The 1970s Cars and the Demands of the Times

    1970s cars were forced to adapt to the reality of the gas crisis, hence the need to design cars that are capable to conserve gas, compliance to the Clean Air Act, and vowing to consumer advocacy groups' demand for safer automobiles.

    In the 1970s, Americans shifted their attention to smaller, more reliable, high-mileage foreign imports. In fact, more than a million imports were registered by 1969. Meanwhile, American automakers were slow to respond.

    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 1970s cars, which accounted for 72 percent of automobile production.

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    1970s Cars, 1970s Lights

    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.

    Although the Big Three responded with small cars of their own, by 1969, more than i million imports were registered in the U.S. and of those, half were Volkswagens. In 1973 sales of the Beetle passed the 15 million mark. That figure even surpassed even Ford's legendary Model T. That was quite an impressive achievement for a car once referred to by Henry Ford II as "a little shit box."

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    In 1973 sales of the Beetle passed the 15 million mark surpassing even Ford's legendary Model T.

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    1970s Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Coupe

    1970 Volkswagen Beetle

    1970 VW Type 3 Fastback Automatic

    1970 Volkswagen Westfalia

    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.

    The Japanese worker, an epitome of absolute dedication and compliance with quality control, made this car one of the most, if not the most durable and trustworthy car in the world. Where the Americans were turning out shoddy products or certainly not top quality, the Japanese automakers focused more on quality.

    1977 Honda Accord Sedan

    1970s Honda Accord EX

    1979 Honda Accord 4-dr Sedan

    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.

    With an increase in quantity came a decrease in quantity. The Vegas became one of the most notoriously unreliable cars among 1970s cars. It was recalled three times because of safety defects. The engine as well as breaks were breaking down. The Vega therefore became a symbol of Detroit's inability to make a quality car for the subcompact market.

    1971 Chevrolet Vega 2300 Hatchback Coupe

    1972 Chevrolet Vega

    1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

    The Ford Pinto

    1971-1980 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.

    1979 Ford Pinto Hatchback

    History of the Automobile:
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    1970's Cars

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    1972 Lincoln Continental Mark IV

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