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  • Calling it the automotive dark ages doesn't do the 1970s justice. It was worse. Apocalyptic. Nothing but fuel shortages, EPA regulations, weak smog motors and big bumpers. Oh and the institution of the national 55 mph speed limit. Vegas, Pintos, Gremlins and Cordobas, it was like everyone wanted a horrible car. The '70s gave us weak sauce Corvettes with as little as 160 hp, four-banger Mustangs and it was the first decade with bad Cadillacs. 

    But it's never all bad. Even the Early Middle Ages gave us the world’s first universities as well as Algebra and great advancements in art and architecture. And the apocalypse spawned Mad Max and his blown Falcon. Despite it all, there were some great cars borne during the malaise of the 1970s. Cars any car enthusiast would give a limb to own. These 11 are some of the greatest. 

  • Image Credit: FCA
  • Lamborghini Countach LP400
  • What’s the quickest way to make a Porsche 930 look like a VW Beetle? Park one next to a Lamborghini Countach LP400. It’s not only the absolute greatest car Lamborgini has ever made, it’s the absolute coolest car ever made. Designed by Marcello Gandini at Bertone, the original Countach, before all the flares and scoops and wings that would come later, is stunning in its remarkable extremity.

    These things now cost $1,000,000. And it’s about freakin’ time. Power comes from a 4.0-liter DOHC V12 longitudinally mounted in its middle making 370 hp. But the coolest thing about these cars isn’t the styling, or the power, or the speed, or the way the doors open or the sound of its V12 or its enormous NACA ducts. It’s how small they are. They look big in photos, but walk up to a Countach and you’ll be amazed how tiny it is. At just 163-inches long, an LP400 is the same length as a Kia Soul. Take a second and let that sink in. 

  • Image Credit: Lamborghini
  • Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda
  • If monetary value equals greatness, this is the greatest car of the 1970s. It’s also the greatest muscle car of them all. It’s by far the most valuable. Plymouth built 276 Hemi Cudas in 1970, including 14 convertibles. The coupes are now worth a few hundred thousand dollars, while the convertibles sell in the millions. The Barracuda was redesigned for 1970, and it was now finally wide enough to accept Chrysler big-block 440 wedge engine as well as the physically enormous 426 cubic-inch Hemi V8, which was so large the street racing rats nicknamed it The Elephant.

    Rated at 425-hp, the 426 Hemi was one of the most powerful engines available in the original muscle car era, and Chrysler offered it in many models throughout the Dodge and Plymouth lines. And while any Hemi car is valuable today, the Hemi ‘Cuda tops that list because, in addition to the rarity, it’s the smallest car you could buy that year with Chrysler’s largest, most powerful engine. And that’s what greatness is all about. 

  • Image Credit: Mecum Auctions
  • Ferrari 308 GTS
  • Long before the late 1970s, Ferrari was Ferrari, winning racing and providing road cars to royalty and Hollywood royalty for decades. But it’s the mid-engined, V8-powered 1977 Ferrari 308 GTS with its removable roof panel, which debuted at that year’s Frankfurt Auto Show, that made the brand a household name. Blame Tom Selleck’s mustache if you want, but it was the beauty of the Pininfarina-designed 308, along with its relatively attainable pricetag, that created this monster.

    This was and still is the everyman’s Ferrari. In the Disco days this is the car you bought if your drywall business took off and in the early eighties it became synonymous with stock brokers. Its success was so astronomical that it remained Ferrari’s best-selling model ever until its twice removed ancestor, the 360, became even more popular. More than 12,000 308s were built from 1975-1985. Compared to previous Ferraris that’s practically mass production. Today, they’re finally getting the respect they deserve, as prices climb. 

