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1974: It Was A Very Bad Year

55 MPH signThe 1962 and 1969 model years have been covered here at Car Lust as very good years. Well, not every year is that good. Unfortunately, 1974 was one of those years.

Like every year, most 1974 models came out in the previous calendar year. So what I refer to here as 1974 may actually cover two or three model years, from the introduction of the '74 models in 1973 to the '75 models that came out in the 1974  calendar year. So picking an exact model year for cars may be impossible; there are too many blurred lines.

So back we go to calendar years 1973 and 1974 to cover all of the 1974 models... maybe even a '75 model or two. We had the first Arab Oil Embargo, the Energy Crisis, gasoline shortages, and, dare I say, the national 55 Mile Per Hour Speed Limit. Our president, Richard Nixon, had to resign. The Vietnam War wasn't quite over yet. In Sept.1973, Rolling Stone wrote the first story about Disco music, and on Feb. 8, 1974, we abandoned Skylab.

Next time you are on the Interstate, please slow down to 55 miles per hour, if safety allows. You will feel like you are crawling! (I did this in St. Louis in April and got pulled over by a Missouri state trooper!) But this was thrust on us, we had to do it legally every day, creating hatred and contempt between us citizens and our government. "VOTE WITH YOUR FOOT" bumper stickers were a booming business, and CB radios were not just for truckers any more, allowing us instant "Smokey Bear reports" from our fellow motorists (10-4, Good Buddy!). Radar detectors were in their infancy. It seemed to take days to drive from Nashville to Daytona Beach, as we figured we were lucky to average 50 miles an hour (12+ hours) or face a ticket.

Vega bompers 74 Whenever we mention mid-1970s cars, one thing usually comes up... those horrific federally-mandated bumpers. They were usually held on by either shock absorbers (the poly-gel mitigator system) or springs.  Insurance companies were paying dearly for low-speed impacts, and they wanted relief. The result was oversized bumpers that ruined the looks of every small car they were thrust upon, as most of these bumpers resembled guard rails. The Chevy Vega and Camaro used aluminum bumpers to cut weight, an industry first. Automakers rushed to fit these monstrosities onto our cars before they had time to cover most of them in urethane or blend the body panels to meet them.

Mustang II 3 4 09 001 Motor Trend's 1974 Car of the Year, the Mustang II, came out. As a typical 17-year-old I just had to have one, as my two-year-old Vega was already falling apart. It took me till June of '74 to get one. They really were "The Right Car At The Right Time," but times change, and we tend to forget that. I'm still a staunch supporter of the car, but a lot of folks refuse to even acknowledge them as Mustangs. Of course, they weren't Mustangs, they were Mustang IIs!

The 1974 Mustang II offered an inline 4-cylinder Pinto engine, or an optional 2.8-liter V-6. It could be had with either a 4-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic. Two body styles were built, a swoopy hatchback or more formal sedan with enclosed trunk.

A deluxe interior option was available with deeply padded doors, rear quarters, plush seats, and how can we forget the shag carpet? Hardtop, Ghia, Fastback, and Mach 1 trim levels were the choices. Introduced in 1974, the '75 Mustang IIs offered a 302 cid V-8, horribly power-choked with pollution controls. A V-8 emblem was placed on the fenders to tell everybody you had one.

1974_AMC_Javelin_AMX_black_front The Muscle Cars were about dead by this point. A  1974 Corvette started at 195 horsepower and went to 270 horsepower in its most potent form. By contrast, a 2009 Corvette offers 430-638 horses. Can you believe the '74 Camaro offered just 100 horsepower in the 250 cid L-6? Of course, you could go as far as a Z-28 350 cid V-8 with 245 hp. Mopar Muscle Cars were fading fast. 1974 was the last year for the original Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda. The last 'Cuda rolled off the line on April 1, 1974, 10 years to the day since they were first built. The Firebird 455 SD went away as well.

Over at American Motors Corporation, it was the last year for the Ambassador and Javelin. The 1974 Matador and Jeep Cherokee were new, and calendar year 1974 brought us the all-new '75 model Pacer.

