It was 1982 and I was selling the Scirocco. I still needed transportation, something practical, maybe a little sporty if possible, but definitely cheap and definitely a beater. But hey, it needed to be reliable too. Did I mention the word “cheap”?
I don’t remember how I found it or what I was drinking during my search, but I discovered a 1973 Chevy Vega GT Estate Wagon (true name!) that was so ugly that I can’t even find a picture on the internet of a comparably hued vehicle. And I searched to the end of the internet – twice!
It wasn’t just the faded periwinkle paint that set it apart, but the di-noc fake wood siding popularized by Ford’s Country Squire that gave this little Vega its Family Truckster Ultimate Beater vibe. True confession time – I‘d always liked the looks of the Kammback version of the Vega. The proportions somehow always looked just right to my eyes, even though Giorgetto Giugiaro didn’t get anywhere near it as he had with my 850 Spider and Scirocco. If it had been assembled with any modicum of care and had something other than an unbalanced washing machine under the hood to propel it, it might have been a grand slam for General Motors.
Instead, the General somehow foisted over two million of these Deadly Sins on to unsuspecting consumers over seven years, using and abusing them as beta testers until no more suckers could be found. I, however, was not one of those suckers. I knew exactly what I was getting into and I rushed headlong into this relationship with my eyes wide open. $500 and the Vega GT Estate Wagon Family Truckster was mine.
Some images are apparently so hideous that the internet isn’t allowed to catalog them (unlike the one above), so let me try and describe what I had. This was a 1973 Vega GT Estate Wagon, with Periwinkle colored paint and peeling wood grain siding. Being a ’73, this had the slightly larger front bumper that added 3 inches to its length, but not the heavy battering rams found on the ’74 and up models.
Being a GT, it had the more powerful two barrel L11 engine, which seemed to provide even greater levels of noise, vibration and harshness. Tires were wider (A70-13) and the F41 suspension was buttoned down better than the more pedestrian models.
Inside, you got a mini-Camaro panel of full instrumentation and surprisingly comfortable seats. The four speed stick fell readily to hand, and was an eye opening experience after the Scirocco. The Scirocco’s shifter was good, a bit rubbery but direct, where this one was…was…like moving a metal bar through a bucket of rocks. How in the world could the Italians, Japanese and Germans build such nice shifting transmissions and General Motors produce something more appropriate for a 1956 John Deere tractor? Who got a raise or made their bonus numbers with this thing?
The interior was originally a nice color of parchment before the sun and dirt got to it – perfect for keeping the interior cooler with the inoperative air conditioning. General Motors was going through their “auto-recycling plastics” phase, which meant that hard plastics (door panels, etc.) were literally flaking and dissolving before your eyes and hands, while softer plastics (steering wheel and switchgear) were gumming their way into blobbery messes.
Cleaning these hard pieces was impossible as it was like trying to clean a powdered sugar donut – powder and flakes everywhere. The more you scrubbed, the more material you took off. The soft material’s consistency resembled that of tacky fly paper. Everything stuck to it and it just dared you to try and unstick that rag you just tried to clean it with. I think that the car was significantly lightened after its first deep cleaning though. Not because I got so much dirt out, but because I took so much material off the hard surfaces. I expected that I would get to a solid surface eventually, but it was like giving an eight year old kid a shovel and telling them to dig to China. They can dig all they want, but they’re never going to get there. And so it was trying to clean the General’s auto-recycling plastics.
Now here’s the dirty little secret that most people are afraid to admit due to their fear of ridicule – I liked the car. It was roomy for two and the cargo area was spacious, perfect for carrying anything that would fit through the liftgate. I normally left the back seat folded down, as virtually no one wanted to be caught dead in that rolling eyesore. The car cornered very well, with well controlled handling and a not too punishing ride. It always started and never left me stranded.
Oh, and the agricultural appliance that passed for an engine? It blew blue smoke from the day I bought it to the day I sold it. Not so much that it wouldn’t pass an emissions test or cause other drivers to shake their fist at me, but enough that I should have bought stock in Pennzoil prior to my purchase. As I recall, I would get about 200 miles to a tank of gas, and I always added a quart of oil at every fill up. Yep – 200 miles to a quart – and that was just the cost of doing business. It didn’t matter whether I used 50 weight oil, motor honey, STP or any of the other available magic elixirs. The Vega happily swallowed them all and blew them out the tailpipe. Oh, and that oil usage was all through the valve guides and rings – not one drop leaked on the ground.
