Sadly, most vehicles rolling out of the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) around 1975-1985 were inefficient, overweight, underpowered, emission-gagged, behemoths. Even the compact Pinto and Vega fell short the quality, efficiency and drivability of foreign automobiles.
That was bad news then. The good news is that product improvements began for domestics in the mid-1980s, and the fine American automobiles being built since have gotten better every year through steady innovation.
Consumers who migrated to import brands in the “dark decade” actually accelerated improvement in American “iron.” You see, from 1975-1980, Honda, Toyota, Datsun (now Nissan) and Subaru accounted for over a third of U.S. auto registrations, the latter capturing nearly one-half of the southern California market. This reality shocked the domestic manufacturers into making improvements — pronto! Before this time, import registrations here didn’t even reach ten percent — typical foreign-built sightings were only the German Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, and BMW, along with some Swedish Volvos.
Prior to this period of reckoning, American manufacturers had slipped into complacency because of minimal competition. But it wasn’t only their indifference to innovation that led to the marginal product offerings of the ‘70s — it was also the advent of emissions reducing components.
Sure, the American cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s used quite a bit of fuel, but at least they had power! You know — that one-for-one response that you enjoy when you “hit the gas.” Thankfully, it’s back in most of today’s vehicles, but it was sorely missing from most of the ‘70s domestics. The power drain was due to imposed Federal vehicle emissions standards — a good concept — but the Feds wanted too much, too soon.
Instead of having time to re-engineer engines and fuel systems, the automakers were forced to use a band-aid approach to meet each upcoming year’s more stringent Federal EPA standards. The result was a deluge of smog-reducing equipment married with old-school engines, carburetors, and ignition systems. The cars were still overweight and power was steadily diminishing in low-compression, emission-laden engines — a disastrous recipe for the “go factor.” We didn’t get much driving satisfaction from these underpowered vehicles and we were using a lot of fuel to do it.
Up until the early 1970s, Americans had enjoyed 30-cent-per-gallon fuel pricing for years, but when the cost-per-gallon nearly tripled around 1975, it provided the key opportunity for the Japanese carmakers to storm our market with efficient autos — and they did!
Fortunately, due to sudden loss of market share, American ingenuity rose to the occasion. Now we have cars with all of the innovations one could want: lightweight chassis and body assemblies, overhead cam engines with computer-controlled fuel and ignition management systems, all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, traction control, active suspension, airbags, and driver-assist features that make the modern products from the Big Three true marvels of engineering accomplishment. They’ve been on a steady roll.
Will Detroit get complacent again? Not likely, since Americans still like roomy vehicles with plenty of power, the challenge will be to increase efficiency without decreasing size. With high fuel prices, and eventual shortages, manufacturers are developing alternate propulsion systems (hydrogen cell, electric, and gas-electric hybrid).
The imports have made steady advances too, but did not need to come so far. Actually, many “imports” are now built in America, and all American cars have imported parts, so the domestic-import line nowadays is a bit blurred.
Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at email@example.com.