10 Reasons to be Glad You Weren’t Driving in the ‘70s
The horsepower mayhem of the '60s rolled right into the '70s. BOSS 429s, 427 Chevys, 455 Oldsmobiles and Mopar Hemi Big Blocks were showcased in every dealer’s showroom through 1971. Every high school kid and motorhead dreamed about being able to get their hands on the latest Super Sport model to hit the pavement – and with each successive version came more power, more arrogance, more brutality and more fun. (We took a look at the 1968 Dodge Charger seen below.)
Then came 1972. Environmental concerns and increased regulations forced automakers to cut emissions and increase MPG. Even worse, the excess of the '60s had triggered an auto insurance revolt with new heavy price penalties for what they considered to be “too much of a good thing” and sales of the most beastly Muscle Cars hit the brakes.
The double-whammy came when a new term was injected into the gearhead lexicon, “GAS SHOCK.” Overnight, fuel prices doubled and then tripled due to a Middle East embargo on crude oil. It was a perfect storm of forced change that Detroit, always slow to adapt, was in no way prepared to deal with. They were forced to tack on government-mandated gizmos to old-tech inefficient warhorse V-8’s, choking and emasculating them into embarrassing excuses for power delivery.
The U.S. auto industry became a punchline for unreliable and overweight lemons. The ad-men had their hands full trying to come up with something to sell in an industry that used to sell itself. The new models trickled in, some of them looking okay, with body styles similar to their glorious ancestors, while others were just sad attempts to cash-in on past glory.
The saddest thing they all shared was a shocking lack of MUSCLE.
Here are 10 of the saddest examples of muscle cars released in the mid-to-late '70s:
By the mid-‘70s, America’s sports car was a good symbol for the country at large – still flashy, still appealing, but beneath the surface, not much going on. The ‘Vette’s looks were still dramatic and boastful, but the suspension hadn’t been touched in decades.
“Corvettes wrapped around telephone poles are practically the state tree” was a quip heard over and over again at the time. The ferocious short-wheelbase Big Block monster of the late sixties had evolved into a fashion accessory with a paltry 165hp that was good for parades and shopping, but little else.
It was pure 1970s Detroit delusion.
AMC was a little late to the muscle car party, but they made a big entry in ’68 with the AMX. Like everything American Motors, it looked different – with original styling that couldn’t be compared to anything made by Detroit’s Big Three. The 390 under the hood said everything that needed to be said, and the AMX is highly sought after by Muscle Car collectors today.
For ’77, AMC decided to reintroduce the excitement (the ads called it “AMX-citement,” – the admen must have spent ten minutes on that one) in a modern update that looked like a Datsun and a Mustang II’s love child. Except that there was nothing to love with a 304 V8 pumping out 120hp.
They lasted until 1980 and thankfully, most of them met the crusher not long afterward.
1976 Dodge Charger
This Cordoba-based rebadge was always a bad idea. Sport stripes and mag hubcaps do not a Charger make. Even when they were factory fresh, the car seemed like the kind of thing your immature 44-year-old uncle with the pornstache and the hairy-chest festooned with gold medallions might buy.
And the ’76 Chargers didn’t even have the Cordoba’s rich Corinthian leather to caress his polyester slacks. There was a Charger Daytona option with racy striping, but no huge NASCAR wing on the back and no 440 Six-Pack or 426 Hemi under the hood. The Super-Seventies small block 318 V-8 put out a whopping 145hp.
1978 Oldsmobile 4-4-2
Olds had always been considered a conservative manufacturer, more appealing to your dad or grandfather, than to a car-obsessed kid with dreams of boulevard dominance. That all changed in the Muscle Car obsessed sixties.
The 4-4-2 (4-barrel carb, 4 on the floor, dual exhaust) tore through the decade, getting more powerful every year and capping its reign of asphalt terror with the 455 version in 1970. When it came time to try and resurrect some excitement, Olds did the typical badging and striping.
There was an enormous gas-guzzling 455 available mid-decade that generated an extremely underwhelming 190hp. The crowning insult to the 4-4-2 came in 1978 with the “Aeroback” version based on the new downsized Cutlass. The GM Aeroback profile is one of the ugliest Detroit creations ever to see asphalt. Essentially a slow Cutty cruiser with the trunk hacked off and sketchy ‘70s-era build quality, the weakling 115hp 305 is, for once, not the worst feature.
We can only hope that none of them escaped the crusher.
