Avoidable Contact #151: Suddenly, it’s 1978!

Jack Baruth

Some things never change. The Car and Driver 1978 Buyer’s Guide opens up with an editor’s letter by the late David E. Davis Jr. where he recognizes the singular contributions of the magazine’s technical editor, one Don Sherman. A full forty-five years later, Mr. Sherman is still very much with us, providing Hagerty with a broad variety of articles on topics both technical and non-technical. Intellectually, he hasn’t lost a step; physically, I believe that I can now outrun him despite having over a dozen titanium screws in my legs.

Perhaps when he reads this, I’ll get a chance to find out.

DED Jr. notes that Don put this Buyer’s Guide together in his spare time; most people would be pleased to have it as their sole public effort. Certainly it’s a pleasure to read. I’d like to thank the Hagerty member who donated this, and many other fine-condition magazines from the 1970s, to our department a few months back. I’ve been going through them one at a time, often experiencing a sad little frisson when I realize that I’d already seen a particular road test or column way back when it was published and I was just a car-obsessed pre-teen thrilling to the exploits of Bedard, Baxter, and Yates.

1978 was the automotive industry’s Opposite-World equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson’s famous “place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.” The miserable product year of 1976 was behind it, redeemed by the astounding success of GM’s 1977 full-sized cars, but we still had a bit of national humiliation, even-odd-day gas rationing, and stagflation ahead of us. The president of our country, someone I believe to have been a fundamentally decent man yet utterly unprepared for the realpolitik of his era, had just gone on television and suggested that we all wear sweaters in our own homes. Some of the manufacturers were doing quarterly price increases, a miserable but necessary practice that virtually disappeared at domestic automakers from 1982 to … last quarter, when it started happening again.

Don Sherman wrote the booklet with a profoundly hazy crystal ball—at one point he notes that “the era of the exoticar is just about over,” and he suggests more than once that all the technologically feasible ways to save fuel have been discovered. This does not reflect poorly on him at all; I am certain that today’s prognostications are no better-informed, particularly when it comes to the “inEVitable future” of battery-powered cars. Yet with the lazy benefit of hindsight you can see things about to get better. Ford debuted computer controls on a few engines. The Honda Civic and Accord are there to set the template for the Universal Japanese Car, although C/D prefers the Ford Fiesta. A few cars are picking up horsepower and displacement. Radial tires and better suspension tuning are in evidence everywhere you look.

Of course, everything is painfully slow. Just one car breaks into the fabled “fifteens” for quarter-mile testing: the Ferrari Dino 308GT4, which manages a 15.3-second rip down the track. What’s slower, an MG Midget or a 48-horse Rabbit Diesel? Wait 20.7 seconds, and you’ll find them crossing the line together. C/D isn’t yet providing 0–60 or trap speeds in the Buyer’s Guide, but from what I can tell the majority of the cars on sale are doing between seventy and seventy-seven miles per hour at the end of a quarter mile. There’s some discussion of “jackrabbit starts,” but with engines that weak, how did anybody know if these starts were, in fact, taking place?

There is one car in the booklet that turns a flat fifteen: a turbocharged Pinto that was apparently assembled by Sherman and a few other editors as part of a project to evaluate the benefits of turbocharging. This was an era when the editors of car magazines frequently went racing under the company banner … when they weren’t customizing generic turbo kits for carbureted Pintos and suchlike, of course. Here at Hagerty, I have put in a lot of effort to ensure that we have several SCCA-licensed road racers under our roof, but if we needed to turbocharge a Pinto I think I’d have to ask Sherman to do it. Anybody have a Pinto—better yet, a Bobcat—they want to put in harm’s way?

I’d forgotten that 1978 was the beginning of the diesel pickup era; the 120-horse Oldsmobile V-8, which at the time was the world’s most powerful passenger-vehicle diesel, appeared in Chevy and GMC half-tons as well as in various full-sizers. It’s worth noting that Sherman calls out the Olds 350 for being significantly revised from its gasoline equivalent, perhaps putting the lie to the conventional wisdom of my youth that dubbed it a “quick and dirty conversion.” Let’s not be too harsh on that Oldsmodiesel, however; the delighted celerity with which it ejected various head bolts and gaskets effectively killed the idea of passenger-car diesels in the United States. In Europe, they had no such catastrophe, because they had no Oldsmodiesels, so they had no trouble passing ridiculous CO2 emissions standards that killed 50,000 or so Europeans a year as a result of diesel emissions. What’s that old, oft-misattributed saying about a single death being a tragedy, but a million deaths being a statistic? European-style engine regulations could have killed a million Americans, or more. Thank the engineers at Oldsmobile for saving us from that.

