After the love/hate relationship which was my 1970 Fiat 124 Coupe, my father, wanting to be helpful, told me to “get an American car”. It was the summer of 1976 and I was about to enter my senior year of college. Although I was working a summer job which paid a decent wage, I wasn’t exactly able to afford what I really wanted – which was a new sporty import.
Deciding at first to ignore dad’s advice, I visited various car dealerships on Staten Island and looked at or test drove the new Toyota Corolla SR-5, Mercury Capri, and Datsun 280Z. The MSRP of these cars in 1976 was $3900 for the Corolla SR-5, $4100 for the Capri, and $6600 for the Datsun (these numbers courtesy of my copy of the Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-1990). My budget, however, was around $1500.
The reality of this situation made me conclude that I only needed a car to last me a year or so. Once I graduated and landed a real job, I could then buy something new. So I thought I would heed my father’s words and look at American iron. In 1976, if one were considering an American car and wanted a sporty, small, 2-door coupe, there were two choices: a Pinto or a Vega.
The recollection is that I only looked at Vegas, and I’m not sure why. However, an advertising photo put out by Chevrolet when the Vega was launched had always stayed with me, which showed a drum set in the load area of the hatchback. A car which could more easily swallow my kit was a priority (the Fiat had room for the drums, but using the side doors for rear seat access was awkward).
There was also the temptation of the Vega “GT” model, which included nice looking alloy wheels and more complete instrumentation. After test driving several used Vegas, I found a 1974 GT with a 4-speed stick for only $1350. This car was four model years newer than the outgoing Fiat, and was in overall good condition.
Side view of my ’74 Vega GT, taken autumn of 1976
The Vega got me through my senior year of college, and truth be told, it wasn’t a bad car. It never broke down on me, it was somewhat fun to drive with the manual tranny, and it cost me very little in the way of maintenance and repair. The car’s Achilles’ heel was oil consumption. During the entire time I had it, the engine consumed a quart of oil about every 400-500 miles (I saw no external leaks). It’s likely that I dispensed with regular oil changes, as the car was getting a fresh quart every couple of weeks or so. Other than oil, I don’t believe I put any money into the car.
In May of 1977, I graduated, moved back home with my parents, and decided to take the summer off to enjoy what would be my last long stretch of free time for quite a while. My brother Karl was desperate for transportation, so I gave him the Vega, with full disclosure about its oil issue. Shockingly, I replaced it with… nothing. When I needed wheels, I borrowed a car from dad, mom, or bro’. Instead of driving, I spent time in NYC, accessible by public transportation. Later that summer, I made my first cross-country trip by car, sharing a ride in a friend’s 1971 Volvo 144. I (correctly) presumed that upon my return from California, I would land a job and buy my first new car. That’s a story for another post at another time.
All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.