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"In Praise Of The Hated GM Small Cars Week:" The Vert-A-Pac Auto Carrier

The Chevrolet Vega may have been a perfect storm, an epic in the annals of failure, but there was one element of the Vega project that was more or less a complete success: the innovative "Vert-A-Pac" railroad car used to transport the Vega.

Stacked, racked, and ready to roll.

Until the early 1960s, automobiles that moved by rail were carried in boxcars. By the middle decades of the last century, the railroads had come up with the "automobile boxcar," fifty feet long with double-wide doors. Inside were four full-sized dreadnought sedans, two raised up off the floor on a steel rack and two others tucked in underneath them. This protected the cars from vandalism and the elements, but wasn't very efficient--the weight of four vehicles was far less than the maximum weight a car that size could carry.

When 85- and 89-foot flatcars came into service for "piggyback" trains carrying semi trailers, someone soon realized that you could fit five automobiles on one. That load was well under the weight limit for the flatcar--but there was space enough within the "clearance diagram" (maximum height and width specification) to add two more layers of autos, for a total of fifteen, and still not exceed the maximum allowable weight. The result is usually called a "tri-level auto rack":

A Santa fe "Auto-Veyor" loaded with 1964 Mopars.One of the main objectives in the Vega's development was to keep the cost of the car down around $2,000 in circa-1970 dollars. (As we've discussed before, that emphasis on cheapskatery led to some fatal flaws in the design of the car.) At the time, the freight charge for moving a loaded railroad car from the Lordstown assembly plant to the Pacific coast--the longest distance that cars produced at Lordstown would need to travel--was around $4,800. Since the Vega was a subcompact, you might be able to squeeze in five or six on each deck, fifteen to eighteen total, on a tri-level autorack; divide the freight charge by the number of cars and you've got between $267 and $320 in destination charges each, and that doesn't count the cost of trucking from the rail terminal to the dealership. On a car that lists for $2,000, that's a substantial surcharge! If you could get more Vegas on a railroad car, the cost per unit of hauling them would go down, of course.

GM and the Southern Pacific Railroad came up with a clever solution. It just so happens that the sum of a Vega's length, plus the height of a standard 89-foot flatcar's deck above the rail head, is less than the allowable height of an auto carrier car with room to spare. If you could somehow place the Vegas Visible behind the fork lift are units from a container system developed around the same time to transport full-size cars.vertically instead of horizontally, you could get as many as thirty into the allowable volume of space above the deck of an 89-foot car.

What the engineers came up with was an auto rack like none other. A truss ran down the middle of the car, and the car sides consisted of five panels hinged at the bottom, each panel holding three cars. When the panels were opened up, they formed a sort of ramp. You drove the cars onto the doors and secured them. The doors were closed and opened with a "Piggy Packer," a large forklift built to load and unload truck trailers from piggyback cars--equipment the railroads already had on hand. The Vert-A-Pac's door latch was specifically designed to be worked with the tips of the Piggy Packer's forks.

In order to be able to travel nose-down without leaking vital fluids all over the railroad--one of the design specifications was that the car had to be loaded straight off the assembly line, and drivable the moment it was unloaded--Vegas destined for transport by rail were equipped with the "VK5" option package. This consisted of a baffle in the oil pan to keep the #1 cylinder from being flooded with oil, a special wiper fluid bottle mounted at a 45-degree angle, a battery with off-center filler caps, and an extra hose in the fuel system. There was also a plug in the fuel tank vent and some plastic spacers reinforcing the motor mounts which were supposed to be removed by the dealer before delivery.

While the Vega itself didn't quite work as intended, the Vert-A-Pac cars were a complete success. After the Vega was discontinued, they may have been used to transport the Monza and other H-body derivatives--I haven't been able to find out for sure one way or the other--but apparently they were too specialized to be used with anything else. They definitely went out of service when the J-cars replaced the H-cars on the Lordstown production line in late 1980. The Vert-A-Pac racks were scrapped, and the underlying flatcars went on to other uses.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The upper Vert-A-Pac photo is from Wikipedia.  The lower photo is a vintage GM or SP publicity photo uploaded to Flickr by user "cklx." The B&W publicity shot of a Santa Fe "Auto-Veyor" came from the history website Kansas Memory.


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OK, I see a green Vega, then a blue Vega, then a green Vega, then another blue Vega, then two green Vegas...

Oh wait, this isn't a Car Spotter post LOL.

Wouldn't that put oil in parts of the engine where it shouldn't be? say nothing of the olter leaks...coolant, trans fluid, battery acid, etc, etc.

Wow, fascinating! Thanks for posting - great post!

@ John B, the measures taken (baffle in oil pan, etc.) do seem inadequate. But apparently somehow this worked.

one thing I have to say about the Vega-- as crappy a car as it turned out to be mechanically; it was a very graceful design, sort of an Americanized Lancia or Fiat.

The Vega did what it was supposed to do. Two things: One was that it was supposed to be the price leader for the GM lineup. Two, recycling was gaining popularity at the time and the car's materials were designed to be recycled easily. I'm serious. This easy recyclability was in some very early advertising when it was first produced. Most customers didn't read it. After it started selling, salesmen complained - and the language was pulled. The Vega was just supposed to be a temporary car - something good for maybe 5 years; not supposed to be a car that lasted very long.

So if a car has a short life by design and it's life is short, is that really a failure?

The hauling/transporting concept is great for maximizing the numbers on the load. One big question: Vegas had a number of problems which may not have been helped by the railroad. In transit, there a lot of shaking takes place, and how many parts were found in the base of the transporter? I remember a note by a truck hauler driver several years ago. This particular driver delivered AMC products to dealers and said that the only cars that didn't drop loose parts were AMC products like the Rambler.

@MichBC3: In regards to whether the Vega was a failure, the answer is a resounding YES. Why, because the all aluminum engine was infamous for self destructing at the 30-45k mark. Followed that by inadequate rust proofing that reared its ugly head far sooner than other cars of the era. Finally, the auto yards were so inudated with junked Vegas that many refused to take them. So, a Vega owner was left with payments on a non-functioning car that had zero resale value( even fro scrap). It was a perfect storm of failure for GM.

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

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