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"In Praise Of The Hated GM Small Cars Week:" 1971-'73 Vega GT Kammback Wagon

Vega green to useWe here at Car Lust have treated the Chevy Vega rather poorly, as even our above banner image suggests (Which just happens to also be a '73 Vega GT). Much of that was well-deserved, but this post is not here to rehash. Rather, let's take a positive look at the car's early years before "it" happened.

The Vega GT Kammback wagon example on the left was seen fairly recently... that's a Prius behind it. Somebody in San Francisco (Please note the wheels turned into the curb, per city law) saw the car and must have appreciated its heritage. And from the overall condition of that car, it looks like a great candidate for restoration.

If we could time travel back to the early 1970s, we would see how good the Vega was meant to be. The new car was, in its own way... pretty cool. I remember them sparkling in the showrooms, and people were crawling all over them. They were good looking, youthful, and fresh, giving the buyer something new to believe in. So much so that a million Vegas were sold in the first two years. Heck, with Motor Trend naming the Vega the 1971 Car Of The Year, what else did one need for an endorsement?

Vega GT wagon profileThe Vega Kammback wagon was my favorite among the herd because it was the "largest" of the Vegas, meaning it had more hauling room... which made it a potential camping vehicle. I also thought it had a great profile; Mr. Wunibald Kamm's legacy made that happen.

To illustrate my enthusiasm for the wagon, Car Lust readers may remember a post I did about a Vega wagon I owned many moons ago, as that was an attempt to build the ultimate near-stock wagon on a shoestring budget. It's too bad I found that car later in its life and it wasn't in better shape.

Vega bumber guards Vega 74 blueOne reason I bought that car was because I thought the pre-'74 Vegas were the best looking; the 1973 model year is my favorite. In '73, the Vega's front bumper was pushed out three inches, had a body-colored filler panel behind it, and small $40 rubber "bumper guards" were available. Those were rare then, and I'm sure are scarce at best now.

Since 1973 when the '74s were introduced, I've never warmed up to the slotted grille and protruding guard rail bumpers, so I guess I never will. The pre-'74 Vegas had a classic simplicity to them that was lost to the federal 5-mph bumper mandate, at least in my eyes. And in fairness to the '74 Vega (And Camaro), the all-aluminum bumpers were an industry first, produced in the name of weight saving.

In many ways, a Vega was a mini early '70s Camaro. They shared a few elements such as styling cues and optional seats, steering wheels, dash components, radios, and gauges. And the (later) Vega's Iron Duke mill even found its way into the Camaro in the early '80s, but we won't go there right now.

Vega wagonAll same-year Vegas were identical from the windshield forward, and they all used the same floor pan, door panels, rear bumpers, and more. Almost all of the interior pieces were interchangeable. So this was a brilliant plan to differentiate them with the fewest parts to create the most diversity; I don't consider this badge engineering, as they were all still represented as Vegas.

These yellow GTs are either '71 or '72 models, witnessed by their lack of front bumper extensions. Also, the first two years wore badges that said "Chevrolet Vega 2300," and in 1973, they read "Vega by Chevrolet."

The Vega GTs earned their name by adding styled wheels, lower body trim with black paint (Part of the Vega's Custom Exterior package), GT emblems, a bright metal piece around the blacked-out grille, and clear front turn signal lenses with amber bulbs. Other Vegas had "argent" colored grilles and yellow lenses. Paint trim stripes were available; most GTs had them, but our yellow wagon above sadly does not.

1973-chevrolet-vega-GT wheelThe GT's F41 suspension created a superb driving sensation, with stiffer shocks and springs, front and rear stabilizer bars, and those new things known as A70x13 RWL steel-belted radial tires. Throw in a 2-bbl carburetor for a little extra oomph (110hp, up from 90hp with a 1-bbl) on all GTs, and it really wasn't a bad package at all.

The only thing it really lacked was a rack-and-pinion steering box. But there's a little trick with a Vega... seems there's a little bolt somewhere that you can tighten which really helps the steering. I turned mine, and it made all the difference in the world. Adding an aftermarket steering wheel wrap for better grip didn't hurt either.

The Vega GTs were almost a pocket rocket. Since about half of all Vegas were the hatchback model, could it be said that the upgrades produced the first hot hatchbacks, preceding the (Dare I say it) Volkswagon GTI?

Vega wagon int.OK, please bear with me here for a moment. The Vega GT's interior was upgraded slightly with an adjustable driver's seat back, full gauges, woodgrain on the dash, and a passenger's grab handle. You also got a nice 4-spoke steering wheel lifted from Chevy's parts bin. However...

