Sunday, May 12, 2013

A look back in time: The GM/Southern Pacific Vert-A-Pac

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
SP Vert-A-Pack SP Vert-A-Pack
Remember the Chevrolet Vega and its Pontiac equivalent, the Astre? These cars were shipped long-distance in a rather unusual manner.

Until the early 1960s, automobiles moved by rail were carried in boxcars. The boxcars were 50 feet long with double-wide doors. Inside was room for four full-sized sedans on a two-tier rack—two raised up off the floor on a steel rack and two others tucked in underneath them. This protected the cars during transport but wasn’t very efficient, as the weight of four vehicles was far less than the maximum weight a boxcar that size could carry. When 85-foot and 89-foot flatcars came into service, it was possible to pack up to 15 automobiles in one car on tri-level autoracks. But this still didn’t approach the maximum allowable weight for each flatcar.

When Chevrolet was designing the Vega during the late 1960s, one of its main objectives was to keep the cost of the car down around $2,000 (in circa-1970 dollars). At the time, the freight charge for moving a loaded railcar from the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant to the Pacific coast—the longest distance cars produced at Lordstown would need to travel—was around $4,800. Since the Vega was a subcompact, it was possible to squeeze three more cars on into an autorack, for a total of 18, instead of the usual 15. But that still worked out to around $300 per car—a substantial transportation charge (which dealers passed on to customers) for a $2,000 car. If Chevrolet could get more Vegas on a railroad car, the cost per unit of hauling them would go down.

VertaAPack2Engineers at General Motors and the Southern Pacific Railroad came up with a clever solution. Instead of loading the cars horizontally, they were to be placed vertically on a specially designed autorack called the Vert-A-Pac. Within the same dimensions of an 89-foot flatcar with a tri-level autorack, the Vert-A-Pac system could hold as many as 30 automobiles instead of 18, reducing the transportation charge per vehicle by about 40%.

Chevrolet’s goal was to deliver Vegas topped with fluids and ready to drive to the dealership from their distribution point. In order to be able to travel nose-down without leaking fluids all over the railcar (and onto the tracks), the Vega’s engineers had to design a special engine oil baffle to prevent oil from entering the No. 1 cylinder of the car’s inline-four engine. Batteries had filler caps located high up on the rear edge of the case to prevent acid spills. The carburetor float bowl had a special tube that drained gasoline into the vapor canister during shipment, and the windshield washer bottle stood at a 45 degree angle. Plastic spacers were wedged between the powertrain and chassis to prevent damage to engine and transmission mounts. The wedges were removed when cars were unloaded. The doors were closed with a forklift tractor (see illustrations).

The Vega was hugely popular when it was introduced in 1970. However it quickly earned a reputation for unreliability, rust, and poor engine durability. When the Vega and the Pontiac Astre were discontinued in 1977, the Vert-A-Pac racks were retired as they were too specialized to be used with anything else. The Vert-A-Pac racks were scrapped, and the underlying flatcars went on to other uses.

Railway Age thanks Doug Warble, Mechanicsburg, Pa., a member of the Susquehanna Valley GTOs automobile club, and the club’s newsletter, GTO Tiger Times, for this article. Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono is Chapter Coordinator for the GTO Association of America and an SVGTO member.