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Cars in the 1970s

As the glam decade dawned, America experienced its worst recession in years and Detroit became increasingly concerned with the growing popularity of imported cars.

AMC responded to the situation with the Gremlin (pictured below), a tiny two-door hatchback with a base price starting below $2,000. Available in various unpleasant earth tones, the Gremlin was one of the quintessentially ugly cars of the 1970s.

In 1972, AMC launched the ‘Levi’s Edition’ Gremlin to capitalise on America’s current infatuation with denim. The car came complete with copper rivets and denim-like blue nylon on the seats and door panels!.

AMC Gremlin

Much better looking was Chevy’s new, sportier Camaro; an immediate hit with consumers, the car would later be seen every week on TV’s The Rockford Files.

Less popular was the company’s import-fighting Vega – along with an unattractive exterior, this compact was notorious for oil leaks and rapid body rust, and had an aluminium-block engine that was prone to failure.

In the UK, the Ford Capri was the car of choice for wide boys. Dad on the other hand probably drove an Austin Allegro. The Allegro was genteel, economical – a company car for junior management and very very naff. The adverts tried to sell it as a limousine, then filled it with leggy dancing girls . . . but it had a square steering wheel for Christ’s sake.

Also popular on the roads were the Aston MartinTriumph TR7 and MGB GT. The novelty vehicle of the decade was the Reliant Bond Bug (1970) which didn’t last quite as long as eight-track tapes!

Ford’s Pinto was without question, the most notorious American car of the decade. The popular compact has the fuel tank mounted in such a way that it was extremely vulnerable in rear-end collisions. The 1971-1976 models were plagued by often-fatal fires and explosions.

Ford Pinto

Numerous lawsuits ensued. But instead of settling with the victims, Ford’s lawyers fought the litigation all the way to the Supreme Court, thus severely hurting the company’s reputation.

Much easier on the eye were the 1973 Lincoln Continentals, the first Continentals to be manufactured with padded vinyl roofs and oval ‘opera’ windows. Lincoln stayed true to the popular look through to the end of the decade.

The OPEC oil embargo and the accompanying “energy crisis” took its toll on automobile sales in 1974. In the USA, Chrysler was hit especially hard, suffering a sales drop of 34%. The company tried to rectify this with the 1975 Cordoba – the shortest Chrysler since WWII.

Billed as “the new small Chrysler”, the car remains most memorable for its TV spots, in which actor Ricardo Montalban seductively extolled such extras as “fine, Corinthian leather” (video below).

In the UK in 1975, the British government agreed to take over British Leyland and to invest £1,400 million during the next seven and a half years. In December of that year, the government came to the rescue of Chrysler UK, this time to the tune of £162.5 million.

Meanwhile, Jensen Motors was forced to call in the official receiver, Rolls-Royce announced the closure of two of its factories in Northern Ireland and Yorkshire, and Aston Martin was bought by an Anglo-American-Canadian consortium.

The quintessential 1970s US car was probably the Pacer, introduced by AMC as “the first wide small car”. The car’s bubble-like styling (pictured below) made it look like some “car of the future” from a 1950s showroom, but its heavy six-cylinder engine made handling awkward and caused the car to gobble far more fuel than the average domestic compact.

For all its hype, sales were disappointing and the Pacer barely made it to the end of the decade.

AMC Pacer

In 1973 the Oldsmobile Toronado became the first car to feature an airbag.

“It’s about time for a new kind of American car” sang the ads for Chevrolet’s new Chevette in 1975. It was an economical (if plain-looking) sub-compact that could get up to 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

In truth, it was time for any kind of American car that could bring consumers into showrooms. On 3 February 1975, auto industry layoffs cut Detroit’s automotive workforce by over a third, with poor sales taking most of the blame.

Ford’s new Granada, a smaller and more fuel-conscious version of the Ford Maverick, quickly became the company’s top-selling car, while Cadillac’s new Seville – an “intermediate” luxury vehicle a la Mercedes Benz – racked up sales of 43,000.

Due to declining sales, US carmakers ceased production of convertibles in 1976; Cadillac’s El Dorado was the last convertible model released.

One of the few bright spots for Detroit (thanks mainly to a memorable ad campaign with crooner Sergio Franchi) the upscale compact Plymouth Volare sold 400,000 units in its first year on the market.

The rising tide of Japanese and European imports heavily impacted Detroit and American car manufacturing. In many ways, the most interesting US models of in the late 70s were throwbacks to an earlier era – Chevrolet’s 1978 Silver Anniversary Corvette came with a Stingray-like fastback, while Ford’s Mustang King Cobra was a throwback to the muscle car days, sporting stripes, a cool snake decal and a 122 horsepower engine.

Lincoln’s limited-edition Continental Mark V Diamond Jubilee coupe was typically excessive, coming with a gold grille, special midnight-blue metallic paint, and a leather-bound owner’s manual and tool kit.

In Australia in 1978, the mighty V8 Torana‘s from Holden came to the end of the line.

Holden Torana A9X

In September 1979, British Leyland confirmed they were axing their famous MG line. Motorists lamented the loss of the MGB: 1798cc, twin carbs, 26mpg and according to the Leyland brochure of that year “looks that get looks and a badge that says it all . . . it’s an MGB, why say more?”.