The Rise and Fall of the Automobile Industry in the 1970s

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It is widely noted by many car historians that the 1970s was not a great period for the automobile industry, particularly in the United States. There are many reasons why the car manufacturing industry in the US was failing throughout the 70s, one of which being the 1973 oil crisis.  Drivers were able to afford the skyrocketing price of oil, which led to the demand for new cars to decrease. 

The Malaise Era

The decrease in sales during the 1970s for many major car manufacturers in the US, particularly the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler), is often referred to by historians as the “Malaise Era.”  The 1973 oil crisis with skyrocketing gas prices had the biggest impact on vehicles produced in United States were powerful but fuel inefficient cars.

To adapt to these changes, U.S. car manufacturers shifted their focus from producing powerful vehicles to more fuel-efficient compact cars. This transition was challenging, especially as international competitors like Volkswagen, with its popular Beetle, had already established a foothold in the compact car market.

Automobile Innovations in the 70s

Despite being a challenging era for US car manufacturers, there were several important throughout the 1970s

Catalytic Converter

Catalytic Converter

The catalytic converter is one of the most significant advancements in automotive technology. Introduced in 1975, this device plays a crucial role in reducing harmful emissions from internal combustion engines.

The concept of the catalytic converter can be traced back to the late 19th century in France, but it gained traction in the mid-20th century. French mechanical engineer Eugene Houdry, who moved to the United States in 1930, developed a practical design for catalytic converters. Houdry’s work culminated in the United States Patent 2,742,437, awarded in the mid-1950s.

Cassette Tape Players for Automobiles

Cassette Tape Players for Automobiles

The 1970s saw the rise of in-car entertainment systems, with cassette tape players becoming a staple in many vehicles. These players allowed drivers and passengers to enjoy music on the go, revolutionizing the driving experience.

Philips introduced the first vehicular cassette player in 1968, and by the 1970s, it had become a standard feature in most cars. The popularity of rock and disco music during this era further fueled the demand for in-car cassette players.

Throughout the decade, cassette players were improved to include features such as longer playtimes, auto-reverse, noise reduction, and enhanced audio quality. These advancements made it easier for users to listen to their favorite music with better sound clarity and convenience.

Digital Dashboard

The digital dashboard, or electronic instrument cluster, provided more accurate and reliable information to drivers. This technology marked a significant departure from traditional analog gauges.

The first digital dashboard was installed in the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda, a luxury car that showcased cutting-edge technology. While initially limited to high-end vehicles, digital dashboards eventually became more widespread in the 1990s.

Digital dashboards offered precise readings for speedometers, fuel levels, and other important metrics. They also allowed for customization and integration with other vehicle systems, enhancing the overall driving experience.

Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)

Anti-Lock Braking System

The anti-lock braking system (ABS) is a safety feature that prevents the wheels from locking up during braking, allowing the driver to maintain control of the vehicle. This technology significantly reduces the risk of skidding and accidents.

A version of ABS for aircraft was already in use by the 1950s. The Road Research Laboratory tested ABS on a Royal Enfield Super Meteor motorcycle in 1958, but the high cost of implementation delayed its adoption for land vehicles.

In 1971, Chrysler, in collaboration with the Bendix Corporation, introduced a refined version of ABS called “Sure Brake.” This system featured computerized controls and four sensors, enhancing its effectiveness. The Sure Brake was first installed in the 1971 Imperial, setting a new standard for vehicle safety.

To learn more about the ABS, you can read our “History of Anti-Lock Brakes” article.

Airbags

Airbags

Inventor John W. Hetrick received a patent for an airbag design in 1953, and Mercedes-Benz began experimenting with airbags in the late 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that airbags became more viable for mass production.

General Motors began offering driver-side airbags as an option in some Cadillac models in 1974. By the end of the decade, airbags had become more reliable and started to gain acceptance as a standard safety feature in vehicles.

Radial Tires

Radial tires, characterized by their innovative construction, provided better performance, durability, and fuel efficiency compared to traditional bias-ply tires.

The concept of radial tires was first introduced by Michelin in 1946, but it gained widespread adoption in the 1970s. Radial tires feature a design where the cord plies are arranged at 90 degrees to the direction of travel, with a stabilizing belt of steel or fabric.

Radial tires offer improved traction, longer tread life, and better handling. Their adoption in the 1970s contributed to increased vehicle performance and fuel efficiency, aligning with the decade’s emphasis on practicality and economy.

Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI)

Electronic fuel injection (EFI) systems replaced carburetors, providing more precise control over fuel delivery to the engine. This technology improved engine performance, fuel efficiency, and emissions.

EFI systems were first introduced in the 1950s but became more sophisticated and widespread in the 1970s. Bosch’s Jetronic system, introduced in 1967, set the stage for more advanced EFI systems.

EFI systems allowed for better fuel atomization and combustion, leading to smoother engine operation and reduced emissions. By the end of the 1970s, EFI had become a key component in achieving compliance with new environmental regulations.

Turbocharging

Turbocharging is a technology that increases an engine’s power output by forcing more air into the combustion chamber. This innovation allowed for smaller engines to produce higher levels of performance.

While turbocharging technology dates back to the early 20th century, it gained prominence in the automotive industry during the 1970s. The BMW 2002 Turbo, introduced in 1973, was one of the first production cars to feature a turbocharged engine.

Turbocharged engines offered improved power and fuel efficiency, making them an attractive option during the fuel-conscious 1970s. This technology has continued to evolve and remains popular in modern vehicles.

New Cars Introduced in the 1970s Due to the Oil Crisis

Here’s a look at some of the notable cars introduced during the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, including those that succeeded and others that failed.

Ford Pinto

Ford Pinto

The Ford Pinto is another subcompact car that was released in the early 70s in order to compete with international manufacturers in the compact car market. The Pinto was produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1971 and 1980 and was particularly known as being the smallest vehicle produced by the company since 1907.

The subcompact vehicle was available in three body styles, which are a 2-door sedan with a trunk, a 2-door station wagon, and a 3-door hatchback. The Ford Pinto was also rebadged as the Mercury Bobcat in Canada from 1974 to 1980.

The Pinto’s reputation was severely tarnished by safety concerns, particularly regarding its fuel tank design, which was prone to explosions in rear-end collisions. This led to a significant number of lawsuits and recalls, ultimately impacting its legacy.

AMC Gremlin

AMC Gremlin

The AMC Gremlin is one of the first subcompact cars made by US manufacturers, and it would soon start the trend of US-made compact cars that are affordable and fuel-efficient. The Gremlin was manufactured by the American Motors Corporation from 1970 to 1978 and featured a shortened platform with a pronounced kammback tail that makes it look narrower than most vehicles that were popular in the early 70s.

While initially popular, the Gremlin faced criticism for its build quality and lack of refinement. It struggled to maintain its market share against more sophisticated and reliable imports from Japanese and European manufacturers.

There were 671,475 units of the Gremlin that were produced during its eight years of production. These units came as either a 2-door sedan or a 2-door hatchback. The Gremlin was be retired in 1978 and would be replaced by the AMC Spirit, a restyled version of the Gremlin, in 1979.

Dodge Colt

Dodge Colt

The Dodge Colt was a rebadged version of the Mitsubishi Galant subcompact car and was produced from 1971 to 1994. It was also marketed under the Plymouth brand as the Plymouth Champ or the Plymouth Colt.

This car was available in four body styles from 1970 to 1973, and these body styles are the 2-door coupe, the 2-door hardtop, the 4-door sedan, and the 5-door station wagon. The first to second generations Colt were rebadged versions of Mitsubishi’s Galant mode, while the third to sixth generations was a rebadged variant of the Lancer and Mirage models.

The Dodge Colt was imported by Chrysler to the US in order to compete with Ford and AMC in selling compact cars in the country without manufacturing their own.

While the Colt itself was relatively successful, it highlighted the growing trend of American manufacturers relying on imported designs to meet market demands. This reliance on foreign technology sometimes resulted in compatibility and supply chain issues.

Chevrolet Vega

Chevrolet Vega

A short-lived subcompact car, the Vega is Chevrolet’s first entry into the compact car market and was manufactured from 1970 to 1977. The Chevrolet Vega was available in four body styles, namely a 2-door notchback sedan, 2-door hatchback, a 2-door station wagon, and a 2-door panel delivery or blind van.

Although it was praised as one of the best subcompact cars during its early years of production, and it has even won the Motor Trend Car of the Year Award in 1971, the Chevrolet Vega became known later on as a car that is plagued with problems when it came to its reliability and safety.

Because of its tarnished reputation around the mid-70s, Chevrolet had no choice but to discontinue the line in 1977. The Vega would then be replaced with another short-lived subcompact car called the Monza, which was produced from 1974 to 1980.

Plymouth Cricket

Plymouth Cricket or Hillman Avenger

The Plymouth Cricket is marketed as a rear-wheel drive small family car by Chrysler from 1970 to 1981. The Cricket was originally manufactured by Rootes Motors Limited, a division under Chrysler Europe.

