The 1970s gave us more than a few dull, ugly cars, but it also gave us some of the most remarkable cars of any decade.
When you reflect on automotive decades, the 1970s stands out as much for its mediocre cars as its great ones. Twin forces of government regulation and successive Oil Crises conspired against gas guzzling V8 and drastically altered the trajectory of American cars. Horsepower declined while fuel economy trended ever so slowly upward. Though Pres. Carter wouldn’t provide the name until 1979, the automotive Malaise Era began in 1973 and ran through the early 1980s when American cars were typified by the likes of the Ford Granada and Buick Le Sabre: big, boxy, underpowered, and possessing questionable aesthetic value.
And yet, as bad as the worst of the 1970s got, Pinto, Gremlin, Vega, et al., the decade also featured some of the greatest cars of all time, though not all of them American. Today, we set out to redeem the lost decade of the 1970s.
The 1970s was a tumultuous decade for the American automotive industry. Emissions and fuel economy regulations choked out powerful American V8s in the name of not choking out Americans with said emissions. As worthy as the cause was it was at a prohibitive cost to automotive performance. But before regulations and two Oil Crises (1973 and 1979) began to bite, the early 1970s represented the highwater mark for Detroit’s muscle car era.
Case in point, the final model year for the Shelby Mustang GT500. Shelby’s follow up to the GT350 debuted in 1967 with a 428 police interceptor V8 under the hood, which in turn was replaced with the now legendary 428 Cobra Jet V8 making roughly 400 horsepower. Though the final cars were officially 1970 models, they were continuation cars from 1969 and so barely skirt under the wire for a ‘70s car.
Another 1970 muscle car was dubbed the King of the Streets for its light-to-light drag racing prowess, the 454 Chevy Chevelle SS. This rare version of the Chevelle offered the largest displacement V8 up to that point in time. The car started out with an LS5 making 390 horsepower, but the real show was the LS6 motor with 450 horsepower and 500 lb.-ft. of torque.
As good as the Chevelle and Mustang could be in 1970s, the greatest muscle cars to come out of Detroit that year were unquestionably the aero twins of the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Daytona. Equipped with outlandish nose cones and high-flying rear wings, the aerodynamic NASCAR homologations took the circuit by storm, racking up 38 out of 48 race wins between them for the 1970s season. The cars were so successful that NASCAR capped displacement on cars featuring that level of aerodynamics, rendering the Superbird and Daytona obsolete at the height of their success.
Muscle cars like the Mustang were able to muddle through the rest of the 1970s as mere shadows of their former selves. But they weren’t the only American cars seeming major changes in those years. American luxury cars, like the Lincoln Continental and Cadillac Eldorado retained their V8s if not the horsepower they once enjoyed. The simplified stylings of the 1960s gave way in the 1970s to the gaudiest of all eras for American luxury cars. These cars were long and ornately styled with pillow-soft suspensions that wafted over pavement as passengers while cosseted by sofa-like seats. The late 1970s saw peak luxo-barge with the two-door Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz with a landau vinyl roof and “tufted” leather seats.
The Oil Crisis of 1973 had its impact felt in Europe as well, depressing sales, inspiring new regulations, and shifting the balance of power within the automotive industry. Amid the tumult, however, a lot of spectacular cars were created. First among them, the 930 generation Porsche 911. Starting with the 1975 model year, the Porsche introduced turbocharging to the 911, starting with a 3.0L flat-six. In 1978, displacement was bumped up to 3.3L, netting the 911 a full 300 horsepower. The 930 changed what we talk about when we talk about the 911 (namely turbo lag and oversteer). The car was both hair-raising and awe inspiring and the best looking 911 ever built.
If the Germans looked like they were having fun in the 1970s, the Italians were having more. By the middle of the decade, Lancia was well on its way to building its now legendary status in rally car with their mid-engine, rear-wheel drive Stratos. The Stratos might have been rear-wheel drive, but light weight (just 900-950 kg or right around 2,000 lbs.) and good power (320 hp in the 24-valve version) allowed it to rack up win after win, taking titles in 1974,’75, and ’76 as well as Monte Carol Rally wins in ‘75, ‘76 and ‘77.
The supercar rivals of Ferrari and Lamborghini were also having quite the time in the 1970s. Despite current associations with 1980s excess, the Lamborghini Countach was actually a creature of the 1970s, debuting in 1974 as one of the wedgiest of wedge cars. Its V12 rumble and outrageous, head-turning looks cemented the Countach as one of the most spectacular and memorable cars of the decade.
Ferrari too saw major milestones in the 1970s with cars like the Daytona, Dino, and Berlinetta Boxer. Combining aspects of all three were the Ferrari 308 GTB and GTS. The 308’s Pininfarina stylings and 2.7L mid-mounted V8 combine for one of the best Ferrari’s of the decade.
1970 wasn’t just a swan song for the waning of the American muscle car, it was likewise the last year for a performance legend out of Japan, the Toyota 2000GT. Toyota would take a vastly different track through the decade, focusing on economical, reliable commuter cars, not halo cars worthy of Bond-flick cameos. Like the Lexus LFA decades later, the 2000GT was a loss leader for Toyota created to burnish the brand and prove the acumen and mettle of Toyota’s engineering.
The 2000GT was built in small numbers for an exclusive audience, but for Japanese automakers in the US, the 1970s was all about scaling their businesses. One key to doing that was to offer sporty cars that appealed to Americans at an affordable price. Enter the Datsun 240Z. The 240Z had a lot going for it: gorgeous looks, decent fuel economy and adequate power, spry handling, affordability, and reliability. The combination of these qualities made it one of the best sports cars of the decade, period.
Cars like the 240Z, Mazda RX-7, and others presaged the wave of performance machines from Japan that were to come. But the real story of Japanese cars in America in the 1970s is one of economical, fuel efficient, and reliable cars at a time when Detroit automakers were barely able to accomplish the first two of those items. The Honda Civic, like the Accord and Corolla, appealed to American drivers with its great fuel economy (40 mpg) and reliability and created inroads that set the stage for massive expansions into the US market over the next few decades.
Today, cars are without much question as good as they’ve ever been. They are safer, more efficient, and more technologically advanced than ever before. And yet, when you look back through automotive history, you find remarkable things, even in the roughest of times. The 1970s might be remembered as the Malaise Era, replete with some of the worst cars, it was also host to some of history’s greatest cars.