That Vega served me well for our time together and taught me an automotive and life lesson that I don’t think I would have believed had I not personally experienced it.
Los Angeles traffic is legendary, and drivers generally fall into one of three categories. The Pro’s understand the drill and plan their lane changes, acceleration and braking. They’re not afraid, but they’re also not bullies. Driving with them is like synchronized dancing, and every move fits with every other.
The second group are the Fearful ones. My Mother was one of these, and she couldn’t stand to drive on the freeway. Everything moved so fast, and the Fearful ones just know that someone is going to hit them, so they leave plenty of space on all sides. For them, allowing less than 15 car lengths in front could be dangerous, and everyone knows that it’s better to be safe than sorry. These drivers created a kind of rolling traffic jam that frustrated the Pro’s, as countless vehicles would pull in front of a Fearful due to the large open space.
The third group are the Idiots, those who just didn’t care how they drove and it was everyone else’s job to get out of their way. Change lanes to the right? No problem – they just start merging and ignore the horns while others move out of the way for self-preservation. Those people I would call “BIM’s”. “Why do you think you can cut me off like that?!??” “Because It’s Me” – BIM. They’re entitled to any piece of road you have. “Are you merging into that lane? Too bad – its mine”. Why? “Because It’s Me.” Those drivers were the worst, and at that time in LA, leased BMW’s seemed to be the vehicle of choice for those card carrying BIM drivers. My apologies to courteous BMW drivers, but leased 320i’s were thick on the ground in LA in the mid 80’s. Today, each reader can conjure up their vision of the vehicle of choice for BIM drivers in their area.
When I had my Scirocco, my beautiful, lithe, 1,900 pound Scirocco, Idiots would cut me off and not even care. I had to be careful or it was going to be accident city, and I had already Been There, Done That. I happened to like my Scirocco as designed without scratches or body damage, thank you very much, so give me more than four inches when you merge, OK?
So what was the life lesson? Once I got the Vega, drivers apparently saw me in a whole different light. Here was a guy (me) who obviously had nothing left to lose – stay out of his way! I drove the same route the same way and was as conscientious as I had always been, but things had changed.
Now I felt like Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. No one dared come near me, and I felt like I had a protective layer of invisible bubble wrap around me. Idiots didn’t cut me off, and I never worried about anyone tailgating me.
This really was one of the most illuminating lessons of my entire driving career – and this experience carried over into my non-automotive life too.
I realized that the rules don’t apply to those with nothing left to lose. Don’t fight with a desperate man, as nothing is off the table and prison is just another place to lay your head. Some people just don’t care, so never underestimate the depths to which they can stoop. This doesn’t make me fearful or cynical – it just makes me aware and I judge situations and interactions based on this truth. That Vega taught me a valuable life lesson that I still carry with me today. For a lesson not learned is waste of an opportunity.
The Vega provided dependable transportation, but I was getting the itch for something different, something sporty, something that I could drive for weeks or months without seeing another example of – which is a pretty tall order in the Curbside Classic Utopia of LA. Soon another car entered my life while the Vega soldiered on as basic transportation. The new car was by far the fastest that I’d had up to that time, and it or its kind would be with me for years.
But that’s a story for another COAL…
Another person who got dependable transportation out of a Vega. We’re not that rare, despite the legends.
Brings back memories of my ‘73 GT hatchback. You talk about comfortable seats, you obviously had the extra cost interior. Mine had the hard slab standard seats. F41 handling? On of my favorite memories was three seasons of SCCA B-Sedan autocross. And the motor held up. When I traded the car in 76 it was only starting to burn oil.
Naysayers be damned, I have wonderful memories of the ‘73, secure in the knowledge that I didn’t try to get a fourth year out of it.
I knew that you’d be here Syke. These seats had the exact same shape as the ones I procured from a 2nd generation Firebird for my 67 Camaro – heavenly.
Look at mustache guy in the yellow one.
Looks so happy.
This is the funniest thing I have read anywhere in a while! Great essay and account of your Vega. I had to re-read the paragraph describing the hard and soft-touch plastics several times, for effect.
“Drivers stayed out of my way because I had nothing to lose.” Pure gold.
You said you not only did you like your Vega, but also that you had liked the looks of the Kammback. That’s legit. I still like the looks of the hatchback.
Thank you for this one.
GM stylists actually did a good job with those two models, both classically shaped in their own way. And the interior was well done too. But the materials, engine and assembly betrayed their good work. The marketing dept certainly did their job pushing out 2 million plus of them despite their shortcomings.
Sort of a CC effect here. I actually found this article the other night.
