Curbside Classic: Chevrolet Vega – Winner Of 1971 Small Car Comparison And GM’s Deadly Sin No.2

(first posted 3/3/2011)   Curbside Classic takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test.

There it is, a golden yellow Vega, seductive and infinitely irresistible, hanging from the tree of automotive disappointment. Its serpent maker found plenty of smitten takers (especially among the motor press), because the bitter truth imparted upon biting the bait was apparently in a time-release potion: “The best handling car ever sold in America” (Road &Track). Winner of Motor Trend’s 1971 COTY. C/D readers voted it the best economy car three years in a row. It won this 1971 C/D six small car comparison. And yet it went on to be the maker’s perhaps biggest Deadly Sin along with the Citation. So much promise; such a letdown.

I (mentally) bit too, having spent idle hours in 1971 with a Vega brochure specifying a yellow Kammback GT exactly like this one. But sure enough, the sweetness of that first bite evaporated all too quickly: the apple was rotten at the (engine) core. The Vega was GM’s Watergate/Waterloo, the beginning of its inevitable end. And yet here I am forty years later, totally smitten and thinking how fun it would be to tool around in another one of my seductive youthful loves.

Let’s step into our time machine. It’s 1971, we’re wearing bell-bottoms, and want desperately to love the Vega as much as we love peace. Its coming was hyped by GM for years as nothing less than the reinvention of the small car, GM’s version of the Apollo moon shot. Sound familiar?

Now we haven’t bitten into the apple of knowledge yet; we’re just sniffing around the delicious edges of the Bill Mitchell styled mini-Camaro to try to understand what all the hoopla, awards and press accolades were all about. Or was GM delivering its press cars with a big baggie of Acapulco Gold in the glove box? Oops; the Vega doesn’t have a glove box, as well as a few other components normally taken for granted, thanks to GM’s ever-diligent bean counters.

GM’s corporate styling was still at the top of their game in 1971. But there sure was a lot of borrowing going on here, although to good effect. The basic Vega sedan was a blatant rip-off of the lovely Fiat 124 Coupe (upper photo).

The hatchback coupe’s roofline was heavily cribbed from the Ferrari 365 GT 2+2. The Kammback wagon owed more than a hat-tip to the  Reliant Scimitar shooting brake. And of course, the Vega’s egg-crate grille front end was a re-do of GM’s own excellent ’55 Chevy, which in turn was of course cribbed from various Pininfarina Ferraris.

The real question was why Chevy wanted such a low-slung, “sporty” car with terrible space utilization. The charming Kammback was really more of a shooting brake than a proper wagon; hardly in the image of GM’s big wagons, or such practical competitors as the Datsun 510 wagon, which actually had the luxury and practicality of four doors!

GM’s President Ed Cole, a former engineer and father of the Chevy V8 and Corvair, gave the development of the XP-887 “import killer” to a corporate development group. And then he forced the half-baked results on a reluctant John Z. DeLorean, General Manager of Chevrolet. The “not invented here” maxim maximized, especially as regards the engine. Chevy’s Engine Group already had a conventional small four banger on the drawing table. But the corporate skunk works had grander (“cheaper” in GM-speak) things in mind.

GM had dropped a mint on a huge aluminum foundry operation to build the Corvair engine. And the ill-fated Corvair died in 1969. See where this is going? The Vega will have an aluminum block because…”it’s 51 lbs lighter than the pedestrian and dead-reliable Chevy II four block”. Right. Well, an aluminum head on the Chevy block would have offset the (are you ready for it?) cast-iron head on top of the Vega aluminum block. GM was determined to turn small car engine design upside down, literally. Oh well, Pontiac’s cast-iron four (“Iron Duke”), a revised and updated Chevy II 153 four, ended up replacing the ill-starred Vega engine anyway.

Since the dawn of the twentieth century, light but soft aluminum has been used for engine blocks along with durable iron cylinder sleeves. That solution would have cost Chevy exactly $8 per engine. They were planning to build millions of them. And cheapness is the mother of malfunction. So GM and Reynolds Aluminum came up with the idea to incorporate 17% silicon in the alloy, and devised a way to etch the top molecules of aluminum from the cylinder bore surface to expose the hard silicon, and voila! An eight dollars saved is an eight dollars earned!

Actually, this was only one part of the Vega engine problems. Mercedes and Porsche went on to perfect this process, and now it’s ubiquitous. It was the other shortcuts that really made it so, like cheap self-destructing valve guides, an undersized cooling system, a small oil pan, etc. Overheating, or oil consumption from the bad valve guides meant that the less-forgiving cooling system or limited oil capacity conspired with the fragile open-deck block, which then blew up, figuratively and literally. But that won’t be happening on a mass scale until 1973 or so, unless you’re one of the unlucky early adopters of Vega maladies.

The Vega’s engine was unusual in other ways too. It had a long stroke and big displacement (2.3 liters) for a four, and was tuned for low specific output (90 gross, 80 net hp) at a lazy 4400 rpm. The result was a big flat torque curve: 136 lb/ft of torque at 2400 rpm, more than double the Simca’s. GM wanted the Vega to have that lazy V8 feel, the secret to blowing those pesky, buzzy imports off the freeway. The result was more agricultural than V8, or in 1971 terminology, bad vibrations. Balance shafts would have broken GM’s profit targets. As did the lack of them, although that alone would not have solved all the Vega’s problems.

