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The Grooviest Cars of the 1970s

best 1970s cars

List of Groovy, Righteous & Far Out Cars that defined the 1970s.

The 1970s seemed like a bad time for the automotive landscape, what with rising fuel and insurance costs, plummeting engine power, and some seriously questionable styling. Still, the ‘70s laid the groundwork for what would happen in the coming years. The first Cannonball Run took place in 1972, and Japan invaded with everything from the 240Z to the Civic and Accord. Despite its bell bottoms and mustache stereotypes, here are the grooviest iconic cars that defined the 1970s.

Ford Mustang II


Speaking of the competition, the Mustang was like any other teenager at the time; ugly and awkward. 1974 was a dark year for the Mustang, as it was now based off the less-than-awesome Pinto, and the performance oriented Mach 1 sported a V6 with 110 hp. While performance was dead, that’s okay, as the Mustang II launched just months before the first oil crisis. Sales boomed. This all-around terrible car became a solid seller, moving 1.1 million cars in 5 years, and saved the name so the real Mustang could return in 1979.

Ford Pinto


Speaking of Pinto, production spanned 1970 to 1980, so it’s hard to be more of a ‘70s car than this subcompact. Just 22 months spanned the time from concept to production, so Ford might have delivered a half-baked product. One good idea was the drivetrains sourced from Ford of Europe. While the 2.0 liter four only delivered 54 hp and an 11 second 0 to 60 time, it was reliable, which was unlike everything else in its class. Buyers went for it, and the tiny car with the weird big rear window sold over 3 million units in the 1970s.

Lancia Stratos HF


Lancia isn’t a well-known name in the US, but a certain ‘70s car from them outweighs their entire brand equity. The Stratos is most familiar to rally fans and automotive gamers, as it featured heavily in games like the Gran Turismo series. Thi tiny little wedge was designed from the ground up as a pure rally car, the first of its kind. A Ferrari Dino 2.4 liter V6 sits midship and drives the rear wheels. The chassis is basically a safety cage with fiberglass panels bolted on, so it is safe and light. While it never sold in volume, the Stratos is a mid-‘70s legend.

Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham


Twenty-three-and-a-half feet long, and nearly 7 feet wide, the Brougham was the classiest thing you could buy in the 1970s. And by classy, I mean big. There was a time when luxury meant acres of sheet-metal, and the industry was slow to respond to higher fuel prices, which is why this mammoth car was still on sale up through 1976. Performance came in the form of a 500 cu in Caddy V8, and a 3-speed auto. MPG was dismal, as you might expect in a carbureted 4,500 lb sedan. Still, the downsized version would hit the streets in 1977 and carry Caddy through to the ‘80s.

Chevy El Camino


Sure, El Camino production ranged from 1959 to 1987, but it’s often remembered most as a 1970s car. Truck. Ute-thing. Fourth generation A-body El Caminos were the largest model of the truck/car ever made, and carried the ugly mandated bumpers with pride. Power fell as the years wore on, and the SS model disappeared, but at least it was replaced by a diesel 350…. Despite all this punishment, sales rose to their best ever, as if the buying public wanted to purchase terrible cars. The El would be redesigned on the smaller G-body for the ‘80s, making this the definitive 1970s model of the mullet mobile. “Business in the front, party in the back.”

Pontiac Trans Am SE


The “Bandit” Trans Am is a ‘70s legend, even before the Smokey & the Bandit movies. The TA was one of the last muscle cars left by ’77, and while the Mustang was economy car, the TA could be ordered with a 6.6 liter V8. Sure, it had all of 200 horsepower, but at least the figure didn’t start with a 1, like the competition. The hot look was black with gold pinstriping and the snowflake wheels. It’ll run mid/high 15s in the quarter mile, and look great doing it.

Chevrolet Corvette


GM made a lot of ‘70s icons, for good and bad. Mostly bad. Like most ‘70s cars, the C3 Corvette was a mix of good and bad. Good came from it actually being a ‘60s car, so it was designed to look pretty, go fast, and not much else. GM put it on the back burner, so the launched in ’68 chassis would still be produced through 1982. By the mid-‘70s, the Corvette was hurting. Fuel economy and emissions needs had killed the big blocks, and the ‘vette was down to a 5.0 liter V8 making a paltry 165 hp. Zero to sixty runs took almost eight seconds, and it struggled to run less than a 16 second quarter mile. Still, Chevy sold nearly a half million ‘vettes in the ‘70s.

Datsun 240Z


The Datsun (Nissan) Z cars are definitively 1970’s vehicles. Launched as a 1970 model, the 240 was all about simple and fun motoring, in the classic British sports car sense. Except with reliability too. The first few years, the 2.4 liter four cylinder delivered 151 hp. While that isn’t a lot, it only had to push 2,300 lbs, putting it on par with several muscle cars of the era. As the ‘70s went on, the Z got heavier, gained ugly bumpers and complexity, and became the 260Z in ’74, and the garish 280Z in ’75. While it would take the ‘80s and a turbo to make them shine again, the Datsun Z was pretty good for the time, and a distinctive and fun moment in the sad automotive culture of the time.

Lotus Esprit


Although its production spanned nearly 30 years, the Esprit is a definitive ‘70s sports car. Low, wide, with Countach-like sharp angles and a distinctive British touch, the Esprit gained worldwide fame from the 1977 Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Powered by an emissions choked four cylinder, it was appropriately ’70s slow. While it wouldn’t gain a turbo until the ‘80s, the looks and chassis were there from day one, and the Esprit was credited as being one of the best handling cars of the era.

