There is personal nostalgia reminiscing today, this is your official notification, just in case that’s not your thing. Also, there is a little bit of automotive jargon scattered throughout today’s post. That said, it’s time to remember part of my young adulthood.
Recently, for some unknown reason, YouTube began adding a lot of automobile related videos in my suggested list. I took the bait and began watching the videos once every week or two. A few days ago, a video that showcased a Chevy Vega appeared. I watched and enjoyed it tremendously. Of course, more Vega videos have been suggested, and I’ve played them. YouTube has managed to trigger many fond memories about how I lived and drove many years ago.
Throughout most of the 1970s, I owned a 1973 Vega Kammback wagon. It was a dark bronze lemon of a car that ironically, I enjoyed greatly. In 1977, I had a room mate and coworker named Doug. (I’ve had the good fortune to have known a lot of guys named Doug.) Anyhow, Doug affectionately nicknamed the little car “la Vega”. So, anytime we wanted to use my car to run an errand or take an out of town day-trip, we’d say, “Let’s take la Vega.”
When la Vega was showing serious signs of wearing out, I purchased a green 1971 Vega notchback sedan from another pal, David, as a parts car to cannibalize for the Kammback. David had repaired his green car after a minor accident. He replaced the right front fender with one from a junked Vega GT model; he altered the front bumper, and repaired the rest of the minor body damage. The engine suffered a coolant leak into the engine that caused foamy motor oil. The two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission was wearing out and whiny. There was also a leaky windshield sealing gasket where rainwater dripped in front of the rearview mirror. However, the little clunker was a blast to drive. Also, it was my friend’s old car, so what’s not to love?
After purchasing the green car from my friend, I parked it next to la Vega. When Doug saw the two cars together, he said that now I have las Vegas (the Spanish plural form of la Vega). Who could resist a moniker like that? Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1972, I was a typical, college student trying to make ends meet so I could pay tuition and fees, buy books, and take care of other expenses. I was driving my first car, a red 1967 Chevy Camaro. I was the third owner, so the car was showing signs of severe wear and tear. It had drive-train and engine issues, the transmission needed costly rebuilding, and the red vinyl interior had seen much better days. It would have cost a few thousand 1972 valued dollars to fix the car. I determined it would be cheaper to trade the trashed Camaro in for something new and economical.
I visited the local Chevrolet dealer (because our family bought exclusively General Motors product–mainly Buicks and Chevies. Also, dad always had his Buicks specially ordered from the factory.) I wanted a Vega because it seemed like a great car at the time. Also, it was the “Motor Trend” magazine “Car of the Year” in 1971. I sat down with the sales manager and placed an order for a Kammback station wagon with special exterior trim, custom interior (because the standard seats were flimsy and awful), plus the sport dash and instrument package, because I wanted a tachometer and actual gauges.
The Kammback arrived in November, ahead of a blizzard. I was thrilled to be able to drive it a couple of days before garaging it for the storm. After the blizzard, I was able to better judge the car’s performance. The engine was its major weakness, but the handling was better than that of the Camaro. Overall, it seemed to be a better than average little car.
Afterwards, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Kammback served as the commute vehicle between San Jose and Palo Alto during my stint at Hewlett Packard. By then, the entire Chevrolet Vega product line had garnered a very poor reputation. This manifested in my Kammback as engine run-on problems. During the entire time I owned the car, to stop the engine, I had to switch off the ignition, place the transmission in reverse, then gently engage the clutch. If this wasn’t done, the engine would just chug, chug, chug and probably damage something. There was nothing mechanics nor knowledgeable family members could do to remedy this annoyance.
Eventually, the engine deteriorated in other ways more quickly than I had earlier anticipated. I learned how to disassemble certain parts of the engine to extend its usable life. I never would have had reasons to learn how to change a cam belt or to adjust the valves on an engine if it hadn’t been for the sorry Vega engine and my lack of financial resources. The only carburetor I ever rebuilt was the one on the Kammback.
In between shade tree mechanic repairs, I also tweaked the car’s appearance. Dad gave me his old pin-striping tool, so I put it to use by creating a Cubist theme on the body that was inspired by the Egyptian pyramids. I was going through an occult spiritual phase and especially interested in Ancient Egypt. I believed that the pin-stripes helped center the positive energy vibes between the car and me.
I named the Kammback the “Ra Express”. It was in honor of the Egyptian God of the Sun. There are a lot of New Agey reasons for this, mainly because I’m an astrological Leo and that sign is ruled by the Sun. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Thank goodness for the Bay Area’s New Age movement of the 1970s. I was able to expand my mind without hard drugs. I consider that a win.
Around the time I’d finished decorating the car and re-installing woven bamboo grass shades in the rear quarter windows, I was notified that the radio station in Wayne, Nebraska had accepted my application to work as an announcer. I accepted their offer and requested time to prepare for the move halfway across the continent. The husband of one of my third cousins, I don’t know how many generations removed, helped me change the head gasket and replace the coolant pump.
I loaded the Kammback with almost all of my belongings. There was barely enough room for me to sit. I waved goodbye to San Jose and moved to a yellow Quonset hut across the street from the baseball park in Wayne, Nebraska. A new chapter in my life had begun. This is the part of my life I’ve mentioned several times in the past on this blog.
In 1977, I was accepted at the only commercial radio station in Norfolk, Nebraska, at that time. The Kammback was loaded to the roof for each of two trips for that move. This takes us to where this blog post began.
The pair of “las Vegas” was my personal transportation base. On Thanksgiving Day of 1978, I was driving with my friend Felix to enjoy the holiday in Wayne. A few miles down the road, the Kammback’s engine blew up. I had the car towed back to my driveway. Then we resumed our trip to Wayne in Felix’s Dodge/Mitsubishi Colt wagon.
The little Vega Kammback had lasted 96,000 miles and just over six years. During those years, the car helped teach nearly everything I know about auto mechanicals and vehicle maintenance. Not bad for a Chevy Vega. I ended up driving the older, green spare parts car until the following January. I vowed to never buy another Chevrolet.
Now, many years later, the funny thing is, I kind of want another 1973 Vega Kammback wagon.