It was sometime around 1981 or 1982; the nation was under an ongoing civil war and vehicle imports had ceased altogether due to government edict. Thus, our family was under the cursed ownership of a ’78 Datsun F10, which Mother had regretted buying since day one. Accustomed to car purchases every couple of years or so, and with no new vehicles coming in anytime soon, Mother was getting rather antsy and all in the family were well aware.
And then it occurred. Out of nowhere, in our daily route to school, a used car lot filled with ‘recent’ US gray imports appeared.
The lot happened to be pretty close to ‘Don Pedro’s Cafe’, San Salvador’s then only 24 hour restaurant and a city staple to this day. The lot’s appearance came not only as a complete surprise, it was a harbinger of things to come in the nation’s vehicular future.
The government may have thought of itself as ‘pretty slick’ when coming up with the ‘import ban,’ a measure put together to protect cash reserves against an uncertain future. But as always, a populace is bound to find loopholes and cracks on whatever limitations are placed upon them. In due time, some enterprising Salvadorian read the letter of law and found the creak he was looking for: new car imports were banned, yes, but what about… used ones?
Whoever came with the idea first, it was a galvanizing one; in this nation, the used US gray imports market is a thriving one to this day.
However, trailblazers may be first to discover a ‘need,’ but may be ‘off’ by some degrees as to what that ‘need’ really is. And in this case, excitement was not the first thing that came to mind when viewing the ‘new’ used car lot: the goods at display were about a dozen or so of worn out and drab malaise-era US models. In all, it was a sorry display of Detroit’s lesser shining 1970’s moments, looking not unlike a set out of Kurt Russell’s Used Cars (1980). Rendered in shrunk tropicalized fashion.
The 70’s, I keep telling my wife; that one moment where it was possible to color-match jumpsuits, blazers, pants, cars and household items. Had they found a way to dye mascots, it would have been done. Then again, the ’80s where not much better (my teenage years) and is no wonder fashions turned ‘classic’ and conservative by the time the ’90s arrived.
With the models at display not being quite pristine, and with Detroit’s fame for ‘gas-guzzlers’ well entrenched, the lot remained undisturbed for weeks; not a single sale, not a prospective buyer in sight on our passings. Kurt Russell the salesman was not; instead his silhouette looking increasingly slumped and hunched over against the faded large cars. The whole affair was just awfully uninviting from the distance.
Then again, boredom is a powerful force. And if someone was bored by then, it was Mother.
- Let’s stop over and take a look!
You want to look at those cars Mom? Regardless of my doubts, I knew there was no way to dissuade her when such notions got hold of her. With her mind made up, she parked by the sidewalk and took us towards the sorriest set of cars we had ever seen up to that point in our lives.
As said, the lot was strictly bell-bottom-era Detroit, and looking far from ready for a night of boogie. Instead of Studio 54, the bunch looked better fit to stagger by the sidewalk next to Rocky and Paulie, while coughing on stale cigarettes. If started, those engines would’ve probably sounded just so.
As far as my recollection goes the cars seemed to come from the South West, with the absence of rust being my main clue. Beyond that positive, there was little else to commend. There were signs of overexposure to sunlight and heat; the shiny lacquer finish was dull and drab, looking close to matte and coarse to the touch. Interior plastics looked brittle, and most surfaces were caked with either dirt or dust. The Oh-so-70’s interiors had nothing but faded hues; instead of bright reds and deep greens, faded and pukish pinks and yellowish greens. The then-common luxury brougham trims were just ‘hanging in there’ or missing altogether. Meanwhile, most endura bits showed signs of future collapse.
I loved cars, yes, and was generally happy to frolic around them. But how to get excited with such a lot?
Admittedly, there’s no way I could have gotten excited about such cars even in their prime. They told a story I wasn’t interested in; that some vinyl top, a cursive badge or plasti-wood panel made a buyer a possessor of taste beyond their blue-collar origins. I was a kid, I had no interest in attending a bingo or a country club.
(I would grow up around a different fiction, that of the sports sedan; I would someday purchase that M3, drive it with prodigious skills, and magically avoid speeding tickets!).
On the other hand, if someone was excited that was Mother. As close to giddy as I ever saw her. She led the way, going from car to car, with us dutifully following. Not that we were reluctant to do so. Deep down we didn’t mind, and it was better than watching a rerun of The Flintstones at home.
After a few years living around Japanese cars (which had become the norm in Central America), the lot provided an odd way to get up to date with US car making tendencies. I had more of less fond memories of a late ’60s Fairlane Mother drove in Puerto Rico, but American cars from the ’70s were just awesomely perplexing; each seemed an exercise in excess for the sake of it. Hoods would open to reveal engines lost in a sea of open metal, with overhanging noses that stretched forever. For what? Bragging rights? And in spite of exterior dimensions, once doors opened, none seemed more spacious than our ’60s Fairlane.
