cars of the seventies

stars of the seventies


A car doesn't have to be great to be memorable. Some of the worst ever produced are some of those that stick most keenly in the mind - and back in the Seventies, there were more than a few of these. Mind you, this decade also had more than its fair share of excitement and ground-breaking innovation. It was a heady mixture. But let's start with the unforgettably bad

For the Reverend Colin Corke, chairman of Allegro Club International, the 1970s never ended. As we entered the vicarage, the full and worrying extent of the good vicar's obsession became vividly apparent. Two crippled Austin Allegros sat on the drive, gently decomposing whilst Corke's plan to take the best bits of each and create one rare 1750 Sports Special took seed. Harris Mann's bold vision was ruined by the demands of engineering expediency and metamorphosed from futuristic wedge into automobilia's waddling oaf.

"The Allegro was never a good car, never really an adequate car and certainly not a classic," mused the Rev as he pondered a stray Quartic steering wheel. Allegro tales are legion and range from the assertion that they are more aerodynamic when travelling in reverse to the true reports of how they were banned from the Mersey tunnel due to their idiosyncratic towing characteristics. "Let me show you the 1300 De Luxe."

Emerging from the garage in a wreath of blue smoke, shunning road salt like a tumescent Harvest Gold slug, came the Reverend's immaculate conception. This car was forensically spotless, the engine bay and underside shinier than Willie Thorne's pate, the interior a devastatingly original dun. In regular demand for magazine articles and television work, this car, a 1973 four door in the archetypal Allegro colour, is probably the finest of its type. "When I had it to bits, I realised it was missing a bolt on the fuel tank. It had never been there from when it left the factory, believe it or not." I believed him.

If the Allegro represented all that was inept about the car industry in the Seventies, the Ford Cortina hit paydirt with the UK population. It was so successful and so different from other cars in the industry that in Britain it inspired what became known as 'the Cortina class'. Once established, at times one in every six cars being built in the UK was a Cortina. Along with the parallel success of the Escort from 1968, this helped Ford gain market leadership in Britain, which it has now maintained for more than 25 years. In 20 years, four distinctly different generations of Cortina were put on the market - each of them selling more than a million examples around the world.

The Mk III range, introduced in October 1970, was a revolution in terms of design. No longer than its predecessor, it nevertheless had a 3.5inch longer wheelbase, being wider and lower than the previous type. The sweeping new style hid a new family of 'Pinto' overhead-camshaft engines, the largest of which was a 98bhp 2.0-litre which guaranteed a top speed of over 100mph: there was no Lotus derivative. Other innovations included wishbone front suspension and coil spring rear suspension. Although inflation in Britain made it difficult to hold down prices, the Cortina was always a best-seller, made even more attractive in October 1975 by Ford's 'Value for Money' equipment enhancement package. Later, to face up to post-energy crisis fuel economy requirements, a new 'economy' Cortina 1300 was introduced in February 1976. By the summer of 1976, the Mk III had become the best-selling Cortina so far - but a new version was already on the way.

The Mk IV range was introduced in September 1976, with a brand-new and stylishly more angular shape than before, which was built up on the same well-proven platform and running gear as the ultra-successful Mk III. In its first full year on sale, 1977, the Mk IV leapt to the top of British sales charts. Indeed, 1979 was the best year ever for Cortina sales, 193,784 (11.3 per cent of the UK new car market) being sold that year.

This was some achievement, as the Seventies were all about a three way carve up of the UK market between British Leyland, Ford and Vauxhall. The latter offered us the Chevette, a car that, like many of its ilk, offered rear-wheel drive chassis and a range of big capacity engines. Probably the most famous was the Chevette 2300HS, a car designed as a homologation special to campaign in world rallying. Launched in November 1976, the Chevette HS utilised a twin-cam 16-valve version of the 2279cc Slant Four engine and made this a very underrated performance hatch. It subsequently achieved many rallying successes and although it was only available in limited numbers to the general public, it nevertheless helped create a whole class of cars that others would capitalise on in a major fashion. The Seventies were the genesis of the so-called Hot Hatch.

The car that would come to be seen as the 'definitive' hot hatch was the Volkswagen Golf GTi. The early prototype models of this seminal car featured the 1588cc Audi 80GT engine with a Solex dual-choke carburettor. Even with 100bhp, this wasn't considered powerful enough, so the development team instead opted for the 110bhp fuel-injected motor from the Audi 80GTE. Performance items such as ventilated front disc brakes, wider wheels, Bilstein dampers and uprated springs were also grafted on.

The German debut of the 'Sport Golf' came about in May 1975, and like the Chevette HS, a limited production run of some 5000 cars was initially planned to enable it to be homologated, in this instance for saloon car racing. In September a prototype Golf GTI appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show, then in June 1976 the very first production cars (all with four-speed gearboxes) went on sale. Britain had to wait a further year and even then the first cars to arrive all had their steering wheels on the wrong side. Right-hand-drive cars became available from the summer of 1979, at around the same time as a five-speed gearbox became standard. By this time cars like the Chevette HS, the Alfasud Ti and the Chrysler Sunbeam Ti were all established competitors.

The hot hatch genre went on to dominate the eighties, as did another key development born in the Seventies - turbocharging. Although patents for exhaust-driven turbochargers can be traced right back to Dr Alfred Buchi's design of 1905, and 1962 saw the first production passenger car fitted with a 'blower' - the Oldsmobile Jetfire Turbo Rocket, the Seventies saw the turbo gain common currency. BMW and Porsche introduced turbochargers on their premium sporting models in 1974/75 but the car that really democratised the technology was the Saab 99 turbo. Introduced at the 1977 Frankfurt Show, the Saab 99 Turbo brought featured a Garrett T3 turbocharger fitted to the 2 litre engine of the Saab 99 Combi Coupe. This installation added a respectable 30bhp to the performance of the engine, an increase of almost 25%. Initially available in black with the ultra-collectible Inca wheels, the technology was still in its infancy and the 99 Turbo suffered from all disadvantages of a turbo. 'Turbo-lag' or a sudden power increase made the 99 Turbo a handful, but exhilarating in the hands of an enthusiast.

The final years of the seventies saw the introduction of a number of fuel saving technologies borne from the Oil Crisis. Other developments included the fitment of anti lock brakes, developed by Bosch in 1978, the development of the revolutionary four-wheel drive Audi Quattro sportscar and the emergence of Japan as a credible rival to traditional western car manufacturers.

Looking back at the Seventies, it was a genuine period of transition when the world woke up to the global marketplace. There were winners, there were plenty of home-grown losers but it was never, ever dull.