GM’s Cobblepot: The Chevy Vega

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

In the popular TV series, Gotham (it’s a prequel to the Batman story) there’s an episode called “Everyone Has His Cobblepot” — a reference to something embarrassing in one’s past.

The Chevy Vega is GM’s Cobblepot.

Like most failures, it wasn’t intentional. But it was — in retrospect predictable. Chiefly because then-GM President Ed Cole rushed the car’s development. In particular, development of what would become its centerpiece — and its Achilles Heel: a new-design aluminum engine that would not use steel cylinder liners. Instead, using a new casting process and metallurgy developed jointly with Reynolds Metals (of Reynolds Wrap fame), the 2.3 liter engine block was machined to accept the pistons without the need for pressed-in steel liners. This saved weight and simplified the manufacturing process.

It wasn’t a bad idea at all.

But the execution was a clown car comedy of engineering errors.

To save a few bucks per car — the source waters of so many problems — Chevy engineers decided to bolt a cast iron head to the aluminum block. The two dissimilar metals have very different expansion and contraction rates when heated. By itself, this wasn’t fatal. Many engines have alloy blocks and cast iron heads. But they did not have some of the Vega engine’s other design features.

For openers, the engine was top heavy. In-house, it was referred to as “the world’s tallest, smallest engine” by already-worried engineers. The engine was prone to vibrating like a Martini mixer and would also overheat — the former issue due to the tall-boy layout and a lack of sufficient counterbalancing, the latter to a marginal cooling system and a tendency to burn oil excessively.

To Band Aid (rather than fix) the engine problem, engineers fitted the car with loose rubber engine mounts, so the owner wouldn’t notice the vibration as much. But it continued to shake — and as the coolant ran low (which was not hard to do given a mere six quart capacity system and a two-row radiator) the little engine would begin to run ever-hotter. Which it was already susceptible to doing because of its siamesed bores (no coolant flowing in between the cylinders).

It was like a delayed-action fuse.

What happened was the engine would shake, shake, shake (cue KC & The Sunshine Band) as coolant drip, drip, dripped. The temp needle would begin its inevitable ascent toward the red zone. Oil consumption — another of the engine’s many weaknesses — would increase, accelerating the overheating process. It was like what happened after the Titanic hit the iceberg, when the first “water-tight” compartment filled up and dumped seawater into the next “water-tight” compartment.

As the Vega’s engine ran ever hotter — and began to shake ever more violently — coolant would seep into the liner-less cylinders. Where it would quickly cause catastrophic damage — coolant not being particularly lubricious. And because the engine wasn’t sleeved, a head gasket leak was usually fatal. The now-badly scored block was a throw-way.

Many buyers soon felt the same way about the Vega.

As a writer for Cars magazine put it:

“Tests which should have been done at the proving grounds were performed by customers, necessitating numerous piecemeal ‘fixes’ by dealers. Chevrolet’s ‘bright star’ received an enduring black eye despite a continuing development program which eventually alleviated most of these initial shortcomings.”

Emphasis on eventually.

GM didn’t do anything about the Vega engine’s fundamental design defects until the 1976 model year when a redesigned (and renamed) “Dura-Built” version was introduced. It had revised cooling passages in the block, a new design cylinder head, a redesigned water pump and valve stem seals that reduced oil consumption by 50 percent. This engine did not vibrate excessively or overheat. GM was so eager to prove the point it conducted a very public endurance test under the auspices of the United States Auto Club (USAC) in which three production-stock Vegas were driven non-stop for 60,000 miles through the scorched earth deserts of Nevada and California by teams of nine drivers in shifts, who covered nearly 200,000 miles in total. None of the cars overheated. None sucked coolant into the cylinders. Oil consumption was just one quart every 3,400 miles — high by modern standards, but a huge improvement over the original Vega engine’s one quart every 1,500 miles or so.

GM was so confident about the Dura-Built, it offered buyers a then-unheard of five year, 60,000 mile warranty.

But it came out four years too late.

Both the warranty and the Dura-Built engine.

If both had been standard equipment the first year of the Vega’s production life, its story might have been one of great success rather than epic failure — and lingering embarrassment. Instead, GM management — frantic to get their new economy compact on the market ahead of rivals (specifically, the Japanese — who had already established a beachhead and were rapidly moving inland) released the car before it was ready for prime time — and then spent years dodging what the company ought to have been fixing.

