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.