Yes, it was “reliable” in that it didn’t actually break down and leave them stranded, but it’s hardly a word that is applicable in the modern sense to a car that got a new short block, a new exhaust system and a new carburetor all within the first 24,000 miles. And the Vega’s fuel economy, which started out decent at 23.5 mpg, inexplicably soon plummeted to 16.7 mpg, coming up to a mere 19.1 mpg after the updated carb was installed.
Oh well; at least it didn’t start burning oil yet in that first 24,000 miles. That would undoubtedly come soon enough.
Another issue was its price: in order to get a 4-speed manual and half-way decent performance from the optional 110 gross/93net hp engine, along with a few other comfort and convenience items, the price shot up to well over $3200. That was a lot of coin in 1971, especially compared to the well-equipped Japanese.
In addition to the common driveability issues, causing poor idling, stumbling and stalling, the Vega’s engine was of course very coarse and loud. This was a well-known reality, although why GM allowed this is another question we won’t even touch right now. And then there was the sticky throttle linkage and the pervasive smell of fuel in the interior. And…
But R&T felt that their long-term tester was even louder and rougher than average. The response from the service manager when it was brought in for evaluation as well as other issues to address, the response predictably was “Oh, that’s normal. They all do that”. Meanwhile, the differential was beginning to howl…
Thanks to R&T’s pull with Chevrolet, a Field Service Engineer decided to take a look at it and agreed that the engine was a bit louder and rougher than usual, and got the short block changed out. Now it was just as loud and rough as the average Vega out there, or maybe they sent one with carefully balanced rotating parts so that now R&T had the smoothest Vega engine in existence?
The exhaust noise was also noted as objectionable, and the Service Engineer offered to swap that out for a revised unit. And eventually a new carb found its way under the hood too. All Vega buyers should have been so lucky!
Not surprisingly, the GM A/C system was praised highly. At 16,000 miles, the engine started pinging badly, so premium gas was needed. Mileage was still stuck in the high teens; hardly appropriate for an “economy car”.
Actually, the Vega did fail them once, when it refused to turn over. The circuit that prevents the starter from engaging when the clutch isn’t fully depressed failed. A helpful mechanic in the remote area they were in at the time bypassed that circuit to allow them to get back home. A few other interior bits and pieces failed or became obnoxious too.
The overall costs came out poor too, due to its high initial cost, depreciation, and poor fuel economy.
The verdict: a good chassis in need of a proper engine. And proper rust proofing, but that wasn’t of course an issue in Southern California.
Here’s my longer take on the 1971 Vega, winner of a C/D comparison test but nevertheless a very Deadly Sin
Weakly defending them, reliable and durable aren’t quite the same word. Reliable means the car always wants to start and run. Durable means the car doesn’t need much repair. VWs were reliable but not durable. Ramblers and Valiants were durable but not reliable.
IMO, “always works” and “doesn’t need much repair” both come under reliable. Durable means the car lasts a long time.
Nothing was reliable at that time—all cars in the ’70s required frequent scheduled maintenance and were subject to all kinds of unscheduled breakdowns and failures, hence the ubiquity of service stations and dead cars on the roadside and car-stalled-on-the-railway-tracks songs and “Gus Wilson’s Model Garage” columns and “car trouble” excuses for tardiness and absence. None of those exists any more because today’s cars are reliable.
That said, c’mon. I daresay most Ramblers and most Valiants were quite reliable by the standards of that time, managing to start, go, steer, and stop when asked. And they did it for a whole lot longer than 24,000 miles without requiring a new short block, a new differential, a new carburetor and a half, a new exhaust system, and all the rest of the major parts the piece-of-junk Vega in the article needed.
As for durability: here again, today’s cars as a lot are vastly more durable than those of the early ’70s, and I have no love for VWs of that time, but on what planet do you reckon VWs weren’t durable by the standards of the time…? That was one of their endearing qualities.
Not to pick nits, but the last Model Garage story was published in June, 1969. One final ‘encore’ story was published in December, 1970, in which, and after which Gus was permanently retired.
Your point is still 100% en pointe, though.
Fair point—so I add other examples like “Say, Smokey…” in Popular Science and Mort Schulz’s “Car Clinic” in Popular Mechanics.
