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1976 Chevrolet Vega Cabriolet

cab·ri·o·let [ kàbbree ə láy ] noun: convertible automobile: a two-door convertible automobile

Vega Cab Egad! How else to begin a post on this poor little pretentious thing? The Vega never had the best reputation to start with, but to call this car a convertible when it had a full, fixed metal roof? C'mon now!

The sliding glass "Skyroof" was a new Vega option for this year, but it was not standard on the Cabriolet, which makes this car's name make even less sense. So if an automaker ever tried to insult the intelligence of the buying public, this example heads to the front of the line. Well, almost.

Chevrolet even took their cheapest Vega model, the Notchback (The Panel Express was dropped at the end of the 1975 model year), then decided to make it the luxury Vega, replacing the LX from the year before. This seemed to be an oxymoron--how could their entry-level car also be their most plush? Maybe the promise of a formal roofline? A slightly upgraded interior? Extra badges on the vinyl roof? They even renamed the lowly Notchback their "Sport Coupe" for the 1976 model.

For some reason, Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" comes to mind when I think about this car. The song and the car were both released the same year (1975), and both illustrated the glitz and glitter of "Show Biz," that being an image of little or no substance. In 1984, the movie "Rhinestone" was released, starring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, based on the song. Strangely, a few lines from the song seem to perfectly describe this car, which I'm sure Mr. Campbell had no intention whatsoever of doing when he performed it.

"I've been walking these streets so long... singin' the same old song..." ♫

By late 1975, three of our domestic small cars, the GremlinPinto, and Vega, were at least four years old, a bit long in the tooth, late middle-aged, but years away from replacements. The Pacer had just been introduced, and the Chevette was about to be presented to provide a fresh small car for the market. But sadly, the Vega's sheet metal was to linger on as the Monza wagon for a few more years to come.

Vega 1976 interior conceptcarz Built on this aging platform, the heart of the Cabriolet was this updated 1976 Vega luxury interior. The seats were basically out of the Camaro, which was a good thing, but the rest was pure Vega. The dash had an optional passenger grip handle, and the doors were somewhat padded vinyl except for the upper area next to the glass, which was just painted steel. A ticking mechanical clock cost extra. Standard Vega interior door panels were hard plastic pieces, just like today's Cobalt.

The dashboard's center air conditioning vents had been shrunken from previous years, and the enlarged under-dash vents looked tacked on because, well, they were. You did not get these in a Vega without A/C, nor did you get the tiny center vents -- just a solid black plastic panel filled the hole. Kick-panel pull vents and rolled-down windows kept you cool in those non-Freon-charged cars. Oh, and here's something really rare ... when's the last time you saw a tilt wheel in a Vega? Come to think about it, when's the last time you saw a Vega?

"Like a Rhinestone Cowboy... Ridin' out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo..."

To better understand the origin of this car, let's go back to 1976, our country's star-studded, star-spangled BiCentennial Year. The National Speed Limit was 55 miles per hour. Muscle cars were gone from our new car lots, and fear of another gas crisis meant we really didn't know which way to turn. The "personal luxury car" segment was heavily promoted by the domestic car companies to isolate us from these unpleasant automotive realities.

Maybe some other models succeeded in this segment, but not this poor little offering. Was it not big enough? Did it not have enough refinements to move it to the head of its class? Or were people just so turned off on Vegas by now that nothing new would have succeeded? Even the zippy 1975-76 Cosworth Vega had trouble attracting friends.

Vega front"There'll be a load of compromisin'... On the road to my horizon..." ♫

No wonder the imports took over. By 1975, the Vega's reputation of melted engines, rusty body panels, and general poor build quality were old news. So in partial response to these problems, Chevrolet presented the Cabriolet's half-vinyl roof, new interior trim, whitewall tires, and faux opera windows. They even called them "Opera-Type" windows. Again, all glitz, no substance.

I'm surprised shiny "bright" hubcaps weren't part of the deal. Wait ... yes, they were. By the way, this is a standard 1976 Vega front end here, not a Cabriolet. Only the bumper rub strips and upgraded hubcaps are missing from the upscale Cabriolet trim. Decent front-end images of 1976 Vegas are also getting harder to find these days.

"But I'm gonna be where the lights... are shining on me!

The Cabriolet half-vinyl roof was available in seven trendy 1970s colors: Black, Dark Blue (Metallic), Light Buckskin, Dark Firethorn (Metallic), Mahogany (Metallic), Silver (Metallic), or White. The complicated vinyl roof color chart that lists the corresponding body colors could only be deciphered by your local Chevy dealer or the State Department. Sometimes. If you click on the image below, you can read the color code combinations.

