I love this car's name. I was thinking the other day that it's not often Chevrolet puts an engine builder's name beside their own on a car's title.
A race car, sure, that makes sense. But street car? That you could buy at a Des Moines dealership in 1975?
"What's a Cosworth?"
"What state are they in?"
"How much does it cost?"
OK, excuse the hyperbole. There are some enthusiasts in the US who are desperately in love with their cars, who have tracked down, written, and disseminated information about the model that would have been otherwise lost.
And I thank them for preserving this car's unique and interesting history. In other words, I'm the first to say that if you're interested in the car, there are many other sources of information on it.
That said, the Cosworth Vega is still very much a niche car. The page counter on cosworthvega.com says "Page Hits Since 2001: 246,066"—when I was editing the automotive section on Sympatico.ca, Canada's second-largest web portal, we could send that many hits in a few hours to a gallery featuring the "12 Best ways to skin a grape."
This particular niche was first opened by General Motors General Manager and Vice President John Z. DeLorean, who asked a few engineers to figure out how to give the Chevrolet Vega some additional power.
(What a job title, by the way…)
Longtime Ford collaborator Cosworth had been on Chevrolet's radar since, well, every time they'd been beaten on-track by a car fitted with a Cosworth engine. They'd recently been exploring Chevrolet engines for racing, though, opening the door to a deeper collaboration.
After sending a team to England, by 1969—about a year before the Vega was first introduced—Cosworth and Chevrolet engineers began discussing "Project EA."
Not only had Chevrolet noticed the flood of imports gaining a foothold in the US market, but the Vega's launch hadn't gone as swimmingly as planned. I'll quote Wikipedia here (hey, if it's not true, go edit it yourself!):
"Subsequently the car became widely known for a range of problems related to its engineering, reliability, safety, propensity to rust, and engine durability."
On other words, the Maris Crane of the subcompact coupe market.
The hot Cosworth version was meant to be a halo car for the range, and so the engineers got to work. Twin cams, various hot rod tricks—high compression ratio, premium fuel, porting and polishing of the cylinder heads, etc—were incorporated into the design. Along with the engine tweaks, chassis and appearance changes were planned.
Sadly, the world didn't wait for the engineers. Tightening fuel economy standards and the first major US fuel shortage conspired to radically shift the equation. Early prototypes made a strong 185 horsepower, but by 1975 when the Cosworth Vega waddled onto the local Interstate, it was an athsmatic mess with 110 horsepower.
General Motors dealers had no idea. So with production capped at 5,000, they had to compete to sell the car—investing in tools, training, and other required expenses. When visiting the General Motors Heritage Centre a few years ago, they had on display a Cosworth Vega fitted with a sought-after promotional item: a clear hood designed to showcase its Beefeater heart.
OK, so terrible platform, poor engine performance, significant production delays…what else could go wrong?
How's that for a marketing slogan? Chevrolet's ad agency had rightfully recognized that the black-and-gold Cosworth Vega was a special car. But advertising that it was twice as expensive as a normal Vega? Maybe after reading that slogan, potential buyers were compelled to check the price of, oh, the Corvette.
They'd have seen that a 1975 Corvette was just $900 more expensive.
As much as I'd have loved to see Chevrolet blaze a twin-cam trail through the subcompact market in the 1970s, leading to a strong lineup of small sports cars that exists to this day, the Cosworth Vega was simply not meant to be.
Even though it was a lump on showroom floors, the challenges of Cosworth Vega ownership still bring people together nearly four decades later.
Will you still love your car in 40 years?