There did exist cars both reliable and durable back then. You could still get stranded if you were stupid. You had to replace plugs, wires, points at regular intervals and get carbs adjusted and rebuilt at regular intervals but these were all known intervals. Radiators had to be re-tubed, mufflers, hoses and belts had to be replaced, etc. all these were known consumable items no different than tires, wipers, oil, and brake pads.
I bought that issue of R&T new. In those days I kept every car magazine I acquired (and did for decades … but no more) so when I bought my own ‘73 Vega in late 1976, I had no excuse, I knew what to expect. But really, it wasn’t THAT bad. I guess by ‘73 they had worked out a few of the most egregious issues. And when it broke down, it was usually easy to fix, even by the side of the road. I used a Swiss Army knife to pull apart the carb and screw the float needle back in on the shoulder of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, when it backed out and shut off fuel delivery to the carb. With my carpool mates watching. When the timing belt broke, it did need a tow truck, but for $25 bucks and 40 minutes work, I installed a new belt and water pump. Oh, and the fix for the mismatched pedal height was easy: I screwed a piece of 2×4 to the gas pedal. On edge. Yep, it took a 3.5” shim to put the gas pedal in the right location.
Hard to call that reliable even in 1970s terms, its probably fortyunate the wasnt any serious thought of a RHD export program or we would have got them, we already had four cylinder GM cars from the UK and Australia, mostly the same car with some styling changes but the Australians didnt know that and the bigger Vauxhalls were kept out of their market deliberately, Chevrolet would have done better if they had imported some engine tech from Vauxhall or Opel it was there on the shelf ready to go.
Was this the very same engine fitted to the Magnum and Victor models?.
No, and this just makes all the Vega decisions even more confusing. They didn’t subject the markets outside of NA to the Vega, and didn’t gift the Vega any of the superior small engines they already built elsewhere. The only competition GM ever took seriously in those days was from within, and staunchly did that.
They may have perpetuated the myth by stating that the Holden was much like the Opel Rekord Coupe to look at. The length, width and wheelbase of the Monaro are 184.8″, 71.8″ & 111.0″ and Rekord/Commodore 180.1″ 69.1″ & 105.0″
Quite how you could widen the Opel and lengthen it on a wheelbase 6 inches shorter just doesn’t make sense.
I’m not into martinis, but this car would have left me shaken and NOT stirred. Just like my ’76 Monza with the 2.3 and 4 speed.
Ignoring the obvious Vega sins, which others will surely cover – I’m amazed at how far cars have come vis a vis gas mileage. This atrocious subcompact couldn’t average more than 20 mpg for any length of time; I drive a luxurious, large and quiet 3-row CX-9 SUV with AWD, and average 23.7 with no particular efforts to maximize gas mileage. These really are the good new days.
I read on this very same site not to long ago that, in the day, an economy car was a car that had low cost parts and repairs and high reliability. No one was that worried they got less than 20mpg from their Gremlins . We can thank computer controlled fuel injection for ringing out every mile from a gallon of gas. Stuff of dreams back then.
Fuel economy was atrocious in almost all malaise era cars. I was daily driving a Lark 259 V8 in the 90’s and before we got oxygenated crap fuel it turned 20 mpg like clockwork. When we got the MTBE added it dropped to 17. That car was reliable and durable.
I counted myself lucky to get 30 mpg on the highway out of my 70 Karmann Ghia. I think it averaged 25 in normal driving. The late 70s claims of 45 mpg by VW for their diesel Rabbit and Datsun for the 210 subcompacts at 55 mph were a revelation compared to the typical cars at that time. Those were usually achieved by putting along under the speed limit and not using A/C.
Nowdays, we expect 30 on the highway…at 70mph. A/C blasting in a vehicle that weighs as much as a 70s Impala.
My 1965 Corvair and my 2002 GMC Yukon XL make almost exactly the same gas mileage, despite the Yukon weighing literally twice as much and having an engine literally twice the size (2.7L for the Corvair and 5.3L for the Yukon): most fill-ups I average around 16-17mpg in either car, but the Corvair requires premium while the Yukon is regular.
Like a petulant child who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables, Chevrolet/GM (and really, all of the Big 3) were dragged kicking and screaming into the economy car market, and ate the most minimal amount of broccoli to get his mom to stop yelling.
I think you win the Internet for today with this comment!
