1972 Chevrolet Vega Kammback
Foreword: Given the title of this blog, the cars we write about here most often are, quite naturally, Packards. With Packard’s purchase of Studebaker, and with me being a life-long admirer of Packards, I’ve long had an affinity with Studebakers as well. Even as a car crazy kid, I wasn’t much of a General Motors fan. Never in my life have I owned – new or used – a GM car. In this context, it’s very rare for me to post about a GM car. Today is an exception because the story of Chevrolet’s Vega is also the story of how to drive a car company’s market share down and lose customers for life.
That is to say, the story of the Vega is a B-School example of why you don’t turn the control of your car company over to the bean counters. The Vega symbolizes what happens when you do. GM’s long, sad slide has its roots in the decision in 1959 to hand control of the company over to the Financial staff. The center of power moved from “the car guys” in Detroit to the bean counters in Manhattan.
In this move, the GM divisions lost most of their autonomy and the things that made each of their car lines distinctive. Instead of each division developing their own engines to meet the needs of their customers, all the divisions had to share one 350 cubic inch V-8. From an accounting standpoint, this made sense – but Cadillac customers weren’t thrilled by the fact that their Cadillac was being pushed down the road with the same engine found in a Chevrolet. Cadillac began losing its prestige as a result. Mercedes-Benz and BMW greatly profited by this.
The bean counters went to the extreme. Remember the “cookie-cutter” GM cars of the ’80s and into the mid-to-late ’90s? The cars shared more than just the body shell – they differed only in interior trim and the front and rear facias. The bland sameness of these cars – not to mention their notoriously poor build quality – handed huge chunks of GM market share to the Asian and European manufacturers. It is supremely ironic that GM, which crushed the American independent manufacturers in the ’50s and ’60s was now handing market share by the platter to the Asians and Europeans.
Chevrolet’s Vega is one of the more notorious examples of how letting the bean counters run your car company is a text book formula for losing market share. General Motors didn’t fight hard enough against Ralph Nader’s smear of the Corvair. The Corvair could have become an American Porsche – the ingredients were there. Instead, GM let the Corvair – and its advanced engineering – die a slow death. While the Corvair wasn’t originally conceived as a performance car, its elements allowed some versions of it to be developed as such. The original emphasis of the Corvair was economy – just as was the case with VW’s Beetle.
By the mid-’60s, the Corvair’s fate was sealed and Chevrolet was casting about for a replacement economy car for Chevrolet. The direction given the product planners was to build a car that was competitive in economy and handling to European cars in the same class. Japanese cars were not yet a factor for the product planners to contend with. The Vega was to appeal to younger buyers who might also consider one of the lower price European cars.
Thus the Vega was designed with elements that would appeal to buyers who might also be looking at European offerings. So far, so good.
Then the bean counters stepped in. To save a buck, they forced the engineers to compromise on the engine’s cooling system – setting the stage for the engine failures that plagued the Vega. This was but one example. The Vega went into production very compromised from the targets originally set by the product planners. Worse, the bean counters elected to build the Vega at the Lordstown, Ohio plant which became THE symbol for poor labor-management relations not only for GM but for the entire auto industry. The Lordstown plant operated at full speed, spitting out 100 cars an hour.
Workers on the line deliberately sabotaged the cars. Hands full of bolts and nuts would be dumped into the doors to create rattles. But labor on the line didn’t really have to sabotage the cars. The bean counters cut corners where ever they could. The Vegas were inadequately rust-proofed. These cars were so prone to rust that the morbid joke went around that the Vega was the world’s first car guaranteed to rust out while sitting on the showroom floor.
Thus the bean counters took what the product planners had conceived of as being a world-class economy car with sporting handling that could have competed very effectively with its European counterparts and turned it into a huge black eye for GM and, in the process, cost GM market share and helped drive the company into the weakness that resulted in its bankruptcy in the mid-2000s and the shuttering of several of its divisions. Inadvertently, the GM Financial Staff avenged the death of Packard and other American independents. What an irony!
We move now to the story of how one designer, John Houlihan, contributed the Vega Kammback to the Vega program. It’s a great story:
It was a hot and muggy summer in July of 1968 in the Detroit area. My good friend and college roommate was in the Navy and being transferred from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. He stopped by on his way to San Francisco for a brief visit. We commiserated over several beers that evening. He had to leave early the next morning and I had to go into work.
I was an exterior designer for the General Motors Corporation working in the GM Styling department at the GM Tech Center on Mound Rd in Warren Michigan. This was my first job out of college and a prestigious one at that. GM Styling was recognized as the pinnacle of American automotive styling. By the summer of ’68 I was into my third year as a designer.
