A bead of sweat trickled from under my helmet as I eased up to the starting line, the race-bred four-valve dual-overhead cam engine rasping through stainless steel headers at a steady 1,200 RPM. Narrowing my steely blue eyes, I blipped the throttle – resulting in a huge burp as a slug of gas from dual Weber 42 DCOE carbs loaded up the engine! Raw gas dribbled out the twin-tipped exhaust as I once again debated the wisdom of subjecting a 43 year-old car and its senior discount-eligible driver to the rigors of the track. With authoritative purpose, the starter pointed to me; “You’re up.” My lips curved into a grin and, throwing caution to the wind, I wound it up a few thou, dumped the clutch and – well, maybe I need to back up a bit first…
Author’s Note: After much teasing from Chevrolet Public Relations, Vega launched on September 10, 1970 – exactly 50 years ago today. I had planned a piece on its Golden Jubilee, but this oft-delayed and lengthy account of my Cosworth Vega and its history simply ate up too much time. It will have to suffice as my hat tip to a significant milestone for what should have been a much-more-significant automobile.
You see, my first car was a base 1971 Vega 4-speed notchback purchased used by my Dad in 1972 – he had to rebuild the engine at about 40K miles, and I remember grinding the valves under his supervision in his tiny garage workshop. It got passed on to me in 1979 for my last year of High School, at which point it had clocked around 80K miles and was again consuming a gallon of 10W-30 every other week (“Check the gas and fill up the oil”). I bought spark plug anti-foul adapters by the gross! Christmas Holiday was spent swapping in a freshly-rebuilt sleeved GT engine wearing an aftermarket header and Cherry Bomb shorty; it sounded far faster than it was, but proved to be reliable and returned nearly 30 MPG on the highway. I repowered the car with a Buick 3.8l V6 and THM350 over the summer of 1985, and would own it a total of eight years, with over 220K showing on the odometer when I used it as a trade on a new 1986 Suzuki Samurai. Being my first car, it played a significant role in my formative years and force-marched me through a Masters-level auto mechanics course in those early years of ownership. It will always be my favorite…
Chevrolet’s Vega was of course winner of Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year Award, but corporate and labor infighting, plus substantial quality issues that quickly reared their head, earned it a blistering chapter in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, a “Deadly Sin” award on these pages, and a reputation that far outlived Vega’s numerous early problems. Anecdotes of blown head gaskets and furious rusting aside, the car’s worst issues had been mostly rectified by the mid-1970s (by mid-1970s expectations, mind you); the H-body platform would itself soldier on for ten years with over 3.5 million units produced (~2MM of which were Vega/Astres), evidence it perhaps wasn’t quite the abject failure the Interwebs make it out to be. One thing’s for sure, however: GM will never resurrect the Vega nameplate.
But to understand the genesis of the Cosworth Vega, we need to roll the clock back quite a bit farther – all the way to 1956, in fact, when John DeLorean joined General Motors’ Pontiac Division, reporting to Chief Engineer Pete Estes who was under recently-appointed Division Head, Bunkie Knudsen. DeLorean was a key player in the rapid turnaround of Pontiac, with input on the 1959 ‘wide tracks’ as well as the innovative 1961–63 Tempest.
Seeking to borrow from the performance cachet of high-revving European OHC racing engines, he oversaw the creation and introduction of the Pontiac Overhead Cam Six (OHC-6) engine. The OHC-6 was offered in a state of (de)tune that ensured reliability on American highways, but also utilized advanced features such as a deep-skirt engine block design (bottom edge of the block extends well below the crankshaft centerline for stiffness), aluminum cam-carrier and a fiberglass-reinforced, neoprene-impregnated nylon fabric belt – three features that would be reprised in the Cosworth Vega engine.
The OHC-6 would not enter production until 1966, and in the meantime, DeLorean continued repositioning Pontiac as GM’s ‘performance’ division. Despite a ban on factory-sponsored racing and a corporate policy limiting the upcoming A-body’s engine size, the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans debuted with a “GTO” option package powered by a 389 c.i.d. (6.4 L) V8 engine rated at 325 or 348 HP in ‘Tri-Power’ form. Bucking initial sales forecasts, over 32,000 GTOs sold the first year, kicking off “The Great Muscle Car Epoch.”
