Viva Lost Vegas: The strange tale of the Yenko Stinger

If you ever find yourself staring in disbelief at “Yenko” badges on a Chevrolet Vega, don’t panic. There’s no need for an eye exam. In fact, consider yourself lucky—you’ve just seen something of a unicorn.

Yenko, the Canonsburg, Pa., dealership famous for high-powered Camaros, Chevelles, and Novas, also offered a version of Chevy’s economy-car Vega in 1971 and ’72. Building 200 in each of those years, the Vega was Yenko’s most prolific model. Yet it is among the rarest of Yenkos today. Only 11 are accounted for.

In the late 1960s, Yenko Chevrolet was among a number of dealers swapping L72 427-cublic-inch big-block V-8s into Camaros. In 1969, Don Yenko used GM’s Central Office Production Order system (COPO) to have the 425-horsepower 427s installed at the factory. Other dealers did the same. The following year, Yenko used COPO to order 175 Novas equipped with the Corvette’s high-performance LT1 small-block V-8, calling that model the “Deuce.”

Yenko, a former road racer, also used the COPO system to get a Corvair equipped with choice bits from the factory, and then he further modified it at the dealership for street use and SCCA road racing. Calling it the Stinger, he built 115 from 1966–69.

Corvair successor
Yenko saw potential in Chevy’s next small car, the 1971 Vega. The hatchback model had a sporty look, and its chassis was fairly sophisticated, with its live rear axle on a four-link coil-spring suspension, rather than leaf springs as on Ford’s Pinto.

Yenko’s attempt to build a Vega into a competitive road racer exposed its Achilles heel—the underpowered and underdeveloped 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. Sensing a market for a compact performance car in the European mold, Yenko tried to convince Chevy to build a turbocharged engine for his new Stinger. (The Corvair had offered a turbo engine until 1966, but the original Yenko Stingers didn’t use it.)

Chevy resisted but agreed to build a “COPO 9C2AA2 Special Vega Engine” for Yenko’s fleet order. The “special” part was simply a set of forged alloy plated pistons made to handle the added pressure from a Schwitzer turbocharger that Yenko planned to install at the dealership. He dropped that plan when the EPA required a 50,000-mile durability test for any intake or exhaust system modifications. Instead, Yenko listed the turbo on an extensive list of optional performance upgrades, priced at $575 (about $3,500 in today’s dollars). The customer had to install the turbo, however.

From slug to slugger
Yenko built a Vega Stinger turbo prototype that impressed automotive media with low 15-second quarter-mile performance, validating the claimed 155 horsepower. (The stock Vega engine was rated at 110 hp and ran the quarter mile in a glacial 19 seconds at 70 mph.) Chevy built the first 200 COPO Vegas for Yenko in June 1971. All had the Vega’s optional GT package (RPO Z29), which combined suspension, wheel, and cosmetic upgrades. Yenko also specified the optional four-speed manual transmission and Positraction axle with a 3.36:1 ratio. The 1972 cars also added the optional heavy duty radiator.

Yenko added an aluminum valve cover with the Yenko crest, striping and emblems, blackout paint on the hood and rear panel, rear axle “trac bars” (to tame the Vega’s axle hop under hard braking), front and rear spoilers, and black headlight bezels.

The disposable car
According to COPO/Yenko guru Ed Cunneen, who has owned examples of every Yenko special Chevy, there are no records of how many turbo kits Yenko sold for the Vega Stingers. In December 2016, Cunneen found one of the Vegas for sale just an hour from his Illinois home. It had been in storage for 35 years, and he’s currently restoring it to stock condition.

“It was so elusive,” Cunneen says. “I could never find one.”

Cunneen has amassed a pile of research on the Vega Stinger and it is posted on his website, COPO.com, along with a registry of the 11 known cars. Cunneen’s VIN search hasn’t turned up any other currently registered Vega Stingers in the U.S. Most of the surviving cars have the Offenhauser intake manifold Holley four-barrel carburetor and exhaust headers that Yenko offered.

Cunneen says a single 1973 Yenko Stinger was built for a Group 7 Oil Filters sweepstakes, but he is uncertain how that car was ordered. And, believe it or not, there are some fake Vega Stingers out there. “Yenko offered all of the cosmetic stuff for the Vega Stingers through his catalog.”

Although Yenko advertised the Stinger as “reliable,” the Vega engine, with a die cast aluminum block and cast iron head, was infamous for noise, vibration, oil consumption, and overheating—not exactly an ideal candidate for turbocharging. The Vega was prone to rust, as well.

“It was a disposable car,” Cunneen says. “You bought one, used it for a while and moved on.”

Perhaps inspired by the Yenko Stinger, Chevy issued its own performance model in 1974, the expensive Cosworth Vega with a special (but non-turbo) DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter engine with electronic fuel injection.

Stinger fans
One of the three 1971 Stingers on Cunneen’s registry belongs to Ken Halvorsen of Lincoln, Neb., who restored the Wasp Blue model some years ago when he was fresh out of college. His father had purchased it from a Hemmings ad to keep company with his 1970 Yenko Deuce.

“I always wanted a Yenko, and in today’s world, this is about my only hope of owning a real one,” Halvorsen says. “Foolishly, I like Vegas too, so it fits me well. This one has more go than a stock Vega, but it’s no rocket ship. It’s still a Vega. A Cosworth is way more fun to drive.”

Only for 1972, Yenko’s COPO order of Vegas included 50 Kammback wagons. Mark Pieloch bought his restored Hornet Green example in 2009 from its fifth owner. It currently resides in Pieloch’s American Muscle Car Museum in Melbourne, Fla., parked proudly among his many other Yenko Chevys. [The museum is open only for charitable events.]

Epilogue
It might be easy to dismiss the Vega Stinger as the kind of “decal racer” that became popular in the 1970s as engine performance declined. Yet, it deserves credit as Yenko’s earnest attempt to offer an American alternative to more expensive European sports coupes, right when the market was ready for one.