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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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I had a '74 Chevy Nova... built the year before every GM brand except Cadillac offered identical cars with different labels (and minor cosmetic changes) on them. I recall the Nova and the Olds Omega... don't remember the Buick or Pontiac labels.

My Nova was an executive loaner with 2400 miles on it. 350 V-8. 17 mpg. Gas was 62 cents per gallon. I have to admit I liked that car.

As a news photographer, about 20 years ago I went to the scene of a traffic accident. Mid-'70s Pontiac Firebird and a Chrysler K-Car.

The recycled-beer-can K-Car was a total loss. The Pontiac? Not a scratch.

Yeah, the front of all Mustang IIs had a bad case of ugly and the formal roofline version extended it to the entire car. Mind you, I reckon the Pacer can definitely give it a run for the money in ugly with all those discordant styling elements, let alone quirky behavior (you didn't want to take, as I recall, left turns with only 'bout a quarter-tank, you'd get brief engine starvation). I think, though, that 1976 brought the really worst cars of that decade as the truly heavy smog controls were still generally in place. The most "challenging" car I've ever driven was a 1976 Bobcat MPG with an automatic; between the smog-control-laden small engine, the slush-box, and the high ratio rear end, it *might* get out of its own way when floored, but passing required the strategic planning of a major military campaign.

The people who praise the 5-mph bumpers are classic examples of "diffuse vs. concentrated interests".

They like the bumpers because they were the few who saved money from them. But EVERYONE with new cars had to pay for those monstrosities, as well as the tire wear and gas mileage penalties for the extra weight. Those bumpers also reduced high-speed safety, since the increased polar moment of inertia (i.e., adding weight at extreme front and rear) made cars less nimble in emergency swerve tests.

Yeah, Taylor, I saw "Duel" when if first came out. Great movie even if the Valiant died a "valiant" death getting pushed over the edge of a cliff by the semi. What an ending!

The BEST bumpers I ever had were on the 1969 Cataline I had. I was rear ended once around 1982 by a mid 70s car with 5 MPH bumpers - hint, he needed a new car (bent motor mounts) and I had a small dent in the bumper that I didn't bother with (hey, the car was like 13 years old)

My current Nissan pickup is a joke - tapped someone in the rear - he had no damage - I need a whole new bumper. The REAR bumper, which actually LOOKS like a bumper is covered with little dents from parking bumps. I'm VERY temped to have a diamond plate bumper put on, or a nice 4" or so U channel steel section 3/16-1/4 thick. If/when I replace the front bumper on the truck (It's just cracked), I WILL put in "roo bars", and REAL ones

When you hit your brakes, the rear of your car rises. When the car behind you hits its brakes, the frond end drops. If contact is made, that car's front bumper may go under your rear bumper, and it might receive all kinds of nasty front-end damage.

Standard bumper heights are a great idea... if you are driving under 10 miles per hour. As far as bumper protectors, some US Postal trucks use about 1/3 of an old tire on each corner. A cheap fix, and a great way to recycle a worn-out tire! Not very stylish, but pretty effective for low-speed collision damage prevention.

My cousin Joey in Philly was, in my estimation, one of the driving reasons we went to the 5 MPH bumpers.
When visiting him one time 'way back then, we were out bar-hopping in his Pontiac land yacht. The parking spot was about a foot shorter than needed. Joey parallel-backed into the spot, connected with the car behind, gunned it, pushed the car about a foot back, finished the parallel park, connected with the car in front, repeated the maneuver in first, pushed THAT car another foot or so away, centered the Pontiac and we went to the bar.

How could I omit the effect that 1974 had on the British roadsters? That year, the Spitfire, MGB, TR6, and MG Midget received those controversial black "rubber" bumpers, were raised a bit, and were choked down with power-stifling emissions requirements. The MBG-GT was dropped altogether in the US market. Many people believe these changes ultimately let to the demise of open roadsters for many years.

1974... ugh.

Joe Y commented above that he had a great experience with a '75 Nova. I had the same experience with its twin, a '75 Pontiac Ventura with the 260 V-8. That car carried me through high school and college including lots of road trips, abuse, and zero maintenance. It never once broke down in over 120,000 miles - even when I didn't bother to check or change the oil for 18 months or more. Although the Ventura was rear wheel drive, it somehow performed pretty well in the snow, and on one occasion took me 500 miles through a 20 inch snowstorm including 100+ miles on steep and winding two-lane roads in the mountains of West Virginia. Fond memories of that ride.

Agree that 1974 was notorious for the 55 mph limit. It made 90% of drivers outlaws. Here in IL, 55 is still used in suburban interstates, and is ignored even by seniors.

OTOH, 1974 still had some 250-ish HP V8 motors left over. Pontiac 455SD is a classic. And, the Trans Am actually started its sales hey day in this bad old year. And some younger car fans actaully think 74 was still the 'muscle car era'. [No, but compared to 1980-81, it was!]

And, in the late 70's used car market, 74's were desired as being newest cars to run on regular gas. But in long run, unleaded gas cleaned up smoggy cities.

BTW: I can vouch for the 260 Olds V8, family had a 1978 Cutlass and it was still running ok in 1992. Got as good mileage as V6.

If you snuck into a Chevy showroom at night with a Vega in sight and if you listened quietly you could here it rust.

i have two 74 corvettes> no problems to date but i would like to know where the declo remy #1997426 is located. i have one in florida and one in ohio. if i have a problem i would like to repair it myself if a shop has to start looking for the problem the dollars add up. i cannot find the location anywhere in the manuals. thank you in advance gene mayher

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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