I ALWAYS ate the minimum amount of broccoli, so I guess I would fit in well at GM, hahahahaha.
I think I’ve probably told this story on CC before. In 1977, while visiting the Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola NAS, I saw a very rusted Vega wagon. Stenciled on it in several places was the phrase, “Official GM Corrosion Control Vehicle.” And in the rear was a large grocery bag (paper back then) full of quarts of oil (in cans back then). That driver came prepared.
A college buddy that autox’d his Vega knew another Vega owner that rigged up a tube and funnel so he could add oil while he drove…
When I did the first engine swap in my ’71 notch, it was with a sleeved engine my Dad had rebuilt for our ’73 GT Kammback that had been sidelined due to an accident requiring a new front clip. The Kamm had A/C and a slug-slow automatic, and never idled well with the 2bbl carb. So I swapped intakes from my original 1bbl engine, keeping the GT head with its better cam grind. I subsequently added a “tuned” header, and this combination (with the Opel 4 speed manual) was a pretty good setup. Still lots of NVH, but it would return around 30mpg on the highway, and being a base notch, was light and relatively quick on its feet.
It later developed the no-start issue, too, but it was due to heat soak – a common Vega problem by that time. Some wire and a momentary bypass switch under the dash solved that problem.
The sleeved engine was otherwise reliable and burned no more oil than was expected for the average car of the day. It would end up being returned to the Kammback when I later did a Buick 3.8L swap in the ’71.
I had 2 kambacks, a 74 then 76. The first one I did the same, I put a 64 Buick v6 fireball in it. Being un even firing was annoying but it ran for 30000k before someone hit it hard in a parking lot. I transplanted that driveline into a 76 and drove it for another 35000. As every one knows the buick 231/3.8 liter engine is one of gm best engine. Due to better power to weight ratio. Gas mileage was better that having the 4 cylinder. I have lots of fond memories for this vega..
What a difference time makes. R&T’s price for the Vega is $20,258 today, and no one would put up with any of those problems on even the cheapest car. Not everything is “the good ol days”…
I paid about $5,000 less than that for a Hyundai Elantra in 2016, which will be done with its bumper to bumper warranty in 8 months or 7,000 miles, whichever comes first. It’s had one taillight replaced for water intrusion, and it’s otherwise been oil, filters, and tires. It uses and leaks no oil. It averages 35 mpg in pure city driving and 42 on the highway. It has power everything by 1971 standards, a 170 watt stereo, and runs smooth and quiet at any legal speed. It would better any acceleration, braking or handling number of the Vega in a runaway. It has no rust, and literally my only complaint at this point is clearcoat flaking from painted plastic like the door handles and shark antenna.
Today is the good ol’ days.
It reads as though they liked the car enough; all their problems (weak shocks aside) seemed to arise from that engine.
It’s hard to imagine the mindset of GM management thinking this was good enough for production. It must never have occurred to them that people might buy something else. I wonder how history might have turned out if they’d swallowed their pride and used an Opel or Vauxhall engine. I suppose someone somewhere has done such a swap.
The CIH Opel 1900 engine was already federalized, and even the old Chevy II four would’ve been an improvement, being a proven engine without a record of failing expensively.
It’s interesting that they talk about the hatchback coupe vs the 2-door sedan, but never mention anything about the wagon in this article.
I believe that some of the Pontiac Astre versions of the Vega did indeed get the Iron Duke.
1977, and only Astres. To think that was an improvement…
Modders should have swapped in that 153 Chevy II four and transmission. That would have been a decent car for the time. The only problem then would have been the rusting out on the dealership floor.
When I met my ex, she had a brand new ’72 coupe. It was an attractive little car in that shade of medium green that I now find quite appealing. But mechanically, what a fright pig. It’s not that it was slow (and it was), it’s that it had terrible assembly quality and durability.
With the Powerglide and the 2bbl engine, it got 14 – 16.5 mpg. After a cold start, the car would occasionally backfire when running fast idle until warmed up. Finally, later on in the model year, there was a recall where they were supposed to tighten up the carburetor top screws and “repair” the smog pump. Apparently, if the gas cap wasn’t installed correctly, the backfire could ignite seeping gas from the filler, and your Vega would be toast (maybe not a bad thing as long as you were out of the car). So what did our dealer do? They just installed a HUGE muffler; the “pow” backfire was reduced a “pfft”, and that was it.