Ironically, Ed Cole was a top-drawer engineer, the man who oversaw the development of the original small-block Chevy V8 — one of the most successful and enduring designs in automotive history (the engine was first offered for sale in ’55 Chevys and continues to be produced to this day). But by the late ’60s, Cole had become management — and his agenda was making money, not designing a good engine.

It would end up costing GM a fortune — and Cole his reputation.

In addition to its vibration/leaking/overheating issues, the 140 CID Vega engine also had a leaky carburetor that would gush gas — and a sticky throttle that sometime jammed open — leading to an adventuresome driving experience. Luckily, there was not much horsepower on tap (110 SAE gross in 1971; factored down to 90 SAE net in 1972).

That usually gave the owner sufficient time to think about what he was going to hit.

In addition, poorly designed valve steam seals resulted in horrendous oil consumption. Which resulted in yet more overheating, head gasket sealing problems and coolant in the cylinders.

Owners got their choice of smoke — white (burning coolant) or blue (burning oil).

Two epic recalls quickly ensued — but not (as discussed above) for the self-destructing engine.

The first recall was for the leaky carburetor; the second (in 1972) for the sticky throttle linkage. The latter affected 350,000 cars. Which in a way is a measure of the tragedy that was the Vega.

People liked the car. It sold well, initially — proving the concept was absolutely sound.

Then, people found out about the car. About the short-cuts and cheap-outs, any of which might have been disastrous to the car’s viability but when taken together sealed its doom.

Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of Cole — who pushed the car’s development at such a frantic pace that it was all-but-inevitable there would be major problems. And worse, that such problems wouldn’t be identified and sorted out prior to production.

Cole — who was in direct charge of the Vega project — demanded “a world beater” in Chevy showrooms within two years of project XP-877’s green-lighting in 1968 by then-GM Chairman James Roche. This was not much time to design an entirely new car from the wheels up — let alone make sure those wheels, so to speak, didn’t come flying off. The usual practice is to design and engineer prototypes, which are then extensively tested privately — so things missed (and things not done quite right) don’t become public.

But Cole was dazzled by the prospect of making a quick buck selling oodles of cars made very cheaply. Which is just what happened. Even the assembly process was paced as if on crystal meth. 100 Vegas an hour — that is, one car leaving the line every 36 seconds — was the goal laid down by Cole. And it was almost achieved (73.5 Vegas per hour) by forcing the line workers at the Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant to finish their task in 36 seconds as opposed to the formerly expected 1 minute. Additional workers were added to meet this frenetic pace — and the cars were churned out in mass quantities, in record time.

With the results you’d expect.

Build quality was both iffy and erratic. Some Vegas were put together better than others, but all were put together pretty poorly. While the unitized skeleton was welded by machines, exterior panel fitment was done by hand — and often, loosey goosey. Which lead to leaks, which led to rust. Two-thirds of the Vegas coming off the line had to be turned around and sent back for paint repair because the paint booths could not handle the volume. The fix — higher-pressure paint sprayers — resulted in faster paint jobs that had runs and sags.

So many cars were being spat out of the Lordstown plant that conventional rail car transport could not keep up, either. So GM and Southern Pacific railroad developed a vertical stack rail car that could handle 30 Vegas at once — nearly twice as many as a conventional double decker railcar. The Vegas — fully loaded with fluids, including engine oil — were stacked like dominoes and sent off to dealers. Chevy did fit the engine with baffles to — supposedly — prevent oil from migrating where it wasn’t wanted, but in retrospect it didn’t seem like a good idea to place a car on its nose and leave it like that for several days.

Still, the ruination of the Vega — Chevy’s “bright star” — came after the cars were once again horizontal and put on the road. Where they tended to not remain for very long. If the engine didn’t self-destruct before the warranty expired, the body would rust not long thereafter.

To be fair to General Motors, the majority of cars built at the time were rust magnets. But the Vega’s susceptibility to metal cancer was particularly high because of the thinness of the metal, the paucity of paint (as well as its erratic application) and the inherent tendency of early unibody construction (the body and frame welded together into a single chassis assembly, as opposed to the then-more-common body bolted onto a separate steel frame) to have rust-friendly nooks and crannies for moisture to collect and fester.

