What Are the Best Cars Of The 1970s?
(We kept our list to the cars that influenced the times, shaping how Americans moved rather than vehicles that might have been the most trendy).
1970 Dodge Challenger
The 70s found muscle car mania in full swing, and Dodge had capitalized on the development of the Charger in the late 60s. To appeal to younger buyers who were loaded with cash and compete with the likes of the Mercury Cougar, the Challenger was built on the E-body platform. The car was slightly larger than its Plymouth Barracuda cousin, and when it was released for the 1970 model year, you could order almost any engine Chrysler offered.
The Challenger was also offered as an R/T series (Road and Track) and a 7.0L Hemi V8 with 425 hp and 490 lb/ft of torque. (The standard 6.3 L Magnum could more than hold its own). While Dodge might have been late to the party in challenging the muscle cars like Mustang and Camaro, the Challenger more than made up for it on the track, posting six-second 0-60 speed. (which was faster than the Mustang with its hefty 429 and Camaro SS with a 396).
While the Challenger sold pretty well for the first couple of years, the oil embargo ‘73 killed the large V8. Even though only 165,470 were made over the four years, (it was discontinued in 1974), the car deserves a spot as one of the great American muscle cars of the 70s.
- The Challenger was offered in two series, Challenger and Challenger R/T
- There were several engine choices available, including a 7.0 L Hemi V8
- The car was available as a two-door hardtop or convertible and a Special Edition two-door hardtop.
- The Top speed for the Challenger was 146 mph, and it had better 0-60 times than the Mustang or Camaro.
- MSRP - $3,266
1974 Volkswagen Golf (Rabbit)
Even though the VW Beetle was cruising up and down American streets, VW introduced the little Golf MK1 to be the successor of the Bug. The square “Econo-box” shape was a radical shift for Volkswagen, as was the switch from rear-wheel drive vehicles to front-wheel drive. (Other manufacturers would follow suit, copying the style and mechanics of the Golf, like the
The American version of the Golf was known as the Volkswagen Rabbit and was offered as a two-door or four-door sedan or hatchback coupe. The car’s engine was mounted transversely in the front, making it easier to move the front wheels. The engines were water-cooled rather than the air-cooled rear engines of the Beetle had been). Initially, two small four-cylinder engines (one gas and one diesel), which produced a mere 70 hp. The real trick was that the cars got tremendous gas mileage (39 miles on the highway). The diesel engine was known to push closer to 50 mpg. The impressive fuel economy numbers got the attention of the American public, and it wouldn’t be long before the Rabbit became VW's most popular model.
VW used the Rabbit to develop the GTi (1976), Jetta (1979), and Cabriolet (1980). Various engines were offered over the years, including several performance upgrades. While the small four-cylinder signaled a new direction, it also led the charge away from the heavy gas-guzzling V8s that were bankrupting American wallets as gas prices continued to climb.
- One of the first cars with an Econo-box design
- While not the first FWD vehicle, the Golf posed a monumental shift from rear-wheel drive cars to the front-wheel drive units we know today.
- The popularity of the Rabbit was partially based on its excellent fuel economy, which many Americans flocked to after the Arab oil embargo.
- MSRP - $3,300
1975 Ford F150
When the Ford F150 was introduced in 1975, little did they know that the half-ton truck would go on to be the best-selling pickups of all time. The company wanted something to fit into the niche between the F100 and F250 that could avoid certain emission laws that Congress seemed intent on passing. Many Americans had been abandoning the F100 as too weak, moving toward the Chevy C10 and Dodge Ramcharger.
The initial F150 was offered with four basic engine choices, a 300 ci inline six was standard, along with three V8 choices (360 ci, 390 ci, and 460 ci). The 7.5 L 460 ci V8 produced a montrous 365 hp and 490 lb/ft of torque. The pickup could be ordered as a Regular Cab or Supercab version in a Styleside or Flareside. Most of the models sold were Reg. Cab straight Stylesides, and while it took a couple of years for the F150 to outsell its competition, once it did, it never looked back.
- The Ford F150 was developed with heavier springs and larger engines to avoid emission controls.
- The Ford F150 would become the best-selling pickup in history.
- The F150 appealed to a growing number of customers who were using pickups as daily drivers.
- MSRP - $4,451
1977 Pontiac Firebird
While the Pontiac might not have been the most powerful sports car ever built, it was popular enough to get plenty of screen time in Hollywood. The ‘74 Firebird was the car that James Rockford drove in the mid-seventies, and then the iconic ‘77 Black Firebird Trans Am splashed across theaters a couple of years later in “Smokey and the Bandit.”
The second-generation Firebird had a low sleek profile that moved effortlessly through the air, was powered by 6.6L V8 which produced a tepid 185 hp and 320 ft/lbs of torque. The car was pretty slow on the track, posting a 9.3 second 0-60 time, and a quarter mile time of almost 17 seconds. Even though it could not compete with the likes of Mustang, or the Corvette Stingray, the cars captured the persona of the American public. Most Trans Ams had a reputation of being a better handing car on the road, and were much more comfortable, with nicer amenities.
Owners could order a special edition Trans Am that had the Firebird decal on the front hood, so that they could channel their inner Burt Reynolds, but eventually the fad wore off, and in 1981 (after a second oil crisis), the second-generation made its bow. While the Firebird would continue to be made for a number of years, the car just wasn’t the same.
- Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was the car used in the Smokey and the Bandit movies.
