Why the Chevy Vega Set Off Big Problems for General Motors
In 1924, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan felt he’d found an edge to overtake Ford in the sales department. He called it “planned obsolescence,” and 40 years later remembered it like this: “The changes in the new model should be so novel and attractive as to create demand . . . and a certain amount of dissatisfaction with past models as compared with the new one.” Sloan’s planned obsolescence helped GM differentiate its cars from Ford. It’s the reason why the company opened its Art and Color section – the first styling department in the U.S. Auto industry – under the leadership of Harley Earl, who would give the world tail fins, the Corvette, and the Motorama dream cars. It’s why every American car would be restyled every year through the early ’60s, and why they seemed to get more powerful every year through the end of the decade.
But by the late ’60s, Detroit was in more trouble than it had seen since the Depression. With the Volkswagen Beetle leading the charge, imports from Europe and Japan were beginning to loosen Detroit’s grip on the auto industry. Add to it the government’s growing safety and emissions regulations, riots in Rust Belt manufacturing cities, and hostilities between automakers and the unions, and suddenly, the Big Three didn’t feel so big anymore. It was under siege; and to the brass, cars that could minimize costs and maximize profits were essential to survive – performance, safety and quality be damned.
Just 10 years later, this mutated strain of planned obsolescence would bring Ford to its knees in a recall scandal, Chrysler would be borrowing billions from the government to save itself from bankruptcy, and quality control and labor issues meant GM’s “Mark of Excellence” needed to be taken with about a pound of salt while import sales continued to grow year after year. No single car embodies this era better than the Chevy Vega, which is arguably the clearest starting point for the American auto industry’s decades-long decline, and still lives on today in GM’s latest recall scandal.
In 1967, GM’s executive vice president (and Time Magazine cover subject) Ed Cole green-lit Chevy’s small car project, and appointed himself chief engineer on the project. Cole poached engineers from across the notoriously competitive GM lineup and gave them a directive: build a world-class compact that could match the Volkswagen Beetle’s price, weigh under 2,000 pounds, put a Chevy badge on it, and have it in dealerships in under 18 months.
Nothing had ever been done like this before, and from the get go, it was apparent that GM simply wasn’t up to the task. Dubbed project XP-887, Cole tapped recently-appointed Chevy brand chief John DeLorean to be cheerleader for the new car in the press. Almost immediately, he didn’t like what he saw. In his book On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, DeLorean recalled:
From the first day I stepped into Chevrolet, the Vega was in trouble. General Motors was basing its image and reputation on the car, and there was practically no interest in it in the division. We were to start building the car in about a year, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. Chevy’s engineering staff was only going through the motions of preparing the car for production, but nothing more. Engineers are a very proud group. They take interest and pride in their designs, but this was not their car and they did not want to work on it.
By late 1968, Chevy had a running prototype, but in a sign of things to come, the front end sheared off after just eight miles of testing.
Fixing the front end meant adding weight, so engineers looked to shed pounds elsewhere. Inner fenders were deleted, as were plastic fender lines to combat rust, saving a whopping $2.28 per car. And instead of an iron block, they used a new 2.3 liter die-cast aluminum block inline-four. GM had built aluminum engine blocks with no major issues before, but this mill was different. Its heavy cast-iron head outweighed the block, and on top of vibration issues that caused the carburetors to rattle them selves apart, high compression caused engine blocks to warp and fail should temperatures climb over 230 degrees.
Strike three for the Vega was the car’s construction. Contrary to popular belief, GM did rust proof the cars, but its design allowed for air pockets to develop between the front fenders, cowl, and firewall during the rustproofing process, leaving the steel in those areas dangerously unprotected. Yet while all these defects were known to company brass, the Vega debuted on September 10, 1970, and just like GM hoped, it was a huge success.
1970 was when Detroit got serious about import fighters. American Motors snagged a Newsweek cover in April with the release of its subcompact Gremlin, and Ford’s Pinto became ubiquitous overnight, famously being described as “the car nobody loved but everybody bought.” Chevy was late to the party, but it hardly made a difference. Two years overdue and well over-budget (GM spent $200 million on the XP-887 project, or around $1.2 billion today), the Vega instantly became the star of the American subcompact segment, with its good looking kamm-tail body and mini-Camaro front end. It was slightly more expensive than the Pinto and Gremlin, but looked better, handled better – and at first, was almost completely unavailable.
General Motors spent $75 million retooling its production facility in Lordstown, Ohio specifically for the Vega, going full speed ahead while labor relations hit an all-time low. The company boasted that the semi-automated assembly line could build 100 Vegas and hour, and fit 30 of them into specially-designed freight cars, a drastic improvement over the standard 18 vehicles per boxcar.
But these advances in automation came with waves of pay cuts and layoffs. Workers at Lordstown briefly went on strike in late 1970, and again for 22 days in 1972, with the plant becoming the focal point of national labor relations as workers intentionally slowed down production and sabotaged cars to retaliate against company policies. As Vega supplies ebbed and flowed, “Lordstown Syndrome” became shorthand for the troubling times in the automotive world. For GM, it was only going to get worse.
The Vega won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1971, with the magazine concluding, “…the Chevrolet Vega 2300 is Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year by way of engineering excellence, packaging, styling, and timeliness. As such, we are saying that, for the money, no other American car can deliver more.”
But within a year, the car was already starting to lose its shine. By the end of 1972, GM would issue recalls for over 500,000 Vegas to cover defective axles, sticky throttles, and electrical issues that could cause a fire. And once that first winter hit, owners in the Northeast began complaining about their fenders rusting through; by ’73, Vegas in the arid Southwest began to rust too. Engines began to seize, and soon Chevy was swamped with angry customers. The American public had been conned; the Vega was a lemon, and it quickly became the poster child for everything that was wrong in Detroit. GM addressed the corrosion issues with galvanized bodies in ’73 and ’74, and completed an emergency redesign for the car and engine for ’75, but it was too little, too late.
1975 also saw the introduction of the Cosworth Vega, which featured a revised suspension, and a four-valve twin-cam inline-four designed by Cosworth and hand-built in GM’s Tonawanda Assembly Plant – the former home of the ’69 Camaro ZL1’s 7.0 liter competition mill. Pushing out 110 emissions-choked horsepower, the car won accolades for its handling, but its shocking $6,000-plus sticker price put it in Corvette territory, and if any Vegas are collectible today, it would be one of the 3,508 Cosworth cars built.
With the writing was on the wall for the Vega, Chevy rushed the Vega-based Monza into production in 1975. Four inches longer, and with available V6s and V8s, the company hoped it would be just different enough to make the public forget about the Vega. The nameplate disappeared after 1977, and the Monza went after 1980, taking the Vega’s H-Body architecture with it. It was replaced with the front-wheel drive J-Body platform and the flagship Chevy Cavalier. It didn’t suffer from catastrophic engine failure, or immediately rust, but GM’s front-drive compacts didn’t do much to undo the quality control issues or cheap construction that the Vega ushered in.
The Cavalier and its J-Body ilk soldiered on until 2005, when it was replaced by the similarly-styled Chevy Cobalt built on GM’s Delta platform. In 2007, Chevy recalled 98,000 Cobalts because they failed to meet federal safety standards. Defective power steering led to a 1.3 million car recall in 2010. In 2014, it came to light that Cobalts were fitted with a defective ignition switch, which can shut off while driving, disabling anti-lock brakes, power steering and airbags. Like the Vega, GM seemed to know about the car’s issues by the time it went on sale. But the Vega’s dreadful build quality pales in comparison to the 124 people who lost their lives and 294 others who were injured because of GM’s Cobalt coverup.
From 1971 to 1980, Chevy sold over 3.5 million Vegas and other H-body models. Despite their fantastic potential, a litany of recalls and atrocious build quality means that they’ve all but disappeared from American roads. The few that survive have become a symbol for all that went wrong in the American auto industry after 1970. There’s a direct line from the Vega to the Monza to the Cavalier to the Cobalt, and while each of them could be considered a fantastic sales success for the company, their reputations for being unreliable, unsafe, and embarrassing to be seen in ensure that none of them are remembered very fondly. Today, the American auto industry may be in a better place than it has been in decades, but it’s been a long and painful climb back from the decades-long dysfunction that seemingly came in with the Vega.
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