would have gone, so that the load floor extended nearly to the back of the front seats. It wasn’t lockable unless the owner made his/her own arrangements.
When I was living in Europe in 1984, this sort of van was quite popular. I think there were tax advantages for such commercial vehicles without back seats or windows, so Ford made one out of a Fiesta, Austin had a Metro van, and Opel had a Corsa van.
Compact panel vans are still very popular throughout Europe. Indeed, commercial vehicles, just like all their bigger family members.
All monospace designs nowadays, like the current VW Caddy and Peugeot Partner (and many others). But back then you could easily recognize the car model on which the panel van was based, like the Opel Kadett E Combo from the eighties below.
You can still get Fiesta and Corsa vans like that, but as Johannes says, the slightly bigger ones don’t have a car front end any more.
Edited to say “Opel Kadett E Combo” is a crap name. 😉 We had “Bedford Astramax”. Sounds like an off the shelf medicine.
New Fiesta and Corsa vans ? As far as I know the smallest Ford panel van these days is the Ford Transit Courier, another monospace. And the compact Opel Combo panel van is a rebadged Fiat Doblo.
The E in Opel Kadett E Combo is only referring to the Kadett E generation. The panel van was known and sold as the Opel Kadett Combo in its days.
I still stand by Astramax! Will cure your migraine in seconds!
Dunno about the Netherlands, but we certainly get Fiesta and Corsa vans here. (and maybe others?)
Wow. 12 grand.
The cargo compartment of that Corsa van is way too small for a commercial vehicle registration here. Many years ago we also had that kind of vans though, based on B- and C-segment hatchbacks.
The cargo compartment of a van or pickup has to meet certain minimum dimensions, otherwise no registration as a commercial vehicle. Exit small hatchbacks without rear seats and with blinded rear side windows.
I worked for an alarm company in 1974 that had 2 of these panel vans, both were powerglides. They were ’71 or ’72 models, and had been sitting in the storage lot for quite a while. Both had about 35-40k miles on them and both had dead engines. They were replaced with Valiants with slant 6 engines, they were durable.
What a strange looking engine…the spark plugs are SO low.
They called it the smallest tallest engine. I had one in a 75 Monza 2+2, easy to work on, but it usually needed to be.
That garden shed is a valve cover?
It has been said on this site numerous time but I am compelled to repeat: If GM had done proper R&D and had been aiming for top quality the Vega could have been a super product for them. If, if, if…..
It’s amazing though that in spite of the Vegas horrible reputation, today they are very expensive to purchase because everyone assumes your going to hot rod it. I can literally buy 3 Pintos for what most people around here want for a junked non-running Vega. That always discouraged me from buying one even though I would love to have one to compare to my two 78 Pintos I own today. In spite of being a true blue Ford fan ( of my current 16 car collection only one is a Chevy) I have always felt the Vega was better looking and had a nicer dash layout than my Pintos.
The higher price is also because of scarcity due to engine failures. Pintos weren’t better in many ways, but they had sound engines. The only Vegas on the road in the ’80s were the Vega-bodied Monza wagons and similar clones with Iron Duke pushrod engines. Pintos soldiered on at the bottom of the used car barrel for about a decade longer than aluminum block Vegas ran.
I think during the late 70s, they put the Iron Dukes in the Vegas , which makes me wonder why they didn’t use them in the 1st place. They were used in GM compact cars in the 60s, like the Tempest and Nova. My brother almost bought the Pontiac Astra, which was the Canadian version of the Vega. he didn’t like the lack of power at low rpms.
The Nova actually had a Chevrolet 4 cylinder engine displacing 153 ci instead of the Pontiac Iron Duke. The Iron Duke entered production in 1977, so it was actually a later development than the Vega engine or the Pontiac Trophy/Indy 4 that powered the Tempest. It’s funny that GM/Pontiac went back to what they’d done almost twenty years earlier to create a four cylinder that could reliably power their downsized cars.
The Vega never got the Iron Duke. Starting in 1976, the Vega got a much-improved version of its engine, the “Dura-Built 140”. The Vega offshoots (Monza, etc) got the Iron Duke.
Yes. My point was that the surviving cars which looked like Vegas in the ’80s were actually Vega-bodied Monzas with Iron Duke engines instead of Dura-Built 140 powered Vegas and Astres.
