Subcompact and Substandard (Part One)

Fifty years ago, Ford and General Motors introduced their first subcompact models to challenge the rising tide of Japanese and European imports. One was underdeveloped and riddled with faults. The other would become an infamous cause célèbre for US safety campaigners.

(c) wheelsage

In the late 1960’s US auto makers were becoming concerned about the growing popularity of small Japanese and European imports. These tended to be basic and unsophisticated, but were also cheap, economical and reliable, particularly when compared to the alternative of a second-hand domestic model. Ford and GM needed to fight back, so set to work developing what would become known as subcompacts.

The Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega were launched within a day of each other in September 1970. Conceptually, they were identical: conventionally engineered front-engined RWD cars that would be available in saloon, hatchback and estate versions. The Vega was slightly larger, with a 3” (75mm) longer wheelbase, although rear seat space in both was occasional at best for adult passengers.

The development of the Vega was highly unusual in that it was controlled, not by Chevrolet, but by an independent team of fifty engineers led by Lloyd Reuss, who reported directly to GM President, Ed Cole. Reuss would himself go on to become President of GM in 1990.

There were great ambitions for the Vega. It was a clean sheet design that would major on lightness and efficiency, with a new 2.3 litre four-cylinder engine featuring an aluminium block, cast-iron cylinder head and a belt-driven overhead camshaft. Reuss was set a tight deadline, just 24 months, to develop and launch the new car. The development budget was, however, generous at $200m, the most GM would spend on a new car to date.

John DeLorean, who was appointed Chevrolet General Manager in 1969, inherited what he regarded as a highly unsatisfactory situation where nobody at Chevrolet had any input to or interest in the Vega. In the 1979 book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, DeLorean allegedly revealed that the first prototype driven by Chevrolet engineers literally broke in two at the front bulkhead after just eight miles on the test track. The floor pan had to be reinforced to prevent this happening again.

Not only was the Vega all-new, but a new and highly automated plant to manufacture it was built at Lordstown, Ohio. The automation was designed to increase productivity initially to 70 vehicles an hour, compared to 55 vehicles per hour typically achieved in other GM plants. The Vega had been designed from the outset with automated assembly in mind, so the body structure was simplified to the greatest degree possible.

Despite his misgivings, DeLorean, ever the salesman, described the Vega a month before launch as “…the highest quality product ever built by Chevrolet” in an interview with Motor Trend magazine. The car was launched to a positive reception and was duly named the Motor Trend 1971 Car of the Year.

The entry price was $2,090 for the base two-door notchback saloon, which was $240 more than the base Pinto. The three-door hatchback was particularly attractive, with its scaled down Chevrolet Camaro appearance, and would prove to be the most popular variant. One innovation was side impact beams in the doors, unique at that time in a small car. This, and the floor pan reinforcements, partly accounted for the Vega weighing in at 2,190lbs, a substantial 283lbs heavier than the Pinto.

Before long, however, problems caused by the Vega’s unusual and accelerated development began to surface. The engine in particular suffered from excessive vibration, which caused valve stem seals to crack and allow oil to leak into the cylinders, leading to clouds of blue smoke from the exhaust, excessive oil consumption and, occasionally, engine fires. It also overheated to the degree that the aluminium block would warp, writing the engine off. The vibration was so bad that the factory took to gluing the nuts holding the carburettor to the inlet manifold with Loctite, to try and stop them working loose.

Car and Driver magazine, in a retrospective on automotive duds in 2009, said of the Vega: “It was so unreliable that it seemed the only time anyone saw a Vega on the road not puking out oil smoke was when it was being towed.

There were corrosion problems too. The automated dipping process to prime the bodies was unreliable, and rust regularly appeared on new cars awaiting delivery in dealers’ lots. This was dealt with cosmetically but would soon reappear when the car was in the hands of its proud new owner. One particular area of weakness was the front wings. Thousands were replaced under warranty before full wheel arch liners were added in 1974.

