Volume III, Issue 1, Page 7

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V8 Vega: The Quintessential Dealer Option

Don Hardy was the first one to do it, at least by popular recorded numbers, in another life in the early ‘70s. Five or six years ago he told me that he was still selling about a hundred V8 Vega swap kits a year. A startling admission, since he abandoned manufacturing for the hot rod market decades ago.

In the Smog ‘70s, a lot of people wanted to get next to that combo, chuck the skizzy, weird-looking 4-cylinder and Tonka Toy drivetrain for something you might find in a hot-sheet Nova.  Dig the V8 Vega GT fly weight: 2,700-pound curb, 360 horsepower from a 350ci LT-1, a solid lifter camshaft, beefy 4-speed, and a resilient rear axle assembly.

More than a couple of new car dealers caught the buzz, too. One of the most vocal and prolific on the east coast was Scuncio Chevrolet in Greenville, RI. High Performance Manager Bob Johnson palled with NHRA stocker whiz, Joe DeLorenzo, and they hatched the schizoid Stovebolt. Joe built the package. Johnson marketed it. Joe envisioned a bolt-in installation. He got Hardy’s gems (high-rate front coils, headers, motor mounts, a flex fan and a radiator core from the penultimate engine swapper swappers Herbert & Meek in the San Fernando Valley) and applied them to an LT-1 and a customer’s Vega for $3,995 retail. Joey D. felt that one experienced hand could manage the thrash in two days or less.

Intimate with the brutality of torque, drag racer Joe specified pertinent schedules. He deemed the OE axle assembly and the Saginaw tranny hand grenades that had already lost their pins and mandated a Turbo 350 automatic or M21 close-ratio four-speed backed by a Hardy-narrowed 12-bolt. The one in our prototype spun a Posi-Traction differential and 4.10:1 gears. The manual transmission was connected to the engine by an 11-inch pressure plate actuated via the stock cable clutch linkage. The Vega pranced around on 14x6 Cragar S/S rims, E70 tires, “oversize” 11-inch drum rear brakes, and Ansen Ground Grabber traction bars--front and rear shock absorbers, and rear coil springs were original. The 12-bolt’s axles provided the fifth wheel lug, but I’m vacant as to the origin of the 5-lug front hubs.

I remember landing at the airport in Rhode Island quite sure that my toady little pal would sooner or later be leaving me by the side with a sigh and a huff. I don’t remember anything that happened in Rhode Island on that raw, overcast early spring day in 1973, but I was slapped wide awake a little later when the Vega sailed clean through a red light! (“Honest, officer, when I put on the brakes nothing happened. I didn’t have any.”)

A gross imbalance was the culprit, I think. The miniscule front discs and oversized rear drums set-up a rear-locking-before front scene. A front-to-rear brake torque bias valve solved that issue, but the eerie experience hung constant like an evil eye just above the red horizon.

In the Car Craft piece, I feared reprisal too much to call out this potential homicide. I don’t know how it was ultimately resolved. Part of the “problem” was the distinct lack of power-assisted steering, brakes, and air conditioning. Granted, a 2,700 pound car was fairly easy to maneuver sans a power helper, but the brakes required standing on them to enact. Not cool in a low-speed shunt; certainly not funny in a crisis. So the Vega didn’t stop very well. So the Vega didn’t handle worth a shit—first plowing in terminal understeer, then sling-shotting into big-sweep oversteer as the throttle quickly dominated. So the Vega did howl in a straight line, though.

I wrote that I liked driving the car immensely, mostly for its cool factor, and I wonder how many other crucial omissions I made to make the Vega sound like it was worth the money and not piss anybody off. One thing for certain, though. A glance at the engine compartment hooked the one glancing, so clean, accessible, and orderly it was. Even the battery stayed up front. Save for the funky bagel-sized air cleaner, it could’ve been factory. The carburetor was still in vogue. There were no airbags or anti-lock brakes. Overdrive was something for trucks. Nobody made tubular anything in those days.

But you don’t flop 200 extra pounds over the front of any car without creating some kind of imbalance. Since the project had a cash limit, Scuncio and DeLorenzo made do with the stock suspension and braking systems, providing stiffer front rates and larger rear brakes to help offset the newly-acquired sprung mass. At most, it was a band-aid.

To keep the rear axle from hopping up and down on hard throttle, Joey had augmented the system with Ansen traction bars. They solved the unwarranted wheel dancing but their rigid construction and mounting bound up the Vega’s short-wheelbase suspension, bouncing it over curves and dips. Sometimes the ride was a patent jiggle.

I don’t remember ever leaving the Vega at home because of its quirks or malfeasance, though. I liked its BS.Made all the right noises, looked like a sleeper, gave you your money back every time you rowed the gears and held the throttle tight. The Vega was a real bloodletter.

The motor just got in your bones. Bang gears in it just once and you got the hook, bro. The brakes worked well enough if you didn’t tax ‘em, the exhaust passed straight through Chevrolet resonators, and the tailpipes jutted from beneath the 12-bolt. I drove the car everywhere. In Philly. Out of Philly. Over to Speed Research & Development in Malvern, PA. Up the Jersey Turnpike to Red Bank. And beyond. To the drag strip. And back home again. Hmm…Vega big fun to abuse and is reliable, too. With the drag strip gears (quite common then), the raspy LT-1 bagged 15 miles per gallon moving at freeway speed. Clutch and shifter action were creamy smooth and the action was instantaneous (at least that’s what I wrote). The monolithic Herbert & Meek radiator eliminated all doubts about the cooling system.

I took the V8 Vega to Madison Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ. It was an open day and overflowing with cars so you might have thought that it was a national event. I made two passes in three hours. Before I did, though, a strange thing happened. I was in the staging lanes and word had gotten all the way to the back of the lines about a small-block Vega. Racers came, shuffling like zombies to warm, screaming blondes. “To a man, they were agog over the neatness of installation and the price,” I’d gushed.

Both runs were bogus, jinxed by anticipation and a missed shift. I spun the tires bad. The elapsed time was a 15-something, but the mile an hour was a very encouraging 105.88. I over-wound the engine on the second pass and the (diaphragm) clutch pedal stuck to the floor on the two-three flat-shift. Still ran 13.83/102.73. A patented leave and a conscientious driver could have put the thing in the 12s on the best (bias-ply) street rubber of the day.

What if we were to do this with today’s technology and mechanical currency? I just cruised eBay for a clean, unmolested example. All I found were Cosworths, but there must be more plain janes and GTs languishing somewhere. It looks like $3,000 would do you right. If we could find a cherry, uncut one (OK, it could have tubs) it’d probably be big fun to stick a big-inch all-aluminum small-block or GEN-3 series V8 (LS7) and a 5-speed in it and bait a ZO6.

At about the same time as the V8 Vega , Chevrolet powertrain rogues had inserted an all-aluminum small-block and an automatic transmission in one of their own as feasibility study. Hot Rod broke the story. Editor Terry Cook had a lock on the Chevrolet engineering department, as countless after-hours at cocktail lounges (drinking gin, vodka and the occasional Scotch; manhood of the period mandated brown or clear liquid only) with Vince Piggins and product planners Bill Howell and Paul Prior, the nucleus of the clandestine cabal. They knew what was going to happen and they confided in Cook.

As you can see, the V8 Vega was a Q-ship of high form. Nobody suspected a thing until they got up alongside. And got caught up the sound of a V8 where no V8 should be.

Thanks to Bob Johnson and Ed James.