The best Vega ever built.
As much as early engine failures “killed” many (most?) Vegas prematurely, rust has been the worst of ANY car built in the U.S. in the 70s.
BTW, for whatever reason (rarity, styling, handling), Chevys are usually more expensive than their Ford counterpart.
Yes it’s true most Chevys sell for more than Fords, but when I can buy a nice non rusted DD Pinto for $400 that I then drive completely trouble free (i.e. no breakdowns at all) for 8 years starting in 1998, and then I find a Vega shell that the red neck owner wants $3000 for because of the small block swap mania, I have a serious problem with that. A very serious problem. Rarity does not a car value make. I mean I have a 75 Comet 4 door that is one of only 388 built that year with the 200/manual transmission ( out of 31,080 built) and out of those 388, it’s the ONLY one ordered with factory AC. That does not make it valuable. That makes it worth the $500 I paid for it back in August 2000. Same goes for Vegas in my opinion.
With the Vegas, I think that it’s probably the scarcity of them, and also the small block swap mania. As bad of quality control that Vegas had, with the lightweight nature of the cars, that’s why they’re desirable. Plus, in some weird way, I think that people want to make those non-fast (but sporty and fun) cars serious muscle machines, which takes a bit of insanity and committment.
Not the only ones. A neighbor of ours sometime in the ’84 to ’86 timeframe had a Vega wagon; I specifically remember it being badged “Vega”. Rode in that several times as he had a daughter around my own age, though I don’t recall much about it other than it sometimes stalling at traffic lights. I suppose it likely had the dura-built engine rather than the original; I do know it was ’74 or newer with the sloped header panel.
They were rare, though, to be sure.
I had a Vega GT. Right on cue the oil burning began at 29K. So I took it to Motiom Performance (yes THE Motion performance). “$450totebuild, $550 to rebuild with cast iron sleeves.” . I went for the $550 and the car ran like a top as the body rusted away around me, but it was great while it lasted
Nice to know there’s someone else who doesn’t immediately fall into the automatic “worst car ever with absolutely no redeeming values” camp. My Vega GT hatchback (silver with the black stripe, as were probably 85% of the GT’s) was a graduation gift from my father, having finally completed my bachelor’s degree and given him reason to start feeling optimistic again. It stickered at $2300.00, which got you the GT package, standard interior (not going for the upgraded interior was a big mistake), AM/FM radio and floor mats.
It was what I came up with under my father’s restrictions (“any car you want as long as its a Chevy, but not a Corvette”), and what I really wanted was an MGB or Fiat 124.
Yes, by the end of three years it was using oil, and I traded it in on a Monza 2+2, but in those three years:
I ran three seasons of Misery Bay Region SCCA autocross.
Ran a couple of sprints at Nelson’s Ledges (sprints were one car on the track at a time against the clock, the closest you could come to real racing without a competition license).
A hell of a lot of rallying, which weren’t the nice Sunday sunshine-and-a-picnic-basket events. The way we drove was more like what we know as rallying today.
Plus the usual hooning expected from someone in their early twenties who was still making up for being about six years behind the curve in emotional development. Which included wrecking it once while running a stop sign.
As far as I’m concerned, that Vega was a damned good car, engine shortcomings nonwithstanding. I certainly did the number for me, and I’ll always remember it fondly
The Vega’s redeeming quality is that it looked Italian before they added crash bumpers. I think the first ones were gorgeous, and I remember seeing them all over the sides of the interstates when going on family trips as a child. I still wanted one, but I couldn’t find a single example of a 2300-powered Vega in running condition when car shopping in 1985. There were plenty of Pintos and Valiants around at the time.
I read that whole article–great read! There wasn’t really a clear winner or loser between the two; both had their good points and bad ones. I had a good laugh at the reviewer’s remark on the Vega’s “fruity sounding exhaust”, hahaha.
Growing up in western New York, pretty much all Vegas in the area, developed total rust out of the front fenders right above where the GT emblem is located on the featured car. They also had a dark oily soot all over the rear end from burning so much oil. When they first came out, they were my dream car (13 years old at the time). By the time I got my license, I could have easily bought one with high school part time job money, but realized that after a few winters the available examples were too far gone to be fixer-uppers.
I did have a buddy with a metallic green GT with a 327 shoehorned into the engine bay. It was crude, poorly done, but it was a screamer.