Still we went on, from door to door. From caked white vinyl, to yellowish faded green interiors. From plasti-wood beige dashes, to dour brown on brown with brown seats. During a brief pause while at the wheel of one, Mother smirked: “We’re not buying any, don’t worry, they just use too much gas…”
What about Mr. Not Kurt Russell? He either sensed we were there just for kicks, of had given up on the whole sales idea weeks ago. Used car imports? Whoever told me that would ever be a thing? He barely moved while we messed about, filled with apathy. All the better for us, who just went on picking up in liveliness if not excitement.
In all honesty, other than some vague recollection of the cars being GM and Ford mid-range lines, I don’t exactly remember which models were at display. There could have been a Dodge or Plymouth in there for all I know.
Was there a ’73 Ford Torino Sport on the lot? Probably not. But only this age of US metal can revive that unusual distant afternoon in my memory. And the cars themselves now serve as a window into an era where ‘aspirational’ was filled with a bunch of conflicting overtones: the Torino was at once sporty and luxurious, a daily commuter sold under the allure of ‘excitement.’ A ‘personal’ car that could perform as a -young- family hauler, all wrapped with hints of classic-era styling cues. In those days, they knew how to cast a wide net in chase of purchases.
On a more personal insight; I’ve always found it peculiar that whether by intent of not, as America was entering a rather anxious period in its history, its vehicular language would harken back to imaginary better times. Watergate, Vietnam, inflation, gas shortages, rising crime, while around the world nations were falling to Commie rebels. Future? What future? Let’s think of those old Cadillacs and Duesenbergs, emulate some power domes and fenders, add some upright grilles and radiators, and let’s cozy up in bordello interiors!
I apologize for the grainy photos, but the building’s zealous security guard made it rather difficult to capture this Torino properly. Just some quick shots while he got distracted with some pizza delivery guy.
As for the car, US Fords of this age are extremely rare in Central America. Admittedly, this Torino is in much better shape than any of those Detroit cars we saw with Mother years ago. Other than being somewhat dusty, no major flaws were apparent. And while these cars seem rather peculiar nowadays (the fastback large sedan?), their lowness and expanse is so out of the ordinary, that they appear as rather awesome in their uniqueness.
So Mother didn’t get to experience that new car smell that day. It didn’t matter; she seemed rather pleased with herself by the time we were she was done. As for car purchases, it would take a few more years for import restrictions to be lifted. A Hyundai Pony pickup would be our next car, a story I already told once before.
As for the used car dealer, it remained around for some time to come. Then, just as it had originally occurred, one day it was gone. Emptied all at once.
By the time my family moved back to Puerto Rico in 1987, I found the island’s streets littered with late ’60s American cars, but few surviving ones from the early ’70s. Fords in particular seemed rather absent. A matter of buying preferences or a testament to the quality woes of that decade? Mechanically, we all know these cars were rather ordinary, sold mostly on their styling packages. Still, even packages deserve some love, particularly when there are so few surviving ones.
(Additional shots from the Cohort: Chrysler 300 by Curtis Perry, LTD by mncarspotter)
More on the Torino Sport
What an interesting read and photos – I’d actually forgotten San Salvador existed.
Shared your views of malaise era US cars.
Great article and recollections! Thank you!
As a kid who grew up on European/Japanese cars and then moved to Canada I also found North American metal strange. My uncle had a Monte Carlo, it looked so big and fast but when you opened the hood there was so much wasted space and then inside it was cramped and claustrophobic – also I remember cutting my leg on some weird chromed metal on the door. I find that era fascinating but never wanted to own any of these American cars because they just seemed so cheesily over the top. A bit like the giant pickups running around today.
I remember being perplexed by these Torino fastbacks when they were new. 1972 seemed to find car styling continuing into a formal conservatism, with curves giving way to edges and corners on the most popular cars. Cars like the 1971 LTD 2 doors seemed to be what buyers wanted. The 72 Torino seemed a little more curvy than most, but there was still a broughamyness about it – except for that fastback.
We now know that the fastback was a dead body style walking by 1972, and if memory serves, it was gone after 1973. I like it now better than I did then.
Ford was the first to abandon the true fastback after the 1973 model year (Mustang and Torino). Can’t really count the Mustang II since it was a hatchback although I guess a case could be made for the Maverick/Comet until 1977.
The Mopar A-body coupe lasted until 1976 when the Aspen/Volare arrived.
Interestingly, GM clung to a quasi-fastback with the ’73-’77 colonnade coupes (excluding the PLC specials), playing both cards with what looks like a fastback with big quarter windows, and a blocked-off ‘opera’ window, vinyl roof model looking way more formal.
But, in actuality, it was a slight-of-hand maneuver with both coupes using the exact same roof and mildly sloped rear window.
“The 70’s, I keep telling my wife; that one moment where it was possible to color-match jumpsuits, blazers, pants, cars and household items.”
Everything old is new again: For a number of years it’s felt as though new vehicle colors are limited to white, black, and some shade of gray or silver, while kitchen appliances are typically only available in – you guessed it, white, black, and some shade of gray or silver (usually stainless steel).
Yes, it was a strange time, the seventies. Something of a precursor of things to come; the polarization of the future was being played out in cars. LA was awash in imports then. When we used to fly out to Baltimore to visit my parents, it was downright odd to be driving in an almost unbroken sea of big American cars on the freeway to their houses. This was in the late ’70s, and early ’80s. By the mid ’80s, that changed pretty quickly out there too.
Subscribed, very good writing here .
I hope I’m not the only one who simply loved ‘Used Cars” .
Used Cars may be considered something of a cult-classic. I’m certainly a fan.
Loved it! Quite “politically incorrect”.
“Used Cars” is a pending CC Cinema entry in my list.
For many years I held on to a ‘Used Cars’ promotional item : a plastic model kit that said “can’t be assembled ! parts won’t fit!” but eventually the thin cardboard box warped so badly and the printing began to fade so I tossed it .
I’ve never seen another, it was gifted to me .
I was in high school in the 1970’s, at the peak of the malaise era, which I do NOT remember fondly, thank you very little! Gas had tripled in price just before I got my driver’s license, the new EPA emission controls had single-handedly killed off the muscle car era, leaving once powerful engines emasculated shells of their former glorious selves, and the nanny state was ascendant, epitomized by the hated seat belt interlock in 1974! To top it all off, American cars of this era, with engine and suspension designs already about twenty (20) years behind their European competition (even the damn VW Beetle had a fully independent suspension and fuel injection, for crying out loud), handled like wallowing garbage scows compared to the European competition (BMW 2002). Thanks for nothing, Saint Joan Claybrook!
Wow, what a time warp, wha t year was this? Rust is the #1 expense in any car restoration; collectors would go absolutely nuts over these now. Meh assembly and ’70s taste notwithstanding, those cars would far outlast anything from Europe or SE Asia built at the time (except with an M-M at huge expense) and with minimal maintenance to boot, just as they were designed to do. You don’t pay $4-5k for a big 4000lb V8 6 passenger family car and then expect to get M-B quality bodies and paint. They suited most Americans just fine for their transportation needs at what was for them a bargain price compared to other flimsy and fragile world cars… turn your nose up at these for a Hyundai that was probably toast in 5 years from new? Ooookay. I know which I’d rather have.
Actually, not .
I have tried many times to save rust free oldies I knew would make fantastic and easy builders having never been dented / rusty but NO ONE EVER WANTED ONE .
Not. A. Single. One.
A collector wold kill for those rust-free cars nowadays.
You don’t get a 4000 lb 6 passenger V8 family car for $4-5k and expect M-B paint and assembly quality. Most US families were more than happy with their big, safe, and durable (far more than any Asian or Euro car) full size Ford, GM or Mopar, as opposed to some high maintainance and flimsy imported “car”. Somehow we just couldn’t shoe-horn 4 kids into a 2002 (which incidentally sold for nearly the price of a Cadillac Calais). And a Hyundai that was toast 5 years rom new ? … not!
True, most people didn’t care much about handling at the time, they were more concerned with durability and total cost of ownership. American cars basically stagnated for thirty (30) years (1950-80), because they didn’t have to innovate, they could sell all they could make just fine, and with most of the tooling long since amortized, the low overhead kept the beancounters happy. But then the twin bogeys of emissions control and fuel economy began to bite, and the American consumer began to desert Detroit in droves. When Americans began to experience the superior handling and fuel economy of imports (albeit at the expense of the pillow soft ride most Americans had come to enjoy), they expected Detroit to up its game. It took Detroit another ten (10) years to get its act together, but by then, the imports had seized significant market share that Detroit has yet to fully recapture. The Aussies did what Detroit should have done, they kept the basic size and layout, but continually updated the underpinnings to keep the cars competitive. Examples include the Holden Manuro (Pontiac GTO) and Holden Commodore (Pontiac G8/Chevy SS), which were far superior to the comparable American Full-Size offerings (Chevy Caprice) at the time.
We had that “Torino” in the more sedated, non fastback, form.. It really did drive, ride nice.
Was a big time “gas hog” though. (351 under the hood) Think it was a “75”; been so soo long now.