Byron's 1975 Chevy Vega
SEMA is happening this week, though it has gone virtual this year, and it has us thinking about the insane and exotic cars that usually populate the show in Vegas. So why, then, are we looking at a Vega? Let us explain.
Byron Burnham is a Vega enthusiast. Frankly, we welcome the slightly off-kilter nature of his affinity for Chevy’s redheaded step-compact. It’s a refreshing reminder that old cars are cool. Period. And they can be made even cooler with some creative thinking and hard work. Byron’s love for these cars goes all the way back to 1974 when he sold his '64 Chevelle SS and bought a Vega. He then promptly set out to autocross it, and has more or less had a Vega in his possession ever since.
Fast forward to 2009. Byron attended the SCCA Solo Nationals, then in its first year in Lincoln, NE. He was bit by the bug to once again hit the track with a Vega. His plan was to build a strippo track-day car with an old school small block. Then came the Optima Ultimate Street car events, and Byron set a new goal for himself. Now the car would not only have to run hard, but also look good doing it.
Making a Vega into an aggressive, track capable monster takes some work. The front suspension contains a bunch of custom bits, all built around the stock Vega pick up points. Custom tubular control arms were built to work with S10 drop spindles. RideTech coilivers hold it all up and a power rack provides direction. In the rear, a Morrison 3-link back-half hangs a 9” housing, a watts link, and another pair of RideTech coilovers. 13” Wilwood rotors with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers bring it all to a halt. The car rolls on cool ET wheels that evoke Minilites and speak to the car’s road race intentions.
We have to talk about that wild body kit. Like most things on this car, there’s a cool story here. Hooker (of header fame) made a V8 Vega kit back in the 70’s. They also made a crazy, cool, IMSA-inspired fiberglass body kit. Byron actually found one and started there. Then, he delivered the car to A-Team Restoration in Bend Oregon for some help with the build. Knowing that Byron would be driving the car hard, they were concerned about the weight of the fiberglass and steel together as well as the bonding issues that come from sticking ‘glass to metal. Fortunately, they had the skill to turn the crazy fiberglass shapes into steel, and hand made the front fenders as well as the quarters. Then the whole thing was sprayed in a wild Jekyll and Hyde asymmetrical scheme designed by Murray Pfaff.
One of our favorite details about the car involves a bit more obscure Vega history. That LS3 engine looks right at home under the hood of a modern hot rod track car, with extra cool points for the Hilborn stack injection run by a Holley ECM. The Vega connection comes by way the of the engine builder, Don Hardy. He was responsible for some of the very first V8 Vega conversions, including those done for the legendary Motion Performance. Knowing this quirky bit of history, Byron sought him out to build the 550-horse bullet under the hood of his Vega. How cool is that?
In the couple years that it’s been done, Byron hasn’t been afraid to flog his extremely nice Vega like the track car it was built to be. In addition to generally driving the wheels off of it, he’s done Optima and several Goodguys and SCCA autocross events. He even put it through the wringer at the Sandhills Open Road Challenge where only a few inches separate road race hero from “guy at the bottom of the cliff.”
Wait, weren’t we talking about SEMA? Well, that’s another interesting part of this story. You see, Byron is on a mission. He wants to see his Vega made into a Hot Wheels car. And who wouldn’t? We would all love to walk into the store and walk out with our own car, immortalized in die-cast metal and tiny scale. Last year, Byron qualified for the Hot Wheels Legends Tour, which culminated in a trip to SEMA to display his Vega for judging. The winner gets their car made into an actual Hot Wheels toy. Though it was the favorite of several of the judges, Byron’s Vega didn’t win in 2019. But, never one to give up easily, he's in the running again this year.
So, if you spot a cool Vega in a Hot Wheels box the next time you’re at the grocery store, look a little closer. It might just be a 1:64 monument to Byron Burnham's outside the box thinking.