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1970-1981 F-Bodies: A Lust Story

You know, I spent a lot of time pondering what kind of "hook" I wanted to bring to this post. Do I liken my affection for these cars to teenage "first love"? An overarching ode to the otherwise generally derided 1970s automobile design? Nothing really seemed to fit, it all seemed either strained or maybe, well, a little skeevy.

So to heck with it: this is a pure vanity post. I'm going to post pictures of cars that I think are some of 1974_chevrolet_camaro-pic-61169the most beautiful ever created. Yes, I actually typed that. Yeah, yeah, everyone likes to rip on 1970s cars as being over-styled and under-powered or whatever, and I can't help but agree with a lot of the criticisms. But I'd like you, gentle readers, to step back for a bit and have a good look at the second generation of GM's F-body pony cars, the Camaro and Firebird. I think their looks, and to a fair extent their performance, actually reflect positively on that much-maligned decade in automotive history.

Now, as I mentioned above, this all might be related to that whole "first love" business, since I was in my teen years when these were being produced. So, yeah, at least for me there's something of a nostalgic air about them. But ever since I've started reading and writing here at Car Lust I've actually grown more fond of them: for the era they represent and the features of their design that, in my opinion, makes them as fresh today as they were back in the era of bell bottoms and avocado appliances. I really think they hit on a nearly ideal set of proportions and lines that manage to capture that time but also transcend it (to get a little bit metaphysical). I know I won't convince everybody, but I hope that at least a few of you out there will start to look at these wonderful examples of true pony car designs with a little more respect.

To set the proper mood, it might help to have the theme from Love Story in the background as you read this. I mean, just look at that thing!

First off, I'll just mention the "pony car" aspect to all this since I think it's important in evaluating these cars. Per the Wikipedia definition, pony cars are "an affordable, compact, highly styled car with a sporty or performance-oriented image". A lot of muscle cars were based on pony cars, but the two are not congruent. That's an important distinction, since much if not most of the disdain for many of the '70s derivatives of the classic '60s muscle cars -- specifically Mustangs and Camaro/Firebirds -- was based on the fact that these models were significantly de-muscled 'round about 1974 or so. After a brief florescence as ground-pounding muscle-bound monsters, the models that survived generally went back to their true pony car roots, along the way gathering in some other features that were coming into vogue in the 1970s. And I'm okay with that. Pony cars don't need to be particularly fast, just have a sporty air about them and a reasonable degree of performance. It's a market niche that's always been there and probably always will be.

Also, to put this post in some context, like some others, I don't particularly care for the previous generation of Camaro/Firebird (I don't really care for the later Gen-1 Mustangs either, for what it's worth). I don't really hate them, but the styling just never thrilled me. They always struck me as somewhat thrown together. "Quick, get something out the door! Make it look kind of like a Mustang but not really." The next generation, by contrast, is its own animal. It retains the long-hood/short-deck of the traditional pony car but, to my eye, is far better proportioned, more balanced, and seems to reflect a more specific overall design than earlier (or later) models. As a wise automotive sage once wrote:

The second generation's styling just seems to have been well thought out with clean lines, good proportions all around, and manages to seem elegant, powerful, and sporty all at the same time. They look good from any angle.

It brings in a bit of elegance to balance out the muscularity, creating an ideal blend of what a pony car ought to be.

And now, on to the car porn!

Let's start at the beginning, 1970:


Much like the Vega, we see that the styling might be considered more "European" and much less brawny than the earlier generation. Taught, low, clean, but perhaps more sinewy rather than muscular. Like it ought to be carving up twisty backroads at a gallop rather than grunting through a quarter mile. I don't care too much for the projecting open grill, but the basic proportions are there that's easing it ever so gently out of the muscle car era.

Here's a 1970 Trans Am from the side (source) that looks like it's moving even when it's standing still:

Is that not simply gorgeous?

I prefer the split-grille of the Pontiac; it just seems a bit more. . .civilized than the open-mouthed Camaro (source):


The major stylistic changes for 1972 were a result of stricter collision standards for 1973 -- specifically the bumpers -- although one might be hard-pressed to really notice the difference (from Wiki):


The biggest change came for the 1974 model year when horsepower had noticebly dropped and the true muscle car really became a thing of the past. The F-bodies slimmed down and lost some of the brawn they'd inherited from earlier interations -- think more Bruce Jenner and less Arnold Schwarzenegger:

That's a 1974 Firebird Esprit of Rockford Files fame.It's now a bit less swoopy, less rounded, and the nose isn't quite so prominent, which is a direct result of the new bumper requirements. The change is most noticeable on the Camaro (from Wiki):

I prefer this iteration as the nose looks more in proportion to the rest of the car. I also like the recessing of the headlights which brings the styling a bit more up to date without looking too 'futuristic'.

