Can You Name the Most Successful Cars of the 1970s?

By: Marty Sems

Pontiac’s big, comfortable Bonneville roared into the 1970s with a new 455 cubic inch big-block motor. In the mid-1970s, GM gave the Bonneville B-pillars behind the front door windows. An entirely new body style debuted in 1977 with smaller dimensions, smaller engines, and higher fuel efficiency.

Honda’s first Civic was a 1973 model year, released during the Arab Oil Embargo and foreshadowing the rise of more fuel-efficient cars. Throughout the 1970s, it came in two-door and four-door hatchback, station wagon and coupe editions. In 1975, it received Honda’s CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine, which was even more efficient and produced lower emissions.

A pioneer of hatchbacks, the Renault 4 employed a front-mounted, 4-cylinder engine and front wheel drive. It was very popular in France and the rest of Europe, along with other parts of the world, but relatively unknown in the United States.

The Ford Granada started off as a European model in 1972 as a 4- or 6-cylinder sedan, coupe or wagon. A completely different Ford Granada appeared in the United States in 1975, along with its all-but-doppelganger the Mercury Monarch. The American cars were upscale compact sedans based on the Maverick platform, and came with inline 6-cylinder or V-8 engines.

Chrysler’s entry-level Newport was a full-size car that was V8-powered throughout the 1970s, excepting an inline 6-cylinder available in the 1979 model year. There was a convertible edition in 1970, along with hardtops and sedans. Redesigns in 1974 and 1979 saw the Newport shrinking in size and weight to chase mileage-minded consumers, as was the trend during the decade.

The Mitsubishi Galant was just a year old in 1970. The Japanese compact became known as the Dodge Colt when it was imported into the US in 1971. New generations in 1973 and 1976 added curves to the bodystyle, and in 1978 the coupe version became known as the Dodge Challenger in the States.

Toyota’s Hilux was popular in Japan and elsewhere in the 1970s. In the US, buyers came to know it as the SR5. That was actually a trim package, but it sounded more like a model name than just “Truck,” the official name after Toyota let the Hilux name disappear in the early-middle part of the decade.

Shortly after the Honda Civic debuted in Japan, Germany released its own wildly popular economy car: the Volkswagen Golf (1974-on). The front-wheel-drive hatchback, also known as the VW Rabbit, was meant to replace the beloved Beetle. It was actually pretty sophisticated for the 1970s, getting a fuel-injected engine in 1976.

The Mercedes-Benz W123 was such a hit early on, German buyers were reportedly willing to pay resellers well over sticker price rather than wait months for a new car from the factory. The front-engine, rear-wheel drive car made its debut in 1976. There were diesel and gas engines ranging from 2L to 3L. A W123T wagon edition tipped up in 1977.

Another example of General Motors’ bestselling B-body platform was the enduring Oldsmobile 88 / Delta 88. It was a full-sized sedan, convertible, or hardtop, completely at home cruising the highways and interstates. Like its big Chevy, Pontiac, and Buick brethren, the Olds 88 ended the decade trimmer, lighter in weight and powered by smaller engines including a base 3.8L V6.

Italian automaker Fiat introduced its wildly popular 124 by dropping it by parachute out of a plane. The front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car came in variations such as the Sport Coupe, the Spider & Sport Spider, the Abarth Rally, and a wagon. Including 124s produced in other countries, total production approached 20 million, all told.

A step up in size from the B-body GMs (e.g. the Chevy Caprice, Pontiac Bonneville and Olds 88), the C-body Buick Electra / Electra 225 shared a platform with the Cadillac DeVille and Olds 98. Its Park Avenue trim package later earned model status of its own. The Electra featured traction control in the early part of the 1970s, as well as optional airbags from 1974-1976.

The entry-level BMW 02 Series was a more compact and affordable edition of the automaker’s New Class platform. Its model numbers were derived from its engine size, with the 1.6L 1600-2 (soon to become the 1602), the 2.0L 2002, and the 1.8L 1802. Last of all came the fuel-efficient 1502 in 1975-1977 as BMW moved on to the extraordinarily popular 3 Series.

The Cadillac DeVille was at its biggest and heaviest during the 1970s. The luxurious Caddy started off the decade with engines with 472- or 500-cubic-inch displacements, but as mpg and emissions regulations kicked in, the DeVille found itself with a smaller 425ci gasoline motor or a 350ci diesel. Cadillac innovations during the decade included fuel injection for more power and an aluminum hood for weight savings.

It’s a familiar tale amongst American cars: Chevrolet’s full-sized Impala started off the 1970s large and in charge, both in terms of its bulk and engine displacement (up to 454ci). Lower compression ratios, primitive emissions controls, and high-priced gas cut the bestselling car’s power soon after, and a redesign for 1977 was shorter and trimmer. The popular Impala and its Caprice upgrade netted a Car of the Year award that year from Motor Trend.

