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).
I always wondered why we didn’t hear more about the Cosworth Vega – now I understand.
The photo of the Cosworth ‘factory’ is of the premises in Edmonton (near where I grew up) which they vacated in 1964 for a purpose-built factory in Northampton.
Excellent article Ed! This has to be the most comprehensive history of the Cosworth Vega I have ever read – well done. I also enjoyed the racing history. I recall you speaking of your old Vega, but I had no idea you had owned a Cosworth Vega. It looks like it was a very nice specimen and it certainly sounds like you enjoyed it thoroughly during your ownership. Bringing your car back to a stock appearance certainly improve the looks in my eyes.
It’s too bad the Cosworth Vega took so long to come to market and when it did, it wasn’t overly successful on the market. I often wonder how many people that were shopping for a small sporty European car would have seriously considered a Vega. Not only was it’s reputation poor by the mid-1970s but buying a Chevy Vega didn’t exactly have the same cachet as a BMW, Alpha or something similar. Its also too bad that the engineering and quality of the Vega didn’t match it’s good looks, road manners and in the case of the Cosworth the great engine.
Aaron Severson wrote up the Vega and Cosworth Vega over at Ate Up With Motor as well, which fleshes out the story even more.
Thank you, I didn’t know they had an article on the Cosworth Vega on Ate up With Motor. I will have to read it, I am sure its highly detailed.
Probably the definitive piece on the Vega!
Wonderfully detailed and written article Ed. My memory is that the Cosworth Vega was always “right around the corner” and then delayed another year. The original concept was sound but the execution resulted in another “woulda, coulda, shoulda” for GM.
I’m glad that you got to experience it as it was meant to be. Great COAL!
A wonderfully detailed and written article Ed – thanks! My memory is that the Cosworth Vega was always “right around the corner” and then delayed for yet another year. It was another excellent concept but poor execution by GM, a “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. I’m glad that you got to experience it in the way that it meant to be driven.
A really excellent COAL!
Another dream that would never be, thanks once again to dad. Three years later I’ve also graduated with an M. Ed. and dad once again was willing to foot for a new car. Same restrictions: Must be a Chevrolet, and no Corvette (no out and out restrictions against a Camaro this time).
With the Cosworth-Vega available at this point, I didn’t argue the restrictions. And dad was interested (my Vega GT was still running well), until he saw the $6300.00 sticker. That killed it immediately, and I settled for a red Monza 2+2 with 5-speed. Which I really enjoyed although it wasn’t the autocrosser the Vega was.
This was the last free car. I paid for the next one, although dad managed to insert himself into the deal on that one, stopping me from getting what I wanted (so what if I’m paying for it, welcome to my family life) and sticking me with the worst POS I,ve ever owned. A 1979 Monza Kammback with V-6 and 5-speed.
I’ve read multiple comments you’ve written about your dad this week. I think the one on the Opel was from 2014 or thereabouts. Anyway, just to throw a little different perspective out there…it sounds like he bought you at least two new cars. Lots (most) kids get zero new cars.
Oh, I appreciated the new cars. It’s that there were always catches. It’s a family thing.
Thanks Ed for telling the whole Vega story. I was a bit sad that I never got to see this car in person, since I learned to drive in one and have a soft Vega shaped spot in my heart too.
Now that you’ve got this out of the way, I’ll be looking forward to the autocrossing report on your 40hp VW!
Great history, I have read everything I can find on the CV, and still learned a lot on this entry. The car was so, almost, the ’70’s Lotus Cortina. I have always been intrigued by the CV, and have imagined building the engine up in the way Cosworth intended, with big compression and proper carburetion. Unfortunately, I can’t get around the fact that doing the build would give me an engine that could reliably catastrophically crack the block at any moment, as Cosworth found out at the time. Lesser engine builds, such as the one the author owned, would fare much better. But the idea of owning a CV with a true 250+ horsepower is really the point of the thing. Waiting for the “Big Bang” every time I wound out the engine would sort of take the bloom off the rose.
