11 March 2016

The top five greatest cars killed by the 1970s

This week we asked the question, “What was the greatest car killed by the oil crisis and tightening safety regulations in the 1970s?” We received many great answers, and in this case, no answer is incorrect.

Ahh, the 1970s, or what some would call the Automotive Dark Age: Gas prices were rising, emissions laws and fuel economy regulations were tightening, and the economy was stagnant. Enter the rise of the disco culture and underpowered, boxy vehicles and wave goodbye to the production of luxurious land yachts and burly muscle cars.

Every automaker was affected by the changes of the 70s. For example, General Motors had actually just begun mass production of its vaunted 2-rotor GMRE engine in summer 1973, but the fuel crisis led GM to destroy the engines. The Chrysler Corporation abandoned its big-block V-8 production lines, even for trucks, after the second fuel crisis in 1979, and companies such as Lancia and Fiat ceased sales in the U.S.

As automakers tried to build smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles to satisfy the law, the market became plagued with cars such as the sickly Mercury Bobcat and the Chevrolet Chevette, and with the production of these unsightly cars, some of the greats were lost. Generally speaking, horsepower took the hardest hit, especially vehicles that held GM’s performance big-block engines and Mopar’s Hemi, which meant that American muscle would never be the same again.

Here are some of the greatest cars killed by the oil crisis:

Ford Mustang: This iconic car without a doubt took one of the biggest hits with the production of the Mustang II, as mentioned by much of our audience, but fortunately it was a temporary loss — brutal, but temporary. The overly-glorified Ford Pinto had nothing to offer accept Mustang badges, lots of stickers, fake hood scoops and useless spoilers, and some even claim its production threatened to degrade the Shelby name. But a year after its debut, the Mustang II was once again offered with a small-block V-8 engine, and Ford slowly worked out the kinks caused by the emissions regulations as technology advanced over the years.

Pontiac GTO: Due to punitive surcharges distributed by auto insurance companies, the new styling of the GTO did little to help declining sales. To top it off, the 1973 GTO lost even more horsepower, and the new Grand Am stepped up for the competition. For 1974, Pontiac needed an outlet to get into the compact muscle car market and moved the GTO option to the Ventura — sales still were not enough to justify continuing the model.

AMC Ambassador: Nash, Rambler and then AMC used the Ambassador name until its demise in 1974. As many of you asserted, it was a long-lived name that should have never been forced to disappear. AMC also abandoned the mid-size market after 1978 with the discontinuation of the Matador.

Chevrolet Chevelle: The 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle instituted some controversial styling changes: the iconic hardtop option was taken away thanks to new Federal rollover standards, and like the majority of the heavy muscle cars, it lost the horsepower that allowed it to roll its robust body effortlessly down the road. Unfortunately, emissions took the “muscle” out of “muscle car,” and the Chevrolet SS Chevelle suffered a blow during the 1970s crisis, perishing in 1977.

VW Beetle: Oddly enough, despite its small size and record-shattering production numbers, the Volkswagen Beetle is another casualty of the ‘70s, but its production was going downhill before then due to some hefty competition from the re-defined rear-wheel-drive Japanese compact cars and the smaller American cars that were beginning to surface with the oil crisis. The VW no longer met crash-rating standards and more room was needed for emissions equipment, which caused some re-design expense for the already struggling company during the financial crisis. After a few more years of light upgrades, the last classic Beetle was produced for the U.S. market in 1979.

Every car in production prior to the early 1970s took a hit and had to make critical adjustments in order to survive the ever-changing automotive market, so the answer to the question really does depend on your specific taste and what pre-70s cars you love the most.

34 Reader Comments

  • 1
    gerry new york March 16, 2016 at 14:59
    The Challenger / Cuda should be on this list, not the Ambassador.
  • 2
    L Zapala Troy, NY March 16, 2016 at 15:38
    How do you explain the Mustang II being the 2nd best selling Mustang?
  • 3
    Jan New York March 16, 2016 at 15:51
    How about the Jensen Interceptor?
  • 4
    Honest John Texas March 16, 2016 at 15:59
    The biggest automotive loss wasn't a car; it was an efficient engine. The muscle engines now running could have been developed if the Feds had let the engineers engine instead of requiring engine-sapping controls.
  • 5
    Mary Twin Cites March 16, 2016 at 16:32
    Once again the 70 Nova is over looked. The AMC & the Beetle give me a break!
  • 6
    Kevin Nor Cal March 16, 2016 at 16:45
    The Mustang 2 is probably the most maligned car since the Corvair ( Thanks 2 Ralph ) but was so much more than the PInto derived platform it came from. First year sales were the highest since it's 65 model year. It was a shame what the auto industry went through in this period.
  • 7
    Jeff blovat New York March 16, 2016 at 17:19
    I remember when the Mustang II came out. I was 9. I said to myself, " that's not a Mustang". My best friend's parents had a 1968 Mustang coupe in the front yard they drove. Just drove my 1963 Falcon around today in the first thunderstorm of the year.......
  • 8
    mick ortyl sylvania ohio March 16, 2016 at 18:07
    yeah,remember it well,iworked at gm at the time, loved my muscle cars, it was great while it lasted.but still banging gears in my 67 nova.
  • 9
    Trigger Creep SC March 16, 2016 at 18:07
    The AMX and Toranado. Styling suffered everywhere and was even noticeable on GM Pickups. A good subject for another article would be the 'Best Year of Styling for Muscle Cars'.
  • 10
    John E. Wisconsin, USA March 16, 2016 at 18:12
    The MG-B...rubber bumpers, tipsy height regulated suspension, single ZS carb/air pump/egr choked 62.5 bhp...gads, do I need to go on? Triumph fared slightly better, but not much. By 1980, the affordable British sports car was all but dead and buried. Any way you cut it, the seventies were cruel to British cars and British car fans.
  • 11
    Hugh Whaley Raleigh March 16, 2016 at 18:18
    Z/28
  • 12
    keith rigert wi March 16, 2016 at 18:31
    Really, Amassador. It's still an orphan mopar.
  • 13
    Chuck MA March 16, 2016 at 18:52
    Looks like gerry didn't read the first paragraph. This was based on a survey.
  • 14
    Smagghe France March 16, 2016 at 18:55
    We have the same in France, about sérials cars and, so "spécial cars" ! All "muscle cars" were in touch with the pétroleum crisis of 1973, and, after, the second one. Remember only the Citroen Maserati SM and the Ligier Ford JS 1 & 2 ...... Hervé
  • 15
    Rob Seattle March 16, 2016 at 19:25
    Contrary to popular belief, the Mustang II was not a glorified Pinto, and was not built on a Pinto chassis. The Mustang II chassis is actually slightly bigger, among other changes. Also, the V8 engine would not fit in a Pinto. 385,993 Mustangs were built in 1974, and this remains the fifth highest annual production in Mustang history. Oddly, it was the right car at the right time, although it didn't last long. The Mustang II kept the nameplate alive and production uninterrupted, leading to the next major body style change in 1979. Anyone who says that the Mustang II was a Pinto is wrong.
  • 16
    Bob Markovich Putnam County, New York March 16, 2016 at 19:34
    Whether it's cars, clothes, disco music—you name it—the 'seventies just plain sucked. Most of the 'seventies, anyway. Yet by the end of that benighted decade, we had (arguably) better music and even at least the beginning of better cars, notably Mazda's superlative RX-7. And cars like Datsun's 510 and BMW's 2002 continued to impress, as did Ferrari's 308. So there were some bright spots ...
  • 17
    Chelli Rochester New York March 16, 2016 at 19:44
    I miss all my old cars from the 70s.
  • 18
    Philip Tron Moorhead, MN March 16, 2016 at 19:50
    I remember the cars of the '70s very well. The muscle was gone even in 1970 (compare a '67 Chevelle 396 to later and heavier models) due to emissions limits. None braked or cornered very well. They were down to styling. For driving, I'll take a modern version any day.
  • 19
    Roger Mo March 16, 2016 at 20:28
    Yeah, losing anything that AMC made was no loss at all. They were total crap and needed to die. The Matador? Or Gremlin? The world would be a better place if they had never existed
  • 20
    Jim Dojan Vancouver, Washington March 16, 2016 at 21:19
    I own a 77 Mustang II Mach One with V8/4 speed fastback in still original Ford Yellow. I am 3rd owner and take car to shows and trips. Finding this car is becoming very rare as they aren't on the roads anymore. Used parts hard to come by.
  • 21
    Paul Long Island, NY March 17, 2016 at 04:45
    While it's a cousin to the Mustang, the Cougar also went awry, going as far as becoming a station wagon. The name persisted into the 90s but the spirit died.
  • 22
    Robert Spinello New York March 17, 2016 at 18:01
    Where do you come up with this information. This car sold like crazy. The 1974-79 Mustang was a very good automobile and certanly as good as the 80s "Fox" version. It was the 1974 Motor Trend Car of the Year. Yes, it was based loosly on the Pinto, but you'd never know it to drive it. It was well-made, attractive and comfortable .. as good or better than the original, and better than the bloated Torino-like 71-73s It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it.
  • 23
