Chevrolet Vega


Chevrolet Vega
Chevrolet Vega
1972 Chevy Vega GT.jpg
1972 Chevrolet Vega GT Hatchback Coupe
Manufacturer Chevrolet Division
of General Motors
Also called Vega 2300
Production 1970–1977
Model years 1971–1977
Assembly Lordstown Assembly,
Lordstown, Ohio (Doraville Assembly in Doraville, Georgia), United States
Sainte-Thérèse Assembly-
Quebec, Canada
Successor Chevrolet Monza
Class Subcompact
Body style 2-door notchback sedan
2-door hatchback coupe
2-door wagon
2-door panel delivery
Layout FR layout
Platform GM H platform (RWD)
Engine 140 cu in (2.3 L) OHC 1bbl I4
140 cu in (2.3 L) OHC 2bbl I4
122 cu in (2.0 L) DOHC EFI I4
Transmission 3-speed manual
4-speed manual
5-speed manual w/overdrive
Torque-Drive clutchless manual
2-speed Powerglide automatic
3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic auto.
Wheelbase 97.0 in (2,464 mm)
Length 169.7 in (4,310 mm)
Width 65.4 in (1,661 mm)
Height 51 in (1,295 mm)
Curb weight 2,181–2,270 lb (989–1,030 kg) (1971)
Related Pontiac Astre, Chevrolet Monza, Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Starfire
Designer GM & Chevrolet Design staffs
Chief Stylist, Bill Mitchell

The Chevrolet Vega is a subcompact, two-door automobile that was produced by the Chevrolet division of General Motors for the 1971-1977 model years. Named after the star Vega, the car was powered by a lightweight aluminum-block inline four-cylinder engine.

The Vega was produced in hatchback, notchback, wagon, and panel delivery body styles. A limited-production model, the Cosworth Vega, with a smaller but more powerful engine, was introduced in 1975, the same year that GM introduced two additional subcompacts: the less expensive Chevrolet Chevette, and the Vega-derived Chevrolet Monza. Two additional Vega variants were produced by Pontiac: the Astre and the Safari Wagon.

Initially well-received by buyers and the motoring press, from whom it received numerous awards, the Vega sold well against domestic subcompacts such as the AMC Gremlin, Ford Pinto, and imports from Toyota, Datsun and Volkswagen. By 1974 it was among the top 10 best-selling American cars.

Developed quickly, early examples of the Vega suffered engine problems, poor build quality, and corrosion, which caused long term harm to GM's reputation. The faults were remedied by recalls and redesigns, and a three-year decline in sales culminated in the car's cancellation at the end of the 1977 model year

Contents

History

Origin

No. 1 Vega built, Lordstown Assembly
June 26, 1970, photographed in 2005

Chevrolet and Pontiac divisions were working separately on small cars in the early and mid 1960s. Ed Cole, GM's executive vice-president of operating staffs was working on his own small-car project using the corporate engineering and design staffs. He presented the program to GM's president in 1967. When the corporation started seriously talking about a mini-car, Cole's version was chosen with the proposals from Chevy and Pontiac rejected, and Cole's new mini-car was given to Chevrolet to sell. Not only did corporate management make the decision to enter the mini-car market, it also decided to develop the car itself. It was a corporate car, not a divisional one.

In 1968 GM chairman James Roche announced that General Motors would produce the new mini-car in the U.S. in two years. Ed Cole was the chief engineer and Bill Mitchell, the vice-president of the design staff, was the chief stylist. Cole wanted a world-beater, and he wanted it in showrooms in 24 months.[1] This was an extremely short time to design and engineer a new car, especially one that borrowed almost nothing from any other. Ed Cole formed a GM corporate design team exclusively for the Vega headed by James G. Musser, Jr. who had played major roles in helping develop the Chevy II, the Camaro, the 350-and 400-cu in V8's and the Turbo-Hydramatic transmission. Musser said, "This was the first vehicle where one person was in charge and, under him — that is me — a group of guys did the entire vehicle."[2] The Vega, like the Corvair, has long been referred to as Ed Cole's baby. It was as GM president that Cole oversaw the genesis of the Chevrolet Vega — ultimately meeting the projected schedule. Early spy reports called the Vega "Gemini" and "GMini," although Motor Trend and other publications used the correct internal designation, XP-887.[1] Chevrolet "teaser" ads began in May 1970, not announcing its name, stating-You'll see.[3]

Development 1968–1970

XP-887 Hatchback clay model
GM studio, September 1968
XP-887 Hatchback clay model
GM studio, late September 1968
XP-887 Hatchback clay model
Chevy studio final design, 1969

The Chevy Vega was conceived in 1968 to utilize the newly-developed all-aluminum die-cast engine block technology. The first sand cast aluminum blocks were actually produced a full two years prior to the corporate decision to build the Vega. The decision was made to go with a relatively large displacement engine with good low speed torque. Economy would be achieved through the use of low numerical gear ratios, which would keep engine rpm low. The Vega engine itself went through 6,000,000 driving miles of testing. The earliest, or pre-test, version of the engine was tested in a Fiat 124 sedan. This car was used for development of the aluminum block, while several 1968 Opel sedans were used for drive train development[4]

Chevrolet instituted a totally new management program: the car line management technique. In placing a single individual, the chief vehicle engineer, in charge of the entire program and having the entire car – including engine, suspension, and brakes – designed by engineers specifically assigned to the Vega. A total of 50 engineers were assigned to the Vega engineering team broken down into body, power train, and chassis design groups; the product assurance group, and the pleasability group. Fisher Body engineers and draftsmen were also moved in with the Vega personnel. It is generally acknowledged that this organizational arrangement made it possible to put out a totally new car in such a short time. The pleasabilty group would check continuously on the vehicles on the assembly line. As part of another program, computers would monitor quality control of every vehicle built.[4]

In October 1968, there was only one body style – the "11" style notchback sedan, one engine, one transmission – the MB1 Torque-Drive manually-shifted two-speed automatic, no headliner, one base trim level, a bench seat, molded rubber floor covering, no glove box, no air-conditioning option, ventilation only through the upper dash direct from the wiper plenum, and exterior paint on the interior. As the program progressed into development, the market changed, and so did the product.

December 1968 – Hatchback, wagon, and panel delivery styles added. floor-level ventilation added. optional performance engine ("L-11" two-barrel) added; predicted production rate was 20%; actually ran at 75%. Bucket seats replaced bench seat as standard equipment. Carpeting and headliners added for hatchback and station wagon. Air conditioning option added; predicted production was 10%, actually ran at 45%.

February 1969 – Opel three- and four-speed transmissions added (three-speed standard, others optional), Powerglide added (now four transmissions), mechanical fuel pump replaced by in-tank electric pump, power steering option added, base "11" style Notchback trim upgraded to match Hatchback and Wagon (carpet and headliner).

April 1969 – Gauge-pack cluster option added, HD suspension and wide tire option added, adjustable seat back option added; ran at 45% production, bumpers restyled, lower valance panels added, swing-out quarter window option added; ran at 10% production.

July 1969 – Electrically-heated backlite option added; ran at 10% production, "GT" package option added at $325.00; ran at 35% production, bright window-frame and roof drip moldings added to the Hatchback and Wagon.

This is essentially how the car launched as a 1971 model. Production began on June 26, 1970. After the National GM strike (9/70-11/70) ended, bright roof drip moldings were added to base "11" notchback; moldings were sent to dealers to update units already in the field in December. The car still had no glove box.[5]

Chevrolet paid a price for its rush to introduce the car with other 1971 models. Tests which should have been at the proving grounds were performed by customers, necessitating numerous piecemeal "fixes" by dealers. Chevrolet's "bright star", received an enduring black eye despite a continuing development program which eventually alleviated most of these initial shortcomings.[6]

Design and engineering

Vega height, width & track
Vega wheelbase & overall length

All Vega models have a 97.0-inch (2,460 mm) wheelbase and a 65.4-inch (1,660 mm) width. The 1971–1972 models have a 169.7-inch (4,310 mm) overall length or just over 14 feet (4.3 m). 1973 models are 3 inches (76 mm) longer due to the front 5 mph bumper. 1974–1977 models have front and rear 5 mph bumpers and are 5.7 inches (140 mm) longer than the 1971–1972 models. In a size comparison with a 1970 Nova, the Vega has 14 inches (360 mm) shorter wheelbase, 7 inches (180 mm) narrower width, 2 inches (51 mm) lower height, and (1971–1972 models) have 20 inches (510 mm) less overall length.[7]

The Hatchback Coupe, with its lower lower roofline and a fold-down rear seat accounted for nearly half of all Vegas sold.[8] The Sedan, later named Notchback is the only model with an enclosed trunk, has more rear seat headroom than the hatchback, and offered the lowest base price.[9] The wagon, named Kammback has a lower cargo liftover height, a swing-up liftgate, and of course, more carring space. Wagon rear-side windows are permanently in place.[10] A one-passenger panel delivery, named Panel Express is based on the wagon with steel panels in place of the rear side glass, an enclosed storage area and an optional auxiliary front passenger seat. The Panel Express used Chevy Van seats lacking headrests required for passenger vehicle classification.[11]


