Monday, March 9, 2009

Lipstick On a Pig: The Chevy Vega

The Chevy Vega.

The Vega conjurers up memories of noisy motors, warped blocks, high oil consumption, engine fires, early rust/rust prone panel, poor build quality, production plant sabotage & strikes, the list goes on…Who of us didn’t either own or know someone that owned one back then, they were all over the place. Even my Dad bought a LEMON yellow ’74 that year . Nowadays it’s more common to see a Bentley or Ferrari on the road than a Vega.

A quick Google search will find the car in many Top or 10 worst car lists, and maybe rightfully so given its inception and background. But it wasn’t because it was a bad looking car.

Code named XP-887, the Vega started as then GM President, Ed Cole’s pet project. The XP-887 or Vega 2300 was to be Chevys next modern small compact car, a fresh slate after the missteps of the Corvair.

The Vega was GM first attempt at a small car after the Corvair

The first ideas for the car was as a rear engine rotary, but the bad taste of a rear engine Corvair still in its mouth and serious issues with rotary development (NSU’s nightmares with the Ro 80 as an example) nixed those ideas.

Ed Cole Father of the Vega

Ed Cole championed a new all aluminum block impregnated with silicone in the cylinders instead of iron cylinder sleeves (as was standard practice). And as both Chief engineer and company president, no one could, or was going to convince him (the father of the small block Chevy V-8) of this inherent flawed engine design. So Cole was going to get his way, no matter what.

This was the beginning of “committee design” at the General, and Cole quickly set up committees for both engineering and styling as well. As John Z. DeLorean (of the infamous DMC/stainless-steel car fame and head of Chevy at the time) described, it was a car that was "14th floor engineered " (from the GM building), committee engineered by groups of big-wig executives out of touch with the reality of building a durable car. A project with an engine none of GM engineers supported, and a car Chevrolet didn’t want either, it was forced upon them.

As far back as 1969, two years before its introduction, at its introduction to GM executives, it’s said that the front end of the prototype literally fell off. So the Vega already had some bad karma working for it from the start, all manners of GM executives were walking away from it and its future did not look bright.

So, what do you do with the redheaded child that no one wants, but still have to sell to the public?

You put your best lipstick on a pig, that’s what you do, and that’s what GM did.

A lot of pressure was going on the looks of this car, and the design committee for the styling of the new car was made of legendary names in auto design. Bill Mitchell, Chuck Jordan, Irv Rybicki and Dave Holls were all on board. So they had the talent to hold the pig down, so to speak. The first proposals for the car were contemporary enough, clean pressed “suit” lines that were typical of the Mitchell era, but its front/nose and back were bland. Initially the car had been thought of short wheelbase one, as more of a Nova no frills utilitarian-type and got some uninspired styling to go with that theme.

The XP883 & XP887

But the first of problems for John DeLorean to tackle when he came to Chevy was to revitalize and generate some genuine enthusiasm within his division for the project. By motivating Fisher Body to work with Chevy chief designer Hank Haga, they worked a miracle in modifying the fresh face of the new Haga designed 2nd generation Camaro F body design cues onto the Vega.

The Camaro’s long smooth nose wide Ferrari egg crate grille and slightly protruding fender headlights influenced from the Facel Vega, are very must present in the Vega. Chevy’s traditional rear pod taillights treatment, typical for the Camaro and the Corvette were stylized an added to the slightly contoured rear of the Vega as well.

Strong hints of Ferrari are seen in both the Camaro & Vega

The Vega was a one of GM’s first of the new vent windowless design, and adding to the more sporting style DeLorean was looking for Haga added functional vents, placed on the deck and at the rear quarter posts.

Styling wise, this little car from Chevy was a good looker, magazines and press all gave the cars overall slightly Italian influenced design thumbs up. Now, no one is going to ever call the Vega a stunningly beautiful automobile, but considering the offerings at the time, the clownish Gremlin, the staid, almost homely Maverick styled Pinto, the Vega was the most handsome of the bunch, hands down.

Vega GT's rolling off the Lordstown, OH plant

Particularly the Vega GT (about 30% of all Vegas sold) and the rare Cosworth Vega looked pretty good for their day, keeping in mind that blow out afros, dashikis, tie-die shirts, Tab, and leisure suits were also popular….

Though the overall result of the Vega was a public relations disaster for GM, and legions of customers probably never returning to a Chevy lot, overall, Chevy sold nearly 2.2 million of these cars, not too bad for a 6.5 year span. By the time the writing was on the wall about the cars troubles, Chevy still moved over 460,000 Vegas in 1974! It was a popular choice, and Chevy kept in pace with the updating of the Camaro, the Vega too incorporating much of the new updates of Camaro too throughout its lifespan.

It’s a tribute to John DeLorean's management skills, Bill Mitchell’s design influence, and the styling genius of Mr. Haga, that the Vega made its way as far and as long as it did. One of the few reasons for the continued strong sales of this car until its last two years.

The Vega is a great example of excellent exterior styling propping up poor or lazy engineering and development. It’s not the first time this has been the case, and certainly won’t be the last.

Lipstick on a pig indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Let's see what a few real car authorities have to say in retrospect

    Motor Trend's Frank Markus said after driving my 6k mile '73 Vega GT in 2010, "After a few gentle miles, I begin to understand how this car won its awards and comparison tests." "Well-maintained examples are great looking, nice-driving, economical classics—like Baltic Ave. with a Hotel, the best ones can be had for $10K or less."

    Motor Trend's Frank Markus said after driving my 2k mile '76 Cosworth Vega in 2013, "Stylish and historically significant but ridiculously overpriced in its day and ultimately a bit unfinished, the ultimate Vega now represents a serious collector bargain."

    Hemmings Classic Car editor Craig Fitzgerald said, "The idea that the 1971 to 1977 Chevrolet Vega was an unpopular lemon from day one is a myth."

    Hemmings Classic Car editor in chief Terry Shea said, "Chevrolet did save the best for last in the form of the sublime Cosworth Vega, a sports car with an exotic double-overhead-cam, 16-valve, four cylinder engine; a suspension to match and sophistication decades ahead of most other cars."

    Cars in Depth May 26, 2013 said, "GM is not ashamed of the Vega and they have one on display at the GM Heritage Center."

    Portraits of Automotive History "Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega" editor Aaron Severson said, "As with the Corvair, any statements about the Vega’s failure have to be carefully qualified. Chevrolet sold more than 2 million Vegas during its seven-year lifespan, which is excellent by any standards. During the difficult period of the OPEC embargo — which briefly made big cars almost unsaleable — Chevrolet sold all the Vegas they could build."