Curbside Classic: 1974 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express – A Sedan Delivery For The ’70s

Remember the Vega? Of course you do, especially if you owned one. If you have owned one, let me pause for a moment so you can finish cursing. Done? Okay.

When the Vega came out in 1971, there were four models. Three were expected: two door sedan, a hatchback and a wagon. But the fourth was a little different.

The panel version seemed an odd choice for the Seventies. Panel trucks had been around for years, but starting in the mid-1950s demand began to go down. Not coincidentally, pickups were getting much more comfortable and car-like at that time. One by one, panel vans and sedan deliverys started disappearing. It became even more pronounced once the two door station wagons they were based on were discontinued.

By the early Sixties, the Falcon was about the only car-based delivery vehicle left, and it quickly left the scene. Then, in 1971, GM decided to offer a panel version of its attractive Kammback station wagon. The Vega story has been told many times (full story here), but it really was a shame that such a sharp looking car could have so many problems.

Vega sales were initially quite brisk, as many folks were attracted to its good looks and thrift on fuel. But before long, all sorts of issues caught up with those initially happy owners. The biggest deal was the advanced-for-its time silicon cylinder coating, meant to eliminate more expensive cylinder liners. Unfortunately the technology had not yet been perfected and it spelled trouble for Vega owners. But back to the sedan delivery, or Panel Express, as Chevrolet called it…

I can see why Chevrolet decided to offer the car, though its sales potential was rather questionable. All they had to do was take a wagon, blank out the rear quarter windows, remove the back seat, and voila! a new model. As you might expect, sales did not exactly take off. While 42,800 Kammbacks were produced in ’71, only 8,700 Panel Expresses were made.

1972 Vega sales were even better. While 1971 saw production of 274,699, 1972 saw sales go up by over 100,000, to 394,592. The same could not be said for the Panel Express, as sales dropped to 4,114. As the Vega’s troubles became more common knowledge, sales went down accordingly, but in 1972 things still looked good –  at least for the other three Vega models.

My Uncle Dave was 13 in 1971, and he loved the Vega. It looked so much like a mini-Camaro to him, at least until the Federal bumpers were added in ’74. He especially wanted a Panel Express, as he played in a band and it would have been a cool ride to haul his drum set to practice.

That never happened, however, as his first car wound up being a plain-Jane ’71 Mustang fastback that was equipped like a Maverick. However, when he met my Aunt Lori at the University of Iowa in the late Seventies, she was driving a ’75 or ’76 Vega Estate, so in a way, he did eventually get a Kammback. Fortunately by that time GM had worked the bugs out of the Vega, and that Estate was a reliable car for them.

As for the Panel Express, sales kept trending downward. While a total of 395,792 Vegas were built for ’73, no model breakouts are available, but it’s safe to say somewhere between 3-5,000 came off the line. 1974 saw 4,289 Panels, a slight improvement to 1972’s total, but after a mere 1,525 ’75s, the Panel was finally done. The other Vegas would continue through 1977.

I was reminded of all this after seeing this very clean ’74 or ’75 Panel Express on the Cohort, captured by frequent Cohort contributor, ggh06. These were never common, so locating a Panel Express these days is quite a feat. Actually, any clean, running Vega is quite a find today!