The aluminum block inline-four engine was a joint effort from General Motors, Reynolds Metals, and Sealed Power Corp. The engine and its die-cast block technology was developed by GM engineering staff, before the program was handed off to Chevrolet to finalize and bring to production. Ed Cole, who had been personally involved with the design of the 1955 Chevrolet V8 as chief engineer at Chevrolet, was equally involved with the Vega engine as GM president, and was a frequent visitor on Saturdays to the engineering staff engine drafting room, reviewing the design and giving direction for changes. Chevrolet engineers and manufacturing personnel weren't pleased, especially since they knew Ed Cole wanted the job done quickly.[1] As the engine development progressed at Chevrolet, it became known (in closed offices) as "The world's tallest, smallest engine" due to the tall cylinder head.[12] Plagued by vibration and noisy operation and prone to overheating, the engine definitely did not live up to the Vega's potential. By 1974, the overheating was gone, the vibration was a thing of the past and the noise had been reduced to an acceptable level.[6]

1971 Vega Hatchback Coupe
1971 Vega Sedan (Notchback)
1971 Vega Kammback Wagon
1971 Vega Panel Express


GM's German subsidiary Opel was commissioned to tool up a new three-speed derivative of their production four-speed manual transmission. Opel had a four-speed available that was in high-volume production, but the GM finance department insisted that the base transmission be a low-cost three-speed, with the traditional profit-generating four-speed as an extra-cost option. Opel tooled up a new three-speed unit exclusively for the Vega, unusual only because it had shift linkages on both sides. Its final cost was higher than the optional four-speed due to the tooling investment and production volume. Both transmissions were shipped from Germany, 100 transmissions to a crate, and arrived in shipments of thousands of transmissions at a time.[12] Initially Powerglide automatic and Torque-Drive semi-automatic transmissions were optional. The two-speed Torque drive required a manual upshift but had no clutch pedal. The US-built Saginaw three- and four-speed manual and an air-cooled version of the Turbo-Hydramatic automatic later replaced the Opel-built manual transmissions, the Torque-Drive, and Powerglide. The Vega's front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout is the traditional one where the engine is located at the front of the vehicle and driven wheels are located at the rear. Axle ratios ran from a low 2.53 for economy, to a 2.92 for better acceleration with a slight fall-off in economy to a 3.36 performance ratio. Positraction was also available.

Its suspension and live rear axle design, near ideal weight distribution, low center of gravity and neutral steering give the Vega world-class handling characteristics. Lateral acceleration capacity is .90g for the standard suspension, and .93g for the RPO F-41 suspension. Weight distribution is quoted at 53.2% front and 46.%8 rear. The steering box and linkage are located ahead of the front wheel centerline. The shaft is a cushioned two-piece unit. The overall ratio is 22.5:1 and the curb to curb turning circle is 33 feet (10 m). The overall chassis suspension was to be tuned to a new A78 × 13 tire that was being developed concurrently with the vehicle. The front suspension is classic General Motors short and long-arm. The lower control arm bushings were actually larger than those of the 1970 Camaro.[13] The four-link rear suspension copied that of the 1970 Chevelle,[1] and coil springs are used throughout. This was a significant departure from the leaf spring suspension used in the Camaro and Chevy II Nova.[14]

The engineers in charge of chassis development were seeking a package that would provide full-size domestic car ride qualities with handling equal to that of European cars. A torque-arm rear suspension was later adopted, replacing the four-link design, thus eliminating the panic-braking induced rear wheel-hop. The Vega's front disc and rear drum brake system copied an excellent Opel design including 10-inch diameter single-piston solid rotors designed especially for the Vega and 9-inch diameter drum rear brakes, utilizing the leading-trailing design. The system is balanced to give braking distribution of 70/30 front and rear with no proportioning valve, and exhibiting nearly linear pedal effort.[1]

All four Vega models share the same hood, fenders, floor pan, door lower panels, rocker panels, engine compartment, and front end. The roof panel is a double layer, with a drilled inner panel to cut noise. The hood is hinged at the front and features a inside locking mechanism. Due to its "Modular Construction Design", a Vega sedan with 578 body parts had 418 fewer parts than its full-size Chevrolet counterpart. Modular Construction Design reduced the number of joints and sealing operations resulting in stronger, tighter bodies, effectively contributed to vehicle quality and made possible a very high rate of production.[7] The Vega's body surface was the first accomplished completely through use of computers. Body surface information recorded on tape derived from the clay styling model, allowed computers to improve the body surface mathematically. Computer-developed tapes were also used to control drafting machines in producing master surface plates which were extremely accurate. Computers were also utilized in making the hundreds of necessary engineering calculations including, vision angle, field of view, rear compartment lid and door counterbalance geometries, structural stresses, deflection calculations and tolerance studies.[7]

The Vega's styling was judged conservative, clean-lined and timeless.[15] The GM styling studio's main influence was the 1967–1969 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe AC. The Chevrolet Camaro/Corvette studio under Henry "Hank" Haga was doing the 1970 Camaro at the time. With direction from Bill Mitchell, Haga's group took a clay model and redid the engineering version of the Vega, grafting a miniaturized Camaro front end and egg-crate grille and capped the rear of the sedan and hatchback models with recognizable Chevrolet tail lamps.[16] The coupe has hints of everything from Camaro to Ferrari in its styling.[17] Three years later the front end would be redesigned to accommodate the revised 1974 pendulum-test, 5-mph bumper standard. The sloped front-end was generally well-received although many Vega enthusiasts preferred the older design. The seats are covered in vinyl and foam-padded with built-in head restraints. All interior panels are single-piece molded units and flooring is rubber on sedan and delivery; Carpet on the other two models with additional sound insulation added. An optional Decor package for the sedan included the carpeting, the additional insulation and an adjustment for the passenger seat. A custom interior option for all models (except delivery) added upgraded upholstery, woodgrain accents and cargo area load floor carpeting in the hatchback and wagon.

Model year changes

1972 Vega Kammback Wagon
1973 Vega GT Hatchback Coupe
Limited special edition Millionth Vega
1974 Vega GT Hatchback Coupe
1976 Cosworth Vega Hatchback Coupe

In mid-1971 an optional GT package for Hatchback and Kammback models was introduced including the L-11 two-barrel 140 engine, the F-41 handling suspension option (H.D.springs and shock absorbers, front and rear stabilizer bars, 6-inch-wide wheels and 70-series raised white-letter tires), GT fender emblems, black-finished grill and lower body sills, clear parking lamp lenses, chrome belt and lower moldings, full instrumentation, four-spoke sport steering wheel, adjustable driver's seat back, a passenger-assist handle and a wood-grain dash. Satin-finished GT wheels with trim rings and chrome center caps replaced the argent wheels and stainless hub caps, and a hood/deck sport stripe in black or white was optional.[18] Yenko Chevrolet marketed the Yenko Stinger II through 1973 — based on the Vega GT, its 140 cu in L-11 engine featured high-compression pistons and a turbocharger producing 155 hp (116 kW). Included were front and rear spoilers and side striping with "Yenko Stinger II" identification.

1972 models were essentially carried over from 1971 with a few refinements and additions. Vibration and noise levels were reduced by a revised exhaust system and better driveline damping and the rear shock absorbers were revised. The Turbo-hydramatic three-speed automatic transmission and a custom cloth interior were new options and a glove box was added.[19]

The 1973 Vega had over 300 changes, including new exterior and interior colors and new standard interior trim. The front and rear script nameplates — "Chevrolet Vega 2300" were changed to block letters — "VEGA by Chevrolet". The front bumper, on stronger brackets was extended 3 inches with a steel body-color filler panel — to meet the 1973 5-mph front bumper standards. US-built Saginaw manual transmissions and a new shift linkage replaced the Opel-built units. The L-11 engine featured a new Holley staged two-barrel carburetor. New options included BR70-13 white stripe steel belted radial tires, full wheel covers and body side molding with black rubber insert. Two new models were introduced mid-year — the Estate Kammback Wagon with wood grain sides and rear trim, and the LX Notchback including a vinyl roof. On May 17, 1973 the millionth Vega was produced at the Lordstown assembly plant — a bright orange GT Hatchback with white sport stripes, power steering, a neutral custom vinyl interior with exclusive vinyl door panels,[20] accent-color orange carpeting and millionth Vega door handle accents. A limited edition "Millionth Vega" was introduced replicating the milestone car. 6500 were built May 1 to July 1.[21]

