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Stuck in the ’70s: time machine 1976 Cosworth Vega heads to auction

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1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega. Photos courtesy Auctions America.

Chevrolet’s Cosworth Vega could have been the car that attracted enthusiast drivers to the Vega line, and it could have shown the world that GM knew a thing or two about building compact sports cars, especially with the help of a development partner like Cosworth Engineering. Instead, the Cosworth Vega arrived years too late, at too high a price and with too little output to make a difference in the Vega’s fortunes. Today, surviving examples can be found in multiple price points, but an all-original, one-owner car with just over 300 miles on the clock doesn’t come along every day, which is what makes this particular 1976 Cosworth Vega, set to cross the stage on April 2 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, of interest to us.

The development of the Cosworth Vega dates to 1969, when Chevrolet general manager John DeLorean sent a message to Cosworth Engineering’s Keith Duckworth, asking if the fabled British F1 engine constructor would have any interest in experimenting with GM’s latest four-cylinder engine, perhaps for use as a racing engine. Duckworth reportedly reviewed the data on the engine and found it structurally sound for development purposes; a deal was struck, and Cosworth entered into dialogue with GM engineers.

1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

The first pre-production aluminum blocks were shipped to Cosworth in the fall of 1970, and a test engine was completed in March of 1971. As relates, the engine reportedly made “useful,” but unspecific, horsepower in dyno testing, though later estimates would claim that 185 horsepower was possible. Such a figure was reliant upon a 12:1 compression ratio, a fuel curve that paid no attention to emission standards, an unrestricted exhaust and Sunoco 260 fuel.

Except that, back in America, the 1971 launch of the Chevrolet Vega was not going as planned. Quality problems with the aluminum four became apparent almost immediately after launch, and a two-month strike by GM’s workers further hampered sales. The sporty-in-appearance-only Vega GT wasn’t attracting enthusiast buyers, so Chevrolet decided on a new path for a range-topping Vega: It would use the Cosworth-developed engine to produce a sports car capable of taking on the likes of BMW’s 2002.

1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

To say that development of the Cosworth engine had slipped off track is a dramatic understatement. Despite early data that showed the high-silicon aluminum block was stout, real-world testing produced regular catastrophic failures, with the block regularly splitting below the cylinder bores. Cosworth was caught between a rock and a hard place, under increasing pressure from GM to produce a performance engine that was powerful and durable, yet still capable of meeting emission standards, as soon as possible.

Chevrolet began marketing the Cosworth Vega in March of 1973, going so far as to draw up new product information guides for the 1974 model. By May of 1973, the car’s projected output had fallen to 130 horsepower, though this number would be revised upward to either 135 or 140 horsepower (depending upon the source) later in the year. A pilot program was started at the factory, and a launch was planned for May of 1974.

And then the Cosworth Vega program hit yet another snag. In April of 1974, while undergoing durability testing required for EPA Emissions Certification, two of the three twin-cam, 16-valve Cosworth engines submitted for testing burned exhaust valves at the 46,000 mile mark, just 4,000 miles short of the test’s limit. Later, it was determined that these test engines were run with retarded timing, hoping to make the emission numbers look as good as possible. Faced with no other alternative, Chevrolet postponed the Cosworth Vega’s launch until April of 1975.

1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

The 1975 launch of the Cosworth Vega was ultimately successful, but by then the engine’s output had dropped to 110 horsepower, a gain of just 23 horsepower over the regular Vega’s optional four fed by a two-barrel carburetor. Worse, perhaps, was that the Cosworth Vega’s base price had skyrocketed to $5,916, while the next-most-expensive Vega model, the two-door Kammback Estate Wagon, carried a base price of $3,244. The Cosworth Vega was significantly more expensive than a V-8 equipped Camaro (which started at $3,958), and only $881 less than a base Corvette coupe.

In addition to its special paint, badging, wheels and interior appointments, the Cosworth Vega also gave buyers a heavy-duty clutch, heavy-duty front and rear anti-roll bars, and quick-ratio steering. A sequential number plate on the dash, along with an 8,000 RPM tachometer, let occupants know that this was no ordinary Vega; and when the road got twisty, the Cosworth’s strengths really came into play.

In SCCA ITA and autocross competition, the Cosworth Vega performed admirably, but few performance enthusiasts could justify the price of admission for a 12.3-second 0-60 time and a 112 MPH top speed. In 1975, Chevrolet built 2,061 Cosworth Vegas, followed by 1,447 in 1976; in 1977, the model was quietly dropped from the product line.

1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

This particular 1976 Cosworth Vega, finished in the 1976-only color of Dark Green Metallic, reportedly spent the bulk of its life as a showpiece for a Chevrolet dealership. As configured, the car came well-equipped with such add-ons as Soft-Ray tinted glass ($44), color-keyed floor mats ($14), Positraction rear axle ($48), five-speed manual transmission ($244), AM/FM radio $129) and rear seat speakers ($20), reaching a sticker price (with delivery charge) of $6,675.

When the low-mileage example crosses the block on April 2, that sticker price will seem like a bargain. Though the car will be offered at no reserve, the pre-auction estimate puts the selling price between $25,000 and $30,000, which, if achieved, will almost certainly be an auction record for a Cosworth Vega. As our own Jeff Koch related in his drive report of a different 1976 Cosworth Vega, perhaps it’s never too late to earn respect after all.

The Auctions America Fort Lauderdale sale will take place from April 1 to 3. For more information, visit