LIVING The US car industry’s design excesses of the 1970s had their roots somewhere, mirroring what was happening in fashion. Jack Yan thinks they emerged during more optimistic times and history may be repeating
Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
I’ve always associated silo-like cabins in cars with the first part of the smog era, a time when the US car industry was adapting to regulation and pollution equipment, while simultaneously dealing with the 1973 fuel crisis that rendered most of their big-car ranges undesirable. It was as though the scales fell from US buyers’ eyes and they realized the Big Three had been taking the piss for years. ‘Did I really need a car with an engine that big? Did I ever use all that space? Come to think of it, all that sheetmetal doesn’t do anything.’
Therefore, when I think of the early 1970s and the US car scene, I picture interiors with padded everything, in velour, and massive lounge suite-looking seats that say, ‘Fuel crisis? Nothing like that would ever happen.’ Imagine, if you will, virtually all of us in November 2019 thinking, ‘Pandemic? That’s not going to happen in the next six months,’ and you have a rough idea how Detroit thought.
Then there’s that other horrid addendum of the smog era: the vinyl roof. This even made it across the oceans: I still remember Toyota Coronas with them, and east of the Atlantic, of course American firms like Ford and GM applied them to Cortinas, Granadas and Ventoras.
But where on earth did all these begin? Being a child of the 1970s, I wasn’t around to pinpoint the smog era’s excesses’ Genesis, but I would wager than they didn’t happen when styling had gone as wrong as it did.
Recently I came across an advertisement on NewTumbl for the 1966 Chevrolet Caprice hardtop, where you could specify a vinyl roof. This must have been early days. We’re talking Garden of Eden early. The headline read, ‘The Chevrolet “convertible” that doesn’t convert’, and the copy begins, ‘Clever. The vinyl roof covering available for your Caprice Custom Coupe creates the impression it’s a convertible.’ Gotcha! Sucker, it ain’t. This was GM’s way, I imagine, of marketing the absence of a feature as a feature (convertibles cost money to engineer, Billy), and while that rear pillar won’t have helped with visibility, it certainly wasn’t that obstructive.
Then there’s the 1967 Ford Thunderbird, which went body-on-frame and gained heft, as well as a four-door body with an optional landau roof. Except, like the Caprice’s ‘convertible’, it wasn’t really a landau roof. It was just another hardtop with some vinyl covering it, and faux landau bars that brought back a look from horse-drawn carriages and answered a question that no one asked. The suicide doors were, I imagine, inspired by the Lincoln Continental.
The ’67 ’Bird had some features that presaged the smog era, but mostly it was the selling of glamour when no one really asked for it.
The styling isn’t totally without merit: I don’t mind the egg-crate, hidden headlamp grille if the designers were trying to ape aircraft, and this was still a couple of years before Chrysler’s fuselage full-size cars. There’s a simplicity to keeping the front end clean, and the big rear light bar has a certain coolness to it.
The cars didn’t handle well, and while there was some improvement for ’69, with new suspension, it wasn’t the lithe sportster that Americans saw in the 1950s or we ’70s kids saw Robert Urich drive around in, in the TV show Vegas (or Vega$). This was personal-luxury goodness, a market niche that Pontiac perhaps tapped well with its Grand Prix, and Americans wound up demanding creature comforts in unlikely places, so much so that the Mustang Grande, a de luxe version of the pony car, sold rather well.
Thunderbird sales went up for ’67 but dropped thereafter, but you have to wonder if Ford was just ahead of its time.
By the time the new decade rolled around, American cars’ glasshouses seemed to shrink as a proportion of the body mass, and that mass grew. Everything looked heavy, even sideburns and lapels and beehive hairdos. The Big Three had some monsters awaiting the mid-’70s, and it seemed that nothing could change the demand for ever-bigger engines. Watch an episode of Gerry Anderson’s UFO and you’ll see what 1969–70 TV producers expected 1980 to look like. The miniskirts would get shorter. The cars would get bigger. The Jensen Interceptor was an ordinary family car.
Instead of calling the Thunderbird’s design themes a failure—the sales were, after all, dropping—the collective consciousness in Detroit decided it would take them even further. ‘The public ain’t buying it, fellas, so let’s give ’em more till they realize they have to lap it up!’ Or was it the buying public telling them this was what they wanted in all the marketing clinics that the Big Three did?
As someone not around and could only see this stuff through television and film, what happened Stateside in 1969 for everything to look so brown, mustard and orange? Why did the clean chic vanish in favour of Edwardian décor? Mission: Impossible came back for its fifth season with everything looking dirtier and cheaper, and Jim Phelps no longer wore a smart suit to get the tape. Donald in That Girl lost his trustworthy establishment haircut for big sideburns. Give it a bit longer into the new decade and The Brady Bunch’s Mike Brady would get a perm for no reason that anyone can fathom. The colours clashed. Woodstock was happening, man, but these episodes were filmed months before August 15, 1969. They were foreshadowing something.
When the fuel crisis hit in 1973, it was as though design hit a crisis as well. The automakers decided that everyone wanted pastiches of Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce cars. What else could explain the regular comparisons between the 1975 US Ford Granada and various Mercedes models? Or the grilles on Lincolns in the latter part of the decade? Or Ricardo Montalbán telling us about ‘fine Corinthian leather’ in the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba?
Instead of innovating—and downsizing was still a few years away—it was, once again, all about piling on the glamour. ‘We mightn’t be able to do modernist design as well as that Giugiaro guy, but hell, those foreigners don’t do a padded interior as well as we can.’
A lot of Americans weren’t fooled and they began buying these foreign cars. This has been written about in great depth elsewhere. But something set the US on this path years before—since cars take a few years to go from the drawing board to the showroom—bang in the mid-1960s when the unsuspecting public was enjoying their Mustangs and Nancy Sinatra’s boots were made for walkin’. In Blighty, Diana Rigg was still on The Avengers. These were still stylish times. How could this even emerge?
And now we have a few cars heading toward silo-like cabins, with their shrinking glasshouses. The current Mazda Axela (Mazda 3), for instance. I may be the only person in the world who doesn’t like the look of the hatchback. That big C-pillar has me worried. Don’t anyone dare stick vinyl on it. •
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