2019 seems like it was 45 years ago, amirite? But it wasn’t. If you want to know what life was really like 45 years ago, there’s plenty of evidence. Fashions were funky, music was glam, and cars… well there’s no explaining cars.
The cars of the 1970s
The 1970s were a particularly odd time for cars. Safety and emissions regulations instituted at the beginning of the decade meant that most cars didn’t look particularly good, weren’t particularly powerful, and weren’t terribly well built. Coming off the 1960s, which many feel was one of the best times for automotive design, it was hard to get terribly excited about most 1970s cars.
And honestly, looked at from 2020, American cars were some of the worst. Yes there were some really good cars that drove smoothly and others that got decent mileage for the day. But take a trip an any American car from 1974 and you’ll feel like you’re in a bounce house that’s being carried from place to place on a boat. You’ll love the creaks and groans of the body — they were there in the 1970s too — and the confusing ergonomics. Why is the switch for the bright lights on the floor again?
Not that most foreign cars were much better. For all the hype around the Toyotas, Hondas, and Datsuns of the time, they were small and cramped. They were free from anything resembling luxury. And slow? Slow doesn’t even begin to explain it.
The answer: stripes
If you have a second, take a look at this video.
In 1974, Chevrolet sold more cars in the US than anyone else. They clearly felt like they understood the needs of the market. So what did they think the market wanted that year? Why, a bicentennial version of their cars!
OK, if you were too young to be there, people in the mid-1970s got really excited about it being the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was impossible to avoid red, white, and blue during that time period, and the bicentennial celebrations (as they were called) were everywhere.
So, in order to kick things off, Chevrolet created bicentennial versions of three of its most popular cars. These were cars that were only available in white or blue (no word on why red wasn’t an option) and had… wait for it… extra stripes on the outside.
Adding pinstripes or special badging was a common way of creating “premium” packages on American cars. It seems like there wasn’t any thought given to improving quality, changing the appearance of the car, or improving performance.
It did eventually get better
After quite a bit of grousing from the motoring press about “tape-and-stripe upgrades,” automakers did start to get serious about product differentiation in the 1980s. Although that decade’s cars weren’t incredibly better than those of the 1970s, at least manufacturers did try to increase performance and make cars that looked different from base models. I guess that’s something.
And yet for all my complaining, I do have a lot of affection for 1970s and 1980s cars, the cars of my younger days. It doesn’t stop me from realizing how much better today’s cars are, though. At least something is better now than it was in “the good old days.”