1978: It Was a Very
Good Bad Odd Year
Ah yes, 1978. The year I obtained my driver's license and truly began my driving odyssey. I would imagine most people have a certain amount of nostalgia for their 16th year: the music, the TV shows, the fashions, and of course the cars. Okay, I admit that there are probably better years for fond automotive recollections. 1969, for example. Or 1962. Heck, even 1991 was pretty good, comparatively speaking. But no, 1978 is not generally considered the apogee of American (or anyone else's, probably) car design and implementation.
OTOH, much like I argued in that 1991 post, 1978 was, to my mind at least, one of those interesting years where much in the culture at large was changing from that which defined one decade -- in this case, The '70s -- to the next. And, as usual, 1978 is kind of an arbitrary year to hang a post off of; 1977 or 1979 probably would have worked just as well. But as I say, 1978 has some personal connections and I've always been rather fond of that year. A lot of neat stuff was going on and the cars reflect that. One cultural transformation in particular, music, was also ending one era and starting another, and contemplating that one eventually led me to this post. So bear with me, gentle reader, as I indulge myself in a bit of nostalgia for a bygone era that was, well, a little bit weird. . . . .
Probably of more interest to us these days, in February of that year the world's first computer bulletin board system (CBBS) was created by a couple of guys snowed in by a blizzard -- the Great Bilzzard of 1978 in fact -- a simple yet far-reaching idea that allowed average computer users to *gasp!* communicate with one another by writing messages in a commonly accessible meta-space. Pretty simple by modern standards -- users could only log in one at a time, for instance -- but it planted the seeds of modern Internet fora (and blogs, for that matter). Another sign of technology to come, the Walkman was introduced by Sony. This was probably on par with the first car stereos in terms of transforming the way people could listen to and interact with music. No longer was the cassette player tethered to a wall socket or an automobile dashboard: it was now clipped to your belt. True, you could listen to transistor radios on foot before this, but as with the in-dash cassette deck now you could take your music collection with you and listen to what you want to at any given time. By 1980 when I started college, a lot of people would, as the name implied, walk around outside listening to their favorite tapes. Me, I never got the hang of walking around with headphones on (visions of getting run down by a bus while passersby screamed in vain to get my attention maybe), but it really led the way to our modern iPods and other MP3 players.
In yet another presage of our modern techno-world, AT&T began field trials of a "cellular mobile phone system" around Chicago. While some form of mobile telephone (primarily in cars) had been available since the 1940s, they were generally fairly expensive and/or unreliable. Richard Frankiel and Joel Engel at Bell Labs finally developed a system (based on an idea by, coincidentally, D. H. Ring) of overlapping hexagonal "cells" of lower-power transceivers that could "hand off" calls as people moved around town. While it took a while for phones and calls to become truly portable, the glue, one might say, was set to be applied to the ear of every teenager in the developed world in just a couple of short decades.
Oh, and Space Invaders was also introduced. Good Lord, how many quarters those damnable games took from me I would hazard to guess.
One of the more significant milestones in the automotive world had VW halting production of the Beetle in its native Germany, but on the other hand, they also opened up the second plant by a foreign manufacturer in the US (Rolls-Royce beat them out for first) to build the Rabbit, their US-based species of Golf. I have a bit of a connection to the Rabbit as it was the first car my brother bought out of college -- a yellow 4-door, I believe -- and the two of us drove it to Oklahoma for his first job. I actually hated that thing because the driving position made one of my knees ache. Some people loved 'em, some hated 'em, I just mostly ignored 'em.
Also of importance to the entire industry, in July of that year Lee Iacocca was fired from his post as president of Ford and ended up as president of Chrysler by November. This was also the year that the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards took effect, both of which had far-reaching effects on the types of cars -- and, more significantly, trucks -- produced in the US and imported from abroad.
That was also the year that Porsche bequeathed unto the world the 928. It never went over all that well with the hardcore Porsche fans but, as we noted here, it really opened up the sport GT niche with its combination of really stellar performance and creature comforts. The design itself screams "1980s" to me, but I attribute that as much to its influence as to my own particular history. But it all started in 1978.
Toyota redesigned the Celica for 1978 as well, coyly undoing its Mustang-GT-inspired 1st gen bodice to reveal a much cleaner set of lines more suited to a mass audience. The Celica was actually the first car I seriously considered buying for myself, after poring over Consumer Reports listings in the sort of depth only a nerdy teenager could muster (I ended up with the family Hornet as my first car, btw). Also from Japan, Subaru started selling its BRAT (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter), Japan's perky answer to the testosterone-dripping El Camino and Ranchero (the latter of which had it's final year in 1979). There weren't a lot of these running around Wisconsin when I was a kid, but there were a few and we were endlessly amused that a company would name a car after a sausage. Great little truck, though, and one of these days it's got to get its own post.
I guess I can't go without mentioning the Mustang II, which entered its last year of production before a complete remodel and the beginning of the Fox body generation in 1979. Though often derided as consisting of little more than a Pinto with paint-on performance, it probably rescued the Mustang from the evolutionary fate of many '60s-era muscle cars and put it firmly back in the bread-and-butter pony car category. Much like the 1977 Chevys, the '78 was the last of the 'humpy and bumpy' 1970s generation of Mustang, again foreshadowing the much simpler lines of the 1980s (see the Celica above as well). Truth be told, the '79 wasn't any sort of quantum leap from the II in terms of performance (in some ways it was much worse), but it started the Mustang on a much more sustainable path for years to come.
