Curbside Classic: 1976 Cosworth Vega #2196 – Muscle Memory, In Honor of the Vega’s 50th Anniversary


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.

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