The following year, Ed Cole would direct DeLorean – now head of Pontiac Division – to create a Pontiac version of the recently-introduced Camaro. Re-running his successful ‘drop in a bigger engine’ play, the Firebird would initially be offered with everything from an OHC 6 up to a 400 c.i.d. (6.6 L) V8, “detuned” (with an easily-removed tab on the carburetor) to 325 gross hp.
DeLorean would tap into the “no replacement for displacement” play for his last time at Pontiac with the 1969 Grand Prix. Essentially a ‘long nosed GTO,’ it was available with up to 390 HP in SJ H.O. trim, and first year sales of the car jumped by almost 400%.
Elsewhere in GM, work had been ongoing to develop a ‘small car’ successor to the Corvair to compete with the VW Beetle (as a point of reference, US sales of the Beetle peaked in 1968 with 399,674 units sold). A number of conceptual directions were explored, some that utilized radical powertrains such as a rear-mounted radial engine. The ‘prime path’ was nailed down in 1967 when what would become Project XP-887 – developed by GM corporate engineering and design staffs – was selected for production over proposals originating from within Chevrolet (the XP-813 shown above) and Pontiac Divisions. The Vega would be the first GM vehicle developed with one person in charge, Development Engineer James (Jim) Musser, Jr., who managed a team of around 50. It is of interest to our story that, during an early review of Project XP-887, Ed Cole requested that, in addition to a full line of body styles including a two-passenger coupe, the car have provisions for a V8 engine option.
In October, 1968, GM Chairman James Roche announced that GM would introduce a new small car in the US within two years. Early the next year, DeLorean was tapped as General Manager of faltering Chevrolet Division, with marching orders to “turn the division around.” Project XP-887 was at this point still in early stages of planning and development, and DeLorean later recounted that, “[The Vega] produced a hostile relationship between the corporate staffs, which essentially designed and engineered the car, and Chevrolet Division, which was to sell it… General Motors was basing its image and reputation on the car, and there was practically no interest in it in the division. We were to start building the car in about a year and nobody wanted anything to do with it.” Yet, even as DeLorean set about getting the program on track, he was already thinking about how to create yet another successful halo car based on the Vega. But instead of throwing cubic inches under the hood, he would use something more along the lines of the OHC-6 approach.
Now it’s fairly well-documented in Vega canon that Chevrolet Division had been working on its own new 4-cylinder engine design, utilizing a cast-iron block and aluminum cross-flow OHC head; it’s even mentioned in this December 1968 blurb in Popular Science. But upcoming emissions requirements (the Clean Air Act of 1970) were proving to be a stumbling block for that engine. Ed Cole instead decided to pursue a new silicone-impregnated pressure-cast sleeveless aluminum block in conjunction with Reynolds Metals. The block by itself was actually a good design in street applications, but other issues would quickly neuter any benefits it brought to the table. The GM 2300 engine would also be Chevrolet’s first OHC, but was purposefully designed for low-RPM torque (to feel like a V8) as opposed to making its horsepower at high-RPMs like European engines.
The Corporate 2300 engine may have had initial potential, but quickly became a cascading failure – emissions compliance and cost pressures dictated switching from the Chevrolet-developed aluminum cross-flow head to a hastily-redesigned cast-iron lump, which in turn led to higher NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) because the engine was now top-heavy (which amplified inherent roughness due to the engine’s long-stroke design). This was “solved” by using softer engine mounts that in turn led to carburetor mounting screws backing out on their own from excessive vibration – this caused backfires and poor mileage from the resulting vacuum leaks. Additionally, Ed Cole initially pushed for air cooling, believing the aluminum block would radiate sufficient heat on its own. It only took one seized test engine to disabuse him of this idea, and a traditional radiator and water pump were hastily added – yet another failure cascade in the making, as no provision was made for an overflow tank; the base engine radiator was not much bigger than a sheet of letter-size paper, and the coolant level in the radiator was below the highest coolant cavities in the engine which could lead to air pockets and hot spots. Add to that early problems with failing head gaskets and overheating was the result. Valve stem seals that dried out and cracked caused excessive oil consumption on top of all that. Needless to say, while the block itself may have been well thought out, the rest of the engine design was a pigs breakfast, and it would take GM until 1976 to finally revise the engine to the point it was reliable by standards of the day.