A friend of mine bought a new ’74 GT “wagon-type” (panel truck with windows, for lack of a better term); several of us__5 or 6 anyway__rode in out to Kent Lake and on the way home, the clutch had completely failed. No matter what gear you were in, and you could feel the spring action of the pressure plate, the car just sat there. And then it started to smoke & smell of the burnt disc. Having just been delivered a few days before, it only had 600 (SIX HUNDRED) miles on it. Yes, they were that bad.
Several years later, while waiting for a light on Wayne Rd (@ Michigan Ave) a couple lanes over and a few cars ahead, I hear someone just STANDING ON THE GAS, repeatedly. A few times, full throttle for a few seconds, and with a CLUNK, there’s silence. Oh, and a lot of white steam! Okay, that was provoked__and I have no idea what the driver’s intentions were__but another Vega bit the dust.
Also had a friend in the 80s that had a Vega with a 350/TH350 in it; finally a Vega I could appreciate! Handled like a pig, but sure was fast in a straight line!
Vegas: more fun to talk about than to own…
Would this have been in Wayne, MI?
A SBC V8 engine swap TRANSFORMS this car.
Love that orange carpet!
Picture #1 is almost twin to my ’72 Vanessa, my first car, bought by Dad for me to drive to college for my junior year. Yes, it had multiple design flaws (heavy doors with rusting hinges, leaky windshield seals, floppy shifter, rocker panel rust, rust, rust, distributor right under the hood seal that got wet with each good rain, buzzy motor that used a quart every 400 miles even with the recall valve stem seals, etc. etc. But it was my fun little first car. It got me and all my stuff all over the eastern half of the country and through seven years of school until the drooping door finally took out the latch post in the door frame. I got $50 in trade at the Volkswagen dealer and within a month saw it out tooling around town, trailing a faint plume of smoke. I am shocked at the tiny size and obviously tinny construction of the intact one I see from time to time at the big box store, but I always go over for a look at that pretty car. And I still have to drive little cars with manual transmissions that handle well; Vanessa got me hooked on that.
Hi, my name is Joe and I’m a (former) Vega owner.
They even have their own “Big Book”. All that’s left is to turn Lordstown Assembly into a shrine like Bill Wilson’s house in Vermont…..
I wondered if anyone would comment on that. I actually started to not open with that for fear of offending someone but the phrase had been rattling around in my juvenile mind since I started writing the series and I couldn’t let it go.
If only my Vega had looked as good as the orange one whose photos got used. Mine was yellow with the black stripe and the interior was a sea of unrelieved black. At this point I don’t remember if mine had carpet on the floor or just the basic rubber mat.
Joe, thank you for sharing!!!
Cookies and coffee after the meeting, paid for through the collection they take up in an empty Bondo can.
Sure enough, they have the real thing on Wednesday nights at the Lordstown UAW Hall….
I’d love to have one of the early Vegas. Finding an original rust-free one would definitely be a chore, though. I’d be tempted to keep it original, except for maybe sneaking in one of the Durabilt 2.3s.
Another option would be to swap in a 60 degree V6, maybe a 2.8 MPFI and 5 speed out of a 3rd generation Camaro.
I knew a guy who had a Vega with the 215 Olds/Buick mill and a 4-speed. Never got to ride in it, unfortunately, but that engine looked like it grew there.
A lady friend who gave all her cars names christened her foul-handling, biodegrading-in-front-of-your-very-eyes GT “Vegly”-[as in “vaguely”…]
A well-told story. I used to lust after the new Vegas in the Chevy dealer lot. Fortunately, I couldn’t afford one.
Is this what you got at the McDrive when ordering a burger ?
Bought a ’71 4 speed 2bbl puke green hatchback in ’79 for around $600 if memory serves. Had it for about a year. One day while driving the starter engaged and turning off the ignition sopped the motor but not the starter still cranking the engine. Finally ripped of the battery cable as the starter and wiring were beginning to smoke a lot as the engine cranked.
After it cooled down I reconnected the battery and never had the problem happen again.
The temp lamp didn’t work, and got to work one day and when I turned the engine off steam was rolling out from under the hood. The radiator was empty, the water pump had failed. Changed it at work, the timing belt drove the water pump. After that it seemed down on power and was using more oil than before.
