The 1970s were a pretty strange decade. There was Watergate and Vietnam. Disco and shag rugs. Author Tom Wolfe called it the “Me Decade,” as there was a strong focus on individualism during this time that contrasted heavily with the communitarianism of the ’60s. In the midst of the social and cultural upheaval of the ’70s, it’d only make that cars changed, too.
The Oil Crisis of 1973 led to the requirement of emissions standards, which resulted in the development of vehicles that most auto enthusiasts weren’t too thrilled about. Then again, you also had the popularity of muscle cars from previous decades that was still ringing true, while Japanese and European imports also began to surge to the forefront.
Here, we’ll look at 17 cars that, for better or worse, make you think about the ’70s.
1970s Cars: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
1971 Ford Pinto
All right, let’s get the disappointing cars out of the way first. The Ford Pinto was pretty much synonymous with disaster, considering that it had an abysmal safety record. Let’s just say that if you were the owner of a Pinto and you got rear-ended, there was a decent chance that your car would just burst into flames.
Of course, we all know that recalls aren’t all that uncommon, especially today. But, instead of actually fixing the Pinto’s design issues, Ford decided to just pay out settlements for fatal accidents caused by the malfunctions. Not great!
1971 Chevrolet Vega
You may be surprised to know that the Chevy Vega began its automotive life to much acclaim, including 1971 Motor Trend Car of the Year honors. But after that is when the problems started. We’re talking fire problems, defective axles, buckling and leaking engines, and rusting body issues. Cue recall after recall, and one hell of a tarnished reputation.
Yeah, General Motors probably wishes we’d all just forget about the Vega.
1970 AMC Gremlin
Marketed as the “the first American-built import” by American Motors Corporation, the Gremlin didn’t change the game in terms of popularity or reliability, but it did grow a loyal fanbase for its compact design and fuel efficiency.
Competing with the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega, the Gremlin came with a host of interior options, which was strange considering that it was technically an economy car. AMC took the term “more bang for your buck” and really ran with it.
1975 AMC Pacer
Promoted by AMC as the ?the first wide small car,? the Pacer was dubbed “The Flying Fishbowl” by Car and Driver in 1976, because it provided folks with a lot more space than other compact cars of the time.
With a rounded jellybean style and large glass area — nearly 40% of the surface was glass — the Pacer marked the first modern, mass-produced U.S. automobile design using the cab forward concept. You also may remember it as the iconic vehicle from the classic 1992 comedy film Wayne’s World.
1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am
Smokey and the Bandit: Ever heard of it? Rhetorical question, we know you have. And the wildly popular action-comedy flick starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field is also the reason most folks have heard of the ’77 Pontiac Trans-Am.
With bold styling, badass performance, and a Hollywood boost, this baby is the quintessential ’70s car. Siri, play “Eastbound and Down.”
1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302
A car can’t have “boss” in its name and not bring the heat. Thankfully, the 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302 had more than just a badass name. Produced as a race car for the Trans-Am Series, the pony car was especially known for its incredible handling and aerodynamic options.
1974 Ford Mustang II
Like every other automaker, Ford had to adjust with the changing times. So, the second-gen Mustang was made more fuel efficient to comply with the new safety and emission regulations and was also made smaller to compete with the imported European and Japanese sports coupes.
The fact that it shared the same chassis as the Ford Pinto and also didn’t have a V8 option during its first year of production didn’t help the Ford Mustang II sales wise. But, its wide variety of style options and the reintroduction of the V8 in 1975 helped to salvage the Mustang’s overall reputation.
1973 Cadillac Coupe de Ville
In American car culture, the name “Cadillac” is pretty much synonymous with “luxury,” and the General Motors division certainly showed that with the ’73 Coupe de Ville.
Cadillac spared no expensive when it came to the exterior styling, from the energy-absorbing bumpers to the wider and more intricate grille design to the optional illuminated vanity mirror. It’s no wonder there were record-breaking de Ville sales numbers in ’77.
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
Dodge was determined to continue to capitalize on the muscle car craze in the early ’70s, and as a result, the Dodge Challenger came in a number of different trims and variants. But, the R/T stood out from all the rest.
Available in hardtop or convertible, the R/T could be stocked with a 440 Six-Pack, which could churn out 425 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. Needless to say, this bad boy was a performance juggernaut.
1971 Dodge Charger
The Dodge Charger was all about style. While the third-gen model’s Chrysler’s B platform was modified to satisfy the new regulations of the time, it also came available in six different packages with changes that included a semi-fastback rear window, a split grille, and a ducktail spoiler.
1972 Plymouth Road Runner
Sure, the second-generation Road Runner probably wouldn’t make it on any top 10 or even top 20 muscle cars lists, but it’s the fact that it snuck in right before the Oil Crisis of ’73 that makes this ride a memorable ’70s car.
The ’72 Road Runner hearkened back to the halcyon days of the American muscle car, before all the safety regulations and emissions requirements that new cars were hit with throughout the majority of the ’70s. If there’s anything diehard gearheads love, it’s good old fashioned automotive nostalgia.
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
With its 454 cu-in LS5 V8 that was rated at 360 horsepower and its more square-shaped body that made it different from previous Chevelle models, the ’70 Chevelle was an absolute beast on drag strips in America at the time. Agile and powerful, it would become a muscle car staple.
1971 Datsun 240Z
Whenever you think of a sports car that looks sleek and has the performance specs to back it up, you’re probably immediately assuming it’s going to come with a ridiculous price tag. Not so with the Datsun 240Z.
The three-door coupe looked the part, handled well, was stocked with the L24 2.4-liter engine with a manual choke and a four-speed manual, and was also relatively cheap. Nissan definitely nailed it with this one.
1973 BMW 2002 Turbo
Nowadays, the idea of a car being turbocharged isn’t all that crazy, but back in 1973, the BMW 2002 Turbo made waves for its use of turbo, beating the Porsche 911 Turbo to market by a year. While the the Oldsmobile Jetfire and Corvair Monza introduced the auto world to turbo in the early ’60s, the BMW 2002 was the first European turbocharged passenger car and changed the game when it came to performance.
Launching at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show, the car churned out 168 horsepower at 5,800 rpm with 177 lb-ft of torque. It also had a top speed of 131 MPH.
1974 Lamborghini Countach LP 400
There’s something awesomely futuristic about the Lamborghini Countach. The debut model introduced Lamborghini’s scissor door design to the public, and while a little less than 2,000 models of the sports car were produced from 1974-1990, there was something that it engrained it in the consciousness of the forward-thinking gearhead. Hey, there’s a reason Lamborghini brought it back, all these years later!
1971 Mazda RX-2
?Its long suit is power. Just stand on the gas and pull the lever when the needle points to 7000 rpm. The imports have costly features that Detroit can’t match and still be competitive in price.”
Writing those two sentences in a 1971 review describing the Mazda RX-2 coupe, Car and Driver captured the ongoing battle between American and Japanese automakers at the time. Badged as the Mazda Capella in Japan, the car was designed to compete against the Honda Accord, Toyota Corona, and Nissan Bluebird.
1972 Fiat X1/9
As the first Fiat designed from conception to meet U.S. safety regulations, the X1/9 was designed by Marcello Gandini, who also gave us the Lamborghini Miura, Countach, and Diablo. Lightweight and affordable, the Fiat X1/9 was known for its its balanced handling, retractable headlights, and front-end and rear-end storage compartments.
Products featured on Alt_driver are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.