How Chevrolet Shipped the Ill-Fated Vega

Ah, the Chevrolet Vega, General Motors’ poorly built, muffler-splitting, block-warping reject that was supposed to challenge the imports for sales, but instead challenged them to a game of “Who can rust first?” Many people don’t realize GM developed a lot of new technology in an ill-fated attempt to make the Vega competitive, and one of the most fascinating developments was its method for shipping them by rail. Meet the Vega Vert-a-Pac.

A New Way to Get the Vega to Market

One of the many, many, many problems plaguing General Motors in the late 1960s was the logistics of getting cars to dealerships. Back then as now, cars were shipped by rail, but the railcars they used (known as autoracks) were open-deck affairs that made the cars prone to vandalism and other damage.

A typical 89-foot tri-level autorack could hold five cars per deck, for a total of 15. For very small cars, such as the Vega, 18 cars could squeeze in—but the weight of 18 Vegas was still far less than the weight capacity of the railcars. Railroads generally charged per carload, so it was in GM’s interest to find a way to pack as many vehicles as it could into each car. GM and Southern Pacific Railroad teamed up and created a solution for moving Vegas: Vert-a-Pac.

Vert-a-Pac Upends Logistics Logic—Literally

The Vega Vert-a-Pack used a specially modified 89-foot flat car with a row of bottom-hinged doors on each side, each of which formed a ramp when opened. The new Vega was driven onto the ramp and bolted down using sockets on the frame rails. Once all the cars were loaded, a forklift lifted and closed the doors, tilting the Vegas onto their noses. Fifteen Vegas could be packed in, door-handle to door-handle on each side, for a total of 30 Vegas per loaded flatcar.

Getting the Vega Ready for Vert-a-Pac

The cost benefits of the Vega Vert-a-Pac are apparent immediately: Spreading the per-car shipping cost across 30 instead of 18 cars lowered the outlay by about 40 percent. But it also posed some challenges: GM wanted to ship the cars in as close to ready-to-drive condition as possible in order to minimize the labor required at unloading. That meant the cars had to be full of fluids, including gasoline in the tank, but there could be no risk of those fluids spilling during transport.

Since cars, generally speaking, aren’t meant to be stood on their nose, that required some engineering modifications, including baffles in the oil pan to keep the oil from draining into the No. 1 cylinder, and a carburetor float-bowl that drained into the vapor cannister. The batteries had caps on the rear edge of their case, and the windshield-washer fluid bottle was positioned at a 45-degree angle. When the Vega Vert-a-Pac cars were unloaded, the crew merely had to remove the plastic spacers that protected the powertrain, crank the engine until the fuel bowl filled, and drive away.

A Good Idea That Died With the Vega

For all of the Cherolet Vega’s problems, the Vert-a-Pac shipping method was one of the few things that worked correctly. Reducing shipping costs allowed Chevrolet to lower the Vega’s price, though it was still expensive compared to the competition, which was one of many reasons it struggled against the Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin. GM employed Vert-a-Pac shipping right up until production of the Vega ended; Pontiac used it for its Vega clone, the Astre, as well, at least through 1976. Apparently, 1977 Astres had a different engine which didn’t have the baffles for Vert-a-Pac shipping.

After the Vega got the axe, GM stopped using the Vert-a-Pack shipping cars, not even for the Vega-based Chevrolet Monza and its associated twins. With no other automakers using the system, Southern Pacific removed the Vert-a-Pac units from its underlying flat cars; the racks were scrapped while the flat cars went to other business.

Today, modern autoracks have enclosed sides that protect cars from debris and vandalism. And while GM does make cars that are as short in length as the Vega, such as the diminutive Chevrolet Trax and Buick’s little Encore, they are taller than the Vega, and so would probably not fit roof-to-roof in a Vert-a-Pac car. Who knows, though—if small, low cars like the Vega ever come back into vogue, maybe the Vert-a-Pac railcars will as well.

1971 Chevrolet Vega Specifications
ON SALESeptember 1970
PRICE$2,090 (base)
ENGINE2.3L SOHC 8-valve I-4/90 hp @ 4,800 rpm, 136 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION3-speed manual or 2-speed automatic
LAYOUT2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe/hatchback/wagon
EPA MILEAGE21/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H169.7 x 65.4 x 51.2 in
WHEELBASE97.0 in
WEIGHT2,200 lb
0-60 MPH16.8 sec
TOP SPEED85 mph

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