"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.
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":
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 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.