But that was all in the future at this point…
In August 1969, only six months after inheriting Project XP-887 and with early 2300 prototype engines racking up miles, DeLorean directed Jim Musser to contact London-based Cosworth Engineering to determine interest in developing a racing engine based on the 2300’s aluminum block.
Cosworth had been founded in 1958 by Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth (both former employees of Lotus Engineering Ltd.) and initially focused on tuning, primarily of the Ford 105E Anglia engine. By 1962, they were producing modified Ford 109E engines for installation in the Lotus 7.
In 1967, Duckworth signed the Ford-Cosworth agreement that launched the DFV (Double Four Valve) engine that would go on to become one of the most successful Formula One engines of all time. Driver Jim Clark observed about the DFV engine, “When the power comes in at 6,500 rpm, it does so with such a bang that the car is almost uncontrollable … you either have power or you haven’t.” Despite the binary power output, Clark would cross the finish 27 seconds ahead of the second place car in his first outing with the DVF – the first of 176 wins over 18 seasons for the engine.
In 1969, Cosworth launched the DOHC 16-valve BDA (Belt Drive, Series A) – their first mass-produced road engine that powered the Ford Escort. It would quickly be modified for Rallye use, where it enjoyed great success in Junior categories such as Formula Atlantic and Formula 2. But Cosworth were beginning to realize they were at the limit of developing the cast iron BDA further. In fact, Duckworth had been contemplating a new 2-liter aluminium race engine, and warmly received the invitation from Musser to review the GM 2300 engine. A trip was made to Detroit in late 1969 and Duckworth was impressed with the engine’s materials technology and deep-skirt design – it was just the type of block he felt he could design a competitive engine around, and an agreement was signed with GM soon thereafter.
Chevrolet Design Engineer C.E. “Cal” Wade, who had been involved in Chevy racing efforts for 25 years, subsequently traveled to England in early 1970 to begin collaborative work on the racing variant engine, which Cosworth designated “EAA” (also sometimes referred to as “EA”). The street variant of the engine was referred to as the “Vega TC” (Twin Cam). When I bought Cosworth Vega #2196, I was delighted to find a Xerox copy of this report in the documentation that came with the car, generated by Wade in 1971 – it provides interesting detail I’d not seen before on the development of the program.
Bare 2300 blocks began to arrive at Cosworth in the Autumn of 1970, just as Vega was being launched in the US, with a prototype EAA engine generating horsepower for the first time in March, 1971.
The Chevy-Cosworth EAA engine made about 270HP @ 9,000 RPM, which was competitive for the intended Formula 2 application. The race engine was destroked to 2 liters (1,995cc) to comply with Formula 2 requirements, and utilized a crossflow DOHC 4-valve head with pent roof combustion chambers, forged pistons, 11.5:1 compression ratio, dual Weber carbs, dry sump and Lucas fuel injection and ignition systems. Early GM computer models predicted 190 HP (gross) @ 7,600 RPM for the detuned Vega TC street engine, with 0–60 MPH times in the low-mid 8-second range and quarter-mile times in the low-16-second range with an approximate 125 MPH terminal speed. It’s important to note that the street engine was developed from the race engine and utilized virtually the same head and cams – it truly was a race-bred engine!
DeLorean’s strategy presumed the lightweight Cosworth EAA engine would dominate racing results, subsequently creating a halo effect for Chevrolet.
At DeLorean’s request, a feasibility study for the Vega TC street version was done that indicated a potential market of around 30,000 cars – certainly high enough to justify creation of the street variant, but keep in mind this was done during Vega’s first year on the market and before its initial quality issues were widely known. DeLorean subsequently authorized Wade to build a prototype Cosworth Vega engine. A meager budget, and resistance from managers between Wade and DeLorean meant low priority for the project and relatively slow progress.
Wade’s report provides some detail on the different carb and fuel injection systems that were considered. Also of interest is the notation about a new exhaust manifold and addition of an A.I.R. pump to meet Federal emissions regulations.
