In Defense of the Chevrolet Vega
During Viva Las Vega week, my fellow contributors acted as the prosecution in the case against the Chevrolet Vega--the car that should have been GM's small-car savior but that instead has become one of the automotive world's most notorious synonyms for failure. They built a thoroughly damning case against the Vega and spared none of the painful details, including the rampaging rust, the massive engine vibration, the durability issues caused by its aluminum block and cast-iron head, and the labor issues that compromised the assembly of an already flawed design.
It is now my turn to present my defense of the Vega, and I'm left with very little foothold to do so. I can't appeal to the facts--the facts have already been presented, and they are damning. I can't pander to public sympathy--too many people have been burned by Vega ownership, and the worldwide community has long condemned the Vega as one of the automotive world's great failures. Ultimately, I have to admit that the prosecution is right--their case is air-tight and well-presented. Public opinion has concurred in pronouncing the Vega guilty of being a truly awful car.
But yet, despite all that, I can't help but love the woebegone Vega and its H-body siblings, and so I'll explain why I continue to lust after it despite all of the evidence that I'm a fool to do so. After all, when has Car Lust ever let factual questions of quality come between us and the cars we love?
I don't think the Vega's good looks should be anywhere near as controversial as my similar statement when I defended the Chevy Citation last year. I find the Citation pleasingly lumpy and handsome in a quirky way, but in that case I understood that the Citation is an acquired taste. The Vega, however, is much more conventionally good-looking; in fact our Vega executioners last week even admitted that the Vega was singularly fetching.
In almost every form, the Vega was a looker, and I would argue that it is one of the best-looking economy cars ever made. Its forward-jutting grille, low-slung stance, long-hood/short deck profile, and delicate detailing differentiated it from its blocky peers and made it a classy little brother to one of the prettiest Camaros ever made.
If you can, wipe the anti-Vega bias out of your brain and just look at the orange-and-white Vega pictured here as if you're seeing it for the first time. Now envision it painted scarlet, with wider tires, a leather-swaddled interior, and an overhead-cam V-8 under the hood. Now imagine it with Pininfarina badges on the front fenders and a yellow Ferrari badge on the hood.
It sounds ludicrous, but is it? Doesn't the styling look European? Don't the lines look elegant and aggressive? If you didn't know that the Vega's lines hid a troublesome and gutless four-cylinder and a propensity to rust, wouldn't you think it was something special, perhaps even a small coach-built sports coupe from the 1960s or 1970s?
Vegas look completely natural as mini-muscle cars as well. Many Vegas have been retro-fitted with powerful V-8s, with paint and tires to match, and they look fantastic. Or, if you prefer the stock look, just look at the Cosworth Vega--it's a stunner in its gold-and-black livery.
The Vega's H-body big brother, the Chevy Monza and its GM clones, was also a very pretty car. It also received the V-8 muscle that the Vega never received in stock form, and combined with the genius of Al Holbert to win several IMSA road-racing championships. Just look at the Monza pictured here--isn't it pretty? Check out the post on Photography-on-the.net for more description and images of this stunner.
Returning to the Vega, there was also the Kammback wagon. Long-time readers are well aware of my pro-wagon bias, but I can't imagine anybody regarding the Kammback wagon as a design failure. Domestic two-door wagons usually look like a stumpy curiosities, but the Vega Kammback looks both elegant and sporty. When Clark W. Griswold walks into the car dealership at the beginning of National Lampoon's Vacation and requests his "Antarctic Blue Super Sports wagon, with "the CB and the optional Rally Fun-Pack" something like the Vega Kammback is what pops into my mind--small, sporty, and ready for adventure. This picture is from Persh.org, which documents the extremely interesting cars owned by the Pershing family over the years.
The Vega was a 1970s economy car, and it was gorgeous. How remarkable is that?
2. By the standards of its time, the Vega handled beautifully.
Even stranger than the idea of a pretty 1970s economy car is the idea that a domestic economy car of the time could be anything other than an understeering nightmare in the corners. The Vega, however, handled well enough to be competitive even with much sportier cars.
Car and Driver thought enough of the Vega to include it and the Pinto in the magazine's Super Coupes comparison test (an inspiration for our Super Coupes Face Off). Predictably, the Vega and Pinto finished fifth and six in the six-car test, behind such comparably sporting hardware as the Opel Manta, the rotary-powered Mazda RX-2, the Ford/Mercury Capri, and the Toyota Celica. The Vega was ultimately just too handicapped by its awful, punchless engine and overall economy-car feel to match up with the thoroughbreds.
