1974: It Was A Very Bad Year
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)