Chevrolet Vega


The Chevrolet Vega seemed like the right car at the right time, but as you'll learn in this article, time would quickly pass it by.

Discover how the Chevrolet Vega launched for 1971 as Chevy's answer to not only the Ford Pinto but for the herd of subcompact imports infiltrating American garages from coast to coast.


1971 Chevrolet Vega Kammback wagon, front view
The Chevrolet Vega could be considered a good-looking
car with fatal flaws. This 1971 Chevrolet Vega Kammback
wagon was no exception. See more pictures of classic cars.


Here was a small car as stylish as any, with two-door coupe, notchback, and wagon body styles to choose from, a modern overhead-cam four-cylinder engine, and a price that started at a friendly $2,090.

Sale were terrific, hovering around 400,000 through 1974. But after that, Vega's propensity to rust and a deserved reputation for poor engine reliability began to catch up with it.

Chevy fought back for 1975 with the spunky Chevrolet Cosworth Vega and its high-tech twin-cam four-cylinder, but to little avail.

Vega was always rear-wheel drive, and subcompact buyers were increasingly looking to the better space efficiencies of front-wheel-drive rivals. Chevy itself undercut Vega demand with the 1975 introduction of the swoopier-looking (but still rear-wheel-drive) Chevrolet Monza.

Chevrolet Vega sales dipped to 160,000 for 1976, and then to just 78,000 for its swan-song season of 1977. Learn more about this fascinating story of success and failure in the pages that follow.

1974 Chevrolet Vega with Spirit of America trim package
This 1974 Chevrolet Vega featured the
Spirit of America trim package.


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1971 Chevrolet Vega

1971 Chevrolet Vega front view
Chevy had high hopes for the 1971 Chevrolet Vega, a
great-looking car (note the Camaro-like front-end treatment)
with novel engineering.

The 1971 Chevrolet Vega inspired high hopes among Chevrolet customers and the company. Vegas seemed to be just the right size and price for the changing times and in fact sold splendidly for the first couple of seasons.

But then a few inherent flaws in the engine and the body had revealed themselves, and adverse publicity began to take a serious toll on sales.

Like several rivals, including AMC's Gremlin and Ford's Pinto, the 1971 Chevrolet Vega was designed in the European fashion. Simple and economical, the unibodied Vega rode a 97-inch wheelbase, making sensible use of available space. John Z. DeLorean, prior to his departure from Chevrolet, earned credit for much of the engineering concept.

The clean, sculptured front end of the 1971 Chevrolet Vega exhibited a certain resemblance to the sporty Chevrolet Camaro. In back, rectangular taillights sat above the bumper.

Four body styles went on the market: a two-door notchback coupe, a hatchback coupe, a Kammback wagon, and a Panel Express, which was a Kammback with blanked-out rear windows.

An overhead-cam 140-cubic-inch four-cylinder engine with a cast-iron head and aluminum block produced 90 with a one-barrel carburetor or 110 with two-barrel carburetion.

Chevrolet identified the four-cylinder engine as a "2.3 Litre," following the metric measurement method, which would not take hold in America for some years. Though promising at first, this engine proved to suffer disastrous durability woes.

In addition to conventional manual shift or an automatic transmission, the buyer could select a Torque-Drive semi-automatic unit. The driver changed gear ranges with a column-mounted shift lever, but a torque converter replaced the clutch, eliminating the need to push a pedal. Only 7,835 Vegas were ordered with this feature and it was dropped at the end of the model year.

Prices for the 1971 Chevrolet Vega began at just $2,090, and more than 400,000 were sold in their first calendar year. Hatchbacks were most popular by far.

1971 Chevrolet Vega rear view
The 1971 Chevrolet Vega was GM's way to fight back against
imported subcompacts and small cars from other domestic makers.

1971 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,190-2,230
$2,090-$2,328
269,905

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1972 Chevrolet Vega

1972 Chevrolet Vega front view
The 1972 Chevrolet Vega started to display the setbacks that would
eventually doom the car, including serious rust and engine problems.

The 1972 Chevrolet Vega went through modest changes that included the addition of a glovebox door and, for improved ventilation, swing-out rear quarter windows. The Panel Express -- a commercial variant of the Kammback wagon -- added a glovebox and a perforated headliner.

The advertised output of the 1972 Chevrolet Vega's overhead-cam four-cylinder base engine dropped by 10 horsepower, to 80 horsepower, while the optional four-cylinder slipped from 110 horsepower to 90.

