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Retro Rides Revisited: The Coolest and Craziest Cars of the 1970s

Cameron Eittreim January 3, 2024

Remember the 1970s? It was a time of great change in America, both in terms of technology and the economy. The auto industry was in a time of transition. A major part of that transition was forced on the industry. Rising gas prices at the start of the decade caused automakers to think fast and change the way that cars were designed from the inside out. Gone were the high-powered V8 engines of the past. New emissions components and lightweight designs became the norm. But that didn’t stop automakers from coming up with some cool ideas.

The ’70s are often an era that gets overlooked because car designs were hampered by the fuel crisis. But a few of these cars were some of the most innovative designs in automotive history. So we looked back at the coolest and craziest cars from the decade. These cars changed the way that fans looked at the modern automobile. The 1970s were an era that should not be overlooked when it comes to the automotive industry because many of these cars were excellent. Find out which ones we’re talking about right here.

Chevrolet Vega GT
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet Vega – GM’s First Attempt at a Compact Car

If the Vega looks familiar, that’s because it is. GM needed a compact car in the 1970s, and fast. The design of the Vega was heavily influenced by the second-generation Camaro model. Despite t a few differences, the Vega was every bit a baby Camaro save for its performance. The car had a lethargic inline-four under the hood, not to mention that the engine was one of the first four-cylinder power plants to feature an aluminum block (via Motor Trend).

Chevrolet Vega GT
Photo Credit: Cars and Bids

All of this was put into place to make the Vega an appealing compact car entry. The design was built to be as lightweight as possible, therefore providing high fuel economy numbers. The problem with the car was its shoddy build quality, which was much lower than its Japanese competitors. The result was a car that has a significant place in automotive history and is still one of the least-liked cars on the road.

Photo Credit: Hagerty

Toyota Land Cruiser (FJ40) – The Off-Road Legend

The 1970s weren’t a period where SUVs were a common sight. Instead, these vehicles were reserved for farm work and outdoor enthusiasts. The SUV of the past was a barebones mode of transportation and the FJ40 was synonymous with off-road endurance. Its basic design was lauded for its impressive reliability and capability. The FJ40 was a Land Cruiser that was sold all over the world. The popularity of the FJ40 was so impressive that Toyota kept it in production for a very long time. No generation of the Land Cruiser is more iconic than this one (via Toyota).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

Surprisingly enough, the FJ40 also found success as a mail truck. You’ll often still see these in service in rural areas of the country. The capable off-road system and the reliability are enough to keep any mail carrier on the road. There’s no denying the significance of the FJ40 as this was a vehicle that defined the SUV segment we have today.

Photo Credit Mecum

Rolls-Royce Corniche – Timeless ’70s Elegance

The Rolls-Royce Corniche was one of the longest-running Rolls-Royce models on the road. But why? It was because the design was one of the most luxurious car designs ever put into production. When you rode in a luxury car back in the 1970s, the Rolls-Royce Corniche was the top of the class. Everything about the Corniche had classy substance to it, which is why so many people revered the car. Its performance was derived from the V8 engine under the hood and it had an all-aluminum block design (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit Mecum

Even stepping into the Corniche back then was a superb experience and there was plenty of luxury to go around. The materials that were used in the interior were of the highest quality, something that Rolls-Royce was famous for. This was the car that you drove when you wanted the world to know you had arrived. The 1970s were a very transitional time for the automotive industry and the Corniche was at the top of the class.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

Plymouth Barracuda – The Muscular Roar of a ’70s Icon

Plymouth was a major player in the automotive world in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The ’70s especially were a transformative time for the brand because of the new emissions regulations. The powerful Hemi V8 engine under the hood of the car revolutionized the automotive industry. The Barracuda had a notorious reputation on the race track, winning multiple NASCAR championships in the ’70s. There was something special about this car that resonated with the next generation of consumers, something that still resonates today (via Hagerty).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

The Barracuda was like other cars from the era that exhibited big power and a cheap price tag. These kinds of thrills weren’t hard to come by if you lived close to a Plymouth dealership and the car was a sales success. The Barracuda was one of the most popular Plymouths ever produced and it still commands a high price tag at auction. Without this car, there would have never been a muscle car era like there was.

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

Porsche 911 Turbo – Turbocharged ’70s Thrills

For baby boomers, the 911 Turbo was the ultimate symbol that you made it. The turbocharged sports car was uber-popular with up-and-coming stock brokers, real estate tycoons, and really almost everyone else successful in that era. Even Scarface had to go out and get himself one. The 911 Turbo had the type of image and horsepower that was synonymous with the new age of young people at the time. This was also one of the fastest Porsche models that were ever produced. The car had a great run, with plenty of subtle changes along the way (via Stuff Cars).

