Far Out and Funky: 12 Forgotten Cars of the 1970s That Are Worth Remembering
Tough times gave rise to some memorable, if not exactly brilliant, cars.
We remember a lot of 1970s cars: the AMC Pacer, the Ford Mustang II, and the Porsche 914, just to name a few with intriguing, if not always happy, stories. But those weren't the only significant cars of the 1970s, an era when hard times gave rise to a love of funky rides, many of which history has mostly forgotten. Well, folks, it's time for us to remind you: Here are a dozen forgotten 1970s cars that deserve a parking place in our collective memory.
1970 AMC Hornet
American Motors, smallest of what used to be known as the Big Four, made some of the most memorable 1970s cars. Most of us know the Pacer, Gremlin, Javelin, and perhaps even the Matador, but what about the Hornet? This funky-looking little sedan was, like many AMC products, ahead of its time, a useful compact that hit the market just as America realized big cars were no longer where it's at. What set the Hornet apart from its crummier competitors was the car's stubborn penchant for reincarnation: The AMC Hornet would be gussied-up and reborn as the 1978 Concord, then mashed up with four-wheel-drive Jeep parts to make the AMC Eagle, itself the 25-years-too-early forerunner of the modern crossover SUV.
1970 Ford Maverick
We're not sure why the Maverick hasn't gotten more love during the past four decades. This is the ultimate early 1970s car, a humble cheapie sedan, the 1970s equivalent of a Nissan Sentra, and yet look at that groovy styling! Because everything deserved a fastback in the 1970s, even the cheap-ass car you bought because you couldn't afford anything better. The Maverick was a reliable runner, and Consumer Reports even liked it more than the Maverick's Japanese competitors. And yet somehow the car community has all but forgotten it. What a shame.
1971 Volkswagen 411/412
Stoked with the Beetle's success, along with that of the Bus and the Fastback, Volkswagen decided it was time to bring a luxury car to the U.S.—except VW's idea of a luxury car was a world away from that of average Americans'. Sure, the blunt-nosed 411 was among the most modern of air-cooled Volkswagens, with the MacPherson-strut front suspension from the Super Beetle. But equipping it with standard-fit metallic paint and wall-to-wall carpeting was still not enough to transform it into a Cadillac competitor. Volkswagen was right about one American luxury expectation: the standard-fit automatic transmission. But as it was coupled to an 80-horsepower Volksboxer, the 411 couldn't muster the acceleration Americans expected from a luxury car—or from a ride-on mower, for that matter. Volkswagen gave up selling the Type 4 to Americans in 1974, and its next attempt at a luxury car, the Phaeton, wouldn't fare much better 30 years later.
1972 Ford Torino
The Torino and its slightly nicer sibling, the Gran Torino, were Ford's intermediate cars, stalwart soldiers boldly doing battle with GM's handsome mid-sizers. They played many roles, from sporty muscular coupe (as seen in the hit TV show Starsky & Hutch) to wood-paneled family wagon to sensible-if-anonymous sedan. As its Italian name implied, the Torino brought style to the masses, combining sinewy 1960s curves with blocky 1970s-car presence. The Torino as seen here was made from 1972 until 1977, when it was unceremoniously replaced with the LTD II and its snooty upscale aspirations. Muscle-car versions of the Torino have attracted some collector interest, but the world at large seems to have forgotten how the Torino was a fixture of 1970s American-car life.
1973 Pontiac Astre
Everyone remembers the rolling disaster that was the Chevrolet Vega, but few remember GM's first foray into badge-engineering the Pontiac-ized version. As we recounted in our history of the disastrous Vega, Pontiac was working on its own small car, which (like Chevy's home-grown smallster) was punted by the corporate-designed Vega—and if that wasn't bad enough, the brand had a barely-disguised version forced on it in the form of the Pontiac Astre. GM had ironed out most of the Vega's problems by 1973, but the Astre was too expensive and too thinly disguised, and it was never a big seller.
1973 Oldsmobile Omega
Ever wonder why people didn't get too upset about badge-engineering products when the idea first reared its ugly head? Because in the beginning, it wasn't always awful. Take the Omega, Oldsmobile's version of the common-as-houseflies Chevrolet Nova. It was pleasant enough, a solid and reliable 1970s car, and differed enough from the Nova to hold its head (lights) up high. The same can be said for Buick's version, the also-forgotten Apollo. In the 1970s, the horrific dark side of badge engineering was still in the future, though it would be realized soon enough at Oldsmobile when the Omega moved to the ill-fated front-wheel-drive X-body platform.