The vehicle was sold with different names, like the Plymouth Cricket (in North America), and Chrysler Avenger (in Europe), and the Talbot Avenger (when it was manufactured by PSA Peugeot Citroen from 1979 to 1981).

The Cricket is regarded as one of the most popular cars in Britain during the 70s, although it would quickly lose its popularity by the mid-70s when the Volkswagen Golf, a more compact and affordable car, was introduced in 1974. To compete with Volkswagen, Chrysler shifted their focus on marketing its new model, the Horizon, in 1978.

BMW 2002 Turbo

BMW 2002 Turbo

The BMW 2002 Turbo is the turbocharged version of the BMW 2002, a compact executive car produced from 1966 to 1967 by German automobile company BMW. The BMW 2002 is supposed to be a shorter or narrower version of the BMW New Class sedan, which was a popular model in the 60s.

The 2002 is the second generation of the BMW 02 series and features a 2-liter engine and an optional 3-speed automatic transmission. The turbocharged 2002 Turbo was introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1973 as BMW’s first turbocharged car that is faster and more durable than the base 2002 model. The BMW 2002 Turbo had a top speed of 211 kilometers per hour, which is made possible thanks to the improved 2002 tii engine and a KK&K turbocharger. 

Datsun 510

Datsun 510

Inspired by BMW’s 02 series, Nissan created their own compact executive car called the Datsun 510, a series of the Datsun Bluebird that was produced from 1967 to 1973 and was offered to various countries, including the US and Canada. The Datsun 510 features a SOHC (overhead camshaft engine) engine, semi-trailing arm suspension at the back of the vehicle, and MacPherson strut suspension at the front.

When it was released in October 1967, there was only one body style offered by Nissan, but other body styles were then introduced just one year after. The initial body style was the 4-door sedan, and the additional body styles were the 2-door sedan introduced in June 1968 and the 2-door coupe and 5-door station wagon offered in November 1968. The Datsun 510 is one of Nissan’s first successful exported vehicles, and it would soon pave the way for Nissan to become a powerhouse in the automobile industry.

Dodge Charger

70s Dodge Charger

The Charger is one of the few muscle cars that survive the compact car trend in the United States, as it remained a popular luxury vehicle for elite car collectors during the mid-70s. However, its fame wouldn’t last long by the late-70s, and Dodge had to revive, rebrand, and restyle the Charger line. The Charger was introduced in 1966, and as of 2021, it has been produced through seven generations. The two generations from the 70s, the third and fourth generations, were arguably the most popular iterations of the Charger, as they still have a relatively high resale value today.

What’s interesting about the 70s Charger was that it was discontinued in 1978 following the decrease in sales due to the overwhelming popularity of compact cars. However, the Charger name was revived in 1982, but instead of a muscle car, the 80s Charger was a subcompact vehicle that was introduced as Dodger’s flagship model for the compact car market. So, the 70s models were the last muscle cars under the Charger name.

Honda Civic

The Honda Civic, introduced in 1972, became one of the most successful and enduring subcompact cars globally.

The Civic was praised for its fuel efficiency, reliability, and compact design. It quickly gained popularity in the US and other markets, establishing Honda as a major player in the automotive industry. The Civic’s success continued well beyond the 1970s, with multiple generations and innovations.

Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla, although introduced in the 1960s, saw significant growth and success in the 1970s due to its fuel efficiency and reliability.

The Corolla became one of the best-selling cars worldwide, known for its durability and low operating costs. It was available in various body styles, including sedan, coupe, and station wagon.

Volkswagen Rabbit

The Volkswagen Rabbit, known as the Golf in Europe, was introduced in the US in 1975 as a replacement for the iconic Beetle.

The Rabbit was praised for its fuel efficiency, practicality, and modern design. It quickly became a best-seller in the compact car segment, offering a front-wheel-drive layout that improved handling and interior space.

While the Rabbit was generally well-received, early models had issues with build quality and reliability. These problems were addressed in later versions, and the Rabbit continued to be a strong contender in the compact car market.

Final Thoughts

The 1970s was a bizarre period for the automobile industry, as the trends in car design and features quickly shifted from luxurious muscle cars to affordable compact cars. Even though many consider the 70s as an dismal era for automobiles, there is no denying that it still molded what the industry would become in the 80s and beyond, as drivers are becoming more enamored towards reliability rather than beauty when it comes to cars.

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