(c) wheelsage

Car and Driver compared a Vega and Pinto on a 15,000-mile long term test in 1971. The Vega, with a full complement of extras (apart from air-conditioning) cost $2,847. It was comfortable, with much more supportive seats than the Pinto, although their non-breathable vinyl upholstery became unpleasantly hot, especially with excessive heat radiating from the transmission tunnel. Ventilation was somewhat better than on the Pinto, but the Vega really needed the optional air-conditioning.

The Vega’s Achilles’ Heel was, of course, the engine. The testers stated bluntly that, from an NVH standpoint, it was …unfit for passenger car use.At 2,200rpm in particular, an unpleasant vibration tingled the driver’s toes through the pedals and caused the gear lever to buzz. Around town, the engine’s clatter and noisy exhaust were “…genuinely unpleasant and the rubbery and obstructive gear change made the car no fun to drive. At highway speeds, wind noise tended to obscure the worst of the engine noise. Fuel economy averaged around 23 mpg (US) but was highly variable depending on driving style, ranging from 16 to 30 mpg (US).

GM worked to try and correct the Vega’s problems and by 1975 was sufficiently confident in the engine’s durability to offer a 50,000-mile warranty. This was achieved in part by lowering the compression ratio and detuning it to accept unleaded fuel, reducing the power output from 90bhp at launch to just 78bhp on the standard engine, and 110bhp to 87bhp on the more powerful optional unit.

A facelifted nose in 1974 did the Vega no favours. (c) jalopnik

GM also tried to improve build quality, while at the same time increasing productivity at the Lordstown plant towards its target of 100 vehicles per hour. This caused tensions with the workforce and accusations of deliberately sloppy workmanship, culminating in a month-long unofficial strike in March 1972 that cost GM $150m. The target was achieved, but initially caused further problems with the Vega’s paint quality.

Over its seven-year lifespan, a total of 2,010,547 Vegas were produced, over half of which were the three-door hatchback variant. Its best year was 1974, when 460,374 cars were produced. That the Vega sold well in spite of its well-publicised problems is a testament to the power of GM marketing and, possibly, low expectations amongst potential buyers.

In Part Two we examine the development and career of the Ford Pinto, a less ambitious but more serviceable design, marred by one major flaw.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

46 thoughts on “Subcompact and Substandard (Part One)”

  1. I’m torn between the hatchback, GT hatchback and the cooler sounding Notchback using the advert alone. But most definitely in Medium Bronze Metallic with white stripe tyres, please.

    1. Good morning Andrew. The Nova really was rather attractive, wasn’t it? That interior looks very inviting, especially for an economy car. What a shame it was so poorly developed.

    2. I’m afraid, Daniel, that that interior photo is a superb touch-up airbrush special with added “richer” darher hue. The interior and colour of my parents’ car was exactly that but real. It never shone like that in real life, allow me to assure you. Furthermore, it had a distinct smell of hot stamped vinyl, and the ill-fitting one piece plastic door card distorted with age, until its contact with the door frame occurred only here or there, allowing in more road noise. Trust me, nobody wants one of these cars for old times sake except eccentrics, bar the Cosworth editions. Buy a model if you like the shape. It was pretty.

  2. The Vega’s best feature was its Vert-a-Pac extra which allowed vertical nose-down transport in special trains.

    1. The use of a digger to close the sides of the railway carriage looks a bit rudimentary!

    2. So that’s where Marie Kondo got her idea from of vertical storage. Not too sure about the Vega, though.

  3. Not bad for a quick once over for Europeans. But since my parents managed to make two mistakes in a row by owning both a Pinto and then a Vega in that order, you will understand when I say that observing from afar after almost 50 years you’re unlikely to get to the heart of these useless cars, nor why they were created in such a cynical way. You have only books and the printed word to rely on, whereas I have actual experience. The reminiscences of the big execs gloss over the reality to give a revisionist tone to the history and to exculpate bad mistakes and errors in judgement. But even then, of course, they can only fudge so much.

    When I returned from my London studies to look after my mother following her cancer operation in May 1974, as a reward and because the Pinto’s driver door had already rusted into two halves with an 18 inch hole several inches high in the outer skin to boot, they gave it me in December. It was worth perhaps $50, and the auto-body repairman refused to even work on it! For five months in my new field engineering job, that was my transportation until I had enough credit to buy my own car, the loan cosigned by Dad, er, just in case. Bought new in October 1970, by December 1974 the Pinto was a wreck that moved. Forget the gas tank, that was the least of its problems.