VW Rabbit 1975 But 1974 did offer a bright spot. In May, Volkswagen introduced the $2,995 Rabbit Mk1. Meant to be a long-term replacement for the VW Beetle, the car was about as different from a "Bug" as it could be, offered in boxy 2- and 4-door sedans. Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the squarish shape.

With front engine, front-wheel drive, and a water-cooled engine, the car was called the Golf in Europe and the Caribe in Mexico. This Mk1 model is still being made in South Africa as the VW Citi Golf. Other body styles followed, including a pickup truck. Rabbits were even made in America for a while.

The short-lived "Seat Belt Interlock System" arrived in 1974; the system prevented the car from starting when not all outboard front seat passengers' seat belts were fastened. These devices did not always work, and frequently the car would not start until you raised the hood and pushed an "Emergency Override" switch.

This was a sequential system; you had to get into the car, put on the seat belt(s), then try to start your engine. If the sequence was broken, you had to get out and start over or, more often than not, get out, raise the hood, and press the "Override" switch. Because of the failures and unpopularity of the system, it was not built into 1975 model cars. Surprisingly, a few '74 model cars had airbags installed, eliminating the dreaded "Interlock" system. "FASTEN BELTS" warning lights and buzzers replaced this doomed idea.

Catalytic converters were the rage in 1974 on 1975 model cars. But years before we had to buy unleaded gas, smog pumps and other devices were installed that robbed cars of power. A lot of folks just plugged vacuum lines and removed fan belts to defeat these devices. In The Blues Brothers, the Bluesmobile was a '74 Dodge Monaco and, as Elwood (Dan Ackroyd) said, "it can run on regular gas." But most of us weren't on a mission from God back then, and were barely aware that the next year we all would be hunting unleaded gas. In 1974 the 1975 models arrived with funny little fuel tubes that accepted only the smaller unleaded gas nozzles.

Bond Hornet The best car movies of 1974 were Gone In 60 Seconds, Mr. Majestyk" (if this film won't make you buy a Ford pickup, nothing will), and The Man With The Golden Gun, with the AMC Hornet jump/flip/twist scene. Not a lot of music or TV shows were car-themed this year. Kraftwerk's Autobahn and TV's Happy Days (spun off from American Graffiti) were about it.

Convertibles were a dying breed. Chevrolet announced the end of the Corvette convertible in 1974, and just a year later, in 1975, we were told that 1976 would be the final model year for the last ever American convertible, the Cadillac Eldorado.

Luckily, the New Year was just around the corner, and new life would be breathed into America. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, the 1976 Bicentennial Year would soon cheer us up, we had a Presidential election to look forward to, and a great little car was about to be introduced (Pun intended).

The most primitive of all transportation hit a new low (and high) point in '74. Campus protests had finally ended, so bored college kids started a trend called streaking. This activity was seen at televised football games, 1,543 folks set the all-time streaking record at the University of Georgia on March 7, 1974, and even Johnny Carson was surprised by a streaker on his stage. The Oscars weren't immune either, as David Niven was interrupted during his presentation (Oh yes, they call him the Streak... fastest thing on two feet...).

So 1974 wasn't all bad, I guess.

The speed limit sign is owned by Wayne State University. "How Stuff Works" provided the 1974 Vega photo. I still have the 1974 Mustang II owner's manual. Wikipedia gave us the Javelin and Rabbit pics. We found the April, 1974 Popular Mechanics issue at a flea market. James Bond Multi Media provided the AMC Hornet jump image. "The Streak" lyrics and video are from Ray Stevens and Youtube.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)


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Yup, those huge-ass bumpers truly did suck. But they did work. I got rear-ended rather hard in my '86 Dodge Omni once, and neither I nor the offending car (it was pouring rain and the roads were slick) came off with so much as a scratch. Now you have painted plastic covered bumpers that don't do much of anything, and cost a fortune to fix. "Why Bother" bumpers, I call them. You even need special paint for them. Way more trouble than they're worth, if you ask me. You might as well do away with them altogether and lower the drag coefficient another couple hundredths of a point.