This early stock photo from GM was used in several car magazine articles and clearly shows a cast-iron exhaust manifold. Production street engines were instead fitted with a tubular stainless steel header – the most expensive exhaust component in GM’s parts books during the Cosworth Vega’s run.
The Bendix system would be the first use of electronic fuel injection (EFI) on a Chevrolet and became the critical path in the Vega TC’s production schedule.
Had things come together as planned, the Vega Twin Cam would have been introduced in late 1972 for the 1973 model year. The first prototype Vega Twin Cam cars were built in June, 1971, about the same time Chevrolet added the Vega GT option to the price list. The prototype street engines used dual Weber-Holley two-barrel carburetors and made about 170 HP (gross).
But back in London, Cosworth had hit a ‘stumbling block’ with the EAA engine. Mike Hall, Cosworth’s engineer responsible for the BD-series engines, commented, “It was extremely light compared to the BDA with its pressure die-cast aluminium block from Reynolds, but was not up to the ratings we were putting through it. Designed to be a two-litre racer, we could not make the cylinder block live. There was nothing we could do.”
Cosworth’s head of Sales, Jack Field, stated that, “Cosworth stopped development of the Cosworth Vega F2 – Sports Racing engine when GM wouldn’t update the block to keep it from coming apart. Experience with the engines confirmed the block was fragile. The top separated from the bottom. A crack would originate from the water pump opening and travel toward the rear of the block on the left side. The crack would either let the coolant out or worse let the oil out by cracking the main oil feed galley. The resultant oil spray would get on the headers and a fire would follow.”
Primarily used in Chevron B19, B21 and Lola T290 race cars during the 1972 and 1973 racing seasons, the engine’s light weight and power output made it a formidable competitor, with EAA-powered cars racking up a respectable number of wins and top-ten placements when the engine held together. But for the block’s weaknesses and other teething issues, it could well have pulled off DeLorean’s plan to dominate European F2 and SCCA “B” Production class racing.
A history of Cosworth Engineering written in 1988 recounts that, “Hundreds of blocks were being delivered, many failing a pressure test Cosworth devised for them and littering up the place while a solution was found. It never was. Those which passed the test were released, the first version stirring in anger in Guy Edwards’ Lola but failing to go the distance despite the attentions of Messrs. Duckworth and Scammell at Salzburgring.”
Accounts from EAA-powered drivers and crew indicated the engine would typically fail after 2–3 hours of racing. These engines were making 270 HP as previously mentioned. The consensus was that the stock block could handle up to around 250 HP when running longer duty cycles. GM did respond, belatedly, to the cracking problem by tooling up and manufacturing 50 units of an HD version of the block with extra ribbing.
But by 1973, Cosworth had had enough and pulled the plug – the EAA race engine project was dead. A number of the HD blocks subsequently found their way into hill climb, USAC Midget and IMSA RS Vega cars, and proved to be reliable and competitive engines in those applications.
Before we return to development of the street version of the Cosworth engine, it’s worth taking a moment to briefly touch on other engine options being considered for Vega in this timeframe. Per Ed Cole’s request, the Vega had been developed to accept a V8 engine, and a single prototype was built using an all-aluminum engine that was the last of several 283 cu in (4.6 L) units from the CERV I Corvette R&D program. Bored out to 302 cu in (4.9 L) and mated to a Turbo Hydramatic automatic with a stock differential and street tires, the car yielded quarter mile (~400 m) times under 14 seconds in Hot Rod magazine’s July 1972 road test of the prototype. That GM was seriously considering a V8 option is confirmed by the fact that early-production Vegas used transmission crossmembers with clearance reliefs for dual exhaust pipes.
Additionally, GM had been busy working on its RC2-206 rotary engine, with intent to offer it in the 1974 Vega as documented in the May 1972 issue of Popular Science. In fact, GM had done durability testing of RC2-206 Wankels fitted in 1973 Vegas, but then decided to instead offer the rotary in the H-bodied Monza 2+2 – early-production Monzas had a wider transmission tunnel to accommodate the planned rotary. But it was not to be, as Ed Cole postponed the rotary program in September, 1974, retiring from GM the same month. Pete Estes, his successor, had little interest in the engine and the program was canceled in April, 1977 despite data from the R&D team indicating they felt they had solved its fuel economy and durability issues.
