Automotive History: Muscle Cars To Malaise Era – The Transition Years, 1969-1974

1969 Dodge Charger and 1975 Dodge Charger | Credit:oldcarbrochures.com

The title of this post is a bit misleading, in the interest of alliteration. I’m examining that period of automotive styling that transitioned us from the zenith of the sixties into the full-blown “malaise era” of the seventies. But not all my examples are muscle cars, strictly speaking. Some representatives from the personal luxury class earned a spot on the list. In fact, some of the muscle cars morphed into bloated broughams as auto companies chased market trends. The more I thought about it, the more of these transition designs kept popping into my head.

To make the transition list, the candidate car needed to meet the following criteria.

  • Have an attractive, direct ancestor from the sixties
  • Have a monstrous, direct descendent in the seventies
  • Be larger, heavier, and have more convoluted styling than the ancestor cars
  • But not be definitively ugly like the malaise cars that followed

This nascent design trend manifested itself in styling excesses that weren’t universally perceived as ugly at the time. But the transition designs usually resulted in less utility and pure beauty compared to the ancestral generation. Outward visibility often suffered at the capricious hand of the designer as they crafted a longer, lower, and wider shape. With those parameters established, here’s my list.

1971-1974 Dodge Charger

I believe this to be the most clear cut example of a transition era car. Its ancestor was the classic, brilliantly styled 1968 – 1970 Dodge Charger.

1970 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum Six Pack | Credit: musclecarcalendar.com

From the wicked looking concealed headlights at the front, to the sculpted fenders that flowed back to meet the flying buttress c-pillar finally ending in a subtle integrated rear spoiler, there wasn’t a false line on this one. The integrated chrome bumpers were devoid of excess (and any hope of impact protection). So what. They looked sweet, and I’m partial to the front loop bumper found on the 1970 model. Dubbed a “double-diamond coke bottle”, this aggressive yet elegant shape was penned by Richard Sias and Harvey J. Winn. Pretty heady stuff for what was a work-a-day Coronet under the skin.

Then in 1971, the new Charger was introduced with even swoopier styling from MOPAR’s fuselage school of design.

1973 Dodge Charger SE | Credit: wiredoncars.com

The ’71 – ’74 third-generation Charger managed to look and feel larger than its predecessor. But it was actually a few inches shorter in wheelbase and overall length, (arguing against my premise, but bear with me). It was notably a couple inches wider, and had even worse rear visibility, owing to a c-pillar that thoughtfully created a blind spot big enough to hide a semi. But by 1973, this just became a canvas for the triple opera windows inset in a canopy vinyl roof, which looks particularly natty here in white. You could see where things were headed. Still, it was regarded as a very good looking design at the time, as evidenced by this archived Car And Driver article.

But by 1975, malaise had set in. The Charger had morphed into a Cordoba clone, replete with a stand up hood ornament, neoclassic styling, and slatted opera windows.

1975 Dodge Charger SE | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

In a way, it was worse than the Cordoba, because Dodge disingenuously slapped the once proud Charger name on the side. At least the Cordoba was honest in its mission to get you to the disco without wrinkling your polyester leisure suit. But what were we to make of a Charger with fake wire wheel covers and whitewalls? At best you got 245 HP from a 400 V8, which wasn’t that bad for 1975, but you were hauling around another 10″ of overall length and an additional 400 lbs compared to a comparably equipped ’74.

1970 – 1971 Ford Thunderbird

Ford was floundering with this generation of T-Bird. Of course one would have to look all the way back to the original ’55-’57 models for the peak of Thunderbird design. But they also hit a styling home run with the beautiful bullet-nosed models in ’61-’63, which are more of a true ancestor to the ’70-’71 style.

1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible | Credit: NetCarShow.com

Alas, there’s no accounting for taste in the personal luxury market, as the better looking the bird, the slower the sales. The 1964-1966 Flair Birds brought a fussier, squared up look, and a boost in units moved. So Ford’s better idea was to go bigger in ’67, and try to catch some Continental cache by adding a four-door model with suicide doors.

But for this exercise, I’m singling out the ’70-’71 “Bunkie Birds” as the transitional generation.

1970 Ford Thunderbird | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

If you’re an aficionado of old American cars, you may be familiar with Ford president Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen who came from Pontiac and brought that prominent proboscis with him. Perhaps his reasoning was if you were going to call it a Thunderbird, it should have a bird-like beak. That beak was a prime example of functionality losing out to form. Check out this vintage Popular Mechanics Owner’s Report, where several people reported it nearly impossible to judge just where that aircraft carrier length hood ended, resulting in numerous, expensive parking mishaps. And that swoopy sports-back model with its extremely shallow rear window made backing up just as difficult. At least these birds could fly with a 360 HP Thunderjet 429.

The logical progression was to create an even larger bird for ’72, making it one of the earliest examples of a malaise mobile.

1972 Ford Thunderbird | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

Naturally, a personal luxury barge should lead the way down the path of excess. With the Lincoln Mark IV as a chassis donor, it was a whale of a bird. These overblown and softly sprung rolling bordellos wallowed down the interstate on a 120″ wheelbase spanning 216″ end to end. This overall length would grow to just over 225″ by the time the giant chrome park benches masquerading as bumpers were bolted on for the ’74-’76 models. As for styling details, it still had a giant hood and short trunk combined with a shallow greenhouse and rather steeply raked windshield. You were so well-insulated from the outside world, you couldn’t even see it. The trapezoidal opera window didn’t show up until ’73, perhaps to help brighten up the cave-like interior.

