The 1970s had it all: cheap muscle cars, great music, British cars, German cars, and the coolest Japanese cars ever built.
Getting a license in the 1970s meant unbridled freedom. If you got your license during the Nixon/Ford/Carter years, then here are some experiences you probably remember.
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Your High School Parking Lot Looked Like the Set of Dazed and Confused
These days, directors, set decorators, transportation coordinators and movie car wranglers work really hard to get the cars right in films set in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, though, every director but one thought that movies set in the 1970s were just fine as long as every high school kid drove a Camaro or a Corvette.
The exception was Richard Linklater, and his movie Dazed and Confused. The film took place on a single day — May 28, 1976 — and it depicted the last day of school at Lee High School in the suburbs of Austin, Texas.
The direction is great, the 8-track favorites soundtrack is on the money, and the cast featured future box office titans like Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey.
But the cars and trucks in the movie are a perfect microcosm of what a high school parking lot in the 1970s looked like. Yeah, there’s a Camaro and a Pontiac GTO here and there, but the bulk of the parking lot is loaded with 1970s kid cars like the AMC Gremlin on the left. Cars like the brown Buick LeSabre were probably there to represent teachers’ cars, and the rest of the field was made up of 1960s and 1970s Ford and Chevy pickups, Plymouth Dusters, Chevy Malibus.
The one notable exception is Wooderson’s LS-5-powered Chevelle SS. But Wooderson had been out of high school for four years.
You Had a Matchbook Jammed Under Your Meatloaf 8-Track
Long before MP3s, CDs and Cassettes, you — intrepid 1970s driver — suffered through the indignity of the 8-Track player that you blew a week’s salary from collecting carts at the supermarket to purchase at Radio Shack.
After approximately 11 days, the tape would no longer align with the playing head, making a matchbook required equipment in all 8-track equipped cars. You fiddled with it while driving the car, ashing a Lucky Strike in the ash tray and drinking a Mr. Pibb.
You Had No Idea How Seatbelts Worked Until 1993
The only people who wore seatbelts in the 1970s must’ve worked for NHTSA. Manufacturers had been installing them in cars since 1968 when they were ordered to by the federal government, and from that point forward, car builders and policymakers tried everything to get people to use them. First was just a gentle reminder on the dash. Then there was a light on the dash. Then a light and a buzzer. Then a buzzer that wouldn’t turn off, so you pulled the fuse, or you wrapped the seatbelt behind you instead of just clicking it over your body the way the manufacturer intended.
It wouldn’t be until the 1980s until states encouraged seatbelt use. In 1993, that all started to change as California passed the nation’s first seatbelt law that made not wearing one a primary violation, meaning you could be stopped and ticketed just for not wearing one, rather than having to be stopped for a more serious violation first.
Four-Doors Were For Your Mom
It wasn’t until the 1980s that four-door cars really started to be seen as something other than what your grandpa drove. Sedans from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz started their widespread march across the country, and coupes and convertibles started to fade away.
In the ’70s, though, the cool kids drove coupes. The sedan was the Dodge Dart that your mom drove and handed down to you when she picked up that cute new Plymouth Horizon. They were cars you wouldn’t have purchased on your own, ever, but would drive if you absolutely had to until you could scrape enough money together for a Duster.
You Couldn’t Buy Gas
We’re enjoying a period of relatively affordable gasoline prices at a national average of $2.29 per gallon. If $2.29 was the average price for a gallon of gas in 1974, all hell would’ve broken loose and the world would’ve ground to a halt.
But it wasn’t the price of gas that was the problem during the 1973 Oil Embargo: It was the fact that there simply wasn’t enough to go around. Regions tried all kinds of schemes to keep cars filled, including odd-even rationing based on your plate number, a maximum number of gallons purchased at any given time, a flag system signaling when you could fill up, and flat out station closures.
You Had a Minitruck
In just a few short years, minitrucks went from the domain of Japanese gardeners in southern California to the hottest vehicle segment to come along since the Volkswagen Beetle. They were affordable, durable, handsome little trucks that offered good fuel economy like a compact car, but the usefulness of a bed for hauling around other kids, who (as mentioned earlier) had a natural aversion to anything remotely safe.
Datsun and Toyota owned the market, but by the mid-1970s, domestic automakers launched their own lines of small pickup trucks. Ford and Chevy started out selling captive imports – Japanese pickups rebadged as American brands – like the smartly styled Ford Courier and Chevy LUV.
Before long, though, Ford, Chevrolet and GMC were building their own compact pickups in the form of the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet S10 and GMC S15. Dodge hung in with the Mitsubishi-sourced Ram 50 until it built its own truck, but it was the upsized Dodge Dakota instead of a true minitruck.
The Car You Drove Is Now a “Collector Car”
Really special cars like COPO Camaros and SD Trans Ams were always pretty expensive, but in the mid-1970s, you could purchase a 1967 Pontiac GTO by saving the money you earned cutting grass all spring and summer.
A recent scan of the archives of the Chicago Tribune from 1974 shows you could buy a ’73 Charger SE for $2,995.
(Image Source: Chicago Tribune)
You Drove a Car From a Brand That No Longer Exists
“Orphan cars,” they’re called, but in the 1970s, they were produced by brands with proud histories, at a rate that modern car companies would love to achieve today.
Beginning in 1977 and continuing for several years during the 1980s, Oldsmobile sold a million cars a year, rivaling car companies like Ford and Chevrolet. Twenty five years later, Oldsmobile would cease production completely, something that few drivers in the 1970s could have foreseen.
Storied American car brands like Pontiac, AMC, Plymouth and Mercury were all still going concerns in the 1970s, and they are all history now. European and Japanese brands left America, but are still largely in the car business elsewhere.
You Had a CB
When the fuel embargo hit, the Citizen’s Band radio burst forth into America’s popular culture when “River Rat” J.W. Edwards and his Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association of America staged a national trucker’s strike protesting the spiraling costs of fuel, fuel shortages, and reduced speed limits. Edwards and other truckers used CB radios to their advantage and pulled their trucks across I-80 in Pennsylvania, completely blocking the highway for ten days. Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp was forced to activate National Guard units to provide security.
Independent truckers suddenly became synonymous with outlaw folk heroes like Jesse James and Clyde Barrow, and their populist image was about to rocket to the stratosphere thanks to advertising jingle writer Dale Fries, Jr. He was the creative director at an advertising agency in Omaha, Nebraska, called Bozell & Jacobs. He’s more popularly known by his stage name, C.W. McCall. He wrote and produced the song “Convoy” that would make CB lingo dinnertime talk in half the homes in America.
“Convoy” and all the things it would inspire — Smokey and the Bandit, B.J. and the Bear, White Line Fever — were instrumental in the aftermarket electronics industry selling millions of CB radios to everyone from preachers to your third grade teacher. It was the Internet of the 1970s.
Bicentennial All The Things!
America’s 200th Birthday was reason enough to put red, white and blue bunting on everything that wasn’t nailed down, and most of the things that were.
Automakers quickly jumped on the bandwagon. Cadillac ran a series of 200 Bicentennial Edition Eldorados in Cotillion White with a white top, and a white leather interior with red seat piping, dash, seatbelts, and carpet. Blue-and-red pinstriping outlined the massive hood, with red pinstriping on the flanks. The gold dash plaque signified: “This 1976 Fleetwood Eldorado is one of the last 200 identical U.S. production convertibles.”
If the Eldo was a subtle nod to the Bicentennial, Chevy donned the full Uncle Sam package. If they could’ve bolted a “Spirit of America” badge to your Frigidaire, they would have. Spirit of America trim ended up on the Impala, the Vega and the Nova that year:
Nothing says “USA! USA! USA!” more than a Spirit of America plow truck.
(Editor’s Note: There’s a bunch of photos in this story from Keith McManus that ran in the Sun-Sentinel. They’re not all car pictures, but if you’re nostalgic for the the golden era of teenage driving, spend some time with them.)