As an aside, development of the Monza started in 1971, well before Vega’s problems were widely known – Monza was not a response to Vega’s failures, but rather an attempt at a more upscale and exotic offering aimed at a market slot above the Vega.
Bill Mitchell couldn’t resist getting in on the act, either, with his ‘CorVega’ image car shown at the 1971 New York Auto Show. Originally powered by a turbocharged 2300 engine, the car was later completely revised with a Cosworth Twin Cam engine and distinctive bodywork.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the XP-898 concept from early 1973. While the body was completely original and made of innovative foam-filled molded plastic, all of the running gear was stock Vega. The one drivetrain exception was the engine, which used the stillborn cross-flow aluminum head that Chevrolet had developed. Power was better, NVH was reduced and the engine was a full 4” shorter than the stock Vega unit, allowing for a much lower hood line. Ah, well…
In early April, 1972, Ed Cole had test driven three Vegas including a stock base-trim car for reference, the prototype V8 car and a prototype Cosworth Twin Cam Vega fitted with dual Weber-Holley two-barrel carbs making 170 HP gross (about 130 HP net) and 125 lb-ft torque. He loved the Cosworth and offered his support for a run of 5,000 Twin Cam Vegas. Even Zora Arkus-Duntov was impressed with the Cosworth, stating it was ‘nicest 4-cylinder’ he had ever driven. DeLorean got his first ride a couple months later and signed off on development toward EPA certification and production. While two cars were prepared for 1973 emissions testing, they were never submitted as engineers were still working to sort part-throttle drivability and emissions issues. Further work was done on the cam profiles and to improve the torque curve, the cast iron exhaust manifold was swapped for a tubular stainless steel header to improve low-RPM drivability as noted above.
All this work delayed the program past the point where they could make the 1973 model year, so the new target release was 1974. Seven pilot build cars were assembled in April, 1973, all wearing silver paint and bearing COSWORTH VEGA 16 VALVE decals on their front fenders. Chevrolet Public Relations began teasing the upcoming limited-edition Cosworth Vega, with a formal announcement for the 1974 model year occurring in July of 1973. The car’s design had been frozen by this point, with the color scheme being revised by GM designer Jerry Palmer to black (a color unavailable on other Vega trims until 1976) with gold accents, bearing the COSWORTH TWIN CAM name on the fenders, engine cam cover, horn button, wheel center caps and on a plaque indicating the car’s build number fitted to the unique gold engine-turned dash panel. John DeLorean would not be around to oversee the final development of the car, however, having resigned from GM in April.
Enthusiastic reviews started to pour in from the trade rags, and in January, 1974, Car & Driver’s test of a Pilot build Cosworth Vega turned in the fastest 0-60 MPH time (7.7 seconds) of any car they tested that year (keep in mind, this was right at the beginning of the Malaise Era and the lightweight Cosworth was still making 170 HP gross at this point).
Finally it was time to run the car through the 1974 EPA test cycle. It’s an oft-repeated fact that two of the three test engines failed the test cycle. The backstory is that a decision was made (strenuously fought against by the Vega TC engine team) to significantly retard the timing in order to provide a margin of safety in the emissions results. This created excessive heat that caused failure of the exhaust valves and seats at around the 46,000 mile mark in the 50,000 mile test. The engine team was bitterly disappointed, feeling that the engine would easily have passed using the recommended timing settings.
The whole EPA test cycle, including months of durability tests, would have to start over from scratch – and would have to meet even tighter 1975 regulations. The Bendix electronic fuel injection system was revised to improve air distribution, and a Pulse Air system was added – this system did the same job as an A.I.R. pump, but without the pump’s 6 HP penalty (note that Pulse Air is different from an EGR system). High-energy ignition was added, and the timing was advanced, which, along with the requirement of lead-free fuel, ensured everything would work well with the now-mandatory catalytic converter. Internal Chevrolet testing required an engine be able to survive 200 hours at full load – the Cosworth engine went over 500 hours. Cal Wade even ran a test engine up to 9,400 RPM in a clutch burst test and the engine survived just fine (as did the clutch).