Both changes were the result of tightened emissions standards and the switch to net horsepower ratings. (Under the new system, engines were measured with the air cleaner, alternator, mufflers, and other accessories connected.)

A GT option cost $339 and included the step-up engine, black-out grille, rally wheels, front/rear stabilizers, and full instrumentation.

The 1972 Chevrolet Vega continued to sell quite well, though owners had begun to notice a few problems in this second model year. Rusting body panels and engine failures were increasingly common, and a bad sign of troubles to come.

A total of 390,478 Vegas were produced for 1972, and the hatchback coupe was again the most-popular body style. With its rear seat folded down, a hatchback offered an ample 49 cubic feet of cargo space.

1972 Chevrolet Vega rear view
The 1972 Chevrolet Vega hatchback Coupe outsold its notchback sibling.

1972 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,158-2,333
$2,060-$2,285

390,478

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1973 Chevrolet Vega

1973 Chevrolet Vega front view
The 1973 Chevrolet Vega's most popular
model was the hatchback coupe.

The 1973 Chevrolet Vega, like all 1973 Chevrolets, got a new impact-resistant front bumper to meet stricter government standards. Otherwise, 1973 Chevrolet Vega changes were confined mostly to improved shift linkages for the Saginaw transmissions.

The 1973 Chevrolet Vega continued with an all-two-door body lineup but in a choice of notchback, hatchback, and wagon form. The hatchback coupe remained the most popular body style. Chevrolet produced 266,124 1973 Vega hatchbacks and 102,751 wagons, but only 58,425 notchbacks.

The 140 cubic-inch four-cylinder engines returned with a choice of 72 or 85 horsepower. A new Holley progressive two-barrel carburetor was installed, and Vegas now rode radial tires.

As quality woes mounted, Chevrolet installed a revised head gasket in Vega's engines in an attempt to correct leakage problems. No comparable "fix" was devised to correct the car's tendency to rust prematurely with a haste that stunned owners in the snowbelt.

Prices for the 1973 Chevrolet Vega rose only a little, and strong sales got even stronger. Despite its flaws, the Vega was riding the rising tide of demand for thrifty small cars.

1973 Chevrolet Vega rear view
Chevrolet produced 266,124 units of the
1973 Chevrolet Vega hatchback model.

1973 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,219-2,317
$2,087-$2,323
427,300

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1974 Chevrolet Vega

1974 Chevrolet Vega front view
The 1974 Chevrolet Vega was the first American car to
use structural aluminum in its bumpers.
This model featured the Spirit of America trim package.

The 1974 Chevrolet Vega concentrated on cosmetic extras in a period when gas shortages and high car insurance rates were spelling the end of performance as a selling point.

The 1974 Chevrolet Vega got a sloping front end, which accomplished two things. It gave the subcompact a modest resemblance to the latest Chevy Camaro. And it helped soften the styling downside of the huge front bumper needed to meet federal impact standards.

Instead of a conventional grille, the 1974 Chevrolet Vega had a die-cast metal nose with cooling slots. Vega was also the first American car to use structural aluminum for bumpers. In back, small taillights gave way to large rectangular units. Springs and shock absorbers were recalibrated, but mechanical details otherwise stood pat.

There was some change in the lineup of the 1974 Chevrolet Vega. The notchback coupe added an upscale LX trim level. And the wagon added a Kammback Estate version. Estate Wagon bodysides were dressed up with simulated woodgrain, and interiors added full floor carpeting.

Like the Chevy Nova and Impala, Vega offered a limited-edition "Spirit of America" series, painted white with red and blue accent stripes and special identification.

Available again as a $359 option group, the Vega GT included a special suspension and stabilizer bars. A tachometer was installed, too, to track whatever rpm could be coaxed from the 85-horsepower engine with its two-barrel carburetor.

1974 Chevrolet Vega Wagon rear view
The 1974 Chevrolet Vega lineup also
included this Estate Wagon model.

1974 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,369-2,514
$2,505-$2,976
456,085

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1975 Chevrolet Vega

1975 Chevrolet Vega front view
The 1975 Chevrolet Vega lineup
included this wagon, available in GT trim.

The 1975 Chevrolet Vega got the attention of car buffs when it added the high-performance Cosworth Vega to the model line. Otherwise, the 1975 Chevrolet Vega didn't undergo much change.

More significant, sales of the 1975 Chevrolet Vega sunk badly as potential customers became aware of quality and reliability woes.