It’s too bad GM was so aggressive at going after the best with Cosworth for its new Vega, while at the same time, pinching pennies at the moment of truth, when things were almost where they needed to be. Any person taking on an intensive build up of a race car or hot rod knows how the trade-off goes, how, at some point, one has to say “enough now, let’s wrap up this build”. But GM was right there, and from the looks of it, one modified/redesigned engine casting away from something for the automotive ages, rather than a fascinating footnote.
You might find the following comments of interest (lifted from h-body.org IIRC). Note the comment about a turbo’d engine making a reliable 300 HP!
A modified ’76 CV (making 260 HP) captured the Bonneville Land Speed G/Pro class record at 156.818 MPH in 2009. I believe that may have now been superseded, though.
Cosworth of England, when they ran in Group 2 sports cars, cracked or split blocks after 2-3 hours in enduro racing so it does depend on what duty cycle you plan on running. COE engines were making 270HP. I pit crewed for a Cosworth Vega midget owner in the middle 90’s. The stock block can handle around 250HP, above that it is suspect. The midget was running a HD block, GM made about 50 of these, and the owner experimented with lightening the crank. The crank was not balanced correctly and cracks formed above the mains. He then went to a stock block, the engine dyno’d at 300HP at 9000RPM, running 14:1CR on methanol. He made external re-inforcing aluminum plates that tied the top of the block to the bottom (I only have one picture of the right side of the engine with the plate, see below). The left side used three turn buckles plus a plate around the water pump. The stock blocks are a hit and miss, we have two CVOA members that have turbo’d the engine, both running boost over 20lbs, neither have had block problems. One a drag racer and the other a modified street car. The street car dyno’d close to 300HP at the wheels. These were all 2.0L sleeved engines.
Another discussion talked about making custom lower main caps that were wide enough for threaded rod to line up with the head bolt holes, thereby sandwiching the bottom end to the head. No one has put this design to test. When the blocks do split it’s at the water jacket (see other two photo’s below).
My autocross engine uses a long stroke crank and .070″ over bore, 12.7:1CR, 2.4L. It has run hundreds of autocrosses without any problems (with the exception of when it swallowed a bolt that mounted the air cleaner!) but the duty cycle is short. It makes between 230-240HP but it rarely gets over 7500RPM, the added torque from the longer stroke makes a whale of a difference.
Thanks! Good information. Early on, I was part of a pit crew for a group of guys who ran Vegas and CVs in IMSA RS and SCCA, back about 1980. Did a lot of work with both the stock Vega engine and the Cosworth version. One could simply look at a part and know which of the two it belonged to, by observing the quality of the casting, the machining, and the finish. The Cosworth parts really were finished to high end, tight tolerance, exact fit, with care in the finishing work and detail, right out of the box. The look and feel of the parts told one that this engine was something really special. The Vega parts were simply the typical banged-out pieces.
The problem with the Vega was the throwing of rods through the side of the block. The problem for the CV, even just a few years after production, was finding spare parts (basic engine reliability for the CV was not an issue for us). Though they share a common starting point, almost every piece of the CV engine is different than the Vega (to Cosworth’s and GM’s credit, they worked so hard to try to get it “right”). Racing programs often need spares that ordinary street cars wouldn’t generally need, an odd spare casting of some sort, say, or a flywheel. Not always available.
It’s frustrating to me that GM didn’t finally see it through, but I think the pollution control thing just sucked the power out of the street legal version, to the point where the engine people threw up their hands and said “that’s all we can do, folks”, with the pollution control and engine management technology they had at the time. On top of that, 1972 turned into 1975, the industry was deep into Malaise Mode, big-time racing faded a bit as a marketing tool, and time just got away from the CV program. With the end of the entire Vega production run getting in sight, the idea was to get what you have out there, instead of banging away on the last few issues. Since it would obviously be a 110 hp car in street form anyway (good, but not spectacular), there was no real customer for the car, at the price, other than those seeking something different and interesting. But at 6 grand, a hard sell.