One of the Vega’s earliest problems was its seemingly inexplicable tendency to explode mufflers. In a classic Rube Goldbergian way, severe engine vibration caused a carburetor bolt to loosen, causing the carb cover to jump up and down, causing the accelerator pump to pump, causing raw gas to flow down those less-than stellarly-sealed silicon bores, causing gas to puddle in the exhaust, causing said explosions, causing Vega owners to abandon their ride in mid traffic and duck for cover behind the nearest Pinto whose own explosive tendencies weren’t yet common knowledge.

But the torque was there, and Americans love deep-fried torque with their pork. Who wants to shift when you’ve got a tenderloin sandwich in one hand and a milkshake in the other while cruising I-70? GM had your number(s): the combination of an extremely long 2.53-to-1 axle ratio resulted in 2600 rpm at seventy mph. Relaxed cruising indeed, and a masking of the Vega’s “disturbingly loud when revved” thrashing sounds.

But wait, you enthusiasts hoping for a mini Z28 or BMW 2002 beater, it gets worse. The standard Vega transmission is a three-speed stick, with ratios so wide that combined with that long axle it “feels more like a 6-speed with first, third and fifth gears missing. It always seems like you are starting in second, and the gaps between the gears are not valleys, but canyons”.  I have an alternate description: a two-speed stick with a long overdrive. Either way, not very sporty, considering the Vega’s sporty styling. GM was sending mixed messages.

But the GM engineer’s unorthodox thinking worked, after a fashion. The Vega was the second fastest in the C/D test after the wheel-spinning Gremlin, with a then timely 12.2 seconds in the 0-60. Good thing they didn’t test the automatic. Hooked up to the ancient two-speed Powerglide, forward thrust was truly glacial. I know; a good friend was a very early Vega adopter/burn victim. I drove it. It really sucked. It felt like it was dragging a sledge behind it. That was all the bite of the apple I needed to feel like retching, and I began my personal GM Death Watch right then and there.

Handling (and cute looks, on the pre-safety bumper versions) was always the Vega’s one dynamic strong point: “Handling is very good with mild understeer and tolerant breakaway characteristics. The biggest surprise is the steering, which is light and accurate…the Vega is quick and nimble”. And that’s the base Vega; the GT got an up-rated suspension. But it still had nothing on GM’s own Opel 1900/Manta, which is what GM should have just based the Vega on altogether.

C/D’s un-GT sedan version garnered heavy criticism for its interior: Klutzy hard plastic moldings and an instrument panel with nothing more than a horizontal speedometer. The floor is wall-to-wall black rubber, and all the controls required exceptionally long travel. The missing glove box. And the Pinto has a bigger back seat than the considerably bigger and heavier Vega. GM’s bean counters were all over it. But despite the cost-cutting, the Vega was not cheap; in fact it cost a full 15% more than the other competitors, and weighed some 400 lbs more. Satisfying American’s lazy highway cruising habits came at a price, as it always has.

The truth is, this comparison is all wrong given the Vega’s price point. It should have been compared to the Datsun 510, Toyota Corona, and the VW 1600 Type 3. And a nicely optioned GT wagon like this one would have put it right in BMW 1602/2002 territory. The outcomes would have been all-too different.

From this 1971 comparison and vantage point, it’s pretty obvious to see how the future played out. But the Vega’s self-destructive tendencies weren’t the only reason for its demise. Once the Corolla got a bigger engine and a five speed, it ran circles around the Vega and Pinto. The VW Beetle soon died, to be replaced by the brilliant Simca-inspired Golf/Rabbit. The relatively reliable Pinto soldiered/moldered along, until eventually replaced by the Simca/Golf-inspired FWD Escort. Chrysler jumped into the fray with the Simca-derived Omni-Horizon. And the Gremlin just became an historical oddity.

The real winners in this comparison: the Simca 1204’s DNA, which is now ubiquitous; and the Corolla, for figuring out how to satisfy Americans’ small-car hunger without the heartburn.

The Vega had a decent sales start. But its biggest sales year was 1974, when it hit the top-ten seller list thanks to the energy crisis as well as the top of the national shit list thanks to mass engine crises. In 1975, sales plummeted, and by 1977 “amnesia Vegatitus acute” became a new national mental health epidemic. By then, the Vega was anything but cute.

All the more reason why just finding this gem of an early Vega GT Kammback was the really big win of this shoot-out. In fact, stumbling across it became the green light for this whole 1971 CC comparo, despite knowing I’d never find a Simca. I’d seen the nose of this yellow Vega in an old garage downtown some years ago.

And suddenly, there it was, sitting in front of a hand-made artisanal broom company. What a perfect setting; and where else but in Eugene? Well, witches need wheels too, to go buy their brooms. And the Vega certainly was cursed from the get-go. (Update: I forgot; Stephanie has one of their brooms; it really is quite the well-made thing; it’s still going strong in 2018)

And this one, the first non hot-rodded V8 Vega I’ve seen in maybe a decade, is exactly the color and configuration that got my juices going while mentally masturbating with a Vega brochure in 1971: optional two-barrel 110 (gross) hp engine, four-speed stick, and that GT instrument panel with full gauges. Only the lovely GT wheels are MIA.

And this gem is (was) for sale! The owner is reducing her carbon-footprint and going all-broom all the time. And it actually runs, on its original (although possibly sleeved) engine. The serpent is still at work; the apple is more tempting now than ever. And the irony is not just in my (cylinder) head: driving a GM car, the very one that brought the company down, yet a car no one under thirty-five recognizes in this terminally PC town of bikes, brooms, old Volvos and W123’s is a delicious thought. I’ll just put a “powered by Biodiesel” sticker on it, ‘cause it sure shakes and quivers like an old Mercedes 240 Diesel. Or maybe convert it to an EV and put “Volt” badges on it. Mmm; delicious!


1971 Comparison car #2

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