Designed by John Northrop and Gerrard Vultee, both of whom would later form their own companies, the plane was originally intended to serve with Lockheed's own airline routes. They set out to build a four-seat plane that was not only rugged, but the fastest plane as well. Utilizing the latest designs in monocoque fuselages, cantilever wings and the best engine available, the Vega delivered on the speed promises.
The fuselage was monocoque, but built from sheets of plywood skinned over wooden ribs. The plane was built in two halves in large presses, and then glued together. With the fuselage constructed in this fashion, the wing spar had to be kept clear, so they decided to make a single spar cantilever mounted on the very top of the plane. The only part of the aircraft that wasn't particularly streamlined was the landing gear. For power they chose the Wright Whirlwind, which delivered 225 horsepower.
The first Vega 1, named the Golden Eagle, flew from Lockheed's Los Angeles plant on July 4, 1927. It could cruise at a then-fast 120mph, and had a top speed of 135. However the four-passenger (plus one pilot) load was considered too small for airline use. A number of private owners placed orders for the design however, and by the end of 1928 they had produced 68 of this original design. In the 1928 National Air Races in Cleveland, the Vegas won every speed award.
Looking to improve the design, Northrop and Vultee then delivered the Vega 5 in 1929. Adding the Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine of 450hp improved weights enough to allow two more seats to be added. They also added a new NACA cowling to further improve speed, with cruise increasing to 155mph and top to 165. However even the new six-seat configuration proved to be too small, and the 5 was also purchased primarily for private aviators and executive transports, another 64 Vega 5's being built.