The car had a host of other issues – the right front of the car was starting to sag, the transmission was trying to downshift to low gear when driving on the freeway – and that’s just what I can remember. The dealership experience was horrible, too. My ex gave up on that heap after 18 months and 10K miles. It’s too bad. The Vega could have been an appealing little car if it had been executed right, but instead richly deserves it Deadly Sin status.
And sure, if I was young and wealthy, like everyone else I’d like another crack at the Vega, beginning with a power train swap.
I read this stuff and still wonder how different the automotive landscape might have been had John DeLorean, and not GM’s bean counters, had their way.
Maybe the Xs and Js a decade later would’ve been better too.
The fault doesn’t lie entirely with the bean counters. Ed Cole pushed for that engine design.
The problem was that the bean counters weren’t brought in soon enough. Cole’s engine drove up costs. (And for all of the money spent on the engine, with its new technology, it turned out to be a disaster.)
When the bean counters got hold of the car before production, they demanded cost reductions in other areas to compensate for those higher costs.
The final blow was turning over the Lordstown plant to General Assembly Division (GMAD), which prioritized production over quality.
The Vega is a perfect example of a powerful executive and corporate departments having control of the vehicle at different stages, and being able to enforce their goals for the vehicle during the time the development process was under their control. The Vega ended up being a mess because of this disjointed process.
I seem to recall Ed’s big push was for an aluminum block for the Vega was because Reynolds Aluminum had just built a foundry for the Corvair engine. When the Corvair went out of production GM still had a contract with Reynolds to fulfill.
From the second image, top of right column: I didn’t think I’d Yahoogle whatever a vintage “Relaxacizor” was, but here we are.
Wow. Now I had to search it out too. LOL. That’s kind of awesome in the sickest way. The things I learn on CC!?!
Sorta like the old muscle building ads in comic books and rags like Men Of Fortune and Official Police Detective!
‘Mad Men’ had a great episode where they got the advertising account for this device. I had no idea it was a real thing.
Peggy Olson took it home to try it out, and removed it quickly in shock. She reported back with the memorable line, “It vibrates, and that coincides with how you wear it. It’s probably unrelated to weight loss.”
It’s a shame they were such crap because, boy, are they pretty!
Makes a Gremlin look like a paragon of reliability, durability, and economy in comparison.
I’d have bought any AMC with the six and had a better experience as an owner…but it wouldn’t have been as fun to drive
I remember reading this article in R & T, at the time I was driving a ’72 Vega GT that was running quite well (at the time), unfortunately when I hit 20K it turned into an oil burner that used a quart of oil every 250 miles. After 20K it was one problem after another. If I remember correctly, Chevrolet had developed a prototype of their own small car, but it was rejected by upper management which had been working on their own design and ordered Chevrolet to build it instead. John DeLorean reluctantly agreed. The Vega’s development came to typify GM’s development process for new vehicles: Rush it through development and testing, release it half baked and then initiate a crash program to fix all the problems when they appeared.
As an interesting footnote, apparently in the late 70’s a lot of hot rodders were replacing the Vega’s four cylinder with the Buick aluminum v-8. Reportedly it weighed less than the original engine and really transformed the car.
“Oh, that’s normal. Fill in the blank_________ They all do that”
How many times have I heard that?
I shudder when I think of my ’74 Vega
Another bonus was the aluminum window trim which set up some kind of electrolysis and rusted around the windows like mad?
Sad. Meanwhile, Shoichiro Honda must have laughed as he examined this piece of crap. The idea may have been good, but the execution terrible. This certainly deserves its DS status.
I simply cannot fathom how a corporation could knowingly subject their customers to products like this. This wasn’t accidental. This was an endless cascade of incompetence from every department. Every white-collar GM staffer should have been forced to give one of these cars to their spouses and then fix every complaint that arose. The disrespect GM showed their Vega buyers is stupefying.
Every Vega owner should have gotten their Vega free of charge because they served as GM guinea pigs.
What’s hard to fathom? “Who cares what these nitwits think they want? We’ll use the Vega to teach ’em; the sooner this idiotic small-car fad dies, the sooner we can get back to putting everyone in a new 454 Caprice every year.”