It's telling that thick (and quite ugly) rubber bumper protectors (the "Bumper Bully," for example) have become quite popular in New York City, where unprotected bumpers take a serious beating over time. Gee, if only there was some way we could protect the front and rear end of cars from such abuse. Hmmm.

When I think of mid-70s cars, two things come to mind, neither of them particularly pleasant.

First, build quality, as in lack thereof. Squeaks, rattles, cheap plastic interior panels that fell off over time, misaligned pinstripes and side moldings and body panels, empty Coke bottles and cigar butts stuffed into the nooks and crannies of the body shell by indifferent/bored/drunk/stoned/you-can't-fire-me-I-got-seniority assembly line workers, cars that rusted away before the loan was paid off--and so on and so on.

Second, this was the point in time when the "personal luxury" design trend was coming on strong. Hood ornaments, "radiator" grilles, opera windows, "formal" rooflines, thick vinyl rub-rail side trim, vinyl roofs, chrome on the outside, chrome-look plastic on the inside, steering gear and suspensions tuned for isolation at the expense of driving dynamics.

There's a reason the Rabbit and the Civic and the Corolla became so popular in the 1970s.

I'm with Steaming Pile. The 5-mph bumpers were great. As far as how they looked it really depended more on the designers/manufacturers than anything else. BMW did a great job of adapting to the bumper regulations with the 2002 and the 320i. I actually think the 320 looked better with the fed bumpers than original euro bumpers which were to tiny.

Porsche also handled the bumper situation well, integrating it into the design of the 914 for example. While they did add weight the lines of the car were improved with the Porsche design solution.

As far as huge bumpers go, most new cars have HUGE bumpers, they just don't do squat. So they are big useless liabilities. The 5-mph bumpers I had on my 320i were put to good use more than once - especially the rear end. It was wonderful to have that kind of protection.

I had a 74 Pinto~ about 4 years ago...just 26k miles on it when I sold it.

Had it been a small bumper model (pre 74), pre emissions (this thing lost like 20% of it's HP compared to the 74 or earlier 2 liters), and was a Runabout hatchback model (the tiny trunk was a joke)...I would have likely kept it.

I was excited to buy it in nearly mint shape in 2000 with 15k. Amazing find. Lost nothing on it when I sold it. Saddle Bronze color with AM radio and all the orig paper work.

Weighty. Underpowered. Not the pre 74, pre emissions, pre Smog Pump model I loved. We had a lot of Pinto's when I was a kid, so I always wanted one.

It shifted well, handled so so (more weight=not so good), and was nostalgic (I had so many conversations about other people and the Pinto~ they owned...)...but yeah...the 70's was full of bad choices.

The speed limit was one of the worst choices. Increased gas usage, and "the crazy" in people only increased while I lived in N. CA.
People just drove 75 to 85 mph when the limit went from 55 to 65 mph. When it was 55 mph they were driving 65 (or more) most of the time anyway!

They should drop the limit back down to 55 mph. I feel more at ease now in my current state because it is 55 mph. Plus we have lower carbon emissions than my prior harried anxiety ridden home town. I notice a 5 mpg increase in my 16v compared to the 70 mph driving I commonly did in the bay area.

Great post!

We still have the best Mustang -- a 1965 two-door. It's sweet. Those 70s Mustang IIs were cheap-looking and not up to the standards of the original. Our son got hooked on VW water-cooleds when we bought a '78 Rabbit. He ended up with it, sold it, bought it back, sold it again, and still regrets that last sale. So, over the years, he's had I-don't-know how many Rabbits, Golfs, and Sciroccos that he's restored and sold. He even went so far as to buy two Sciroccos and make one out of them. A Rabbit pick-up has also been in his life. (And it was a Scirocco purchase that introduced him to his future wife!) He's restoring a 1981 Scirocco which will be a keeper. His latest is, as he puts it, a "1978 Rabbit 4-door" -- a 2007 Honda Fit. What other country has such a fascination and sometimes love/hate relationship with cars?

"Yup, those huge-ass bumpers truly did suck. But they did work."