I sold it for what I paid, had it for about a year. Used it to tow my ’66 VW Fastback home, which had it’s engine in a box. I paid $300 for that car, and rebuilt it’s engine. It replaced the Vega, I drove the ’70 C10 daily for a couple of months until it was up and running.
For a cheap used car it did it’s job, but I never really trusted it, especially after the starter incident. The VW proved to be a great car, got 100k miles out of it with the rebuilt engine, eventually sold that and replaced it with a ’75 Rabbit. The fastback was my last air cooled VW.
Vega is one of those car names that lingers forever in the mind. Bad reputation within a year of introduction. On the other hand, my younger brother, got a early 1972 Pinto runabout 2.0L 4 speed when he turned 16. He had it for four years before going into the Navy and I recall no problems with that car. I do remember griping the arm rest when it was his turn to drive Highway 12, one lane each way, passing semis carrying tomatoes to the processing plants in the Valley. When it was my turn I did the passing in 1968 302 J Code engine yet his did fine. Never had the pleasure/mispleasure of riding in a Vega much less many GM cars.
I recall asking my boss at the junkyard back in the 80’s why the heater core was out up front near the grill on the lime green Vega we just took in. “No he says, that’s the radiator dummy.”This was before my mechanically brain kicked in!
My first experience with a Vega also came in 1974. But it was a different kind of Vega…a rental car that I picked up near Denver Stapleton Airport. I was treating myself to a short vacation before starting a new job.
This red Vega coupe wasn’t a typical rental stripper. The rental clerk said it was a “special” which probably meant they had gotten it by mistake. It had the deluxe interior, air conditioning in an era when it wasn’t yet ubiquitous, an AM-FM radio, the gauge and tach package in a woodgrain panel, fancier trim and a four-speed manual transmission.
My plan was clear. The Rockies beckoned…
At that time my own car was a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro with a base 327, Powerglide (that slipped on downshifts from Day One), base interior, base wheels, base tires…a REAL strippo. It handled on twisty roads like a front-heavy sled and rode like a buckboard. I’ve written before about how I replaced it with a Plymouth Valiant Signet with a Slant Six…a much better car.
In the mountains the Vega was more a balanced handler than my Camaro, and its tires more sticky. The Vega rode better. It was even quieter. All it didn’t have was enough torque, but the four-speed helped with that if I kept it above 25 or 30 mph which was most of the time. There was no issue with running out of power at high speeds, in the mountains and off the Interstate, which was not even finished across Colorado.
I even took the Vega up Pikes Peak. At 14,000 feet it was breathing somewhat hard, but I was, too.
“My” Vega probably burned up its engine block like all the rest, but for a few days, I had fun with it.
My dad bought his first new car, a Vega, circa 1975, it was pretty horrible. Head gasket went quickly. To this day if I want to get him heated up, I mention the Vega.
My parents bought a used ’72 Vega notchback in ’76 for their commute. They paid $700, it had 35k miles, a 4-speed, and was a bone stock stripper, with the only option an AM radio. My stepfather would get it up to 70 mph but the front end would lift. By ’78 it rolled 100k and they sold it for $?. I do remember they loved it, and it was mostly problem free. Replaced it with a ’68 Rebel sedan with a 232-6 and three on the tree, and only 35k miles (really low miles for a 10 year old car). Paid $400. They liked it even better.
In answer to the title question, Yes, they really were that bad!
Thanks for the story Joe. GM Canada gave me a 73 GT just like the one in your feature for a weekend drive. Thanks to an automotive radio feature I had at school. I drove home to Edmonton and was so impressed the way the Vega went on the highway, it’s performance handIing and comfort won me over compared to other compact cars at that time. So before the weekend was over I knew this was the car I wanted after graduating from technical school.
I ordered my well optioned 74 GT in May, 1974 after completing a practicum at a television station and being hired on. The car arrived at the beginning of July, was underecoated and dropped off at my parents house.
