The 1970s was a mixed time for cars in the US because post-1974, the Arab oil embargo hit gas prices hard and guzzlers became muzzled, so to say. After 1974, everybody wanted fuel economy and a car that gave them the most miles on a gallon. But they also wanted a car that still looked sporty and cool and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
This put a ton of pressure on carmakers to churn out the best, at a time when car sales were at an all-time low. Which is why there are two kinds of cars in the 70s – the early iconic ones and the post-1974 malaise era ones. We present both sides of the coin here, with 5 of the coolest cars from the 70s, and 5 not-so-great ones.
10 The Best Of The 70s: Dodge Challenger
Compared to the Mustang and the Camaro, the Dodge Challenger was late on the scene in 1970 – but what a car it was then and now. Because not only was it one of the coolest cars of the 70s, it is still one of the most awesome vintage muscle cars you can own now. Built on the Chrysler E platform, it shared components with the first of the muscle cars, the Plymouth Barracuda. With plenty of inline-sixes and V8s to satisfy all power mill needs, the Challenger ranged between 290 and 425 horsepower. It looked so beautiful as it sped off in a cloud of dust that it made grown men cry.
9 70s Cars That Made Us Sob: Chevrolet Vega
Surprisingly, this was not even a post-malaise era car but a 1971 entry – and while everyone went gaga over the Chevrolet Vega at launch, it soon showed its true colors. Quality and reliability were non-existent in its models so much so that by the late 70s, most junkyards had started refusing any Vegas their final rest.
There were just too many piling up in those dead car towns. So sure, it had a shiny aluminum engine but this very engine often failed prematurely. And while it had an innovative rust-proofing mechanism, it still corroded like crazy. And the only time you didn’t see one puffing smoke from the front, was when it was parked, or being hauled away.
8 The Best Of The 70s: Plymouth Road Runner
For those of us who thought a Road Runner was just a character from Disney’s Looney Tunes, well, wrong. It was a car too. It was based on the toon, its horn did go beep-beep, and its ad featured Wiley Coyote. Reason enough to get the car. Other reasons were that it was all muscle but came cheap, and could outrun even the cop cars of the time – also a reason why it was a hit with the moonshiners of then. With a whole range of V8s powering it, and a super light body because they stripped the car of everything but the essential parts; it zipped fast. For a cheap price, it gave you 335 to 425 horsepower - what more could you ask of a muscle car?
7 70s Cars That Made Us Sob: AMC Gremlin
Honestly, who names a car Gremlin? Gremlins are known to be ugly creatures of lore, and sadly for AMC, the Gremlin was equally jeered at for its looks in real life. The 1970-launched Gremlin was a smaller version of the successful Hornet, but it seemed like someone just upped and chopped off the back of the Hornet to make the Gremlin without much design, or suspension sense.
The car looked out of whack, and because of the loss of suspension in the rear, drove out of whack as well. The insides looked tacky and cheap and while its smaller size did mean the Gremlin was fast – the inline-six motors were choppy and inconsistent. They made changes to the Gremlin every year but it had to put down in 1978.
6 The Best Of the 70s: Datsun 240Z
The initial JDM or Japanese Domestic Market in the US was more about economy cars – these were the cars many opted for during the oil crisis because they were cheap, small, nimble, reliable and of course, gas-savvy. In 1969, the Datsun 240Z changed this perception; the cheap, reliable, nimble and gas-savvy tags remained – but the Datsun was pure sports – and not particularly small. It looked amazing and very unlike the OTT luxury cars of the Detroit Three, and its 2.4-liter straight-six engine competed with the V6 and even V8s around in horsepower, and speed because of its ergonomic, lightweight body. This was the actual start of the JDM at home.
5 70s Cars That Made Us Sob: Ford Pinto
It is said that Ford crash-tested the Pinto some 40 times, and each time it was rear-ended, the engine blew up. You would think that someone would have finally caught on and thought that all this blowing-up means there is something wrong with the Pinto, right? Wrong!
Ford released the Pinto in 1971 and till 1980, the public lapped it up. Even though it regularly blew up with a rear-end nudge. Sometimes people swore they barely even looked at the Pinto's rear end before it went boom. And Ford released the Pinto with the tagline “that warm feeling” – we think warm should have been replaced with blown-to-bits, for a more truthful marketing slant.
4 The Best Of The 70s: Chevrolet Camaro
The second-generation Camaro was introduced in 1970 and carried on till 1981 with minor cosmetic changes. This was the time when Camaro’s legend could have come true concerning the Mustang. Before it's late 60s launch, the Camaro was code-named the Panther. And when Chevy released the nameplate Camaro and was asked what it meant, it’s the tongue-in-cheek answer was, “a beast that eats Mustangs”. All through these 11 years, the Camaro carried a range of V6s, V8s and inline-six engines that jetted 155 to 375 horses. Called both a muscle and a pony car depending on the engine it carried, the Camaro did well even in the 70s, unlike the second-generation Mustang that was horrible.
3 70s Cars That Made Us Sob: Chevrolet Chevette
A more “feminized” version of the Chevelle and the Corvette, the Chevette was a disaster from the start. Of course, this could also lovingly be called the Vette by its wannabe owners – but the Chevette ended where the Corvette began. Surprisingly, it sold well in 1979 and 1980 which means the 70s car buyers simply did not have too much knowledge about or any expectation from their rides.
Poor build quality, rattling and jarring rides, parts that seem to fall out in the middle of the road and a jaundiced engine began to kill it off bit by bit. The influx of cheaper, nicer, politer and overall better Japanese cars did the rest and the Chevette bit the dust.
2 The Best Of The 70s: Ford Mustang Mach I
The Mustang Mach I was the first of the performance-oriented Mustangs on the scene and blew people away. Its engine options ranged from 5.4-liter to 7.0-liter V8s and produced 250 to 335 horsepower with ease. It looked macho and had enough road presence to instigate envy in the hearts of other drivers who weren’t in a Mustang. Other performance-oriented models were around too; Mustang GT, Boss 302, Boss 429, Shelby GT350, and Shelby GT500 to give the Mach I competition but it thrived as well as the others. It is one of the coolest muscle cars ever made and would cost a fortune at the classic car market today.
1 70s Cars That Made Us Sob: Ford Mustang II
The worst of all sins that the Ford could make with the Mustang was to bring it down to the Pinto’s platform – and the second-generation Mustang did just that. Today, this is the one Ford car we all love to hate but at the time, it was hailed as a savior and bought in droves. Many publications that awarded or lauded the Mustang II at the time are now criticized for being in Ford’s pockets because of this non-muscled, so-called luxury upgrade of the Mustang is a blot on the history of all Mustangs. The four- and six-cylinder engines wheezed out 88 and 105 horses respectively, and we sob at what they did to the Mustang’s masculine lines.