Chevrolet Vega and Chevrolet Chevette
Chevrolet would remain "USA-1" throughout the '70s despite a few product blunders and the vexing problems that plagued all Detroit in that turbulent decade. In model-year production, it ran second to Ford only in 1970 and '71.
After that, Chevy was the consistent industry leader with at least 2 million cars a year except for troubled '75, when depressed big-car demand after the 1973-74 energy crisis dropped the tally to about 1.75 million.
Such strength enabled Chevrolet to endure mistakes that would have crippled most any other brand save Ford. Even the subcompact Vega, long viewed as the division's biggest folly of the period, hung on for seven model years and sold respectably in every one.
Vega certainly seemed a good idea when it bowed for 1971. Riding a 97-inch wheelbase, the shortest in Chevy history, it carried an all-new, 140-cid four with 90 or 110 bhp. Pert styling marked by a Camaro-like front was offered in three practical body styles: two-door notchback sedan, hatchback coupe, and a nifty little two-door "Kammback" wagon.
Chevrolet spent vast sums designing, launching, and promoting this latest attempt at beating back small imports -- not to mention Ford's new Pinto -- and on a special factory to build it.
But like the Corvair, Vega missed its intended target: bought not as basic transport but as a small sporty car, abetted by a GT coupe and wagon. Worse, it quickly became notorious for early, severe body rust, and its alloy-block engine (which made do without cylinder liners) suffered persistent oil leaks and head warping.
By 1976, when the even smaller Chevette was ready, Vega was being trounced by a number of domestic and foreign rivals. Though the name was dropped after '77, the basic car -- minus the problematic engine -- continued through 1979 in the Monza line.
An intriguing Vega offshoot was the Cosworth-Vega of 1975-76, quite "foreign" for a U.S. car and thus something of a collector's item now. Its main attraction was a destroked, 122-cid Vega engine wearing a special 16-valve twincam aluminum cylinder head designed by England's Cosworth Engineering. Fuel was fed by Bendix electronic injection actuated by a glovebox-mounted computer.
Available only as a hatchback coupe, the "CosVeg" initially came only in black with special gold striping and cast-aluminum wheels. Completing the package were wide radial tires, full instrumentation in an engine-turned panel, front/rear anti-roll bars, four-speed gearbox, quick steering, and discreet badges.
Unfortunately, the engine yielded only 111 bhp, so this wasn't the BMW-beater Chevy had planned. The '76 version offered any Vega body color and an optional five-speed gear-box, but many were unsold at year's end. Respective production was just 2061 and 1447.
Monza proved a far-more-successful Vega variant. New for '75, it rode the same chassis, but carried a handsome 2+2 coupe body with lift-up rear hatch and a fastback roofline reminiscent of certain Ferraris. A notchback "Towne Coupe" was added during the year.
The Vega four was base power, but a new 262-cid small-block V-8 was optional, mildly tuned for 110 bhp. Enthusiasts could opt for several interesting RPOs such as a Z01 performance and handling package and, for 2+2s, a "Spyder" appearance group.
After 1977, the Vega wagon became a Monza, and all three models got a new standard engine: the 151-cid Pontiac "Iron Duke" four (so named to reassure buyers stung by the Vega unit). That same year, the blunt-front Towne Coupe was optionally available with the 2+2's "droop snoot." Monza then saw only minor changes through early 1981, when it departed to make way for an even better small Chevy.
Picking up where Vega left off was Chevette, the smallest Chevrolet ever, announced for bicentennial 1976. Derived from the 1974 German Opel Kadett, the first of GM's "world car"
T-body models, it rode a modest 94.3-inch wheelbase, measured 17 inches shorter than Vega, and weighed in at just under a ton. Its mission, of course, was economy, which it delivered: 35 mpg or so on the highway. Engines were small: initially a 1.4-liter/85-cid overhead-cam four with 52 bhp and a 60-bhp 1.6-liter/98-cid version. The former was gone by '78, when the 1.6 was tuned to deliver a slightly more-respectable 63-68 bhp.
Chevette bowed as a single two-door hatchback sedan, but a four-door on a three-inch-longer wheelbase was added for '78. Options were numerous, as the car had been built "down" to a low price. Yet, like so many Chevys before it, Chevette was exactly right for its time, and quite competitive in the increasingly hard-fought subcompact market.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices