AUTOROTICA: The Chevrolet Vega and the Damage it Did to Detroit

The Chevrolet Vega is emblematic of American cars of the 1970s. Over 2 million of the subcompacts were produced between 1970 and 1977. The car rose in popularity at a time when economy was king, and the Japanese imports—notably Toyota, Honda and Nissan (then called Datsun) were gaining a foothold in American suburban garages. The Vega won the 1971 Car of the Year award by Motor Trend Magazine, and Best Economy Sedan in 1971, 1972 and 1973 from Car and Driver. There was a time when the Vega was the “everyman’s car.” 

Unfortunately, the Vega ultimately turned out to be a symbol of the meltdown of American automobile manufacturing based on poor craftsmanship. During its heyday, Ralph Nader sent a letter to GM Chairman Richard Gerstenberg with a list of safety allegations, and said the car was a "sloppily crafted, unreliable and unsafe automobile" that "hardly set a good example in small car production for American industry."

And, Nader was mostly right. The car was notorious for rust and breakdowns, and had several major recalls. The virus of the Vega spread to the reputation of all General Motors cars of the time, reinforcing the belief that GM made inferior small cars. This led to the rise in popularity of Toyota, Honda and Datsun/Nissan.

In the September 1999 50th Anniversary Issue of Motor Trend, an article stated: "The Vega seemed well placed to set the standard for subcompacts in the 70s, but it was troubled by one of the most vulnerable Achilles heels in modern automotive history; an alloy four-cylinder engine block that self destructed all too easily, and all too often. Once the word got out the damage was done, even though the engine had been revamped."

The Vega’s checkered past will forever hold a place in automotive history—both for its popularity, and its damage to an entire industry.

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