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

The 911 Turbo didn’t change very much throughout its original run. Even well into the 1990s the car still maintained the same signature design, and that was ok with enthusiasts of the car. There aren’t a lot of cars that made the type of impact that 911 did. It is still highly regarded as one of the most influential sports cars on the road. The look and feel of it coupled with the performance is an iconic part of automotive history.

Photo Credit: Mecum

AMC Javelin – One Last Gasp For AMC

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the American Motor Corporation (AMC) was in bad shape. The company was running out of money and consumers just weren’t buying the cars, and still, there are a few gems in the lineup from that decade. The Javelin was a noteworthy muscle car, it had a lot of power and the styling wasn’t half bad. The Javelin competed directly against the best that Detroit had to offer, and it held its own quite well. The 343 cubic inch V8 engine was one of the best power plants AMC offered. It had great off-the-line performance as well as fuel economy (via Top Speed).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The car also had a semi-popular run with law-enforcement agencies for a while. Its cheap price tag and reasonable performance made it a decent choice, and it even managed to perform quite well on the track. There are a few muscle cars that just don’t get the credit they deserve, and the Javelin is one of them. The unique blend of muscle and style was a final hurrah for AMC who needed a hit car to turn the tides around.

Photo Credit: Hot Rod

Chevrolet Impala – Full-Size Style

Like most cars from the 1970s, the Chevrolet Impala grew in size. The sedan was much larger than previous generations and the V8 engine under the hood grew as well. This was the generation of the Impala that showcased what GM engineers were capable of. Every inch of the car was brand-new for the decade, with a beautiful new design on the inside and outside. Gone were the curvatures of the ’60s, and a new car ready to take the throne (via Muscle Car Facts).

Photo Credit: Mecum

People who remember this era fondly will remember how influential the Impala was to America. The Impala is a legend because it revolutionized family transportation. This is the car that families pass down to each other. The Impala also became legendary in the lowrider circuit, which is partly why the resale value of the car is so expensive. Nevertheless, very few cars cruise quite like the Impala does.

Photo Credit: Hot Rod

Buick Riviera – The ’70s Stylish Stunner

Sharing a platform with a car like the Chevy Impala is never easy, but the Riviera pulled it off. The car was the more luxurious version of the two cars, but it also had a notable increase in power. GM built the Riviera with luxury-minded consumers as the target audience and it resonated quite well with them. The interior was remarkably upscale for the period and the Riviera had a lot of powered features in the cabin. If you wanted luxury and space the Riviera was the car for you (via Hot Cars).

Photo Credit: Mecum

Perhaps the most standout feature of the Riviera was the “W” shaped nose, which helped differentiate the car from the Impala. Consumers liked the interior space and the performance that was under the hood. There are a lot of cars from the 1970s that resonated with shoppers but the Riviera was one of the most popular. GM put a lot of effort into the design of this car and the investment paid off.

Photo Credit: Best Car Mag

Volkswagen Karmann Ghia – A Strange But Fun Ride

The Volkswagen Beetle and the Volkswagen Bus were two of the most iconic models of the ’60s and ’70s but there was another lesser-known model that VW sold. The Karmann Ghia was a strange yet cool convertible. It shared a basic platform with the Volkswagen Bug but it had an entirely different purpose. You could get the Volkswagen Bug in a convertible but the Karmann Ghia had a more nimble design (via Hemmings).

VM Karmann Ghia
Photo Credit: Classic Car

The Karmann Ghia was fun to drive and the people who had one enjoyed them. The look and feel of the car were well above what you’d expect for the price point. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of them sold, so when you do see one it’s a treat. Volkswagen built some cool rides during this era and the Karmann Ghia is lasting evidence of that.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Oldsmobile Cutlass – A Runaway Success

The Oldsmobile Cutlass was another GM car that shared a platform with Chevy and Buick models. But what separated the Cutlass was its performance coupled with some cool luxury features. There was no base model of the Cutlass, as every model of the car came equipped with all of the luxury that was available at the time. The Cutlass is still a highly regarded car today even as the Oldsmobile band is no more (via Auto Evolution).

Photo Credit: Davids Classic Cars

The Cutlass had a lot of things that car shoppers in the ’70s wanted. Unfortunately, the middle and latter half of the decade experienced a fuel crisis and GM had to downsize the Cutlass. We never got the excellent performance or iconic look and feel of the car again after this generation. Nevertheless, the Cutlass had a lot to offer at the time and became an icon in the auto industry.

Photo Credit: Bring A Trailer

Datsun 240Z – The Legendary Sports Car

The Datsun 240Z is the car that completely created the Japanese sports car segment. Everything about this car was over the top at a time when America was still driving the gas-guzzling V8 dinosaurs of the past. The 240Z had the same performance wrapped up in a lightweight and fuel-efficient package. Consumers went crazy for the car and it ended up being one of the best-selling cars of the decade (via Car & Driver).