Yes, it had its issues later on but was enjoyed for a number of years and kept in our family until 1990. Still in pretty decent condition. The dry prairie climate gets some of the credit as rust was minimal. The engine was replaced at 80,000 miles
My room mate bought a new orange ’75 Vega to replace his “It never ran right!” ’70 Buick Regal GS, which he had just sold before I met him. We would see it a lot over the next few years, sounding very good, so obviously someone knew how to fix it’s supposed problems. This was in Vegas, so no rust issues, but the Vega’s oil burning issue became a reality after he drove the car to LA and it got hot. Within a year after that, it was gobbling oil at about a qt per tankful of gas. He started looking for something else, and I found a near showroom new looking ’73 Challenger Rallye 340, in yellow with a white vinyl top. He proceeded to trash it over the two years he had it, as usual, destroying the headliner, which he did/does to this day. I don’t know why he does it, but he reaches up and rubs it until it falls apart, then he complains about it falling down! He has done this with every car for over 45 years! I would see him doing it in the cars while following him, but he would deny doing anything to the headliner. It was just weird. After the Challenger was messed up, he bought a really nice, slightly hopped up ’78 Z-28, and of course, the headliner was falling down within a year. He’s driving a Camry these days, and the interior is trashed, after less than a year. Toyota told him they weren’t fixing it, and he’s whining.
When I was a kid, when bored in the car I used to reach up and press the headliner on our Malibu because my fingertips left indentations in the foam. Guess where were the first spots the headliner started to fall a couple years later?
I think Paul theorized the reason for the Vega engine failures wasn’t so much a poor design but that GM scrimped on the size of the radiator, leading to rapid overheating and warpage. Seems like one of the key aspects of the Vega’s engineering was that everything on the car had to be designed so it could be shipped as cheaply as possible, and that included being shipped filled with all fluids. This included the battery, which is where the infamous Delco side-terminal batteries began. And who could forget that the Vega was specifically designed to be shipped vertically, with the rear bumper on the ground and the front in the air. So, was the Vega’s too small radiator a function of this overzealous focus on shipping?
I’m not sure that even under the best of circumstances, the Vega was ever destined to be a great car. But it certainly could have been much better, at least in the thought that, over a half century later, it’s still regularly held up as a shining example of one of the worst cars ever built and a huge contributor to the decline of GM and the rise of the Japanese auto industry..
The shipping is somewhat famous among railfans.
There was no overheat issue. I had a ’73 GT which had full instrumentation and the engine ran at the proper temp. If you study, you will find that the cylinders were aluminum with silica added and a swirl pattern. This was highly unusual for its time and that’s why I had the cylinders sleeved with cast iron. No oil burning after that!!
Overheating is a serious concern for the engine, since the engine block is of an open-deck design, severe overheating could cause the cylinder barrels to warp and pull away from the head gasket, causing coolant leaks into the cylinders and cylinder scuffing. Maintaining oil and coolant levels is crucial for the engine. The engine is equipped with an oil pressure switch which grounds out the primary ignition system should the oil pressure fall below 6 psi during operation, thus stopping and preventing the engine from being restarted until the oil level was replenished or the mechanical cause of low oil pressure was remedied. Chevrolet dealers installed a coolant recovery tank, a low coolant warning light and extended Vega’s engine warranty to 50,000 miles (80,000 km) to all Vega owners. This proved costly for Chevrolet.
Thanks for the pic and link to the Vega’s Vert-a-Pac shipping system. It’s quite ingenious but, as mused, one has to wonder how much of an impact specifically designing the Vega’s drivetrain for it contributed to the car’s woes. Maybe if GM wasn’t so concerned with lowering shipping costs, the Vega could have had a more reliable engine.
I have no doubt the Vega was a very profitable car for GM in the short term. But they paid for it, in spades, in the damage done to the company’s long term reputation and lost sales, equaled only by the Citation (which also initially sold in large numbers) a scant nine years later.
A friend of mine bought a lime green 3 speed Vega in 1971. I have fond memories of it , as it was the car in which I learned to drive a manual. I lusted after a Vega GT, but at the time ouldn’t afford one. I STILL like them in spite of (repeat lamentations of shortcomings already listed!) and a few years ago, I came across a GT with the CLEANEST installation of a 283 c.i. engine. It even had a tailpipe on the right side,matching the OEM one, and looked as though it came from the factory that way! I also STILL drive manual transmission small cars, too! 🙂
My parents had a 72 wagon when I was a kid. My dad, who was usually pretty mild mannered, fought Chevy hard to get the engine replaced. Had to go to the level of the District Manager IIRC. Once that was done it was a pretty good car. (At least it ran every day, unlike its predecessor a Saab 96 wagon.) They traded it in on a 77 Impala wagon to give my 14 yo legs some space on a cross country road trip.