Ford also continued its line of behemoth 'personal luxury' coupes with its Diamond Jubilee Thunderbird and the equally drool-worthy 75th Anniversary Lincoln Continental Mark V Diamond Jubilee edition, a title almost as long as the car itself. The latter came in Diamond Blue or Jubilee Gold paint with the ever-popular Landau vinyl roof and beveled-glass opera windows. I don't care what you think, I'd snag one in a heartbeat.
Elsewhere on the domestic front, Chrysler started selling the Omni/Horizon, a Rabbit-inspired front-drive hatchback that even used a 1.7-liter VW engine at first. It was actually derived from Chrysler's European division as the Simca/Talbot Horizon but was still the first domestically-produced front-drive subcompact. This also wasn't a car that I thought very much of at the time (or since, to be honest, until recently) but in retrospect it really wasn't that bad of a car by the standards of the day, and at least showed American buyers that you could really get a lot of interior room in a subcompact car. Plus it spawned at least two notable Lust-worthy entries, the GLH-S and RAMPAGE!
GM had started downsizing their big sedans earlier in the decade, and continued that trend in 1978, but there were still some holdovers. Like the Biarritz Cadillac Eldorado, again with opera windows and a padded vinyl top. And the Fleetwood Brougham was still a big, beautiful gigantic land barge that floated along the highway like some sort of automotive homage to the Titanic. But the downsizing also made for one of my personal favorites, the Seville. In 1978 Cadillac added the Elegante to the Seville options, giving it a gorgeous two-tone paint scheme in platinum-and-black or "Western Saddle Firemist and Ruidoso Brown". Well, whatever; I loved that car. The slightly "humped" look with the downsloping trunk and hood and gigantic wire-wheels gives it a certain muscular look despite its typical floaty handling. And it had a diesel option! Not to mention a trip computer, yet another feature foreshadowing what was to become commonplace.
There's far more, which I'm sure will be brought up in the comments but, all in all, a very interesting year, automotively speaking, occupying that nether world between the Me Decade and the more understated '80s. It's funny, but the reason I got started on this post in particular was because I was contemplating the same period in popular music, which seemed to be going through something of a transition period of its own, but perhaps in the opposite direction from the car world. For me, a midwesterner weaned on album-oriented-rock (AOR) radio, notably the rather famous (in some circles) WAPL, 1978 was something of a high point for that genre: Styx released Pieces of Eight, REO Speedwagon gave us You Can Tune a Piano but You Can't Tuna Fish, Rush put out what many think of as their greatest effort, Hemispheres, Queen had Jazz, Dire Straits fell like a bomb with their self-titled debut album, and Van Halen dropped a similar nuke with their first album.
There are a lot more I could mention, but perhaps the crescendo of the age came in March of '78 at the California Jam II festival where over 300,000 people enjoyed such luminaries of hard rock as Foreigner, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Santana, and Heart. The distorted electric guitar was king and good old straightforward American hard rock was here to stay.
But maybe not. Among the other albums released that year were The Cars' debut effort, Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!, Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon, The Police debuted with their Outlandos d'Amour, and This Year's Model by Elvis Costello. It was all part of the New Wave movement that was getting away from traditional blues-based rock and combining all sorts of other influences from punk to electronic to disco to reggae. And a lot of this was coming from across the pond in the UK and Europe.
I for one did not welcome this new trend for the most part ("Hey! Where the hell are all the long, screaming guitar solos?"). Within a couple of years most of my favorite bands had either broken up or drifted off the reservation into either pop fluff ("Mr. Roboto?? Hello?!") or distinctly un-rockish synth-keyboard weirdness (e.g., Rush and Power Windows). And by the next year Kiss had actually gone disco! Not that I hated all of it, but it took some getting used to. Say what you will about 1980s popular music, it went in all sorts of different directions from what it had been in the '70s. No longer would guitar, bass, drums, and maybe a little keyboard and a good backbeat suffice; now we had reggae and synth-pop all mixed up with more traditional rock and an explosion of European fashion bands and punk-metal bands all vying for attention, especially on that newfangled "MTV" thingie. I eventually became very enthusiastic about a lot of that early-mid-'80s stuff (Spandau Ballet -- formed in the late '70s -- anyone?), but I still long for the days of the 10-minute guitar solo; at least grunge came along and gave us guitar-heavy rawk again.
So it seems to me that the automotive and music worlds went in opposite directions starting around 1978. Cars, which were all humpy and bumpy and gaudy, started to slowly lose all their curves and fashionable doo-dads and moved towards smaller, straighter, cleaner lines -- and better build quality and performance to boot. Meanwhile, music went from a guitar or two, bass, drums, and a hot lead singer to, well, English Fashion bands wearing makeup and playing synthesizer and electronic drums. Not to mention Madonna.
So, I throw all that out there for your approval. Or argument. Either way, I think that it was a terribly interesting year in a lot of ways, foreshadowing what was to come while still reminding us what the '70s were all about. That was the year I came to be in modern form, after a fashion, so I have to at least pay some attention to it; I hope you do, too.
Credits: All car pics are from previous Car Lust posts (as is the Motorola brick), with the noted exceptions. The BattleStar Galactica pic is from Sci-Fi Universe and the Subarau Brat ad comes from Jalopnik, as is the Plymouth Arrows ad (from Playboy!). Meanwhile, the Omni is from CNN's Money.com site.
And to round out the post, here are a couple of ads from the year to enjoy: