I hear a lot of people trash on cars from the 1970s. The idea that the ’70s didn’t offer fun cars makes me crazy. Sure, the automotive industry took a hit when the government imposed emissions requirements. Absolutely, American car manufacturers had succumbed to laziness, and in some ways outright hostility, toward its customers. But the 1970s offered awesome automobiles, the likes of which could only be dreamed about today, and for a pittance compared to what 2014 models cost. Here’s why cars from the 1970s are infinitely better than cars that came after them:
The current 2014 Toyota Corolla commercial precisely makes the point. It attempts to poke a bit of fun at the fashions of the 1970s, but the joke’s on Toyota, because the only car anybody should be interested in owning in that commercial is the 1976 Corolla coupe.
It’s a handsome little car that made Toyota’s reputation by bringing terrific styling to the economy class. All the cars that follow it in the commercial get progressively less interesting until the 2014 model, which has all the aesthetic appeal of a new water heater.
Rear Wheel Drive
Front-wheel drive is a scam perpetrated upon you by the automotive industry. It benefits nobody but the car manufacturer looking to squeeze six people into a box only meant for four. The Chrysler K-Car was successful because you could still jam a Dodge St. Regis-worth of people inside a smaller footprint. Yeah, there have been some interesting front wheel drive cars, but lets set something straight.
No, they are not better in the snow, especially if you purchase a set of snow tires. What they are is way less fun to drive, and in the 1970s, front-wheel drive was the exception, rather than the rule.
In 2014, it’s hard to find a manual transmission in a BMW. You can’t even purchase a manual transmission in a Ford F-150, for God’s sake, even if a manual is your preference. In the 1970s, only the upper echelon of luxury cars had automatic transmissions as standard equipment.
You could buy a manual in a wide swath of cars in the 1970s, and they were more plentiful than automatics in the imports, mostly because the automatics were so pathetically awful in those cars. If you say you like manual transmissions, the 1970s is your era.
Between 1971 and 1972, the two-barrel version of Chrysler’s venerable 318-cu.in. V-8 dropped 50 horsepower. No argument, right? The numbers are right there in black and white. But nothing mechanical caused a drop in performance between 1971 and 1972.
It was that the manufacturers started reporting horsepower in more reasonable “net” figures, instead of gross horsepower. Then, in 1973, when emissions started rearing its ugly head, it was ridiculously simple for anybody with a set of box wrenches and a Phillips screwdriver to uncork pre-emissions performance out of a post-emissions V-8.
Prior to 1973, the carburetor was the main method of induction for upwards of about 90 percent of cars on the road in America. Fuel was plentiful and carbs were cheap, so it made sense to dump imprecise measures of gasoline into the intake.
Post-1973, we started learning a lot more about how to squeeze more performance and economy out of an internal combustion engine, we started building cars with electronic carburetors, which were frankly horrible. It quickly led to the widespread adoption of fuel injection in the 1980s. The electronic fuel injected cars of the 1970s pointed the way.
Cars from the 1960s are – far and away – much cooler than cars from the 1970s, but they have one huge weak link: points ignition. There were some cars that featured it in the 1960s, but they were rare. The turning point was 1973, when Chrysler adopted breakerless ignition on the bulk of its cars, with GM quickly following suit with its terrific, self-contained HEI (High Energy Ignition) system in 1974. The rest of the industry quickly followed, providing much more reliable starting and more efficient operation for decades to follow.
The very late 1960s – 1968, to be exact – gets the nod for ushering in a new era of automotive safety, but the real effects wouldn’t materialize until the 1970s. Prior to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), occupant safety was completely up to the manufacturer. Some manufacturers jumped in with both feet – Volvo, for example – others seemed to build cars that were specifically designed to kill people. FMVSS changed all of that, providing stringent requirements for auto manufacturers from how brake systems work to how a windshield gets mounted. FMVSS 208 mandated – for the first time – that seat belts be standard on every car.
We’re getting better with our interiors now, but for some reason, we still stick to a palate of about four colors. The 1990s and 2000s were much worse. For 20 years, the only two interior colors offered on most cars were Hearing Aid Beige and Naval Infirmary Gray. In the 1970s, every car offered a range of interior colors from white to blue to red to denim to paisley. Why we decided that two colors were acceptable to replace all that is a question for the ages.
Full-Size Station Wagons
The GM B-Body full-size station wagon hung on until 1996. The Ford Country Squire bit the dust in 1991. Chrysler quit building them in 1977. But the early 1970s were a paradise for full-size station wagon lovers. The GM B-Body wagons featured amazingly intricate clamshell tailgates that hid away completely within the body structure.
Ford offered wagons with sideways seating in the third row if your kids threw up from riding backwards. The biggest GM wagons had forward-facing third row seats, indicating just how mammoth these cars were. Their demise – in favor of the vastly unlovable minivan – marked a significant loss on American highways.
There are around 36 brands for sale in the United States today. Most of them are badge-engineered brands under about seven companies: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Honda.
In the 1970s, ordinary Americans had access to Lancia, Fiat, Peugeot, Renault, Triumph, MG, Hillman, International Harvester, AMC, Checker, Plymouth and Pontiac, among scores of other smaller manufacturers.
And prior to 1981, when you bought a Pontiac, it might have shared door panels with a Chevy, but it came with its own Pontiac-built engine, as did every other brand of GM car. Today, “badge engineering” seems to be synonymous with the 1970s, but it was truly a feature of the 1980s and beyond.