No kidding. My '78 Mustang II has been whacked twice in the rear bumper at low speeds and other than some missing paint it came through fine. My Spousal Unit's Honda hit someone at probably the same speeds and was almost totaled. I never really minded the big bumpers, maybe because I grew up with them. I actually like the look on mine; make it seem a bit more muscular.

I shall forego the temptation to defend the Mustang II, of course since it's already been done.

I keep seeing previews of Top Gear attempting to replicate the Man With the Golden Gun stunt (pretty good Bond flick, too, IMO) but I've never actually seen the episode, darn it.

...having been born in seventy-one and grown up experiencing cars from that starting point, i never really perceived a decline in automobile quality - they started out awful and just kept getting better and better as the seventies begat the eighties begat the nineties begat this decade...

...well, save that ten-year stint from the mid-nineties through the mid-aughts when seemingly the entire nation bought into the road tank arms race, and every manufacturer utterly forsook the lightweight, efficient, innovative cars of the future they were advancing so well through the early nineties...

I've been thinking a lot about that whole "decline in quality" thing. I've heard/read in a number of places that build quality didn't decline in the '70s but that it was pretty lousy to begin with. No one really noticed because there weren't any Japanese cars around to compare them to (and the Euro imports were just as unreliable) and after the muscle cars died out and performance went down, there wasn't anything else to pay attention to.

In a '60 Minutes' interview in 1983, then-UAW President Owen Bieber admitted that quality was a low priority, if not ignored, in the American auto industry in the late '70s. This was during the story on "Nissan In Tennessee", where he vowed to organize that plant under the Union. They have yet to succeed.

Please keep the vinyl roofs, opera windows, and mylar interior trim, but I like wide body side mouldings. At least they give you some protection against careless people in the parking lots. Not much, but some.

That Javelin was a beautiful car. The Gran Torinos weren't too shabby looking either. There are a few diamonds in the rough. But for the most part I agree with everything said here. Especially ...m...'s comments, very true. At least cars back then had some 'character', albeit a crappy one. And those underpowered V-8's in the Camaro and 'Vette, well, at least they weren't the Iron Duke. Those early-'80's monstrosities in a sports car....uggh...

ah, the Vega, when aluminum block engines were only a good idea on the drawing board. as I recall, you practically needed to have a 55 gallon drum of oil in a trailer attached to them for a continuous IV flow to the engine, as it burned it almost as fast as gas.....

Some of you are not going to believe this, but I bought a 75 Honda Civic CVCC AND it was ultimately the worst car I've ever owned. The main selling points were gas mileage and it could pass the new California smog rules on leaded gasoline (it didn't have a catalytic converter.) I bought it because it had the best performance of any of the four bangers on the market in those days of odd-even gas buying. (In California, you could only buy gas on even days if your plate number ended in an even number.)
For the first 50,000 miles it was great. I could have sold it for more than I paid for it. The only hint of what was to come was that the water pump failed at 28,000. Then, at 50,000 miles, it was Times Up! Mice and pumpkin time. First the CV joints failed. Then another water pump went. Ultimately seven water pumps failed on that car because it had a casting flaw in the housing of the water pump. The rubber gasket in the window track blew out of the car when driving in the desert with the windows down.

When the carburator failed, my mechanic could not fix it. The only carburators he could obtain were for a 1976 Honda and under the California smog laws, you could not put a 76 carburator on a 75 model car. He got it running as best he could and told me that he would not charge me for fixing the car but he also said to NEVER BRING THAT CAR BACK TO ME AGAIN. There's more to tell but I think you get the idea.

Just a word to all you guys who own Hondas today and tell me how wonderful they are. Great. You need to thank me. I paid $3700 in 1975 Dollars to volunteer to be your quality control agent.

Ugh. 1974 was the year our house was blown away by a tornado and my parents replaced the trashed Volvo with... a 1974 Plymouth Valiant. WHY, DAD, WHY????

My family was cursed with that horrific car for the next 13 years (yes, my dad somehow kept it running -- most of the time -- that long thanks, in part, to putting two new engines and a new transmission in it along the way). A week after they bought it, that rolling lemon slung a rod and left us on the side of the road. And it wouldn't be the last time it left us stranded, either.

