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.

vert_a_pac_railcarBy 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.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: J.S. Smith

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  1. Great comment, Mark. A perfect example of how GM shot themselves in the foot with their disdain of customers over the decades.

  2. c’mon, if it wasn’t for the Vega we’d never have the oxymoronic phrase, “…like stuffing a V-8 into a vega”.

  3. Wasn’t the Locheed Vega a great plane when it came out?

  4. This car, followed up by the peeling paint fiasco (remember that?), and numerous other reasons is why I swore off GM products for decades.

  5. I owned a 1972 Vega – it was my first car. I owned it for 75,000 miles and it was in the shop about once per month. Each morning, I wondered if it would start. I battled rust in all the typical spots. But I loved it because it was my first car.

    My buddies in college used to walk a lap around the Vega slapping the sides all the way around. I would then move it and there would be a rust dust outline where it had been parked.

    It died in a blaze of glory on the Maine Turnpike. As I accelerated out of a toll booth, a diaphram in the carberator got stuck and the Vega started going faster and faster. The needle was at 110 (the top end of what I had always considered an unrealistic speedometer). I was scared to death, driving over 110 in a car that was basically nothing but rust. I stopped safely, unstuck the diaphram and drove home. The next day the car would not go over 30. The next day, top speed was 7.

    I wasn’t done with Chevy however. I purchased a brand new Chevette – it was worse in almost every way (except the rust) and when I unloaded that I swore off GM products forever and always. Regrettably, I haven’t owned any American car since.

  6. Your article nailed it right on the head. I bought a brand new Vega in April of 1971 when I was 17 years old. Paid cash for it by running a paper route after school every day for 5 years prior to that and saving some money every week. I really wanted an MGB-GT but couldn’t afford it. And my dad encouraged me to buy American. So after looking at the Vega, Pinto and VW I bought the Vega. I was SO proud. Your article echoed my experiences to the tee. By April 1975 it had rusted so badly and used so much oil etc.etc. and was so unreliable I couldn’t even drive it from my home in Ohio to Spring Break in Florida. After college, I got a decent job and bought a 1976 Toyota. I swore then that I’d NEVER buy an American made car again. I’m almost 60 years old now and I never have bought another American car. I troubles me that I have to do that since I’d rather keep American workers employed. But I’ve always worked hard for my money and I insist on value. GM simply didn’t offer that. Maybe I should look at American cars again. But the experience with the Vega and GM’s reputation in the following years is still a foul memory that refuses to fade.

  7. This article and the comments seem to represent the pile-on effect (find a problem and join in on the attack)

    Personally, I have never been a fan of Vega’s, but my wife owned three GT’s and loved them all for the extraordinary handling – with a few aftermarket parts and wider than stock tires, the GT could pull more than 1 g. in the corners (yes, I used a force balance accelerometer to measure the result).

    Moreover, aftermarket parts from IECO produced 160 h .p., which gave the tiny car way more than adequate power for screaming up the steepest mountains.

    Finally, her first Vega engine (before modification) died around 50k miles, but I replaced the block with a steel sleeved version that took the car a few hundred miles beyond 286,000.

    So, Vegas may have been released before the Aluminum block technology had been adequately developed and should never have pursued disposable engines, but, like many cars, had redeeming features for those with the patience to uncover them … not to mention the virtues of the Cosworth Vegas.

