General Motors and Southern Pacific Railroad came up with a novel way to lower the destination charge when they introduced the Chevrolet Vega in the 1970’s. The Vert-A-Pac system was a vertical stacking system that allowed them to pack 12 more vehicles per rail car and save on the freight charges.
The full size sedans of the 1950s and 1960s were shipped in 50 foot long boxcars that could fit 4 sedans each. In the early 1960s, the 89 foot flatcar was developed and cars became smaller. These new rail cars allowed up to 18 cars to be packed in a three level system. When GM started developing the Vega, they wanted to cut costs at all points and the destination or freight charge was an important factor.
The longest distance trips from the Lordstown, OH assembly plant to the west coast were running around $4,800 at the time which meant a destination charge of $267 per car. The charge may have worked on more expensive cars but with the retail price of the Vega set at $2000, it was a substantial amount. The goal was to get more Vegas per rail car and the Vert-A-Pac system was born. The system stacked the cars vertically using specially developed rail cars by Southern Pacific. These new rail cars could fit 30 Vegas and reduce the destination charge down to $160 per car.
Cars and their fluids are not meant to sit vertically so the engineers had to make some modifications to the vehicle. Since the cars were traveling nose-down, the oil pan had to be designed with additional baffles so that oil would not drain into the first cylinder. The batteries had fill caps that were relocated higher up on the edge in order to prevent acid from spilling into the engine bay. The carburetor also had an additional tube installed that would send fuel to the vapor canister while vertical. In order to keep the engine and transmission from getting damaged while in position, plastic spacers were inserted between the engine and chassis.
The doors for the rail cars were quite innovative as they served as the loading ramps and covers for the rail car and could be opened and closed with a basic forklift of the correct capacity. The doors of the rail car and the frame of the Vega had special sockets installed that allowed the cars to be bolted together for transport. The transport system was quite efficient and allowed cars to be driven off quickly for delivery.
The system was in use for a few years but as Vega sales started to slow down, the rail cars started to be pulled from service and converted to traditional rail cars. The Vega was a low cost vehicle but it was rushed through design and production and had many issues that popped up that caused its demise. Once the Vega was discontinued the rest of the specialty rail cars were converted as there were no other vehicles that could be made to fit inside them.
[Image Credit: GM Media Archive]