Oh my I can. Many upper managers, even to this day make decisions based on short term gain. They climb the corporate ladder, then retire with a golden parachute. What happens after means nothing to them. (ex. Bob Eaton with Chrysler).
I can only imagine what John DeLorean was thinking when he had to push this as a top brass guy at GM. Finally you get your dream job, and you realize what a nightmare it actually is. Any engineer at GM during this time would have been constantly at war with the suits and accountants.
That is certainly an eye-opening long-term test. The scary part is that, for many owners, things would only get worse after 24,000 miles.
The other scary part is how bad the dealer service was. One would think that the dealer personnel would have known that the drivers of this particular Vega were staffers for Road & Track, and that their experiences with the car were going to be written up for an article. How bad was the service for “regular” customers who weren’t writing for a major car enthusiast magazine?
“ The other scary part is how bad the dealer service was. One would think that the dealer personnel would have known ”
This was my takeaway here as well. No consideration to the point they “forgot” a routine maintenance interval service that got the car into your premises to begin with? Ok then…
Those of us in the 70s called this a ‘wall job’, as in park it by the wall for two days and the customer will be glad to get his car back unfixed.
All the Vega needed was a little more quality control, better materials, and an Opel CIH engine. Using the existing Opel engine would probably have freed up enough extra cash to address the other issues.
But that doesn’t solve the overwhelming contempt for the public GM must have had in the first place to knowingly sell such a bad car.
The idea is to make it properly in the first place. It’s cheaper that way. It wasn’t a new concept, even in 1970. William Deming, an American engineer and statistician proved designs and processes that improved initial quality made more money in the long run. American firms ignored his guidance for decades while Japanese firms embraced them and dominated the market.
Had the Vega been a high quality product, it could have been the Accord of its day, the preferred choice of buyers and commanded a premium price, and greater consumer loyalty.
DeLorean at least made the attempt at ensuring Vega would be high quality by adding dozens of additional quality inspectors on the line. At least until GM turned Lordstown over to GMAD, who immediately fired them.
From a Motor Trend interview with DeLorean in 1970: “The Vega is going to be built at a quality level that has never been attained before in a manufacturing operation in this country, and probably in the world. We have automatic inspection of virtually every single engine part and so we know it is going to be right..”
And from On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors: “As the Lordstown Ohio assembly plant was converted to Vega production, I initiated an intense program for quality control with the target of making the first cars off the assembly line the best quality cars, from a manufacturing standpoint, ever built. As the starting date approached, we put tens of additional inspectors and workers on the line and introduced a computerized quality control program in which each car was inspected as it came off the line and, if necessary, repaired.” “While I was convinced that we were doing our best with the car that was given to us, I was called upon by the corporation to tout the car far beyond my personal convictions about it.” “I said with a clear conscience that it was a quality car, and I believed it was because the first 2,000 cars were road tested off the assembly line with a sizable proportion thereafter, and millions of dollars was spent to reinspect and repair each vehicle.”
I wonder about GM’s chances over the next decade. They have an impressive new battery platform (or at least a great video presentation of one), and will allegedly be bringing a raft of clean-sheet EV designs to market over the next few years. Starting with a Hummer.
They claim however they will be producing 350 000 EV’s annually by 2025 – a very steep ramp-up, but still less than Tesla’s production in 2019.
I get that the Vega was a huge undertaking and they likely bit off way more than they could chew in its development (and had an unrealistic timeline) but I can’t understand how GM’s management could DRIVE these things and think they were even remotely acceptable to offer for sale.
I mean, it’s sad when changing to the Iron Duke improved things for the second gen H-body (Monza etc.)
Reading this just blows my mind.
In my entire life I’ve only owned one vehicle not capable of reaching 150k miles without rebuilding the engine and that was an early 70s Super Beetle. I will always say those Beetles were trash yet compared to the vega in this article they were phenomenal.
I recall seeing a stripper ’71 Vega sedan, white over blue, with essentially zero miles, plastic still on the seats and the Monroney in the window available at auction about 10 years ago. Simple inspection showed the abysmal build quality. Panel fits were awful. The upholstery showed no effort to fit it to the seat. The paint showed areas where it appeared the spray missed on one of its passes. It was shocking to look at – the car was worth preserving just to demonstrate that.