  • Image Credit: Mecum Auctions
  • Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD455
  • By 1973 there were gas lines and everyone knew the party was over – except the folks at Pontiac. That year they added an engine option to Trans Am that would last just two years and become a legend. It was the Super Duty 455, a special high-performance version of the brand’s 250 hp 455 cubic inch V8, which was standard in the Trans Am. No smog-equipment-choked motor here. The SD455 may have looked like every other Trans Am, but it was way beyond 'em. This engine used a special reinforced block, different heads and valvetrain, as well as forged pistons, a special intake manifold and header-style exhaust manifolds. It was rated 310 hp in 1973 and 290 hp in 1974.

    The result was the fastest, most powerful American car you could buy and the last American muscle car with more than 300 hp for more than 20 years. Few were built, just 295 in 1973 (including 43 Formulas) and 943 in 1974.

  • Image Credit: Mecum Auctions
  • BMW 320i
  • Its predecessor, the BMW 2002, did most of the heavy lifting, but the very first BMW 3-Series arrived in 1977 and began to change America’s sporty luxury car market forever. By the mid-1980s no self-respecting yuppie with a brick phone was without one. Incredibly, forty years later the market it disrupted is still playing catch up. Its chassis code was E21 and it was available in the U.S. only as the two-door 320i.

    Its hardware was mostly leftover from its predecessor, including its rear-drive layout, MacPherson strut front and trailing arm rear suspension. It power front disc/rear drum brakes weren’t really new either. Under the hood was a 2.0-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder rated at 110 horsepower. The standard transmission was a 4-speed manual, but a 3-speed automatic was optional. Americans had discovered the German sports sedan. Cars with European prestige that handled and stopped even better than they drag raced. And they liked it.  

  • Image Credit: Manufacturer
  • Porsche 911 Turbo
  • It was officially the 911 Turbo. But to anyone that knows, it’s referred to by its internal project code: 930. Production began in 1975, although it didn’t arrive in the United States until 1976. And then, in 1978 it received a handful of updates and became the most feared Porsche of its generation, both by its competition and its drivers. Displacement grew from 3.0 to 3.3-liters, boost was cranked up to 11.4 psi and air-to-air intercooling was added, which dictated the switch from the Whale Tail to the model’s now signature Tea Tray rear spoiler. This was also the first street engine with a production waste-gate to limit boost. Larger cross drilled brake rotors were also right off the racetrack .

    This car was the pinnacle of Porsche at the time and represented everything its engineers knew. Power was huge for the time at 261-hp and the 930’s top speed of 165 mph was stratospherical. Infamous for its turbo lag and lift-off oversteer, the 930 was either the most fun car ever made or a deathtrap depending on you driving skill and perspective. Plus, Steve McQueen drove one.

  • Image Credit: Mecum Auctions
  • Jeep CJ7
  • After the Jeep helped saved the world from tyranny in 1945, the civilian Jeep – or CJ – quickly went into production. But it really didn’t become civilized until the redesigned Jeep CJ7 was introduced in 1976. Thanks to a 10-inch longer wheelbase and a redesigned suspension, the Jeep CJ7 was not only more capable off-road, it was far more comfortable to sit in and much more stable on the road than previous Jeeps. It was also the first Jeep available with leather seats, a tilt steering wheel, steel doors, a weather tight hardtop and a full-time all-wheel drive system. Now a Jeep could be realistically be driven daily. The public ate them up. Sales exploded.

    The CJ7 stayed in production for 11 years and was the genesis of the extensive Jeep lifestyle still thriving today with events, dedicated publications and extensive aftermarket support. The CJ7 was also the catalyst for the continued popularity and civility of today’s Wrangler as well as the SUV craze that only continues to grow. Plus, Daisy Duke drove one. 

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  • Ford Mustang
  • By the end of the decade it had gotten pretty bleak for American performance car fans. These guys desperately needed some love if they were going to keep the lights on. The Corvette was now a joke and the Camaro and Firebird were still living in the past. Jumping in front of a speeding Honda Civic CVCC was starting to look pretty good, and then Ford pushed aside the Mustang II and introduced the Fox-body Mustang in 1979. The Five Oh was born. The future of American automotive performance suddenly had something to work with. It was lightweight, attractive (especially as the Indy 500 pace car) and it was V8-powered. It was as if Ford had turned on the lights. It wasn’t much at first. Power was a bleak at just 140 hp, and Car and Driver tested one recording 0-60 mph times of 8.3 seconds and a quarter mile run of 17 seconds at 85 mph. It didn’t matter. The fuse was lit.

