Dave Faries here, still thinking about iconic American cars of the decades.
I tried to condense the subject into one of our Car Week cover stories in this week’s print edition of the Weekly. But it is a big concept and somewhat flawed, at least when it involves Detroit’s lost decades.
Few speak kindly of American cars and car culture of the 1970s and ’80s. In the wake of new emissions and safety standards issued in the early ’70s, as well as the oil crisis that sent gas prices soaring (although the increase probably looks unimpressive from our current vantage point), American manufacturers stumbled. Granada, Gremlin, Pacer, Pinto, Cordoba, Vega, LeBaron—such names litter the era.
Several experts, including John Kraman of Mecum Auctions; Tom Matano, a long time automobile designer and honorary judge at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance; and Leslie Kendall of Petersen Automotive Museum, told me that the truly representative American vehicles of those decades were Japanese.
Matano, who helped design the Mazda Miata that reintroduced the roadster to U.S. highways, says that Japanese manufacturers of the era “didn’t have baggage from the past.” He infers that a history of annual model year changes—planned obsolescence—can hinder the advancements necessary when sudden change causes a dramatic shift in consumer demand.
When Japanese manufacturers entered the American market, they studied how people actually used their vehicles. Matano recalls that Toyota went to the extent of purchasing a suburban American home and bringing it to their design center to show the scale of life on this side of the Pacific. Space was at a premium in Japan.
At the same time, he says, German manufacturers were becoming serious about aerodynamics. Matano joined BMW to learn how to allow cars to slip through the air.
But as an automotive historian, Kendall has a different perspective of Detroit’s output in the ’70s and ’80s. “Not everything is important for what it did right,” he explains, speaking of throw away cars like the Granada. “A lot of people drove those things.”
He points out that Chrysler’s boxy, blah “K cars” brought the convertible back to the market. Due to safety concerns under the new regulations, American manufacturers had stopped producing convertibles. And they began to follow the lead of others. Ford’s Thunderbird and Taurus, for example, were designed with aerodynamics in mind.
“From a styling standpoint it was a huge influence,” Kraman says of the Taurus. “That’s an important car.” He also highlights the Honda Civic—“it was a high quality build and reliable” as important from the period.
It was in this time that manufacturers began working toward electric builds, as well, although the EV1 was short-lived. While I looked to the past, Sara Rubin’s story addressed the electric future in this week’s Car Week-themed issue.
“No one wants to remember, but it wasn’t that bad,” Kendall says.
And maybe no one will remember. Something like 2 million Granadas were built for the U.S. market. Just 5,000 remain, many in sorry condition. Occasionally a Pinto or Vega will roll across the Mecum auction block, but more as a novelty. Mecum brought one to Monterey in 2019. I sat in on an early-morning production meeting before their television auction and the disgraced vehicle came up in conversation around the table.
“I’m all over the Pinto,” reporter Katie Osborne said with a smile. But they ended up not featuring the car in their broadcast.
Car Week comes to an end today. The 10-day span included events like the Prancing Ponies car show in Carmel. As Pam Marino explained in her story, Carmel once hosted three events. It’s unlikely any of us spotted one of the American discards on display in Carmel or at the other events of Car Week. It’s doubtful a Taurus came up for auction. And it would be surprising even for highly praised imports like the Civic to appear on the Concours.
I did, however, appreciate that automotive experts do not dismiss them entirely. Me, on the other hand…