AMC's Mad Men Brings GM Nightmare, Chevy Vega, To Plot

Car that was meant to be breakthrough was prone to just breaking

If you are caught up in AMC's Mad Men, you'll know that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the agency it is going to merge with just snagged a huge piece of business from Chevrolet to launch an important new vehicle in 1970 code-named XP-887.

That vehicle, which the show's protagonist--creative director Don Draper--takes to be General Motors' answer to the Ford Mustang, was actually the Chevy Vega. Hardly an answer to the Mustang, the Vega was hailed as a car that was going to vault Chevy ahead of the competition. In truth, it was almost the car that sunk the automaker.

The Vega was really more of an answer to Ford's Pinto. It was better looking than the Pinto for sure, but had so many other problems lurking beneath the sheet-metal that it has gone down in history as one of the auto industry's worst cars ever.

The car was not developed by the Chevy group, but rather by a corporate group inside GM, led by GM President Ed Cole. In the late 1960s, GM's brands--Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac--each had their own engineering and design staffs and each was highly territorial and competitive with the other brands. Chevy, said the brand's chief in 1970 John DeLorean (in the book: On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors), did not want the car. "We were to start building the car in about a year, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. Chevy's engineering staff was only going through the motions of preparing the car for production, but nothing more. Engineers are a very proud group. They take interest and pride in their designs, but this was not their car and they did not want to work on it."

Though plenty of GM executives hated the Vega, it nevertheless sold in huge numbers to the public. During its first full year, 1971, Chevy sold 277,700 of them. During 1972, it sold 394,592 units, then 395,792 in 1973 and 452,886 for 1974. Those numbers would be good enough for Vega to be best selling car in America today.

GM did not put its best engineers on the Vega, though. It had notoriously thin sheet-metal, and soon the car was turning up back at dealerships with serious rust problems. Vega fenders were needing full replacement after just two seasons of snow and salt. Additionally, the plant in Lordstown, Ohio that was producing Vegas were full of disgruntled workers, culminating in a wildcat strike in 1972.

The car was yew heavy for its size, and the four-cylinder engine was built from a combination of cast-iron and aluminum that made for a noisy, top-heavy power-plant that disappointed just about everyone who bought one.

Vegas are tough to come by on and Craigslist. They were so prone to rust and being junked that few survive today. A 1976 two-door Chevy Vega Nomad wagon spied this week on ebay is one of only 4,000 built in this style. And even with that rarity, and just 55,000 miles on the odometer, the bidding was up to only $2,325.


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