Burning Down the Chevy Vega

Not too long after getting my driver’s license in 1977, or maybe even a bit before, my father entrusted me with perhaps the single sexiest vehicle in automotive history. It looked almost identical to this:

chevy vega station wagon 1974

The “wood-paneled,” “station wagon” Vega was just one of a melange of not-so-great vehicles my dad rotated through, seemingly because he so much enjoyed having them break down and putting them on cinder blocks in the rural yard of my youth. I say “seemingly,” because his working on these cars atop the cinder blocks was always accompanied by a steady and unending stream of expletives.

My job was to hand him tools and listen to the swearing. In some ways, I think this “job” prepared me for my life as a middle school teacher.

Among these hulks was one absolute beaut, a ’67 or so black Lincoln Continental with “suicide doors,” looking something like this,

lincoln continental

a vehicle we could only afford because the 1973 Oil Crisis had driven gas prices to unimaginable heights (about 50 cents a gallon) and everyone was dumping Lincolns and such.

I dwell on that black Lincoln because the other vehicles strewn throughout the yard were so awful. For some reason, my dad was in love with the aluminum chassis idea of the Chevy Vega, a love shared by probably only about ten people worldwide, none of whom were automotive engineers.  This love was ultimately extended to me, unrequited, in the form of a “Cosworth Vega” as my high school graduation present. It looked something like this:


You might notice my dad’s love for black automobiles, a love enhanced by the fact that black vehicles were cheaper in the broiling heat of North Central Texas. “My” Cosworth Vega was black with black interior and an air-conditioner that might have worked enough for those living in Inuit country, but was nowhere near enough for DFW.

The other aspect of this particular Vega, the “Cosworth” also conveys my father’s long-time love for hot rods. Throughout my early childhood he raced 1/4-mile on semi and mostly-legal tracks in the area, specializing in sticking outrageously large engines in ridiculously small cars. For example, he put a Chevy 327 engine in a Triumph 3 looking something like this:


No, I am not making this up. A Chevy 327. He was kinda crazy, my father.

He did the same thing with many models, until he flipped over an El Camino racing 1/4-mile and Mom made him stop. His true specialty was sticking big engines in the back seats of Corvairs, a setup no amount of insulation and sound-proofing could overcome. Sitting in those Corvairs was deafening, even at idle. It was also a tad warm.

So the “Cosworth Vega” was named after some famous racer guy that I could not possibly care less about. Handing tools to my dad while hearing him nonstop cuss and having him flip El Caminos on the track sorta put a damper on any possible automotive love I might have had. I took the stupid Vega for graduation, sweated my ass off driving it for a Texas summer and got rid of it, how I don’t exactly recall, as fast as I could.

Anyway, getting back to that beautifully “wood-paneled” Vega, my most self-conscious teen year or so was spent driving this monstrosity around. To refresh the visual, let’s take another look at it:

chevy vega station wagon 1974

And my dad wondered why I had trouble finding dates.

So one afternoon I’m driving this fine, fine automobile to a friend’s house, just after my dad has done some work on it atop the cinder blocks in the rural yard. Something about the carburetor and fuel lines needing fixing (I never paid attention to such details). The car runs fine over there and all is well.

After doing whatever it is 16-year-olds did in 1977 for a bit, I get back in the car and start ‘er up. And it’s more like a Nova than a Vega, as in it “no goes.” It starts, but dies immediately. I hit the ignition again and that works, but the engine won’t start. Limited in my automotive know-how, I ponder all the many “solutions” I’ve seen my dad try over the years. I try one.

I pump the gas and try to start ‘er up again.

A few seconds later, flames appear in the cracks of the car hood, healthily growing at an alarming rate. Like any normal person, I immediately freak out and do nothing to help the situation. The flames continue to grow. I decided it best to vacate the vehicle and pop the hood as I do so.

The hood only goes up a bit, but the fresh air invigorates the flames even more. My friend comes out of his house and we pretty much do nothing but stand there for a few seconds watching the ugly yellow “wood-paneled” Vega’s engine burn and melt before we finally get around to using water, yelling and cursing to put out the flames. Actually, thinking back on it, I think the flames pretty much, eventually, went out on their own.

You’d be surprised how much plastic was in and around the engine on a 1974 Vega.

Amateur forensics later revealed that the cause was a fuel line that popped out of the carb, meaning I sprayed gasoline all over the engine while trying to start it up. Guess that little zip-tie musta slipped. As an aside, if I’d done this in the “Cosworth Vega” nothing would have probably happened, as it had those newfangled “fuel injectors.” I don’t know; I’m no automotive expert.

All of which is a long-winded explanation of many things, including why I have had a 2005 Honda Accord since brand-new, and have only opened the hood about three times in almost 13 years.


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