After the automatic choke kept flooding the engine, my dad jury-rigged a manual choke that you engaged on the dash. But there were still plenty of times when the engine would flood and have us sitting around waiting for it to dry out... usually when we were in a hurry to get somewhere, naturally.

The front seat belts had two separate reels -- one for the lap belt and one for the shoulder. What the hell were those engineers thinking? If one of the HIGHLY SENSITIVE reels didn't stop cold while you were pulling the belt out to buckle it, the other would. Pulling the seat belt... nice... and... steady... just... right... so that you could actually buckle the thing was an art unto itself. On the plus side, it was great training for living with a woman.

I have forever wondered why my parents bought that steaming pile of crap. Surely -- SURELY -- there had to have been a better car somewhere, even in that awful year. I can't imagine one being worse.

I disagree generally with the 'decline in quality' statement above, at least anecdotally. We had a '70 Dodge Tradesman van with a slant 6 that had over 300k miles on it before it was wrecked, and a '63 Falcon with nearly 200k miles. These were certainly primitive vehicles compared to today's, and maybe with their contemporaries, but yet they were very solidly built overall. I have zero mechanical ability yet even I could replace a water pump in either without much effort. And yes, such parts failed more regularly, but rather than a $400 repair today, $29 and three hours got you going again. I'd like to have it back.

Count me as another 5-mph bumper supporter. I don't care what they looked like, they did their job (and many of them looked just fine, IMHO). Modern cars don't have bumpers at all -- I refuse to call those fragile, expensive body panels by that name. You can't even give someone a push now without risking expensive damage. We're stuck with all sorts of government mandates anyway, I wish they'd go ahead and bring back the 5-mph bumpers. Of course, I love the plush buckets with their hood ornaments, vinyl roofs, and opera windows too.

My first car was a 1974 Dodge Dart, which I suffered with for 8 years. Piece of garbage in every respect: stylistically, mechanically, handling, acceleration, braking, you name it.

Anyone remember Steven Spielberg's first feature movie in 1971, "Duel"? It featured Dennis Weaver fighting a losing battle in his Plymouth Valiant against a psychopath driving a semi truck. Weaver's piece-of-junk car didn't have the horsepower to escape the truck, and quickly and easily lost speed and overheated whenever he encountered a hill.

Well, the Valiant was the Dart only with a different name. And Weaver's Valiant performed just like my Dart did.

I still get the creeps every time I think about that movie, for no other reason than it reminds me of what trash American cars like the Dart were in the 1970s.

We had a 1974 Mustang II. With the V6. To see it (at least in the horrorshow that was 1970's car lust) was to love it. To drive it or worse yet own it, not so much. To make a long story short, the 1980 Buick Skylark (x-car) that replaced it was for all its faults an astonishing leap forward in almost every respect. And that was a heap too!

And OH GAWD, and the double-nickel. Worst. Idea. Ever. I think it hastened the end of well-mannered driving as zealotry about excessive speed replaced any vestige of self-applied good sense. NC used to send two storm troopers down the interstate at 55mph side by side to plug up the highway - draconian doesn't begin to describe it.

If you didn't live it, the best way to understand the 1970's vs. now car-wise is like this. If you ever changed planes at DFW airport a few years ago when they had the old TrAAin that run under the terminals (25min trip around the bowels of the terminals, only ran one way), and compare that to the new overhead trains (both ways, runs very fast, provides great views) they have now, that's it exactly. And the TrAAin was a ostensibly a GOOD idea in 1974 when that airport opened.

Now... if I could have the 1972 Sedan de Ville (472cid v8, 8ft long hood) back..DOH!

Interesting comment above regarding the Porsche 914 bumpers. It's popular for owners of 1975 and 1976 cars with big bumpers to back-date them to the 1974 and earlier bumpers, because the big black bumpers are ugly and change the weight balance of the car. I helped a 1976 owner last year put a set of chromed pre-75 bumpers on his car.

Re the 5 mph bumper: more than one motorist found out the hard way to watch their fingers if they locked bumpers and tried to bounce the cars apart: if they were lucky the surgeon could reattach them. Other than making doctors rich reattaching fingers they weren't much use. A dent is a dent whether it's to your oversized bumper or a body panel.

