Not all cars from the decade of flared trousers and questionable politics were home-grown disasters. Here are our favourite four from the year that was 1978
Conjure up an image of the 1970s and you’ll undoubtedly picture orange, swirly-patterned walls, wood-encased TVs, shagpile carpets and plenty of beige. Not to mention avocado bathrooms and lava lamps.
However, this is stereotypical; and the same can be said for 1970s cars. Open the history books and you’ll be greeted with images of humdrum saloons, boxy hatchbacks and dubious-looking men huddled around a flaming brazier in the midst of a union-led strike. It remains a decade where, upon sobering up after the previous stint of free love and the relaxation of society, styling took a turn for the worse – but not in our eyes!
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Here are our four picks from the year that brought us Christopher Reeve’s Superman and all those infuriatingly catchy musical numbers from Grease. If time travel was a possibility, this is what our four-car garage would consist of:
1978 BMW M1
As with so many cars from the bulk of automotive history, racing pedigree usually proves an invaluable aspect of road-going kudos. In today’s world, homologation specials are the cream of the crop, giving an extra dollop of desirability and flare. BMW intended for its wedge-like M1 to be such a vehicle, yet the model grew to become so much more.
Due to delays and rule changes during the M1’s development, the highly coveted machine ended up competing in its own single-make series, raced as a prelude to the F1 Grand Prix. The fact that the cars were often piloted by the racing elite resulted in an upsurge of press interest, yet the BMW deserved recognition on its own merit.
Hitting the road with a bespoke 3.5-litre straight-six (which eventually powered the original M5 saloon), the M1’s chunky lines were penned by Giugiaro, initially as a joint project with Lamborghini. Sounds like a match made in heaven, doesn’t it? German engineering with Italian sparkle. Sadly, the car cost more than most houses, which meant only the privileged few could get their hands on one.
Seriously rare and serving up enough power to stage a coup d'état – breaching 60mph from a standstill in under 5.9 seconds, and capable of reaching 160mph – it also had an effortlessly comfortable cabin. While it may not have boasted the 800bhp churned out by the Procar racer, the result was a road-going gentleman’s car with significant racing genes.
1978 Subaru MV1800
While the PlayStation generation may worship Subaru for its Impreza and WRC dominance, the indefatigable marque from the land of the rising sun had far humbler ambitions. The four-wheel-drive technology responsible for so much silverware earned its keep within the drivetrain of the almost indestructible MV1800.
Also known as ‘the Brat’, the MV1800 offered dependability and pragmatism in a land populated with iffy American products and broken Land Rovers. Although it shared styling with the Chevrolet El Camino, the MV1800 provided Australians with a reliable hard-graft pick-up – and that’s why there are virtually none left.
Suffering a catastrophically fatal combination of off-road prowess alongside the ability to rust faster than its 0-60mph sprint, the Brat has all but ceased to exist. Coincidentally, with so few remaining, and fewer still in good condition, these retro-beasts make for unlikely collectors’ items.
1978 Mazda RX-7
Launching Mazda and its Wankel rotary engine into the public domain, the RX-7’s design and mechanicals proved that the Japanese were rapidly adapting to life outside the box. Making many competitors look like rudimentary dinosaurs, the RX-7 proved a watershed moment in the balance of power on the automotive market.
That wasn’t the only balancing act going on, however. The Wankel’s compact dimensions and low weight enabled a near-perfect, blended and poised stance, resulting in enthusiastic yet controllable handling. Nothing could touch it upon launch day. Potential buyers and high-end journalists fell over themselves to get behind the wheel.
Yet the ending was not a happy one. Besides downing fuel at an alarming rate, the engine also devoured oil faster than Oliver Reed could destroy a pint. Contrary to the belief that anything built in Japan oozes reliability, the Wankel also threw up no end of mechanical migraines, rapidly destroying itself if oil changes weren’t faithfully adhered to. It wouldn’t have proven so fatal if the service interval wasn’t a mere 1000 miles.
Today, as long as you look after it, the original RX-7 makes for an entertaining addition to any collection, with styling cues pinched from the Europeans and refined into a shape now viewed with rose-tinted glasses. The running issues may provide sceptics with solid ammunition, but who can argue with those pop-up headlamps?
1978 Matra-Simca Rancho
Ok, ok… we know the Matra-Simca Rancho debuted a year earlier, but the 1978 iteration had ironed out just enough teething issues to make living with the Tonka-Toy-alike a reality rather than a nightmare. Often viewed as a prime example of typically French over exuberance, low-volume manufacturer Matra spotted an opening in the 4x4 market long before Land Rover’s Discovery plugged the gap.
Offering swanky styling mated to the hull of a utilitarian-styled strongbox, the market is now awash with manufacturers pushing their image of shoestring nobility. However, back in the late 1970s, unless you stumped up the cash for a Range Rover V8 there was only one vehicle capable of highlighting your active lifestyle; the Rancho.
The model was built up from a parts bin of questionable trim and panels, but there was no immediate four-wheel-drive system. Rather, it was Simca’s slightly undeveloped front-wheel set-up that kept power flowing, even if the power was lackadaisical and undeniably comical.
Yet, it wasn’t all about muscle. While the engine may have lacked the torque to pull the skin off a rice pudding, the Rancho’s completely unique and irrational posture made it a legend in its own lifetime. Customers piled in and kept the image alive well into the 1980s.