The Cars That Killed GM: Chevrolet Vega
By J. Smith
Say it’s 1970. Autumn-football, falling leaves and new car model time. You’re young and want a small, good-looking car. The land yachts your parents drive are too geriatric. And you can’t really afford a Mustang or a Camaro. And that Nova you’ve been driving isn’t all that small and doesn’t really get good gas mileage.
You don’t like VW’s-too slow, and the air-cooled engine doesn’t produce enough heat to tame a northern winter. British cars fall apart in their shipping containers. And you don’t quite trust those strange little tin cans with names like Datsun and Toyota. Foreign cars are cheap tin. Death-traps for college students and professors.
For a while now, GM-the biggest and best company in the world-has been touting its upcoming new import-fighter. It will have an aluminum engine, a completely new design carrying the latest technology. GM whispers of a new rust-proofing technique that will brave even the most determined road salt. It will have the first car body ever designed with a computer. It will be produced in a one new plant, purpose-built with cutting-edge technology, dedicated to building nothing else.
Finally, GM makes good on its word. Commercials abound on television, informing you about the exciting new Chevrolet Vega. It is small. It is efficient, both with gas and space, featuring a hatch-back, quite a rarity in the Nixon-era. And it boasts the best styling you’ve ever seen on a small car.
And the press loves it. Not just newspapers-they liked the Rambler, for God’s sake-but even real enthusiasts gush. Auto scribes weave tales of its disc brakes, near perfect weight distribution, and sprightly acceleration balanced with stingy use of gasoline. Motor Trend says “the Vega GT comes close to what a racing GT car should be, in handling, performance and comfort. Because it’s basically a low-priced compact, the results are all the more surprising and rewarding.” Road & Track goes even farther, finding that “Vega is the best handling car ever sold in America.” Car and Driver makes the Vega its top economy car pick, over the Beetle and the Corolla. Tests show it reaches 60 mph in 12.2 seconds and gets 30 miles per gallon.
You test drive one and love it. You soon part with your hard-earned cash, along with a promise to the bank to make monthly payments for a few years, and drive proudly drive it home to show your wife.
What could go wrong?
That’s exactly what my dad, John Smith, thought. He heard the promises. He saw the commercials. And if my mother is to be believed, he was itching to get a Vega. Car of the future. And, as a loyal GM employee, it was practically a duty to go out and buy one.
It’s not perfect. It’s noisy and the engine vibrates a lot. But, you say, it’s a small car and that’s what they do. It’s still as quick as the average Delta 88 and handles better than your old 442. And looks a damn sight better than the old man’s 1968 Olds 98.
A few months later, you notice something strange. What are those little blisters on the fenders? Couldn’t be rust. You poke and prod at them a little and they burst, revealing surface rust. It’s early 1971 and it’s a 1971 model. The service department at the Chevy dealership shrugs its collective shoulders. They all do this, the service manager says.
It backfires a lot. Once, it blew out the muffler. The dealer fixed it. But the dealer could never quite fix the massive oil consumption. You need to top it with Pennzoil every time you gas it up.
And it seems to get overheated pretty easily. When it’s still less than a year old, it overheats, stranding you on the side of the road. You tow it to the dealer and the mechanic informs you that if blew a head gasket. Oh, and the engine block warped. Needs a new one. Don’t worry, the mechanic says, Chevy will replace it.
It has less than 10,000 miles.
By the fall of 1971, between slurping down motor oil and sputtering to and fro, it has managed to spend as much time in the shop as a four-post lift. Whenever you’re there, which is a lot, you see many other Vegas. Like yours, all of them have rust bubbles on the door edges and rocker panels. And those little rust bubbles you noticed at the end of the winter? They’ve managed to eat all the way through the fender.
Now, none of this deterred John Smith from getting another Vega. He was a GM man and didn’t like to spend a lot of money on gas. But for John Q. Public, it was a far different matter. The Vega was designed to appeal to first-time new car buyers. And it succeeded in its mission. But how many of those people who plunked down the equivalent of $12,000 or so ever bought another GM product? Other than members of the GM family, who would?
My old man ended up getting another Vega. My mom got it in the divorce. The Vega was about two years old and already had to have rust-through on the fender repaired. My grandfather, who was also a GM man-tool and die-with sage Polish wisdom, advised her to sell it. Soon. And get something more reliable. Which would have been anything.
The Vega-so promising, so tragic-was a first for GM: a complete quality disaster. Up to that point, Chevy was considered a reliable brand. The public held GM vehicles in high esteem. But anyone who owned a Vega no longer could hold that opinion. It was the first nail in the coffin. Many more were to come-X-cars, Chevy-mobiles, Cimarron-each one carefully nailed in place by a complacent, arrogant corporate bureaucracy, with the steadying hand of an indifferent workforce.
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