FWIW… I still like the styling of the Kammback.
There are all kinds of things to love here. There is a certain kind of bond that develops between a car that requires the constant adding of oil and the owner who dutifully fills that need.
And you are absolutely right about the road manners of those around the driver with nothing to lose. If you really want to experience that rule to its fullness, you needed something bigger than a Vega. In all traffic situations, the guy with the biggest and least valuable car wins. This is perhaps the one thing I miss above all others from my ownership of a 93 Crown Victoria very late in its life.
When they came out (and when I was about 11 years old) I was convinced that the Vega was going to wipe the floor with the Pinto. It was so much better looking. Who would have figured?
The combination of Ford’s 2L OHC and the rest of the Vega would have been an impressive car for the times. The Vega’s engine really didn’t need a tach, as there was little danger of it vibrating its way above redline. It was definitely tuned for torque.
To create a proper PinAga you would also have to put in the Pinto front clip. The Vega front clip was so soft you knocked the camber in by driving over the dotted line. But hey, they were usually good for at least one wheel alignment before the cross member sagged so bad the front tires stood like a 3 year old who had just peed his pants. But keep the F31 handling package. Yes the PinAga could have been a keeper.
I have always wanted one of the first generation Vega GT station wagons, with twin front bumper-ettes……and a transplanted SBC V8 engine.
Nice. But not complete without some Vega Girls!
While I’ve never so much as sat in a Vega, this was a lot of fun to read and very relatable. I had a similar beater status with a 1987 Dodge 3/4 ton pickup. Sometimes beaters are the best cars imaginable – no stress and, like a dog, they will tell you what they need.
You are correct about traffic making space. In 2008 I drove that old Dodge the 200 miles to my parents house and pulled my ’63 Galaxie back on a trailer. As I crossed the Mississippi River into St. Louis on I-64 I quickly realized I needed to be in the right lane to merge onto I-70 downtown. That lane was clogged with traffic going to a Cardinals game in Busch Stadium.
Still, I slowed and put on my blinker. Like the Red Sea, an ideal opening just appeared for three-tone Dodge and ratty looking Ford to use. It was great.
My dad bought a red ’74 wagon like this, with the wood applique, but with the automatic. for like $1,400 as a 3rd runaround beater for my Mom (they had a fintail Mercedes 230 with issues and Dad’s company Impala besides). The drive-train in this one was up to snuff for how it was used. They kept it around for two or three years, and aside from a starter and a little minor body damage, nothing bad happened. I don’t think the oil consumption on this one was too bad, but my mom drove like an old lady before she was an old lady. Everything worked and the black buckets with red piping were pretty cool. Rust was taking it over, however, especially around the bottom of the windshield. Bad for a car in the south.
I bought a 2-year old ’77 Vega tor $1800 and got 50,000 miles out of before the new factory engine that had been just installed tanked. Cost per mile was probably still lower than anything I’ve owned before or since. This one was a quart every 200 car most of its life too.
In the early 80s I briefly owned a 1972 Ford Gran Torino station wagon for which I paid the princely sum of $175 – and I may have overpaid.
During its tenure with me, the tailgate glass got smashed out by an errant piece of firewood I was hauling. Even though there was no way to secure the car, I still kept many items of value within, but never once did anything get stolen, even when I parked it on the streets of NYC. I can only assume potential thieves walked right past it, assuming there was nothing to steal, or that it would be too rude to steal from someone so poor as to drive a pile like that.
The “breadbox” Honda Civic Hatchbacks from 1984-87 always reminded of Vega Kammbacks.
I bought a new ’76 kamback and drove it for 106,000 miles. I ordered it to suit my preferences and over 7 years found little to complain about. It did rust in several places, but I repaired that effectively with spray tar and sheet metal. A four-speed, it got 32 mpg on the highway doing the 55 speed limit. I paid $100 to get the deluxe interior and for that I got something that absolutely shamed the standard interior of my cousin’s ’76 Cutlass Supreme, which was shockingly cheap in comparison.
My best beater was a 11 year old Lincoln Town car. Mechanically reliable, everything still worked but faded down gold paint, dent in the rear bumper, vinyl top cracking and flapping in the 60 mph interstate generated wind.
Talk about a good “Bluff Car!”! Nobody cut me off when driving this car. On crowded Interstate 10 I would switch on the turn signals (seldom used here) and start nudging it over. Everyone “let me in”! Nobody tried to play chicken with me in that car. I’d do questionable left hand turns in traffic, hoping someone would plow into the right side (Floke it, it’s a beater!”) Never happened.