John DeLorean — who was Chevrolet’s general manager at the time of the Vega’s 1970 launch — told author Patrick Wright in the 1979 book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, that he felt pressured to “tout the car far beyond my personal convictions about it.” As an example, DeLorean had previously told Motor Trend magazine back in 1970 — when he was collecting his paychecks from GM — that the Vega “would be built at a quality level that has never been attained before in a manufacturing operation in this country and probably the world.”

A tad optimistic, perhaps.

In spite of all this — — even as word spread about the car’s many issues — — Chevy sold Vegas as quickly as they were built. In excess of 2 million were produced over the car’s seven year production run. This works out to an average of just under 300,000 cars per year — — which (today) would rank it among the best-selling cars on the market. The high water mark was 1974, when 460,374 victims… er, buyers… were found.

But despite the goodness of the idea — including attractive Camaro-esque styling contributed by Bill Mitchell (who had previously worked on the Corvette and also was the main influence behind the home-run hit 1970 Camaro) excellent handling, very good fuel economy (while the engine lasted) and a range of bodystyles — hatchback coupe, notchback coupe, a station wagon and a small business and Hippie-friendly panel delivery version — the Vega’s one-too-many flaws eventually dragged it under like an irresistible riptide. By 1975 — just one year after the sales high water mark of 1974 — the number of people willing to open their wallets for a new Vega had fallen by a catastrophic 60 percent to 207,764 cars.

The next year, just 160,524 were willing — and by ’77 Vega sales had collapsed to an unsustainable 78,402 cars.

As bad as that was, the damage done to GM’s reputation was far worse. The Vega became synonymous with shit — and shit with GM. In his 1993 book, In the Rings of Saturn, author Joe Sherman noted that “by its third recall, ninety-five percent of all Vegas manufactured before May 1972 had critical safety flaws” and that the Vega’s “checkered history only reinforced the belief that GM made inferior small cars. This legacy would prove far more important than any direct impact the Vega would have on GM’s profits.”

It’s been almost 40 years since the last one left the line — and the stink still lingers.

Everyone has a Cobblepot. For Ford, it’s the Pinto. For Chrysler, it’s the Cordoba (rich, Corinthian leather and all).

For GM, it is the Vega — the biggest belly flop in the company’s long — and sometimes sketchy — history.

Vega Trivia

* Base price for the 1971 Vega was $2,090 — equivalent to just over $12k inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars. By the final year — 1977 — the Vega’s base price had climbed to $3,249 — equivalent to just under $19k in 2015 inflation-adjust dollars. The Vega had become expensive in addition to cheaply made.

* Chevy General Manage John DeLorean — in an effort to jump-start the Vega’s by-then sagging sales- tried to apply the “GTO formula” to the Vega. Just as the original 1964 GTO was basically a Tempest with a hot engine and a heavy duty suspension, DeLorean took a humble Vega and fitted it with a Cosworth-sourced twin-cam engine that featured GM’s first production car use of electronic fuel injection. The cars were all painted black with gold accents (a theme that would be used with much greater success over at Pontiac, which applied the treatment the Trans-Am). With a price tag ($5,918) almost as high as the same year Corvette’s (while horsepower — 110 — was hardly more than a regular Vega’s) the Cosworth Vega only added to Chevy’s seemingly endless problems with this car. 3,508 of them were sold and the model was discontinued after just one year.

* One of the many Band Aids deployed to try to deal with the Vega’s numerous profound problems was a dealer-retrofitted low-coolant indicator, which first became available as a no-cost service item in 1974. Chevy also offered owners of Vegas with kaput engines the choice of a new (and just as failure-prone) replacement or a rebuilt shortblock with steel sleeves — which meant that if the head gasket leaked again (which of course it would) at least the entire engine would not have to be replaced.

* Vegas delivered excellent-for-the-era fuel economy — averaging around 28 MPG and capable of 40 on the highway if driven gently (which also extended the interval prior to overheating and engine failure). Handling was another strong point. The car did well in SCCA showroom stock racing, beating contemporaneous rivals such as the Opel GT and Dodge Colt.

* The Vega was named after the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.


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