By all accounts, GM is really thinking about building a rear-wheel-drive sport compact car. That car will slot in below the Camaro in Chevy's lineup, giving the brand an entry-level coupe to pit against the Toyobaru on fan forums. Good news, right? But what to name the thing?
Some say GM's considering "Chevelle," recalling a former Chevrolet model popular in the '60s and '70s. This is ludicrous for tons of reasons, not least of which is that Chevelle is a really dumb name.
Had I not spent my early car years flirting with these last-century Chevy behemoths, all carbed-and-cammed to within an inch of their service lives — gang-wrenched to lay rubber across the mean streets of Yonkers — I'd never associate "Chevelle" with cars at all. It sounds like something French pastry chefs do with Grand Marnier and duck fat.
So let's put "Chevelle" aside. For this new car, the likes of which the company has never built — at best hope, the odd morphing of an '80s BMW into a '90s Honda into a modern Camaro — GM should, if it must, resurrect only one name: Vega.
Yeah. Vega. Sure, some people like to remember the original Chevy Vega as a miserable piece of crap. That's because most of these cars spent their life cycles limping to repair shops, evacuating their transmissions along the U.S. interstate highway system, and randomly vanishing into clouds of rust-colored smoke.
Don't listen to those people. No one cares what happened in the '70s. Do you know what the highest-grossing band was during most of the '70s? Grand Funk Railroad. Grand Funk Railroad sucked. They sounded like Bob Seger being strangled by Blue Öyster Cult's umlaut. Nobody remembers them. Case rested.
Uh huh. Ok, but I thought nostalgia was dead, anyway?
That may be, but let's look at why GM should continue to make exceptions, at least in this case. For one thing, Vega is a celestial reference, which — if you don't count the Ford Taurus — no carmaker's done since, what? The Nissan Pulsar?
For another, Vega is a short, punchy name for a small, punchy car. Thus is the power of phonosemantics. That is, the linguistical concept that word-sounds carry their own meaning. Sounds that imitate an external state — like, say, accelerating through space at a high rate of speed — are called phenomimes. The word "vega" starts with the "v" sound, which — combined with the following soft vowel — starts forcefully and elongates, just like speeding away from a stop. The final "ga" is like the first abrupt gear change. It's the perfect sports-car word.
Those sounds, taken together, make "Vega" what linguists refer to as an ideophone, a word that evokes sensations or sensory perceptions vividly. Kind of makes "B-R-Z" sound stilted and uninspiring.
Not to mention, metaphysicists claim the letter "V" is fraught with meaning. Its diverging lines represent choice, options, and freedom to choose one's own path. "V" also represents "construction," which can't hurt either, considering the Vega's legacy. The TV commercial practically writes itself.
Right. The legacy. Don't some people think the Vega was the car that almost sunk GM?
Some people say that. But they're just being drama queens. The Vega was like a massive wave that crashed and then receded. Barely any of the 2 million Vegas sold in the '70s survived. Out of sight, out of mind.
Ok. Ok. I get it. So let's say the car's called the Chevy Vega. What will the sports version be called? Vega SS?
Oh! Here's where it gets good. Let's look at the Vega's history. As Jason Torchinsky recently wrote — telling the story of how the new Mad Men season's plot recently intersected with the development of the actual Chevrolet Vega — the car started as a top-secret enterprise for GM. They would would defeat Japan's onslaught in the economy-car space with American know-how. The Vega project was more important to GM than the moonshot was to NASA.
Having led Pontiac to greatness during the 1960s, John Z. Delorean took over Chevrolet just in time for the Vega's launch marketing in 1969. GM was making some bold claims about the car's performance, but Delorean was skeptical. As he recalled in the 1979 book On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean's Look Inside The Automotive Giant, Delorean didn't appreciate having to sell a car that had been developed by GM corporate. Delorean hated that Chevrolet had little input into the Vega's development, and bristled when the car didn't do what GM corporate marketers were claiming it would.
It was a tectonic shift from the '50s, back when GM division bosses ruled over their brands like feudal lords. GM was now a centrally-commanded mothership. And despite the car's crapness, as far as GM corporate was concerned, the Vega it was a smash hit. It only took three model years for the Vega to hit 1 million units in sales. But Delorean wanted more than just sales. He wanted respect.
And so, as I was reminded recently by my friend and Nissan GT Academy contestant Eric Rivera, Delorean went insane and developed the Cosworth Vega (actually, the "Vega Cosworth," but history remembers its name differently). The plan was to build a Vega with the aura of Formula 1 racing — in particular, that of the dominant Cosworth DFV engine — over it. It would be powered by a high-tech, high-output four, combining the Vega's sand-casted aluminium block with Cosworth's race-pedigree twin-cam cylinder head. This package worked so well, it would first find its way into Chevron and Lola race cars before hitting the streets in the Vega.
But bad timing prevailed. Just as Cosworth and Chevrolet engineers had come up with a hot engine that could make the Cosworth Vega a true econo-car motorsports halo, the EPA stepped in with their draconian 1973 emissions standards — and later, even more stringent 1975 standards — which engineers struggled to meet without completely neutering their little powerbox.
The result was a car that cost only slightly less than a Corvette (and well over twice the price of a base Vega), but handled — at least according to the buff-book tests of the time — as well as anything from Europe. Still, after a tedious, two-year emissions testing and certification process, the twin-cam was a husk of the racing engine it had been. From 265 hp in track trim, to 185 on the GM test bench, to a projected 140 hp for the street car in 1971 (SAE net), horsepower dropped to an anemic 110 when the cars were finally delivered, more than a year late, in mid-1975. "Sweet as it is," a Road and Track reviewer wrote in 1975, "the Cosworth Vega is still way down the excitement ladder from what it would be with another 30 or 40 hp. Then it would really be something."
Then again, the 1975 Corvette's base L48 small-block V8 only produced 165 hp, so of you consider power-to-weight, the far lighter Cosworth Vega's was better than the 'Vette's. Also, even detoothed, the Cosworth twin-cam produced nearly double the amount of horsepower per liter than the L48. Pretty impressive for the model year that defined the malaise era.
At least Delorean's head was in the right place: The little piece of shit Vega needed a halo car. Fast forward to now, and who better to build a halo around a modern Chevrolet than Cosworth? It's an exotic but evocative name, it still has a racing pedigree and it has a whole tuner arm that could easily work some magic on a GM two-liter. Add some racing stripes and BOOM. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2015 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega.
GM can keep its SS designation for its new Chevy SS and Camaro Super Sport, and call the base sports Vega the "Vega GT" to recall the original. And then, build a top-line rear-drive sport compact with 80-90 percent of the performance of, say, a BMW 1M, at less than half the price.
A freaking Cosworth Vega that actually delivers on Delorean's weird, cross-continental promise from 40-something years ago. Build it, GM. You owe us.
Then again, this could all be moot. Could it be that with Mad Men, GM is engaging in the most creative product placement in the history of advertising? We can only watch and hope.