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The Ugliest Cars of the 1970s

In a decade of dreadful design, some cars were worse than others.

When asked about the ugliest cars of the 1970s, we're tempted to say "All of them." Between the big hair, the wide ties, and the gaudy vehicles, the Nixon-Ford-Carter era was not exactly a high point for design of any kind. Still, some cars stand out as particularly ugly, even by the standards of the decade. Brace yourself for a dozen and a half of the worst.

1970 AMC Gremlin

The Gremlin sold for two-thirds the cost of most small cars, which is appropriate, because it looked like two-thirds of a car. Truth be told, the Gremlin was a stroke of corporate genius, cheap to develop and right for the times, and it was a runaway sales success, at least by AMC's modest standards. But did it have to be so ugly? As we outlined in our brief history of the Gremlin, it could have been worse: AMC considered a shortened version of the Hornet that design chief Dick Teague said was even uglier—though considering that he signed off on the Gremlin, we're not sure his opinion can be trusted.

1970 Buick Riviera

The second-generation Buick Riviera was a breathtakingly beautiful car—at least from 1966 until 1969, with its racy lines and inboard hidden headlights. And then… this happened. It takes a moment to appreciate just how ugly this car is, probably because of the mind's defensive mechanism of blocking out extreme trauma, but look long enough (you poor thing) and you will see it: The way the grille seems to be sliding down off the front of the car, the way the skirted rear fenders seem to be growing over the wheels like runaway mold, and the way the whole body is bloated like a drowning victim. Riviera sales, steadily rising through the late '60s, dropped like a girder in free-fall when this bastardized blob hit the showroom floor. Mercifully, it was replaced by the controversial but beautiful boat-tail Riviera in 1971.

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1970 Ford Thunderbird

The late-60s T-Birds were, if not exactly pretty cars, certainly non-offensive—and then 1970 came along and Ford decided to stick a giant beak on the front. Seriously, Ford, WTF?? The emphasis should be on Thunder, not bird.

1970 Porsche 914

It is difficult to design a well-proportioned mid-engine car (though we'd argue that Chevrolet has finally done it), but there's more to the Porsche 914's strangeness than the huge expanse of space between the B-pillar and the rear wheel. There's just something about the 914—its awkwardly swept-back greenhouse, its super-square squared-off bodywork, its relatively unadorned lines—that makes it not only a dorky-looking car, but one that has accepted its dorkiness. We're not saying that dorkiness is unappealing; we love the 914. But we think a Porsche should be styled like a car you dream about, not the reality you wake up to.

1970 Saab Sonett III

The third-generation Sonett was designed with American buyers in mind, and someone must have told the Swedes that Americans like cars with huge front overhangs. That was a joke, Saab, a joke! Nevertheless, the Sonett showed up with this ridiculously elongated schnozzle, made worse by the big 5-mph bumper jammed onto the front end. And as if the proportions weren't bad enough, the elongated front contrasted sharply with its awkwardly curtailed tail. No wonder Americans didn't take Saabs seriously until the 900 came along.

1972 Subaru GL Coupe

Subaru, like other Japanese automakers, was making steady inroads into the US market with smart, efficient, and practical small cars that were sensible, if not exactly stylish. So their designers tried stylish, and this is what happened. Eew. Our guess is that the Subaru GL was just a little too long to fit into the shipping crate, and the solution was to cut eight inches off the tail, stick on a bumper and taillights, and send it on its way.

1973 Leyland P76

Lest you think that British Leyland only made Brits miserable, the P76 is proof that the world's most notorious crap-car conglomerate tried to spread that despair to the farthest corners of the Commonwealth. The P76 was a big car produced by Leyland Australia, and our guess is that the design mandate was to eliminate any lingering desire to re-form the Empire. The wedge shape allows the trunk to accommodate a 44-gallon drum, preferably one full of something incendiary. Besides being ugly, the P76 was built with all the care and quality for which Leyland was known—in other words, none—and after two years and just 18,000 sales, the P76 was history.