The 1974 model year brought the only major exterior design changes, due to the revised front and rear 5-mph bumper standards. The redesigned front end featured a slanted header panel and recessed headlamp bezels with a louvered steel grille replacing the egg-crate plastic grille. Front and rear aluminum bumpers with inner steel spring (resembling the 1974 Camaro) replaced the chrome bumpers, and front and rear license plate mountings were relocated. A revised rear panel on Notchback and Hatchback models had larger single unit taillights and ventilation grills were eliminated on trunk and hatch lids. Overall length was increased six inches (152 mm) compared to 1971-72 models.[22] A 16 gallon fuel tank replaced the 11 gallon tank. The GT sport stripes option was changed — side striping replaced the painted hood/deck stripes. The custom interior's wood-trimmed molded door panels were replaced with vinyl door panels matching the seat trim. In January plastic front fender liners were added after thousands of sets of fenders were replaced under warranty on 1971-1974 models. In February the "Spirit of America" limited edition hatchback was introduced featuring a white exterior, white vinyl roof, blue and red striping on body-sides, hood and rear-end panel, emblems on front fenders and rear panel, white "GT" wheels, A70-13 raised white-letter tires, a white custom vinyl interior and red accent color carpeting.[23] 7500 were built through May.[5] Sales peaked for the 1974 model year with 460,374 produced.[8]

The 1975 Vega had 264 changes including H.E.I. (High-energy) electronic ignition and catalytic converter. New options included power brakes, tilt steering wheel, BR78-13B GM-spec steel belted wsw radial tires, and a special custom cloth interior option for the Hatchback and Kammback. In March the Cosworth Vega was introduced featuring an all-aluminum twin-cam inline-4 engine and the first use of electronic fuel injection on a Chevrolet passenger car.[24] All 2,061 1975 models were black with gold accent striping, gold-colored aluminum wheels and black custom vinyl, black custom cloth, or white custom vinyl interiors with a gold "engine turned" dash bezel and gold-plated plaque with Cosworth ID and build number.[25] The Panel Express was discontinued at the end of the model year. Never a big seller, Panel Express sales peaked the Vega's first year at 7,800 units. After leveling off to an average of 4,000 per year, only 1,525 1975 models were sold.[26] Total sales fell to 206,239.

1976 models had 300 changes. A facelift included a revised header panel with Chevy bowtie emblem, a wider grill, revised headlamp bezels —all made of corrosion resistant material, and new tri-color taillights for the Notchback and Hatchback. The 2.3 liter engine, named Dura-built 140, received improved cooling and durability refinements. The chassis received the Monza's upgraded components including the box-section front cross-member, larger rear brakes, and torque-arm rear suspension which replaced the four-link design. The body received extensive anti-rust improvements including galvanized fenders and rocker panels. New models introduced were the GT Estate wagon, the Cabriolet Notchback with a half vinyl roof with opera windows, similar to the Monza Towne Coupe, and a limited edition Nomad Wagon featuring restyled side windows.[27] New options included a Borg Warner five-speed manual overdrive transmission and a houndstooth type seat trim named "sport cloth" for an additional charge of $18. In January, a "Sky-Roof" with tinted reflectorized sliding glass and 8-track tape player options were added. The Cosworth was offered in eight additional exterior and two additional interior colors mid-year, but was canceled in July after only 1,446 1976 models.[28]

1977 models were carried over from 1976 with a few revisions and additions. The Notchback was renamed Coupe. The Dura-built 140 engine received a pulse-air system to meet the more strict 1977 Federal emission standards. A similar system secured the Cosworth engine EPA certificate in 1975. The one-barrel version of the engine was dropped, as was the three-speed manual transmission. A full console was a new option and GTs received blacked-out trim and a revised side striping option.[29]

Engines

140 CID OHC

140 cu in (2.3 L) 1 bbl. I-4, 90 hp (1971)

The Vega 140 CID engine is a 2,287 cc (139.6 cu in) inline-four featuring a die-cast aluminum cylinder and case assembly and a cast-iron cylinder head with a single overhead camshaft (SOHC)[30] The cylinder block is an open deck design with siamesed free-standing cylinder bores. Outer case walls form the water jacket and are sealed off by the head and the head gasket. The block has cast iron main caps and a cast iron crankshaft. The cast iron cylinder head was chosen for low cost and structural integrity. The overhead valvetrain is a direct acting design of extreme simplicity. Only three components activate the valve rather than the usual seven of a typical push rod system. The camshaft is supported by five conventional pressed-in bearings. The camshaft is driven from the crankshaft by an externally mounted continuous cogged belt and sprocket system. Six v-grooves on the outside of the belt drive the water pump and fan.[31]

The large bore and long stroke design provide good torque and lower rpm operation for reduced wear. Compression ratio for the standard and optional engine is 8.0:1, as the engine was designed to operate on low-lead and no-lead fuels. A single-barrel carburetor version produces 90 hp (67 kW). The two-barrel version (RPO L11) produces 110 hp (82 kW). From 1972 on, ratings were listed as SAE net. The relatively large (for an inline-4) engine is naturally prone to vibration and is subdued by large rubber engine mounts. The 1972 Rochester DualJet two-barrel carburetor required an air pump for emission certification and was replaced in 1973 with a Holley-built 5210C staged two-barrel carb. Emission control revisions made in 1973 reduced power output on the optional engine by 5 bhp (3.7 kW), although the engine's cruising noise levels were reduced.[32]H.E.I. ignition was introduced on 1975 engines.[33]

See: Criticism - 140 engine

Dura-Built 140

Dura-built 140 cu in (2.3 L) 2bbl. I-4, 84 hp

The 140 cu in engine was named Dura-Built 140 in 1976. It featured improved coolant pathways for the aluminum-block, a redesigned cylinder head incorporating quieter hydraulic valve lifters, longer life valve stem seals (which reduced oil consumption by 50%), and a redesigned water pump, head gasket, and thermostat. Warranty on the engine was five years/60,000 miles (97,000 km).[34] "August 1, 1975. 8 a.m. Outside the southern edge of Las Vegas, Nevada. Three medium orange Vegas start their engines. They won't be turning them off much during the next 58 days except for rest and food stops, refueling and maintenance. They have a job to do."[35] Chevrolet conducted an advertised 60,000 miles in 60 days Durability Run of the 1976 Vega and its Dura-Built 140 engine.

1976 Vegas on the 60,000 miles in 60 days Durability Run

Three new Vega hatchback coupes equipped with manual transmissions and air conditioning were driven non-stop for 60,000 miles (97,000 km) in 60 days through the deserts of California and Nevada (Death Valley) using three pre-production models of the subcompact and nine non-professional drivers. All three 1976 Vegas completed a total of 180,000 miles (290,000 km) with only one "reliability" incident — a broken timing belt. This fact prompted Vega project engineer Bernie Ernest to say, "The Vega has reliability in excess of 60,000 miles, and therefore the corporation feels very comfortable with the warranty." [36]

Motor Trend in their February 1976 report The 60,000-mile Vega, said, "Chevrolet chose the 349-mile Southwestern desert route in order to show the severely criticized engine and cooling system had been improved in the 1976 model. During the 60-day test which was certified and supervised by the United States Auto Club, the three cars were subjected to ambient temperatures never lower than 99 °F (37 °C) and often reaching as high as 122 °F (50 °C). The nine drivers were instructed to treat the cars as they would their own and use the air conditioning as desired. Yet, in more than 180,000 miles of total driving, the cars used only 24 ounces of coolant, an amount attributed to normal evaporation under severe desert conditions. 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. Translated into actual driving expenses, the three Vegas averaged a per-mile cost of 2.17 cents."[37] One of the cars went on display at the 1976 New York Auto Show. The 1976 Vega was marketed as a durable and reliable car.[38][39] The 1977 Dura-Built 140 engine added a pulse-air system to meet the more-strict 1977 U.S. exhaust emission regulations. The engine paint color (as used on all Chevy engines) changed from orange on 1976 engines, to blue on 1977 engines.

