I was originally going to call this “Car Wars IV: Rise of the [Japanese] Machines”.
I am going to admit my bias here: I am not a fan of this automotive era. They don’t call it “Malaise” for nothing. Not that everything was bad; there were bright spots of creativity, quality, and style in cars–as well as in movies, television, art, music, and yes, even fashion!
Let me explain it this way: During the 1970s there was a pervasive sense that “the good old days” were gone, and that old things were better than new things. Modern consumer products were seen as “cheesy”. One could readily see that everything from doorknobs to sewing machines to cars from decades past were more beautiful and more solidly made. Archie and Edith Bunker lamented, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great!” in a song listing many things they miss about years past, which have been replaced by new things (and attitudes) which they don’t like.
At the time, I personally discovered many examples of this. I was shown how quarters and dimes since 1965 were clad with copper, and no longer made of real silver, as they had been since 1793. A beautiful and hefty 1 oz. gold coin (a “Double Eagle”) had a face value of $20, but was now worth $800 in the inflationary panic that spiked oil prices and led to further economic misery because the dollar was no longer backed by gold. (Now the 1 oz. coin is worth nearly $2000!) On and on it went: Victorian houses and furniture were more charming than “ugly” modern stuff; rock music was awful; morality is disintegrating; Vietnam was a disaster; cities like Newark and the South Bronx were destroyed.
I think this partially explains the emergence of the Great Brougham Epoch. Buyers in the Archie Bunker age demographic felt alienated by the present and fondly looked back to the glory days of the 1920s and ’30s. Hence we have all these imitation classical motifs grafted onto modern bodies–long, creased hoods a la Duesenberg ending in “Rolls Royce” grilles; leather-grain vinyl roofs; wheelcovers that look like spoke wire wheels; wood trim, some of it “carved” (plastic of course!) on dashboards, door panels, even steering wheels and radio knobs. Puffy buttoned upholstery completed the Edwardian yet funky look.
Meanwhile the auto industry was faced with challenges on multiple fronts: a sudden public demand for smaller, more energy efficient cars came at the same time the government was requiring stricter emission standards. The result was half-baked, shrunken, tinny little cars like the Pinto and the Vega–“economy” cars that weren’t all that nice to ride in and had serious mechanical and quality control problems. Everybody was stalling at traffic lights and flooring the accelerator to get more power that wasn’t there because of the new emission controls and the fact that you couldn’t adjust the idle and mixture screws on the carburetor–you know, like you could in the “good old days.”
While Detroit auto executives complained about the demands of the current situation, the Japanese saw an opportunity and ran with it. Yes, Japan–which made those flimsy-looking, toy-like cars with names like “Toyopet” that appeared in little curiosity articles in magazines like Popular Mechanics . . . odd cars that virtually no Americans actually bought. I still don’t know how they did it, but by the mid ’70s the Japanese auto industry was exporting highly refined, stylish, and most of all reliable small economy cars into the U.S. market.
And it was showing up in the pages of Consumer Reports. Wherever you see a Japanese brand (Toyota, Datsun, Subaru, Mazda), things are coming up rosy (rosy red dots, that is.) Meanwhile, many U.S. and European brands are littered with black dots (bad). As the saying goes, “This changes everything!”
So here are the actual charts from Consumer Reports, April 1976 issue. Since this is the 1970s, the age of the Incredible Shrinking Candy Bar (paying more and getting less), CR is only reporting on four model years (1972-75) instead of the customary five or six. You know times are bad when even your friends at Consumer Reports are short-changing you! As a compensation, they are reporting on more makes and models than ever before:
*Click images to expand* Brand names that are well-respected today were making real junk in the ’70s–Audi is one such surprising example. Big GM cars (like Buick) were still of relatively good quality.
Cadillac quality–it’s still there. Chevrolet (except for full-size cars)–lots of bad experiences.
The dreaded Vega! Actually it’s not as bad as some other cars. Engine Mechanical and Body Exterior (rust) are particularly weak points. Dodge (and other Chrysler makes) are starting to go to pot now. 72-73 Darts are still pretty good.
Fiat–predictably bad. Ford Maverick, hailed in 1970 as the most reliable new car is now doing OK, but not great. Here’s a surprise–big 72-75 Fords are holding up quite well.
Japanese effect: Honda and Mazda–looking good. Mercedes-Benz diesel 4–one of the best. Mercedes has trouble with brakes. My ’72 M-B 250 gasoline 6 had brake problems and I had to replace the expensive exhaust system twice. No problems with fuel or ignition. Worst cars of the ’70s: International and Jeep. Those two must have been awful, considering the rest of the field.
Big Mercurys (like big Fords) are one of your best buys. Maybe the suspensions were so soft and the engines so low-revving and smooth that nothing vibrated to pieces. My beloved MGBs are giving owners trouble–particularly electrical systems. Plymouth, like Dodge, is following a similar path downward.
Look at Toyota and Subaru–Wow!! Saab is doing worse than I thought. Volkswagen can’t build air conditioning.
Volvo–another premium brand that wasn’t so great.
How about the dealer experience? Cadillac is the best by far. Also good, Oldsmobile (“The Good Olds Guys”) and BMW. Bad: Jeep, Audi, Porsche, Fiat.
Another dubious ’70s design idea: square headlights. As CR points out, they don’t illuminate better, but cost twice as much. But the stylists wanted them. At least they still have glass lenses.
If your car didn’t have the latest safety feature (an air bag), you could order one by mail from Control Laser Inc. and [probably] install it yourself. Could there be an old car out there with one of these still on it?
CR’s buying advice: Don’t buy sporty cars, luxury coupes, convertibles, hardtops, muscle cars, exotic imports, or cars with lots of options. Also no older cars or orphan makes–exactly the opposite of what the collector car market values!
So that’s the early-to-mid ’70s for you–the good, the bad, and . . . I was going to say, “lots of ugly”, but that would be cruel. I actually like a lot of ’70s stuff–there are many hidden treasures to be discovered.
I remember in 1974 the great Jean Shepherd was leafing through a 1934 Hudson Terraplane brochure, telling us about all the artistic and mechanical wonders described therein, becoming nostalgic in the process. He then makes a prophetic statement that no one living in the ’70s would have believed: “As sickening as the thought is, forty years from now some fool will be writing about the Seventies as an age when men were men and life was lived with reality and style, people were true, morals were steady and high, and good things really mattered.”
Next up: Consumer Reports, April 1982 (1976-81).