Famous for Catching Fire: Chevrolet Vega

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The Chevy Vega originally came to market with the potential to go down as one of GM's best cars of the 70s. It ended up becoming an embarassing failure.
Before we start into the Vega, we just want to say that we didn't intend for this series to be a list of only American cars. The Mini and the Ferrari 458 Italia have also had quite a bit of fire problems, with the 458 being the most justifiably famous recent case. But those two cars were recently covered in other series, so we skipped them for this one, The Chevrolet Vega is very different from the other cars which caught fire, as this was potentially done on purpose.
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The Chevy Vega was a car which began development in 1968 as a way to compete with imported subcompacts. Unlike its competitors at Ford and Chrysler, Chevrolet decided not to look to its European divisions for help in the subcompact market, and the result turned out much better than you might have thought. The car was rated higher than both the Pinto and the AMC Gremlin by Consumer Reports, and would also be named the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 1971. Car and Driver would name it Best Economy Sedan for 1971, 1972 and 1973. The car was pleasant enough to drive, and was actually quite technologically advanced.

Total sales from 1971 to 1977 would come to just under 2 million. The Vega used a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with an aluminum block and cast-iron cylinder head. It was an advanced (for the day) single overhead-cam design, and produced either 90 or 110 horsepower, depending on the trim level. GM had plans to make a rotary version as well, and even paid $50 million in 1970 for the rights to manufacture Wankel engines. The engine was planned to make it under the hood for production by 1973 or 1974. Several prototypes were built, but fuel economy was consistently lower than it was for the regular engine, and at a time when gas prices were skyrocketing.

So GM decided to abandon the project, but the fact that it was even considered at all shows how committed GM was to the idea of the Vega being more technologically advanced than the competition. To go along with this technological advancement, the Vega was built in a newly-refurbished manufacturing plant in Lordstown, Ohio. At the time, this was the most advanced and automated automotive manufacturing facility in the world. The workforce, with an average age in their mid-twenties, was also the youngest in the auto industry in North America.

But the ambitious Vega project was actually overseen by a relatively small number of executives at Chevrolet, that is until production began and it became clear the car was a hit. GM's higher-ups then began interfering and trying to find ways to cut corners. Demand for the car was huge, and GM recognized that an ability to simply keep the flow of vehicles to dealerships going would improve sales. So GM leaned on Lordstown, increasing the flow of vehicles while simultaneously cutting the workforce in order to save money. The plant was producing 100 units per hour, about double the normal rate.

This had been okay at first, since the plant had a larger than average workforce, but GM laid off 800 workers without cutting production by the end of the first year of production. Relations between labor and management would become more and more strained, and would eventually lead to strikes. But before this, there were some other problems. The quality of the work declined, as you might expect when asking a smaller number of people to do more work, but this wasn't the only cause. Workers would eventually start to actually sabotage cars as they came down the line, sometimes with horrifying results.

The Vega had some reliability issues built right into it. Sabotage can't make a car rust more quickly, for instance. But sabotage was one of those issues which led to the Vega actually catching on fire. All it took was some improperly-tightened screws on the carburetor and the engine would start to seriously over fuel. This would just lead to backfires in most cases, but in others, the car would burst into flames. This writer's mother actually had a Vega, and when it caught fire without warning while she was driving down the highway, the case was investigated to see if sabotage had been the cause.

This was September of 1972, and the car had been built during the height of the Lordstown unrest. But the car was so completely destroyed that it was never conclusively proven whether the fire was caused by sabotage or just a bad design. The problems at Lordstown were eventually sorted out, and the plant is now used to build the Chevy Cruze. Some changes to the Vega made later models more reliable, but what the press had dubbed "Lordstown Syndrome" had taken a toll on the car's reputation. The Vega was killed off in 1977, and GM's image in general suffered a major blow.

And it probably would have been even worse, if not for the fact that the spotlight shifted to Ford's appalling business practices in connection to the Pinto in 1977. The Vega and the Pinto both were reasonably promising cars, done in by their own companies and the resulting tendency to catch fire.