122 CID DOHC

Cosworth Twin-Cam 16-valve, 122 cu in (2.0 L) EFI I-4, 110 hp

The Cosworth Vega 122 CID engine is a 1,994 cc (121.7 cu in) inline-four featuring a die cast aluminum alloy cylinder and case assembly and a Type 356 aluminum alloy, 16-valve cylinder head with double overhead camshafts (DOHC), designed in conjunction with English engineering company Cosworth. The camshafts are held in a removable cam-carrier which also serves as a guide for the valve lifters. Each camshaft is supported by five bearings and is turned by individual cam gears on the front end. The two overhead camshafts are driven, along with the water pump and fan, by a fiberglass cord reinforced neoprene rubber belt, much like the Vega 140 cu in engine. Below the cam carrier is a 16-valve cylinder head constructed of an aluminum alloy using sintered iron valve seats and iron cast valve seats. Sturdy forged aluminum pistons and heat-treated forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods reveal racing ancestry; assure high performance durability.[40]

The engine features a stainless steel exhaust header and electronic fuel injection (EFI) – a Bendix system with pulse-time manifold injection, four injector valves, an electronic control unit (ECU), five independent sensors and two fuel pumps. Each engine was hand-built and includes a cam cover sticker with the engine builder's signature. The Cosworth Vega engine is some 60 lb (27 kg) lighter than the SOHC Vega engine.[41] The engine develops its maximum power at 5,600 rpm and is redlined at 6,500 rpm where the SOHC Vega engine peaks at 4,400 rpm and all is done at 5,000 rpm. Final rating is 110 hp (82 kW).[42] The planned 1974 launch of the Cosworth variant was delayed when burned exhaust valves were found at 40,000 miles (64,000 km) during a 50,000 miles (80,000 km) emissions certification run. This resulted in a major redesign of the fuel system and ignition system, plus the addition of fresh air injection into the exhaust to reduce pollutants.[43] With only 3,508 of the 5,000 engines used, GM disassembled about 500; the remaining engines were scrapped.[44]

Aluminum engine block

Vega aluminum engine block has 17 percent silicon content, free standing siamese cylinder walls

GM Research Labs had been working on a sleeveless aluminum block since the late 1950s. The incentive was cost. Engineering out the four-cylinder block liners would save $8 per unit. Reynolds Metal Co. developed an eutectic alloy called A-390, composed of 77 percent aluminum, 17 percent silicon, 4 percent copper, 1 percent iron, and traces of phosphorus, zinc, manganese, and titanium — suitable for faster production diecasting, making the Vega block less expensive to manufacture than other aluminum engines. Sealed Power Corp. developed chrome-plated piston rings that were blunted to prevent cylinder bore scuffing. Basic work had been done under Eudell Jackobson of GM engineering. Then suddenly, Chevrolet got handed the job of putting this sleeveless aluminum block into production. The Vega blocks were cast in Massena, New York at the same factory that had produced the Corvair engine. The casting process provided a uniform distribution of fine primary silicon particles approximately 0.001 inches (25 µm) in size. The blocks were aged eight hours at 450 °F (232 °C) to achieve dimensional stability, then inpregnated with sodium silicate to help eliminate porosity.[2] From Massena, the cast engine blocks were shipped to GM's engine plant in Tonawanda, New York where they underwent the etch and machining operations. The cylinder bores were rough and finish-honed conventionally to a 7-microinch (180 nm) finish then etched removing approximately 0.00015-inch (3.8 µm) of aluminum, leaving the pure silicon particles prominent to form the bore surface. A four-layer plating process was necessary for the piston skirts, putting a hard iron surface opposite the silicon of the block. From Tonawanda, the engines went to the Chevrolet assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. The technical breakthroughs of the block lay in the die-casting method used to produce it, and in the silicon alloying which provided a compatible bore surface without liners. With a finished weight of 36 pounds (16 kg), the block weighs 51 pounds (23 kg) less than the cast-iron block of the 153 cu in (2,507 cc) inline-four used in the Chevy II Nova.

Engine output summary

Year Standard Engine Optional L-11 Engine & GT (Z29) Cosworth Twin-Cam (ZO9)
1971 90 hp (67 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

136 lb·ft (184 N·m) @ 2,400 rpm

110 hp (82 kW) @ 4,800 rpm

138 lb·ft (187 N·m) @ 3,200 rpm

1972 80 hp (60 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

121 lb·ft (164 N·m) @ 2,400 rpm

90 hp (67 kW) @ 4,800 rpm

121 lb·ft (164 N·m) @ 2,800 rpm

1973 72 hp (54 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

100 lb·ft (136 N·m) @ 2,000 rpm

85 hp (63 kW) @ 4,800 rpm

115 lb·ft (156 N·m) @ 2,400 rpm

1974 75 hp (56 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

115 lb·ft (156 N·m) @ 2,400 rpm

85 hp (63 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

122 lb·ft (165 N·m) @ 2,400 rpm

1975 78 hp (58 kW) @ 4,200 rpm

120 lb·ft (163 N·m) @ 2,000 rpm

87 hp (65 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

122 lb·ft (165 N·m) @ 2,800 rpm

110 hp (82 kW) @ 5,600 rpm

107 lb·ft (145 N·m) @ 4,800 rpm

1976 70 hp (52 kW) @ 4,200 rpm

120 lb·ft (163 N·m) @ 2,000 rpm

84 hp (63 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

122 lb·ft (165 N·m) @ 2,800 rpm

110 hp (82 kW) @ 5,600 rpm

107 lb·ft (145 N·m) @ 4,800 rpm

1977 84 hp (63 kW) @ 4,400 rpm

122 lb·ft (165 N·m) @ 2,800 rpm

notes: 1972–1977 hp/torque ratings are SAE Net[45] L-11 engine standard on 1977 models[46]

Stillborn engines

OHC L-10

XP-898 concept prototype Vega L-10 engine with "crossflow" aluminum head

Although the optional L-11 engine became a integral to the Vega development program in December 1968, the Chevrolet engine group disliked the tall iron cylinder head with its unusual tappet arrangement and side-flow "Heron" combustion chamber design. They deisgned a "crossflow" aluminum cylinder head with a single centrally-mounted overhead camshaft (OHC) and roller rocker arms operating intake valves on one side and exhaust valves on the other, similar to the Ferrari V12 cylinder head design of that period; it was about 4" lower than the Vega production head, was lighter and had true "hemi" chambers with big valves. Numerous prototypes were built, and manufacturing tooling was started in anticipation of approval for production. Ultimately the design was not approved. Had it gone to production, it would not have had the differential expansion head gasket problems of the iron-head engine and would have provided higher performance than the optional L-11 engine.[12]

RC2-206 Wankel

In November 1970, GM paid $50 million for initial licenses to produce the Wankel rotary engine, and GM President Ed Cole projected its release in three years, initially targeted for an October 1973 introduction as a 1974 Vega option. The General Motors Rotary Combustion Engine (GMRCE) had two rotors displacing 206 cu in (3,376 cc), twin distributors and coils, and an aluminum housing.[47] RC2-206 Wankels were installed in 1973 Vegas for cold weather testing in Canada.

1974 Vega RC2-206 Wankel

Motor Trend, in a 1973 article "The '75 Vega Rotary" said: "GM saw the rotary engine's future as probably much greater than they do today...mileage will be in the 16-18 mpg range. Compared to the normal piston (engine) Vega's 20 to 26 mpg, the whole rotary deal begins to look just a little less attractive, with what the price of gasoline skyrocketing, but that's another matter."[48]

Unwilling to face fuel efficiency criticism that Mazda withstood, GM felt it could meet 1975 emissions standards with the engine tuned to provide better mileage. Other refinements improved mileage to 20 mpg-US (12 L/100 km; 24 mpg-imp), but with the fuel breakthrough came related side-effect problems — apex seal failures, as well as a rotor tip-seal problem.[47] By December 1973, it was clear the Wankel, now planned for the Monza 2+2, would not be ready for either production or emissions certification in time for the start of the 1975 model year, and after paying another $10 million against its rotary licence fees, the company announced the first postponement. Motor Trend in April 1974 predicted the final outcome[49] – on September 24, 1974, Ed Cole postponed the Wankel engine ostensibly due to emissions difficulties. He retired the same month. GM admitted fuel economy for the rotary was sub-standard and postponed production in favor of further development. Pete Estes succeeded Ed Cole as GM President and never showed any special interest in the Wankel or in the perpetuation of Cole's ideas.[50]

Lordstown Assembly

Building Chevrolet Vegas at Lordstown Assembly in Lordstown, Ohio
Lordstown Assembly, Vega Final Line

GM built a $75 million plant, Lordstown Assembly in Lordstown, Ohio, to produce the Vega. When completed, Lordstown was the world's most automated auto plant.[1] Approximately 95 percent of each Vega body's 3900 welds were carried out automatically by industrial robots called Unimates. Engine and rear axle assemblies positioned by hydraulic lifts with bodies overhead were synchronized to move along the line at 30 feet per minute. Sub-assembly areas, conveyor belts and quality control were all computer directed.[51]

Production speed

Vega production at Lordstown was projected at 100 cars an hour from the beginning: one vehicle every 36 seconds. This was nearly twice the normal volume and by far was the fastest rate in the world. Most GM auto plants turned cars out at the rate of 55 an hour. Within months Lordstown was producing 73.5 Vegas an hour.[1] The Lordstown worker had only 36 seconds to do his job instead of the normal minute. With 25 percent more line workers than needed, the speed of assembly did not bother most workers at first, organizing themselves into groups of three, so the fourth could rest while the others worked. The Vegas that came off the line in those early months were well built. They still had mechanical flaws but the quality of assembly — things like fit-and-finish — was not a problem. The car was good, so good, in fact, and so well received that it earned Motor Trend's Car of the Year award for 1971. Then in October 1971, General Motors ordered Chevrolet and Fisher Body to turn over Lordstown to the General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD). One of its missions was to cut costs and it did this by letting go that fourth "extra" worker and the line speed didn't slow. GMAD ran a much tighter ship and discipline became more rigorous. The United Auto Workers (UAW) claimed that 800 workers were laid off at Lordstown within the first year of GMAD's arrival. The division put the figure at 370. Feelings got worse with management accusing workers of intentionally slowing the line and sabotaging cars by leaving parts off and doing shoddy work. The workers countered that GMAD sped up the line and cut staffing. Whatever the truth, quality did suffer and In March 1972, the plant's 7,700 workers called a wildcat strike that lasted a month and cost GM 150 million dollars.[2] Vega production jumped by well more than 100,000 units for 1972, but would have been even more robust without the contentious strike. 1975 was a "rolling model change" at 100 cars per hour with no downtime.[1]

