By ED RUNYAN
Forty years ago, GM Lordstown was preparing for the launch of a small car — the Chevrolet Vega — in much the same way that it is preparing for the launch of the Cruze today.
But two local men who worked on the Vega in 1970 say they believe a lot has changed for the better since Lordstown built one of the worst cars in automotive history.
Jim Graham, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112, which represents workers at the Lordstown assembly plant, says he’s one of the few people still associated with GM who also built the Vega.
Graham admits that the car, which started coming off the line in the fall of 1970 and didn’t stop until 1977, had flaws.
Graham says the checkered history of the Vega came about because of decisions made by plant leadership, the General Motors Assembly Division, during 1971 to increase production to a pace that took a toll on quality.
“The Vega was probably one of the best-engineered cars made by General Motors, but GM got greedy and we were putting out about 115 per hour,” Graham said. The plant runs at about 60 cars per hour now.
The Vega would eventually become known for problems linked to its aluminum-block engines, which were prone to overheating and using oil, and premature rusting of the body caused by a flawed full-body dip primer process that left some parts of the car unprotected.
Graham, who worked in the paint shop from 1970 to 1975, said GMAD, which took over operations at the plant in October 1971, was “a hard outfit to work for.”
When GMAD took over, it laid off some 700 workers in an effort to cut costs, while running the assembly line at the fastest speed in the company, according to Vindicator archives, quoting United Auto Workers union allegations.
The poor relationship between the workers and company led to a short strike in the spring of 1972 and the highest absenteeism rates in the GM system, according to the The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.
The plant manager, in a letter to workers in 1971, accused them of “shoddy workmanship and sabotage” of vehicles.
In 1977, the plant began to make small cars under the nameplate Chevrolet Monza, Pontiac Sunbird, Oldsmobile Starfire and Buick Skyhawk.
Tom Koroni of Warren was a 32-year-old former steelworker and military veteran from Pittsburgh in 1970 when production of the Vega began.
Koroni worked in the materials department at GM, keeping track of parts used in production — a job handled mostly by computers today. He worked at the plant from the time it opened in 1966 until his retirement in 2000.
Koroni said there were a number of challenges that led to quality problems at the plant.
One was that many of the workers were young and unmarried (average age around 25), and many were relatively inexperienced in working on an assembly line. He estimates the average age of GM production workers today is in the 40s.
So when GMAD started speeding up the line, some workers didn’t respond well, Koroni said.
Nonetheless, Koroni said he believes the Vega was a good car for the price (just more than $2,000 in 1971), and the local plant operated better than most of the other GM plants he visited during his time with the company.
“It’s the best place I ever worked,” said Koroni, 72, who now works for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, assisting senior citizens.
“It provided good employment for the area for a lot of people,” Koroni said.
“Did it [the Vega] have bugs in it? Of course it did, but we made nearly 2 million of those over six years, so we had to be doing something right,” he said.
In a 2008 article in U.S. News and World Report and in a 2002 article in Forbes, the Vega and one of its chief rivals, the Ford Pinto, were listed among the worst cars of all time.
Forbes said the 1971 to 1974 Vega was “one of the most unabashedly no-frills cars in history.”
Forbes said the Pinto from 1971 to 1980 had an infamous safety flaw: “It was prone to blowing up if rear-ended. When people talk about how bad American small cars created an opportunity for the Japanese to come in and clean house in the 1970s and 1980s, they are referring to vehicles like this” and the Vega.
Forbes also mentioned the 1978 Honda Accord as another of the decade’s worst lemons, saying the car’s fenders rusted from the inside out, pieces of interior trim changed color or fell off, the transmission sometimes had to be replaced several times, and its aluminum engine blew its gaskets.