It all started as a joke. Chris Sondles-principal owner of Woody's Hot Rodz in Bright, Indiana-was shopping with his wife one day when he found a peculiar yellow Hot Wheels car. The Chevy Vega Hot Wheels toy had a big-block Corvette stinger hood, fat tires, and proclaimed to be a big-block car. As chance would have it, the 99-cent toy was painted "Jegs" yellow, so Sondles bought it, and mailed it to his long-time friend, Mike Coughlin as a gag Christmas gift. Yes, that Mike Coughlin, who with his brothers Troy, Jeg Jr., and John, oversee Jegs, the giant mail-order speed shop.
“I’d been building cars for Mike since 2006,” says Sondles. “We both had an affinity for Vegas because of our fathers. His dad, Jeg Coughlin, raced one in Pro Stock. My dad, Fred, worked at the Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where they built them, but he also had an ISCA show-winning Vega.”
Weld GT-S forged wheels look high-dollar, especially with black centers, but offer hot rod
Historically, the Vega's compact dimensions and light weight made it a staple of race cars and street machines through the '70s and '80s. Built in an era where V-8 powerplants were ubiquitous even in lightweight domestic compacts, the '71-75 GM H-platform compact was never offered with one, although much to their credit, engineers left enough room for one. That made it perfect for going fast on the cheap. Nevertheless, the Vega and its H-platform stablemates have long since fallen out of favor with hot rodders due to their scarcity.
The lack of interest in a classic rear-drive compact that could famously swallow a V-8 sounds odd in light of the fact that GM built nearly 1.9 million of them from 1971 to 1977 (Chevy and Pontiac combined), but these cars lived hard, short lives. Their unsleeved aluminum four-cylinder engines swilled more oil than gas, and their poorly treated steel bodywork turned to rust after precious few years. Most have already returned to the earth from whence they came. But we said most.
Owner Mike Coughlin was fully in charge of picking the powerplant and the transmission, an
Sondles dives into the story: "A couple of weeks after Christmas 2010, Mike called me at the shop and his words to me were, 'Hey, we've gotta build this thing.' I said, 'what thing?' And he said, 'this Hot Wheels car.' I told him the hardest part would be finding one that's not rusted. That's when he says, 'No worries, I bought one off eBay today!' " A few weeks after that conversation, a car carrier pulled up to Woody's Hot Rodz with a rust-free, one-owner, low-miles '71 Vega GT. "It even came from Michigan," says a bewildered Sondles, pointing out the state's propensity for accelerated oxidation.
It was crystal clear that Mike was serious, so Sondles made one more trip to the supermarket—ostensibly for another Hot Wheels car. This one would be sent to artist Josh Shaw of Shaw’s Hot Rods with Sondles’ instructions: “Do the Hot Wheels car, but make it more real to life, and make the design ours.” At first blush, those instructions might sound cryptic, but the intent was understood—this was going to be an all-new car, with nothing being shared with the original except the outer skin. It also was going to be a major departure from the Jegs tradition of drag racing—this Vega was going to fully embrace the art of handling, both on the road and on the track.
One of the greatest challenges in building a car like this is that the aesthetics of style and stance don't necessarily translate easily into a car that's practical, fast, or enjoyable to drive. Getting the stance and wheels to look right while maintaining proper ground clearance for the street and razor-sharp handling on the track meant ordering an Art Morrison Max G chassis specially designed for the Vega. Now dubbed the "Jega" (short for Jegs Vega), the finished car would essentially be a Morrison chassis skinned with a Vega body.
With Shaw's rendering in hand and Morrison's Max G chassis eagerly hugging the ground in the corner of the shop, Sondles and crew stepped into the job without wincing. Sondles explains: "The first thing you have to do is cut everything away from the car that's not going to be there in the future. Everything from the core support to the taillights was one piece, so you eliminate everything you're not going to need, which is everything but the exterior sheetmetal from the firewall back."
This build was not going to be anything like the V-8 Vega hot rods built from engine-swap kits back in the day. Those were usually no more than a salvage yard small-block mated to a set of engine-swap headers and a pair of custom motor mounts. Coughlin had been very specific in his powertrain instructions: a 454ci LSX crate motor would have the displacement and thrust of an old-school big-block (a Jegs hallmark), the compact dimensions of a small-block, and the reliability of a new Corvette. Putting all 620 hp and 590 lb-ft of twist through a unibody that was assembled by an indifferent union shop over 40 years ago was not in the cards. The Morrison Max G chassis would easily handle the punishment of both road and powertrain, but first it had to be mated to the body.
Don’t let the stock-looking interior fool you. Beyond the reuse of some interior trim pane
The unibody was channeled over the Morrison frame, with 2.5-inch rocker panel extensions doing a nice job of subtly altering the Vega's proportions with a road-hugging profile. As work progressed, the artisans at Woody's built temporary scaffolding inside the body to hold the Vega skin to its factory dimensions while the work progressed. Sondles elaborates: "You have to build an internal cage that will be removed in order to keep the car square while you're working on it. Once you get all the stuff you don't need removed, then you need to start adding all the stuff you need for the full chassis, which consists of rebuilding the firewall and making an entirely new floor and tunnel from the firewall to the tail pan."