    Still, this instalment is ostensibly about the Vega, so let’s talk about that marvel. GM, indeed the Big 3, just could not understand the attraction of small foreign cars. And frankly, that was the dominant societal opinion, even in Canada. Funny little foreign cars, people just didn’t get it. You’d get ribbed all the time driving an old Volvo, let alone the VW Bug – nobody called it the Beetle over here. Bug is a derogatory term. Since living standards were far in advance of Blighty in the 1960s with over double the per capita income, nobody could imagine why anyone would choose a penalty box of a noisy cramped rough-riding little crapbox for transportation. That was the conformist and snooty opinion of people at large. Ah, well, small sports cars were accepted, because sports cars are small. Small saloons? Why? It didn’t compute with the average citizen.

    GM’s traditional solution for car buyers was to offer many variants of a model. The cheapest had rubber mats, three on the tree and a front bench seat clad in vinyl not even Woolworths would contemplate using on a folding card table top. They fairly screamed Cheap! You got the full size of the car itself, but the external flash and rearview mirror were omitted, and the interior was rubbish. It broadcast to all and sundry that you were poor. Because cars fell apart rapidly, the second hand market was far less lively than it is today, hence these bottom-of-the barrel models. You never see those in books or on the web. Better-off burghers in my small Canadian town got a new car every two years like clockwork, and not the cheap models. Not a soul understood why my father, a doctor for goodness sake, drove a Ford Consul for six years after emigrating to Canada. They made fun of me at school because of it.

    With that mindset of no understanding, but eager to grab a slice of the market that Toyota and Nissan were rapidly grabbing in California and the omnipresent VW, GM decided to bestow its nonsense outlook on the public with a small car. California in particular was the bellwether for social trends, and you can be sure the company kept tabs on that market. They owned about 50% nationwide in the USA of new car sales and intended to keep it that way. The actual solid oily bits underpinning their regular cars was thrown to the winds.

    Oblivious of the perfectly reasonable Vauxhalls selling well in Canada, until that Firenza Viva HC, they decided to make a new car with less interior room than a 1964 Viva HA. As a rich company, they decided to give it a new engine anyway, as a sop and a sign of their brilliance, but the undercarriage was all Vauxhall Viva HB, that layout a smaller version of the 1964 Chevrolet Malibu’s layout, so no foul there. It at least handled and rode well. Better than the Pinto. And it actually had much better rear seat legroom than the Pinto, but zero headroom. The gas tank was in exactly the same position as the Pintos and my old Volvo, for that matter, which handily used the tank top as the boot floor for, um, better safety no doubt.

    The 1974 Vega my parents bought was so uncomfortable to drive entirely because of that stupid engine. It never relented: buzz, vibrate, coarse and unwilling to rev, uneven in power delivery so it surged, it fairly screamed at the customer “you want small and cheap? Well this is the best mighty GM can do for that money!” Since the majority of the population had never owned a small car, there was no backlash at first due to lack of experience. No balance shafts on a 2.3l long stroke chuffer? Mitsubishi hadn’t re-invented Lanchester’s brilliance yet. But who would have guessed bad vibration in advance? Not even from experience with the Iron Duke 25l four they made in 1962? And later resuscitated as a portable massager in ’80s GM cars? Apparently not. A 20 mile drive in a Vega was a noisy vibratory massage, a Mini more refined by far, let alone an 1100. Why Mum and Dad hadn’t bought a Corolla for less was beyond my ken – my father and I got into a huge argument about it. He bought it while I was away on job hunts in the city.

    As to its other faults of bad head gaskets causing burnt coolant clouds to trail the car, the upside down iron head on an alloy block without liners causing oil-drinking, well, they merely added customer misery to the utter failure in design, development and manufacture. The body rotted even worse than the Pinto’s, or indeed even the Japanese cars. A Toyota Corona or Datsun 510 was literally ten times the car this piece of rolling junk was. They accelerated better, got better fuel consumption, never went wrong and didn’t vibrate, because the Japanese don’t like that sort of thing and wouldn’t inflict such cynicism on themselves. But they were only somewhat better on rust. They drove proudly into scrapyards, bits flapping and falling off in the wind. But they did not betray the customer with regard to the standards of the time.

    The Chevrolet Vega was the first sign of the death knell of General Motors’ hegemony in the market place, from being King Kong to being regarded as a nothing but a cynical purveyor of barely acceptable junk in its lower end cars. Vega became a synonym for junk, quite literally. GM had bitten the hand that fed it.

    My parents’ Vega met an ignominious end in late 1977 when a drunk ran a stop sign and T-boned it. My mother who was drivng suffered a broken clavicle, my father escaped injury. Theirs had been the prettiest Vega still around, not driven much and garage-kept. No rust, no oil-eating, it was a star! Merely dreadful to drive. As a precaution, I had earlier taken it to the same body repair shop who dissed the Pinto to get a respray as it “seemed” OK to me, so to invest a couple of hundred bucks in rust prevention seemed wise, and the man couldn’t believe the pristine condition! Nothing required. There’s always one outlier. But after the accident, that was that and so they returned to Ford, a Fairmont, something a bit bigger and presumably safer. It’s hard to describe the effect Vega had on GM, but it was huge. The Japanese began to really take over the smaller car market as Honda also appeared, and as rusty and unreliable Golfs and Passats ruined VW’s image. Bigger US cars were downsized and remained dominant mostly in what was called the big and mid-sized sectors. But wait! The Chevy Citation was on the horizon, poised to inflict even more agony on North America.

    The Vega was not as good as the first Viva HB in any way at all. Just as an Escort made a Pinto seem like a refuse bin. Ah, I’ve driven all those cars extensively, and I know.

    1. Thank you for your extensive reminiscences, Bill, which would have made an excellent DTW piece (although, at more than 1,500 words, it would need some editing!)

      Thank you also for your kind words regarding my original piece. As you know, we strive for adequacy here at DTW and I appear to have (just about) achieved that standard on this occasion. Phew!

    2. In fairness Daniel, and as well you know, we were forced to raise our subscription fees again this year, which has (I’m told) impacted upon our Canadian readers in a particularly egregious fashion. But in light of this, I think it might be germane to review our masthead slogan, to aid the casual visitor manage their expectations. Perhaps something along the lines of “Still the World’s Most Adequate Motoring Site”, or maybe, “Driven to Write – Committed to Adequacy Since 2014”.

      I’m open to suggestions by the way… (also to large monetary donations in brown paper bags, but I digress…)

    3. Eóin, I’m worried that your suggested masthead slogans are writing cheques we simply cannot cash. How about: “Striving for adequacy since 2014.” That would allow us some wriggle room when we fall short, as we surely will again.

      Perhaps our commentariat would care to make some suggestions?

    4. You’re quite right Daniel. I was (as usual) over-ambitious. How about…

      “Driven to Write – Could Be Worse.”

      That about covers it.

    5. It’ll do.

      And as you know Daniel, as DTW editor, that is my unceasing refrain to all contributors.

    6. In the midst of Bill’s bombast, I’m trying to work out whether the implication is that the Vega was underpinned by Viva HB suspension. It would have been a perfectly logical developmental shortcut to adopt the British car’s suspension which worked – well – adequately, but the world’s most butt-headed car manufacturer doesn’t think that way.

      (As an aside the normally dependable Vauxpedia states “Ironically the {Viva HB} rear suspension was adapted by Opel and introduced on the Kadett B two years after its launch.” ‘Adapted’ stretches a point – the two designs could hardly be more different)

      The Viva and Vega suspensions are certainly similar – those widely copied 45 degree angled radius arms are present in both – but I’d wager that there was nothing interchangeable. In the broader ‘chassis’ the Viva has a front subframe, and rack and pinion steering rather than the Vega’s worm and sector box.

      So much insularity and wasted effort. Just about excusable between continents, but only 410 miles separate Luton and Rüsselsheim.

