Car Lust Classic: 1976 Chevrolet Vega Cabriolet
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 Gremlin, Pinto, 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.
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.
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.
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.