COAL: 1973 Vega GT – Were They Really That Bad?
If my late father’s ’74 Vega GT is any measure then yes, they’re that bad. Beyond terrible. Reprehensibly (is that a word?) bad.
I worked in a full service gas station where they pumped your gas for you and checked the oil (remember those?) As I recall, the Vegas had a rubber stopper where you added oil instead of a cap and they were a royal pain to get back in. A lot of guys would tell Vega owners that the oil was OK whether it was or not just because they didn’t want to fool with that stupid rubber stopper. I always wondered if that was a factor in the Vega’s notorious engine failure rate.
I love my 72..has the original 140 and it’s got plenty of power because it was hopped up using aftermarket parts in the 70s.it pulls going up hill. Handles nice, fun to drive, doesn’t use any oil at 74 k miles, I think it was sleeved . Four speed is fun. Cool article
In 1978, Dad bought an extremely well cared for 1975 Vega Kammback. It had 33,000 miles on it. The first time I saw it, I thought it was new. It was a bright pea green with brown vinyl interior. I thought that these Kammbacks were well styled cars and this one looked great in green. One look inside revealed the automatic floor shifter. What a letdown. What drew Dad to that car was it’s utility, and it was a great car for him. I drove that car on an 800 mile round trip to my Grandmother’s house in Maine and back when Dad and I replaced her old furnace. The car was slow enough in the hills on it’s own, but carrying a load of heavy tools made it even worse. I was used to driving larger cars, so practically sitting on the floor was not at all enjoyable to me. Dad kept telling me that I needed to keep it up to speed, or we’d be topping the hills in second gear. He was so right. By the time we got home, I was never so happy to step out of a car than that one. Dad was a machinist and checked cars over very carefully before purchasing one. And every test you could give an engine was done. That car did not burn or leak oil, ever. Maybe it was due to Dad’s good maintenance or this Vega was an exception to the rest. Dad and I both did our own maintenance. When finished, I’d fill out the card on the filter box with the oil brand and weight, filter, mileage and date along with all other fluid checks, etc, and place it in the glove box. Dad, on the other hand, tore off a piece of masking tape, wrote the mileage on it, then stuck it on the air filter canister. The only mechanical issue I remember that car ever having was a failed fuel pump which was inside the tank. Dad didn’t mess with it. He bought a 12 volt pump, bolted it to the firewall and plumbed it in. Dad parked that Vega at 99,000 miles when it succombed to body rust. That’s it. One day, a young guy with a Vega liftback showed up at the house and bought that car for it’s engine! He put it in his car and drove it for another two years. I see that guy now and then. The next time I do, I’m going to ask him what finally did his Vega in. I’d really like to know.
My first new car was a 1973 Vega GT kammback. It was brown with black interior. It started to use oil then Chevy sent out a recall to have the engine rebuilt if you had less than 20,000 miles on it . Mine had alittle over that but the local dealer said they would do it any way. Then the crome trim pieces started to fall off from rust. I finally sold it to some one I worked with. His sister ran it for a few more years after that. It was a real nice looking car for a few years.
Other than your service in the military, your story was my story. I chuckled many times as you recounted the oil usage etc. Ahh memories. I’ve always said, the Vega was a great little car except for the body and the motor. I would love to drive one again.
Guess there will always be exceptions to any rule ! We had one of the 71 Vegas 2 drs coupe with standard engine and powerglide . Other than two sets of replacement fenders and two repaints , the car did yeoman’s duty ! The engine never overheated , never consumed any oil and required very little maintenance , that is , until I wrecked the car in an accident 6 years and 98,000 miles later ! That little car had competent handling on highways at high speed ; I remember a lot of Toronto – Montréal travelling in 73-74 at cruising speeds of 75 to 85 mph !
So we must have been lucky with our engine that never showed any sign of distress , never smoked , never overheated and actually delivered appreciable mileage !!! But the rust was just so pervasive !
My 1973 Vega GT was the first and last Chevrolet that I ever purchased…3 engines in 5 years, rust in all corners, but I loved the interior🤓. A bad decision on my part to purchase that lemon, but auto magazines were giving good reviews…who knew 🤮🤮🤮. I refuse to even look at another Chevy or GMC product after that debacle 😡