You made my morning, Ed! We were a multi-Vega family (my ’71 notch, a pair of Kamms, and a hatch parts car), and I cut my automotive repair teeth on my notch. It had over 200K miles on it when I finally used it as a trade-in on my first new car (’87 Samurai), although at that point, it was on its third engine (Buick 3.8L swap).
Vega’s styling still looks good to my eye nearly 50 years on (has it been that long?!), and the Kammback may indeed be the best-looking of the bunch. Perhaps due to selection bias, I always preferred the notchback styling over the hatchback. The Kamm and notch shared the same doors due to a higher roofline than the hatch. Oh, by the way, your ’73 bumper was exactly the same part as used on the ’71-72, it was the support brackets that were 3″ longer, with an added filler plate to cover the gap.
And only one quart of oil per fillup? That’s Amateur League! Before I did my first engine swap to a sleeved engine, the original “power”plant in my ’71 (which had already been rebuilt once by my Dad at <40K miles) was guzzling a gallon of oil every two weeks. You could watch it drip out the tailpipe! I called it my ‘James Bond smoke screen’ feature.
Thanks for the COAL and bringing back some fond (and not-so) memories!
I once owned a ’72 Vega GT, it was a very good handling car (especially after I replaced the standard shocks with Gabriel Striders) and comfortable front seats but that was not enough to offset the POS engine and the build quality. By 1975 it was burning a quart of oil every 250 miles. A friend of mine had a Vega Kammback in which he installed a 2.0 liter engine from a Ford Pinto. The resulting car was apparently quite reliable and served him well for several years.
Ah so that was a thing back then. I never knew but sounds easy enough to do.
I had a yellow ’71 Panel Express. From the factory these came standard with only a hard driver seat, visor, left side mirror, and no back seat. and all exposed metal interior behind the seat. The original owner thought enough to add the passenger seat, visor and right side mirror.
We swapped out the seats for a set out of GT, and dumped the 3 speed for the Saginaw 4 speed out of the GT. I drove the smack out of that thing, racing outher Vegas and Pintos… and winning!. it smoked like crazy. at long traffic lights I had to shut it off to keep from asphyxiating the cars around me. But it kept on running. a lot of fun was had in that car.
The image of this cheery little car happily swallowing everything you put into it and blowing it out the tailpipe really made my day- nice writing!
I LOVED driving my ’72 Kammback, which had the 2-bbl engine and a 4-speed.
Just so happened to be rotting away before my eyes despite being only three years old.
If time, finances, circumstances were right I’d own another one, only I’d rustproof it and then fix the reliability issues with a modern drivetrain such as GM’s current 3.6. (I know there are timing chain issues long-term BUT are mitigated with proper maintenance.
An excellent description of the psychology behind urban drivers. I think every major North American city has the same drivers.
I’ve long believed in the freedom of the beater. To paraphrase Janis Joplin “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose “. Damage and dings become meaningless with a beater, you don’t care and that freedom is refreshing.
The downside is, around here in Ontario, truly dreadful beaters attract police attention. I think they feel the truly desperate individuals forced to drive a dreadful beater is indigent criminal up to no good. Dreadful beaters get pulled over a lot.
Off topic folks….. in the picture of the yellow woody Vega…. whats that silver car in the background? I’m stumped. Kit car? Early 70s mid-engine Corvette prototype?
1973 Corvette XP895 prototype.
There’s a Vega wagon for sale in Ft. Smith, but I think it’s a ’74 based on the bumpers. It seems to be a daily driver, too.
“How in the world could the Italians, Japanese and Germans build such nice shifting transmissions and General Motors produce something more appropriate for a 1956 John Deere tractor?”
Hey now–JD tractors in the ’50s had gated shifters. Completely unsynchronized, but you always knew where you were shifting.
Oh I do remember that JD well. I drove one for several years, and the gear shift was definitely..positive. My memories are few cylinders, lots of low end torque, and no speed shifting from that linkage!
FWIW. the manual transmissions in Vegas were sourced from Opel in ’71 and ’72, then switched to the Saginaw three and four speed in ’73. Not a bad unit per se, but the issue was undoubtedly in the shift linkage.
I recall the manual transmission in my ’71 and ’75 Opels being easy to shift and accurate; but not as direct and short throw as the one in my ’71 Pinto 2 litre/ speed.
Better gear ratios in the Opel, though. The Pinto had a huge gap between first and second gear. I got into the habit of revving it wayyyyyy up in first gear and quickly dumping it into second gear.
