A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Vega – The Car, Not the Star

This article brings back memories. Many of them bad. My ride in high school and my first quarter in college was a pale green 1971 Chevy Vega, which my folks had bought mainly for us kids in 1980 when my great-aunt decided to spend more of her time in Florida. Said car had IIRC 2000 miles on it at the time.

So, what went wrong with this particular Vega?

  • The body: as noted in the article, rust was an unfortunate problem (an impressive anecdote later). The car had been garaged every winter of its life, but when it first experienced snow and road salt, it caught up with its siblings in the rust department with impressive speed. By the time it was handed over to me in 1985, futile attempts by my father and my brothers to address the rust had added a few more shades of green to the paint as accent (or highlight) for the assorted shades of dark red they were meant to repair/prevent.
  • The oil: the author of that article wasn’t kidding about the thing’s oil consumption. While ours didn’t go through a quart with every fill-up, it did go through about a quart every other week. At that point in time, cheap oil change stations had not yet become ubiquitous, so my father changed the oil on all the cars – at some point before I started driving the thing, my father gave up, and just started topping off the Vega with oil drained from the Ford Econoline and Mecury Lynx. (Yes, my family had a history of bad car choices, why do you ask?) I honestly don’t remember the oil being changed once in the two and a half years that I drove the car. And yet, the engine kept going and going and going, and was utterly reliable despite the leakage and mistreatment…well…except for…
  • The fuel system: the Vega’s problems with rust were not confined to the body panels. Somehow water would get into the gas tank, not enough to disrupt the engine but plenty enough to put copious amounts of rust — both as talcum-like powder and larger flakes — into the gasoline. Luckily, the engine’s fuel filter captured the bulk of it. Unluckily, the thimble filter needed to be changed out about every 6-8 weeks. Sometimes sooner. And it would announce its need to be changed by abruptly stalling the car on any incline greater than a speedbump (and sometimes even speedbumps themselves), which was an ongoing annoyance given that the steepest hill in town was on my usual route home from school.
  • The cooling system: I can attest to the author’s veracity in describing coolant leaks. While I don’t know if oil leaked into the coolant, boy howdy did coolant leak into the oil. The aforementioned “recycled” oil had the color and consistency of a melted milk chocolate bar due to the coolant mixed in with it, and checking the oil level was quite a tedious affair, requiring several dips and wipes to remove the creamy froth that would accumulate in the dipstick tube while the engine had been running.
  • The vinyl interior: until I had a long-term rental car with a black (real) leather interior while working in Palmdale some years later, the trauma induced by the Vega’s black vinyl bucket seats turned me off to non-cloth interiors. It turns out that real leather doesn’t stick to you, and while it can occasionally get hot (at least in the Mojave Desert), it generally doesn’t burn the imprint of the faux stitching into your skin. Through your clothes. And through a horseblanket slipcover…which you had to buy after that one particularly cold day when you climbed into the driver’s seat and discovered that yes, it can indeed get below the glass transition temperature of cheap carseat vinyl during winter in Michigan.
  • And speaking of seats…: the rusted seat slides that locked both front seats permanently into position. Luckily for me, that position was all the way back on the driver’s side. Unfortunately for my often similarly-tall passengers, that position was knees-to-the-steel-panel-where-the-glovebox-should-have-been on the passenger’s side.
  • The interior details: the attractive and always-something-new splits around the defrost vents in the soft safety cover on the dashboard, the delightfully unpredictable tendency of the passenger’s door panel to spring off, the numerous (and too-close) painted steel surfaces which, being black like the rest of the interior, were a source of trepidation not just for the potential for serious injury in a crash but also the possibility of third degree burns to the inattentive driver or passenger on a particularly sunny day. To this day, I still cannot make myself rest my arm on the windowsill of a car door for (irrational) fear of being incinerated.
  • The comfort systems: a bad, bad joke. Air conditioning consisted of push-pull vent panels in the front footwells, and the heater would have been better described as a “tepid-at-most-er”. Both systems seemed to have been tied into the exhaust pipe for some strange reason.

In short, it sucked and then some. But on the bright side, I think I was the only one of my friends in high school who had a car of his own, and it was at the same time the type of car that tempered said friends’ temptation to bum rides. And for all its flaws, it was surprisingly reliable as long as I kept a wrench and a couple extra thimble filters in the car.

But one priceless illustration of just how bad the rust problem was happened on my last day of high school. Being a teenager, I had a terrible habit of locking my keys in my car, and did just that on the last day of school. But not to worry — while I was too large to do so myself, I had one of my smaller friends get down on the ground next to the driver’s door, reach up through a hole rusted in the floorboards, push away the piece of plywood and the floormat, and pull the keys out of the ignition. Problem solved!

The Vega limped along until November 1987. Since I couldn’t have a car on campus my first two years at MSU, there was no point keeping the thing around. So, we fired it up (barely, since it had been sitting in the driveway untouched since mid-August) and drove it to the junkyard — where we had to pay the guy $45 to take the thing.

Comments are closed.