1971 Chevrolet Vega 2300 Panel Express: Needle, meet haystack

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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.

Thomas Klockau

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!



Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: As AAU parts with cars at Broad Arrow Monterey, it still looks ahead


    Reliability issues aside the Vegas in my opinion were nicely styled cars, the wagons in particular have pleasing lines…but I’ve never seen a Vega Panel, nice article, keep em coming.

    Possibly my all time funny car- the Wonder Bread wind wagon Vegas panel nitro funny car. Google it.

    Like Chuck, I’ve never seen one of these, and in fact didn’t even remember that they existed. Fun article!

    Seats are replacements, Vega Panels used a model specific low back seat. Standard was Drivers seat only. Passenger seat was an option.

    Biggest piece of crap to ever pass for a car. In the deep winter of1981, I was driving down New Scotland AVE in Albany, NY. The road looked like it had just been bombed. I espied a pathetic 1976 Vega wagon belching smoke and God knows, what else.
    At, I estimated, 20 mph, it hit a 12 inch (Didn’t have a ruler) bomb crater and broke almost in half. As we drove passed, we noticed that the car was rusted out through the roof and rocker panels. The driver got out and walked away. That was it. Stranger than fiction.

    In fairness I don’t know that any car I’ve ever owned would drive away from a 12 inch bomb crater at 20 MPH.

    Crappy maintenance and crappy New York weather and highways are hardly the fault of the automobile….Vega’s in California & Arizona, are a whole different breed…….I guarantee you!

    True, I maintained a 73 wagon for 12 years before passing it on to a Hot rodder teen who stuffed a 400sbc and powerglide and narrowed 12 bolt in order to street race

    That’s what we should be talking about – putting in a sbc or bbc, manual trans, narrowed rearend and have fun at the strip or pro street. Of course they sucked in stock form. Not a lot of gems in the middle 1970s.

    A buddy of mine back in the day had a Hatchback with a 400 sbc & th350. It had a 6pt cage to stiffen up the aluminum foil unibody. The short wheelbase made it a bit squirrely, but it was a riot. Great little street racer!

    Bought a 71 Vega “van” back in 1975. Poor thing had been road hard and put away wet, but I got another year out of it as I headed off the college. Good fuel economy, but had to add a quart of oil with each tankful of gas. Finally, traded it in on a new 76 Chevy Heavy Half ton pickup. Big step up in power and reliability.

    As a gigging guitar player I’d be attracted to that today if I weren’t wary of the rust and reliability issues. My criteria: wide hatch, low deck, good heat and manual trans. Perfect for retrieving firewood too.

    When I read about the drum set hauling, I flashed on a similar idea as Tinkerah: “that’d be a great little rig to haul my amp and bass guitars – plus at my age, I’d also throw in a cushioned stool with back rest – to gigs”. Then I remembered that I sold my amp, hung the last guitar on the wall as art, and haven’t played a gig in 40 years, so my enthusiasm waned. But I still kinda like the looks of the car. 🎸

    That’s a slick looking little car. The black sidewalls with black wheels and dog dish hubcaps really set it off. It’d look terrible if it had chrome wheels or full wheel covers.

    I had a white ’73, many fond memories. I put in carpet and bucket seats from a Monza, some wheels from the GT model and had a decent looking ride, practical and pretty fun to drive. When the motor died I swapped in an Iron Duke from a Pontiac Astre, was faster, quieter and got better mileage than the stock aluminum POS. Even in the PNW, rust was the killer. Had the fenders replaced at one point but eventually I got soap bubbles on the dash when I used the windshield washers. At 105k, it was time to go.
    I recall the USPS bought a bunch of them in light blue for mail delivery, didn’t end well.

    You are right about the dime store Vega Panel Express. I have one that I bought back in the 80’s from Woolworth’s. It was made by Tootsie Toy in the USA. It is the later styling as you guessed with slanted front and big bumpers. It is red with white interior and is still in mint condition.

    Vegas when new would hold up to a lot! Not fast, and problems from the aluminum block and cast iron head. I’ve got a picture of one that was hit in the drivers door by a loaded 18 wheeler. My mom was able to get out of the passenger door and walk away bruised but walking!

    I used to have one of these. Was an interesting car but I wanted to put a V8 in just never got around to it.

    In a pathetic display of poor judgment I bought a new 71 Vega GT. All that car had was looks. Worst riding car I’ve ever owned and I had a C-1 Corvette, so that’s saying something. I didn’t keep it long enough to encounter the rust issues or engine reliability problems. A real piece of junk.

    A buddy of mine had a 73 Vega hatch. He never did any maintenance on it and one day while coming back from the city at night the oil light came on. I asked hi if he was going to stop and check the level. Nope! He just kept driving it, said it was an anomalie. That was around 40000 miles. Later that fall with about 45000 miles on the engine/car we were coming back from the city again when a humungous bang erupted from the engine compartment and the car started to slow. We got out and found a connecting rod right through the side of the block. Should we hitch hike (before cell phones) to the nearest town? Nope! We hopped back in and he drove the car that way for the next 15 months before it finally quit. About 6000 miles with a connecting rod flopping through the side of the block. It was a fun little car and certainly took a lot of mistreatment but provided him with the transportation he needed at minimal expense.

    I’ve had 2 Vegas, a 74 GT and a 73 Kammback. Actually loved them both. My ex wound up with the 74, and I tried to knock down an oak tree with the wagon. Tree won, hands down. I always thought Chevy should have made a GT version of the panel. Lastly, I know where there is a panel wagon now, that once was a nice street car and fast too.

    When you consider what the other American manufacturers were offering in the small car space (Ford Pinto, AMC Gremlin and Chrysler’s Mitsubishi imports), IMO the Vega was the best looking of the bunch and no worse functionally. As a college student in the early 70s, one of those, a VW Beetle, Honda N600, Toyota Corona or Corolla were your options. I had a 1971 Vega hatchback and it served me well, although the rust ate up the front fenders even though they were Ziebarted. (Then again, rust ate the fenders on my 74 Blazer too after one NJ winter and one in SC).

    Perhaps one shouldn’t judge cars from 50 years ago by the standards of today.

    Well I might argue a bit about it being best-looking, but as with many things, beauty is subjective and in the eyes of the beholder. While I like the Vega’s looks, I had one of those “Chrysler Mitsubishi imports” – a Plymouth Champ, that I thought was really attractive. I think it was a 1980 – not sure – and it was actually a nifty little commuter car. Took it on the highway once or twice, and like my ’72 Pinto, it got blown around a lot when in the vicinity of anything bigger than a VW Beetle. But on curvy roads and in town traffic, it was a blast. This had the distinction of being the only car I’ve ever known of that was sat on by a horse – true story!

    I worked with a guy in the body shop at a local Chevy garage. He bought a new panel delivery and promptly took the drivetrain out and shoehorned in a 454 V8. He rolled that sucker over and went out the back hatch. Miraculously wasn’t hurt to bad and lived to have many more adventures like when he blew up a gas tank he was soldering. He had it full of water and thought that would evacuate the fumes. Old Red had many stories. I could fill a book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *