A pretty good case could be made for the Chevrolet Vega as The Worst Car GM Ever Made. The maddening thing? The Vega could have been a Toyota-killer, just when The General most needed one.
Before we even get into the meat of today's question, we need to deal with the inevitable Vega zealots- yes, folks, there are Vega zealots, just as there are Circus Peanuts zealots- so's their howls of outrage don't drown out the intelligent discussion the rest of us would like to have here. Yes, Vega Zealot, you grew up in a Vega Family, and your dad's good ol' reliable '74 Spirit of America Vega ran flawlessly for 800,000 miles, in the Aleutian Islands. We don't care! You go right ahead and rant away in the comments, and we'll indulge you with the special deference reserved for the mad.
The time-honored American tradition of "my first car" usually involves a 10-to-15-year-old beater, maybe handed down from a relative or bought for $50 from some shady dude on the cheap side of town. For me and my peers, that meant we all had heaps dating from the late 1960s through mid-1970s, and thus I spent a lot of time, back in the day, riding in and wrenching on horrible Early Malaise Era econo-clankers: Pintos, Colts, B210s, Rabbits, Monzas… and, of course, Vegas. They were all pretty bad- even the early Civics were built like crap compared to their 80s successors- but the Vega stood apart as the quintessential pile-o-shit car. All of them suffered from the "100-year-old man syndrome," in which the act of attempting to repair one problem causes five new problems, and the same stuff would break over and over again. An entire generation of GM customers defected to Japanese marques as a result of the Vega's suckiness.
But it didn't have to be that way! On paper, the Vega design looked like a huge jump into the future for The General: aluminum-block OHC engine,
rack-and-pinion rope-and-center-pivot steering, lightweight unibody construction, the works. On top of all that, it looked much better than most of the cars coming across the Pacific. Sure, it had a solid rear axle, but so did most of the competition. The problem was that GM rushed the Vega into production before the engineers were done with it, Fourteenth Floor politics and general organizational dysfunction led to confusion and labor strife, and many of the futuristic features and techniques planned for the Vega resulted in disaster. Baffles in the engine's water jacket oil pan were supposed to make nose-down train shipping of new cars possible but resulted in overheating problems. Full-immersion rustproofing didn't work. The finished car was hundreds of pounds heavier than initially planned.
Now, imagine an alternate past in which GM made the right choices with the Vega, lived without a homegrown competitor to the Pinto for another year or two while the engineers got the kinks worked out, and built a good Vega. Would the Corolla and Civic have established their unassailable toehold in the North American market? Would GM have skipped the atavistic Chevette altogether? What do you say?
[Image source: Old Car Brochures]