    7. Thanks Bill, your experiences with your family Vega and Pinto are very interesting, especially for someone like me who just read a few articles in car magazines about them. I understand your sentence “not bad for a quick once over for Europeans” simply as we were lucky not to suffer these marvels of engineering, so we didn´t know truly the unremitted disaster they were. Shame, because the Vega was good looking.

  4. Regarding the Vega, it’s unclear as to whether the timelines support this but the roofline, DLO and overall ‘feeling’ of the Vega Hatchback’s canopy appears to have been heavily influenced by the Pininfarina-designed Ferrari 365 GT 2+2 – or indeed Fissore’s Monteverdi 375 Coupé of the same year – take your pick. Chevrolet (or whoever) did quite a decent job of the styling (before they mucked around with it anyway). A pity it was such a lash-up.

    1. Good article, linked below – with lots of interesting background details and pics – that talks about the Ferrari influence, as noted by R&T in an article about the Vega.

      Also of note is its relation to the Fiat 124 coupe – which was mentioned, I believe, in DeLorean’s accounting of the car as a benchmark including stylistically – and the fact the Vega’s prototype engines were tested in the Fiats.

      Link: https://chevyvega.fandom.com/wiki/Chevrolet_Vega

    2. Re: the alleged Fiat 124 Coupé influence, here’s a thought: junk the Chevy unit and stick a Lampredi twin-cam unit and drivetrain in its place. And before anyone starts, I’m going to have to break it to you gently. As brilliant as it undoubtedly is, the small block Chevy V8 is not the answer to life, the universe and everything. It just seems that way sometimes….

  5. Afternoon chaps. My morning comment had to be hastily entered afore my daily grind. Luckily, I got an early finish but then on getting home to find we’re merely adequate and it’ll do. Egads, then Daniel uses the word “digger” which simply is not cricket. That would be an excavator.
    And the picture being referred to is neither of those. It is a front telescopic loader. But has no-one else noticed the poor chap in the green car (furthest from the FTL) has committed hari-kiri due to woeful car he’s just purchased? Otherwise, what an interesting way of loading/unloading vehicles, most unusual.
    Apart from that, a jolly interesting part one. Let’s hope round two is equally as rewarding

  6. Could someone explain to me the technical rationale for accepting the trouble (and expense) of making a silicon-aluminium block, then top it off with a cast iron head?

    1. Per the article I provided a link to above, “The cast iron cylinder head was chosen for low cost and structural integrity.” And, presumably, to raise the center of gravity, ha-ha, on “the world’s tallest engine.”

    2. Hello, Roberto. Nobody could work out why GM did it that way at the time either. However, Detroit had made alloy block engines a decade earlier. The Buick/Olds 215 was the most successful, and GM made quite complicated and expensive semi-die cast machinery to produce it, completely unique. It produced top quality blocks or Brabham’s Repco Formula One racing engines wouldn’t have been any good. Nor many other US racing efforts. Rover reverted to sand casting the block in time-honoured fashion for production in the UK, but of course were not planning to produce them in the hundreds of thousands. The AMC and Chrysler aluminium sixes of the early 1960s were also die-cast efforts, suffered porosity problems and were quickly dropped.

      During the late 1960s, Chevrolet produced alloy die-cast blocks for their 427 racing engines, which powered all the Can Am racers of any note. An article at the time quoted a GM engineer saying that the cylinders, unsupported except at their bases just like most of today’s engines, had very noticeable movement at their tops. Fine for racing but perhaps not good as a long term bet for a production car given the state of technology at the time. Subaru suffered well into the 2000s with just such a problem on their non-turbo 2,5l flat fours, and fretting with the heads ruined head gaskets and engines.

      GM wanted an alloy engine for the Vega that could be produced for next-to-nothing, so pure die-casting was their answer, and to save even more, why bother with liners? The silicon loaded alloy block was their answer. Die-casting the cylinder head was very difficult at the time and sand casting not particularly conducive to low cost volume production. They should have asked Fiat how to do it! Iron? Well everyone knew how to do that for $5, so there’s your answer. Cost.

  7. Both GM and Ford would have probably been better off deriving the Vega and Pinto from Ascona A/B and mk3/4 Cortina platforms respectively, albeit locally built and featuring different exterior styling akin to the GM T-Car.