Pontiac’s Firebird twinned the Chevrolet Camaro for decades, making the sports car platform attractive to buyers with different tastes in styling. In the 1970s, the Trans Am edition became an American icon with the Burt Reynolds classic Smokey and the Bandit (1977 Universal Pictures). There were also Formula and Esprit versions of the Firebird, and a bevy of engines ranging from a 3.8L V6 on up to a 7.5L (455ci) V8.

The Honda Prelude only caught the tail end of the 1970s, but its success earns it a place in this lineup. Honda introduced the car in 1978 as Accord drivetrain elements on a smaller, lighter chassis. The sporty little Prelude became known for its standard power moonroof.

Yes, this was the model of car in the Stephen King book and movie Christine (1983, Columbia Pictures), but that was a 1958--it’s the 1970s models we’re concerned with here. In that timeframe, Plymouth’s Fury/Gran Fury was in one of its full-sized phases until 1975, when its nameplate moved over to a smaller, mid-sized platform.

The Opel Ascona was a German mid-sized car that made use of straight 4-cylinder motivation. The 1.9L edition came to America as the Opel 1900. In the 1970s, the family car was a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, although this later changed. The Ascona kept on truckin’ well into the late 1980s, eventually selling approximately 4.4 million units.

The UK’s top-selling car of the 1970s was the Ford Cortina. Its Mark III generation for the 1970 model year was a twin of the Ford Taunus for the German market. Four- and six-cylinder versions were available through several platform refreshes. When all was said and done by the early 1980s, more than 4.3 million Cortinas had been built.

One car that needs no introduction is the iconic VW Beetle, one of the most successful cars not only of the 1970s, but of all time. Minor design changes led to variants and special editions dubbed Super Beetle, Big Beetle, Sun Bug, La Grande Bug, Love Bug, Champagne Edition, and more. The Bug was available in standard or convertible forms, and it received fuel injection in 1975.

Ford’s Mustang arguably changed the most radically during the 1970s, passing through one minor and two major platform changes. Like many American cars, it started off the decade big, heavy, and powerful before emissions and fuel economy concerns detuned its primarily V8 engines. The ponycar’s popularity exploded in 1974, however, when the Mustang II surprised the buying public in compact hatchback form. Its front disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering made the transition into 1979’s Fox platform, which added McPherson struts and carried the nameplate into the 1990s.

A Japanese child of the 1960s, by 1974 the Toyota Corolla had become the top-selling car in the world. It was a rear-wheel-drive subcompact in the swinging ‘70s, and soon graduated to bigger body styles and larger four-cylinder engines. It came in configurations including a van and a station wagon.

Nissan launched its Z-car franchise (aka the Fairlady platform in Japan) with the 2.4L 1970 240Z. The automaker used the Datsun name for its export models. Later came the 260Z (1975) and 280Z (1976) with additional displacement. Finally, the hugely popular 280ZX ushered in a new generation of Z-cars in 1978.

The Mini has been a British fixture (and export) since 1959, selling more than 5.5 million before its BMW-backed, 21st-century Cooper incarnation. Over time, it has had several manufacturers and various names, including the Austin Mini, Morris Mini, and others.%0DIn the 1970s the Mini was made by British Leyland, later known as the Rover Group.

Renault sold millions of the 5 / R5 “supermini.” Its great fuel economy and relatively large interior space won it a lot of European fans after its launch in 1972. Later, in 1976, it was known as Le Car in the US, but it didn’t sell nearly as well in the American market as it did overseas.

The Mazda Familia, later known as the 323 and Protege, spent the 1970s as a small family auto with good fuel economy. It came with an inline 4-cylinder engine as well as a rotary motor for the first part of the decade. It branched out into larger wider bodystyles, then in 1977 it morphed into the car known as the Mazda GLC “Great Little Car” and GLC Sport in the US market.

By 1970, Buick’s full-sized LeSabre had lost its fins but gained front disc brakes and a radio antenna built into the windshield. Soon it grew into GM’s bestselling B-body platform like its Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Chevy compatriots, and it even received an early traction control option and, later, airbags. GM downsized the LeSabre and its peers in 1977. A Sport Coupe edition enjoyed turbo V6 power in the next two model years.

General Motors wasn’t only about full-and-midsized cars in 1970, like its competitor Chrysler. The Chevrolet Vega was built around GM’s new aluminum engine block manufacturing capability, which engineers developed into a 4-cylinder with a tall cylinder head. There was even a panel delivery van edition of the Vega. Despite problems with reliability and rust, the Vega sold nearly 2 million units for Chevrolet before production ended with the 1977 version.

British Leyland’s Morris Marina debuted as an eminently affordable family car in 1971. Its low cost boosted its popularity, although its tendency to understeer and sub-par corrosion resistance earned it detractors as well. The 1975 revamp brought very welcome suspension changes. Morris sold more than 800,000 Marinas in the UK before its final model year in 1980.

