David Cartwright's 383-powered V-8 Vega
"I had just sold my '73 RS Camaro and I didn't want to build another Camaro. There are '69 Camaros and blown Willys ad nauseum, so I wanted something a little different." That's the kind of statement usually uttered by some guy in a yellow or blue Camaro about red '69 Camaros. But when David Cartwright is talking about his '73 Vega, the words hold a little more truth. There was a time when V-8 Vegas were as numerous as Britney Spears' tabloid escapades. Two decades later, though, this mini-musclecar conversion is a rarity.
David really wasn't looking for a Vega. He saw an ad for the econocar in the local newspaper and decided to check it out. It turned out to be a grandpa-fresh '73 Vega hatchback owned by a lady in her 70s, with barely 60,000 miles on the clock. The Vega was in El Cajon, California, east of San Diego, where cars never rust (or so the song says), and even at $3,000, David thought it was a deal and drove it home.
He didn't waste any time. The rehabilitation from the Geritol-powered four-cylinder automatic to the unibody-twisting 383 four-speed took only 13 months, "and I had to wait six months for the motor," David says. David owns a body shop in Encinitas, California, so he knew the Vega was in great shape, which would save him some time. While the bodywork began, David went hunting for an engine. "I did a lot of research on the Internet and found this place in North Carolina that does NASCAR engines. I figure anybody that can build a NASCAR-style engine that will last for two or three hours at wide-open throttle is good enough for me." That place was T&L Engine Development in Stanfield, North Carolina, which wrangled up a 383ci small-block stroker that not only was streetable, but also cranked out 427 hp at a very reliable 5,200 rpm. The motor fit better with a set of Sanderson V-8 Vega swap headers that according to David offered a bunch more ground clearance. Even so, it still took David eight hours working alone to get that engine and trans nestled in place. "It's a tight squeeze."
There are still V-8 Vega engine swap kits available through v8monza.com.
Speaking of transmissions, David is also rather pointed about his choice of a Muncie four-speed for the car. "To me, one of the pleasures of a musclecar is to shift gears. It's much more fun, even if an automatic is probably more efficient on the dragstrip." His swap involved using a Monza V-8 bellhousing and a cable clutch linkage tied to a Centerforce clutch setup, which keeps the pedal effort manageable. Of course, this also meant he needed a much stronger rearend than the spindly 6.5-inch 10-bolt that came stock in Vegas. This is where he commissioned Doug Brown to construct an 8.5-inch 10-bolt housing to work with the Vega's original four-link rear suspension. Doug cut the original Vega brackets off the stock rear and added them to the narrowed 10-bolt along with a set of 3.73 gears. That completed the drivetrain, which meant he could concentrate on enhancing the Vega's appearance.
David admits he's not a fabricator, but after 41 years in the bodywork business he does know his way around sheetmetal. Starting from the ground up, he removed the spare tirewell and added a 20-gallon, second-generation Camaro gas tank to give a little range to the thirsty Vega. Next came a rear spoiler that he split so it wouldn't hang over the edge of the hatch when opened. "I've always thought those little Mopar side-marker lights looked great," David says, so that was another added touch along with the Mopar-inspired tail stripe treatment. He also narrowed the front bumper in the center to pull the bumper ends in closer to the body and then inserted a complete Camaro taillight treatment that makes you look twice when you see the car the first time from the rear. It almost looks like a mini-Camaro. And because he runs a body shop, what better way to show off his body and paint skills than with a black paint job? According to David, "I went with a PPG single-stage because to me it looks the most black. Some two-stage paints make the black look milky." The interior is generally the last thing on the agenda, but David didn't scrimp just because the car was close to completion. That's a Mercedes red vinyl on the seats and door panels with a Porsche tan carpet to finish it off.
But this Vega is more than just an exercise in image enhancement. David likes to go fast, so he took the Vega to Pomona awhile back, and even with slippery street tires the little Vega pulled off a crisp 12.30 at 110-mph pass. There's probably more left in it, but David's content. "I just like driving it. It's fun."
What: It's a '73 Vega hatchback with Camaro taillights. When was the last time you saw a V-8 Vega on the street?
Owner: David Cartwright
Hometown: Encinitas, California, just north of San Diego along the coast, where beach cars rust from the top down because of the salty ocean air.
Engine: The only reason to build a Vega is to stuff a small-block in it. So David latched onto a 383 small-block built by T&L Engine Development. It began life with a Scat rotating assembly including a forged crank and forged I-beam rods with Speed-Pro forged 10.3:1 compression pistons. David wanted a healthy small-block, so T&L used a Comp hydraulic roller with 224/230 degrees of duration and 0.502/0.510-inch lift, and Endurex lifters that move the 2.02/1.60-inch valves in the Dart 210cc Pro 1 aluminum heads using Comp roller rockers. T&L matched those excellent heads with an Edelbrock Performer RPM Air Gap intake and a 750-cfm Speed Demon carburetor, along with a Pertronix distributor and a set of Sanderson 158-inch headers with Flowmaster 40s, to create a very streetable engine package. T&L also dyno'd the engine, coming up with a solid 427 hp and 473 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: David likes to shift for himself, so he chose a Muncie close-ratio four-speed and a Hurst shifter working with a Monza bellhousing and a custom 1012-inch clutch assembly.
Rearend: David knew that the limp-wristed 6.5-inch stock 10-bolt would never take the abuse of that 383, so he upgraded a narrowed '70 8.5-inch 10-bolt built by Doug Brown. It includes a set of 3.73s from Motive Gear along with Moser 30-spline axles and a custom-built four-link that utilizes the factory rear- suspension pickup points.
Suspension and brakes: It's all stock Vega underpinnings up front plus a PST 158-inch front sway bar, 90-10 Summit Racing front shocks, and '78 Monza front disc brakes. The rear suspension trailing arms are made of adjustable-length tubing and rod ends riding on '78 Monza station wagon shocks and custom-wound coil springs. The rear brakes use larger Ford 11-inch-diameter drums.
Wheels/Tires: In keeping with the spirit of the '70s, David chose a set of Cragar SS wheels with 15x8-inch biggies in the back and 14x7s in the front. The rolling stock consists of BFGoodrich 215/65R15 Radial T/As out back with even smaller 195/60R14s in front.
Interior: There's not a lot of room in a Vega, so David made the most of it with an Auto Meter Ultra-Lite tach and four matching gauges set into the stock dash, splashed with a Grant steering wheel. Then Valencia Upholstery used red Mercedes vinyl for the dashpad, door panels, console, and seats. David also saved a little space by putting the parking brake handle inside the Camaro console.
Paint and body: As owner of Encinitas Auto Body, David has over 40 years of experience in bodywork and paint, so it's not too surprising that he'd work a little magic with the exterior. The most obvious change is the second-generation Camaro rear body panel and taillight assembly, which work with the rear spoiler. David chose a nice single-stage PPG black to illustrate his sheetmetal prep skills, while John Walko laid down the paint.
Crew: David wants to acknowledge John Walko, Doug Brown, and Andy Shawn for their help with the car.
Performance: 12.30 at 110 mph carrying only 2,730 pounds. END