Three cars began durability tests in September, 1974 (the same month Ed Cole put the rotary engine program on hold and subsequently retired), each configured differently to ensure at least one would pass. Testing completed in January, 1975, and one of the three configurations met California’s tighter limits for 1975, so this configuration became the one used in production, making the Cosworth Vega the only GM car to be 50-State compliant. In fact, all three test cars came very close to meeting 1977 Federal standards.
In February 1975, five Pilot cars were built at the Lordstown plant. The first RPO Z09 production car was built on March 27, 1975 and on April 17, 1975, a media event was held at Lordstown, where the Cosworth Vega began rolling off the line at approximately 1.67 cars per hour on two shifts – two-and-a-half years after the original planned launch date.
A total of 5,000 Twin Cam engines were hand-assembled (and signed by the builder) in batches of 30 in a clean room at the Tonawanda, NY facility originally set up for assembly of all-aluminum ZL-1 427 cu in (7 liter) V8 engines. As an interesting historical aside, five low-mile used Cosworth Vega engines were purchased to use for reference by the Oldsmobile Quad 4 development team.
The Cosworth Vega was finally here, but reviews were not quite as gushing as they had been for the scrubbed 1974 model. Power was down to a mere 110 HP (net) at 5,600 RPM and 107 lb-ft torque; the compression ratio had dropped all the way down to 8.5:1. The 1975 Vega GT engine made 87 HP (net), so you got about 30% more power with the Cosworth, but that same Vega GT engine also made 14% more torque, at 122 lb-ft. The heavier 1975 Monza (called the ‘Italian Vega’ by DeLorean) launched with the same 2300 engine used in the Vega, but was also available with a 262 cu in (4.3 liter) V8, also making 110 HP (net), and if you lived in California, your V8 Monza came with a 350 cu in (5.7 liter) V8 making 125 HP (net).
110 HP may sound anemic, but power was down across the board throughout Chevrolet’s lineup due to 1975 emissions requirements. The L-48-powered Corvette (165 HP) was only slightly faster to 60 MPH, and a V8-powered Camaro (145 HP, but almost a half-ton heavier) took 10.9 seconds to achieve 60 MPH compared with the 8.7 seconds recorded by Car & Driver in a 1976 Cosworth Vega.
Where the Cosworth Vega positively excelled was in handling, partly because it received the revised rear suspension used in the heavier Monza. The Vega had always been a good handler if optioned right – Road & Track in 1973 reported, “With these tires (BR70-13) the Vega does better on the skidpad than every other car in our test summary except the Jaguar XJ6, very select company indeed. It also outdoes the ’73 Corvette on its radials in this particular test.” Reviews quickly racked up touting the Cosworth Vega’s agility: Car and Driver reported in October 1975, “As quick as the lil’ black Vega is in a straight line, it would be a big mistake to use one as a straight-line machine. The car’s forte is a nice, winding road. The sort of place you don’t see jacked-up Road Runners with drag slicks. This is where the Cosworth really shines. At moderate speeds, the car is as close to neutral handling as any American car I have ever driven … The outstanding feature of the Cosworth Vega is its excellent balance. Roll-stiffness distribution is ideal, with little understeer entering a turn, and just the right amount of drift from the tail as you put your foot down to exit.”
Road Test magazine’s October 1976 ‘Great Supercoupe Shootout’ pitted an Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT, Mazda Cosmo, Lancia Beta and Saab EMS against the Cosworth Vega and found that, “The Chevrolet Cosworth Vega is the only American car worthy of the lot. It is more than just some little super coupe … Read ‘em and weep, all you foreign-is-better nuts, because right there at the top, and by a long way at that, is the Cosworth Vega. It had the fastest 0-60 time, the fastest quarter-mile time, and tied with the Saab for the shortest braking distance … The Cosworth is American, and a collector’s item, and it came close, damn close to winning the whole thing.”
But despite the sparkling handling, and the fact it was the first American mass-produced automobile to feature a DOHC 4-valve, 4-cylinder engine, the first Chevrolet with electronic fuel injection and the first Chevrolet to use pressure-die-cast aluminum wheels, there were precious few takers. The price was certainly eye-watering; another $800 or so would put you in a Corvette, and Chevrolet even had the chutzpah to advertise the car as “One Vega for the Price of Two.”