I have always been intrigued by the CV, there is so much to it, and such a noble effort by a bunch of car guys at GM. The photocopied internal corporate pages in this article are tangible evidence of the car guys making their case to the bean counters, “we can make this work”. Of all of the GM efforts over the decades that didn’t hit their potential, this one could have been some cross of the original Shelby GT350 Mustang and the original Lotus Cortina. In the eyes of owners and some fans, it likely already is. Instead it is a secret car, nurtured by a secret society. You are either a member of that club, or likely don’t even know that it, and the car, even exist.
I will likely never own one, as I have reached the age and the point where I am finishing the projects I have rather than taking on new ones. But I came of age in the ’70s, and the CV was the next big thing, right around the corner, any day now…and then it wasn’t. Glad to see that a few people still carry the CV torch, as people do with the Yenko Stinger, for example, or the Lancia HF. Not everything needs to be a small block V8 or a Hemi. At any car event, I will likely beeline first to any CV in sight. They are such special cars, warts and all.
What a great history! I knew you had the Cossie, didn’t realize you sold it again though, thought it would be a forever keeper. But I’ve been through that myself last year so I get it. Still, as others have said, this is by far the best/most I’ve ever seen in one place detailing the car and you having owned one (and a standard one back in the day) brings an ever better perspective to it. I’m now trying to figure out what’s next for the man that I think went from RAM2500 to Diesel Beetle to Honda Fit to Chevy SS to Vega Cosworth. The SS must have half a million miles on it by now the way you drive it, but your choices are delightfully unpredictable.
Terrific article! I had a postcard of the CorVega that I kept for years, and now I finally know what the back end looks like – after over 30 years. (I could never find a picture online.)
The XP-898 looks a lot like the fourth-generation Camaro.
So for you, Mr Ed, it’s viva, lost Vegas?
A terrific article about a car whose NIH corporate gestation was so inward-looking that it amounted to strabismus.
Which might, perhaps, just account for their first twin cam.
Great information on a not very well known car.
I bet there are more than 500 still out there. I’ve come across 3. Two that were sitting in their owner’s garage, one of which had boxed and other junk stacked on top of its dusty body. The other was just dusty.
The third was one that came into the shop I worked at that was a certified emissions repair facility. As you noted the idle speed was 1200 rpm and the state emissions testing regime at the time required the idle speed to be 1100 rpm or less. When the owner went in for a test of course they told him that they couldn’t test it. He said but it is adjusted to factory specs. Eventually he was directed to the person with the state who was responsible for overseeing certified shops. He directed the owner to contact us as we had the highest level of cars actually passing their retest instead of issuing a repair wavier in his territory.
So late one day it showed up with the owner who brought along his factory shop manual. I stuck the probe up the tail pipe and gave it a sniff. It was within the CO and HC limits but of course idling at 1200 rpm. Tried as we did we couldn’t make it hold an idle at 1100 rpm or less. The supervisor showed up and then he fiddled with it for 45min before accepting that this engine would not idle below 1200 rpm. Not only would it die, the HC numbers were very high during the short periods it would idle.
So he signed the paper work so that the owner could license it, off it went never to be seen again.
Now he did say it was something he had recently purchased so I guess it is possible that it was one of the ones I’d seen in a garage. But I have to believe there are still a number of them sitting in someone’s garage, gathering dust and/or holding up boxes.
I would have been torn between a CV and a Mercury Capri with the Cologne V-6. The Capri would have been a better daily driver I think.
Terrific write-up on the CV! It just wasn’t in the cards, given the players. But it makes a great story.
And your car was the way it should have been, with some real beans in the engine. I’m glad you finally were able to fulfill your CV wish, with such a nice example.
I’m out here in the remote corners of Eastern Oregon, escaping from the smoky hell of the Willamette Valley. We have some surprisingly good cell coverage this morning, hence the rare comment from me.
What a great article! Brings back memories of me poring over the ’76 Vega brochure that I had as a 10 year old, wondering what the “Cosworth Vega” was all about. Best line that made me LOL, “The ’82 Cavalier that succeeded my ’71 Vega was a much nicer car by comparison.”
My God, I remember poring over the ’76 brochure at 10, and thinking how awesome the CV was!
