Chevy Vega — 1970/1971

The worst car ever produced by GM — and Don Draper’s biggest account! (See below for a bit of background on the Chevy Vega.) A few weeks of teaser ads like this in the summer of 1970 included a lot of smug-but-humble text, but no photos of the revolutionary new sub-compact from Chevrolet. After months of stringing everyone along, the Vega line was finally revealed on September 10, 1970:



The text, a bit larger:



A few months later (in 1971), the Chevy Vega was awarded Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, and copywriters had gotten a lot more smug and a lot less humble:



And then everything fell apart — probably literally ( …and then it all rusted).

A bit of background.

By now, even people who don’t watch Mad Men might have heard vague mention of the Chevy Vega figuring into the show’s storyline. For stalwart viewers, this is the mystery car account in Detroit that everyone was trying to land. The “XP-887” would become the Vega, Chevrolet’s entree into the small car (sub-compact) market and a top-selling line in its first three years. Excitement was ratcheted up a few hundred notches when it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award in 1971. The car and its many, many problems — which included engineering, structural, and safety issues (and, apparently, it rusted like nobody’s business) — were major embarrassments for the company. It was a notorious failure that tarnished Chevrolet’s reputation, and it is generally considered one of the worst cars ever manufactured. Popular Mechanics recently called it “the car that nearly destroyed GM.”

At the end of the Wikipedia entry, in the references section, is this eye-popping excerpt from a late-1971 Time magazine article about crash tests:

“It is hardly a new thought that a small car will crumple more easily in a crash than a big auto, but just how much does the safety risk grow as cars shrink? To find out, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by auto insurers, ran a series of head-on test crashes at 40 to 50 m.p.h. […]  In some crashes, the small car was smashed into a pile of twisted junk barely recognizable as an auto, while the bigger car sustained relatively moderate damage. In the Chevrolet crash, a dummy placed in the Impala only struck its head against the dashboard, but the dummy in the Vega was beheaded by a section of the hood that was hurled back through the windshield.

That exploding Ford Pinto doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect now, does it!

Somehow production lasted until 1977, although by then it had become more a punchline than a car.

An interesting short article on the Vega fiasco is here: “AMC’s Mad Men Brings General Motors Nightmare, Chevy Vega, To Plot.”

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