The 914 5mph bumpers weren't all that big. They had center protrusions that extended the line of the car and made it less snub nosed. The chromes were nice. And they were lighter. But if you look at the results of day to day wear on these cars over time the chrome ones dented and looked like crap. I'm not saying the 5-mphs were perfect, and if I were driving a car for track purposes I'd get rid of the 5mph bumpers in a minute. But the integration of fed bumpers on european cars was much better than on US cars where... let's face it, they really didn't care about the quality, fit, or looks of the car that much anyway... they were designing expendable vehicles. But back to the 914. If I had a daily driver and it was a 914, those 5mph bumpers would be keepers. They weren't that much bigger and it did improve the profile of the car without that much increase in total weight. The weight distribution issue more of a justification for retrofit rather than an actuality. These days not many people have 914s and those that are still around aren't usually daily drivers... so the luxury of lighter chrome bumpers is very appealing.

As designs progressed through the years designers got better at working these tougher bumpers into their cars - again I'm talking about european and japanese designers. They were able to make small light cars with impact absorbing bumpers that reduced wear and tear of city driving.

Practically ever car today has massive bumpers that appear to be integrated into the design of the car, and yet they are completely useless. I'd love to see an option for a modern bumper that could actually protect the front AND rear end of a car from something as destructive as a child's inflatable toy dinosaur.

My best friend in the late 80's drove a 74 Dodge Dart.....AND it was painted in Starsky and Hutch colors! Sweet....

One time, lightning flashed a few miles away, and the radio came on!

Ugh. I got my driver's license in '73, and bought a '74 Fiat X-1/9 in 1975. For the '75 model year that car was ruined by the new mandated bumpers - they looked like ladders glued onto the poor thing - so I actually bought a low mileage used '74.

The '74 Corvettes were a cruel joke on their owners. My X-1/9 could smoke them in tight gymkhana cone courses. LOL!

74 was a good year. 23 years old, just moved to the Napa Valley to build the A-B brewery in Fairfield, and I fell in love with a red 74 Lotus Europa Special at Van Ness Motors in SF. I had to have it. I took home $800 a month as an engineer, and 25% of my takehome pay went to make the $7577 price, but it was worth it! Racing across the mountains and hills at night, 7000 rpm 6 inches behind your ears, 1500 lb. car - -- Lotus didnt let the US laws bother them (the bumpers were attached directly to the body - no springs or crush zones). I had to replace the rear tires at 9K miles due to my driving (I WAS 23).

Also owned a 74 Pinto hatchback -- Metallic brown, 4 speed -- it cost me $2895 with no AC or radio. Solid, fun -- a friend with a TR6 said the Pinto cornered better (it had the handling package with a sway bar).

It was a good year.

Don't forget - '74 was also the year Citroen left America! If that's not a "travesty", I don't know what is.

(No, I really don't know what one is. Could you tell me? I seem to be a little confused.)

I had a '75 Nova 2-door with a tiny 260 V-8, which was the most amazing car I've ever owned. After the blizzard of '78, it was buried under snow for months (and I mean buried--I went to my parking spot after the blizzard, dug down about 6 inches, and hit the roof). When the spring finally thawed out the parking lot, and everyone else was having their cars towed, I opened the door, pumped the gas pedal twice, turned the ignition, and it started right up (thank you, Sears Die-Hard!).

The most amazing thing about it was it had an eerie ability to heal itself. It needed to, as I treated it abominably, even once driving it sort of off a cliff, though it was more like a really wide and steep three-foot deep ditch. I was able to drive it out again, which was almost as trying. The poor thing sounded awful, but the next morning, it was just fine. This happened several times (healing itself, I mean, not driving it into a ditch).

Also, it had vinyl seats. If only they made vinyl seats now. They're so easy to clean! I loved, loved that car. Then it got creamed, while parked, by a city sewer truck. Bent the frame. I couldn't affored to keep it. Man, I miss that car.

Rough auto times for the most part, though. When did the AMC Pacer come out? What a nightmare that was...

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