New paint chemistry

As initial production ramped up to the goal of 100 vehicles per hour, a major problem developed in the paint shop. At 85 units per hour, the incidence of deficient paint application had risen to where nearly 100% of the units required repair. They simply could not lay the paint on fast enough with conventional pressures and tips, and when they increased pressures and opened up tips, they got runs and sags everywhere. Fisher Body had no effective means to reach full production targets, so they called DuPont (lacquer paint supplier); using two mobile paint laboratories, they developed a new paint chemistry and application specifics over a weekend — Non-Aqueous Dispersion Lacquer (NAD). There were production paint colors to that new formulation within a week, which enabled them to continue the production ramp-up successfully to 106 per hour in the paint shop. John Hinkley, GMAD-Lordstown Coordinator said: "Masking, painting, and demasking the GT's optional sport stripes was something to see at 106 per hour."[52]

Vertical rail transport

30 Vegas to a single Vert-a-pac

The Vega was designed to be shipped vertically, nose down. Railroad cars named Vert-A-Pac were designed jointly by General Motors and Southern Pacific — each holding 30 Vegas versus 18 in normal tri-level autoracks. Each car was fitted with four removable cast-steel sockets in the undercarriage. Plastic spacers were wedged beside the powertrain to prevent damage to engine and transmission mount, and were removed during unloading. The rail car ramp/doors were opened and closed via forklift.[53]

Chevrolet conducted vibration and low-speed crash tests to ensure the suspended, nose-down cars would not shift or incur damage in railroad collisions. Chevrolet's goal was to deliver cars topped with fluids and ready to drive to the dealership. To do this, engineers had to design an engine oil baffle to prevent oil from entering the No. 1 cylinder; Batteries had filler caps located high up on the rear edge of the battery case to prevent acid spilling; the carburetor float bowl had a tube that drained gasoline into the vapor canister during shipment, and the windshield washer bottle stood at a 45 degree angle.[54]

DeLorean influence

GM Vice President John Z. DeLorean was appointed general manager of Chevrolet in 1969, a year prior to the Vega's introduction. DeLorean oversaw the Vega launch – directing the Chevrolet division and the Lordstown Assembly plant. He promoted the car in Motor Trend and Look magazines. DeLorean also authorized the Cosworth Vega prototype, later requesting initiation of production.[55] His 1979 book, On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, included a chapter on the Vega program.

John DeLorean and Vega 2300 in 1970

In Motor Trend's August 1970 issue, DeLorean discussed the upcoming car, touting its quality of assembly and its handling capabilities. DeLorean said,

"Our design concept was we wanted to build a car that does everything well, and if you drive the car you really will be very impressed. It has far and away the best handling of anything in its class. In fact it handles better than many sports cars. The performance is excellent. There is nothing that comes within a mile of the Vega for performance and handling. It out-performs any car in its price class in accelerating. This car will out-handle almost any sports car built in Europe. Not just little cars, but sports cars too. This is quite an automobile...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.. I think the ride and handling of some of the imports is quite mediocre. But some of them are extremely well put together. The Vega has good craftsmanship, without the faults of the imports."[56]

1972 Vega Sedan,
Belgian blocks road test

On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors -John Z. DeLorean's Look Inside The Automotive Giant by J. Patrick Wright was written in 1974, a year following DeLorean's resignation from GM, and finally published in 1979. In "The Vega" chapter, DeLorean was critical of the corporate control of the Vega program and discussed his decisions in regards to launching the car. DeLorean said,

"This program produced a hostile relationship between the corporate staffs, which essentially designed and engineered the car, and Chevrolet Division which was to sell it. From the first day I stepped into Chevrolet, the Vega was in trouble. Engineers are a very proud group. They take interest and pride in their designs, but this was not their car and they did not want to work on it. My most important problem was to motivate the division to get the car into as good shape as we could before introduction. So we made the Vega the first project of the new Planning Committee and gave it top priority with the revised marketing department. 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." "In naming the car one name stood out - Gemini. When pronounced it almost said "G-M-ini. Marketing studies notwithstanding, Ed Cole liked the name Vega and so did top corporate management, who disregarded our test results."[57]

Vega versus competitors

1971 Gremlin X, 1972 Pinto Runabout & 1973 Vega GT photographed in 2010

As domestic automakers entered the subcompact class, Chevrolet's introduction of the Vega on September 10, 1970 followed the AMC Gremlin by six months and preceded the Ford Pinto by one day.[58] Time magazine in September 1970 said the Vega was slightly more expensive than the Pinto.[59] Motor Trend in February 1971 said conservative estimates had placed the cost of bringing the Vega (XP-887) from drawing board to production reality at a staggering $200 million compared to about $5 million for the AMC Gremlin.[51] The Vega competed directly with its domestic rivals and Japanese imports from Toyota and Datsun as well as the successful, but aging VW Beetle.[58]

Five months prior to the Vega's public introduction, Chevrolet invited six publications to participate in a test run from Denver, Colorado to Phoenix, Arizona. Six cars were provided, driven out to Denver from the GM Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan. Three Vegas - a sedan, coupe, and wagon, VW Beetle, Toyota Corona, and Ford Maverick.[60] In September 1970 Car Life magazine reported on the two-day test run: "The motoring press took an 890-mile trip in three Vegas and three competitors. The Vegas won."[61] "The most impressive part of the trip was the cornering power of the three Vegas. None of the other cars could begin to keep up."[62] Michael Lamm said, "We all agreed that the three Vegas were well put together, that they were comfortable, roomy, reasonably quiet, and fun to drive."[63] John Bond, publisher of Road and Track and Car Life, who'd never been overly fond of American automobiles said he thought the Vega handled better than any economy car he'd ever driven.[58] The highest speed attained on a level road was 105 mph (169 km/h) at 5,250 rpm by the Vega coupe with the L-11 performance option. The highest fuel mileage recorded was the Vega sedan at 25.5 mpg. The best 0-60 time was the L-11 Vega coupe at 13.5 seconds.[64][65]

Motor Trend in a 1971 VW-Pinto-Vega comparison said, "The engine in the Vega is the strongest of the three...its drag strip performance will blow the doors off both the Pinto and the VW. 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."[66]

Car and Driver in 1971 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 pulls down the number one position because of its particular suitability to American driving conditions. In general the Vega is quick and nimble without the sports car harshness most American car drivers find objectionable." "The Vega's tall 2.53:1 axle ratio allowed a low 3,000 rpm at 80 mph (130 km/h)." "It was the quickest of the cars tested, taking 12.2 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h)." C&D credited the Vega "an excellent combination of performance and economy."[67]

Motor Trend in a 1972 comparison test A Back Door To Economy chose the Vega GT best car over the Ford Pinto Runabout and Gremlin X saying, "Chevy has had it all along." "Even extended trips do not induce excessive driver fatigue and that is one reason why it was the Car of the Year in 1971.[68]

Car and Driver in a 6-Car Comparison Test Super Coupes in 1972 rated the Vega GT's styling over Pinto Runabout, Opel 1900 Rallye, Mazda RX-2, Capri 2000, and Toyota Celica, saying: "...If looks alone determined the best Super coupe, the Vega GT would win hands down without ever turning a wheel." [69]

Road Test magazine in the 1976 Super Coupe Shootout — Alfa vs. Mazda vs. Lancia vs. Saab vs. Cosworth Vega, RT said: "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".[70] "The Cosworth is American, and a collector's item, and it came close, damn close to winning the whole thing."[71]

Motor Trend Classic magazine in a 2010 Loving Look Back comparison — 1973 Vega GT, 1972 Pinto Runabout and 1971 Gremlin X — closes the article saying, "Emotionally, Jim Brokaw summed it up in January 1972: Gremlin has power, but Pinto has the price, and a much quieter ride. Which car is best? Vega."[72][73]

Awards

The Vega received awards from Motor Trend, Car and Driver and the American Iron and Steel Institute. Chevrolet's early Vega advertising included ads promoting awards won by the car. Frank Markus, Technical Director of Motor Trend wrote in the Motor Trend Classic Fall 2010 issue,[73] "Chevrolet spun the Vega as a more American, upscale car. And let's face it, the car looked hot. So can you blame us for falling hook, line, and sinker for the Vega and naming it 1971's Car of the Year?"[72]