    The Vega could have featured the OHC L-10 engine which would have remedied the existing Vega engine’s issues as well as being capable of putting out 111 hp (as used in the Vega-derived Opel GT-inspired Chevrolet XP-898 concept).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Vega#OHC_L-10

    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zgKacEcinpIC&pg=PA158&lpg=PA158&dq=chevrolet+xp-898+displacement&source=bl&ots=Qr-1IEnEN7&sig=W6iK1ozZcOSTCRfgpSgTVgMGBXs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwii6LLijY_aAhXJY8AKHaIlCLUQ6AEIYDAJ#v=onepage&q=chevrolet%20xp-898%20displacement&f=false

    1. You’re right, Bob, it is extraordinary that GM in particular apparently made no use of existing GM Europe technology. The Opel CIH or Vauxhall ‘Slant’ engines would have been a good starting point. Ford did commission what became known as the ‘Pinto’ engine from Cologne, but we’ll cover that in Part Two. Stay tuned!

    2. Not sure whether the Opel CiH or the Vauxhall Slant-4 would have been compliant with US emissions though seem to recall it was possible for the latter, it would have also probably helped matters if the Vauxhall Slant-4 (plus related V8 and diesel 4-cylinder / V8) engine was properly developed.

      Speaking of both engines since they each found their way into powering the most potent versions of the T-Car, it would have been seeing a properly developed version of the Cosworth Vega engine along with the OHC L10 engine powering the Chevrolet Chevette.

  8. @Andrew: are you sure the misfortunate gentleman has committed hara-kiri? To me his posture resemembles that of the non-descript victims of contempory police dramas. Presumably the telescopic loader operator will fail to spot him, and his remains will only come to light when the train is unloaded many miles away.
    Cue an intrepid detective in a Grand Torino/Dodge Diplomat/whatever…

    1. Hi Michael. At the risk of spoiling an excellent plot for a police murder investigation drama, it occurs to me that the cars would have to be loaded onto the ramps from right to left and unloaded from left to right, so the driver can get out of or into of the car via the driver’s door. Hence, the car in question is either the last to be loaded or the first to be unloaded.

      By way of compensation, here’s a contemporary (1970) Ford Torino sedan:

  9. Great article and I’m looking forward to part 2.

    I must say that I enjoyed Bill’s reminisces, too; I had no idea about the Viva connection. I guess the fuel crisis came at just the right time for the Vega and Pinto. It’s a shame they weren’t better developed, as they’re nice looking cars, as people have said.

    I think these ‘malaise era’ cars tainted many people’s views of American engineering. Not fair of course, and Silicon Valley / tech companies / Tesla have now moved things on, I hope.

    Finally, here’s a lecture from Chevrolet on why you should buy American (and stop buying all those Bugs).

    1. I have a confession to make: I like watching the American dealer promo films where lets say a 1970 Barracuda is compared to a 1970 Camaro, or a Falcon against a Corvair. Usually these are optimistic in nature. But the tone in the film you posted is almost scary. I wonder how many people that wanted a job at Chevrolet decided to look elsewhere for employment after watching this. If you have to sell a car on patriotism alone, you’re in trouble.

    2. Likewise, Freerk, they’re great viewing and give an insight into the corporate culture and thinking of the time.

      Charles, you’ve become something of an expert at sourcing these treasures to add further colour to DTW pieces, so many thanks for that, much appreciated!

    3. Sinister? That video was more like a war cry!
      Fascinating viewing.
      Shame that few took heed

    4. That video absolutely stinks of entitlement. Blaming the customers for not wanting to buy your crap cars is just incredible!

    5. “The Bug and the Beetle” is clearly aimed at workers, not consumers. GM North America was badly hurt by multiple strikes, walkouts, and slowdowns during this period (1970-1972).

      I think it is obvious why no British cars are shown or mentioned here. In fact, the lovely Datsun Fairlady shown at 4:55 was orders of magnitude scarcer in the US than the Healeys, MGs, and Triumphs it was actually competing against. I don’t think this odd bias is from jingoism or lingering resentment from the war since there is also no hint of the Fiat and Alfa spiders which were everywhere at the time. Any allusion to the British (or Italian) motor industry would undermine the film’s purpose.