Other small cars were selling strongly in the wake of the fuel crisis, but not Vegas. Announcement of a five-year/60,000-mile engine warranty at midyear helped, but not enough.

The 1975 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega was powered by a dual-overhead-cam engine with complex Bendix fuel injection and was quite a hot number for its time. Only one color scheme was available: black with gold pinstriping. Just 2,061 were built for 1975, priced at a breathtaking $5,916 -- more than double the tariff for a regular Vega coupe.

Cosworth of England, with experience in racing, designed the 16-valve, 2.0-liter engine, which was rated at 111 horsepower. Other 1975 Chevrolet Vegas continued with engines of 78 or 87 horsepower.

As usual, hatchbacks handily outsold other body styles, with 112,912 going to customers. Like other makers of small cars, Chevrolet turned out a luxury edition, but customers failed to flock to dealerships. Only 1,255 of the well-trimmed LX notchback coupes went on sale, priced $333 above their more basic counterparts.

Vega GTs included a sport suspension and tachometer. Power brakes and a Comfortilt steering wheel became available, and optional Custom trim added plushness to a Vega's bucket-seat interior.

1975 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,415-2,531
$2,786-$5,916
206,239

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1976 Chevrolet Vega

The 1976 Chevrolet Vega line again was highlighted by the limited-edition Cosworth Vega, which was now available in any body color, not just black. And the 1976 Chevrolet Vega was available for the first time with a five-speed manual transmission, a rarely seen item on any 1976 American car.

The Cosworth engine produced 111 horsepower, versus 70 or 84 horsepower for a regular Vega. Still, only 1,447 Cosworth Vegas were sold for 1976, due in part to a hefty $6,066 starting price that could top $6,700 with all the options.

Overall 1976 Chevrolet Vega production fell to 160,524 cars, including just 7,935 Estate Wagons.

Every 1976 Chevrolet Vega had a new grille, with horizontal bars that spanned the full space between headlights. Parking lights moved behind the grille, and taillights were bigger. The upmarket LX model disappeared, slimming the line to five models.

This year's four-cylinder engines adopted hydraulic valve lifters -- quieter, with no need for adjustment. Chevy played up a 60,000-mile durability run made in less than 60 days by a series of factory-prepped Vegas in and around Death Valley. Chevrolet said only a belt replacement was needed on one engine, and another needed a little coolant.

Vega durability had indeed improved considerably since the early years, but Chevrolet never quite managed to throw off those initial product-quality problems, and customers continued to be wary. Once lost, a reputation is difficult to regain, as the sad saga of this Chevy subcompact was proving.

1976 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,443-2,578
$2,984-$6,066
160,524

For more picture-packed articles about Chevys and other great cars, see:

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1977 Chevrolet Vega


The 1977 Chevrolet Vega brought to an end the seven-year Vega run. Steadily declining sales and an inability to overcome a reputation for poor quality had caught up with Chevy's rear-drive subcompact cars.

Sales of the 1977 Chevrolet Vega dipped to only 78,402 cars. Notchback and hatchback coupes and the two-door wagon continued. The sporty Cosworth Vega was gone from the 1977 Chevrolet Vega line, but GT option packages were available for both the hatchback and the wagon. They included a bold new "Vega GT" lower-body decal.

A Vega GT hatchback or wagon included a sport suspension, A70x13 white-lettered tires on Rally II wheels with bright trim rings, black lower bodyside moldings, and dual sport mirrors. Inside, they got a four-spoke sport steering wheel and a special instrument panel with a tachometer and simulated woodgraining.

Wagons came in three forms: basic, GT, or Estate, each offering 46.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded down. Estate Wagons had woodgrain vinyl paneling on the bodysides and liftgate, plus full wheel covers and a sport steering wheel.

Custom Exterior and Interior option groups could be ordered, along with the usual variety of individual accessories and conveniences. An 84-horsepower Dura-Built engine was the only powerplant available this year.

Though priced only a little higher than the stodgier Chevy Chevette subcompact, Vegas were no longer in demand, though their basic chassis and powertrain would live on for several years in the sporty Chevrolet Monza.

1977 Chevrolet Vega Facts

Model
Weight range (lbs.)
Price range (new)
Number built
Vega
2,459-2,571
$3,249-$3,745
78,402

For more picture-packed articles about Chevys and other great cars, see:

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  • Sports Cars: Discover the pleasure of sports motoring at its purest in these captivating articles on the best sports cars from around the world.
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