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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.]

Capri1Ford/Mercury Capri
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."

Mazda RX-3
RX3 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. ...

Manta2"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?"

Toyota Celica
Celica2 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.

Scirocco2Volkswagen 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."

My Vote
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:

  1. Opel Manta Rallye
  2. Volkswagen Scirocco Mk. I
  3. Ford/Mercury Capri
  4. Mazda RX-3
  5. 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.

--Chris H.

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I voted for the Capri just because I like the way it looks.

Scirocco: designed by Giugiaro at the peak of his career.

RX-3 for me because I love they way they look. Opel 2nd, and the VW 3rd. I nearly bought a Scirocco, but ended up passing because it was a Southern car (no heater) and I lived in South Dakota. I'm indifferent to the Merc/Ford and I hate those Toyota's. I had a 77 and a 77 1/2 Corolla as my first 2 cars and have nothing but disdain for Toyota's of that era.

-Big Chris

One interesting thing about these five cars is that they all have quad round headlamps. Call me a traditionalist, but I kinda miss the days when all stylists had to work around the same round or rectangular headlamps. One bonus of that situation - hidden headlamps!

Man, the Capri is walking away with it so far - almost 40% of votes in a five-car race. It's early, but I'm still surprised.

"rallye" isnt a misspelling, just the french spelling of rally..... i think.

Concerning the Car and Driver Reader Beater series, the Opel was far from undefeated. The first Challenge was won by reader Bruce Cargill in a Dodge Colt. Challenge II was in fact won by Pat Bedard in an Opel. Bedard repeated in Challenge III, beating a 31 car field including plenty of Opels with a Chevy Vega GT.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Vega#Car_and_Driver.27s_Showroom_Stock_.230

The Scirocco may seem like a car from a later era, but it was released in Europe in 1974, where it was used to prove the mechanical components that would underpin the Golf(Rabbit) the following year. They showed up in the US in 1975 and were in another world of chassis sophistication from the other cars mentioned. Opel was working on a replacement for the Manta by the time the Scirocco came along, but it was more of a restyling than a technological step over the car sold in the US.

With the bias of being a little too young to know the Opel as a shiny new car, here is my ranking:

1. VW Scirocco - if VW's were anything like this today, I'd have two of them. How the company that knew how to make these 25 years ago now makes 3,100 lb GTIs and German badged Buicks is a sad tale indeed.

2. Toyota Celica - I've never had much use for Toyotas, but there is a reason that these cars built a dynasty and the next two just managed the dismantling of their own.

3. Mercury Capri/Capri II - 2nd best selling import at times with good styling and a variety of often decent specifications. Undone by quality issues and Ford's conscious decision to orphan it and its owners.

4. Opel Manta Rallye - I liked these in my Auto Almanac enough to seek them out, as well as their GT siblings. The reality was always cheap and nasty, and rusty, and burned wiring and clutch smelling, and etc....

5. Mazda RX-3 - never as attractive as the RX-2 in my eyes, and still undeveloped. Not fast enough to merit the fuel and oil consumption, and bad enough to almost bring Mazda to an end.

The styling on all these cars are great, but the Capri gets my top vote. Better after-market support (in the UK) and more drivetrain options. Opel second, followed by the Mazda, Toyota, and the VW respectively.

Marge Schott (Cincinnati Reds) of Schott Buick dealership, herself, tried to talk me out of buying an "Opel Piece of Shit." She was wrong and I was right; it was a great little car that was better than the BMW I replaced it with when it finally started to rust out at 160,000 miles.

All these years later, my long gone '76 Capri remains my favorite car.

Never had a Sirocco but did have a couple of Rabbits, which were pretty much the same, mechanically. Did Siroccos have the same tendency (at around 100,000 miles) for the shift lever to suddenly drop through the floor?

I vote for the Celica. A friend had a '75 model that he bought new when he got his first "real" job after college. He got the deluxe model; paid $5,000 for it, a lot for a car in those days. In addition to being a sweet-looking ride (a real chick magnet), it was rock-solid reliable. One day the starter motor gave out, or so he thought. The good job long gone, he didn't have the money to get it replaced. But he quickly became adept at gravity-assisted starting - always park on a slope, release the parking brake, roll a few feet, then pop the clutch; it started every time. It was light enough not to be too hard to push, too, for those occasions when there was only level ground. Eventually he found out the starter was fine; he just needed a new battery. That he could afford.

#1 Opel Manta Rallye (type 57R) I liked them so much I owned 3.

Bought a used Orange 71 for $2,300 in 72. Installed set of Koni Reds and Goodyear A70 Wide Ovals. Tweaked the engine with a Gerraldi Dyno tune kit. By 74 I had 78,000 miles on it and traded it in on a new 74 Yellow Rallye (MSRP $3600) that my wife drove.

I was DDing a 67 MGB 60 miles a day and decided I wanted something more reliable. So in 75 I traded the MGB in on a used 73 Yellow Rallye.

