6 June 2014

Forgotten 1970s Classics

The often maligned 1970s produced plenty of truly memorable cars, from the Pontiac Trans Am to the Porsche 911 Turbo. These aren’t those cars. These are the obscure and forgotten (but still oddly appealing) afterthoughts of the decade.  Here are five worth remembering:

  1. 1975-80 Chevrolet Monza – The Monza did a good job of hiding its Chevy Vega roots, although GM insiders still persist in calling it the “Italian Vega” because it cribbed so many styling cues from Ferrari.  It was actually a very good-looking rear-wheel-drive sport coupe that was available with a variety of engines, including three V8s, a 262, 305 and 350. The latter two were only for California and high-altitude markets, but the 305 with 140hp was the one to have, with the other two engines making 110 and 120 hp. While more than 700,000 Monzas were built, very few seem to have survived.

  2. Opel GT – The Opel GT sported mini C3 Corvette styling courtesy of Chevy stylist Clare MacKichan. Even the instrument panels look similar. Power came from Opel’s optional 1.9-liter “high-cam” four-cylinder engine, with the smaller 1.1-liter standard but rarely seen in the U.S.  Performance with the 1.9-liter was quite decent, with the car solidly outperforming cars like the MGB GT and the carbureted BMW 2002. Buick dealers were happy to have the car in the U.S., as it gave them a sportier product with which to lure young buyers into the showroom. It was the Datsun 240Z, however, that spelled the end of the Opel GT; it simply couldn’t compete in price or performance. Few people today remember the curious little mini-Corvette.

  3. 1970-78 Mazda RX-2 – The RX-2 was Mazda’s first attempt at selling a rotary powered car in large volumes. It was an attractive little thing that did without so many of the odd styling gimmicks employed by Japanese cars of the day. The Rotary was powerful and torque and could surprise its share of V-8 powered Detroit iron at a stop light, but at the end of the day, the rotary was as thirsty as a Detroit V-8, negating any advantage there. Still, the RX-2 is technically interesting and rare today in a climate of growing collector interest in early Japanese cars.

  4. 1973-75 Pontiac Grand Am Colonnade coupe – The first car to carry the Grand Am name (which was an amalgam of Grand Prix and Trans Am) was a big, thirsty, traditional American personal luxury car with a few Euro touches in the seating department and in the real wood interior accents. It also had a soft Enduro nose that gave it a unique and sporty look compared to its more traditional A-body cousins, the Buick Century and Olds Cutlass Supreme. The ’73 model was the swan song of real horsepower with 400 and 455 engines available that both made well over 200hp. There was even a rather unpopular manual transmission option.  The Oil Crisis put sales into a tail spin, but the unique sight of a Grand Am today can give still another reason to miss Pontiac.

  5. 1981-83 AMC Eagle SX/4 – The Eagle SX/4 was based on the AMC Spirit, which was essentially a masterfully restyled Gremlin. And while the Audi Quattro coupé generally gets all the credit for marrying all-wheel drive to a two-door car with sporting pretensions (the Jensen FF actually did it first in 1967), the little Eagle SX/4 appeared at right around the same time the Quattro was introduced in Europe.  Interestingly, it was available with a five-speed manual transmission.  Cynics might poke fun at the Eagle SX/4’s high ground clearance and dismiss it as a “Joe Dirt” Quattro, but the little Eagle was a particularly impressive car given the fact that AMC’s R&D budget was a fraction of what the Volkswagen/Audi group had to play with.