Vega_cabriolet_2 There was nothing technically special separating the Cabriolet from the entry-level Vega. But there's a silver lining to every clod ... er cloud. For 1976, Chevrolet advertised the Vega as "Built to take it." The aluminum 2.3-liter engine, renamed the Dura-built 140, received major cooling and durability refinements.

The chassis also received upgraded components, including a stiffer box-section front cross-member, larger rear brakes, and torque-arm rear suspension. And the body received extensive anti-rust protection systems, including plastic inner-fender liners.

But all of that was too little, too late. Had the 1976 Vega been the 1971 Vega, maybe the woes of this car would have never been known. And though I remember this period of automotive production well, I never saw a Cabriolet; Vega sales were plummeting by this time. Luckily, the Monza had no styling resemblance to this car, so people seemed focused on that and other GM Division clones.

The Cabriolet was dropped after only this one year. At the end of the next (1977) model year, the Vega was permanently put out to pasture. The Monza stayed with us until 1980, at which point the last of the tainted Vega DNA was finally gone.

I don't know anybody who was unhappy that day. Not even the rhinestone cowboys.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

The definition of cabriolet is courtesy of Microsoft Encarta. The images of the yellow Vega Cabriolet are courtesy of www.H-Body.org. The Vega luxury interior image is from www.ConceptCarz.com; the 1976 Vega standard front end photo is from carphotos.cardomain.com. Wikipedia supplied technical facts.

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The vinyl half-roof with opera window, the curse of 1970s automotive styling!

Actually, as "personal luxury" (ha!) cars go, this is nowhere close to the worst offender. The bling content is fairly restrained, the carpet isn't too shaggy, there's a refreshing lack of fake woodgrain in the interior, no stand-up hood ornament, and the example in the pictures, at least, carefully avoids Avocado Green and Harvest Gold.

On the other hand, it's a Vega assembled at Lordstown. It would be lucky to escape the factory with its panels properly aligned and all the screws installed, the steel started rusting at the stamping plant, and the engine was a grenade with a random-number generator attached to the detonator.

Cringe.

Y'know, the opera windows and the faux-"convertible"-ness isn't what bugs me about that car. It's the rear end. It just looks weird to me for some reason. I don't know if it's the "pretend I'm a Jaguar" taillights, or the way the trunk seems to taper off just a little too low a little too fast, but I don't like it. It definitely doesn't match the front end at all.

I think one problem is that if Chevy had built the 1971 Vega durable enough to still be around as fresh used cars in 1976, they'd have been much more attractive to tasteful consumers than the new ones. Some of that degradation was the government's fault, like the bumpers, and much of it was GM's taking a cleanly styled and crisp looking little car and spackling on glitz. Throw in the fact that the car was still in production after the early models had been scrapped and that it all happened in 5 years, and you have most of the reasons people don't want another GM car expressed by one model.

"Kick-panel pull vents..."

Those were great! In our non-AC Olds wagon, they made all the difference in the world. Those and the vent windows we called "cozy wings."

I had a Vega with A/C. Went to the junkyard and got some kick-panel pull vents, and had the best of both worlds!

I don't recall seeing a Vega cabriolet when they were new. And I'd guess my chances are preety slim that I'd see one today.

I did like the look of the short-lived Monza notchback. As you my recall they made two styles, one with a vinyl roof and a small opera window, the other came without the vinyl and featured very attractive slim "C" pillars. That was a very good looking car.
The opera window car, not so much. Both had round headlights to setr them apart from their fastback brothers.

Speaking of opera windows, anyone recall the joke that went...
"Why opera windows? Did Detroit think there was going to be a rash of drive-in operas?" I think it was said by Car and Driver back in their long-gone glory days.

Errr, I kinda like opera windows. . . . .

Anthony: Yes, I kind of like the formality of opera windows in the right places too. But these were opera "Type" windows LOL. Seems to me Chevy was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear here. Or something like that.

Am I the only one who likes the rear end taper on the Vega? I absolutely do not like the alternatives, sort of like I don't like the Monza hatch, only the notch. Try finding one of those either.

I rather like the half-vinyl for some reason. But the back end does look a bit half thought-out. Like a lot of stuff from that era, it seems to have been a good basic idea, but executed if half-assed fashion.

Had a friend who modified those engine for flat-track racing in VA. We pulled the engine from my '74 and made a few changes to it(carb, intake, pistons, block and head). Afterwards I could break the ten-inch rear tires loose in second gear at 50mph. Had lots of fun beating up on unsuspecting Fords and other GM products.

