Mad Men: Chevy Vega Ad

Mad Men Recap: For Immediate Release, S6E6

Of all the products we’ve seen on “Mad Men,” few have prompted a response like last week’s Chevy Vega – and not only because pursuing the account led to the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Cutler, Gleason and Chaough.

First, viewers had to decode which car it was, because it was referenced in the show by its code name, XP-887. There was abundant post-show guessing among fans, followed by the inevitable fact-checking. Was it the Corvette? No, that was a Pontiac. The Camaro? No, that was introduced in 1966.

By Monday, the consensus was that it was the Vega, a car that was supposed to reach new heights in performance but want on famously to become one of the worst cars in U.S. automotive history, one that helped mark the end of an era for Big Three General Motors.

The Vega wasn’t introduced until 1970, and it took some time for folks to realize what a lemon it was, so unless “Mad Men” spills over into the next decade, a highly unlike proposition since next season is the show’s last, we won’t get to see how Don Draper et alia handle the Vega’s sputtering demise.

In any event, for a show that tilts cool on nearly every level, the Vega is an odd interloper, at least from our after-the-fact vantage point. It will be fun to hear what Matthew Weiner has to say about how and why he came to choose it. The car has an intriguing backstory. People of a certain age might remember John Delorean. Here are some details from Auto News:

The Vega was really more of an answer to Ford’s Pinto. It was better looking than the Pinto for sure, but had so many other problems lurking beneath the sheet-metal that it has gone down in history as one of the auto industry’s worst cars ever.

The car was not developed by the Chevy group, but rather by a corporate group inside GM, led by GM President Ed Cole. In the late 1960s, GM’s brands — Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac — each had their own engineering and design staffs and each was highly territorial and competitive with the other brands. Chevy, said the brand’s chief in 1970 John DeLorean (in the book: “On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors”), did not want the car. “We were to start building the car in about a year, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. Chevy’s engineering staff was only going through the motions of preparing the car for production, but nothing more. Engineers are a very proud group. They take interest and pride in their designs, but this was not their car and they did not want to work on it.”

It will be fun to watch the newly-merged firms tackle this project. In the meantime, here’s a fun collage poster from (click image to view full size) that celebrates the new client and the merger. (Except where’s Jim Cutler?)

Vintage Chevy Vega Ad With Mad Men Characters

Images via CC BY-SA 3.0 & CC BY 2.0. Additional data from Wikipedia and DirectSpecialTV


  1. I take issue with the “ugly” part in the ad – it was and is a beautiful car, which only made the half-baked engineering underneath sadder. If only GM had used the Opel 1900 or Chevy II 153 engines and spent the money they saved there on better rustproofing…

    But this is a TV blog not a car one so I’ll just add that they’ll probably skip a couple years between seasons. I can imagine Don proudly presenting Sally with a brand-new Vega as a sixteenth birthday present – and much father-daughter bonding as he gives her rides home from the places it’s left her stranded.

  2. GM’s first U.S. mini-car cost $200 million to design and bring to production. In today’s money that’s over a billion dollars – it wasn’t by chance the Vega out-handled more expensive european sport sedans.
    AMC in contrast, spent all of 5 million to convert an existing Hornet compact into the Gremlin, selling it for about the same price as the Vega which was new from the ground up, sharing nothing with existing vehicles.
    At $2090. when introduced, it was a bargain. No other car company in the world was able to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a vehicle to sell in that price range, and GM made little or no profit on the Vega which was usually ordered with few options (GM’s profits came from expensive options).
    But in a rush to bring the car to market, numerous piecemeal “fixes” were performed by dealers and Chevrolet’s “bright star”, received an enduring black eye despite a continuing development program which eventually alleviated most of these initial shortcomings.
    Motor Trend selected the Vega one of the 10-Best cars of 1971 and awarded the Vega 1971 Car of the Year.
    Car and Driver readers voted the Vega “Best Economy Sedan” for 1971, 1972, and 1973 in C&D’s Readers Choice Polls. By 1974, the Vega was among the top 10 best-selling American cars. By 1976, the car had received five years of improvements (300 new part numbers in ’76 alone) with a refined, durable automobile the result.
    The liner-less aluminum/silicon engine technology that GM and Reynolds Metals developed turned out to be sound. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche use sleeveless aluminum engines today, the basic principles of which were developed for the Vega engine.

    Motor Trend said in 1971, “So, the Chevrolet Vega 2300 is Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year by way of engineering excellence, packaging, styling and timeliness. As such, we are saying that for the money, no other American car can deliver more.”

    Motor Trend Classic said in 2010, “Chevrolet spun the Vega as a more American, upscale car. And let’s face it, the car looked hot. So can you blame us for falling hook, line, and sinker for the Vega and naming it 1971’s Car of the Year?”
    “..well-maintained examples are great looking, nice-driving, economical classics..”

    Motor Trend Classic said in 2013, “Overblown – The China Syndrome might have overhyped the TMI (Three-Mile Island) incident as bad press might have exaggerated the Vega’s woes.”

    see also:
    Chevrolet Vega Reviews – Chevy Vega Wiki

  3. “The lone Vega outran every single Opel, Colt, Pinto, Datsun, Toyota and Subaru in Car and Driver’s SS/Sedan Challenge III” “You have to admire a car like that. If it wins, it must be the best, never mind all of the horror stories you hear, some of them from me.” Car and Driver’s Patrick Bedard, 1975

    “Overall the GT really did impress us. From a standpoint of economy, quality features, handling and braking, the Vega is a winner.”
    Chevy Action, 1975

    “The Cosworth Vega 16-valve four cylinder is the most sophisticated engine Detroit ever made” “Through the woods or down a mountain, the Cosworth is a feisty aggressor willing, if not altogether able to take on the world’s best GT cars.”
    Car and Driver October 1975

    Furthermore, fuel economy for the three test Vegas averaged 28.9 mpg over the duration of the run, while oil was used at the rate of only one quart every 3400 miles. All three 1976 Vegas completed the total 180,000 miles with only one “reliability” incident — a broken timing belt was recorded.”
    Motor Trend February 1976

    “The results are in Figure 2. Read ’em and weep, all you foreign-is-better nuts, because right there at the top, and by a long way at that, is the Cosworth Vega. It had the fastest 0-60 time, the fastest quarter-mile time, and tied with the Saab for the shortest braking distance”.
    Road Test October 1976 “The Great Supercoupe Shootout” — Alfa vs. Mazda vs. Lancia vs. Saab vs. Cosworth Vega

    “As with the Corvair, any statements about the Vega’s failure have to be carefully qualified. Chevrolet sold more than 2 million Vegas during its seven-year lifespan, which is excellent by any standards. — Chevrolet sold all the Vegas they could build.”
    Portraits of Automotive History October 10, 2009 “Falling Star: The Checkered History of the Chevrolet Vega”

    “After a few gentle miles, I begin to understand how this car (Vega) won its awards and comparison tests.” “Well-maintained examples are great looking, nice-driving, economical classics.” “Emotionally, Jim Brokaw summed it up in January 1972: Gremlin has power, but Pinto has the price, and a much quieter ride. Which car is best? Vega.”
    Motor Trend Classic in the Fall 2010

    “The much-maligned Chevrolet Vega was ahead of its time, advancing new technology in an industry that desperately needed it in the 1970s.”Small, attractive, economical to buy and efficient to own, the sporty and thrifty little car marked big changes at GM, upending nearly 60 years of the way Chevrolet did business.”
    Hemmings Classic Car March 2014


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