Youngstown and the Chevy Vega were inextricably connected. Over 2 million Vegas were manufactured between 1971 and 1977, most of them at the Lordstown Assembly plant. It was one of the early subcompacts and a more stylish rival to the Ford Pinto, which had its own problems with gas tank fires and explosions during rear end collisions.
The Vega was named 1971 “Car of the Year” by Motor Trend and “best economy sedan” in 1971, 1972, and 1973 by Car and Driver magazine. By the standards of the day, it handled nimbly, got great gas mileage, and was more comfortable than imports and inexpensive, selling for a base price of $2090 in 1971.
Very quickly though, problems emerged. The biggest had to do with its aluminum engine block, which combined with a poor cooling system and leaking valve seals, tended to self-destruct unless meticulously cared for. The other major problem was a body that suffered from rust proofing and body design deficiencies. The road salt of northeast Ohio winters ate Vegas up. If you had a Vega for more than a few years, you had a rusty Vega.
I really only had one encounter with a Chevy Vega. It was a lime-olive green “kammback” (they made hatchbacks, notchbacks, and panel express wagons as well). A friend who was flying to Fort Lauderdale lent it to four of us to drive down and back to Lauderdale during spring break. It was cramped, particularly with all our luggage. It was really hard to get comfortable enough to sleep on the way, unless you were driving through rural Georgia in the middle of the night. That’s when I started drinking my coffee black and strong. We did have to stop frequently to check the coolant and oil and add some–which meant waiting for the radiator to cool because there wasn’t an overflow tank in the early models. But it was fun to drive and it got us there in back without breakdowns and in one piece.
The assembly line processes introduced at Lordstown to manufacture the Vega contributed greatly to the plant’s reputation for labor problems. Using automation and teams with an extra man (allowing for rest) the plan was to manufacture 100 Vegas an hour. Workers needed to complete tasks that once took a minute in 36 seconds. Then management transferred from Chevrolet and Fisher Body to General Motors Assembly Division, which cut the fourth man and laid off workers. The result was a wildcat strike lasting a month in 1972, and frequent grievances.
Studs Terkel, in his book Working, interviewed Gary Bryner, President of Local 1112 of the United Auto Workers. Recently, NPR featured his recordings in a story, ” ‘Working’ Then and Now: ‘I Didn’t Plan to Be a Union Guy’ ” Bryner talks about the “Unimate,” the preying mantis-like robots used on the line that never got tired or sweat or had a bad day. Here is what he said it was like for the guys who worked under this regime:
“That’s right. You know, they use the stopwatches, and they say, look; we know from experience that it takes so many seconds to walk from here to there. We know that it takes so many seconds to shoot that screw. We know the gun turns so fast and screw’s so long and the hole’s so deep. We know how long it takes, and that’s what that guy’s going to do.
And our argument has always been, you know, that’s mechanical. That’s not human. Look; we tire. We sweat. We have hangovers. We have upset stomachs. We have feelings, emotions, and we’re not about to be placed in a category of a machine.”
Popular Mechanics ran a story in 2010 about “How the Vega Nearly Destroyed GM” which points to problems in how the car was designed and the hostile divisions within GM’s corporate headquarters as the real issue behind the car’s problems. I think that makes good sense. I’ve had several friends who worked at Lordstown, and all of them cared about what they did and simply wanted to do good work, make good money, and provide for their families. The fact that they built nearly 2 million Vegas, and a number of other good vehicles since (and all they could do is build what the designers and engineers came up with) speaks to the accomplishments and capabilities of the working class in the Mahoning Valley, whatever may be the future of manufacturing.