That day was important because I was finishing a full size air brush rendering that I had convinced the studio chief designer needed to be included in the array of proposals which were to be shown to the GM “brass” that day. The studio where this was taking place was the Advanced Chevrolet studio. We were working on the XP-887.
GM had been considering the introduction of another “small” car after the Corvair project ran into trouble following bad press years earlier due to Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed which panned the car’s design as being inherently unsafe. This new small car needed to be a “world beater” to restore GM’s reputation and to gain further market share in, what was believed to be, a growing demand for smaller, economical vehicles.
The earlier designs for the XP-887 project were rejected by the corporate management team assigned to this effort as being too “GM looking.” The new direction needed to be “European” in look and feel. Advanced Chevy Studio was assigned this project.
Large photos of the Fiat 124 were placed all around the studio as inspiration. The engine for the XP-887, already under development for a few years, was actually placed into a Fiat 124 for testing at the Milford Proving Ground. The designers were encouraged to research European cars so as to get feel of that aesthetic.
Despite all this effort to “Europeanize” the design, the real influence for the XP 887 was the current design effort for the new 1970 Camaro. That design was taking place in another Advanced Chevy studio under the direction of Hank Haga. That design was stunning.
I had the opportunity to visit the studio where the Camaro design was taking place and saw a full size perspective rendering of a wagon version of the new Camaro. It was awesome. Not only was the full sized air brushed rendering in perspective, it was a breathtaking design. It left a deep and lasting impression on me. I had to take this back to our studio and create a wagon version for the XP-887.
Designer John Houlihan’s rendering of what became the Vega Kammback
It was not easy to convince my boss to allow this excursion in a new direction since the company was not planning on tooling a wagon. In fact the basic plan called for a hatchback and possibly a sedan type (ultimately called a notchback) version. No wagon planned.
Since I was willing to do this on my own time the boss relented. I worked on this after hours for a few nights and a weekend. Thus, this fateful day arrived and I was compromised in that I had been up most of the night with my friend on his way to dangerous assignment.
That dawn I dragged myself out of bed said a sad goodbye to my good friend and drove to the Tech Center very early in the morning. There was no one in the studio at that hour. I had to complete the full sized rendering before the 9 am visit. It was going to be close.
As I began to remove the masking areas of the rendering and preparing to complete the fine details of the highlights and other features, I heard the door rattling. Studio doors were always locked — we all had keys. I went to the door and opened it. There standing in front of me was none other than Edward N. Cole, President of General Motors.
In shock and still somewhat wobbly from the beer soaked prior evening, I was at a loss for words, but not completely. I blurted “Holy Shit! What are you doing here?” Not the most cordial greeting one would expect for such an exalted visitor. Mr. Cole graciously ignored my blunder and told me he wanted to see what was going on with the XP-887 project without the entourage that normally accompanied him on these visits. He wanted to get real look at the project with out the “editing” which inevitably occurred.
Dutifully I took him around the studio and pointed out the various renderings of the hatchback, notchback and the clay model in the center of the room. I answered his questions to the best of my ability although I did not have the detailed technical knowledge the studio engineer or the studio chief possessed. Mr. Cole seemed to be satisfied with everything.
He then pointed to the partially masked rendering I was completing and asked, “What is that?” I said it was a wagon version of the project.
He said, “We aren’t tooling a wagon.”
“I know.” I answered.
“Well, why is it there?” He wanted to know.
“Well, Mr. Cole, young people can’t afford a B-body wagon and even an A-body wagon is a bit pricey. I think young people would really go for a small wagon like this.”
He looked at the partially complete rendering, thanked me for my help, turned and walked out of the studio.
Later that morning, when all the underlings were relegated to the back room so as not to crowd the high ranking visitors, the big meeting with Mr. Cole and his minions took place. I climbed on a chair and was looking over the lockers so as to see and hear what was going on.
Only the clay model and two full sized renderings were on display. The discussion focused on these. Questions were asked and answered then Mr. Cole asked the chief designer where the wagon rendering was.
The studios had huge movable boards that served as supports for the full sized renderings. There were three or four of these boards in bays along one of the studio walls. Each could move up into the ceiling to reveal the rendering behind so that multiple designs could be shown if needed. The wagon was behind one of the renderings on display for the meeting.
The chief designer looked a bit embarrassed but went over to the bay where the renderings were and raised one of the boards revealing my wagon rendering.
Mr. Cole then looked at the gathering and said “Young people can’t afford the larger wagons we offer, I believe they will go for this small wagon. We will be tooling a wagon.”
The entourage then filed out of the studio and life returned to normal.
Below: Two more Vega renderings by John Houlihan
Production Vegas: “the world’s first car guaranteed to rust out on the showroom floor”.
Vintage Kodachrome Snapshots: Gas Stations of the 50s and 60s