1978 Gremlin GT
What can be said about the eternal mistake that was the Gremlin? This AMC atrocity, along with the equally repellent Pacer, sums up all that was ridiculous with US auto builders in the ‘70s. The Japanese invasion HAD TO HAPPEN. Ugly, unreliable, cheaply-built, the Gremlin had it all. The hot “GT” variant had a for-real racing stripe and an anemic 120hp V8.
Again, the crusher beckoned for them from the day they were assembled.
1977 Plymouth Road Runner
The original Road Runners were never svelte or as slickly styled as their Charger cousins, but they had a hulking, muscular appeal all their own. They were intimidating. If one roared up in your rearview mirror, you would be wise to get out of the way. The 383/440/426 Big Block trinity had nothing to prove and everyone knew it.
Plymouth could take their Volare and slap on “Roadrunner” graphics and stripes all day long. Buyers just shook their heads and asked themselves whether a car that can barely break 100mph really needed a rear spoiler to keep things stable at speed.
These can still be occasionally spotted on the road, usually with a hipster behind the wheel trying to be ironic. Just ignore it and it might go away.
1974 Pontiac GTO
Pontiac struck gold when they decided to soup-up their sedate LeMans Coupe with Tri-Power and aggression. The GTO ignited the Muscle-car wars of the sixties and is still considered one of the great cars to ever emerge from Detroit. The GTO became a part of culture, appearing on TV and movies, even the Monkeemobile was based on one. They were big, they were downsized and most importantly, they always delivered the horsepower. There were hit songs written about the GTO.
But not this one.
By 1974, the shot-callers at Pontiac had decided that a compact version based on the Chevy Nova was the smart direction to take this automotive legend. It wasn’t. The Hurst floor shifter and shaker hood mounted on top of a choked-down 200hp 350 didn’t fool anyone. It was the end of the line for the once-dominating GTO.
Dodge Aspen Super Coupe and Aspen R/T
From the day they hit the showrooms, Dodge’s Aspen series of mid-sized coupes and sedans generated talk amongst the motorhead faithful. This was Dodge. It wasn’t that long ago that Chargers and Challengers and Darts and Polaras and…and…Super Bees, and even their police cars looked badass.
But just looking at an Aspen caused the mind to shut down, the eyes to narrow and sleep to glide in. Yes, there was an R/T version and a Super Coupe featuring spoilers, stripes and louvers. The admen came up with a one-word catchphrase for the new car – “Unbelievable.”
So went the ‘70s for any poor gearhead unfortunate enough to be living through those years.
1977 Mustang II Cobra
This could be the saddest example of what the ‘70s did to a once-towering Detroit icon. The Mustang II of 1974 was just a re-bodied and overweight Pinto. Loyal Mustang enthusiasts searched for something to like about the new, smaller and more economic version. Pintos were never known for excitement or reliability and their Mustang II cousins – no matter what the marketing department would claim – were no more impressive.
The ‘70s cultural malaise was strong in this one. There were a few classic styling cues and the horse was still in the grill, but Ford’s treasure, the car that started the whole sixties Pony Car/Muscle Car frenzy, was gone. Releasing a Cobra version only reminded everyone of the Shelby-era triumphs that seemed long in the past.
1979 Pontiac Trans AM
The Trans Am is probably the most seventies of all the cars listed here. You can’t look at one without thinking of Burt Reynolds in his red shirt and cowboy hat rebel-yellin’ across the South with a procession of hick–town sheriffs in hot pursuit. The huge firechicken on the hood and the shaker air cleaner shouted out P-O-W-E-R. For ’79 there was a front-end restyle just in time for the Smokey and the Bandit II sequel, that was ugly then and uglier now (or is it?). That big 220hp 400 V8 barely had enough humpf to break the rubber loose.
Could the movie be lying? Could the extensive TA graphics be misleading? Could Burt Reynolds actually NOT be a charming rogue? The mind wonders.
In the ‘60s, high school kids dreamed of ‘60s Muscle Cars.
In the ‘70s, high school kids dreamed of ‘60s Muscle Cars as well.
There is a reason that Muscle Cars of the ‘60s and early ‘70s are still in tremendous demand while their later-‘70s descendants have almost all been mercifully shoveled into the jaws of the crusher.
No one in the car world during the next decade could have guessed that Detroit would eventually find its way and again produce the kind of cars that would generate actual excitement. We are lucky to be in the middle of the second age of the Muscle Car – embrace it!
(Okay, we admit – there are some great things that came from the '70s, like car movies!)