You still had to order the Custom Interior to get the deeper Camaro bucket seats, nicer door and rear panel trim, floor carpeting, and rear load area rug. And no amount of begging could get you a courtest lamp switch on the passenger's door.

This is a Vega GT with the Custom Interior, but I see a few mods including an extra console housing a later-model GM radio, and the seat fabric does not look original to those early years. If memory serves, only vinyl seats were offered until 1974. Luckily, that car does have factory air conditioning as those huge vents in the dash attest. On my '72 Vega Hatchback (Purchased in 1973), those monsters developed and dripped water droplets because the A/C worked so darn well.

Vega GT standard interiorSadly, some GTs were built without the Custom Interior. So that means there were and (probably) are a few GTs running around with very spartan interiors. That's sad, because the GT looked so "right" with the fancy digs.

With the lowly standard interior, something was definitely missing... those flat seats and plain door panels did nothing to suggest "Sport" or "Luxury." It's too bad the Custom Interior was not also included on the GTs to compliment its standard Custom Exterior.

And so the GT wagon offered good mileage, a fair bit of cargo hauling, sporty trim, and some frisky handling and power to back up its looks. All for about 3,000 1972 dollars, fully loaded. That wasn't a bad combination.

Vega wagon stylin'One can't help but think where we would be had the Vega been a (quality) success. Would the Japanese have created such an impact in our market? Would American small cars be accepted in Europe? Would Saturn have ever been created? Would GM have gone bankrupt?

So let's get an old Vega GT wagon, restore it, and go driving in style like this guy.

Or not.

Irregardless, it's sad to say that these shiny yellow Vegas probably look like the GT in the Car Lust header today.

 

Of course, if a wagon doesn't strike your fancy or if you just need more cargo room, there's always this:

Vega wagon truck

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

Kammback logoImage Credits: The top two green 1972 Vega GT Kammback wagon images are from CaliforniaStreets.BlogSpot.com. The 1973 model bumper guards photo was found at CanadianListed.com. The 1974 Vega GT image came from OOCities.org. The Vega GT Wagon and Hatchback ad came from Static.Flickr.com. The GT wheel image came from MotorTrend.com. The Vega Custom Interior picture is from CarDomain.com. Our (edited) GT Standard Interior image came from SuperChevy.com. The yellow wagon and fence photo was found at BlogSpot.com. The Vega truck image came from PhotoBucket. Finally, the Kammback logo was found at BlogSpot.com.

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When I was in kindergarten in 72-73, I remember one of my kindergarten teachers, a young lady probably mid to late 20s (Miss Potter, even remember her name), bought a brand new bright-yellow Vega wagon. Wasn't a GT, if memory serves it actually had a white interior, but that's about all the details I remember of it. I remember us taking a field trip somewhere (I think it was to the zoo) and a bunch of us kids piled into the back of it - behind the back seat, no seat belts or restraints of any kind... Ah, good times.

Vegas were popular 'Steet Machines' in the 70's. Could drop in a Small Block V8, and more. By the early 80's though, Hot Rodders moved on to the abundance of used 70's F bodies.

The Vega was good looking and its resemblance to the new Camaros didn't hurt.
Too bad it was half-baked.
Really, GM should have done better.

"One can't help but think where we would be had the Vega been a (quality) success. Would the Japanese have created such an impact in our market? Would American small cars be accepted in Europe? Would Saturn have ever been created? Would GM have gone bankrupt?"

That's a good observation, although it could be applied much more generally than to just the Vega. I'm starting to think it wasn't so much that the Big Three could build small cars, but that they really couldn't build cars very well *at all* in relation to the Japanese. I suspect this goes back farther than the '70s, but that was the time we had something better to compare them to (like, errr, European makes).

I always liked the looks of the Vega, it reminded me of the product of a one night stand between an Opel and a Camaro. I remember riding in my friend’s Dad’s Kammback Vega in the late 1970’s. He owned a heating and air conditioning company and the car was always full of tools. It was a 4 speed and the engine would groan dolefully as it struggled up hills. That combined with the constant rattling of tools gave me the lasting impression of poor quality. Contrast that with the same friend’s Mom getting a hatchback, 5 speed Accord in 1980 and the Vega suffered even more by comparison. GM kept swinging for the fences during the 60’s and 70’s with their small cars but unfortunately poor execution kept producing foul balls.

I bought a 1980 Sunbird which had the Vega suspension. It had the potential, despite 13 inch wheels for handling. However, the quality control was non-existent. Within a week, I needed a new transmission and cylinder head. The clutch cable actually broke the firewall, and a jerry rigged weld had to be put into place.

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

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