8 February 2017

Why sports cars began dying 50 years ago

As the post-war years go, 1967 was a big deal in nearly every category, from pop culture, to social upheaval and of course, what we care most about here, cars. Important cars came and important cars went in 1967. But the elephant in the room was the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the National Emissions Standard Act. Big changes would be felt by the fall of 1967 for the ‘68 model year cars’ introductions. They were the first to reflect safety and emissions mandated design alterations. We’ll take a look at a few of the seismic changes that happened in the 1967 calendar and model years:

That year marked the end of the line for three much-loved sports cars. The big Healey, reached the end of the line in ‘67 with production of the Austin-Healey 3000 MK III BJ8 ending. Although upgraded over the years, the basic design dated back to 1952. It simply couldn’t be kept current and competitive, and U.S. safety and emissions laws were the final knell. BMC never effectively replaced the car and for many, it marked the beginning of the end of the British sports car in America.

The Sunbeam Tiger also went away after 1967. It died much too soon for different reasons. Chrysler had bought the Rootes Group, Sunbeam’s parent company, and after one year of selling a car with an engine provided by arch-rival Ford, it gave up on the car when it became clear that no Mopar V-8 would fit in it. In any event, the new safety regs would probably have killed it as well—its four-cylinder twin the Sunbeam Alpine bowed out after 1967.

Probably the most famous sports car to die in 1967 was the Shelby 427 Cobra. It simply had no place in the new world of safety and emissions regulations. It was, after all, the antithesis of both. Chassis and body-maker AC tried having a go at a more civilized version of the venerable coil-sprung Cobra called the AC 428, but the market just wasn’t there.

While we may have lost the Cobra, we did at least gain two pony cars with lasting influence, the Camaro and the Shelby GT500 debuted in the ‘67 model year.

One sports car that nearly died off (at least in the U.S.) was the Alfa Romeo Spider. Carbureted, twin-cam Alfa Romeo engines were jewels; powerful and revvy, but notoriously tough to run clean. Alfa simply couldn’t comply with the 1967 emission laws that came into effect for the following model year. There were no new Alfas imported in the fall of ‘67. In fact, Alfa skipped the entire 1968 model year in the U.S., returning in 1969 with a complex mechanical fuel injection system in place of carbs.

Porsche had a tough time as well. 1967 was a big model year for the little Stuttgart-based company. They introduced a new body-style that they became famous for, the Targa, with a lift off roof secured to a fixed, stainless steel rollover hoop. They also introduced the high-performance version of the 911, the famous 911S, only to have to pull it in the fall of ‘67 when it couldn’t be emission certified for the 1968 model year. In fact, every Porsche 911 and 912 sold in the U.S. for that year had driveability problems related to the backfire-inducing air-injection pumps that nearly every OEM was forced to use to curb emissions. Jaguar, in addition to gaining an air pump, had to sacrifice one of the E-type’s three SU carbs and about 25 hp.

The Jaguar E-type’s appearance also suffered due to the new laws. Lighting standards meant that the gorgeous glass covered headlamps had to go. Alfa Romeos, Ferraris and even Fiat’s little 850 Spider were similarly defaced as a result of this law. Even knock-off wheel hubs lost their spinners on all British and Italian sports cars as well as the Corvette.

Interiors became more drab as well. We gained collapsible steering columns and energy absorbing steering wheels at the expense of attractive but lethal “impale-o-matic” spoked steering wheels and sharp, protruding switches and gauge rims. Look at the difference between a 1967 C2 Corvette’s interior and its replacement, the far more subdued C3 from ‘68 and the difference is obvious. But as usual, it was the foreign cars that had the toughest time. The poor MGB lost its beautiful black steel, wrinkle-finish dash and toggle switches in favor of blunt rocker switches and a padded dashboard monstrosity, unaffectionately referred to as the “Abingdon Pillow.” MG couldn’t even figure out how to put a glovebox in the poor car until 1972. Datsun’s pretty Fairlady Roadsters endured the same fate.

Occasionally, the new regs gave birth to something positive. BMW’s 1600 couldn’t provide adequate performance after being de-toxed. The solution, inspired by Max Hoffman was to use the much larger 2.0-liter engine in the same compact body giving birth to the legendary BMW 2002. This was very much the exception, however.

For the combustion-chamber-is-half-empty types among us, 1967 was when the rot began setting in—the steady degradation of performance and styling that climaxed in the beginning of the Malaise Era about six years later. But viewed through a wider lens, the pain of ‘67 set the stage for the huge advancements in safety and performance technology that we’re enjoying today in what is certainly the second golden age of automotive performance.