Still, even in the context of that tough competition, the Vega's agility stood out both on the road and on the track. C&D called the Vega's handling "exceptional" and described its dynamics as being very balanced and neutral, avoiding the tire-grinding understeer that crippled many of the other super coupes. It led the whole group on the skidpad with .75 Gs of lateral acceleration, a figure that would have been respectable even a decade later. On the race track, despite being hampered with the worst acceleration of the bunch, the Vega turned in the fourth-best time, beating both the Pinto and the sporty Celica--tribute to its excellent handling.
We are all so used to thinking of the Vega as an abject failure that all of this may sound unbelievable--but the Vega was an economy car that just happened to be gorgeous and handle like a thoroughbred. How many of us would like to own a car that fits that description?
3. The competition wasn't exactly world-beating either.
Today, we are spoiled by major advances in automotive technology, to the point where truly bad cars don't exist. Some cars are certainly more powerful, better-looking, or better-engineered than others, but every car currently available starts faithfully, drives pretty well, accelerates promptly, and holds up pretty well if reasonably cared for. The low-priced subcompacts, such as the Chevy Aveo or Kia Rio, might seem the most logical choices as today's awful cars ... but they just aren't. They aren't necessarily exciting, but they absolutely excel at providing solid transportation.
This has become our new baseline, but it has not always been thus--back in the 1980s and, particularly, the 1970s, cars were not nearly as well-engineered as they are now. I'm convinced that at least part of our righteous indignation regarding the Vega is based on looking at it from a modern perspective and at least unconsciously comparing its failures against the capabilities of our cars. Yes, the Vega was a deeply flawed car, but it competed with flawed cars. I think that context is important as we pass judgment on the Vega--a point I tried to make visually by selecting some extremely woebegone imagery for its competitors.
If you were in the market for a new economy car in 1971, what were your choices? The Vega's primary domestic competitor was the Ford Pinto, which was ugly, uncomfortable, less fun to drive, and didn't exactly enjoy a sterling reputation for safety or durability. In fact, the Pinto is often lumped together with the Vega as one of the worst cars ever made.
The Vega's other major domestic competitor was the AMC Gremlin. While I'm an enthusiastic fan of the Gremlin, not many people were--as with the Pinto, if people remember the Gremlin at all they typically remember it as a terrible car. Even I will admit it wasn't much of an economy car. That's partially because at its core it wasn't one; it was a much larger sedan with an ancient large-sedan engine and surgically removed buttocks. The result was a car with polarizing styling and relatively quick acceleration, but at the cost of absolutely miserable fuel mileage--that's a trade-off that I would enthusiastically make today, but it wasn't exactly what the doctor ordered in the fuel-strapped 1970s.
It may seem unfair to compare the Vega to such notorious stinkers as the Pinto and the Gremlin when the real early-1970s economy-car standard-setter was the famous, all-conquering Volkswagen Beetle. Through today's lens, it's hard to imagine the much-reviled Vega stacking up well against a beloved icon like the Beetle. But, if we can, let's lay aside our natural reverence for the world's top-selling car and consider it as competition for the Vega.
The Beetle earned its reputation and its sales during the 1950s and 1960s, when it was a quirky and endearing little car with real advantages over its almost nonexistent competition. During the 1970s, however, its window had almost closed. When the Vega was introduced, the motoring press viewed the Beetle as exceptionally well-built but also hopelessly antiquated--as you would naturally expect from a design that dated back to the 1940s.
It's of course remarkable that the Beetle was as competitive as it was given the age of its basic design; just imagine a lightly revised Pinto continuing to sell in today's market. But despite its longevity, the Beetle was cramped, underpowered, and simply not as modern as the other cars on the market. Beetle sales fell in the early-to-mid 1970s as a result, and Volkswagen would have been in serious trouble had it not released its fresh and revolutionary Golf/Rabbit later in the decade. The Beetle richly deserves its place in history, but it was not a truly competitive subcompact in the 1970s.
Volkswagen had such a huge market share in the early 1970s that most consumers thought Volkswagen when they considered foreign cars, but there were some other competitors. Those competitors included the Datsun B210 and Toyota Corolla, two seeds that would later grow into complete Japanese domination of the small-car market.
But back in the early 1970s, non-Volkswagen foreign cars were relative oddities and were considered underpowered, weirdly styled hair shirts that struggled to maintain highway speeds. The reliability and dependability of the Datsun and Toyota of course stood in stark contrast with the domestic offerings of the time, which would eventually help reshape customer perceptions and buying habits, but during the Vega's heyday both Datsun and Toyota were niche players.
This leaves cars like the Fiat 124, Renault R12, and Simca 1204, which all combined incredibly niche market penetration with nothing like the reliability and dependability of the Japanese.
