Vegas. Remember them? Yeah, those little econoboxes that came out in the early '70s. Built to satisfy a growing ecological and economy-minded public at the time. With guys like Bill Jenkins and Jim Liberman wheeling versions of them on the dragstrip, a few of the little bombers even became famous. But even if Grumpy and Jungle made headlines, most street Vegas eventually ended up in the scrap heap, consigned to that fate by rust problems, woeful engines, and a high lack of secondary interest (V-8 conversions notwithstanding).
However, there are a few that were tucked away. The one seen here is the result of a search made by restoration specialist Ricky Smith of Ararat, Virginia. Smith, owner of RSR Restorations, makes his living restoring COPO Camaros, Yenkos, ZL1s, and their ilk. So what is he doing with a Vega?
"I was working on Kevin Hand's Yenko wagon and found out about an experimental Smokey Yunick engine," recalls Smith. "It had been sold when Smokey had his big garage sale, and it's the same one pictured in Super Chevy back in August 1988 about that event. It's the only one left unless GM still has one tucked away someplace."Turn the time machine back to 1971 and you will find that there were a lot of guys who used to build big horsepower for Detroit doing more with less. Yunick's prowess in the dyno room was well-known, and one can assume he got the go-ahead from his pals at GM Corporate to see what the little four-cylinder engine designed for the Vega could do. One of the things Smokey did at the behest of Chevrolet was slap a small Schwitzer turbocharger on it.
With aluminum cylinder walls and a lot of new ideas on the factory motor, we don't know if Smokey built more than one of these, and how many may have violently expired in the pursuit of better dyno numbers. What is established is that the factory nixed ever building a turbo Vega, and Smokey saved only one engine for the stillborn project-this one.
"Smokey Yunick was the last guy to see inside of this motor," Smith said. "Chevrolet was looking at making the turbo an option for the Vega, but that never happened. To have something Smokey actually worked on is awesome, and once I owned it, I had to see what it would do if I stuck it in a car.
This engine began as an RPO L11 110-horse package, which Yunick modified with a ported-iron cylinder head, a pressurized throttle shaft in the re-jetted Rochester 350cfm two-barrel, and perhaps a little camshaft voodoo.
"I began asking around the whole country, and got lucky," he said. "A young man down near Charlotte named Billy Webster, who loves these things, happened to have a gorgeous 14,000-mile 1972 Vega that had come out of Utah. He really had no intention of selling it, but when I told him what engine I had and what I wanted to do, he finally gave me a price and I had the car I was looking for. I know it was a sacrifice for him to let this car go, so I give him a lot of credit for what you see here."
All Ricky had to do to the 35-year-old body was fix one small dent, give it a fresh coat of Valspar BC-CC Gold paint, and get the it ready for the engine transplant. Howell fabricated a custom-chambered Vega exhaust system for the car. Since the idea was to make the Vega look like it had been a factory performance model, Ricky also added some special "Smokey" stripes made by T.W. Signs in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and added NOS front, and rear spoilers.
The driveline and chassis were fairly straightforward. Ricky Smith Restorations does just about everything in house except engine machining, so a 350 Turbohydro was set up for the car in street trim. The stock GT wheels are shod in the factory original A70-13 Polyglass Goodyears, and if you think finding OE tires for your Camaro is tough, try chasing down four of these little pups.
Ricky admits with a grin he can get them to bark with the seven pounds of boost cranked through the turbo. A 3.36 highway gear is in the differential. A set of Stewart-Warner gauges came from Summit and are mounted under the dash. RSR craftsmen Joe Smith and Terry Hill also got kudos for getting the car done.
"I've worked on a lot of great Chevrolets in my life," said Smith. "But it is pretty special to know that I now have a car that truly is one of one."