1975 Ford Granada
Fashion-wise, the 1970s were a bit stuffy. Unless you were one of those radical Californians, you were still expected to wear a business suit to work, though you might loosen things up a bit with shaggy hair (grown over the ears? You hippie!) or a wide tie. To us, the Ford Granada reflects those fashions of the day—upright and formal and not entirely comfortable with itself. Ford advertisements compared the Granada to the Mercedes-Benz 280—first sparingly, then gratuitously—and while that seems laughable today, the 1970s public must have bought it, because it bought a lot of Granadas. Ford sold nearly 1.8 million examples between 1975 and 1980, and we're not even counting the look-alike Mercury Monarch.
1975 Mercury Bobcat
Badge engineering was still in its infancy in 1975 when Ford delivered a gussied-up Pinto in the form of the Mercury Bobcat. Ford's stylists made some effort to differentiate the Bobcat's front end with a formal, upright grille and a boxier hood, but the back end always makes us chuckle. To differentiate the Bobcat from the Pinto, Ford took an extra set of Pinto taillights and glued the left one inboard of the right taillight and vice-versa, a move we're pretty sure fooled almost no one. In fact, we know it didn't: From 1975 to 1980, Ford sold 1.3 million Pintos, while Mercury couldn't even move 225,000 Bobcats.
1977 Datsun 200SX
Most people recall Japanese automakers taking over the American market in the 1980s, but not everyone realizes they had their share of stumbles with their own 1970s cars. One of those was Datsun's (now Nissan) alleged sports coupe, the 200SX, arguably one of the ugliest cars of the 1970s. At the time, the Japanese were known for economy cars and (to a lesser extent) for sports cars, but the 200SX was neither—it was pokey and clumsy, and while Datsun touted the superior fuel economy of its B210, the 200SX had an obvious drinking problem. The few 200SXs Datsun managed to sell were soon consumed by rust, and before long the 200SX was forgotten like a bad dream. But the failed 200SX did inspire Datsun to do better: it launched a new 200SX for 1980 that would become an oft-overlooked classic.
1978 Buick Century/Oldsmobile Cutlass Aeroback
America's obsession with Europe was taking firm hold in the late 1970s, so when GM downsized its intermediate models for 1978, it decided the cars needed a Euro-style hatchback profile. The result of this wisdom was the two- and four-door "Aeroback" body style applied to the Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass. While Chevy and Pontiac intermediates got a traditional notchback sedan, GM didn't think Buick and Oldsmobile needed them. Wrong! The failure of these almost-hatchbacks took GM by surprise, and it took the company two years to get a proper sedan into production. How much did the 1970s car-buying public hate the Aerobacks? Between 1978 and 1979, Buick sold fewer than 48,000 Century fastbacks. When the sedan arrived in 1980, Buick sold 130,000.
1978 Ford Fairmont
Another sign of America's budding Euro obsession was the Ford's Granada replacement, the Fairmont, which took simplification to a new level. Stripped of all formal adornment, the Fairmont was a brown paper bag of a sedan, simple and functional and honest, and a refreshing change from the oversized, over-chromed barges that constituted most of the Ford lineup throughout the 1970s. The two-door version, called Fairmont Futura, was actually kind of a cool-looking car in an oddball way. The Fairmont has been largely forgotten, but we all know the Fox platform on which it was based, which would go forward to underpin the Mustang for the next quarter-century.
1978 Dodge Magnum
No, not that Dodge Magnum—this Dodge Magnum was Chrysler's attempt at a modern "personal luxury" car to take on the sharply creased and sharp-looking Ford Thunderbird of the late 1970s. If nothing else, you have to love it for its clear headlight covers, which flipped down when the lights were switched on (see them in action in this old film). Ironically, the then-"new" Magnum was made from stone-age parts. It was based on a mid-size platform first developed in the early 1960s, and it was one of the last Chrysler passenger cars to offer a big-block engine, in this case the 400-cubic-inch (6.6-liter) outgrowth of the legendary 383. Chrysler was in dire straits with little money for advertising, and with fuel prices spiking, few people had interest in an expansive, two-ton, V-8-powered coupe. The Magnum sold poorly, as did its also-forgotten 1980s follow-on, the Dodge Mirada.
Memorable 1970s Cars
- 1970 AMC Hornet
- 1970 Ford Maverick
- 1971 Volkswagen 411/412
- 1972 Ford Torino
- 1973 Pontiac Astre
- 1973 Oldsmobile Omega
- 1975 Ford Granada
- 1975 Mercury Bobcat
- 1977 Datsun 200SX
- 1978 Buick Century/Oldsmobile Cutlass Aeroback
- 1978 Ford Fairmont
- 1978 Dodge Magnum