1973 Reliant Robin

Three-wheel cars don't have to be ugly, though most of them are. The problem with the Reliant Robin is not just that it's ugly, but that it's so desperate. Even its predecessor, the ironically named Reliant Regal, managed some barely-detectable smidgeon of visual dignity, but the Robin looks like exactly the car you would buy when you can't afford to buy something that is exactly a car. Austere, goggle-eyed, and seemingly satisfied to wallow shamelessly in its sub-car status, the Robin seems to be begging for the smallest scrap of our affection, which we feel completely justified in withholding.

1974 Bricklin SV-1

Malcolm Bricklin is the man who foisted the Subaru 360 and the Yugo on American buyers, and if that isn't proof of malignant intent, we don't know what is. His one attempt at making a car of his own was the plastic-fantastic Safety Vehicle 1, and it was terrible in so many, many, many ways, including visually. There are the gigundo bumpers front and rear, the gun-slit windows, and those oh-so-1970s turbine-vane wheels that belong on a Chevy Van with "Shaggin' Wagon" painted in day-glow balloon letters on the side. Assembly quality was abysmal: Body panels warped (often before they were attached to the chassis), the hidden headlights liked to stay hidden, the cars leaked like they were made of cheesecloth and the 90-lb gullwing doors would bend or break under the force of their hydraulic actuators—if they opened at all, that is; a buggy electrical system often trapped owners inside the cars. Ugly to look at and ugly to own, that was the Bricklin SV-1.

1974 Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar (Commuta-Car)

If you've ever wondered how electric cars got a reputation as glorified golf carts, well, here you go. The CitiCar, brainchild (or perhaps brain-fart?) of a company called Sebring Vanguard, literally was a glorified golf cart, with a 2.5-horsepower motor (later upgraded to 6 hp) and a wheel-chock-shaped body that must have cost tens of dollars to design. It had a 40-mile range and could accelerate to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds… oh, sorry, that's how long it took to accelerate to twenty-five miles per hour, which is three mph shy of the original version's top speed. A company called Commuter Vehicles bought the design in the late 70s, renamed it the Commuta-Car, and added the ridiculous bumper extensions you see here. We're not sure why, as it was an inherently unsafe car—every time they got in, the driver risked dying of embarrassment.

1974 Ford Mustang II (Ghia)

We'll skip the debate about whether the downsized Mustang II was a stroke of genius or a national tragedy; that's a conversation for another time. Sure, the Mustang II looked silly, but the major visual offense was the luxury-themed Ghia model, a victim of Ford's notion that any car could be made better with the addition of opera windows. It was one thing to shrink the 'Stang, but attempting to give it a luxury vibe with a padded-vinyl "formal" roof and color-keyed bumpers was nothing less than a crime against humanity. And did they think we wouldn't notice that the hubcaps were lifted from the Granada? Come on. The Mustang II was a strong seller, but we think this was in spite of the Mustang Ghia rather than because of it.

1974 Vanden Plas 1500

The Detroit Three were rightly criticized throughout the 1970s and 80s for "badge engineering"—the process of taking a crappy car and putting a fancy grille on it, thereby magically transforming it into something truly special—but British Leyland raised this to an art form, provided your definition of art involves spreading feces on canvas. Witness the Vanden Plas 1500: Based on the miserable Austin Allegro, it featured a stand-up chrome grille, genuine leather seats, deep-pile carpet, and fold-down walnut tables for the back seats, presumably so that the owner had a comfortable place to enjoy lunch while waiting for the tow truck. And for this, BL charged nearly twice as much as the Allegro. Presumably the target buyer was someone who looked at a Jaguar XJ6 and said "It's lovely, but have you got anything smaller and shittier?"

