The Chevy Vega: the Worst Detroit Car Ever?

Bombs from the past are coming back to haunt GM, Ford, and Chrysler.

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It didn't start as a contest. But as readers have weighed in on the numerous lousy cars that have driven the Detroit automakers to the brink of bankruptcy, it's become an irresistible question: What's the worst car ever built by General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler?

Odds are it wasn't built in the past 10 years. For all the criticism aimed at Detroit, the carmakers have actually turned out some decent rides lately, like the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, and GMC Acadia. But it's obvious that a long, sad parade of Detroit Disappointments over the past four decades has alienated millions of car buyers, many of them permanently. And now, with Detroit dialing 911, many Americans don't even want to pick up the phone.

When I wrote recently about 10 cars that sank Detroit, I thought that by including the Ford Pinto, I would capture everything wrong with the wheezer-mobiles Detroit started pumping out in the 1970s.

But even worse than the Pinto, many readers insisted, was the Chevrolet Vega. This compact, meant to take on imports like the Volkswagen Beetle, actually won honors as Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1971. It sold well. Then the body started to rust. The aluminum engine started to warp. There were engine fires and mounting recalls. Horrified buyers fled, and General Motors killed the car by the late 1970s.

So with Detroit on the verge of epochal contraction, it's an apt time to revisit one of the vehicles that paved the way. Here's how a few Vega owners recall the experience:

"What an absolute pile of junk that was. It was not uncommon for the engine to start burning oil before 50,000 miles. The early models were complete rust buckets. The quality control was atrocious. And they had a reverse-hinged hood that came through the windshield in head-on collisions." - Brian Herrmann, Hampshire, Ill.

[How would you fix the Detroit automakers? Let us know at flowchart@usnews.com.]

"I was 17 years old when I got my 1972 Vega GT. I thought it was so cool. Little did I know that the aluminum-block engine was so bad. At 50,000 miles, the engine went out. The local Chevy dealer put in a new, short-block engine at no charge, saying that GM knew they had a problem. The car was low quality, too—rattles, shakes, and a terrible ride. But I did have some fun times in that car. Looking back, I did not know just how bad it was at that time." - Greg Webster, Houston

[See why America is shunning GM.]

"Any list that begins with the Pinto should also include the Vega. It was stylistically ahead of the Pinto but so cheaply built that alignment could be accomplished with a 10-pound sledgehammer!" - Stan Ryberg, Barrington , Ill .

"If you ran the Vega for 10 minutes at 50 miles per hour and then stopped by the side of the road, you could cook breakfast on the hood. It seems the aluminum-block engine threw off enough heat to make any elite brand of oven jealous." -Jeffrey Beall, Newark, N.Y.

[Read six myths about the Detroit automakers.]

"I owned a '71 Vega GT. For the first year, I enjoyed the car, but after that many problems started developing. At the end of the second year, I was washing the car, and my finger went right through the lower part of the front fender because of rust. Then the aluminum heads warped. I had it repaired and sold it, but I hated to get rid of it because, at the time, it was a good-looking little car and had plenty of pep for a four-cylinder with four on the floor." - Rich F., Thomaston, Conn.

[See 10 cars that can salvage Detroit.]

"I had a 1972 Vega. My family struggled to purchase the car for me as their contribution to college, as I was putting myself through school. I loved the car. It was zippy and great for a college student. Then two years later, the car simply died. The aluminum-block engine had cracked under heat. I was told I could replace the engine, but lacking resources, I sold it as junk. A two-year-old car! I returned to walking and rarely came home from college." - Robert Marino, Gillette , N.J.

[See the seven worst ways to rescue Detroit.]

"I had thought I would buy one in 1971 but backed out when I heard some of the problems and my dad backed out of cosigning for me. Wisest move I made." - Nathan Olsen, Carthage, Mo.

"I was on the oil side of the automotive research business for most of my career. It was like GM started building junk in 1973 to spite the government for insisting on crashworthiness, catalytic converters, and the 55-mph speed limit. The Vega was arguably worse than the Pinto. It had an unsleeved aluminum-block engine with an iron head, which overheated and warped. Cowl sheet metal rusted through in two years. Junk. What is happening to GM is suicide, in my opinion." - Bruce Blackwell, Friendswood, Texas

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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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