FROM THE FRONTLINES: WAS HIS ’71 VEGA THE WORST CAR EVER BUILT?

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Some might say yes, based on bitter personal experience, others may have their own favorite dumpster fire stories of their own POS car.

In my case, I owned a 1971 red Vega similar to the photo above with a 3-speed standard transmission with the “classic” aluminum engine block.

I can’t remember exactly what I paid for the Vega in 1972–but in hindsight it was way too much. For starters, it was woefully underpowered, and the three-speed transmission was crap. There was an optional 4-speed which I later installed after the 3-speed imploded for the second time. The brakes were clearly an afterthought.

The steering was terrible–so was the suspension, but the real kicker was the aluminum block engine. Some deluded DB in Detroit must have decided to shave some weight off the car, presumably so it could be equipped with substandard suspension and bicycle type steering. This car reeked of bad engineering and had an overall pungent aroma of cheapness. These flaws have propelled this vehicle into the annals of undesirable vehicles sure to have a memorable impact for decades. In my case it surely did, since it’s been 50 years since I owned it.

To say the car used oil is a profound understatement worthy of an entire paragraph on its own. It became obvious after the first few fill ups that oil needed to be added on every fill up. This may seem a tad odd to those inexperienced with aluminum engines, but clearly GM thought this was par for the course.

I was still a student on modest means, so adding high quality oil was an unrealistic option, but it went through the cheap oil so fast I didn’t think it mattered too much.

After several months of grumbling, I decided to start adding cans of STP, which apparently was designed for this purpose when piston rings were rattling around like an old man’s dentures.

STP seemed to help the oil use and cut back on the horizontal smokestack at the back of the car. After a while, using the known physics of dilution there would have been no real molecules of oil in the engine just the treacle like STP. Was this smart? Probably not. Did it work? Absolutely! This does bring to mind the quackery of homeopathic medicines.

Sometimes with some people a car becomes a loving companion that is a joy to travel in, while creating a trove of fond memories. In my case, the seething animosity and hatred for this vehicle resulted in me experimenting with non-factory-approved solutions to the constant stream of problems.

One example that comes to mind is when I periodically detailed the interior of the car with a high-pressure car wash gun–the unfortunate result was puddles of water on the floor. An easy and effective solution to remove the water was to pound a few nail holes in the floor to drain the water–surprisingly easy with the paper-thin metal in the chassis.

The factory radio was garbage, and the need for good tunes playing while driving led to a fairly extensive under the dash rewiring job from a teenager who could barely screw in a light bulb. There were a few mistakes–but sooner or later I had good speakers and really–who uses parking lights anyway?

I did, however, learn some valuable lessons along the way, particularly on the reverence one pays to mechanics. Many people seem to regard automotive mechanics as soothsayers that are always making the most beneficial recommendation for the owner as if they were your best friend earnestly trying to save you from a financial disaster. I have met a few, and while some are truly competent, others decided to be an automotive mechanic after failing at finger painting.

My father had a “mechanic” working for him that agreed to help me swap out the good gears from the broken ones in two 4-speed transmissions I got from a wrecker. The simple plan was to make one good transmission from the two broken ones and replace the Vega’s 3-speed with the newly created 4-speed.

Seemed like a sound and simple plan at the time.

I soon realized I knew more about this than he did, and I really knew nothing, but I could seemingly remember where the parts went from one identical transmission to the other. A goldfish has a sounder short-term memory than this fellow had, so the job took hours to complete and it did result in a small handful of clips and washers that never found a home.

Of course, the 4-speed wouldn’t fit where the 3 speed was despite it being an option on the car. After having to shorten the drive shaft and cut a rather large hole in the floor to get the gearshift inside of the car it eventually all seemed to work!

Since this historical meandering is now bringing back more bad memories than I want to process at the moment, I will end on a more humorous note–at least it was funny to me at the time.

I eventually had enough and put this disaster on wheels up for sale at a bargain price. Surprisingly, I sold it quite quickly to a kid close to my age who thought it was a cool-looking car. Ha! I smiled and said this car has a lot of memories for me, but I will reluctantly part with it. I was on Cloud 9 when I saw it disappear into the distance.

A week later, I was driving a different car and came up to an intersection that looked like a SWAT team had just unloaded a few hundred tear gas canisters. Through the rolling plumes of greasy fog, I finally caught a glimpse of my old Vega, puking out blue smoke like a 600-megawatt power station.

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