28 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Marco Giglio United States June 9, 2014 at 18:34
    Hey Rob, on the Monza.. By 1977 the 305ci engine was able to be tuned for high altitude emissions (Air pump injection) as well as Low altitude. It was the Low altitude version of the 305ci that you wanted to get that 140 hp. A switch from the Rochester 2bbl carb to the "Dual jet" carb in 1979 lowered peak hp to 130 but upped torque peak in the powerband. Thanks, Marco GM H body historian,
  • 2
    Geoff B Seattle June 11, 2014 at 14:40
    I had a 84 Rx7 GSL and what Rocket as it would rev to 9000 rpms coupled to a 5 speed =Fun. It got 22mpg so it was fine. I gave it to my son who installed a 13B Turbo Japanese engine wirh 300hp. What a rocket then but it was stolen and we got it back as a wrecked stripped shell. Ultimate sleeper car....
  • 3
    luckless pedestrian USA June 11, 2014 at 16:51
    Way back in the late '70s I knew a girl that drove a Monza... a fairly new one at the time... I remember it as being one of the most sloppily built, rattle traps I'd ever had the misfortune to ride in... truly an awful car. Surely one of the reasons US car buyers went Japanese or European in droves... May they all rest in peace.
  • 4
    Jeff Forss Minneapolis June 11, 2014 at 17:25
    In an article about endangered and extinct vehicles Hagerty listed the Monza as extinct, I think. You insure at least one: My '80 Monza Z29, along with my '73 911. All the best. Jeff
  • 5
    Jeff Jarrett Georgia June 11, 2014 at 17:28
    Very few of the Chevy Monzas survived as they were an entry level GM car built at the height of Detroit's incompetence. I owned one for 4 years and despite regular service it held up poorly. Great looking car but on the whole, pure junk.
  • 6
    Eric Falk United States June 11, 2014 at 17:37
    HA, I was just looking at some Opel GT's on eBay this morning. I always liked those cars. My neighbor still has a nice looking Opel Manta which I remember them buying new as a kid. -it's another I'd add to the forgotten list.
  • 7
    Carlos Rodriguez-Botet Dallas, Texas June 11, 2014 at 18:38
    My very first car was a Chevy Monza and I loved it. Two things I remember that stood out were changing those spark plugs in the V-8 and it was also so heavy we had to do front end alignment more often than any of our other cars. I do a search for one every once in a while but haven't found one good enough to restore yet.
  • 8
    Carl Beck Clearwater, FL June 11, 2014 at 19:48
    The Opel GT was simply too small and cramped for the average American. It was also woefully underpowered for American Highways in 1970. The Opel GT displays GM's total disconnection with its American Customers. GM built cars they wanted to sell - rather than cars American Consumers wanted to buy. The Datsun 240Z on the other hand, clearly displays Nissan's total commitment to knowing their American Customers. The Z was roomy and comfortable, with the necessary performance and all round utility needed in a Sports/GT as the second family car. Nissan at the time built the cars their customers wanted to buy.
  • 9
    ferd the cloud June 11, 2014 at 20:16
    My parents had the Pontiac version of the Monza - a 1977 Sunbird. It was a hatchback version in bright red with a white interior, and was advertised as a Ferrari look-alike. The Pontiac had an "Iron Duke" 4-cylinder engine that had a better reputation than the Vega-sourced engine in the base Monza. But they lived in the Rust Belt and those cars rusted quickly and badly. It wasn't unusual for the bottoms of the doors to disappear first. But it was a reasonably capable and good looking car before its early demise due to the rust.
  • 10
    Joe Hudson Valley, NY June 12, 2014 at 13:22
