The Chevy Vega is often considered one of the true genuine shitboxes ever to befoul America’s roads, and with good reason. Though attractive enough, it was plagued with engineering, build quality, and materials issues that added up to create something truly universally disappointing to people of all walks of life. I’m sure most of you hold the car in some degree of contempt. Well, if you have any degrees left on your contemptometers, you might want to crank it up a couple of ticks to account for this amazing bit of taillight shittiness I’m going to tell you about.
In 1976, Chevy decided to update the look of the Vega a bit, a minor facelift after a more substantial re-design in 1974, largely undertaken to incorporate the newly-required 5 mph bumpers.
The 1974 cars had taillights that looked like this:
Simple, cheap-looking units with two bulbs; not that much different than the truck-trailer/delivery truck/Jeep special “box taillights.” They were fine, I guess, but when it came time to give the car a face/butt lift, I can see how designers would look to those simple taillights as a place to inject a bit more style into the car.
For the refresh, the designers wanted to emphasize the “European” look of the car, and one fairly easy shortcut to injecting the concept of “European” into American eyes and brains in the early 1970s was to give the car what were known as “tri-color” taillights, which meant amber rear indicators.
The first American car to actually use amber rear indicators I believe was the 1974 Ford Mustang II (unless you count the Excalibur that borrowed the VW Beetle’s tri-color taillights in 1973) so this wasn’t exactly uncharted taillight territory for GM, who had them on the Chevette in 1975.
So, with this in mind, Chevy’s stylists came up with a rather handsome set of tri-color taillights for the Vega:
Okay, those aren’t bad! And, of course, studies have suggested that amber rear indicators do help with safety, so that’s a nice perk as well. Way to go, Chevy!
Oh, but there’s one small problem: those amber rear indicators were lies.
Yes, lies. Dirty, deceptive, orange-faced lies. If you actually look at a Vega taillight of this era, and turn it over, this is what you’ll find:
Deception. The middle section, what everyone naturally thinks is the amber turn indicator part, is a dummy. There’s no place for a light bulb to be mounted there, and the taillights remain the simple two-bulb units as always, just masquerading as three-bulb units. It’s all scam.
The story goes that GM’s fierce and hungry cost-cutters went over the Vega and cut all they could, including the costs for the extra wiring, bulbs, and sockets needed to provide the car with functional amber rear indicators.
This happened after the car was facelifted, so the amber lenses remained, just now confusing and useless.
In fact, I’d argue worse than useless, because people would see the amber and think, quite logically, that that should be blinking to indicate a turn. The red brake/tail area that had been conscripted to act as a turn indicator, too would be confusing when blinking in this context.
The only evidence I can find of GM acknowledging or even showing any signs of guilt about their taillight fraud is in this 1976 Vega brochure:
See how the amber sections have been sort of grayed out there? That’s not how they looked on actual cars — they were clearly, unashamedly amber. This looks like someone on the brochure design team made some sort of attempt to de-amber and de-turn-indicatorify those sections of the taillights.
And while that sorta works in the brochure — sorta — in reality those lights were amber and they were deceptions.
You gotta hand it to the Vega: even after all these years, it still manages to give us new reasons to be disappointed.