Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The 1970s – America and the Automobile: An Era Often Forgotten, Rarely Celebrated, Yet Certainly Pivotal

The 1970s – America and the Automobile: An Era Often Forgotten, Rarely Celebrated, Yet Certainly Pivotal






Introduction:

Perhaps it was fitting in opening the decade of the 1970s that the first advertisement found in the January 1970 issue of Popular Science was from the French auto manufacturer Renault, proclaiming that “the Horse is Better than most 1970 Cars.” The ad copy went on to state that “we are not joking. The run-of-the-mill 1970 car is an affront to progress. It’s too expensive to buy. And too expensive to run. It’s almost impossible to park and maneuvering it through city traffic would try the nerves of a saint.”  Truthful but ironic, since early 70s Renault automobiles were prime examples of poor quality and unreliability.  Renaults might be easy to park, but they had first had to start and run without the constant intervention of a skilled mechanic!  Yet the ad made several points. First, the American automobile industry had been deliberately going sideways in terms of progress and technological innovation for decades, the consequence of “Big Three” annual model change, and the primacy of styling and gimmickry over engineering.  Additionally, automobiles were expensive proposition for the average American, even with prevailing gasoline prices hovering around 25 cents per gallon. The cost of repairs – all too frequent given product quality – along with depreciation, and increasing insurance rates, began to sour a tenuous love affair.  Despite the fact that the times were changing during the 1960s,  Americans for the most part were big people, with still large families (averaging three children), who enjoyed big cars. But urban areas were becoming increasingly congested, and the automobile, for decades seen as integral to American freedoms and prosperity, began to be questioned by critics as a social problem instead of a unbridled blessing.
The decade of the 1970s, at least from the vantage point of the history of the automobile industry, began in 1968, a year of momentous change politically, socially, economically, and technologically. Vietnam and the draft, Richard Nixon, and the advent of the Intel 8088 microprocessor provide a broad context and background to the widespread appearance on American shores of Datsun, Toyota, Honda, and BMW vehicles and their gradual acceptance. It was the opening scene in a story that witnessed a decade during which America moved away from manufacturing to finance, from energy independence to dependence, and the painful recognition of limits of power.

My own experiences – automotive and otherwise – mirror the ambivalence of the age.  Astonishingly, perhaps, my best car during the decade was a 1973 Ford Pinto! No wonder this time has to be forgettable, you may ask! That Pinto was a trooper of a car, powered by a 1.6 liter Kent engine that never quit. And contrary to my student’s perceptions, that car did not explode and kill its occupants! In contrast, my 1974 Capri V-6 was my first (and last) new car, a vehicle plagued with issues that included a clutch cable that kinked no matter how many times replaced, often at the most inconvenient times as I was crossing the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans.  The Capri was equipped with water pumps that lasted less than 1000 miles. And those were the good ones, as several pumps could not be bolted on properly because flanges were not machined flat and thus the uneven pumps fractured when bolted down!   To add insults to injuries, at the end of the decade my family purchased a 1979 Chevy Malibu that I subsequently inherited, featuring the infamous THM-200 transmission that consistently overheated before blowing the pan gaskets and spilling the tranny fluid.. That problem was only solved after I tore that transmission out and replaced it with one proper for a V-8 engine. And it seems that everyone from my generation has similar car story disasters to tell, whter it be about Ford Mustang IIs or an Oldsmobile with Chevrolet engines.

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