COAL #5: 1973 Chevy Vega GT Estate Wagon – Beater Level Achieved

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…