1976 Chevrolet Vega Cosworth: Smokey and the Vega!
Vega is a four-letter word. Literally and figuratively, of course. You’d think only Chevrolet made subcompacts with questionable fit and finish in the 1970s. Um, Datsun B210 Honey Bees, anyone? Rapid-rusting ’74 Corollas? Pardon me while I roll my eyes. OK, where was I? Yes, well, today I’m not going to add more to the vast array of blogging cannon fodder directed at the Chevrolet Vega, deserved though it may be. No, today I’m here to talk about the good parts—the fun parts. And no Vega was more fun or more interesting than the Cosworth.
Of course, the Vega story has been told many times before. Introduced in 1971, it lasted to 1977. Early cars had issues. Rust issues, oil starvation and the novel-for-the-time chemically-etched piston sleeves proved problematic, especially on the early models, ironically the best looking ones. But they were attractive cars, with their Mini-Me Camaro styling, particularly in the fastback and Kammback station wagon versions.
The zoomy Cosworth version initially was scheduled for introduction in 1974, but many teething issues delayed it to model year ’75. As you’d guess, it had a twin-cam head added, developed by Cosworth, with Bendix fuel injection. All ’75s were available in a single color scheme: black with gold pinstriping and gold pseudo-Minilite wheels, with black interior. Only 2061 were built, most likely due to the $5916 MSRP (about $32,600 today). A hefty premium, when a base Vega hatchback started at $2478 ($13,650). Six grand was Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight territory back then.
The sporting Vega returned in ’76, now offered in a variety of colors instead of the basic black scheme. Pricing inched up to $6066; production was 1447. For that money, you could have gotten a Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan or Electra. Or a Corvette.
Total Vega production was down to 160,524—not bad, but not as good as earlier years. Cosworth horsepower was about 110, when a plain-Jane Vega generated around 75–80. The irony is that by this time many of the kinks of the Vega had been worked out, and it was a pretty decent car now—by 1970s standards. But the Vega-based Monza was more popular, with its optional V-8 and Italian looks, and other new subcompacts from the competition were proving compelling. And early Vega adopters, having been burned badly, had zero interest.
Chevrolet touted the Vega’s solidity in period advertising and in salesroom brochures. A 60,000-mile durability run was done in Death Valley over a 60-day period. Cars used for the test were equipped with the updated Dura-Build 140-cubic-inch engine.
Only 24 ounces of coolant needed to be added to each test car for the duration, and only one timing belt had to be replaced on a single car. Chevrolet added a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty to all 1976 Vegas, and separate passages were also added for crankcase ventilation and oil return, which prevented oil from collecting around the valve stem seats—an issue on earlier Vegas.
Today’s featured car is owned by Ed Stembridge, who is relatively local to me here in the Land of Lincoln. I’d heard about his car but hadn’t seen it in person. In early September 2018, Ed called and said he was bringing it to the annual classic car show in Galesburg, Illinois. So I finally got to see it in person. Ed’s first car was a bright blue 1971 Vega, which he later souped up with a Buick V-6. He found this car in early 2018. The price wasn’t bad and the car wasn’t too far away, so he drove up to see it—and brought the trailer along, just in case. As it turned out, that was a good idea.
Long story short, he bought it. It ran great, the price was right, and it was in nice shape. It did have a period-correct giant front air dam, which Ed removed because it was just a little too over the top for his taste. The rear spoiler is a similar vintage item, but it looked nice enough, so it stayed.
This 1976 Vega Cosworth was sold new at Sycamore Chevrolet, in Terre Haute, Indiana. The second owner also lived in Terre Haute, and eventually he sold it to owner number three, who eventually relocated to Rockford, Illinois.
The car was completely restored in 1999, right down to the bare shell and the engine. Between 1999 and summer 2018, only an additional 6000 miles have been added to the clock. Ed’s intent is to bring the car back to factory stock—with the exception of the engine and suspension modifications.
One of the previous owners set up the car for autocross, and so the original engine—rated by the factory at 110 hp—now produces between 140 and 150.
Custom features of the engine include:
- Rods polished and ARP bolts
- .030 over 9.5 to 1 forged pistons
- Sleeved block
- Converted to 42 DCOE Webers
- Total Seal rings
- 2 1/4-inch exhaust with 2 chamber Flowmasters
- 4:10 posi rear (upgraded from factory 3.73 gearing)
- IECO lowering shocks
- Flaming River quick ratio steering box
While all inaugural 1975 Cosworths were black with black interior, 1976 offered several interior and exterior color choices. Ed isn’t in a rush to sell off this car, but if a Cosworth in a more interesting color combo appeared, who knows? He also has a couple classic 1960s VW Beetles he’s been meaning to restore.
I remember seeing a white Cosworth with black and white “tuxedo” interior in one of my Chevrolet books that was pretty sharp. And a few years ago, there was a low-miles one on eBay in Firethorn Red with white vinyl seats and red dash and carpet. Now that one was nice! Whichever one you get, I can attest that the seats are extremely comfortable.
While the Vega line would continue for one last curtain call in 1977, the Cosworth was discontinued. Slightly more than 3500 were built in 1975–76, making them a rare sight at car shows today. Actually, any Vega is a rare sight these days—at shows or anywhere else.
Of course, despite the special engine, trim, paint, and other cool additions, it’s still a Vega at heart. So you won’t be seeing Caprice Classic levels of glitz, chrome, and velour-clad sumptuousness. No opera windows! But the interior is still pretty nice—though Ed mentioned that the black interior without air conditioning was a little warm on the drive to the car show.
But that’s not the point. The point is it’s a fun, rare old car. Something you don’t see every day, unlike the myriad Resale Red, Foose-wheeled 1967–69 Camaros you see at every car show and cruise night in the summer time. Cars like this are the standouts, the interesting ones that make you step aside and check them out. All that, and a blast to drive, too. That’s the Vega Cosworth.
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