The cars of 1978 were small, slow, and equipped in a fashion that seems deliberately mean-spirited to us today. (A full-page ad for the 1978 Chevette within the booklet brags that a two-spoke steering wheel is now standard. What did it have before?) Things are different now. You can walk into any Chevrolet dealership in the country and buy (a spot in the line for) a half-ton truck that will comprehensively beat every car available in 1978 for power, speed, space, equipment … everything but highway fuel economy, really. The Civic DX of today is more luxurious than any import car of 1978 short of the Rolls-Royce Shadow. I’m pretty sure the majority of Mercedes-Benzes sold here back then had roll-up windows.

Yet it’s hard not to flip through the pages of Don Sherman’s magazine and feel a real sense of longing, particularly if you like RWD four-cylinder coupes with a manual transmission. Boy did they have you covered back then, from the Plymouth Arrow to the Chevy Monza with fifty other options besides. The Jeep pickups of 1978 seem more desirable than the Jeep pickups of 2022, and I can’t help but like the new-for-’78 full-sizer Bronco a little better than what we have now. You could have a factory-striped custom panel van with four-on-the-floor. I didn’t realize that you could still buy midsize Fiat four-doors in the US during the Carter Administration, but you could. Or you could get a Peugeot 604. Few executive sedans were lovelier than that big bland French box.

Let’s not forget just how cheap everything was. Honda was holding down the low end—how odd, to think of Civic and Accord as the cheapest competitors in their class!—but pretty much everything south of a Cadillac was kinda-sorta affordable. A lot of vehicles based in the $4500 range and went out the door at six grand or less, which would be between $19,500 and $26,000 in today’s degraded dollars. Of course, they were cheap because they had to be. Few banks would go so far as 48 months on a loan, and the average warranty was a 12-month slip of paper with more deliberate holes than the RSA encryption algorithm.

As I sat in my airplane seat reading the 1978 Buyer’s Guide, I imagined using a time machine to take a car back to Don Sherman and the C/D crew of back then. What would blow their minds the most? A flat-crank Corvette Z06? The Mercedes AMG GT? The Ford Lightning battery truck? After some consideration, I settled on the MX-5 Miata Club in its current ND2 form. They would have understood the Miata back then; a lot of cars looked and acted that way. But the speed of it! Faster than anything they’d tested in years. The handling, which would have been almost beyond comprehension. The fit and finish of the interior, the telematics. It would give them hope. If I had space in the time machine, I’d bring the MX-5 Cup car that won at Mid-Ohio a few weeks ago, and I would explain that the qualifying time set by this little four-cylinder coupe would have put it halfway up the order in the Can-Am race of 1977 at the same track.

One of my readers recently reminded me that when Miss Belvedere was buried in 1957, the concrete vault containing the 1957 Plymouth contained five gallons of gas … because of course we wouldn’t be using gasoline in the far-distant future of 2007! There’s a bit of that depressive-futurist outlook in the 1978 Buyer’s Guide. You get the strong sense that Don Sherman and his coworkers are presiding over the slow death of the gasoline-powered automobile. Well, their Serengeti Drivers weren’t sufficiently rose-tinted.

I wonder if we aren’t making that same mistake today. Too many of my contemporaries appear resigned to a crapsack future of battery-powered “mobility” where the freeways are autonomous and a car is something you rent via an app, not own as a hobby. And yet the path to that future is no clearer than it was in 1978. Maybe less so, because back then we understood a lot less about chemical electricity storage than we do today. What will the automotive landscape be like forty-five years from now?

If the changes between 1978 and 2022 are any guide, the future won’t be worried about meeting our current expectations. It might be a paradise of nearly perfect internal-combustion, coupled with the widespread availability of gasoline derived from trash and nuclear energy. (Yes, that’s a real thing, and a bit closer to practical implementation than the super-batteries.) Or it could be a hellscape of JohnnyCabs and anarcho-tyranny where you, the law-abiding citizen, will have to get a daily booster shot of mysterious substances and fill out some sort of political affirmation just to put on a hazmat suit and sit in a creaking bus while 2023 Nissan Altimas whip past you on the freeway loaded to the gills with fentanyl and hand-held railguns. Your guess is as good as mine—and that’s what it is. It’s a guess. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can predict the future any better than Don Sherman could in his Buyer’s Guide. Probably not as well. What can I say? That man is a treasure. Imagine letting him leave your magazine to hang around with reprobates like me. Just goes to show you that there’s a limit to genius, but no limit to stupidity. I guess one thing hasn’t changed since 1978, anyway!

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