AMC Pacer


What was AMC doing in the ‘70s? This strange little fishbowl on wheels was AMC’s answer to the ’73 gas crisis. Unfortunately, it was powered by an out of date inline 6 cylinder, making it te most powerful subcompact in it’s class, but also the most fuel inefficient model in a class that lived or died based on MPG. It sucked, so it helped kill off AMC when the last Pacer hit the streets in 1980.

Ferrari 308


In the ‘70s, Ferrari’s naming formula made sense, and you knew a 308 had a 3.0 liter V8. The letters GTB followed the most popular model, which was commonly seen with Burt Reynolds in the ‘70s. While still a malaise era ride, the 308 proved far more track focused than a same ear Corvette, and underlined why Ferraris cost more.

Chrysler Cordoba


Defining the junk era of the Big Three, the Cordoba was all hype and no substance. Called a personal luxury coupe, the 100 hp V8 wheezed unimpressively, while the “soft Corinthian leather” was market speak for “leather.” The exterior said it was a Chinese copy of the Monte Carlo, but with a crappy Chrysler transmission. Stupid people bought them up by the boatload.

AMC Gremlin


Cut the wheelbase of the Hornet and chop off the rear so its almost vertical, and you have the Gremlin. This oddly styled and named subcompact featured the unusual choice of an inline 6, in what was supposed to be a gas sipper. Still, AMC sold over 600,000 examples of the Gremlin, proving that reading car reviews wasn’t the groovy thing to do back then.

International Scout


Back when International Harvester sold passenger vehicles, the Scout was one of the first SUVs. Better looking than a Bronco or later Blazer, the Scout offered solid capability in a package competitive with rival Jeep. It wouldn’t make it out of the ‘70s, but at least proved that not everything was disco and stupidity back then.

Reliant Robin


More famous on this side of the pond for Jeremy Clarkson’s hilarious misadventures than its commuter car practicality, this early ‘70s three-wheeler brings a smile to everyone’s face.

Toyota Celica


Light weight, rear-wheel drive, a manual trans, and classic Mustang lines. While it was only available with a four banger, as the Mustang gained weight, the Celica was able to out Mustang the Mustang until 1979.

Aston Martin Lagonda


Derided as an expensive, unreliable, and awkward attempt at a daily drivable supercar, the Lagonda single handedly set AM back a decade. While they have their fans today, Lagondas almost never leave the garage. Not because they are trophy queens; they just don’t run.

Bricklin SV1


Jeez, it’s the DeLorean, five years earlier. But more expensive. This Canadian safety sports car (seriously) had some interesting safety and aesthetic features, but was too pricey for people to care. It was famous in the ‘70s as an analogy of the car industry as a whole, with crappy company bureaucracy, government interference, and a design for a target market that didn’t exist anymore. While it was an okay sports car, the SV-1 never sold in large numbers. Instead, it quickly became a joke, as it was the big business scandal of the ’70s, only overshadowed by DeLorean in the ’80s.

Chevy Vega


Chevy took the right path and went high tech with the aluminum block Vega. Unfortunately, their tooling wasn’t up to the task, and while it initially sold well, the Vega quickly became synonymous with 1970s Detroit “quality.”

DeTomaso Pantera


An American supercar with an Italian name and a gigantic Ford V8 stuffed in the middle. And sold at Mercury dealerships. Makes about as much sense as the rest of the ‘70s. Fortunately it looks way better.

Honda Civic


The mid ‘70s Civic was a horrible penalty box that drove like crap. Lucky for Honda, buyers were just looking for a car that would start every day and keep its parts bolted on. This is where Honda started making fans.

Ferrari Dino 246


Marketed as the “affordable” Ferrari, this gorgeous sports car may have had a lower price in the ‘70s, but it’s crazy expensive today. The small 2.4 liter V6 made an impressive 190+ HP, while sounding like nothing else out there. It’s the curves that stand out today, an example of early ‘70s design before the Countach came in with a ruler and protractor.

BMW 3-Series


Like the Civic, this classic with a familiar name and face isn’t as great as we remember. Still, it offered a lot of fun and features for the price, and the original 3-Series was enough to establish the legend in the United States and send BMW on their way upmarket.

Porsche 911


Sure, the classic 911 is a ‘60s car, but the ‘70s worked its magic on the rear engine beast, and it became the familiar icon we know today. Big bumpers, Bosch fuel injection, and massive turbo lag weren’t entirely popular back then, but today, it’s just seen as part of the German charm.

AMC/Jeep Wagoneer


Popular once again due to hipster chic, the Wagoneer was once exclusively for ‘70s manly men. This giant body-on-frame SUV was pretty much the Suburban of the ‘70s, but with actual off-road ability. There was luxury packed into all that acreage too, and the model survived with minimal upgrades for nearly three decades. Still, oddly seen as mostly a ‘0s thing. Must be the wood paneling.

Mazda RX3


Little Japanese coupes made a killing after gas prices spiked in the early ‘70s, and Mazda was no different. The RX3 was a distinctive and attractive little car with charming driving dynamics and super lightweight thanks to its tiny rotary engine. Mazda sold a ton from ’72 to ’78, and it introduced Americans to the fun RX series.

There’s so many! 1970s cars might have been more swagger than excitement, but the looks were interesting, and some of the half-assed attempts above turned into solid rides. What’s your favorite 1970s icon?

By: Andy Jensen


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