The Chevrolet Vega was a subcompact car sold by Chevrolet during the 1970-1977 model years. The goal was to take on the new Japanese and European small, fuel efficient cars with an American made car full of innovative features. It also had to be competitively priced.
Major cost efficiences were gained through a quick vehicle development process, an aluminum engine and advanced automation at the assembly plant. In order to get the Vega to the dealers, Chevrolet needed to find a cheaper way to ship the cars.
At the time, the cost to ship a Vega from the Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant to its furthest point on the west coast was about $4,800. That did not make sense for a car designed to cost around $2,000.
A typical railcar in the 1970s could hold 15 vehicles. Due to its compact size, it was possible to fit 18 Vegas in a car. This small gain did little to get the shipping cost down. As a result, a new shipping method was needed.
That new method came in the form of the Vert-A-Pac railcar developed by General Motors and Southern Pacific shown below. By placing the cars nose-down, 30 cars could fit where 18 did previously. Getting those extra vehicles loaded in each rail car reduced shipping charges, however, it required additional railcar features and vehicle packaging.
Unique Railcar Features
In order to package Vegas in the new railcar design, each one was fitted with four removable, cast-steel sockets into the undercarriage. Plastic spacers were wedged in beside the powertrain to prevent damage to engine and transmission mounts. These were removed when the cars were unloaded.
The railcar ramp/doors were opened and closed via forklift. Not only did the doors double as ramps, they also provided security from weather, vandalism, and theft. something which the typical tri-level racks were exposed.
Vehicle Design For Nose-Down Shipping
Chevrolet Marketing wanted to tout the Vega as ready to drive off the Vert-A-Pac ramps without any fluid fills. Unfortunately, cars are not meant to be suspended in a nose-down position for any length of time. Since this Vert-A-Pac shipment method was known early, Chevrolet engineers were able to design the Vega with this in mind.
Engineers performed vibration and low speed crash testing to ensure Vegas did not sustain physical damage in the rail cars. They also included the following to prevent fluid spills and internal engine damage while the vehicle was vertical:
- An engine oil baffle prevented oil from entering the number one cylinder.
- Batteries filler caps were located on the rear edge of the battery to prevent acid spilling
- The carburetor float bowl had a tube that drained into the vapor canister during shipping.
- The windshield washer bottle stood at a 45 degree angle.
All of these design considerations were meant to get the Chevrolet Vega to market in a safe, efficient manner. In real life, the Vert-A-Pac system created challenges.
Real Life Challenges
While researching this topic, I came across a comment from a retired railroader. He shared some of the challenges he experienced with the Vert-A- Pac system. His recollection of this system is shown below:
“As a retired railroader with 41 years of service in the industry, I can provide some insight to this concept from a railroad perspective. First, loading and unloading the Vert-a-Pac cars was incredibly labor intensive and, in many aspects, dangerous. In addition, the cars needed a very wide space to accommodate the open doors which took up a lot of yard space that could be used for additional tracks.
It was also very time consuming to load the vehicles and secure them to the Vert-a-Pac. Closing the doors on the Vert-a-Pac was tedious and potentially dangerous. Dropping a loaded panel would have devastating results and I’m sure it has happened more than once. The process needed to be done in reverse during unloading.
Second, the 70s were hard times for the railroad industry. Deferred maintenance resulted in a very rough track. In modern times, when the railroad industry is thriving, the ride would still be rough for a vertically mounted vehicle. In the 70s, the Vegas took a beating during transit because of the poor quality of the track at the time.”
Final Thoughts & Questions
This railcar design and shipping method was unique to the Chevrolet Vega. This meant it only lasted until the 1977 model year when the Vega succumbed to its early engineering and build issues. Even so, the real life challenges shared by the retired railroader likely added to the Vega’s demise. What started as a great idea in an engineer’s mind did not translate into a practical, effective solution.
That pretty much sums up automotive innovation in the 1970s!
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