I only drove a Vega once, but I liked the looks and its driving dynamics were ok for the kind of niche GM was trying to fill. It belonged to a friend of mine, not sure how long he kept it.
I would not have traded it for my ’65 Monza though, the Monza probably used less oil.
But I did work with a guy who had a teenage job at a Chevy dealer parts department in Moline, Ill.
He said they always had a new Vega short block in stock under the counter. A guy would walk in asking for one, and Fred would reach down, hoist it up on the counter and say $315.00 please!
I always wonder if at that moment GM lost another customer forever.
My 72 GT Hatch must have been built on a good day. It went 400 miles on a quart of oil-once quart every two fill ups. And I loved it, too, for all the same reasons.
Excellent write-up of your time with the Vega. I too experienced the “Moses Effect” when living in San Francisco with a beater ’82 Subaru Wagon with a mangled front fender (it came that way, I didn’t cause it). One look at that fender and the other assorted battle scars and everyone else knew this car was not to be trifled with, sending the hordes of leased BMW’s and everything else scurrying to the curb to leave me plenty of space. A straggler not taking heed? Just get a little close to the lane marker or weave a tiny bit in his rear-view, problem solved. Need to get from the Golden Gate to the Ferry Building in rush hour traffic? Just take the Subaru for a stress free and relaxing seemingly traffic-free drive and manage it in around ten minutes! In terms of actually covering distance vs elapsed time, this may have been the fastest car I’ve ever owned… 🙂
Believe it or not, as popular as the Vega was, I didn’t know anyone who had a VEGA, but two ASTREs. My dad’s pal had a nice-looking GT, that was as troublesome as it was nice, and then my friend’s sister had a hand-me-down Astre wagon. Both autos.
I remember the first time I drove a used 72 Corvette thinking, “this shifter is like a rod going thru a box of rocks”. ALL C3 ‘Vettes I’ve driven are like that…who knew? Perhaps the worst manual trans shifters ever–even worse than a 66 Mustang 3 speed (but it lack synchro first….). Detroit wanted you to pay that extra $200 for an automatic, and make sure you regretted not doing so. But the Pinto/Mustang II/Fox/Fairmont 4-speeds shifters worked properly, maybe better than average for 1980…
Loved the traffic comments too! It is LIBERATING to have an ‘expendable’ car in traffic.
Also, in Greece, most drivers are ‘category 1’….not aggressive, to careful opportunists, like a roller rink. This is how the traffic manages to move on the overloaded roads.
Yes, your comments about driving in Greece is the same as I find driving in Mexico. Don’t be fearful or an idiot and be ready to dance and you’ll do just fine. Expect everyone else to drive like you’re used to in your home community and you’ll be terribly frustrated. Their country, their rules and it all works!
I love it when all the former Vega owners come out and comment here. Mine was also a ‘73 GT and the seats were really comfortable, better than the Volvo that preceded it and the Alfa, Fiesta that co-existed with it, maybe equal to the Scirocco that replaced it. Yes, we took the same path but in opposite directions. Oh, and I thought mine shifted fine. Notchy, but precise and not very high effort. But yes, a quart of oil with every fill up did get old near the end.
Same lesson learnt with a 1993 Opel Corsa.
At that time, in Paris, the all-new BMW X5 was the vehicle of choice of BIMs.
They had power, they had weight, they had money, the road was theirs.
Until they saw the bent fenders with missing turn signals and a nice bondo patch.
Then, they dully applied the brakes and gave me the right of way. Even on harsh battlegrounds such as the Place de l’Etoile.
Apologise not, sir, for loving the looks of this car. It’d still now be bein acclaimed as a looker if the badge had been European. Anyone who thinks otherwise just isn’t me. (Or you, I gather).
It’s ofcourse a disaster of corporate idiocy that it also had the average reliability of something Euroglam, but even that perhaps gets over-stated. The GM Opel OHC four of that time was a rough old bucket of bolts, not revvy, and not especially long of life. The gearbungles from the same outfit were rather crapulous too (we got both combined in various inadequate versions of GM Holdens in the day).
I suspect it might a universally applicable truism that folks are, automotively speaking, more respectful in traffic the less one’s ride might suggest the respectability of oneself, whatever oneself’s actual socioeconomic respectability. That is, even if one’s doing quite ok, it’s fun to have a Moses car. (Which, incidentally, only works fully between Egypt and Israel, but that’s a digression).
A fun piece, Mr Hardey. Looking forward to the rest.