Dealers were told to “play hard to get” – the thought being that having a Twin Cam in the showroom as bait would bring in customers that could be switched over to other Chevrolet offerings – these dealers often ended up sitting on cars long after they were canceled, eventually selling them at a loss. At least one dealer went so far as to fit Landau roofs on a few cars in hopes of finally moving them off.
After having moved only 2,061 units in 1975, changes were made in hopes of generating higher interest. Eight additional exterior colors were added, along with a number of additional interior color and material options. Along with the new grille and rear taillights that all 1976 Vegas received, the Cosworth got upgraded brakes, softer springs and a 1” higher ride height. An optional Borg-Warner T-50 ‘dogleg’ five-speed transmission paired with a 4.10 ratio differential was added and the 1975’s dual-outlet tailpipe was revised to a single outlet. 1976 sales were dismal none-the-less; only 1,447 units were sold (for a total of 3,508) before the plug was pulled for good. GM broke down 500 leftover Twin Cam engines for spares and destroyed the rest.
45 years later (as of this writing), the Cosworth Vega remains – aside from a small pocket of enthusiasts – an outlier in the collector market, despite being one of the rarest Chevrolet cars ever made. Many have of course succumbed to the ravages of time, hooning, accidents or V6 and V8 engine swaps. A variety of other engines have found their way under Cossie hoods including an Ecotec, a Mazda rotary and a 3.0 litre Cosworth V6. Non-runners may sell for a couple thousand or less, and a decent driver-quality car can be had for $6-8K. The current upper end of the market was set recently when 1976 Cosworth Vega #3037 sold on Bring A Trailer for $48,000 – this car had a mere 39 miles on both the odometer and the originally-fitted Goodyear BR70-13 tires. But there aren’t many Cossies left in that kind of time capsule condition…
A few years ago, I started following the CV market, mostly doing mental daydreaming, but also thinking about the possibility of buying a driver to own for a couple years as a sort of ‘bookend’ car to my first. I looked at a ’75 in the Chicago area, but it was a bit spendier than I wanted at $12K. Another car popped up local to me for $10K, but an in-person visit revealed more repair issues than I wanted to purchase – it eventually sold for a little under $7K.
Finally, a car popped up in my searches about 2 hours away at a price somewhat higher than I had set as my upper limit. I decided to bring the trailer, and made a stop by the bank on the way out of town. Several hours later, I was on the way home, having only gone $100 over budget, mainly because that’s all I had and the owner’s wife said “take it.”
Following me on the trailer was Cosworth Vega #2196, the 132nd (or so) 1976 car built; I had just become its fourth owner with a touch over 80K on the odometer. The car was sold new in Indiana and relocated to Rockford, IL with its third owner, who did a bare-shell restoration in 1999. He set the car up for autocross, which included such goodies as IECO lowering springs, Bilstien shocks, a Flaming River quick-ratio steering box and a 4:10 posi differential behind the original four-speed manual transmission, which gave it exceptionally good acceleration off the line. A second set of Cosworth wheels shod with track tires were part of the deal as well.
The engine was hotted up with 9.5:1 forged pistons running in +.030” sleeved cylinders, 42 DCOE Webers, assembly balancing and a custom 2.25” exhaust through a dual-chamber Flowmaster muffler (no cat). Dyno numbers were not available, but my guess is that it was making 140-150 HP. In the previous owner’s hands, it was a consistent winner in its class.
In the process of ‘making the car my own,’ I replaced the racing seat and harness bar with the originals and de-stickered the windows. I loved the performance mods and left those intact, but wanted the car to look stock externally. The huge cowcatcher front air dam was replaced with a period-correct repro GM unit that didn’t bottom out on my gravel driveway, and I replaced the aftermarket ‘Trans Am’ style exhaust with one fabricated by a local shop to look like a dual-outlet original (actual originals are ‘unobtanium’).
So what’s it like to drive? Well, that’s my son in the photo, and I pretty much had the same stupid grin on my face whenever I drove it. It was like a time warp the first time I took it out – so many memories came rushing over me, it was overwhelming.
As I got used to the car, it became quite apparent how crude (and small) these were back in the day. Now, keep in mind that my ’71 was a base model with hard plastic door cards, rubber floor mats and minimal sound deadening insulation. I really didn’t notice those things, though – I was young! But the ’76 was now over 40 years old, and had been rebuilt as a gentleman racer: the ride and steering were bone-jarring and stiff, and the car was (deliciously!) LOUD, but quite rattly, too. It was also LOW, both to the ground, as well as in headroom. My notchback had an extra 1.8” of headroom vs. the hatchback Cosworth. Even with the seat all the way back, I barely fit in the car. The ’82 Cavalier that succeeded my ’71 Vega was a much nicer car by comparison, and by the time we got to the 1990 Honda Civic base hatch we bought early in our marriage, well, it was simply night and day – both from a reliability and “nice” driving experience standpoint. Would I want to DD a Vega in this day and age? In a word, no.
Most of the roads in the Midwest where we lived were straight and flat (with plenty of frost heave), which, honestly, was a bit boring in the Cossie. Interstate driving was a chore, too, as the car was turning nearly 5K RPM at 70 MPH due to the 4.10 diff paired with the 4-speed manual. I drove it to work and Cars & Coffee a number of times, but it really wasn’t that exciting once the novelty wore off (although the soundtrack was always incredible).
However, taking this little pocket rocket out on the track was a whole ‘nuther story. The first event I ran experienced off-and-on rain, and with it being my first autox in the car, I took it fairly easy.
The second event I attended was at a different venue with a faster (and dry) course – my gearing was working against me because I’d run out of RPM and upshifting ended up slowing me down. But every time I ran the course, the car was like a puppy, wagging its tail and telling me, “More, please!” So I kept pushing harder with each run, and it kept eating it up. I finally found the limit, and the car’s neutral handling facilitated a very graceful recovery, almost before I realized we were rotating more than planned. While the 4:10 gearing helped a lot getting off the line, the afterburners really kicked in around 3,500–4,000 RPM, quickly spinning up well past the 6,500 RPM redline. It was a total hoot! That’s what the Cosworth Vega was all about, I had discovered.
I had owned the car about 18 months at this point, and had given my employer three month’s retirement notice with a planned move out-of-State to be closer to grandkids: it was time to pass the car on to its next owner. I ended up taking a small loss, but I felt it was more than made up by the experiences I had. It was about as good a vintage car owning experience as one could hope for, with only one mechanical breakdown due to a failed starter solenoid (a replacement was available same day on the shelf at AutoZone). The new owner is an enthusiast who owns three other Vegas (two CVs and a LS-powered monster), so I felt like it went to a good home.
Internet canon says the Vega was one of the worst cars ever made. Well, it certainly had its issues, and I can only agree with it being included on these pages as one of GM’s Deadly Sins because of the corporate decisions that resulted in its failures. But other cars from the 1970s (domestics and imports) rusted out and blew head gaskets, too. By 1975-76, Vega was a fairly reliable and durable car when compared to other domestic offerings, and the later models get painted (unfairly IMO) with perhaps too broad a negative brush. The Cosworth variant’s huge potential was ultimately frittered away by the same brand of poor corporate decision making. By the time it finally (finally!) came to market, hobbled as it was by an unrealistic price tag, the market and car culture had moved on and it was effectively irrelevant.
No-one is really sure how many Cossies still exist – the only estimate I’ve seen is maybe 500 or so, but that seems a bit low to me, given how many were purchased “as investments.” A few Cosworth EAA engines are still used in vintage racing today, which is incredible given there can’t have been many made, perhaps less than 100? But I’m thankful to have owned one, even briefly, because every time I wedged myself into the seat, pumped the throttle to load up the Webers and heard that delightful rasp rending the air, it became a time machine…
I was young again.
The Cosworth Vega Owners Association (CVOA) is the go-to group for historical and technical information on the Cosworth Vega, and were both friendly and a huge help as I sorted out my car.
I linked to several key CC articles on the Vega in the text, and typing in “Vega” in the CC Search Box at the upper-right will turn up quite a number of additional pieces we’ve offered over the years.