The U.S. auto industry, blinded by its own record of success, would lose customers by being unable to recognize sweeping changes in the global automobile market. Detroit exhibited arrogance. "We know what's best". That attitude blinded them, causing them to fail to manufacture products of uniformly high quality.
In fact, in the 1970s, the Big Three continued to focus on their strengths: gas-hungry muscle cars; large, luxurious sedans; and mid-sized cars. Despite the impressive performance of the Volkswagen and other small foreign imports, U.S. automobile manufacturers continued to view the compact car car as a risky investment. In their thinking, the profit margin was too slim to justify an increase in production.
Competition from foreign car manufacturers was just one of the problems threatening Detroit's monopoly. There were changes that had to be made to 1970s cars with reference to research that analyzed the contaminants in the air which discovered that they were strikingly similar to the elements found in automobile emissions.
A chemist working at the California Institute of Technology, Arie Jan Haagen-Smith concluded that the car was chiefly responsible for Los Angeles' air pollution problem, and consequently, for a host of physiological problems afflicting the residents of Southern California in the late 1950s.
But the work of Haagen-Smit and others like him was quickly dismissed by the Big Three, rationalizing that there was no money to be made in the development and production of pollution-control devices.
Inevitably, Congress forced the issue by passing, in 1965, the Vehicle Air Pollution and Control Act which mandated tighter emission standards. The Big Three were compelled to make dramatic changes in the way they manufactured their products. but that was the only beginning. In 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed which ordered Detroit to reduce emissions by 90 percent over the next six years.
Those legislation prodded the developments of anti-pollution products - unleaded gasoline and catalytic converter. Despite continued growth in the automobile production, air pollution directly attributable to auto emissions began to drop.
Consumer advocacy groups in the 1970s also continued their campaign for safer automobiles which resulted in the introduction of seat belts, padded dashboards, and improved braking systems. Recalls of cars deemed unsafe naturally led to increased car prices, $300 per vehicle, making 1970s cars more expensive to make.
Nevertheless, Detroit kept manufacturing record number of large and midsize cars, which accounted for 72 percent of automobile production.
1973 caused a jolt to American motorists when the oil-rich countries of the Middle East declared an embargo against Israel and its allies, including the United States. Although it lasted for only six months, American motorists were forced to wait in long lines, whereas before they were accustomed to filling up whenever and wherever they wanted.
At the end of the long lines, they discovered that there was a ceiling on how much they were allowed to purchase. Couple that with skyrocketing prices and you could imagine their frustrations.
With a nationwide 55-mph speed limit imposed to conserve gasoline, the average American motorist was at the end of his wits. American motorists began demanding smaller, more efficient cars.
And if Detroit couldn't manufacture them, the consumer would turn to foreign cars. Even if the Big Three were manufacturing small cars (28 percent of production), they weren't making enough of them.
Notable 1970s Cars
The Volkswagen Beetle
In 1949, the Beetle was introduced to the U.S. market and although only two were sold that year, six years later, more than 20,000 were sold in the U.S. By 1965, half a million reached the U.S. market. A favorite among hippies and college professors, the Beetle became a symbol of the counterculture of the late 1960s.
Among 1970s cars, its popularity was closely linked to its very lack of styling and pretense. Having its number one attraction, price, young people flocked to buy the "Bug". You can buy an American car for $3,000, or you can buy a Volks and a washer and a dryer and couple of television sets and a phonograph.
The Volkswagen was the antithesis of the typical American car: it was small, noisy, homely, and uncomfortable. On the other hand, it was also efficient, functional as well as economical. The Beetle never changed. Year after year, it looked the same, felt the same, sounded the same.
The Honda Accord
Honda sent a real warrior over in the 1978 Accord, one of the first subcompact Japanese cars to feature great styling. The combination of mechanical excellence and looks made this one of the best 1970s cars. Featuring looks and price to add to its attraction, by 1989, the Accord was the best-selling car in America.
Notable 1970s Cars That Failed
The GM Vega
The Vega was simply a car prone to mechanical failure of one sort or another. It was the direct result of management's decision to cut labor costs through the use of automation. Workers went out on strike in 1972 at the Lordstown facility of GM due to exhaustion caused by backbreaking pace required to keep up with robots on the assembly line.
The Ford Pinto
The story of the Pinto was more disturbing because its faulty design contributed to deaths of motorists as well as passengers. After being rear-ended, the Pinto burst into flames. In one suit, a California jury awarded damages of $128 million. Ford subsequently became the first car company in U.S. history to be charged with criminal homicide. Ford's ultimate exoneration did not help. That stigma did a devastating damage to the company's reputation.
History of the Automobile:
Forerunners of the Modern Automobile
Early 1900's cars
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1950's Imported Cars
1960's Economy Cars
1960's Muscle Cars
1960's Pony Cars
1960's Foreign Cars
More '70s Cars 1975 AMC Pacer 1971 Buick Riviera 1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo 1971 Chevy Nova SS 1978 Cadillac Seville 1970 Plymouth Cuda 1971 Oldsmobile 442 1972 Lincoln Continental Mark IV
1970's Imported Cars 1972 Aston Martin V8
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