Photo Credit: Bring A Trailer

The original 240Z is one of the most expensive cars that you can get today and with good reason. Even with today’s advanced turbo-powered sports cars, there is just something very satisfying about getting behind the wheel of the 240Z. The designers who were behind the 240Z did everything right when they designed this car, and the enduring design changed the automotive industry.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Ford Gran Torino – Starsky & Hutch’s Famous Ride

Ford was a company that didn’t have as prominent of a run as the other domestic automakers during the muscle car era. The Gran Torino had a V6 or a V8 engine option, both of which were quite potent. It was the styling of the car that looked a lot different than the other models that were on the market. With the factory decals, the Gran Torino was quite an impressive car (via Auto Catalog).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The Gran Torino was heavily featured in a lot of movies and TV shows, most notably the hit cop show Starsky and Hutch. It was also the title of one of Clint Eastwood’s last movies and one that set the stage for his retirement. Ford built something special when they released the Gran Torino and it was a car that did everything right. The combination of cutting-edge performance and styling helped separate it from the standard fare of the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Fiat 124 Sport Spider – Soft Top Fun

Anyone who knows anything about classic cars knows what the first vehicle that comes to mind for convertible fun in the 1970s was. The Fiat 124 Sport Spider made a name for itself because of honest driving characteristics and a reasonable amount of creature comforts. Fiat is a world-renowned Italian automaker so it was no surprise that this car was so phenomenally built. The Fiat 124 was synonymous with spirited driving and a unique Italian design (via Classic).

Photo Credit: Mecum

There aren’t a lot of cars that are as culturally relevant as the Fiat 124. It took the place of roadsters which were much more expensive, and it offered an upscale ride and feeling. Drivers who purchased this type of car back then were only worried about one thing, fun. The 124 Spider was the epiphany of fun, and the car is still a classic today. There’s a solid foundation of fun that comes with this car and a devoted following of enthusiasts as well.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Z28 Camaro: An American Muscle Icon

The second-generation Camaro was built on the foundation of the original model. But like a lot of things from the 1970s, times were changing and the Camaro was completely redesigned. The performance of the car was less than impressive because of the emissions regulations of the era. More expensive fuel prices drove consumers away from oversized engines as well. Still, GM incorporated a much more modern design into the second-generation Camaro and it was every bit the style of the decade (via Classic).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The second generation of the Camaro didn’t sell as well as other cars from the era but was still very memorable. Its stablemate the Pontiac Trans-Am also had a resurgence in popularity during this era thanks in part to the classic movie Smokey and the Bandit. These were pure sports cars in every sense of the word and did something special for the pony car segment. Across the pond, Ford was peddling a Pinto-based Mustang model that wasn’t popular at all.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1970s Pontiac Trans Am: A Symbol of American Muscle

If you’ve ever taken a look at a GM F-body car like the Trans Am, you know that it’s similar to the Camaro. The car was designed by General Motors’ stylist Bill Mitchell and with the second generation they wanted to take a different direction. The Trans Am was sleek, well-appointed, and offered different power plants than its GM sibling. The Trans Am from this generation became an instant classic when it was featured in a few very well-known movies (via Hemmings).

1979 Pontiac 034 Smokey And The Bandit 034 Trans Am 7
Photo Credit: Mecum

It was a wonderful example of design and engineering, even with its limitations it managed to pull off exceptional performance numbers. The Trans-Am was sort of the alternative to the Camaro and the Mustang, competing in its own corner of the sports car world. The popularity of the car helped to keep the Pontiac brand showcasing strong numbers. It was everything that a sports car shopper was looking for. The Trans Am also offered a great blend of performance for the price.

Toyota Celica 100746598
Photo Credit: Mecum

Toyota Celica: The 1970s Japanese Icon

The Toyota Celica of the 1970s was a notable improvement over the basic form of transportation that Toyota was selling consumers prior. The car had a sportier element to it but was still a very fuel-efficient and friendly car to own. Toyota borrowed a lot of styling cues for the Celica from the Ford Mustang, and you can see slight resemblances between the two cars. Nevertheless, the Celica became a cultural icon and changed the way that we looked at affordable sports cars (via Toyota UK).

1977 Toyota Celica Gt Coupe Left Side Profile
Photo Credit: Car Domain

The Celica became one of the best-selling cars that Toyota ever sold and stayed in production until the turn of the new millennium. There was something special about this car. It also hit the market right at the perfect time with the rising cost of fuel. Today the original Celica has quite a following. These cars continually go up in value which is why so many collectors are trying to jump on the bandwagon. Without the Celica, the auto world would have missed out on an affordable and fuel-efficient sports car.

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