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Memorable Concept Cars of the Malaise Era: The 1970s Weren’t Entirely Bad

‘Sucking in the ‘70s’ is not just the name of a Rolling Stones record album.

Todd LassaWriterGetty ImagesPhotographerManufacturerPhotographer

After the fabulously outrageous dream cars of the 1950s and the cleaner, cooler post-modern concepts of the 1960s, the 1970s were something of a letdown. As the most, er, seasoned staffer at Automobile, I was handed this assignment—and promptly found I'd need to search the Internet to come up with enough cars to make a list, so forgettable a decade of design it was. It wasn't much better elsewhere in the car world, either, with the likes of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) pricing young buyers out of Pontiac GTOs, Ford Mustang Mach Is, and Plymouth Road Runners with usurious insurance rates. Then there came a clampdown for SAE horsepower figures, with manufacturers switching from gross to net horsepower.

The result? By the '73 model year (which launched months before the OPEC embargo) for example, the 1970 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 W30's 455 cubic-inch V-8's 370 gross horsepower was downgraded to 250-270 horsepower (the same engine was also in the far more popular Cutlass Supreme), and for the 350 cubic-inch V-8 versions of both cars, those sad figures fell further, to just 180-200 horsepower. In short, enthusiasm for cars wasn't at its highest, nor was inspiration for their design.

Thankfully, the likes of Pininfarina, Bertone, Larry Shinoda, and Zora Arkus-Duntov were still interested in sleek sports cars, so this list isn't just about ugly, 5-mph-bumpered Checker Marathon-wannabees …

  1. 1970 Lancia Stratos 0

Imagine the complaints from modern SUV drivers who don't want to contemplate climbing down into a Miata, if they had to try to fit themselves into the Stratos 0. Beautiful to look at with its Bertone design led by Marcello Gandini, though with a driver/passenger position that might create its own yoga position, the Stratos 0 produced one of the best, most desirable "production" cars of the era, the Lancia Stratos HF.

  1. 1970 Ferrari 512S Modulo

A Pininfarina design led by Paolo Martin and unveiled at the Geneva motor show, for which it was painted black, it's easy to imagine that Pinin and the Lancia Stratos 0's Bertone might have been spying on each other during 1968 and '69. The sci-fi-look Modulo was powered by a 550-horsepower Ferrari V-12, and the driver and passenger entered by sliding the windshield down into the front trunk.

  1. 1970 Mercedes-Benz C111

The Mercedes-Benz C111 actually goes back to the three-rotor Wankel-powered, fiberglass-bodied car of 1969. The follow-up for 1970 went to four rotors and fuel injection for 350 horsepower and a top speed of about 186 mph. Mercedes built 16 C111s through the '70s, though after the four-rotor, it switched to diesel power, an engine that by the 2020s is finally going the way of the Wankel.

  1. 1971 Toyota SV-1

The Toyota SV-1 proved to be a mildly disguised Celica, which premiered in the U.S. as a '72 model. It truly was a Japanese Mustang, available with a notchback and trunk or a fastback-hatchback replete with '65 Mustang fastback-style scallops in the c-pillar. But the Toyota Celica was much smaller than a contemporary Ford Mustang, 164 inches long on a 95.5-inch wheelbase, versus 189.5 inches on a 109-inch wheelbase for the new Torino-based '71 Mustang (Knudsen's idea - Henry Ford II fired him shortly thereafter). The new Toyota Celica thus anticipated a world in which it's more important to go fast around corners than fast in a straight line.

  1. 1972 Fairchild-Republic Experimental Safety Vehicle

By the late-'60s, the annual U.S. highway fatality rate of 65,000, roughly twice what it is today, triggered the Experimental Safety Vehicle (ESV) program beginning in New York State. By 1972, GM, Toyota, and Volvo were among the manufacturers showing massive sedans built for optimal passenger safety. Then there was the 1972 Fairchild-Republic ESV, a 5,500-pound all-wheel-drive sedan built by a defense contractor that had just concluded production of the F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter jet for the U.S. military. Powered by a 340 cubic-inch Plymouth V-8 with a Torqflite automatic, Fairchild-Republic's ESV featured steering wheel and rear-seat ceiling airbags, a center high-mounted brake light (14 years before CHMSLs would become a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard), a horn that beeped when the car was in reverse, and an overhead rearview periscope decades before rear-mounted cameras became common. With the type of huge bumpers that would deface many American and foreign cars by 1974, the Fairchild-Republic ESV had its front roof supports moved into a cab-forward position and rode on a semi-monocoque platform over a cage structure. It was ugly as hell, and predicted a future of boring, safe, heavy cars for unengaged drivers. With its appearance in a '72 issue of MotorTrend, it is, unfortunately, the only concept from the decade that has seared into my memory, though the upside is that benefits from its advanced safety systems makes today's sports cars and SUVs far safer and more crashworthy than anything produced 48 years ago.

  1. 1976 Chevrolet Aerovette

From its exterior design as much as anything else, this clearly is the mid-engine Corvette the 1970 Ford Mach II concept would have forced if that car had gone into production, and as Rory Jurnecka writes, it would have become the 1980 C4 Corvette had Zora Arkus-Duntov had his way. By the time the Aerovette hit the show-car circuit, OPEC was having its way with the U.S. automotive market, and Chevrolet's big debut for the 1980 model year instead was the front-wheel-drive Citation compact.

  1. 1979 Ford Probe I

The shape of things to come was not the wedgy 1975 Triumph TR-7, but was instead this FWD, melted-soap-bar coupe concept, which infamously was designed to become the V-6-powered 1988 Ford Mustang. Hardcore Mustang V-8 fanatics flooded Ford's Renaissance Center HQ with letters objecting to the car. Ford kept on the Fox-bodied Mustang and for 1988 launched the soft-edged V-6 Probe alongside it, targeting, in a much-less enlightened time, female drivers.