Long before the Vega made its appearance in the automotive universe, it was a guiding light for all humanity. The second brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere, Vega was actually the polar star about 14,000 years ago. In an astronomical quirk known as the precession of the equinoxes, the earth's orbital axis wobbles in a circular arc that takes 25,770 years to complete. In another, oh, 13,000 years or so, Vega will once again replace Polaris as our trusty polar guide star.
Any car guy who's ever looked at a Chevy Vega and wondered, "What the hell were they thinking?" could easily be forgiven for seeing the rich irony that inevitably arises when comparing the astronomical item with the automotive one. In point of fact, the Chevy Vega was a major move forward in mass-produced transportation, its ill-conceived aluminum block inline-four-cylinder engine (with supertall cast-iron cylinder head!) and only-a-mother-could-love styling notwithstanding. When it was introduced as a 1971 model, it easily garnered Motor Trend's Car Of The Year award, as well as Car & Driver's Best Economy Sedan honors.
And while we might not think of the Vega as particularly ground breaking in 2011, it is the combination of a live four-link rear axle, near ideal weight distribution, low center of gravity, low curb weight, and neutral steering that made it the subject of high praise back in its day. Road & Track even called the Vega "the best-handling car ever sold in America." That's pretty heady stuff in a day that boasted Z/28 Camaros, Boss Mustangs, Challenger T/As, and Corvettes. So you may rightfully ask, how in the hell did the proverbial (and literal) woeels fall off the wagon?
The Vega was a groundbreaking...
The Vega was a groundbreaking car for GM when it was introduced in 1971. Badged as a Chevy (and later as the Pontiac Astre), the Vega was actually one of the first true corporate cars. Unfortunately at the divisional level, this meant the H-body was a real orphan. Corporate GM didn't want its divisions messing around with the design, so Chevy's brass let the Vega languish. The notchback (shown here) was rare compared to the hatchback, and is distinguished by its tall, rectilinear greenhouse.
Jeff Schwartz, owner of the incongruous '72 Vega notchback coupe you see here, sums it up best: "These cars all hit the boneyard early in their lifetime. They would literally rust from the inside out. They didn't last long enough for anybody in their 30s to even recognize them." The result of a fast-tracked design cycle, the Vega had perhaps too many innovative features, many of them not in the car itself, but in its assembly process. At one point, the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant was churning out one Vega every 36 seconds. Moreover, labor relations were at an all-time low. When cars weren't misbuilt due to the insanely high production volume, workers would intentionally sabotage the cars. By the time Lordstown's 7,700 workers called a wildcat strike in March 1972, nearly 100 percent of all Vegas had quality control issues.
It's hormonally overendowed engine and chassis notwithstanding, Jeff's notchback Vega seen here is an oddball for a couple of reasons. For one, its notchback greenhouse is taller and narrower than the more common hatchback style most people remember, giving it an extra dose of ugly along with an increase in chassis rigidity that comes from having a rear seat bulkhead. Unlike virtually all of its brethren, this Vega also managed to survive the new millennia almost perfectly intact, a function of being Ziebart rust-proofed when new, driven only 35,000 miles, and finally put into a dry barn to doze for another 25 years.
Jeff was lucky enough to obtain the mint Vega from an acquaintance, Ryan Gideon, for $1,500. "My original thought was to do something low-buck," Jeff says. "Throw something together from junk and do well against the big names at autocross events." Throughout the build process, Jeff has adhered to his original budget thesis, bringing his 2,650-pound hot rod to fruition for well under $5,000.