Wow, what a great biography! Given your expertise on the Vega, you were the perfect author for this topic. In fact, another subtle clue yesterday besides your tail light photo, was most readers knew you were a Vega authority. I was thinking ‘Vega-related’ in seeing your writer byline before looking at the pic.
I apologize as I am writing on my lunch break, and I’ve yet to read your full article, but as a kid the Cosworth Vega engine and package seemed like a much better fit to me in the Monza. I know the Cosworth was well in development already, and you probably answered my question in your report. The Vega was slightly before my time, but as a kid then, the fresh Monza seemed like a better platform for the Cosworth engine and upgrades. I was young in ’75 and ’76, but knew the Vega already had a sullied reputation by then. And was old school compared to the Monza.
Like Ed Harsley up above, I can remember reading the car mags back then, and there seemed to be at least one line about the Cosworth Vega every single month for something like 3 or 4 years. Then it came out and the auto press went very silent on it almost immediately. Now I understand.
This is a story of the slowly morphing dysfunction that was GM at the time, and once DeLorean was gone from Chevrolet (and Cole from GM) the Cosworth’s champions were gone too.
I had not realized that the car had come and gone so quickly for you. But you have now checked it from your bucket list. If there a Vega Merit Badge you have earned it.
If there’s a Vega Merit Badge you have earned it.
Love it! Does a Vega key FOB count? (c:
(mine’s in a box somewhere right now, but looks similar to this one)
Great article, and I’m glad you had a good ownership experience. I have been rereading my old car magazine collection, and it really does seem like there is a Cosworth mention for every car produced. They covered it for years before it arrived, and then they mentioned it in every issue until GM stopped advertising it.
I think your tuned and tweaked Cosworth Vega was the way to go. The problem with the stock version was that it did too good of a job predicting the future. While it was very advanced in the mid-’70s, it had a mechanical spec sheet that was later matched by luminaries like the Toyota Echo. Collector cars are often valued for being obsolete in interesting ways, but the Cosworth Vega was exotic in a way that became mundane. The previous owner realizing the performance goals that were lost meeting emissions regulations made your car far more satisfying to drive. Also, even if stock rules in car collecting, there are still far too many ‘investment’ grade CVs running around for anyone to ever make any money on one.
Going off of memory, Ed Cole must have held quite a sway over GM. From being part of the development team for the ’49 Cadillac V-8, to overseeing the Chevy V-8 in ’55, he had to have been held in high regard.
But after “fathering” the the Corvair (and it’s adverse publicity) and then being allowed to follow it up with the the Vega, seems a lack of oversight on GM management.
I’m still wrapping my head around the T-50 transmission. There were so few units made for ’76, and the T-50 being optional, there couldn’t have been many Vegas so equipped. It seems that it was also available in (some?) H- X- and A-bodies, but it couldn’t handle much torque, so the largest engine to which GM mated it was the Oldsmobile 260 V-8.
I believe it was the first regular production option 5-speed in any American-made vehicle. I think I’ll do more research and see if I can turn the story of the T-50 into a post – there’s not much out there on the web.
There were several variants of the T-50 with different gearing. The unit used in the CV had a nasty habit of seizing up solid at speed due to a bushing being used where a roller bearing should have been, along with lightweight oil to help fuel economy. Current owners run heavier oil and overfill by 1 pint to alleviate this issue. When it happens, the whole drivetrain locks up, which makes for some interesting pirouettes.
My Brothers 1976 Pontiac Sunbird with 3.8 Liter Buick Engine had a T-50. He bought it used in 1979.Good for 38 MPG at 60 mph.
GM should have went for the stillborn L-10 engine with cross-flow aluminum head that put out 111 hp in the XP-898 concept instead of what was chosen for the Vega, perhaps it would have been an even starting starting point for the Cosworth Vega.
Would have loved to have seen the Cosworth Vega engine in the smaller Chevette as the US equivalent of performance Chevettes from Opel, Vauxhall and Isuzu.
Btw do anymore photos exist of the CorVega?
As configured for the 1971 show:
Another view of the Twin Cam version:
The stated reason was that the L-10 was not able to hit emissions targets. However, I’m sure Ed Cole (father of the Corvair) simply wanted the aluminum block and that was that.