  8. “As a final observation, I think the Vega is beyond a doubt the best handling passenger car ever built in the U.S. It has many other good qualities, but the roadholding impressed and surprised me most of all.”
    Road & Track September 1970
    “…one can only conclude that Vega to date has the edge in the mini-car race.”
    Road Test September 1970
    “When it comes to handling, naturally the Vega with fat tires and ant-roll bars was on top, but such “speed equipment” is not even listed for the others. In maximum cornering force the Vega was right up there with muscular pony cars, and the Pinto maybe likewise with the same parts — but the Gremlin needs other help.”
    Sports Car Graphic September 1970, “Tri-testing the…Pinto, Vega & Gremlin”
    “The Vega, while enjoyable to drive, is a more serious car. It’s faster, more comfortable, quieter and better riding than either the Pinto or VW while still delivering respectable fuel economy. It carries a higher base price, but includes a lot more standard equipment than the others, some of which is part of the basic structure and isn’t even available optionally on the lower-priced cars.”
    Motor Trend January 1971 in a Vega-Pinto-Beetle comparison
    Car and Driiver awarded top pick to the Vega above the Ford Pinto, AMC Gremlin, VW Beetle, Toyota Corolla and Chrysler Simca. C&D said: “The Vega was the most expensive car in the test by almost $300 but the Vega’s virtues are nicely in proportion to its price and it was the unanimous favorite.” “The Vega is an excellent combination of performance and economy.” “It’s a car for all occasions.”
    Car and Driver January 1971
    ” So, the Chevrolet Vega 2300 is Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year by way of engineering excellence, packaging, styling, and timeliness. As such, we are saying that, for the money, no other American car can deliver more.
    Motor Trend February 1971
    “…a smog-clean turbocharged Vega will destroy any of the old “classic” performance cars in the quarter-mile.” “you can put a 140-cubic inch engine car through a quarter in the low-fifteens for only $700…”
    Motor Trend April 1971
    “One Vega and one Pinto have survived 15,000 miles at the hands of the Car and Driver staff…And the test stretched over nine months…with no major mechanical failures—an indication of the soundness of their basic engineering.”
    “If, in your travels, you spend more time on the open road and you agree with GM’s sense of sheetmetal fashion, the Vega is a better choice.”
    Car and Driver November 1971
    “In fact, if picking the best Super coupe were purely a matter of styling, the Vega would win hands down without ever turning a wheel.” “That division’s smallest model has an optional engine, fat polyglas tires on wide styled wheels and a special handling package, all surrounded by the sleekest styling package this side of Turin.”
    Car and Driver December 1971 6-Car Comparison Test of 1972 Super Coupes – Vega GT, Pinto Runabout, Opel 1900 Rallye, Mazda RX-2, Capri 2000, and Toyota Celica,
    “Engineering and styling the Vega from scratch in four different body styles was a total effort far more demanding in manpower than the Pinto or Gremlin programs.” “Vegas, in summary, are a striking quartet.”
    Motor Trend ’71 Buyers Guide
    Motor Trend in comparison test “Back Door To Economy” chose the Vega GT best car over the Ford Pinto Runabout and Gremlin X saying, “Even extended trips do not induce excessive driver fatigue and that is one reason why it was the Car of the Year in 1971.” “Which car is best? Vega. In spite of Gremlin’s marked improvement in quality control, Chevy has had it all along.”
    Motor Trend, 1972
    “Back when we carried the ’72 introduction features, we named the Vega GT as our “Best Buy” pick of the Chevrolet line. We just couldn’t pick any other model.”
    Hot Rod magazine March 1972
    “The Vega GT is a damn nice little car with plenty of room, great handling, and a pretty high level of overall finish” Super Stock July 1972
    “It’s either the sportiest economy car in the world or the most economical sports car in the world.”
    Small Cars 1972
    “At the conclusion of your test drive, you’ll probably realize as we did that the Vega GT in a lot of respects is as close to a true GT as a car can get, but on the other hand, as much an Americanized compact as the Pinto or Gremlin.”
    Cars International 1972
    “When you consider the various aspects of the Vega you could easily come to the conclusion that it’s quite an automobile, which it is.”
    Road Test December 1972
    “Few will deny that Vega is an excellent car. It has all it takes to make a successful package: styling, superior handling, above-average power, and passenger comfort on a par with anything else in its class. Its quality, after a shaky start, is the best in GM,”
    Motor Trend ’72 Buyers Guide
    Motor Trend awarded the Vega GT 1973 Economy Car of the Year. The Vega was judged solid, warm and comfortable, with a good finish.” “Pleasing the American car buyer is a delicate task. Economy really means economy with an illusion of luxury. This time Chevrolet won the guessing game.”
    Motor Trend February 1973
    “The Vega is smaller, more nimble, and more sporting and has generated more technical interest than the rest of the maker’s line since the 1963 Corvette.” “The design and the concept are sound, just as Chevrolet intended and as the buyers hoped.” “Vega 2300 Owner Survey, Road & Track June 1973
    “… 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.” it’s a pleasure to report the current Vega is attractive, respectably quick, and frugal-and it’s the best highway car in class. Well done Chevrolet..”
    Road & Track June 1973
    “For those who feel that sheer raw cornering power is an essential ingredient to make an interesting car, a stint behind the wheel of a well equipped Vega will be a real eye opener.”
    Road Test August 1973
    ” So, Chevrolet has a wide base with its Vega range, from rock bottom economy trim to street racer, and the car’s basic soundness plus wide dealer network mean an overall dependability that must be appealing to many Americans.”
    Road & Track 1974 “Fuel saver”
    Car and Driver in a “On-the-Track Comparison Test: Twelve 1974 Showroom Stock Sedans” — Vega GT, Fiat 124TC, Mazda 808, Dodge Colt, Opel 1.9-Liter Sedan, Subaru 1400 GL, Datsun 710, Fiat 128, Honda Civic, Datsun 610, Datsun B-210, and Toyota Corolla 1600. In this track test of twelve top Showroom Stock contenders. the Vega GT had the quickest lap (Lime Rock Park: 1 minute, 17.4 seconds). “The Vega demands a sharp pilot, but it can be a winner.”
    Car and Driver, 1974
    “…this was the Vega at is best with its optional handling package and wide radial tires, will just match the Spitfire with radials in steady-state cornering power.” “…without them (radials), the Spitfire can’t hold a candle to the Vega in handling.” “And what’s the conclusion here? If you want wind around your head, get the Spitfire; if you want the better machine, get the Vega.”
    Road & Track June 1974, “Sports Cars vs Sports Sedans” i
    “The lone Vega outran every single Opel, Colt, Pinto, Datsun, Toyota and Subaru in Car and Driver’s SS/Sedan Challenge III” “You have to admire a car like that. If it wins, it must be the best, never mind all of the horror stories you hear, some of them from me.” Car and Driver’s Patrick Bedard, 1975
    “Overall the GT really did impress us. From a standpoint of economy, quality features, handling and braking, the Vega is a winner.”
    Chevy Action, 1975
    “The Cosworth Vega 16-valve four cylinder is the most sophisticated engine Detroit ever made” “Through the woods or down a mountain, the Cosworth is a feisty aggressor willing, if not altogether able to take on the world’s best GT cars.”
    Car and Driver October 1975
    Furthermore, fuel economy for the three test Vegas averaged 28.9 mpg over the duration of the run, while oil was used at the rate of only one quart every 3400 miles. All three 1976 Vegas completed the total 180,000 miles with only one “reliability” incident — a broken timing belt was recorded.”
    Motor Trend February 1976
    “The results are in Figure 2. 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”.
    Road Test October 1976 “The Great Supercoupe Shootout” — Alfa vs. Mazda vs. Lancia vs. Saab vs. Cosworth Vega
    “As with the Corvair, any statements about the Vega’s failure have to be carefully qualified. Chevrolet sold more than 2 million Vegas during its seven-year lifespan, which is excellent by any standards. — Chevrolet sold all the Vegas they could build.”
    Portraits of Automotive History October 10, 2009 “Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega”
    “The much-maligned Chevrolet Vega was ahead of its time, advancing new technology in an industry that desperately needed it in the 1970s.”Small, attractive, economical to buy and efficient to own, the sporty and thrifty little car marked big changes at GM, upending nearly 60 years of the way Chevrolet did business.”
    Hemmings Classic Car March 2014