1975 AMC Pacer

Ah, the Pacer—the first wide small car! AMC's concept did make for some cute commercials, but it also made for a seriously unattractive car. The Pacer's huge glass area was designed to give drivers better visibility, but instead it made them feel like a goldfish being boiled in its own bowl. Out back, the taillights looked like they were designed with a cake-frosting spatula. The Pacer got even uglier in 1978, as shown in our photo: AMC fitted a bulging hood and stand-up grille that provided clearance for the new optional V-8, an attempt to give the Pacer the power it needed to move all that heavy glass, with no worries about economy since the cast-iron six-cylinder engines were already gluttons. Poorly conceived and poorly executed, the Pacer was a car for dorks before dorks were cool.

1975 British Leyland Princess

The Princess is yet another abomination from across the Atlantic. Originally introduced under the Austin, Morris, and Wolseley brands, the car eventually became a stand-alone marque, presumably because none of the existing BL makes wanted anything to do with it. The Princess was an awkward wedge-shaped car that looked like a hatchback, except it wasn't—what trunk (sorry, boot) space there was had to be accessed through a tiny lid. That made it impractical as well as unattractive and unreliable. Shortly after the Princess was introduced, British Leyland collapsed and had to be nationalized. Was anyone surprised?

1977 Datsun 200SX

By the late 1970s, Datsun (later Nissan) had earned a good reputation in the United States thanks to handy little economy cars like the B210 and 510 and brilliant sportsters like the 240Z… and then this happened. The 200SX was a rear-drive sports coupe with a two-liter engine and a grille apparently influenced by an electric shaver. Surprisingly, there were very few complaints about the c-pillar blocking rearward visibility, most likely because there were very few buyers. The 200SX was too slow to be sporty and too thirsty to be thrifty. What it was best at was rusting, something it did with admirable rapidity and enthusiasm, the end result being that few are left to assault our eyes today.

1977 Leata Cabalero

The Chevrolet Chevette was a pitiful car—slow, noisy, and thoroughly miserable, but at least it wasn't tragically unattractive. That's something Mr. Donald E. Stinebauch of Port Falls, Idaho decided to set right. He slapped on 350 lbs of Bondo and fiberglass, endeavoring to endow his Frankencar with styling cues from the first-generation Monte Carlo, and resold it for nearly double the Chevette's price. Amazingly, he made nearly 100 of the things, including a handful of El Camino-inspired pickup trucks that, if you can believe such a thing is possible, look even more ridiculous. Apparently, he named the car after his wife—grounds for divorce, if you ask us—though why he coupled that with a misspelling of the Spanish word for gentleman is anyone's guess. Mr. Stinebauch apparently lost his shirt on the whole works, so there is some justice in the universe.

1977 Volvo 262C

Hemmings reports that when Henry Ford II came to Sweden to see Volvo's cutting-edge Kalmar plant, his team brought a phalanx of Lincoln Continental Mark IVs to drive around, and the Swedes were so taken that they decided to build their own version—a stupid idea that begat a stupid car. The story goes that Volvo didn't bother with a clay model, and that's too bad; perhaps it would have stopped this disaster before it happened. To create this rolling horror, Volvo sent perfectly good 262 GL coupes to Bertone in Italy, which chopped 2.6 inches from the roofline and rendered the car unusable for anyone over six feet tall. Amazingly, some 6,600 were built over a five-year period. Apparently, there are a lot of short people with bad taste.

1978 Buick Century/Oldsmobile Cutlass Aeroback

When the time came to downsize its successful mid-size cars, General Motors decided that the Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass ought to have a European look—and what could be more European than a hatchback? The results, as you can see, were predictably awful. Technically the Aeroback cars weren't hatchbacks, as they had a conventional trunk lid, but consumers didn't complain because they were too busy not buying them. GM was so confident in the design that it didn't bother to offer a traditional sedan version. Oops! Sales tanked, but didn't die out completely, thanks to the conventional wagon and rather attractive coupe. GM rushed a proper sedan into production for 1980, though for reasons that can't quite be explained, the two-door Aeroback got a stay of execution until 1981. If you're wondering why GM styling was so bland throughout the 1980s, well, now you know.