1971 Chevrolet Vega ad

Motor Trend awarded the Vega 1971 Car of the Year.[74]

MT: "The base Vega is a magnificent automobile without any options at all."
"...It is appropriate that the final choice was a car that reflects Detroit's timely response to the people's needs instead of a copy writer's idea of what they should need. 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."[75]

American Iron and Steel Institute awarded the Vega in 1971 for–Excellence in design in transportation equipment.[76]

Motor Trend awarded the Vega GT 1973 Car of the Year in the Economy Class.[77]

MT: "The best version of the Vega came out on top matched against the best versions of its competition."..."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."[77]

Car and Driver readers voted the Vega Best Economy Sedan in 1971, 1972 and 1973 in C&D's Annual Reader's Choice Poll. In 1971, the Vega's first year on the market, it managed to unseat the incumbent import, breaking its eight year winning streak.[78]

Car and Driver selected the Cosworth Vega one of the 10 Best Collectable Cars in its fourth annual Ten Best issue, saying: "We're talking about historical significance here."[79]

Production

Total Vega production was 1,966,157 including 3,508 Cosworth Vegas.[8] At its peak, total Vega production was 2,400 units per day. The majority were built in the United States at Lordstown Assembly in Lordstown, Ohio. In 1973–1974, Vegas were also built at the GM of Canada plant Sainte-Thérèse Assembly in Quebec. Collectible Automobile said, "One thing that helped the Vega sell was its timing. It debuted in 1971. Then in late 1973, the first big international fuel crunch hit, with small, thrifty, American-made cars suddenly in great demand. The 1973-74 oil embargo, perhaps more than any other factor, boosted the Vega's fortunes."[80]

1971 Vega Panel Express
Panels were only 2% of production.
1973 Vega GT-Millionth Vega limited edition
The millionth Vega was built May 17, 1973.
Year Notchback Hatchback Kammback Panel Del. Cosworth Total
1971 58,800 168,300 42,800 7,800 277,700
1972 55,800 262,700 72,000 4,114 394,592
1973 n/a n/a n/a n/a 395,792
1974 63,591 271,682 113,326 4,287 452,886
1975 35,143 112,912 56,133 1,525 2,061 206,239
1976 27,619 77,409 46,114 1,446 160,523
1977 12,365 37,395 25,181 78,402
1,966,157

note: 1973 model breakdown N/A

Rebadged variants

Vega body styles were used to produce several badge engineered variants. 1973–1977 Pontiac Astres used all Vega bodies (and Vega engines through 1976). 1978–1979 Chevrolet Monza and Pontiac Sunbird wagons used the Vega Kammback wagon body with engines supplied by Pontiac and Buick. Chevy also offered the Monza 'S' for 1978 as a Monza price leader, using the Vega hatchback body.[81]

1975 Astre GT Hatchback Coupe
1978 Monza 'S' Hatchback Coupe
1978 Monza Estate Wagon
1978 Sunbird Safari Wagons

The Pontiac Astre, was introduced in the U.S. for the 1975 model year giving Pontiac dealers a needed fuel efficient subcompact. Pontiac's trademark split grill and front emblem, Astre nameplates, an upgraded interior trim and a Pontiac steering wheel with emblem helped to differentiate itself from the Vega. The SJ Hatchback and SJ Safari Wagon models feature soft nylon upholstery, cut pile carpeting, padded and cloth covered door panels, and a fabric headliner, plus rally instruments, the higher-output two barrel engine, four-speed (over a three-speed manual) gearbox or automatic and radial tires. A GT package option for the hatchback and Safari wagon combined the lower-line interior with the SJ's performance and handling features. 3,000 1975 "Lil Wide Track" packages were sold. 1977 models featured a new vertical design grill and aluminum wheels were a new option. The Astre Formula was introduced which included the handling package, chrome valve cover, three-piece spoiler, Formula T/A steering wheel and special decals.[82] The Astre used the Vega 140 cu in (2.3 L) engine through 1976. The Pontiac 151 cu in (2.5 L) OHV Iron-Duke inline-four engine was used for the final 1977 model year. Transmissions are the three- and four-speed manual, five-speed manual with overdrive (1976–1977 option) and the three-speed automatic.

The Chevrolet Monza 'S' produced for the 1978 model year used the Vega hatchback body style. With the Vega nameplate canceled, the Monza 'S' was marketed as a price leader for the Chevy Monza line. The rebadged hatchback had the new Monza front end header panel and grill with Chevy bowtie emblem, steel front and rear bumpers replaced the Vega's aluminum bumpers. Monza front fender nameplates, and a two-spoke color keyed steering wheel with Monza emblem. White-wall tires and full wheel covers were standard as were bumper rub strips. In addition, there was an expanded engine availability. Pontiac's 151 cu in (2.5 L) OHV 'Iron-Duke' in-line 4 was standard. A choice of two V6 engines were available. Buick's 196 cu in (3.2 L) 90 hp (67 kW) V6 and 231 cu in (3.8 L) 105 hp (78 kW) V6. The four-speed manual was standard with all engines. The five-speed manual with overdrive and three-speed automatic transmissions were optional.[83]

The Chevrolet Monza Wagon produced for the 1978–1979 model years used the Vega wagon body style. The rebadged wagon had the new Monza front end and grill and front and rear steel bumpers, front fender namplates and the Monza steering wheel with emblem. White-wall tires, full wheel covers and bumper rub strips were standard equipment. The Monza Estate, like the Vega Estate wagon it replaced, features wood grain sides and rear trim with outline moldings and the custom interior. Monza wagon models included, as standard, the 151 cu in I-4. The 196 cu in (3.2 L) and 231 cu in (3.8 L) V6 engines were optional. The four-speed manual was standard with all engines. The five-speed manual with overdrive, and three-speed automatic transmissions optional.[84]

The Pontiac Sunbird Safari Wagon produced for the 1978–1979 model years used the Vega wagon body style. It replaced the discontinued Pontiac Astre Safari wagon which was essentially carried over with Sunbird badging. The Sunbird wagon retained the Vega/Astre aluminum bumpers, unlike the Monza wagon, which featured a new front end and steel bumpers, but the 1979 model featured a revised horizontal styled grill. Standard powertrain was Pontiac's 151 cu in (2,474 cc) inline-four with a four-speed manual transmission. Previously unavailable for Astre were Sunbird's optional 196 cu in (3,212 cc) and 231 cu in (3,785 cc) V6 engines. Five-speed manual and three-speed automatic were transmission options.[85]

Rebadged variant Production
1975–1977 Pontiac Astre 147,773
1978 Chevrolet Monza 'S' Hatchback 2,326
1978–1979 Chevrolet Monza Wagon 41,023
1978–1979 Pontiac Sunbird Wagon 11,336
Total[86] 192,458

note: 1973–1974 Pontiac Astre (GM of Canada) N/A

Problems

Collectible Automobile said, "Although the Vega sold well from the beginning, the buying public soon started to question the car's quality. It had every right to; It came out prematurely and still had a lot of glitches." [87] Further development and upgrades continued throughout the car's seven year production run, addressing its engine and cost-related issues.[88]

Fisher Body

Fisher Body Vega Elpo dip

Fisher Body Division was very proud of its Elpo primering process, which should have prevented rust, but didn't. The Elpo process (electrophoretic deposition of polymers) pioneered by Fisher, followed a seven stage zinc phosphate initial treatment and itself involved submerging the assembled Vega body in a vat containing reddish-brown paint-primer particles in 65,000 US gallons (246,052 L; 54,124 imp gal) of water. The metal bodies received a positive electrical charge, the primer particles carried a negative charge, and by leaving the body in the vat for two minutes even the most remote recesses get coated, theoretically. The body was then dried, wet-sanded, sealer-coated and finally sprayed with acrylic lacquer and baked in a 300 °F (149 °C) degree oven. In practice however, the Elpo dip did not flow to every recess or reach every surface. Vega expert Gary Derian was interviewed by Collectable Automobile in 2000. He said:

"The design of the front end caused air to be trapped at the tops of the fenders, so they never got coated. Early cars had no inner fender liners, so the tops of the front fenders got blasted by sand and salt thrown up by the tires, and they quickly rusted." Derion pointed out, too, that a rust-prone gap existed between the front fenders and the cowl vent. "Moist debris and salt would pack into this area rusting through the metal in a few years."[2]

Chevrolet installed stopgap plastic deflectors in late 1973 and full plastic inner fenders in 1974. The original design provided for the full inner fender liners from the beginning. But at a cost review meeting the finance department cancelled the liners, as they would have added $1.14 per side, or $2.28 per car to the product cost. One of the program objectives was to produce a 2,000-pound car to sell for $2,000.00, and every penny was watched. Five years later, after GM had spent millions to replace thousands of sets of rusted-out Vega fenders in the field, the plastic fender liners were reinstated as a mid-model change during the 1974 model year. But rust damage also affected the rocker panels, the door bottoms, the area beneath the windshield, and the primary body structure above the rockers. Darian added. "The front suspension cam bolts would sometimes rust solidly in place, which prevented alignment adjustments. To remove the cam bolts required lots of careful work with a cutting torch and all new parts."[12]