    What a nice surprise to see a pic of an Opel GT when I opened my weekly Hagerty Newsletter. When I was 17, my first car was an Opel Manta( handed down from my dad who brought it home from the Buick dealership 2 miles down the road on Halloween night 1974). He had told me he wanted the GT but it only had 2 seats- so because of ME he opted for the 4 seater Manta. So of course I had to know what that model looked like and fell in love at first sight. So when it was time to buy my first car about a year later, I found myself the proud owner of a '72 Opel GT in Fireglow Orange ( just like the one in your pic). I owned that car for almost 20 years, had a great time driving it through my college years, and all the way around Lake Ontario ( you should have seen some the looks I got in downtown Toronto ;) . I sold it about 10 years ago, and have seen it once on it's way to Limerock, CT . Puts a smile on my face just thinkin' about it :)
  • 11
    jeff kramer Santa Fe,NM June 12, 2014 at 01:52
    I brought a new 73 RX-2, the clutch was made of compressed saw dust, but cured by Racing Beat clutch. The interior was so cheap. The faster you went the better mileage you got, 28 mpg at over 75 mph and was fairly comfortable...I sure did like that little car.
  • 12
    Bobby Bluegrass June 12, 2014 at 17:03
    I knew a guy with a Monza Spyder. He tweaked that car into one of the fastest in town. The only guy that could beat him for a time was a guy who dropped a built 350 in a Vega. He sent a lot of tough guys home with their tails between their legs I love all of the 3rd generation (73-77) GM A body cars. Grand Am as well as Chevelle, Monte and the others you mentioned. I became familiar with them in the 80s after the 78 and GM newer cars had all shrunk down to squared off shoeboxes.
  • 13
    Tony Denver June 12, 2014 at 17:03
    WOW, a Monza with a 350? Imagine the possibilities today with one of those cars. Raised compression, roller cam conversion, fast burn cylinder heads.. Major "rocketship" potential!
  • 14
    Mike Reed Hastings, MI June 12, 2014 at 06:36
    Another forgotten classic -- the Chevrolet Citation X11. Fun car to drive, and quite fast. Few examples of *any* model of the Citation seem to have survived.
  • 15
    Steve Hedke Santa Clarita, CA June 13, 2014 at 01:41
    AMC Eagles and Subaru wagons were most frequently seen in Colorado Rockies communities, where Quattros were just too expensive. I think all the remaining Eagles migrated to Durango to die.
  • 16
    Steve Charlotte, North Carolina June 13, 2014 at 15:32
    I bought a '75 Grand Am back in the late nineties and sold it about five years later. I do miss that car. It had good power and was very comfortable. My license plate was a tribute to Richard Petty who pronounced Pontiac as Ponyak...so my plate read 75Ponyak. :)
  • 17
    Mike Cary, NC June 14, 2014 at 19:50
    I owned the Oldsmobile version of the Monza (1976 Starfire GT) with the 6cyl engine it was a quick car. Owned it for 8 years and took me from Ohio to Arizona and back three times. Yet it was not until it was 12 years old did the door handles break, fan switch, and would stall during right turns. But it was a great fun car, what else American could you get for the money in a V-6?
  • 18
    John C Buffalo, NY June 16, 2014 at 18:31
    In 1970 I was in the market for a sports car, looked at the MGB-GT, Opel GT, Saab Sonnet II, Datsun 240Z, Lotus Elan & even the Chevy Corvette. My first impression (before driving one) was that this car was just a scaled down 'vette that would surely disappoint in the performance category. Well, I ruled out the Elan & Corvette due to price & insurance costs for fiberglass bodied Hi-Perf cars. The 240Z fell by the wayside due to a waiting period that I think was ~9 months minimum AND the fact all of the ones I knew or heard of being delivered were coming thru loaded with options,it was almost certain it would come thru with an auto transmission & A/C at the minimum. Essentially when you were next on the list , you were offered the next 240Z the dealer took delivery of, if you declined for ANY reason, you went to the bottom of the list. I think the Saab Sonnet was a little too funky for me, one of the features that turned me away was that the car "free-wheeled" when you took your foot off the accel. Finally got down to the Opel vs the MGB. The fact was that the MG was long in the tooth & was out performed badly by the Opel in magazine road tests. I test drove an Opel GT where I was working, a hilly area with winding narrow roads that all needed repaving & the car was quick & responsive, alas it only had the 1.1L, but it impressed me enough to make my mind up, then it was just a matter of tracking down a red one with the 1.9L. I rate it as the most satisfying, fun car that I had the good fortune to own for 12+ years. Wore out a LOT of sets of tires because you just couldn't drive that car slow!!!! (Not really sure what Carl in Clearwater is on about as even the 1.1L was a quick little thing?)