  10. Due to it’s high price, the 1975-76 Cosworth Vega wasn’t popular, except in magazines, where it provided excellent diversionary fodder for performance hungry enthusiasts.

    The Cosworth version is identified by its gold decals and matching Minilite-ish alloys. It wasn’t actually fast enough to threaten the already neutered Corvette or Trans Am or anything really, but the idea of it filled a vast vacuum.

    I happened to sight these three bright red pre-production 1976 models on a hot desert highway (as shown) during the summer of 1975. So I recall these advertisements really well.

    But I didn’t grasp the severity of the early Vega’s engine problems which necessitated such an unusual ad campaign and the real reason for GM taking the extraordinary step of publicly exposing prototype cars, until much later.

    A few extraneous Vega notes not already mentioned: The 1976 car’s tail lights gave the appearance of chic european amber turn indicators although they used the same single bulb as before and still glowed red. The 1974 Vega (and Camaro) were perhaps the first to use aluminum bumpers, which helped to mitigate some of the weight deficit vs. the Pinto.

    1. Said aluminum bumper on the lead car of the trio looks like it encountered something more substantial than hot temperatures – or maybe it was just assembled crooked.

    2. BTW this effect can also make it appear as if there is a pool of water on the ground, the classic desert mirage.

  11. The original article presumably used as the basis for Daniel’s article comes from Automotive News. The highly suspect quoted weights of Vega and Pinto are mentioned there as well.

    https://www.autonews.com/article/20111031/CHEVY100/310319922/the-vega-an-unmitigated-disaster

    That article also highlights how few GM engineers wanted to work on the car. The corporation was going through complete reorganization at the time and many resented the change from working at a division to being essentially corporate. Another factor in the initial decline of GM as a company. Dissension in the ranks.

    I merely tried to add some social context and real-life experience to the Vega situation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but few DTW readers are North Americans – only a couple come to mind – so the horror of the Vega is not really understood. I cannot think of such a complete stinker in the British car industry, except perhaps the Triumph Stag, but two million people didn’t suffer, merely a few well-off punters. No, not even the Allegro. Mediocre British cars certainly were the norm, but not outright nonsense like the Vega, nor were they as cynically promoted.

    Both GM and Ford had scant regard for their European operations, with GM being the worse. Of course the Vauxhall 2.3l OHC engine could have been developed easily for the Vega and stuffed with the appropriate emissions gear. Lotus put a twin cam head on the 2.0l version before designing their own similar engine. However, I’d bet the peculiar insularity of Detroit meant they hardly knew their subsidiary Vauxhall made it. I personally was not a fan of the mechanically noisy Opel CIH engine simply because of that character, but just as obviously it wasn’t the absolute clanker the Vega engine turned out to be, far from it.

    The 1974 Audi 100LS for North America had one-piece alloy bumpers front and rear that were simply works of art and mounted on telescopic dampers. Saved my bacon on two occasions.

    1. Bill, your description of your personal experience of these cars is genuinely very welcome. Your dismissal of my piece, which used many sources for cross-checking and verification, not just the one you identified, as “Not bad for a quick once over for Europeans” is simply offensive and I’m sorry that you cannot see that.

  12. I do seriously wonder how far those Vert-a-pac trains carried the cars. I have a notion (I’m no expert on rail matters!) the U.S. loading gauge is greater than those commonly found in Europe, but still, that’s a very tall train. Presumably quite a wide one too. Just how many miles of railroad were there to travel on before an immovable object was encountered?

    1. Hello Michael,

      GM got tired of damage to vehicles and theft from them (still a problem today), so they invented vert-a-pac. They sent the cars considerable distances using that method and similar ones.

      Here’s a short film showing how it worked.

  13. Thanks, Charles – that was an interesting film on several levels. I knew US freight trains were longer and heavier than ours, but those are quite some behemoths, all the same. I think I counted five locomotives working in multiple to draw the container train. Clearly height restrictions just aren’t an issue!

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