Starting in 1976, extensive anti-rust improvements on Vega's body included galvanized steel fenders and rocker panels and "four layer" fender protection with zinc coated and primed inner fenders and wheelwell protective mastic, zinc-rich pre-prime coating on inner doors, expandable sealer installed between rear quarter panel and wheel housing panel, and corrosion resistant grill and headlamp housings.[2]

140 CID engine

1972 Vega Kammback Wagon, 140 CID I4 RPO L11 with Rochester 2-bbl. carburetor

The Vega was subject to two recalls early in its production run involving its 140 cubic inch engine. 130,000 cars fitted with L-11 option addressed a concern over backfiring caused by the two-barrel carburetor. The second recall, in the early summer of 1972, involved 350,000 cars with the standard engine driven by a perceived risk that a component in the emission control system might fall into the throttle linkage, jamming it open.[89] Eudell Jackobson from GM engineering confirmed the problems involving the early two-barrel Rochester carburetor and engine valve-stem seals. Jackobson said,

"Because of the inherent second order unbalance of the four-cylinder engine, relatively soft engine mounts were required. Due to the soft mounts, the Vega engine sometimes shook to the extent that it would loosen the screws holding the top cover to the carburetor body. The top cover would then jump up and down, which activated the accelerator pump, which shot raw gasoline through the cylinders and into the exhaust system. Fuel would puddle inside the muffler and eventually explode; backfire. The early mufflers would blow out towards the fuel tank, so later ones were engineered so they'd blow away from the tank. We also started using Loc-Tite on the carburetor bolts."[2] In 1973 the Rochester two-barrel carburetor was replaced with a Holley-Weber design.[90]

"After the engine had been in production for a while, customers would go back to the dealer complaining about oil consumption... the mechanic would peer down the bore scope and observe cylinder scuffing. We eventually found out that the problem had never been the scuffing of the (cylinder) bore. The real problem was the valve stem seals. They'd harden, split, fall off, and oil would leak down past the valves and into the combustion chamber. So we did some experiments. When we got an oil burner, we simply replaced the valve-stem seals, and that cured it."[2] 1976-77 Dura-built engines had redesigned seals that reduced oil consumption by fifty percent.[91]

The Vega's cooling system held only 6 US quarts (5.7 l) and had a tiny two-tube, 1 sq ft (0.1 m2) radiator, when topped off the Vega cooling system was adequate.[92] But most owners tended not to check the coolant level often enough, and in combination with leaking valve-stem seals the engine would often be low on oil and coolant simultaneously. This caused overheating which distorted the open deck block allowing antifreeze to seep past the head gasket, causing piston scuffing inside the cylinders.[2]
In response, Chevrolet added a coolant overflow bottle and an electronic low-coolant indicator in 1974 that could be retrofitted to earlier models at no cost. Under a revised 50,000 mi (80,000 km) engine warranty for 1971–1975 Vegas, an owner with a damaged engine had a choice to have the short block replaced with a brand new unit or a rebuilt steel-sleeved unit. This proved costly for Chevrolet. GM engineer Fred Kneisler maintaines that too much emphasis had been put on overheating problems versus the real culprits: brittle valve stem seals and too-thin piston plating. Regardless of the cause, damaged cylinder walls were common.

Collectible Automobile said, "Kneisler feels Chevrolet could have anticipated some of the Vega's problems had there been time to run what he call's "granny tests", more formally known as failure mode analysis — involves treating a car the way a "typical" grandmother would; i.e. ignoring coolant and oil levels, and rarely servicing anything. The granny test would have taken time, which the Vega's development engineers didn't really have. But apparently no one thought to run granny tests anyway."[93] Kneisler confessed,

"It astonishes me that not one of us thought about seeing what would happen if we ran out of water. Let's just see what happens. After the fact, it certainly seems reasonable, but it never occurred to us. And the test system back then didn't let things fail. If a test driver at the proving grounds didn't ever check one of those engines and let it run out of coolant...if it burned up, he'd get fired. The drivers were checking coolant every day, checking the oil, checking everything every shift."[94]

1976-1977 Dura-Built 140 engines had improved engine block coolant pathways, a redesigned head gasket, water pump, and thermostat, and had a five-year/60,000 mi (97,000 km) warranty.[91] Ironically, despite its lack of success with the Vega, the liner-less aluminum/silicon engine technology that GM and Reynolds developed turned out to be sound. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche both use sleeveless aluminum engines today. The metallurgy and finishing processes are slightly different, but the basic principles are those developed for the Vega engine.[1]

Reception

Initially the Vega received awards and praise. Subsequently there were criticisms.

Praise

In 1970, the American automotive press variously described the Vega as enjoyable, functional, comfortable[14] and innovative,[95] with good handling,[14][96] ride, freeway cruising, economy and visibility.[97] The 2300 engine's simplicity was praised,[98] as were the handling package and brakes[99] of a Vega with the 110 hp engine. One magazine said the car was well matched to the tastes and needs of the 1970s,[100] another thought it "very good",[61] and in December 1970 Motor Trend included the Vega as one of the "Ten Best Cars of 1971".[101]

In 1971, Car and Driver favorably compared the basic Vega with the Ford Pinto,[102] and described the Vega as one of the world's best-looking compact sedans.[103] The Yenko Turbo Stinger II version was called a sports car.[104] The following year, Car and Driver chose a GT model for a tire test because of its handling balance,[105] and Hot Rod magazine voted the GT "Best Buy" of the 1972 Chevrolet line.[106] Also in 1972, the Vega was voted "Easiest to service, least mechanical problems and best overall in its class" in a magazine survey of independent auto service personnel.[107]

In 1973 and 1974, improvements were noted in the engine,[108][109] traction,[110] and gearshift.[111] The GT was commended for its performance, economy, cornering, brakes, air conditioning, interior,[112] "sense of balance that you rarely find in a sedan", steering that felt quite accurate, and the interior's high-quality carpets, door panels and seat coverings.[113]

In a 1975 road test the Cosworth Vega's performance and handling received positive reviews, [114] as did the car's balance, roll-stiffness distribution and mild understeer.[115]

The 1976 Cosworth version was complimented for its engine's smoothness and responsiveness, and for "very good" handling. The car was rated "a nice balance between performance and economy".[116] Collectible Automobile magazine said in April 2000 that the Vega's engine was "the most extraordinary part of the car",[117] adding that although by 1976 the Vega was "fairly decent", the introduction of the even less expensive Chevette in 1976 "put the handwriting on the wall."[118]

Criticism

Early criticism of the Vega came from the Center for Auto Safety. A letter from its founder Ralph Nader to GM Chairman Richard Gerstenberg contained a list of safety allegations. It also said that the car was a "sloppily crafted, unreliable and unsafe automobile" and that it "hardly set a good example in small car production for American industry".[119]

In 1979, Popular Science said the cost of free repairs to the Vega in the 1970s ran into tens of millions, and that repairs were often free of charge up to two years after the warranty ran out.[120]

A 1990 Time article said the Vega was "a poorly engineered car notorious for rust and breakdowns." [121][122] In 1991, Newsweek magazine called the Vega costlier and more troublesome than its rivals.[123] Joe Sherman's 1993 book In the Rings of Saturn said that "by its third recall, ninety-five percent of all Vegas manufactured before May 1972 had critical safety flaws", and that the model's "checkered history only reinforced the belief that GM made inferior small cars. This legacy would prove far more important than any direct impact the Vega would have on GM's profits."[124]

Motor Trend said in its September 1999 50th Anniversary Issue: "The Vega seemed well placed to set the standard for subcompacts in the 70s, but it was troubled by one of the most vulnerable Achilles heels in modern automotive history; an alloy four-cylinder engine block that self destructed all too easily, and all too often. Once the word got out the damage was done, even though the engine had been revamped."[125]

The April 2000 issue of Collectible Automobile magazine summed up with: "The Chevy Vega has become a symbol of all the problems Detroit faced in the 70's"[126] and ". . . little by little, everything that could go wrong, did. Had its big engineering and manufacturing plans succeeded, the last laugh might have belonged to Chevy . . . The greatest toll came in the damage it did to Chevrolet's and GM's reputation. The other effect the Vega had on GM was to help make the corporation conservative, and dull its will to lead."[127]

Robert Freeland's 2005 book The Struggle for Control of the Modern Corporation said "poor planning and perfunctory implementation . . . led to an extremely poor quality automobile beset by mechanical problems,"[128] In his 2010 book Generation Busted, author Alan Zemek said, "Chevrolet's answer to the Japanese car, left it with a black eye."[129]

In 2008, Popular Mechanics editor John Pearley Huffman's web article, 10 Cars that Damaged General Motors, said the Vega's sales success meant there were "just that many more people disappointed" by it. "Throw in haphazard build quality and sheetmetal that you could practically hear rusting away, and the Vega truly rates as one of GM's great debacles."[130] The 1971 Vega placed third in Car and Driver 's 2009 article, Dishonorable Mention: The 10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History. The editors addressed Motor Trend's Car of the Year award: "That’s not to say the choice of the Vega as 1971 Car of the Year didn’t make sense in context..compared with Ford’s Pinto, the Vega at least seemed better. The Vega’s aluminum engine block even seemed like a technological leap forward. However, the aluminum block’s unlined cylinder bores scored easily, and the (usually misaligned) iron cylinder head let oil pour into them."[131] In 2010, John Pearley Huffman of Popular Mechanics referred to the Vega as "the car that nearly destroyed GM."[132]

Concept car

1973 XP-898 Concept car

The 1973 Chevrolet XP-898 concept car is a front engine, rear wheel drive design based on the Chevrolet Vega using many of its components including the aluminum-block 140 cu in (2,294 cc) inline-four engine. The vehicle had a 90-inch (2,300 mm) wheelbase with an overall length of 166 inches (4,200 mm). This two-seater sports coupe offered a unique look at alternative engineering approaches to future techniques in design and manufacturing.