16 Reader Comments

  • 1
    T. Saxe Grand Rapids February 8, 2017 at 17:03
    In my little Midwest opinion, one vehicle interior improved immensely. The new cowl-style padded dash of the 1969-70 Mustang was vastly superior to its flat and boring predecessors.
  • 2
    bob gilberg California February 8, 2017 at 17:04
    How true! Happily, my '65 XKE and '61 Alfa Sprint grandfathered their way through all that. But, by the way, things did manage to get better pretty quickly for a short while: my 3, 1970 Mustangs (351C convertible, 351C Mach1, and 428CJ Mach1) are proof that it didn't all die with 1967. But, the oil cartel's embargo and related law changes pretty will took care of it after that for a long while.
  • 3
    Ron Brooks El Cajon, Ca February 8, 2017 at 19:53
    I am a mechanic that went thur this time frame. it was a night mare for us as well......
  • 4
    Rob Portland OR. February 8, 2017 at 20:37
    But just when it looked light the lights were going out, along came the Jensen Healey! Designed to meet federal emissions and crash standards with its peppy and clean running carbureted lotus twin cam engine. People don't give this car the credit it deserves. When sorted out, it's a really fun driving sports car that proves there is life after 1967.
  • 5
    Dantheman Fairfield, CT February 8, 2017 at 22:01
    In 1970 my college physics teacher said, Pollution is an un-harvested resource. Our role as engineers is to figure out how to utilize the resource."
  • 6
    Scott Allred Chico CA February 9, 2017 at 14:12
    I agree with JL! Sports Cars "began dying 50 years ago?" Wow! Wish it had taken 50 years for my Mom to die instead of 8; she would still be with us! Do we not still have the 'Vette, Viper, Mazda MX5, BMW Z3, and others as well as the "almost dead" Porsche 911? I think they still make the Panoz. What apparently died were companies that couldn't adapt. Datsun may have cancelled their little roadster, but they gave us the 240Z! Sports Cars dead? I hope I take that long to die!
  • 7
    Ted Ballin Florida February 9, 2017 at 16:14
    Had a 65 e-type and a 67. Sold the 67 4 years ago and kicking myself. Have a Corvette now and it's disappointing. Never feels as good as the Jags.
  • 8
    Jay Weick Texas February 9, 2017 at 04:24
    Aha, to have my 59 MG A bubble top today. Sold it to buy my first muscle car in 1966, my hot little Ford Fairlane GT. Oh what days of crusting and drag racing with my girlfriend who had to get out of the car when I raced of course. I often think about those days. I now drive a HEMI RAM pickup that woul give my big block 66 Fairlane GT a run for its life. My wife of course drives a shiny red C7. We still have gasoline running through our veins in our late 60's.
  • 9
    SH Detroit, MI February 9, 2017 at 16:38
    I think there were many other reasons for the demise of British sports cars after 1967 than emissions and safety regulations. After all, it wasn't just their sports cars that failed to keep up with competition. Quality expectations changed along with the industry's domestic issues. Tastes also continue to change to this day. More crowded roads and increasing suburbanization meant that comfort played a more important role... so a pony car could give one some sportiness along with, gasp, roll-up windows and air conditioning while drivers used their cars for commutes more than just weekend toys. These days, we are blessed with almost universally reliable and safe cars with performance, cleanliness, and fuel economy we couldn't have dreamed of in 1967. Yet cars are ceding the market to SUVs. The Corvette, Mustang, 911, and even Challenger are still with us. The Miata replaced the British roadster long ago by doing everything better and more reliably (I've owned a Triumph and two MGs and am now on my second Miata). This is an interesting article but I just don't think the sports car died. Rather the species evolved while some individuals died. Some of those deaths, like the MGB, were just slower and more painful to watch than others.
  • 10
    JL USA February 9, 2017 at 10:37
    Dying sports cars? Has this author been living under a rock for 20 years? Look at modern sports cars. They are insane in every metric. Sports cars have hit greater and greater highs decade after decade. They are so absurd today that you can't even use a fraction of the capability. Article should be titled, "How sports cars suffered for a couple of years a very long time ago"
  • 11
    Virginia Harlow Cedar Rapids, Iowa February 9, 2017 at 00:09
    Not so fast! My 68 Camaro has a 275Hp 2bbl Out of a Corvette with B/W 2Spd trainee! I wiped out 8 power glides with this engine! Heck, it won't run on anything less than 92 octane premium:)
  • 12
    Jim Liberty Costa Mesa, CA February 10, 2017 at 01:34
    Sports cars are not dead. One just needs to find 50s, and 60s cars to drive. They are my ride of choice on every sunny day. Life is too short to drive boating cars.
  • 13
    Don Monetti NJ February 11, 2017 at 13:54
    Sports cars evolved, they didn't die. As others before me have noted, some makes have passed on, but again because they couldn't keep up. Been going on from the beginning. Dusenberg, Pierce-Arrow and Auburn died due to the Great Depression. Packard and LaSalle died after WWII. DeSoto, Studebaker and Corvair just.... died. Happens. I'm thankful that engineers here and abroad figured out how to make safe, beautiful and fun to drive sports cars.
  • 14
    Bob Gotsch GA February 13, 2017 at 13:04
    I'm the owner of a '98 Jaguar convertible with about 56K miles on it. Extremely a nice, beautiful car for around town driving with top down, of course, in sunny weather. Use my family Buick for family trips to the beach and vacation spots. The prior family car, an '86 Chrysler 5th Ave still has a place in the household use too. Can you guess which car spends the time outside in the driveway, since there is no room in the two car garage for it?
  • 15
    Art Peterson NC February 13, 2017 at 19:27
    I drove a "sports" car of very different pedigree - a 1932 Rolls Royce P2 Continental that was designed to go from London to Monaco over the Alps cruising at 90 mph. 8 speeds forward, 3 reverse, both "soft" and "sport" suspension. It was my major professors car
  • 16
    TX9 West Marin County March 19, 2017 at 17:45
    Detomaso Pantera and Datsun 240z Two 1970-1973 Make / Model Sports Cars with Iconic Élan Performance Value and Post '67

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