I did a lot of mining of the old H-body.org forums in researching this article and found a number of comments from folks who worked at GM back in the day and had first-hand observations (at least from the perspective of whatever their role was). I’d like to eventually tackle another piece on the Vega’s development, as there are a number of so-called ‘facts’ that take on quite a different light when broader context is added.
Thanks for the images, rather like the look of the Black Corvega Twin-Cam.
One of the things that intrigues me about the Vega (from a non-US perspective) is how they could have been plausibly improved had the right decisions been made during development to remedy or completely butterfly away their infamous reputation, the same goes with the likes of the Pinto.
Another aspect would be whether there was a missed opportunity to commonise the Vega with the Opel Ascona A/B or a shortened GM V platform similar to what Vauxhall considered for the Cerian project before they were forced to turn the Ascona B into the mk1 Cavalier (and the Pinto with the mk3-mk5 Cortina) as was the case with the T-Car.
Was the displacement of the L-10 otherwise the same as the regular 2300 engine? Additionally was the 2300 conceived to displace just 2300cc or were other displacements envisaged beyond the 2-litre Cosworth Twin-Cam?
Also heard the CERV-based V8 used in the Vega V8 prototype was essentially an all-alloy Chevrolet Small Block V8, which together with the later development of the SB V8-based 90-degree V6 makes one wonder why GM felt the need to buy back the Buick V6 or attempt to buy back the rights of the 215 Buick / Rover V8 when they could have simply made their own 90-degree V6 from the Small Block V8 as well as produced all-alloy V6/V8 engines.
And drifting away from the Vega a minute, of the view GM could have also gotten away with developing turbocharged and dieselized Small Block-based variants in place of the Pontiac 301 Turbo and Oldsmobile Diesels.
There is no indication the 2300 block was ever intended to have alternate displacements. The Cosworth EAA was destroked to meet the 2 litre F2 requirement, easily done with a different crank. In fact, there are a number of street TC engines that have gone the other way – returning the engine back to 2.3 or even up to 2.4 litres.
While aluminum blocks (and heads) are commonplace today, back in this timeframe they were much more expensive than cast iron. Add to that the cost of development for a reliable street application that, more importantly and expensively, would meet ever-tightening emissions regulations, and it’s easy to see why the CERV engine never went beyond the R&D stage at that point in history. Recovering the Buick V6 was quicker, less expensive, and in hindsight, a brilliant move given how reliable and durable the engine turned out to be over the years.
What am trying to get at with the idea of GM developing an earlier Chevy V8-based V6 (instead of buying back the Buick V6) and producing all-alloy versions as was considered for the Vega V8 prototype, would be the fact that there was an opportunity for GM to apply the lessons they learned with aluminum on the CERV V8, 215 BOP V8 and L-10 prototype (in place of the 2300) engines onto the Small Block V8 and related V6.
That would have cost a lot more money than buying the unused Buick V-6 tooling back and bolting it right back in the exact same place it had been removed from.
Nice write up on the Cosworth Vega. My neighbor took the easy way out and dropped a small block into his Vega. Ran very well.
…this write up really makes me want a Cosworth Vega now. Excellent article dude!
Terrific writeup — and the soundtrack alone of your autocross video is enough to make me want to buy one!
Just got a chance to read this in full, excellent write up! I sort of knew the bullet points of the Cosworth but most information in between is very sparse, and the story is much more interesting than I imagined(I never knew there was an actual racing application for example. Or that it was used during the Quad 4 development).
It’s unfortunate timing, when you look at Japanese sport coupes in the 80s their specs weren’t far off from the Vega, 5-speed DOHC fuel injected 4 in a pretty capable RWD chassis? Sounds like a AE86!. The V8 Monza May have proved a better value and more conventional, but a V8 was a dead end in a sport subcompact car. Furthermore had it debuted when intended before the Vega image was tainted on what was the superior (IMO) original small bumper design, the idea of paying double for it might not have been quite as perplexing. Paying that much for an exotic engine in a car now well known as a lemon was a really bad proposition. Chevy would have been far better off putting that engine into the new Monza body than the tainted but also low end Vega body, but I understand why it’s own aforementioned complications nixed that notion for product planners(wild goose chase with the rotary engine).
