Face Off--1970s Super Coupes
The mid-1970s were a dark, dark time for automotive enthusiasts, as the spectre of emissions regulation, a gas crisis, and skyrocketing insurance rates dimmed the vibrant high-performance youth culture that had blossomed in the 1960s. Muscle cars, the cheerfully one-dimensional heroes of the late 1960s, were systematically eliminated; the survivors were emasculated and became sticker-and-tape caricatures of their former glory. Exotic European sports car models either retreated back to Europe, underwent a similar emasculation, or died entirely. British sports cars sprouted unwieldy bumpers and lost horsepower. At the time, doom-and-gloom forecasts predicted the end of performance; even worse, the end of fun.
But, from every great extinction, new life appears--and with it, hope. From the scorched landscape of the mid-1970s sprang a few tentative shoots of a new organism that was better-suited for survival in this harsh automotive climate. This class of cars was known as the super coupes, smaller, lighter cars that substituted agility and enjoyment for brawn and intimidation. The first steps were tentative--graphics packages on Chevy Vegas and Ford Pintos--but progress picked up with the cars pictured here, which mixed style and sportiness at a price that young enthusiasts could afford. These cars broke the ground for the burgeoning sports coupes that brought performance to the people in the 1980s and 1990s. The Honda Preludes, Mitsubishi Eclipses, Acura Integras, Ford Probes, Nissan 240SXs and Volkswagen Corrados of the world can all trace their roots back to these early trailblazers.
So--in our short but proud tradition of Car Lust Face Offs, here's your opportunity to vote for your favorite of this all-but-forgotten class of cars. More detail and my choice after the jump.
[The poll widget is no longer available because Vizu.com has ceased operations.]
Quoting from our previous post on this car:
"The Capri was one of the earliest and, to my eyes, the prettiest of the class, boasting classic long-hood-short-deck proportions, Ford-of-Europe chassis and powerplant, and scale-model Mustang looks. Later special editions, one black with gold trim, another with a huge, fanciful body kit, helped drive home the basic attractiveness of the Capri and its very similar offspring, the Capri II. ...
"Even after its short stint in America, the Capri went on to ongoing hero car status across the pond, with various high-performance special editions and a sterling motorsports career. The apex was an especially pretty version of the Capri that performed well in the elite German DTM touring car series."
For those of you familiar with the Mazda RX-7 and RX-8, the RX-3 appellations might look a little odd--especially since this car seems to have been almost univerally forgotten among today's car enthusiasts. That's understandable, as the RX-3 didn't really stand out fom its super coupe competition. The styling was quirky in the typically 1970s Japanese way--cleaner and more handsome than the Datsun B210, clearly, but more muddled and strange than the rest of the cars here. In the context of the class, the RX-3 didn't handle particularly well, either--its performance in the twisties was sapped by speed-killing understeer.
But, unlike the other cars here, the RX-3 had an ace in the hole--a rotary engine. Mazda has always been one of the world's foremost rotary engine advocates, but in the last few decades the rotary has really only appeared in the company's RX-7 and RX-8 sports cars. Back in the early 1970s, though, when the rotary was considered the next major revolution in powerplant technology, Mazda used the rotary engine in just about everything it offered. That included everything spanning from its top-end Mazda Cosmo luxury coupe to its pickup truck, including the mainstream RX-2 and RX-3 models in between. Every RX-3--two-door super coupe, four-door sedan, and wagon--came with a rotary.
That rotary made the RX-3 special. In comparison with the gutless, low-tech four-cylinders of its day, the rotary was a revelation, providing a smooth, bottomless well of power that made the RX-3 a veritable hot rod. In a Car and Driver test, the similar RX-2 smashed its super coupe competition in straight-line acceleration tests. It sprinted from 0-60 in 8.6 seconds, which was rocket-ship material in 1974--it easily outran the V-6 Capri (9.5 seconds) and completely dismantled the four-cylinder cars, which did the run in 11-12 seconds. This was serious speed, even if the car's soft handling kept it behind the Opel Manta on the race track.
It was obvious to all concerned that the rotary was a fantastic sports-car engine in need of a car to match; that match was finally made when the rotary was finally paired with the legendary RX-7 sports car in 1979. But, of course, that's another story.
Opel Manta Rallye
Again, I'll quote from a previous post:
"In an era of behemoth road yachts, the Manta was a pint-sized muscle car minus a muscle car's muscle-bound torpidity. Incredibly light and agile, the Manta's eager 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine moved it well enough to make it one of the fastest small cars around at the time. Its agility and German intensity made it the General Motors equivalent of the vaunted BMW 2002. ...
"Oh, and did I mention that it's gorgeous? Just as the Capri looked a bit like a pint-sized Mustang, the Manta had the glowering glare, muscular haunches, and purposeful profile of a Camaro or Chevelle, but on a trimmer scale. I'm sure there are many who would disagree, but I think the Manta is one of the best-looking small cars of this era.