I've only seen ads for this 'Cabrio'. Chevy also had a Nova Cabriolet with puffy top, which was a success.

For the '76 model year, GM did a last ditch effort to renew the Vega, with the 'durabuilt' tag and ads featuring 5 cars being 'torture tested' for 60,000 miles. But, they still had the bad rep. Used 1971's had $200 price tags on them by 76!

The '76 Sunbird seemed to be a bigger seller than the Monza/Vega in Chicago area. But, the Chevette stole the Vega's buyers also, by 1978 was nearly #1 selling car.

Oh, and those tailights were only on 76-77 Vegas, and were ugly weird shaped with yellow turn signals added. The 74-75 tails looked the best.

If memory serves, those amber turn signal lenses on the 76-77 models were strictly for looks - they didn't actually flash when the turn signals were activated.

Anyway, it's easy to pick on the Vega for the quasi-cabriolet roof treatment... but the car companies were doing weird things to ALL cars back in those days. Remember the Pinto "cruising wagon" that was supposed to resemble a conversion van? You could actually get wood-paneling on the Chevette back in those days too. Plus the Vega's replacement, the Monza, carried on the cabriolet roof treatment as an option throughout that model's tenure (so did, incidentally, the Monza-clone Pontiac Sunbird).

As for the Cosworth, it was a classic case of a great engine looking for a good home (much like the later Buick Grand National). Most people forget, however, that the Cosworth Vega was EXPENSIVE, almost $6000... that was within spitting distance of the Corvette back in those days, a car with FAR better sporting pretensions and pedigree than the lowly Vega EVER had - another reason the Cosworth was an awfully tough sell.

Yes Yankee, I remember the Pinto Cruising Wagon very well: http://www.carlustblog.com/2009/02/ford-pinto-mercury-bobcat.html

I didn't mind Chevy (Or anybody else) putting half- or full-vinyl roofs on the cars. But calling this Vega a Cabriolet when it had a fixed metal roof and leaving off the available (Optional) sliding glass roof panel was what upset me about this car.

Thanks for noticing the post.

I had the 76 Vega in "buckthorn" and it was a giant rustbucket. The kick panel vents were great for letting water in when going through puddles.

What I find interesting is that there's no mention of the dragonfly green Vega Cabriolet. This was the late 70's / early 80's in the Chicago suburbs, and my Vega and the "dragonfly green" Vega Cabriolet were the only two examples of this car I ever saw.

I bought a new Vega Cabriolet in May of 1976, from West Park Chevrolet in Cleveland, Ohio.

mine was dark blue with a white top, and the white custom interior with blue trim. it was absolutely beautiful.

it was equipped with soft ray glass, deluxe seat and shoulder belts (you had to order this to get blue belts, not black) power steering, turbo-hydramatic transmission, sport mirrors, comfortilt steering wheel, AM/FM radio, rear window defroster, and the ultra-rare 2 position reclining driver's seatback.

a couple of points I wanted to bring up:

-first, the custom interior was an option, not standard, on the Cabriolet. the Cabriolets were quite common in northeast Ohio, as the factory was less than 40 miles away.

most cabriolets I saw at the time were firethorn with the firethorn plaid standard interior and a white top. firethorn was a very popular color on all 1976 GM cars.

-second, the tricolor turn signals were indeed decorative, as the signals flashed red, not amber.

my absolute favorite Cabriolet color combination was the lime metallic exterior with a white custom interior and a white top. oddly, the white interior had lime accents, yet no all-lime interior was ever available. this lime/white combination was very popular on the large GM coupes, like the deVille, Buick Electra, Olds 98, Pontiac Grand Ville, and Chevrolet Caprice.

Hey Fashion Setters - You can diss on the Cabriolet all you want but my daily driver is a '76 Cabriolet and if I park next to a $200, 000 sports car at a show, people are looking at my ride. It ain't much but when I drive it around, all I get is smiles, honks and thumbs ups from real people who remember the days when the Vega was out and about. My car has the original 2.3L Dura Built Engine with 84K miles on it. Still operates with the Air Cooled 3 Spd Turbo Trans. Who else besides GM would have the balls to put a Auto Trans in a car with no cooling lines to the radiator bottom. I just painted it light met-green, put a saddle interior in it from a Monza and accented the interior (which originally was white) with med-green panels. Got rid of the GT wheels and I sport around with full 13" Vega Hub Caps. MY Cabriolet still has the factory Silver 1/2 Vinyl Roof. Yea, SILVER. Email me at Dale631468@aol.com if you want pics. Everything is for sale.

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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