By contrast the Taurus SHO had a rather similar background with its Yamaha V6, but unlike the Vega the Taurus had an excellent reputation to build off of despite it being introduced 4 years after the debut, and it didn’t cost double the price of a regular LX. It’s not some obscure footnote in Ford’s history as a consequence(it lasted 3 generations and the now extinct D3 Taurus actually revived it). GM had a real problem with their pricing structure starting about this time, not everything made in the 80s was bad or uninspired or out of touch with trends as it appears from the majority of examples (Buick’s T type trim being a major example that comes to mind) but they priced them out of being good values, the consequently slow sales nixed them from the line and buyers were only exposed to the laziest of GM engineering and image. When they were at the stage of the Cosworth’s final development, I just imagine someone asking “so how much should this package cost?” … “how about double?” …”yeah sounds fair. Now who wants some champagne?”, and that was that. No real number crunching, no marketplace analysis, and for the love of god don’t spend a dime of that potential profit on marketing (Hmm, Chevy SS, anyone?). The Cosworth Vega May just represent the exact moment corporate suits finally overtook the car guys in the company.
IIRC there was a dedicated machine that dealer service departments were supposed to use to diagnose and service the fuel injection system. I wonder how many dealerships actually got these machines and how much use they saw.
Ca. 1977 I struck up a conversation with a Cosworth Vega owner in Los Angeles. He said’ he’d replaced the fuel injection with a pair of Webers.
There were more Chevy dealers (~6,000, IIRC) than the planned 5,000 copies of the CV, so to get one to sell, a dealer had to agree to purchase the unique service tools and get training. Which I’m sure, in hindsight, they regretted. The service tools pop up for sale every once in a while – saw a set on ebay a while back that were still in their GM packaging.
Really enjoyed this piece, and find outing out about a car I knew little of, although was aware of.
Clearly, you enjoyed your return visit, and rightly so.
Thanks for the detailed feature Ed.
Brought back memories of my well optioned 74 GT which allowed me to travel many places including a six-week road trip through the US and Canada during the summer of 75. One stop on that trip was a Chevy dealership someplace in Florida which was displaying a Cosworth Vega. I recall its price tag was around the $6,000 and the car was a beauty. A salesperson was eager to help me cut a deal by taking my GT as a trade. Very tempting, but no.
Wow, missed this the first time around! I knew Ed was a fellow former Vega owner, but never knew about this Cosworth experience. So I need to retract the statement I made a few weeks ago about me being perhaps the only regular CC-er who ever drove a Cosworth Vega. Though I might still be the only one who drove a stock example. What was actually most interesting to me here was Ed’s experience with crawling back into a low, crude, harsh Vega after 40 years. I only had mine for about 3-1/2 years, late ‘76 to mid-‘80, but I took it on a multi-thousand mile road trip all over the West and carpooled with 2 or 3 other full sized males on a fairly long commute for about a year, once or twice a week. Sure, it was a bit cramped but I don’t recall any of that as a hardship, at least as long as I was in the driver’s seat. Automotive standards have really changed! And being younger didn’t hurt.
I must have been really busy in September to have missed this opus. I remember both the excitement before the Cosworth Vega’s release and the disappointment of the first road tests. Between the insane price and below expectations performance I can understand the poor sales. Personally, if I was in the market for a sporty rwd hatchback with black and gold paint in the mid 70s I would have bought a Capri. I think I would still favor the Capri as a more refined car, plus 7 year old me was fascinated by the rally car map light on the A pillar.
The Vega, both standard and Cosworth was such a missed opportunity, victim of GM’s hubris and parsimony, plus the general Detroit belief that small cars should be penalty boxes I would be very curios to explore the might have beens of a Vega with a Vauxhall 2300 slant 4 in standard and HSR form and a Mazda 13B swapped Vega. I want to like the cars because the early ones look like mini Camaros but they seem too flawed to be worth it to me.