"The problem the Manta and its sporty Opel brethren faced was horribly confused marketing. In an era when every domestic automaker was scrambling to produce compelling small cars, GM had a great one available in the Manta--then promptly torpedoed it by selling them exclusively through Buick dealers. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. Who better to sell light, sporty minimalist cars that eschewed typical 1970s American ostentation than a confused Buick salesman who would rather upsell a Century customer into a Laundau Brougham package?"
In terms of pure significance, the Celica might just trump all of these cars. Most obviously, the Celica can boast the most direct progression from super coupe to modern sports coupes. The humble 97-horsepower early 1970s Celica is the patriarch of a long line of Celicas that included the wildly popular mid-1980s Celica, the turbocharged and all-wheel drive Celica All Trac, and a successful line of rally cars. Celicas were staples on American roads until 2005, when the last Celica--a light and aggressive model--came to America. The Celica also gave birth to the heavier and more powerful Supra; the first Supra was actually called a Celica Supra.
The Celica was also one of Toyota's first mass-market offerings in the U.S.--it was right on the leading edge of Toyota's American invasion and helped set the stage for the automaker's growth and success. Had the Celica failed, it would have been a blow to the automaker's fragile reputation in a new market.
But perhaps most significantly, the Celica was important because it helped convince the United States that the Japanese automotive industry could produce inexpensive but high-quality cars that were still fun to drive. At the time, Japanese cars were thought of in much the same way that Korean cars were regarded a decade ago--as inexpensive hair shirts to be worn only until you could afford something better. Just as the Datsun 240Z did in the sports car market, the Celica served as an eloquent metal-and-rubber rebuttal of that impression. At a time in which American cars were suffering through quality issues and European cars performance cars weren't affordable, the reliable, inexpensive, fun-to-drive Celica was a welcome addition to the market--and a harbinger of things to come.
As a car, the Celica didn't really stand out in the super coupe class--it looked fine, accelerated in line with the rest of the class, and handled okay. But as a symbol, it stands apart.
Volkswagen Scirocco Mk. I
Again, I'll quote from a previous post on this car:
"There are times ... when a car enters a class and instantly raises the bar, making its competitors look thoroughly antiquated and raising customer expectations for the whole class. Such was the case when the first Volkswagen Scirocco joined the party. With elegant, crisp lines penned by Italian master stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro and better-composed hardware than that offered by the half-hearted semi-economy cars in the class the Scirocco was an instant classic upon its debut. ...
"The Scirocco weighed less than 2,000 pounds; for context, a 2008 Toyota Corolla weighs 2,800 pounds. Because of that, the Scirocco was still moderately fast for the time despite having only a 1.6-liter, 76-horsepower engine for motivation. The Scirocco's lifespan corresponded with the highly entertaining era between 1975 and 1985 when manufacturers routinely advertised 0-50 times because the lower numbers sounded better. But even during this time, the Scirocco's 10.5-second 0-60 time was nothing to sneeze at.
"No, the Scirocco didn't have much power--an oversight not rectified until the Mk. II Scirocco received a 16-valve head a decade later--but its sweet handling, light weight, and style to die for gave it the visceral edge missing from its competitors."
This widget won't allow us to submit a rank instead of a vote--if anybody knows of a widget that does allow ranking, I'm all ears. But since a ranking allows for a little more description and is innately more interesting, I'm going to be listing my preference 1-5:
- Opel Manta Rallye
- Volkswagen Scirocco Mk. I
- Ford/Mercury Capri
- Mazda RX-3
- Toyota Celica
This was a tough decision, but I got there by working from the bottom up. The Celica was my obvious fifth choice; while it gets points for its significance, I'd rather own one of the other four cars--not only were those cars more fun to drive at the time, but I think they'd feel a little more special. The RX-3 was another fairly easy choice in fourth; while they're incredibly rare and have the added cachet of the rotary, they just don't look good enough or handle quite well enough to overcome my personal top three.
This is where it got difficult for me; the Capri, Manta, and Scirocco are all long-time lusts of mine, and I'd jump all over any of them if I found a nice version for sale. Ranking between these three actually causes me some degree of physical pain, but eventually I decided to make the Capri third. It's a gorgeous car, with a great motorsports heritage, and it boasted the smooth Cologne V-6. But it was a little bit more of a cruiser than the Manta or the Scirocco; it didn't have the sharp edge of those cars.
The Scirocco is probably the best car in this class, but I ultimately placed it second--largely because despite being several years newer than the Manta, nearly a full generation behind, it wasn't that much quicker. The Manta, on the other hand, defined the class from its inception, and like the Scirocco it melded decent acceleration with superior agility and handling. The Manta handled as if it was on rails; it invariably won Car and Driver's showroom stock races, and it was an all-star on twisty roads. It also gets bonus points for rarity and for offering BMW looks and handling for a relative pittance; and even deducting points for the heinous "Rallye" misspelling leaves it my winner. That's my reasoning for now, at least, but it was close enough that I'll probably have changed my mind by tomorrow.