    By 1986 the second muscle car era was in full swing and the Mustang 5.0, along with the Buick Grand National and IROC Camaro were fighting for streetlight supremacy from sea to shining sea. And today we have Hellcats. Without this car, it may have never happened. 

  • Image Credit: Manufacturer
  • Chevrolet Chevelle SS454 LS6
  • Although the handwriting was on the wall, as the government and the insurance agencies began to make car a four letter word, 1970 was a high water mark in American car design and performance. And the 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS454 LS6 was the panicle of the original muscle car era. Aside from is timeless beauty and iconic hood and deck stripes, the LS6 Chevelle was powered by the largest and highest factory power rated V8 engine ever put into an American performance car until the 2006 Corvette Z06. LS6 is the option code for the Chevelle’s 454 cubic inch V8, which was factory rated at an incredible 450 hp at 5,600 rpm and 500 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. And these solid-lifter big port Chevys liked to rev, the LS6 redlined at 6.500 rpm.

    Car Craft magazine tested one in November of 1969 and it ran the quarter mile in 13.15 seconds at 107 mph. Scorching performance for the day, especially when you consider the tires. Compared to Chrysler’s Hemi cars, Chevy built a ton of these things, nearly 4,500 including less than 20 convertibles, and they are highly sought after collectables today.

  • Image Credit: Mecum Auctions
  • Dodge Lil’ Red Express
  • Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in 1978 Dodge’s engineers found a loophole in the emissions regulations and created one of the most legendary vehicles of the decade, the Lil’ Red Express pickup. Dodge realized light trucks were exempt from using catalytic converters if their Gross Vehicle Weight rating was above 6,000 pounds and Dodge’s smallest D-Series pickup, the D-150 step side, had a GVW rating of 6050 pounds. The engineers threw parts at the truck’s 360 cubic inch V8 until it made 225 hp and backed it with a beefed automatic and 3.55 gears.

    The result was the fastest American vehicle you could buy in 1978. Faster than the Corvette, the Trans Am or the Camaro Z28. The package also included chrome slot mags, gold pinstripes, door graphics, 60-series white letter tires, red paint only and two big chrome functional exhaust stacks just like a real live eighteen wheeler. You gotta remember this was at the height of the whole trucker CB thing and movies like Smokey and the Bandit where blowing up the box office and B.J. and the Bear was the hot new show on TV. The Lil’ Red Express lasted two years. 10-4?

  • Image Credit: Mecum Auctions
  • Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle
  • The greatest car of the 1970s is this one. How can it not be? It drove on the moon. Battery powered, the LRV was a four-wheeled car first driven on the lunar surface in 1971 by astronauts David Scott and Jim Irwin during the Apollo 15 mission. The other two were racing around the big piece of cheese in the sky during Apollo 16 in 1972 and the Apollo 17 mission also in 1972. Ultimately four were created (one spare) by Boeing at a cost of $38 million. On Apollo 15 the LRV was driven a total of 17.3 miles in 3 hours, 2 minutes. The longest single trip was 7.8 miles. Talk about range anxiety. Each wheel had its own electric drive and both sets of wheels would turn in opposite directions for maneuverability. 

    According to NASA’s website, power was provided by two 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries with a capacity of 121 amp-hr. The LRV weighed just 463 lbs. and could hold a payload of 1080 lbs. Its aluminum frame was 122-inches long with a wheelbase of 90.6-inches. The wheels were a spun aluminum hub wearing tires made of zinc coated woven steel strands. Titanium chevrons covered 50% of the contact area for traction. It is, as far as we know, the only car to have driven in outer space. 

  • Image Credit: Manufacturer
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