    Robert Spinello new york March 17, 2016 at 18:06
    The Chevelle SS continued through 1973, not 1977. The 73-77 Chevelle was a better car than the 68-72 Chevelle by a long shot (other than the lower compression ratios) They handled better, were roomier and were attractive but safer.
  • 24
    Scott Allred Chico, CA March 17, 2016 at 18:16
    I sure wish people would quit writing about how bad the Mustang II was. The '74 Mustang II outsold the entire production of the '73 and '72 Mustang. That is NOT a failure! And. since the Mustang production has never ceased since its introduction in 1964, how could the M-II appear on a list of cars that were "killed" in the '70s? Also, if Chevy cancelled the hardtop in '73, it was not due to any regulations; Chrysler continued to make and sell hardtops through 1978. Those roll-over regulations that prematurely cancelled convertible production across the board, never came to fruition, which was why Chrysler brought back the ragtop in 1982. Finally, the VW Beetle may have left the US shores, but was continued to be built in Brazil into the '90s. So, again, how exactly did the '70s kill that car?
  • 25
    ToschDog Indy-fishers March 17, 2016 at 06:18
    A picture is worth a thousand words
  • 26
    Bobby Bluegrass March 17, 2016 at 07:12
    I've got a 63 Belair and a 74 Chevelle. I love 'em both. They get roughly equal amounts of attention. Lots of people approach me about the Chevelle telling me how they had one, and how cool it is to see one after many years. The 40 and under folks really seem to dig it, probably because they don't remember the 70s. Perspective makes a big difference in perception.
  • 27
    Mark Chicago March 17, 2016 at 19:27
    As the owner of a 1970's car, I have to say I am tired of all the bashing of 1970's cars. It was the last decade of "real cars" in my opinion. With actual size differences in feet, not inches, between full-size and compact, the last true full-size cars, the last decade that styling ruled styling instead of safety or fuel economy or bean counters ruling styling. Unlike the boxy pillared sedans of the 1980's where you could barely tell the difference between a FWD Cadillac DeVille and a Chevy Celebrity. And if you are going to bash a Mercury Bobcat, that is nothing compared to the tackiness of a Cadillac Cimarron.
  • 28
    Matthew Michigan March 17, 2016 at 11:49
    Rather than list a bunch of ways how the Mustang II saved the Mustang brand, I'll just mention how much I love taking my Mustang II to car shows. I've got the only thing different in a sea of cookie cutter Mustangs, and I didn't have to take out a 2nd mortgage to buy it.
  • 29
    Scott Washington, DC March 17, 2016 at 00:16
    No Mopar muscle? What about the Charger, Challenger, and 'Cuda? Where's the love for the 426 Hemi or the 440 Magnum? You chose the AMC Ambassador? During that time (and I was there) AMC was barely making it. They only got laughed at later for winners like the Gremlin (hack off the end of that Matador) and the Pacer which was designed by putting two bathtubs together. The AMX was Ok but it was not in the class of the Mopars or the GTO. And the Beetle? VW could have fixed that car to continue to sell them in the US. Interviews later even said so and there were places that would help bring VW's up to state specs. But they wanted to go in a new direction and chose that 70s excuse to change its image in the US. VW killed the Beetle themselves, not the 70s!
  • 30
    Matt Kempton PA March 18, 2016 at 12:52
    Does a Challenger/Cuda really belong here? I don't think so. The Challenger was late, very late to the Pony/muscle car competition. Making it's debut in 1970 to compete with the Mustang/Camaro it was already way behind the times. The Camaro/Firbird already in their second Generation, and the new Mustang II's were on the way. The Ambassador nameplate was around since 1958. The GTO was already Legend. Also people forget or don't like to mention that the Mustang II was a huge hit in 1973 selling 385,993 units, yes three hundred thousand. And they went on to sell 1.1 million of them over the course of it's life. Of course when horse power was on the rise and a new mustang was released the little Mustang II became disdained for what it was. Thrown to the curb and trashed by the thousands. Try and find one now. Sure you can find a few but you can find more Deloreans then a Mustang II and they only built 8700 Deloreans.
  • 31
    Peter California March 19, 2016 at 16:54
    I used to refer to the Mustang II as the Boredom Zero, because of their advertising slogan "Score: Mustang 2 - Boredom 0"
  • 32
    Clay Sterling Hgts, Mi March 30, 2016 at 06:06
    Hi, I had the best looking new car, that I ever bought, but it was the worse new car I ever had as far as reliability. It was a 71 Torino GT w/a 302 v/8 and 3 spd on the column. Any body else have one?
  • 33
    Jim Mid Ohio March 31, 2016 at 15:07
    I love my two owner 1976 Mustang II. With its 302, 4 speed, and low body weight, it is a blast to drive. And it always garners a crowd at shows and cruise-ins. Malign it all you want, but it was a great car for its time, and is now again.
  • 34
    Paul Albany, NY May 3, 2016 at 12:28
    I enjoy reading these articles. But reading the comments usually consists of about 80% "You didn't talk about MY car and therefore this article is irrelevant!" Folks in this hobby really need to learn to relax. That being said, I think there are a lot of cars from the 70s and 80s that have a certain charm, especially looking back now that the roads aren't flooded with them.

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