These were the Vega's peers and competitors; they were slow, strange, obsolete, and, in many cases, unreliable. The Vega's many issues arguably made it the most fetid of this case of rotten eggs, but I think it is still significant that the Vega was awful against a backdrop of mere badness.
4. It's all irrelevant now, anyway.
In my running fracas with the Mustang II mafia a few years ago, I tried to walk what might sound like a very thin line. My position in that argument was that a) the Mustang II was demonstrably bad car for its time and compared to its peers, and b) in the modern context, it doesn't really matter. No matter how firmly I believe that the Mustang II was not a good car when it was produced, that's a conclusion that's really only historically relevant. Compared to today's cars, nearly every car from the 1970s feels like a hopeless anachronism and given that and 30-plus years of use and abuse, the slight but significant differences between a used Mustang II and, say, a used Ford/Mercury Capri fade into irrelevance.
What matters now, decades later, is how people feel about those cars, and how they care about them. I hugely respect the Mustang II community because the members of that community care deeply about their cars; they baby them, they coddle them, and they hot-rod them. I find Mustang IIs desirable now not because I thought they were fantastic cars when they were made, but because they represent such an interesting story and because any particular car's owner has likely spent a lot of time and effort in making his particular Mustang II beautiful, powerful, and relevant.
The Vega was a more cataclysmically bad car than the merely perplexing Mustang II, but the same principles are at work here. Virtually nobody depends on a bone-stock Vega for dependable transportation anymore, and the unloved or particularly undependable Vegas have long since been junked and disintegrated into their component elements. This makes the Vega's many shortcomings historically significant and interesting, but no longer relevant to how car lovers interact with them.
Time truly does heal all wounds; or at least it gives those wounds a sepia-toned halo that makes them tolerable. As I said about the Pinto in a similar piece I wrote back in 2007 about empirically terrible 1970s American cars:
"Somewhere, three decades ago, a designer proudly unveiled (the Pinto) to the bosses at Ford; workers spent their waking hours building it. Young families bought Pintos, showed Pintos off to their friends, washed Pintos in their driveways, drove their babies home from the hospital in Pintos. Some of you drove Pintos; some of your parents or grandparents drove Pintos. Pintos were on TV, in movies, in magazines and newspapers. The Pinto is part of the fabric of our history."
The same is true of the Vega. For better or worse, GM sold millions of Vegas, and those Vegas became part of the tapestry of American life. Reader Ed Stembridge says he and his two brothers were "gluttons for punishment" for owning Vegas, but the Vega still sparks enough of a memory that he sent in this photo of him and his brothers with his Vegas.
My Dad, a bona fide car enthusiast who was a clear influence on the development of my Car Lust, owned multiple Vegas in his 20s. His approach to the troublesome Vega four-cylinder was novel--he simply pulled it out and replaced it with an aluminum Buick V-8 that gave the sleek little coupe the power it deserved. My Dad freely acknowledges the Vega's shortcomings, but he proudly displays a die-cast Vega in his home to celebrate its importance to him.
My Dad eliminated many of the Vega's issues with an engine swap, and today's enthusiasts are no less inventive. The application of modern technology and bushels of money has the potential to wipe out many of the Vega's inherent weaknesses. The Vega can accept a great many of GM's potent and highly available stable of V-8s; as a result, many restorers have chosen to make the Vega a tidy little muscle car, with the good looks and grunt of a Chevelle or a Camaro but with tidier proportions and less weight.
That's a really compelling path--the idea of a 400-horsepower Vega Kammback has left my lips moistened--but the great thing about the Vega's looks is that it could play easily either as an American muscle car or a European sports coupe. Cloaked in a subtle coat of metallic paint and with a more modern 16-valve, DOHC engine, the Vega could easily play the role of a uniquely American BMW 2002 alternative.
Yes, the Vega came imbued with many critical flaws, flaws that made it particularly unsuited for a role as dependable transportation. That makes it an historically interesting, but as a modern enthusiast it wouldn't stand in the way of my buying and enjoying one today. Please join me in saying ... Viva Las Vega!
The image of the orange Vega GT is from Wikipedia, as is the image of the Cosworth Vega, the red-and-black Vega, and the arresting image of multiple Vegas being loaded vertically onto a rail car. The gorgeous picture of the resto-modded muscle car Vega came from Flickr user splattergraphics, who has a lot of other highly lustable automotive images. The Pinto image came from mabank.net, the Gremlin picture came from the SpringSource blog, the Beetle image came from Team-BHP.com, and the hilariously post-apocalyptic Datsun B210 picture came from SalvageCarSale.net but I believe was originally photographed by Curtis Gregory Perry.