- The 1977 Pontiac Firebird wasn’t the fastest sports car, but it did capture the attention of an American public.
- The MSRP was $5,823.
1972 Chevy Blazer
The battle between the Chevy Blazer and the Ford Bronco is legendary. Even though it was introduced in 1969, by the time 1972 rolled around the K5 was outselling the Bronco, and would continue to forge large gains for the rest of the decade. The Blazer’s success was the result of additional options that were not available on the Ford or Jeep CJ5. The Blazer options included a two-wheel drive, an automatic transmission and creature comforts like air conditioning and better interior space.
The 1972 Chevy Blazer was based on the truck platform (K10 and C10), which streamlined production costs and allowed GM to use the lessons learned had a decade of experience under its belt. The Blazer had a two-wheel drive version that made it as adaptable for the street as it was handing the off-road trails Americans loved to explore. The fact that the Blazer was priced less also helped motivate buyers toward the Blazer.
The first generation Blazer featured a completely removable hard-top that allowed drivers to feel the wind in their hair, (with only a windshield to protect them). The SUV industry would never be the same after the introduction of the Chevy Blazer and its twin the Jimmy.
- The Blazer outsold the Bronco by almost 5 to 1 over the 70s.
- The Blazer was cheaper than the Bronco and the Jeep CJ5
- The Blazer was built on the truck platform of the K10 and C10.
- MSRP - $3,456
1970 Datsun 240Z
When Datsun introduced the 240Z, it really started the import sports car craze. While most Americans couldn’t afford cars with the names of Porsche, Jaguar, or Lotus, word soon spread that the 240z was both affordable and a real performance machine. With a overhead cam six-cylinder engine that put out 151 hp, and 146 lb/ft. The 240z could motor down the track with a 8.6 0-60 mph time, and produce a top speed of 125 mph. While it might not have been as fast as a Corvette or new Camaro Z28, the small sportscar was fast enough to thrill the hearts of American owners. In fact, it became a best-selling sports car by 1972, outselling the Chevrolet Corvette by almost two to one.
One of the things that made the 240z so attractive to American buyers were the features. Rack and pinion steering, front disc brakes (rear drum), and an independent suspension helped solidify its place. (The fact that the car got 30 mph helped, as well). Owners found plenty of interior space, nice amenities and just a better, more established ride.
While the 240z underwent some modifications in the mid-70s and morphed into the 260z (1974), and 280z (1975), the pure unadulterated fun of driving this small car made it a car worth owning. The fact that is was less expensive than a Porsche 911 made it much more attractive as well.
- The 240z was the affordable sports car that could double as a personal vehicle.
- The 240z outsold the Corvette in 1972
- The low sleek design of the 240z was especially appealing to American buyers
- MSRP - $3,526.
1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass
For the late seventies, the Olds Cutlass was the top-selling vehicle in America, (a feat it had achieved in ‘76), and would land four more times. (‘79 - 81 and ‘83). The car had been produced for many years, (The 1978 Custlass was the fifth generation with a lighter body, sleeker lines and upgraded amenities).
The Cutlass was an instant hit, due in part to its ability to appeal to a wide variety of costumers. While many Americans were reeling from rising gas prices, and battling 11% inflation, the purchase of the Olds helped signal a sense of security. As a middle-class buyer pulled into their driveway in a Cutlass, the act quickly sent a message of stability and affluence to the rest of the neighborhood. .
Early advertising suggested that there was an Olds Cutlass for every buyer. Those who loved fuel economy could opt for the practical Supreme. Those who preferred a more sporty feel could choose the Calais with bucket seats and special rims, while those who needed luxurious amenities could purchase the very stylish Brougham.
The Cutlass had four engine choices by GM although most ended up with the Olds 260 that produced 110 hp. While the Cutlass wasn’t designed for speed, it had decent power, and was large enough to provide protection from an accident, which is something many smaller four-cylinders were not doing. (This was also the time when the Ford Pinto was going through the recall for its exploding gas tank).
1974 Ford Pinto
No list of cars from the 70s would be complete without mentioning the Ford Pinto. While it might not have been the best in performance or safety, it did take the crown as the best-selling car for 1974, with over 550k units sold that year alone. Ford advertised the Pinto as a “basic, dependable, economical little car.” The auto was offered as a 2-door sedan, 3-door Runabout, and a nice, extended wagon.
The base engine was equipped with a base 2000 cc four-cylinder engine, and a standard four-speed transmission. The four banger engine helps the Pinto be a gas sipper, averaging over 25 mpg, which was a help to Americans struggling with the price of gasoline after a 1973 oil embargo.
The notoriety of the Pinto is the exploding gas tank that created quite a sensation in 1975. Ford issued a recall pretty quickly (the fix was fairly simple, primarily a plastic shield that was placed between the rear gas tank and the back wall of the cabin). However, when the issue was announced, sales plummeted immediately, and the Pinto was discontinued in 1980, having been replaced by the Escort. Even though Ford corrected the problem and recalled 1.5 million Pintos for repair, the fix was too little too late to save the Pinto from extinction. In addition, it put the rest of the automotive world on notice to make sure their cars didn’t explode during a crash.
- The Ford Pinto was the best selling American car in 1974.
- The Pinto model brought serious fears about its exploding gas tank which Ford attempted to fix by installing a plastic shield between the gas tank and rear cabin wall.
- The 1975 - 79 Pinto had an option of a Cologne V6.
- MSRP - $2527
About THE AUTHOR
My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.Read More About Matt Lane