The cars we loved.
Sometimes the most surprising things can come from the most unlikely places. Take the world of sporty compact cars. Dominated by products from Honda, Subaru and Mitsubishi, many would find it hard to believe that the concept of the modern performance oriented compact car may have had some of its roots with Chevrolet – in the 1970’s! Certainly the roots of America’s modern compact car movement had its beginnings with the Cosworth Vega (if you don’t count the Corvair of the 1960’s).
Here was a car using a 2.0 litre, 16 valves, aluminum engine during a time when most domestic cars had suspensions that resembled ox carts and engine designs carried over from the 60’s. The Cosworth Vega was clearly before it’s time in more ways than one. The rushed development and lack of extensive quality control might have been part of the reason for of its two-year life cycle. From Chevy’s Special Products Group, with prodding from GM VP John Delorean, came the ideal of creating an image car based on the new Vega. America was turning to small (foreign) cars, and Chevrolet did not want to miss the growing out on the growing tide of change. After contacting Cosworth Engineering LTD of England, talks were under way to develop a racing inspired version of the Vega’s 4-cylinder engine.
While the high performance engine development proceeded in England as the 70’s opened, sales of the standard Vega suffered at launch due to fierce labor strikes at the Lordstown Ohio factory. The public in general was not too keen on the Vega or its corporate clones. The Vega GT did little to boost the image of the star of the H body platform mostly because the hurried Vega had major quality control issues. Over in England problems with the GM supplied engines from which Cosworth did its work prompted delays. In testing, an early version of the all-aluminum design using dual overhead cams produced 180 hp from only 2.4 L. There were serious reliability and drivability issues that led to the engine be retuned down to 110 hp, still more than the 87 hp in the GT and 78 hp in the base car.
By the time the production car finally arrived in 1974, Chevrolet had managed to get the cars out on time, despite having to move production to a Canadian factory for a brief time due to an ongoing strike in Ohio. The Cosworth Vega was within $900 of the Corvette and cost more than double a base Vega. With no Camaro Z28 that year, the Cosworth car may have been an attempt to fill a performance gap in Chevy’s lineup. From some angles, the Vega resembled a Camaro with its single round headlights and wide grill. What the buyer got was a car that was much more advanced than most other domestics on the road, but carried the burden of rushed development. Multi valve and dual overhead cam technology would not be common place on GM cars until the Quad 4’s of the mid-1990’s.
First year cars came in black only with gold 13 inch Panasport style wheels and stripes. The strong visual statement continued inside with Trans-Am like reflective metallic accents on the dash and Cosworth badges. In many ways the overall color scheme predated the look of the “Bandit” Style Trans-Am.
Cowsorth Vega performance was typical of paint-n-stripe performance cars of the era. Despite the light weight engine, the Cosworth was not all that fast. Reported 0 to 60 times ranged wildly from 11 to 9 seconds, not necessarily the stuff of performance dreams. To make matters worse, advertisements seemed centered on the high development costs of its advanced engine with headlines like: COSWORTH. ONE VEGA FOR THE PRICE OF TWO. Road holding was good, but Americans wanted quick stoplight to stoplight performance. The perceived redneck mentality of the typical American performance car buyer was lost on the fact that the Cosworth Vega easily out performed an Alfa, Mazda, Sabb and Lancia in a Road & Track test in 1976. It seems that by the mid 70’s the glory days of muscle car performance was still in the minds of some enthusiasts (cheap, powerful tail wagging fun). Beyond some straight line performance issues, the car was more than adequate in other areas. The rear suspension used a torque arm design and an offered an optional limited slip differential. A four speed manual was standard, as were front disc brakes. Early cars received a major overhaul to meet emissions standards, but continued with 110 hp.
1976 saw substantial changes in the front grill and tail lights. Eight new exterior colors were added and two new interior colors. A new optional Borg-Warner 5 speed manual transmission joined the options list and extensive rust proofing was done across the board. The emissions tweaking from a year before put the Vega in a position of meeting the new 1977 standards early, but it would not be enough to save the Cosworth car. It had fallen well below the targeted sales amounts with only 3,508 cars produced in two years. By 1977 the Cosworth ceded the role of top Vega to the GT, now with a 2.3 l 90 hp engine. GM reportedly scrapped 1500 Cosworth Engines as production winded down.
Today the Cosworth Vega gets little respect outside the small but devoted fan base of fan club car buffs. A short history of head gasket problems and quality issues remain the Vega’s legacy. Chevrolet actually worked on a number of advance engines for the Vega ranging from rotary to turbocharged designs. Internal politics within GM may have prevented their adoption in production. Any one of these experimental engines might have been reliable and could have lowered the cost of a ‘SuperVega’, therefore reaching Chevy’s sales goals. This would not be the last time that GM developed an interesting car without the forethought to solving development issues (think Fiero). Fans of the Cosworth Vega can rest assured that the car’s true place in history might well be the start of the modern American sport compact car movement.