The vehicle was built with a frameless fiberglass foam sandwich body and chassis. The entire body consisted of four lightweight fiberglass outer body panels, the floor pan, firewall, upper front, and upper rear with a rigid urethane foam filling the designed clearance between the panels. The structure and appearance of the car were designed so that the body could be assembled using four lightweight molded outer skin sections. With the outer skin panels placed in a foaming mold, liquid urethane was injected between the panels where it expanded and bonded the body into a single, rigid sandwich structure. The result was a vehicle body virtually free of squeaks, rattles, and vibrations. Once the urethane hardened (which took about fifteen minutes), the suspension, drive train, hood and doors were bolted to reinforcing plates, which were bonded to the fiberglass panels. A key consideration in the engineering design of the XP-898 was the advantage of improved crash worthiness of the sandwich construction technique. The energy absorption characteristics of the vehicle enabled engineers to simulate crash conditions for the vehicle at speeds up to 50 mph (80 km/h) without catastrophic failure to the structure.[133]

Hot Rodding & Motorsport

V8 Vegas

1971 Motion V8 Vega

Chevy Vegas are often modified due to their front engine-rear drive (FR) design, light weight and low cost. A small-block Chevrolet V8 engine fits in the engine compartment; and a big-block V8 will fit with minor chassis modifications. The Vega was not offered with a factory V8 option, although the Vega-based Monza, Sunbird and Starfire were.[134]

Motion Performance and Scuncio Chevrolet sold new, converted small and big block V8 Vegas. Heavy duty engine mounts and front springs were fitted to support the increased engine weight, a large radiator and modified driveshaft were required. For engines over 300 hp (220 kW), or with a manual transmission, a narrowed 12-bolt differential was required, replacing the stock Vega unit.

Bill Jenkin's Grumpy's Toy XI 1974 Vega

Drag racer Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins in the 1972 season, won six of eight National Pro-Stock division events with his Pro Stock, 331 cu in (5.4 L)-powered 1972 Vega, Grumpy's Toy X.[135] In its first event, the untested Vega made 9.6 second passes and won the 1972 Winternationals. Jenkins' 1974 Vega, Grumpy's Toy XI, was the first full-bodied Pro Stock drag racer with a full tube chassis, as well as the first with MacPherson strut suspension and dry sump oiling.[136] Jenkins' 1974 Vega sold for $550,000 in 2007.[citation needed]

In July 1972, Hot Rod tested a Chevrolet-built prototype Vega featuring an all-aluminum V8. The special 283 cu in (4.6 L) engine was used in a 1950s special lightweight Corvette program, and later installed in the Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle (CERV), an open-wheel rear engine prototype. One of the last engines was bored out to 302 cu in (4.9 L) for the Vega application. With 11:1 compression pistons, a "097 Duntov" mechanical camshaft and cast-iron four-barrel intake manifold with a Quadrajet carburetor, the car recorded a stopwatch quarter-mile standing-start time of 13.97 seconds. The prototype had a stock Turbo Hydramatic, stock Vega rearend and street tires.[137]

Car and Driver's Showroom Stock #0

In the 1970s Car and Driver challenged its readers to a series of Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sanctioned, showroom stock sedan races at Lime Rock Park in Lime Rock, Connecticut-The Car and Driver SS/Sedan Challenge. With Bruce Cargill-representing the readers-having won Challenge I in 1972 in a Dodge Colt, and Patrick Bedard-C&D's executive writer-the victor of Challenge II in 1973 in an Opel 1900 sedan, Challenge III would be the tie-breaker event.

1973 Vega GT in metallic bronze

On October 12, 1974 C&D's Bedard piloted their 1973 Vega GT #0 in Car and Driver's SS/Sedan Challenge III and had just edged out an Opel to win the race. "The lone Vega outran every single Opel, Colt, Pinto, Datsun, Toyota and Subaru on the starting grid. From the summit of the winner's platform the car was in the impound area, a metallic bronze coupe with a big yellow zero on its battle-scared flank. It was driven it there after the victory lap, the tech inspectors had pushed it off the scales probing under the hood, looking for the secrets of its speed. It had done the job-this Vega GT faced off against 31 other well-driven showroom stocks and it had finished first.[138]

After purchasing the year-old Vega in California for $1,900, Bedard contacted Doug Roe, a former Chevrolet engineer with a reputation as a Vega specialist mentioning the showroom stocker. Roe replied: "Better overfill it about a quart. When you run them over 5,000 rpm, all the oil stays up in the head and you'll wipe the bearings. And something has to be done with the crankcase vents. If you don't it'll pump all that oil into the intake." Bedard said,

"On its very first lap around Lime Rock the Vega blew its air cleaner full of oil. And it also ran 215 °F (102 °C) on the water temperature gauge. When I called Roe about the overheating he said all Vegas run at 215 degrees on the water temp gauge. It would be ok to about 230 degrees. Then it would probably start to detonate. I wasn't even convinced that it could finish. And I didn't even know all of its bad habits yet. Five laps from the end I discovered that once the tank drops below a quarter full, the fuel wouldn't pick up in the right turns. Twice per lap the carburetor would momentarily run dry. And if that wasn't bad enough, the temperature gauge read exactly 230 degrees and a white Opel was on my tail as unshakably as a heat-seeking missile. But it was also clear that no matter how good a driver Don Knowles was and no matter how quick his Opel, he wasn't going to get by if the Vega simply stayed alive. Which it did. 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."[138]

Gallery

1971 Vega Panel Express  
1973 Vega GT Hatchback  
1974 Vega Hatchback-
Spirit of America  
1975 Cosworth Vega Hatchback  
1977 Vega GT Hatchback  

References

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  122. ^ "AUTOS: Too Small, Too Soon". Time Magazine,. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,877472,00.html. "Films of those tests were shown at a Washington press conference last week by Institute President William Haddon Jr., former director of the National Highway Safety program. They might badly shake many buyers of small new cars, which now account for one-third of sales. In some crashes, the small car was smashed into a pile of twisted junk barely recognizable as an auto, while the bigger car sustained relatively moderate damage. In the Chevrolet crash, a dummy placed in the Impala only struck its head against the dashboard, but the dummy in the Vega was beheaded by a section of the hood that was hurled back through the windshield." 
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  124. ^ [1]
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  127. ^ Collectible Automobile, April 2000 p. 43
  128. ^ The Struggle for Control of the Modern Corporation. Cambridge University Press, Robert F. Freeland, 2005, p. 288. http://books.google.com/books?id=uj6te3wYm_0C&pg=PA287. 
  129. ^ Generation Busted, Alan Zemek. CreateSpace, 2010, p. 122. http://books.google.com/books?id=XVAzpX8xF4gC&pg=PA122. 
  130. ^ "Dishonorable Mention: The 10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History". Car and Driver. January 2009. http://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/hot_lists/high_performance/best_worst_lists/dishonorable_mention_the_10_most_embarrassing_award_winners_in_automotive_history_feature. Retrieved 2009-01-26. 
  131. ^ "How the Chevy Vega Nearly Destroyed GM". Popular Mechanics John Pearley Huffman, October 19, 2010. http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/news/vintage-speed/how-the-chevy-vega-almost-destroyed-gm. 
  132. ^ Cars Detroit Never Built: Fifty Years of American Experimental Cars. Edward Janicki. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. New York. 1990
  133. ^ Chevrolet Monza, Pontiac Sunbird and Oldsmobile Starfire brochures
  134. ^ Super Chevy-5/94, p.16.
  135. ^ Super Chevy, 5/94, p.16. The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America biography of Jenkins (retrieved 26 December 2007) dates it to 1972.
  136. ^ Hot Rod, July 1972.
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Bibliography

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