1971-1973 Buick Riviera

Now to examine Buick’s transitional car, the third-generation Riviera. Its ancestors were the classic, first generation ’63-’65 and second generation ’66-’69 models.

1965 Buick Riviera | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

The first generation was particularly elegant, with that Ferrari-meets-Rolls-Royce-knife-edge-fenders look. You could argue ’66-’70 was also a transitional generation, but the ’66-’67 cars were just too nice to damn with such a label. Things were already starting to slide by ’68, with the uglier front end and proliferation of vinyl roofs. The less said about the one year ’70 re-skin, the better.

But the third generation boat tail Riviera is a quintessential transitional car.

1971 Buick Riviera | Credit: americanrides.blogspot.com

Not without redeeming value, the styling was distinctive but controversial. Every old car buff knows the story of how Bill Mitchell intended the design to be used with the smaller, intermediate A-body platform, like a contemporary Skylark. But somewhere along the development journey it was determined that the Riviera would need to share the gargantuan B-body, shell also used by the new LeSabre/Centurion. Of course the first thing you notice is the giant glass backlight, which looked like a ’64 Corvette Stingray jumped onto the back of that LeSabre. Then the dramatic, exaggerated “sweepspear” carries your eye forward to the de rigueur gigantic hood. After all the excitement out back, the only thing the rather nondescript front end had going for it was a pronounced forward rake, which did nothing for aerodynamics. But then again, pundits always complain that when designers are slave to the wind tunnel, all cars end up looking the same. You can’t say that about the boat tail Riviera.

After all that effort, the transition Riviera didn’t sell as well as its predecessor. The high end personal luxury car market was looking for more conservative, traditional trappings.

1974 Buick Riviera | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

Every dentist from New Rochelle to New Haven was buying Mark IVs and Eldorados. Thus, the 1974-1976 Riviera was a bland rehash of styling cues in a vain effort to pander to the questionable tastes of the personal luxury car buyer. The expected formal “Colonnade” roofline was swathed in vinyl. Opera windows, stand up hood ornaments, and a vertical grill all made an appearance. It was a forgettable ensemble, and the market punished Buick by not buying that one either. Odd how one of the early progenitors of the personal luxury car ended up missing out on the fat city days of the 70s. The Riviera wouldn’t make a comeback until the ’79 front wheel drive model.

1971-1974 AMC Javelin

The first generation Javelin of 1968-1970 jumped late into the muscle car market with a clean, deft style penned by Dick Teague.

1968 AMC Javelin | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

Arguably better looking than the contemporary Mustang, it was all the more impressive when you consider AMC’s limited budget for new models. But the interesting story behind the Javelin was not its sales, which never came close to the Mustang, Camaro, or Challenger. It was the halo car effect which helped drive younger people into the AMC showrooms, presumably selling thousands more Hornets and Gremlins. There’s a fascinating and thorough design analysis at Hemmings of not only the first Javelin, but of all the related concept car models like the AMX III Sport Wagon. It’s a must read.

For 1971, they whipped up something longer, lower, and wider.

1971 AMC Javelin | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

As befitting a transition design, the ’71 Javelin wasn’t ugly, but it was bigger, heavier and more extravagant. And more polarizing, along the lines of the boat tail Riviera. It was a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Less glass, more ass, might be another way to sum up the swoops, bulges, and steeply raked fastback that ended in a giant spoiler on the AMX version. Gone was the airy, almost delicate look of the first generation design. But soon enough, gone was any pretense of muscle for AMC, as the Javelin wasn’t replaced with a new Javelin, but AMC’s answer to the Monte Carlo.

Yes, even the ever-independent American Motors Company was forced to abandon its muscle car aspirations and field an entry in the personal luxury market just like the Big Three. Hence the 1974 – 1978 Matador Coupe.

1978 AMC Matador Barcelona | Credit: oldcarbrochures.com

What’s interesting about this malaise mobile is the way it shunned the personal luxury formula for success by eschewing stand up grills and formal roof lines. There was not an opera light to be found on the Coupe, and Car and Driver magazine even named it the “Best Styled Car of 1974”. Not sure if this says more about the other offerings in ’74 or the Matador itself, but nonetheless it was an honest exercise in aerodynamics that wore its fastback with pride. However, no model was immune to the malaise of giant 5-MPH bumpers, which looked particularly ill-fitting on the radical body tuckunder inherent in the Coupe’s design. And befitting a malaise mobile, it was larger and heavier than the Javelin.

If you enjoyed this analysis of transition cars, be sure to look out for Part 2. I plan to put the 1970-1971 Ford Torino/Mercury Montego, 1971-1973 Ford Mustang/Mercury Cougar, 1971-1974 Plymouth Satellite, and 1971-1975 Jaguar XKE Series 3 through the same design lens. Now that you know the context and criteria, what other models do think might make the transition list?


See all my other posts at my blog, Wired On Cars. It’s about car culture; the focus is on car shows, car museums, and car design. But all things automotive are fair game.