Today, Chevy Vegas are practically all gone except for a few – like this one – running with V8s on drag strips or a handful of highly prized limited-edition, twin-cam Cosworth models. This Vega began as a business delivery version without rear side windows – just steel panels. This version was very basic, and could be ordered with only the driver seat – the passenger seat was an option.
In the early 1970s there was growing pressure from import ”economy” cars selling into North America. The response was to rush some small cars into production to hold on to customers. The GM Vega, Ford Pinto, and AMC Gremlin were produced to battle the less expensive imports – most notably Volkswagen, Toyota, and Datsun.
Even though the market was shifting, there was still strong loyalty for North American cars and for a few years the customers hung in there.
Pushed to be competitive, design Engineers needed a light car for economy and the Vega’s thin metal bodywork makes it quite light. However, the thin steel and poor undercoating made the Vegas rust out prematurely – part of the reason why there are very few remaining as regular drivers.
The Vega sold in huge numbers. During its first model year, 1971, Chevrolet pushed 277,700 of them out through its dealerships. During 1972 they sold another 394,592 units, then 395,792 in 1973 and 452,886 for 1974.
There were some mechanical design issues with the stock 4 cylinder Vega engine also but eventually the light weight and good handling characteristics became attractive as a good platform in the hands of drag race car builders.
Norm Ribey is a General Motors car guy. He has a number of GMs from the Vega to a Corvette and some in between. GM cars are his passion. He located this Vega in 2002 with 6400 miles behind it. The car had been constructed for drag racing by Robert Nagey Racing in Welland, Ontario and the engine was built by Jim Oddy in Buffalo, New York. The engine is a 400 cu. In. small block Chevy, and the build was originally equipped with a supercharger. It currently has about 600 horsepower.
Now Norm runs a 4 barrel Holley carburetor (and no blower) and uses the Dana 60 rear end which can easily handle 600 horsepower, and is commonly accepted as the strongest passenger car axle you can find.
Norm regularly runs the quarter mile in 11.7 seconds and reaches 110 mph.
Norm keeps a close eye on engine temperatures on hot days. It runs best at coolant temperatures between 170 and 180 Degrees (F) and if he has to wait in line for the race start, the temperature can begin to creep up – due to tight engine tolerances. If it gets to around 200 Degrees, his times drop off. With temperatures over that, he begins to worry.
Here we see the “sprung” wheelie bars.
The main goal of wheelie bars is to control how high the nose of the car comes off the ground when the driver hits the accelerator. With all that power and rear wheel drive, if the nose gets too high, the driver not only loses the ability to steer the car, but eventually the back bumper can drag the ground followed by the car slamming back to earth and likely breaking parts. Even worse, drag cars can flip over backwards. Wheelie bars keep that from happening, but they also do more than that.
They act as a lever when they hit the ground and lift the rear tires slightly. This allows the rear tires to slip in a controlled manner without fully losing traction and going up in smoke.
If you see a slow-motion video of the rear tires, you can watch the “slingshot” effect of the back tires – which hold about 12 lbs pressure; you can see how the cars squat down in the rear when the green light goes on.
Norm added the shift warning light next to the tachometer to make doubly sure he shifts gears at the right time. Things happen pretty fast in a quarter mile run and mistakes can be costly.