The Vega: An unmitigated disaster
The theory sounded good. But GM's revolutionary design plan produced a rusty, smoking mess.
The Chevrolet Vega, one of the most maligned cars ever made, is a case study of how to get just about everything wrong.
The rear-wheel-drive Vega went on sale in September 1970 for $2,090 -- $172 more than the Ford Pinto and $311 more than the Volkswagen Beetle. Nearly 2 million Vegas were sold, but Chevy killed the problem-plagued car in the 1977 model year because of mechanical and engine problems.
Its life was troubled, but its birth was heralded by General Motors executives and the press. GM hailed it as the car with "innovative design and new assembly techniques to assure high quality," a vehicle that would be a pioneer in a new generation of high-quality American small cars.
Chevrolet cited the use of new computer applications for the design, assembly and quality control of the Vega, 90 percent automatic welding of the body, "new simplicity of design and assembly and other important breakthroughs that introduce a new era in auto body building."
The Vega sedan had just 578 body parts, 418 fewer than its full-sized Chevrolet counterpart, GM boasted. Fewer parts and more subassemblies, the reasoning went, would make for more solid and rattle-free construction.
Before launching the Vega, Chevrolet did extensive research on what small-car buyers wanted. Chevrolet held clinics attended by several thousand potential subcompact buyers. It concluded that the Vega was what its targeted "low-price foreign car buyers" wanted.
Here are some of the Vega's features:
A double-panel roof constructed to eliminate difficult metal finishing and improve stability.
Side-guard beams in the doors to protect occupants in side collisions.
Full-foam bucket seats that were simpler to construct and reduced weight.
An aluminum-block engine.
A six-stage rustproofing process.
'Nobody wanted anything to do with it'
Its conception showed a new corporate approach to developing cars -- a job once controlled by GM's powerful, independent divisions.
The Vega was developed by a corporate team empowered by GM President Ed Cole in 1968 to develop a subcompact, quickly, to compete against new small Japanese cars, the VW Beetle and the Ford Pinto. Lloyd Reuss, who later would become president of GM, was the Vega's chief engineer and led a group of about 50 engineers who worked on the car.
"This was in contrast to other Chevrolet car line responsibilities, where a frame engineer, for example, worked on frames for all cars," according to a presentation on the Vega project Reuss made in January 1971.
The Vega was one of the first cars that new Chevrolet General Manager John DeLorean had to sell. And he wasn't happy about it.
Because of the new development structure, DeLorean claimed Chevy had little control over the car. "With the Vega, not only did corporate management make the decision to enter the minicar markets, it also decided to develop the car itself. This was to pave the way for many of the Vega's troubles," DeLorean said in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, the 1979 book that was a collaborative effort by DeLorean and Detroit writer J. Patrick Wright.
DeLorean said the car was "being put together by people at least one step removed from the marketplace," and that "there was no system of checks and balances."
Chevy wasn't interested in the Vega, and its engineers weren't interested in working on a vehicle they hadn't developed or designed, DeLorean said. "General Motors was basing its image and reputation on the car, and there was practically no interest in it in the division. We were to start building the car in about a year and nobody wanted anything to do with it."
The first prototype tested by Chevy engineers fell apart after only eight miles at a GM test track, according to On a Clear Day. Said DeLorean: "The front end of the car separated from the rest of the vehicle. It must have set a record for the shortest time taken for a new car to fall apart." Engineers had to add 20 pounds in understructure to remedy the problem, and that was just the start of the Vega's "ponderous proportions in weight and price compared to the original car," he said.
Chevy was especially disappointed with the engine GM chose for the Vega: a new inline four-cylinder 2.3-liter with a single camshaft and an all-aluminum engine block and cast iron heads. Aside from the use of aluminum, the engine was dated and produced only 90 hp -- a pitiful output at a time when Detroit muscle still ruled and a gallon of regular gasoline cost 36 cents.
The four-passenger Vega was offered as a two-door sedan, a two-door coupe, a two-door wagon and a two-door delivery van. It had a wheelbase of 97 inches and was 169.7 inches long, 65.4 inches wide and 51.9 inches tall. The sedan's curb weight was 2,190 pounds -- 283 pounds more than the Pinto and 161 pounds more than the Beetle. A three-speed manual transmission was standard.
New plant in Lordstown
GM spent $75 million on a new plant in Lordstown, Ohio, to produce the Vega. The highly automated plant used robots for welding. It also had mechanized tooling and equipment adapted for the Vega. The plant was designed to produce cars at a faster rate than any GM factory in the world, spitting out more than 70 an hour, compared with the typical 55.
John Hinckley Jr., coordinator of Vega production at Lordstown, told reporters, "to achieve the goal of construction simplicity, the process of modular construction design was employed. This process utilizes as many large body panels and subassemblies as possible in place of many small parts found in conventional body construction."
The use of subassemblies and modules is routine in today's auto production. But in 1970, Hinckley called it "an entirely new concept of vehicle assembly."
Car magazine reviews lavished praise on the Vega. Motor Trend named it its car of the year in 1971.
And then the problems surfaced. The new processes for priming the body by dipping it into a tank of primer didn't work. Sections of the body weren't coated and began to rust. The aluminum block engine guzzled oil and there were complaints about excessive engine shaking, which caused valve stem seals to crack and leak oil into the cylinders. The Vega was also prone to overheating. This sometimes caused the aluminum block to warp. Engine fires were reported.
Tom Forsyth, then a 26-year-old Chevrolet dealer in Zieglerville, Pa., told Automotive News recently that one of his first tasks as a dealer in the fall of 1970 was touching up rust spots on new Vegas before they were sold.
Chevrolet tried to remedy some of the problems in model updates, but it was too late. The Vega was labeled a lemon. It has been named one of the worst cars ever by numerous publications.
Car and Driver put the Vega on its list of "The 10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History," in January 2009 and noted: "Don't tell anyone, but we're not always right. Neither are those other magazines."
Car and Driver said: "It was so unreliable that it seemed the only time anyone saw a Vega on the road not puking out oil smoke was when it was being towed."
You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Diana on