    What do you have to say now?

  9. Let’s see what a few real car authorities have to say in retrospect

    Motor Trend’s Frank Markus said after driving my 6k mile ’73 Vega GT in 2010, “After a few gentle miles, I begin to understand how this car won its awards and comparison tests.” “Well-maintained examples are great looking, nice-driving, economical classics—like Baltic Ave. with a Hotel, the best ones can be had for $10K or less.”

    Motor Trend’s Frank Markus said after driving my 2k mile ’76 Cosworth Vega in 2013, “Stylish and historically significant but ridiculously overpriced in its day and ultimately a bit unfinished, the ultimate Vega now represents a serious collector bargain.”

    Hemmings Classic Car editor Craig Fitzgerald said, “The idea that the 1971 to 1977 Chevrolet Vega was an unpopular lemon from day one is a myth.”

    Hemmings Classic Car editor in chief Terry Shea said, “Chevrolet did save the best for last in the form of the sublime Cosworth Vega, a sports car with an exotic double-overhead-cam, 16-valve, four cylinder engine; a suspension to match and sophistication decades ahead of most other cars.”

    Cars in Depth May 26, 2013 said, “GM is not ashamed of the Vega and they have one on display at the GM Heritage Center.”

    Portraits of Automotive History “Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega” editor Aaron Severson said, “As with the Corvair, any statements about the Vega’s failure have to be carefully qualified. Chevrolet sold more than 2 million Vegas during its seven-year lifespan, which is excellent by any standards. During the difficult period of the OPEC embargo — which briefly made big cars almost unsaleable — Chevrolet sold all the Vegas they could build.”

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