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Saturday, June 13, 2015

1971-1975 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express and the 1973-1975 Pontiac Astre Panel

The 1971 Chevrolet Vega family included a Panel Express truck, sized to carry “pizzas, prescriptions, potato chips or flowers.”

General Motors needed to play catch up in the sub-compact category as the 1960s came to a close. Chevrolet had only begun to develop a vehicle for that market in 1968. Designers and engineers were under the gun to have a North American-built subcompact on showroom floors for the 1970 model year.

1970 Gremlin from AMC was the first North American-built subcompact.

Competition was fierce. American Motors was the first of the Big Four American automakers to hit the market with its unique Gremlin and Ford followed hard on AMC’s heels with the chubby-cheeked Pinto. GM also had to contend with a good number of worthy, offshore competitors, all eager to sell their vehicles in the North American market.

The 1971 Chevrolet Camaro

James G. Musser, Jr. was selected to head the Vega team. He had created the sensational Camaro and now he was responsible for ensuring that the littlest bowtie in the Chev family carried a strong resemblance to the division’s hot-selling pony car.

Introduction of the Vega was delayed because of a long and bitter strike. General Motors was crippled when nearly 400,000 workers walked out of GM’s 138 plants in the US and did not return to work for 67 days. Part of the dispute was about the robots setting an inhumanly possible manufacturing pace in the Lordstown facility. Chevrolet’s Vega finally got into production in GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant on June 26th, 1970.

Unimate robots at work.

Chevrolet officials had calculated that 400,000 units a year would be built annually in Lordstown. GM invested $100 million to revamp the seven-year old plant—and the upgrade included 26 state-of-the-art Unimate robot welders.  A total of 101 vehicles an hour would roll out the doors—one every 36 seconds.

Management and the United Auto Workers settled their differences and the Chevy Vega finally debuted on September 29th, 1970 as a 1971 model. The name was drawn from the most visible star in the constellation Lyra—one of the five brightest nighttime orbs in the Northern Hemisphere.

This timeless VW advertisement dates from 1963.

Marketing stole a page from Volkswagen’s classic advertising by announcing that Vega would not undergo annual changes; the 1975 model would look the same as it did at its 1971 introduction time.

Vega arrived as a sedan, a hatchback, a Kammback (wagon) and in an unusual twist—a pint-sized Panel Express, billed as “Our Own Little Panel Show.” The panel show reference was a nod to the many television quiz shows popular at the time.

The 1972 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express came with two secret under-the-floor compartments.

Despite its diminutive 2 463-millimetre (97-inch) wheelbase, the Panel Express was touted as ideal for light-duty deliveries. Advertising asked, “How big does a truck have to be to carry pizza, prescriptions, potato chips or flowers? This little hauler could carry a payload of up to 362 kilos (800 pounds) in 6.2 square metres (66.7 cubic feet) of space. The no frills Panel express was fitted with steel panels instead of rear side glass, rubber flooring, only one seat and two hidden compartments—one behind the front seat and a second at the tailgate. 

Vega zipped around courtesy of a 2.3-litre (140-cubic inch), four-cylinder, in-line aluminum engine.

Powered by a new 2.3-litre (140-cubic inch), four-cylinder, in-line aluminum engine, the base model offered  67 kiloWatts (90 horsepower). For a few bucks more, one could pack an extra 14 kW-- twenty horses-- under the hood. A three-speed manual transmission was standard equipment but a four-speed stick shift was offered as well as the tried-and-true Powerglide automatic and a one-shift, no-clutch semi-automatic called Torque-Drive.

Motor Trend magazine chose the Chevrolet Vega to be  its Car of the Year. Model year sales in North America for the Panel Express was a modest 7,800 units, with a starting price of  USD$2,138.

The Panel Express returned for 1972. There were a few changes but noticeably new was a glove box, a price reduction of USD$50 and the hype. “The kinky way to haul around your surfboard or your diving gear or yourself,” bragged advertising. To underscore the truck’s versatility the Panel Express was pitched specifically to handymen, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, cheque-clearing houses, blueprint companies and to any small business with delivery service ranging from pizza to pharmacies. At the end of the model year 4,114 units had been built for the North American market.

There were changes for Vega in 1973. Engines were detuned to 53 kW and 64 kW (72 and 85 horsepower) to comply with new emissions standards. The Panel Express was downplayed greatly, now taking a back seat to the wagon, described only as Kammback’s “friend” and reduced to a 100-word description in the sales brochure. The little truck’s price tag was now USD$2,106. 

To supplement the 400,000 units coming from the Lordstown plant, Chevrolet planned for an additional 150,000 Vegas a year be produced in its St. Therese, Quebec facility. Vega’s Panel Express seemed to miss the mark as North American output slipped to 3,886 units for the model year.  

In 1973 the Pontiac Astre made its debut. The Canada-only model included a truck.

Canadian Pontiac-Buick dealers got their own unique version of the Vega. Introduced at mid-year, the Pontiac Astre was offered all four of the Vega variations, though the Panel Express was called the Pontiac Astre Panel.

1974 Pontiac Vega GT

When the 1974 Vega and Astre appeared, the GM cousins wore the new high-impact 8-kph (5-mph) bumpers mandated by Washington and Ottawa.  The price in the US rose to $2,405 for the Chevrolet Vega Panel Express.

Along with a pretty new face, changes included more options, more colours--because owners wanted more style, more spirit. The gas tank size was increased from 36 litres to 59 litres. (8 to 13 Imperial gallons. Advertising for the small haul was reduced to a footnote.

No doubt the embargo on gasoline sales to the United States by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) helped to push  Panel Express production to 4,289 units for the 1974 model year.  Small was not just beautiful, it was economical, too.

    The Chevrolet Vega Panel Express made its last appearance for the 1975 season. Options included air conditioning and automatic transmission.

When the 1975 selling season began, marketing optimistically gave the Panel Express its own four-page brochure, billing it as “our big little truck.”

Time and timing were not kind to the Vega Panel Express. Inflation pushed the base price up to USD$2,822. Consumers shied away from the Vega. Hurried to market, design flaws resulted in a myriad of chronic breakdowns. 

Only 131 Pontiac Astre Panels were built for the Canadian market in the 1975 model year.

In a bid to salvage Vega’s reputation and boost sales, Chevrolet offered a five-year/ 100,000-kilometre (60,000-mile) engine warranty but that didn’t stop the slide. Only 1,525 Chevrolet Vega Panel Express trucks were built during the 1975 model year. 

It would be the tiny truck’s swan song. When GM shifted Vega production from St. Therese, Quebec to Southgate, Michigan, the little Chev truck was deleted from the lineup.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2015 All rights reserved.


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