Upping The Cool Factor With A Hot Vega

Vega Feature

It was during the fall of 1970 when Chevrolet introduced the all-new Vega to the buying public. The car was by no means bad looking, and was appropriately apportioned and priced to go up against its American-made competition – the Pinto. The car sold well, and in its first year, Chevrolet delivered 277,700 units to customers.

The first Vega is now 46 years old, and 90 percent of the time, it is remembered not for its great sales numbers, but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, the car was built with improperly rust-proofed, unusually thin sheetmetal, and it didn’t take long for rust to consume the bodies.

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Not your typical daily driver, Emo’s Vega has no problem turning those Hoosiers into asphalt crayons.

The cooling system for the engine was also barely adequate. Combine this with the new aluminum engine block, and it would get hot, the cylinders would distort, and it quickly started using a lot of oil.

The small-block Vega was a popular hot rod in the '80s and '90s. If you ask Emo, they are still a popular ride.

It was in early 1969, when a then 44-year-old John DeLorean took over as Chevrolet’s division manager. He was pushed head-first into the Vega – which coincidentally, was not directly developed by Chevrolet. In fact, the Vega program was put together by a team of people led by by GM’s then-president, Ed Cole, in 1968.

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In an excerpt pulled from “On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors,” written by DeLorean, “From the first day I stepped into Chevrolet, the Vega was in trouble.” The book goes on to state, “We were to start building the car in about a year, and nobody wanted anything to do with it.”

A True Fan

For Guillermo Caraballo, known to his friends as Emo, there was never a bad feeling towards the Vega. “When I was 16 years old, I used to work in a junkyard where Vega’s were always coming in. I always like them, and always had access to parts to build them however I liked.”

For Emo, that always meant pulling the Vega’s anemic 2.3-liter engines, and replacing them with whatever he could find in the yard, be it a small- or big-block. Although he worked at a junk yard, it was the late ‘70s, and parts were everywhere; there were no bolt-in kits available to install a V8 in a Vega. Engine mounts, crossmembers, and anything else needed, had to be fabricated.

Eventually, Emo left the junkyard and ventured out on his own to start his own upholstery business, and eventually, the modified Vegas he was playing with had to go, as building a business and supporting his family was more important. Through the years, his passion for hot rods never faded. Fast-forward to an older and wiser Emo, and in 2003 his business is flourishing and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wanted another hot rod. This time however, Chevrolet’s little Vega was no longer a plentiful option.

If the headers look strange going forward, it is because there are no mufflers, and the exhaust used to exit through the fenders. Those holes were repaired, and now the exhaust exits just below the front fenders.

What Emo did find was a nice ’72 Nova Super Sport with a small-block under the hood. Emo and his family thoroughly enjoyed the Nova, and Emo even did some work to the engine like installing a supercharger. But, as great and dependable as the Nova proved to be, it still wasn’t exactly what Emo wanted. He still had the memories of the Vegas he modified years ago, and that is what he really wanted – but in 2008, A Vega was hard to locate.

I always like them, and always had access to parts to build them however I liked. – Emo Caraballo

Starting Over

Like a lot of guys, Emo would frequent the local car shows and cruise nights with his Nova, and finally he noticed something that demanded he take a second look – he saw an honest-to-goodness Vega at a cruise night. The car was motivated by a small-block that was relatively stock, but did benefit from a rear modification that allowed the fitment of a large pair of tires.

“The car was baby blue with white interior, and the man that owned it drove it every day, and would show it off at the local car shows,” Emo said.” He struck up a conversation with the owner, and eventually was able to persuade him to trade the Vega for the Nova. That’s right, he traded a 1972 Super Sport Nova for a Vega … please hold your applause. “Along with the stock 350 engine in it, it also had a stock transmission, and a 9-inch rearend with a peg leg drive,” Emo said. But that was all about to change.

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The first thing that Emo did was enlist the help of friends to help correct some of the issues. For starters, the rear end needed to be straightened, and the one-wheel-wonder differential was not going to work. He and Jose Rodriguez at Rods Customs in Port Charlotte, Florida proceeded to retube the axle housing, and then they filled the center with a Positraction differential supporting a set of 4.30 gears that turn a pair of Moser axles. By the way, those axles connect to a set of Weld wheels that rotate a set of 31×13.5-15 Hoosier tires.

Building A Healthy Heartbeat

Next, Emo decided that the stock small-block was not going to deliver the power he wanted, so he located a 400 cubic-inch small-block, and then took it to Wilt Engine Services in Lakeland, Florida. There, the crew added a stock-stroke Eagle crankshaft with steel 5.7-inch connecting rods, and compressing anything that gets into the cylinders is a set of Icon pistons that deliver a 10.5:1 compression ratio.

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In the center of the block is a Doug Herbert hydraulic-roller camshaft with .585/.585-inch lift, and 286/286 degrees of duration at .050-inch lift. The engine definitely doesn’t sound stock anymore. Residing at the top is a pair of Dart cylinder heads and intake, with a Proform 950 cfm carburetor squirting the fuel. The headers were hand-built by Jose at the aforementioned Rods Customs.

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With the stock engine situation addressed, the two-speed Powerglide was sent to Larry’s Transmissions in Dover, Florida, for a complete reworking. When the task was complete, Emo had a fresh transmission, complete with a 1.71 first gear, transbrake, and a 9-inch BTE torque converter stalling at 5,000 rpm.

When it came time to spruce up the interior, Emo does this for a living, so that task was a simple one to complete. But, installing the Jungle Gym-style rollcage did require some help, so again, Jose Rodriguez spent quite e bit of time bending and welding the steel tubing that turned into an 8.50-second-certified safety surround.

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Finally, when it comes to the shiny stuff covering the body, Emo admits that he is not a body and paint-capable guy, so he recruited friend Aaron Lindquist of Ratchet Garage who fixed a few small areas of the body that needed some attention, and then covered the body with the hue of turquoise it still wears.

They say that history will always dictate what happens in the future, and Emo’s history with all things Vega has surely dictated how this project turned out. “She is different because she is tagged and is still a daily driver, so I can take it out anytime I want,” Emo said. “Just like all of my previous cars, I did most of the work myself.” Emo would like to recognize everyone else that pitched in to help, including Tony Stewart, Shane Knack, Doug MacTaggart, and Jose Rodriquez.

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In case you’re wondering, this Vega really is more than just a pretty face. Emo tells us that his best 1/4-mile time to date is 9.40 seconds at 156 mph. That’s not bad at all for a daily driver-capable Vega with a small-block.

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About the author

Randy Bolig

Randy Bolig has been working on cars and has been involved in the hobby ever since he bought his first car when he was only 14 years old. His passion for performance got him noticed by many locals, and he began helping them modify their vehicles.
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