The Chevrolet Vega represented a number of firsts when it burst onto the scene for the 1971 model year. It pioneered a number of product development processes at GM, it made use of new production methods and technologies, and it even introduced a novel means of rail shipment. It’s also widely seen as Chevrolet’s first major blunder from beginning to end, yet the main culprit that everybody points to as the cause of its failures certainly wasn’t the Vega’s only issue and may not have been its primary problem.
Earlier this week, reader Leif Ortegren asked us what exactly caused the Vega to get such a bad rap when new.
I wonder why the Vega motor was so unreliable. If memory serves, it had an aluminum block with coated cylinder walls. This was pretty new technology when introduced, but other cars (Porsche for one) used it successfully for years.
And in response, we heard a couple of the most oft-quoted causes for Vega engine failures: lack of a coolant recovery tank in the earliest models, and insufficient coating of the cylinder walls. Neither are wrong, but at the same time, neither answer fully encapsulates what went wrong with the L-13/L-11 overhead-camshaft 140-cu.in. four-cylinder engine. (For the purposes of this article, we’re not going to discuss the rust or other issues that contributed to the Vega’s reputation, just the engine.)
To begin with, while we’ve written in the past that engineer Jim Musser, who oversaw the Vega development program, also oversaw the development of the engine, that’s not entirely correct. Rather, the engine grew out of work General Motors had done on sleeveless aluminum engines going back to the Fifties and GM engineer Eudell Jacobsen had been working on an overhead-camshaft four-cylinder version since at least 1966, two years before GM Chairman James Roche announced that Chevrolet would have an answer to the import tide by 1970.