Love It or Hate It: Chevrolet's Car of the Year- Vega
As Chevrolet stopped production on its 1960's economy car, the Corvair, with its rear air-cooled engine, its successor, the Vega, was getting ready for the 1970's. It was the first Chevy sub-compact designed to be sporty and fuel efficient with 25-27 MPG, which is still decent today. In it's seven year run, 1970-7, over two million were made. They sold for between $2-3,000 then.
The "love" part of the car that people liked was its sporty style, although some still think the Corvair are still cooler. There were several models: a sedan, a hatchback, a wagon, a panel. From 1970-73, the front was like small Camaro, from 74-77, there was a different grill that still appealed to many. Like the Corvair, many today think it was a sport car just from its styling. Both the Corvair and Vega GT looked racy, sexy. Even the wagon GT was cool and practical providing a very large cargo area with the rear seats done (a single bed in size).
The Vega was the first to give you front disc brakes and in 1975, electronic ignition. Despite its allure, it was an economy car as Americans had their first taste of the Arab oil embargo sending gas to $3 a gallon. Its engine was just a little four cylinder engine creating less than 85 hp. It had aluminum block and iron upper block. It was this configuration that gave the Vega a bad name. Cars bought new in 1973, needed a new engine in 1977. By the time the engine problems started to appear, Vega had already got the great press, but word got around and cars under warranty needed new engines.
Chevy contends the engine design was fine, but the owner did not maintain them. The engine would use oil and coolant at nearly the same levels. If the owners did not review the levels weekly, the coolant might leak into the cylinders from overheating caused from lack of coolant level. Of course, if the oil level was below the minimum, the problem was compounded. The radiator size was just sufficient enough to cool the engine but only if it was always topped off. If the coolant was low, overheating would occur. Of course, Chevy never include this info in their manuals! It was not until 1975 that Vega had a redesigned engine to make it "idiot proof". But, by then, production numbers had dropped because of all the bad press.
The engine is one of the "hate" elements. Another one is rust. Vegas tended to rust quickly, we are talking five years. That is because Chevy wanted to keep the price low, so to do that, they did not rust-proof the wheel wells and frame parts. Now, unless the car lived in the West or Southwest or anywhere there is no snow and salt on the roads, many Vegas rotted quickly, Of course, starting in 1975, the rust issues were gone because Vegas were rust proofed for the most part. But, over a million had been sold before then, so it was , too little, too late.
The engine and rust are why Vega receives so many negative comments.Yet,there are many who love the Vega for its style and economics. Today, finding a good Vega is difficult. Some exist but rust or finding modified race\drag Vegas are common. Even the most pristine Vega might fetch $8K now, more commonly the range is between $1500-3500 for one in good shape. Parts are also becoming a challenge, especially body and interior ones.
Of course, one has to compare what was available then as sub-compacts: Ford Pinto, Toyota Corolla, VW Super Beetle, AMC Gremlin, Datsun 510, Opel Manta, Dodge Colt. No wonder the Vega got Car of the Year, there was no real competition in body style.
What happened to the Vega was what happened to the Corvair, yet, the Corvair has a much stronger following and draws more as a collectable.