Things didn't change all that much for the Camaro until the next generation, primarily in the bumpers and the amount of trim involved. Here's a 1978 (from Wiki):

I think this generation really benefits from the rear spoiler. One of my criticisms of this generation is the back end which, without the spoiler, seems to end too quickly, with a whimper instead of a flair; the lack of one makes it seem too front-heavy.

One of my all-time favorites was the Berlinetta, a luxury-oriented Camaro, introduced in 1979 (source):


I've always meant to do a separate post on the Berlinetta, but there's really not much out there on it to warrant its own post and, to be honest, wasn't all that different from the others anyway, mostly a trim package, albeit with a softer suspension, probably geared more towards the feminine market. But I like it.

The Z28 became much too gaudy, IMO, especially in the all-orange getup (from Wiki):


Over on the Firebird side, perhaps the most noticeable feature of the post-'73 era was the addition of the "beak" grille spearator and square quad-headlights (source):

I much prefer the '74+ Firebirds to their Camaro brethren. They even looked good from the back (same place):

I love the taillight slats and lack of ornamention on both ends of this one, and the spoiler really makes the rear end again. Everything just seems to fit with the whole package, even the heavy duty bumpers.

And, of course, this started the whole Trans Am Screaming Chicken models:

Now, in that post, Hafner describes this as "gauche, and deeply imbued with the cheesiness characteristic of the 1970s" which I will. . . .well, not really argue against too strenuously, although I still think it's much less gauche than others I could mention (*cough* bright orange Z28 *cough*). Take away the chicken on the hood and I think it's quite a handsome car, not to mention, as Hafner notes, being an all-around solid performer. I think if I had one car to own for the rest of my life, this might be it. A little gaudy, yes, but I think the overall package is just gorgeous.

Plus, it could be worse. . . .(source):

One other thing: I really like T-tops.

As much as I liked the 1977-78's I didn't really care for what they did to the front end in '79 (source):

1979 Trans Am
At first blush it doesn't look too bad, but it eventually started to grate on me, what with that whole mish-mash of different angles and openings sticks out like a sore thumb, IMO. And it only got worse:

That one is also from Wikipedia and by that time (1981) the front fascia just totally dominated the look of the car, much to its detriment. I guess those black things are supposed to look like super-duper reverse-the-positron-flow air intakes or something. At any rate. . . .ugh.

Well, there you have it: my homage to the G2 F-Body Camaro and Firebird. For the most part, I don't ever get tired of looking at them. Yeah, maybe they weren't the fastest cars ever made, or the most maneuverable, but I think they represent a unity of design that was absent from most cars of that period and many others as well.

Credits: The top photos is from Car Gurus and the brown 1970 from Hafner's post. Others are listed within the text.

UPDATE: Slightly edited.


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Cool post! 2nd gen GM F bodies and I go back a LONG way, starting with my uncle's 4-speed 73 Brewster Green Trans Am (only year that color was offered) with the optional honeycombs.

My first was a burgundy 79 Camaro Berlinetta, but this was no ordinary measly secretary-special 305 Berlinetta like most of them were, this one was a specially-ordered 350 with a 4-speed - a rare combo for a Z28, let alone a Berlinetta. Actually still wish I had that car.

Sold the Berlinetta (still kicking myself to this day), later on bought a black 79 Z28 - 350/auto, nothing special about that one - was hoping it would recapture the fond memories that I had with the Berlinetta (it didn't).

After that one, picked up a friend's 77 Camaro Type LT for next to nothing because he was moving and wanted to dump it quickly. Nothing special about that one either, bright red 305/auto - kept it as a daily driver for a little while then sold it to another friend of mine.

When my first wife and I met, she had a brown 78 base Camaro, 305/auto - had 205,000 miles on it when we got together in 91, still ran great.

Latest was a 78 Firebird Formula (the "forgotten" Firebird, as I called it), had the L78 400/auto. Liked that one the most because (with the exception of the Berlinetta) that was one of the rarest of the F bodies. Back in the late 70s, the Trans Ams got all the glory and attention and most didn't even know the Formula even existed, but they were always more understated and could be equipped exactly like a T/A could. Sold that one a few years back.

I still think the 2nd gen F is one of GM's best designs. Look how small and low to the ground they are compared to today's cars. It was hilarious when I bought my 09 Challenger R/T home from the dealer, first thing I did was park it in the garage next to the 78 Formula - that Challenger absolutely DWARFED that car!

I didn't realize, until this post, how much (1968/C3) Corvette style influenced these cars. Looking at the "Rockford" photo, the rear quarter panel curve, roofline, rear overhang, and window glass are pure 'Vette.

"I think this generation really benefits from the rear spoiler." Yes! These cars look stripped without that spoiler now. They may have been tacked on, but they visually streamlined the car perfectly.

I had a 1974 Camaro Type LT if memory serves, and it was 7 inches longer than a '73 thanks to the new bumbers. This trim basically was renamed the Berlinetta in 1979.

But my main beef with these cars is how the bottom of the A-pillar seemed set back too far... it stopped inches back from the fender. Moving that forward at the bottom would have made the windshield raked far beyond its time, but I think that would look good today.

I'm not a Chevy fan but I've got to say that the 70-73 F-Body was one of the best looking post-war American cars.

Sadly GM did what GM did best, try to keep it viable well past its "Best By" date and it turned into a parody of itself with silly paint, body packages and smog-chocked engines. Body wise, they did the same again with the third generation car.
Then they wonder why they went broke.

I even like the 74 Firebird with the longer nose (but it still had the small rear window).

Great post!

I'm strange in that I think 1974 is when these cars got really attractive. I actually feel that way about a lot of 74 GM cars. 74 Firebird is one of my favorite cars of all.

Also nice is the one-year-only 1976 Firebird styling:

It's a very nice combo of the 74 grill together with the 77-78 bumpers.

Initially, I didn't like the soft nose (and tail) that appeared on the 78 Camaro, but I like them fine now. And don't forget it was in "Fast Times" :-)

loved the '70. Hated the larger bumper models, although by 1980 I actually considered buying a 6 cylinder Firebird as a commuter car.

Anthony, if the cars sold, and sold well, for over 10 YEARS, I doubt people found them ugly.

John B, it sounds like you weren't a fan of Malaise-era Z28s.
I read somewhere that Z28s were more boulevard-friendly than the Trans Am, which is interesting, since the T/A was supposed to be more upscale. If this is true, I guess the tables turned in the '70s.
Still, long after all the tooling was paid off, 2nd-gens just kept selling, so GM made a wise move to not get rid of them just yet (if they had their way, F-bodies wouldn't have existed past the '72 model year. That would've been a catastrophe!!)
And T/As and Formulas more than held their own, performance-wise.

While looking at the classifieds as a kid (talk about dreaming!), I found this ad that said something along the lines of "Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am for sale". Curious, I went on the internet and looked it up. I was smitten by this cat-eye'd black-gold wonder.
I later discovered that one of my first and favorite Hot Wheels was a cat-eye Firebird (the "Hot Bird").

I'll admit that when I was first starting to learn about this body style, it was difficult for me to distinguish between '74-'76 Camaros and Firebirds. And overall, it took a little while to fully like 'em completely.

From time to time there was one '78-'81 Camaro in the faculty parking lot of my high school. Seeing it brightened my day.

Oh, instead of listening to the 'Love Story' theme, how about something more worthy: Sammy Hagar's ode/commercial to the car (which he also owned one), 'Trans Am'.

♪'I EAT Z28!' Trans Am!..♪

If memory serves, the wraparound backlight was introduced for the 1975 model year.

You are correct.

Great memories... always "lusted" for the Camaro since it's inception especially the '67-'68. Couldn't believe how beautiful it was when the 2nd Gen arrived in '70-1/2.

By '74 it was less then stellar looking mostly due to massive bumpers and loss of power. By the time I was old enough and capable of buying my first new car in '77 I ended up with this one...

Looked nice and lasted about 13 years but was full of quality issues way too numerous to mention from day one. Even the dealer felt sorry for me since it spent it's first 6 weeks in their shop.

Anyway, in those days it was more about style and far too little about substance...

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