  • 19
    Ted Glendale, AZ June 17, 2014 at 15:15
    Monza 350. I still own mine bought new in 1975 when I returned from Vietnam. I love mine and will someday restore it to new. I won every time I raced it in SCCA stock class beating TransAms, 911's and Saleen Mustangs regularly. You still insure it. I had it in Paris for two years and Germany for three years and it turned heads everywhere I went in Europe. My 2+2 Spyder is red with tan interior. Still one of the best looking of my current eleven car collection. A surefire classic and fun to drive.
  • 20
    Dave Kiefer Buffalo, NY June 20, 2014 at 14:07
    I had a Mazda RX-4 in the late 70's and that baby could FLY !!! Unfortunately, it was difficult to tune-up, parts were hard to find, the engine didn't last past 40 or 50 K (had it rebuilt) and it rusted so bad (Buffalo NY) that I finally had to get rid of it because it blew a flat and there was no place left put the jack. Lotta fun to drive, though
  • 21
    Bruce Napa, ca. July 4, 2014 at 01:56
    I had a Henry J coupe. Maroon. Man I drove the tires off of it. I went fishing on dirt mt. roads reserved for Jeeps. With the seat folded down I slept in the back. The 6cyl. drank a lot of oil so I traveled with a 2gal. can.
  • 22
    Steve in PV Hudson Valley, NY October 8, 2015 at 22:16
    I had the same reaction as Joe in the Hudson Valley. If Joe's GT was an automatic, I bought it from him. I took it to Lime Rock once for their Concours, did a couple of VSCCA touring rallies with it, and finally sold it to a gentleman from the Watertown, NY area who knew how to deal with the dreaded tin worm in monocoque bodies.
  • 23
    Steve in PV Hudson Valley, NY October 8, 2015 at 22:20
    I had the same reaction as Joe in the Hudson Valley. If Joe's GT was an automatic, I bought it from him. I took it to Lime Rock once for their Concours, did a couple of VSCCA touring rallies with it, and finally sold it to a gentleman from the Watertown, NY area who knew how to deal with the dreaded tin worm in monocoque bodies.
  • 24
    RJ West MI December 16, 2015 at 22:08
    Two comments: Even though I'm a die-hard Volvo guy, I always liked the Opel GT and thought it was greatly underrated. A girlfriend had one with the 1.9 - and one nice feature for TSD rallies was that the odo ran in reverse when you backed up. The other strong memory was the sound of the Mazda coming through the night during the Pro rally days - sounded like it was almost there for 3 minutes or so - screamin'.
  • 25
    Dave OKC, OK January 6, 2016 at 19:08
    I have had a 1972 Opel GT since 1997. I finally sent it for restoration and can't wait to see it when done. Paint is done in original GM blue and its smooth as glass. Anyone wanting to see PIX after it is done, let me know.
  • 26
    Steven Csajka Florida August 19, 2016 at 07:19
    Ok where is the 1968 to 1972 Nova on your list.
  • 27
    Tom Sheppard Beaver Dam, WI August 22, 2016 at 00:01
    I had a '72 GT, which was one of my 2 favorite cars. The other was a '70 Skylark convertible, from the same dealer. What a contrast. It finally rusted to death in 2006. I used it as a daily commuter for 14 years and looked for fun drives on weekends. Fun was the key word. Its 1900 ccs gave plenty of power, and its suspension may have been simple, but was every bit as good as the competition's. As far as interior space, I'm 6'4" and had more leg room than in most larger cars. You couldn't be fat, though. I miss it immensely.
  • 28
    Joel New Mexico September 11, 2016 at 16:35
    I briefly owned an Opel GT with the 1.9 in 1993. It was yellow and cost $200. Unfortunately I needed the money while in college and sold it only after a month. It was fun for the brief time I had it. The clutch was slipping badly and they guy that bought it was very happy despite all the flaws.

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