In the early 1970s, the diminutive Nissan-built Datsun Sunny was known in the US as the Datsun 1200, B-210 and 210. Throughout the decade, it was popular for its fuel economy and low asking price. It was also offered in variations including a station wagon and even a light truck. A later version of the Sunny came to America in 1982 as the Nissan Sentra, and was known by other names around the globe.

BMW debuted its seminal 3 Series in 1975 with carbureted 316, 318 and 320, and soon the Bosch fuel-injected 320i. A straight-six engine joined the inline four-cylinders in the 320 (1977) and the 323i (1978), which came with disc brakes front and rear. The sports car became a huge hit for Bavarian Motor Works, and is still around today.

The 2-cylinder, rear-engined Fiat 126 was virtually the Mini of Poland. Most of them were built in Poland starting in 1973, where they sold briskly as the Polski Fiat 126p. So beloved was the inexpensive little car that buyers nicknamed it Maluch (“small child” or “little one”), which eventually became the car’s official name. The 126 neared 4.7 million units by the time production ended in the year 2000.

Ford sold Escorts in the European market long before it reused the name on North American cars in the 1980s. The little car especially caught on in the UK, although it was also built in Germany, Israel, Australia and elsewhere. It continued to use an old-school, live rear axle and rear wheel drive until its final 1981 model year, but it had responsive rack-and pinion steering from the beginning in 1967.

The Chevrolet Caprice started out as a trim package for the popular Impala, and even as an upscale model in its own right it closely mirrored its progenitor. It roared into the 1970s with big-block power and a big, big B-body, soon acquiring power front disc brakes and electronic HEI (High Energy Ignition). The lighter, slimmer Caprice unveiled in 1977 shared that year’s Motor Trend Car of the Year award with the Impala.

The Japanese Honda Accord only caught the second half of the 1970s, but from 1976 on it gathered more and more converts to the economical, practical marque. Originally a hatchback that first appeared in 1976, and then a sedan, the Accord drew raves for its fuel economy. It also accumulated creature comforts such as FM radio, cloth seats, intermittent windshield wipers and power steering.

Oldsmobile’s midsized Cutlass was a popular ride in the '70s. Buyers could get one in a broad variety of configurations: 2-door or 4-door; convertible, sedan or fastback coupe; powerful V8 or relatively economical straight six. Hurst shifters and a huge variety of trim packages and variants (Calais, Salon, Supreme, 4-4-2, Brougham, Rocket, S, Vista Cruiser, and more) helped to make the Cutlass the bestselling American nameplate in the latter half of the decade.

One of the quintessential British luxury cars is the Jaguar XJ. The four-door Jag entered the 1970s sporting an inline 6-cylinder, but it soon doubled down with a 5.3L V12 version in 1972. Fuel injection tipped up in 1978, and a year later came the Series III with a sunroof and cruise control.

The Mitsubishi Lancer has been with us since 1973. Back in those days, it was a peppy subcompact with a straight four-cylinder economy engine. It was variously rebadged as the Dodge and Plymouth Colt, the Plymouth Arrow and Fire Arrow, and other monikers depending upon its market. Late in the ‘70s, the Lancer got a new, smoother-running engine with cleaner emissions.

Pontiac’s Grand Am disappeared and reappeared a couple times over the years, but it ended up being a very popular nameplate for the GM division. From 1973–1975, the car was a midsized A-body with a big 400ci or 455ci V8. The Grand Am next resurfaced in 1978 as a smaller G-body car based on the LeMans. Engines available during this three-year run (1978-1980) included 305ci and 301ci V8s and a 3.8L V6.

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Image: Wiki Commons via Greg Gjerdingen

About This Quiz

The '70s were a time of great social change in the United States, as well as a cultural upheaval that was the result of the hippies of the '60s moving into the mainstream. On the roads, change was in the air, as well. The Arab Oil Embargo suddenly made the previously disregarded term "gas mileage" a critical factor.  Some cars got smaller, and they all got a lot more efficient ... except for the muscle cars, that is. These leaded-fuel monsters were as bad as they always have been; they just had velour seats in the '70s. In this quiz, we'll ask you about some of the most successful models!

You might think of the '70s as the decade of disco balls, polyester leisure suits and (shudder) Jovan Musk cologne, but there was more to it. At the movies, we were introduced to "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and the age of the summer blockbuster began. Disco dominated music in the latter half of the decade, but legendary bands like the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynryd, Pink Floyd, and Cream, as well as solo artists like Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, did some amazing work that didn't involve glitter balls and platform heels. Their very popular style went a lot better with the tough muscle cars of the '70s!

So cast your mind back to your dad or grand-dad's garage, and remember the four-wheelers that lived there as you turn the key on this '70s car quiz!

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