1971 Chevrolet Vega 2300 Panel Express: Needle, meet haystack
Once upon a time in the ’70s, people bought cars. Cars, not trucks, not SUVs. Fortunately for humanity at the time, the crossover had not yet been invented. Trucks and 4x4s were more of a specialty item for outdoorsmen, tradesmen, and the like. But there were some outliers at the time, like the car-based Chevrolet El Camino/GMC Sprint and the Ford Ranchero. And the Vega Panel Express.
Yes folks, it’s another Vega! Hold on to your hats. Today’s example is a rather uncommon Vega, even amongst Vegas: the Panel Express. Which was referred to in the brochures as “Our Truck.”
I won’t dive too deeply into Vega history since I’ve already discussed Chevy’s star-crossed subcompact, the 1976 Cosworth-Vega, but here’s an abbreviated version: It was introduced in 1971 as an all-new model, to great fanfare. It was an immediate hit, with its four-model lineup and attractive baby-Camaro styling.
A total of 269,905 were sold in 1971 and 390,478 in ’72, but by then the bloom was already off the rose, so to speak. The two biggest issues were that they liked to break down, and they liked to rust. Really rust. Especially the front fenders. Even in dry, warm climates.
So while they continued to sell, sales slowly but surely tapered off—so much so that by 1977, the car’s final year on the market, only 78,402 were built. While that’s not terrible, it was a far cry from ’73, when 427,300 rolled off the line.
The ’74s, like pretty much everything else that year, lost the nifty little chrome bumpers for park-bench-style ones, making the 1971–73 models much prettier. I must have seen the occasional Vega when I was a kid, but I don’t have any hard and fast memories of it, though I did have a couple of plastic, dime-store Vega toys … one of which I’m pretty sure was a big-bumper Panel Express.
Back to the featured ’71. I was at a car show in Davenport, Iowa, over Labor Day weekend in 2013, and while walking back to my car I spotted this survivor. I was taken aback because I had never seen a Panel Express up close, though I knew of their existence. My Uncle Dave, who as a teen in the early ’70s naturally was in a garage band, lusted for one of these back then. He was the drummer, and I remember him telling me it would have been a great car to haul his drum kit around in.
Of course, later events would prove it was just as well that he didn’t get one. Plus he was 13 at the time, so there’s that.
When I peeked through the window of this one, it was clear that its navy blue paint was not original—it was originally the bright blue that was prominently featured in early Vega brochures and ads. Otherwise, it appeared to be in quite original shape.
The Panel Expresses were never common, as you would expect. As I recall, even the passenger seat was optional, as the whole point of the model was it was to be used as a mini utility vehicle. Add the fact that the very attractive Vega Kammback wagon was essentially the same except for the rear quarter glass and back seat, and it makes sense the Panel was never a popular model.
In 1971, 55,839 Vega two-door sedans were built, along with 71,957 Kammback wagons and 262,682 hatchbacks. Of the wagons, approximately 7800 were panels, though it wasn’t clear in my research if that was a separate figure from the standard wagons or included in the near-72,000 unit total.
Any way you slice it, however, the Panels were pretty small potatoes in Vega production. Indeed, the model only lasted through 1975, then was quietly retired. Apparently the Estate and GT versions of the wagon were more popular. Unsurprising, really.
But it was a unique offering, and it was pretty cool to finally see one, 20-odd years after finding a coverless ’71 Vega brochure in my uncle’s old room at my grandparents’ house—the very same one my Uncle Dave pored through 20 years prior, I’m sure. I’m not sure what happened to that brochure since I discovered it in a stack of magazines around 1991, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in a box someday!