Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Born to Win": The 1971-1977 Chevrolet Vega

Hi folks -- what follows is a short essay on the Vega.  The title "Born to Win" was taken from an early 1971 article in Motor Trend.

In contrast to the $5 million spent by American Motors in developing the Gremlin, General Motors spent upwards of $ 200 million to bring the Chevrolet Vega to production. General Motors Chief Engineer Ed Cole, who had previously led efforts to design the 1955 Chevrolet V-8 and the 1960 Corvair, took the lead in a two year program to bring this small, aesthetically pleasing subcompact that featured a host of engineering and manufacturing innovations. Initially, the car earned positive reviews, including being named the 1971 Motor Trend Car of the year. But in the rush to get the car into the hands of consumers serious quality and safety issues surfaced, and the Chevrolet brand was irreparably tarnished.  The stakes on the Vega were high. One journalist put it this way: “ The Vega had to sell, both now and in the future. And to sell in its market segment, against low-priced, well-built imports, it has to be good. Not just sporty and economical, but genuinely good. If Vega didn’t make it in the marketplace, then the consequences for General Motors could be severe, indeed.”[endnote]
Over two million Vegas were sold between 1971 and 1977. While problems with oil consumption due to difficulties with the aluminum cylinder block die casting were eventually rectified, the rusty bodies and initial poor paint application turned a younger generation of owners to GM products when making subsequent purchases.  Certainly the rush to get the car to market shifted quality matters to customers and dealers, perhaps even more serious was the emergence of a adversarial shop culture at the Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant where the Vega was made. 
To this day Lordstown is an industrial marvel. With its won exist off of Interstate 80, it was the place of a disastrous human relations experiment led by a new division of General Motors called GMAD [GEE-MAD]. The fastest line in the world could be found at Lordstown, producing over 100 Vegas an hour.  Workers were subject to tough discipline as they were forced to do their tasks in 36 seconds, almost half as fast as what was previously expected. The discipline often led to dismissals in a work atmosphere not taken to kindly by a younger generation of workers, many of whom had just come back from Vietnam. Workers were to perform as robots, it seemed, particularly appropriate since 95% of the Vega’s welds were made by Unimates, long armed robots that foreshadowed a new age in automobile manufacturing.

And so it was no surprise that sabotage took place on the line at Lordstown, that supervisors, like military officers in Vietnam, were fragged, and Wildcat strikes took place, like the one in March of 1972 lasted for one month.  And so the stillborn Vega became synonymous with poor quality, even though a 1976 Durabilt engine redesign ultimately resulted in the making of a solid, reliable, and economical vehicle.  Too little, too late.

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