In 79 It was time for kids and playpens so we traded the 74 in on a Fairmont Wagon.

We kept my 73 until 1985.

Still one of my all time favorite cars.

1974. Back from Turkey (the country), serving the Air Force at Whiteman AFB in the bustling burg of Knob Noster, Missouri (apparently, from an aerial view there are two hills that look like boobies) . . . but I digress . . .

I bought a white, with black trim Opel Manta Rallye. Sucker flew like crazy. Its aerodynamics were surprisingly good. The mileage was exceptional. A goofy Missouri mule deer committed suicide running into the left front fender as I was going to a very important bowling tournament (185 average). Back then--repairs and painting were pert cheap, so I had the body shop paint it gray with maroon striping after they fixed the fender. Sharp!

Had that beast (2.0) close to 130 mph, (speedometer read 160 or 180--I don't remember--but I believe it would have hit top end) and owned it 10 years. I took care of it, so I had no rust problems (and I lived in Michigan). I got more for it 10 years later than I paid for it cash ($3200).

Best car I ever owned.

Wish they were still around.

Of the five, I owned a Capri, unfortunately it was an early Capri 1600 and it was quite the education for a young engineer, especially on ways that poor quality and/or poor materials choices could affect all sorts of things. Still, 'twas an attractive car and I loved driving it. It's replacement as it wore out was a used '78 Fiesta and that was another fun car, especially with all the "goodies" you could get from Europe to make it more personalized.

I had a 74 Opel until about 1982 when it had 125K on it. Nice car, though it could have used a 5 speed transmission. The clutch cable broke in South Dakota one time, and I drove it all the way to West Virginia without using the clutch. I had to start it in gear at stop lights.

I miss my 1977 Scirocco. Fahrvergnügen wasn't just an ad slogan, that car was a delight to drive.

It was such fun to be late.

The Opel and Capri for me although I liked them all. I'm well over six feet and comfort counted.

The Opel was complex and not suited for the casual mechanic. The Capri was a little like that but had a V-6.

Today, when you actually see them at shows the Opel seems the least dated. Best with the roof and body the same color.

Also owned an RX-2, not RX-3. It was a sedan but I liked it better than the RX-3 anyway.

Speaking of forgotten cars. The Merkur, XR4Ti of the 1980s.

RX3 with the SP package. The RX3-SP was a lot of fun to drive, if you could get over the boy racer decals and glass louvres.

Flip your top two, and you'd have my list. BTW, a college bud had that Celica, and it was a neat little car. McPhearson strut suspension was quite excellent for the time.

Drove all 5 back when. Manta wins hands down on looks, Toy second. VW on controls. Capri was solid, like driving a Volvo. Manta sharp handling. The Celica (my first car) was nice looking but slow and unremarkable otherwise. But the Mazda walked them all, and could light 'em up in 3 gears. Handling, brakes, ride awful, looks weird, but very comfortable front seats and lots of leg room (rare in those days). Still own an RX-3 for a weekend car, because of that sweet engine and the wretched bizzareness of the rest of the car make it a lot of fun.

The Opel Manta really did remind me of an actual manta ray. One of my high school teachers (in Galway, Ireland) had one, and I always envied him that car.

I did like the Capri, but I also have a soft spot in my heart for later Ford Cortinas. Maybe I'm wrong, but they seemed to have as much get up and go, but with room for a family.

I had a MK II Scirocco when I lived in Germany. It was a POS in terms of fit and finish - VW's of that era were - but dang, did that thing ever scream down the autobahn. A fast, fun car to drive.

I worked at a Buick dealership during the early 1970's. The Opels were always my favorite. Besides the Manta, don't forget the spiffy Opel GT.

Not an RX-3, but an RX-4. I bought one of these in Sacramento when they first came out, it was the first one sold in Sacramento, and it was unbelievable. The only thing I did to it was change the shocks to and after market set that self adjusted, the harder you pushed the car the firmer they got. It has been so long ago that I've forgotten the brand name. Shortly after I bought it, it started flattening out about 90 miles per hour under hard acceleration so I took it back to the dealer to see what was causing the problem. The factory rep was in town and he said that they were having a problem with the second set of barrels in the carb closing due to loss of vacuum. The problem was a plug that went into the vacuum ports in the carb body that was made of different material that the carb body. They expanded at a different rate and created a vacuum leak, which allowed the secondaries to close. A little Teflon tape and the problem was fixed. Next the rep suggested that since I liked to drive it hard he could advance the timing to take advantage of the advanced port timing of the RX-4 engine over the older RX-3 engine. I let him do it and it was a rocket. You could set your speed to 75 and drive it from Sacramento to Reno and nothing would slow it down unless you came upon a truck passing another truck. I never did have the opportunity to see how fast it would go, but it would keep you pushed back in the seat until you let off the gas at over 100 mph.

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