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For most long-haul automobile shipments over land, rail has always been the way to go. Faster than truck shipments, rail cars for automobiles were still costly leading automakers and rail companies to design better rail cars that could pack more vehicles into a single car, therefore bring down the shipping cost per vehicle. Probably the most incredible of these rail cars was the so-called Vert-A-Pac, co-developed by General Motors and the Southern Pacific Railroad in the late 1960s.
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Designed for GM's upcoming Chevrolet Vega, the Vert-A-Pac was able to fit 30 Vega's into a rail car -- as opposed to the typical 18 found in the standard tri-rack rail car -- by shipping the cars standing upright, nose-down.
How the Post-War boom transformed the way cars were transported
When an automobile rolled off the assembly line in the early 20th century, they were in sufficiently low volume that, shipping them across the country to dealerships could be accomplished with existing technology, namely a standard boxcar. But after the Second World War, the industry found itself ramping up into one of the greatest economic booms in history and the transportation sector had to make adjustments to accommodate the increasing demand for shipping. Nowhere was this more evident in the US automobile industry as Americans flush with cash purchased new cars as a symbol of their place in the burgeoning middle class.
The increased demand for automobiles around the country meant that packing more cars into rail cars became of paramount importance. Exiting boxcars were modified with wider doors, longer cars, and other similar adjustments. It wasn't enough to keep up with demand, however, and new railcars needed to be constructed to keep pace with the automobiles rolling off the assembly lines.
In the 1950s, German engineers came up with a two-level railcar for their Volkswagen Beetle that soon became a model for auto-transport the world over. Then, by the early 1960s, specially designed auto carriers were developed that were able to load as many as three levels of passenger car, or two levels for light trucks and vans.
One of the more concerning issues with these railcars, however, was theft, vandalism, and incidental damage. Several innovations were introduced to try and address this problem, but the solution that General Motors and Southern Pacific Railroad came up within the late 1960s was a sight to behold.
Vert-A-Pac: The short-lived but totally awesome solution to cost-effective automobile shipping
When General Motors began designing the Chevrolet Vega, they did something rather incredible: they designed the car specifically to fit into a new railcar being designed specifically to transport Chevrolet Vegas. Commonly known as the Vert-A-Pac, the new railcar nearly doubled the number of cars that could be transported in a single-car, which was especially important for GM at the time. They needed to keep the cost-per-Vega to around $2,000 otherwise they wouldn't make any money on them, so the entire assembly-line-to-dealership cost had to be carefully factored into the vehicle.
The result was a railcar that shipped Chevrolet Vegas standing upright with their nose pointed straight down. Since the cars were designed to be driven right off the rail car and onto a dealer's lot, they were shipped with gasoline, oil, and all of the fluids necessary for the normal operation of the vehicle. As a result, the entire car had to be designed to keep the fluids in the car while they were being shipped.
As a result, the Chevy Vega had some interesting quirks. According to Railway Age:
"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."
Once the Vegas were driven up on one of the Vert-A-Pac's 30 door-ramps, they were secured into place with special hooks designed to lock into slots set into the chassis of the car and then a forklift would lift the ramp up and secure it into place, storing the Vega in a vertical position for transport.
The Vega was a huge hit when it was introduced in 1970, but it lost its shine pretty quickly once it became clear that it wasn't the most reliable car on the road. The Vega was produced until 1977, when it and its sister model, the Pontiac Astre, were discontinued.
As for the Vert-A-Pac, without the Vega and the Astre, it too was discontinued since it was so specifically designed for a single model that they couldn't be used with anything else. It lives on in history though as one of the coolest ways to transport a car ever designed, too bad they didn't spend more time on the Vega it was meant to carry across the country.