The process of putting a full frame chassis like the Morrison Max G under a unibody car is a well-established procedure, but Woody’s Hot Rodz departs from the norm in one significant way: their bodies are not welded to the chassis, they’re bolted on. “When we make a unibody car into a full chassis car,” Sondles says, “we do things a little differently in that we don’t weld the body onto the chassis; it’s unboltable. We use rubber body mounts, giving it a better ride, and it’s removable in case there is a need for repair.”
One area that saved Sondles a bunch of time in the fabrication area was the availability of fiberglass body parts for the Vega. Sondles explains: "You can actually find bolt-on fiberglass parts that were made back in the day. They still make them new if you can believe it. We got the front valance, lower front grille area, rear valance, and the wing all off the Internet." These were subsequently modified to more closely match Shaw's rendering. Also of note is the front bumper, which was modified to resemble the split bumper of a '71 Camaro-another key design element of the original Hot Wheels car. Once all the critical fabrication was complete by Dane Heninger, the car was painted in-house by Woody's Hot Rodz and the steady hand of master painter Jamie Reedy. The color? PPG Jegs Yellow!
The construction deadline was the Goodguys 15th PPG Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, this past July, and it was finished with no time to spare. The 18-month build time was miraculous in light of the sheer volume of fabrication, but the throngs of curious visitors at the Woody’s Hot Rodz booth told the story, as did the big smile on Mike Coughlin’s face. The real shakedown, however, would come at the inaugural Popular Hot Rodding Muscle Car of the Year (MCOTY) competition, which was covered in the Dec. ’12 issue of PHR. Since then, the Jega has become acclimated to the rigors of the road, and now resides with Mike Coughlin, who loves sharing rides in it with his sons Clay and Jack.
As for the Morrison Max G chassis, the Vega version has gone into regular production, and a couple more have been sold for Vegas, as well as a slightly longer wheelbase version for the '75-80-era Chevy Monza, Buick Skyhawk, Olds Starfire, and Pontiac Sunbird. Apparently, the GM H-body is beginning to see a resurgence as hot rodders are awakening to the idea of superlight, ultra-short wheelbase street machines that can handle. It's a trend we'd like to see revisited with other platforms too. We can only imagine what a similar '70s Ford Pinto, Mustang II, Dodge Colt, Pontiac Sunfire, or Olds Starfire would be like with the right chassis and powertrain!
By The Numbers
“The Morrison Max G chassis would easily handle the punishment of both road and powertrain, but first it had to be mated to the body.”
1971 Chevy Vega
Mike Coughlin, 44 • Delaware, OH
Type: 454ci Gen IV LSX crate motor (620 hp)
Block: Chevrolet Performance cast-iron LSX
Bore x stroke: 4.185x4.125 inches
Rotating assembly: Chevrolet Performance forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods, forged aluminum pistons
Compression ratio: 11.1:1
Cylinder heads: cast-aluminum LSX-LS7 (330-cfm intake flow)
Camshaft: Chevrolet Performance hydraulic roller; 236/246 degrees duration at 050-inch lift, .635-inch valve lift
Valvetrain: 2.20-inch titanium intake valves, 1.61-inch sodium-filled exhaust valves; LS7 1.8:1 ratio investment cast roller trunion rockers arms
Induction: FAST LSX-R port fuel-injection intake manifold, 46-lb/hr LS2-type injectors
Throttle body: FAST Big Mouth 102 mm
Engine management: Holley Dominator
Fuel system: FAST billet fuel rails, Holley inline fuel pump (PN 12-920)
Oiling: as delivered with Chevrolet Performance 454 LSX crate motor
Exhaust: Edelbrock 1¾-inch primary shorty headers (PN 65712), custom 2.5-inch dual exhaust into dual Flowmaster 40s, then into dual Flowmaster Hushpower mufflers. Entire system ceramic coated by Aesthetic Finishers
Ignition: coil-on-plug with cowl-located MSD coil packs
Cooling: custom aluminum Be Cool radiator and cooling fans
Output: 620 hp
Engine built by: Chevrolet Performance & Woody’s Hot Rodz
Transmission: Hughes Performance Transmissions 4L60E four-speed automatic overdrive with 1,500-stall converter, B&M trans cooler, TCI Outlaw shifter
Rearend: narrowed Ford 9-inch with 3.70 gears and Strange posi
Frame: Art Morrison Max G with Watt’s link rear suspension
Front suspension: Art Morrison Max G with Viking Performance 9DP450 springs and Viking double-adjustable shocks, Art Morrison sway bar
Rear suspension: Art Morrison Max G Watt’s link with Viking Performance 12DP200 springs and Viking double-adjustable shocks
Steering: Woodward rack-and-pinion
Brakes: Wilwood 4-piston Superlite calipers on 13-inch two-piece rotors, Wilwood master cylinder
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Weld 17x7.5 and 17x9.5 RT-S wheels with black centers
Tires: 235/40R17 & 255/40R17 BFGoodrich KDW
Owner Mike Coughlin was fully in charge of picking the powerplant and the transmission, an