NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega

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Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega

Written by Aaron Severson

Saturday, 10 October 2009 00:00

It sounded so promising at the time. After years of dismissing imported compacts as cars for kooks, GM was finally going to build an attractive, sophisticated subcompact, featuring the latest advances in manufacturing technology. To follow that, Chevrolet going to offer a sporty version with a racy twin-cam engine built by the legendary English firm Cosworth. It was the car that was going to save America for American cars -- that is, until it all went wrong.

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN

It all had to sound very familiar. Back in the late 1950s, the Eisenhower recession had provoked a sudden flurry of interest in economical compact cars. Since the American manufacturers sold very few of these, the market for imported cars, previously negligible, suddenly climbed to a worrisome 5% or so of the U.S. market. Each of the domestic automakers (except AMC, which already had them) hastened to develop their own homegrown compact cars, which were supposed to drive the foreign invaders from American shores.

These not-terribly-small domestic compacts sold well, but they failed to reduce the growth of imported cars, which by the late sixties included Datsun and Toyota, as well as the ubiquitous Volkswagen. By the middle of the decade, many Big Three auto executives had given up trying. "We figure that there is a fringe minority of 5% in this country that will always buy a foreign car no matter what," an unnamed Chevy exec told Motor Trend in 1965. "The VW appeals to those nuts, and we're not going to bother competing in so small a market."

By Detroit standards, the logic was unassailable. In America, goodness was synonymous with bigness, particularly in the minds of the Big Three. They had considered compacts back in the forties, but abandoned the idea when they realized that they couldn't build small cars any cheaper than full-size models. Other than AMC's George Romney, most auto executives couldn't imagine why anyone would want a smaller car if they could afford a big one. Even when Detroit finally, reluctantly introduced smaller cars, the resultant products had a distinct loss-leader vibe. Loss leaders are essentially what they were; Chevrolet made $200 more on each midsize Chevelle than they did on a compact Chevy II, and the big Impala had a $400 greater per-car margin than the Chevelle. Who needed small cars, except as way to snare the kids so they would eventually trade up to an Impala or Caprice?

The flaw in that reasoning was that the lunatic fringe kept getting bigger. By 1969, small cars (including both imports and domestic compacts) accounted for 29% of the U.S. market. The imports owned nearly half of that segment -- 13% of all domestic auto sales. Like it or not, the Big Three were going to have to respond, and soon.

In October 1968, GM chairman James Roche announced to the press that in two years, GM would build a subcompact car codenamed XP-887. He promised that it would be priced like a Volkswagen Beetle, weigh less than 2,000 pounds (907 kg), and feature new advances in both engineering and assembly. It would stem the tide of imported small cars, and show the world what General Motors could do.

COLE'S CORPORATE COMPACT

As we have already discussed, the most complex and sophisticated of the earlier crop of domestic compacts was Chevrolet's Corvair. Shepherded by Chevy general manager Edward N. Cole, the Corvair was radically engineered by American standards, featuring an air-cooled, rear-mounted aluminum engine, swing-axle rear suspension, and unitary construction. Unfortunately, it was expensive to build, and GM ordered a last-minute cost-cutting program to bring down its list price. The Corvair didn't sell as well as expected, and the cost reductions exacerbated its inherent tendency toward dramatic oversteer. It provoked a rash of lawsuits against GM, attracted the unwelcome attention of Ralph Nader, and was finally overshadowed by Ford's far less innovative Mustang. Chevrolet let the Corvair languish, and it finally expired in 1969. Only General Motors could consider a car that sold 1.7 million units in ten years a failure, but the corporation was embarrassed enough by the Corvair that it actually disappeared for several years from the company's official corporate history.

This did not hurt the fortunes of Ed Cole, who was promoted to group VP of car and truck operations in November 1961, elected executive vice president in July 1965, and named president and chief operating officer in October 1967. Cole was an engineer by training, and he was responsible for both of GM's most successful modern engines (the 1949 Cadillac OHV V8 and the 1955 small-block Chevy), as well as the air-cooled Corvair. During his tenure as president, he also championed the Wankel rotary engine, with which GM had an expensive and ultimately fruitless flirtation in the early seventies.

Cole had strong ideas about small-car design, and the XP-887 was very much his baby. Unlike the Corvair, which had begun as a Chevrolet project, the XP-887 was developed by the corporate Engineering Staff. At the time of Roche's speech, it was essentially a set of technical specifications and financial estimates, created mostly by extrapolating from various existing foreign cars. Styling VP Bill Mitchell and his lieutenants, Irv Rybicki and Chuck Jordan, personally directed its styling development.

This was a dramatic reversal of the usual order of things. Former chairman and CEO Alfred P. Sloan -- GM's patron saint -- had always advocated giving the different divisions as much autonomy as possible, subject to the overall financial control of upper management. Most new products began with the individual division, and were then "sold" to the corporation for approval. This time, however, the corporation was dictating product to the divisions that would have to sell it, principally Chevrolet.

Chevrolet, under the leadership of Pete Estes, had actually developed its own subcompact, a smaller counterpart to the Chevy II/Nova, powered by an all-new cast-iron four-cylinder engine. Ed Cole rejected this proposal out of hand, and ordered Chevrolet to build the XP-887 according to the blueprints prepared by the Engineering Staff. This engendered considerable hostility on the part of Chevy engineers. Not only did they have an inherent disdain for NIH (not invented here) ideas, their former boss was effectively telling them that their own design wasn't good enough. By the time John DeLorean took over as general manager of Chevy in February 1969, he said the division had practically written it off.

A LOT MORE OF THE STORY AT THE LINK:

http://ateupwithmotor.com/component/content/article/195.html

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Vega is the worst GM car ever produced, IMHO. It caused many to ditch GM for life. And too many assume that current GM cars are the same level.

Best to learn from mistakes.

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2 vegas in our family. Loved em! fun cars. I took drivers ed and my license test in one of them, IIRC....either that or a Chevette.

Really, fun car. When dad wasn't repainting them or rebuilding their engines....!

I think the Vega had the lowest ground clearance of any car i ever drove. Low rider!

Edited by regfootball
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A very interesting read. Thanks for posting!

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The Vega did everything bad and wrong. but they would always start and run forever.

I had several buddies who had them and they used them as winter beaters. They would save oil from oil changes at work to dump in when it would use it.

Two buddies had Cosworths. Neat car. Not fast nor great handeling but to see 16 valves and fuel injection in a car from the 70's was a neat thing. Too bad they did not build on it. Another Delorean idea GM wasted.

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One of my Dad's few forays into small cars and GM products was a '76 Vega he bought new and had for a few years as a run-around car. With snow tires, it proved pretty much unstoppable in the winter, even in the notorious winter of '78.

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>>"After years of dismissing imported compacts as cars for kooks..."<<

I do not believe the unamed GM exec quote later on, small cars were not dismissed; quite simply- they did not sell. The history books are littered with small car manufacturers gone belly up. GM looked at truly small cars numerous times; the market just did not support it.

>>"Back in the late 1950s, the Eisenhower recession had provoked a sudden flurry of interest in economical compact cars. Since the American manufacturers sold very few of these, the market for imported cars, previously negligible, suddenly climbed to a worrisome 5% or so of the U.S. market. Each of the domestic automakers (except AMC, which already had them) hastened to develop their own homegrown compact cars, which were supposed to drive the foreign invaders from American shores. These not-terribly-small domestic compacts sold well, but they failed to reduce the growth of imported cars..."<<

Except they did. the early '60s compacts cut the import marketshare IN HALF in a very few years. Sloppy research.

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