Just don't hit the rear bumper...
Just don't hit the rear bumper...

7 of the Most Awesomely Awful American Cars of the 1970s

The 1970s is a decade that lots of people look back to with a sense of nostalgia, and it's easy to see why, especially in the case of those who weren't actually around or old enough to have experienced it first-hand. The '70s look sexy and glamorous to a lot of people, like a period when fast times and porn ’staches seemed to go hand in hand, creating a romanticized vision of a tumultuous decade. However, for fans of American automobiles, the 1970s was a troubled era, especially in comparison to the years preceding it. The muscle cars of the 1960s captured a zeitgeist that is still celebrated today, and while that trend roared into the very earliest years of the '70s, the party didn't last long. Oil shortages and new insurance and pollution regulations quickly shifted the focus of American auto manufacturers away from performance and toward economy, and the growing pains were obvious as they battled to compete against imports that had the jump on them.

In the spirit of fun (although some of these certainly weren't fun for the people who originally bought them), let's look back at some of the worst American cars of the 1970s.

7. The Ford Pinto

We might as well start the list with one of the decade's worst automotive blunders, the 1971-1980 Ford Pinto. Following (but failing) the same strategy that was used to name the Mustang, this abomination was named after a horse, but more closely resembled the bean. The subcompact car wasn't exciting to drive unless a person had the misfortune of getting hit from behind, in which case the barely protected fuel tank might burst into flame.

Pintos also had doors prone to jamming shut in wrecks, so that just added to the horrific potential of driving one. Worse still, the design flaws were known by Ford, and after doing cost analysis studies, the company decided it would be less expensive to pay settlements when the Pinto killed people than it would be to spend the $11 per car necessary to fix the problems. All in all, it was a crappy way to deal with the problems inherent in Ford's crappy car, and people still haven't forgotten.

6. The Ford Maverick

Built from 1969 to 1977, the Maverick was named for a wayward range animal and used a stylized longhorn head as part of its nameplate. The vehicle was a replacement for Ford's previous compact offering, the Falcon, and while it wasn't as good-looking as a lot of the muscle cars that were still available in the early years of its run, the Maverick wasn't an altogether hideous car. There was even a "Grabber" model, which was essentially a special trim option that jazzed things up with hood scoops and a rear spoiler, but a "muscle car" the Maverick was not.

Mercury also made a clone of the Maverick called the Comet, but neither car is looked back upon as good or much to be excited about. Ford did offer a choice of hilariously named paint colors for the Maverick, such as "Thanks Vermillion," "Anti-Establish Mint" and "Freudian Gilt" (yes, really), but that was probably the most inspiring thing about those cars.

5. AMC Gremlin

AMC was responsible for a lot of terrible '70s cars, and while a few have become icons of a sort since then, it's mostly as a cautionary tale or for comic relief. The designers of the Gremlin, built from 1970 to 1978, chose to name their car after mischievous gnomes who enjoy sabotaging mechanical equipment, which is probably not the best way to brand a vehicle you intend to sell. Supposedly the car was originally quickly sketched by design chief Richard Teague on an air sickness bag, and was slated to be sort of an AMC Javelin with its tail end lopped off. Instead, it became a subcompact design based on AMC's Hornet, another fairly uninspired '70s car, and was first introduced to the waiting(?) public on April Fools' Day in 1970.

Despite these bad omens, Gremlins weren't awful cars mechanically, and there's a cult-like following in some auto-collecting circles. They make this list mostly because, like puka shell necklaces and pet rocks, they're just so firmly associated with the ugly and goofy side of '70s style that Gremlins are a love-or-hate thing to most people.

4. AMC Pacer

We've all seen Pacers in the Wayne's World movies, and that's probably as good an introduction as any. Available from 1975 to 1980, the Pacer was designed and promoted as "The First Wide Small Car," owing to the fact that its odd-looking bubble passenger compartment was as large as that of full-size cars of the time, allowing people more space than other compact cars did. When a car's biggest selling point is how wide it is, that's pretty strange.

Besides its non-traditional fishbowl design, the Pacer featured quite a few forward-thinking safety and handling features for a car of its time, but it was a heavier vehicle than most of its direct competition, and got "okay" but not great gas mileage — something that might have been important to buyers willing to take a chance on a weird-looking compact car in the mid-'70s. Now, of course, the problem is that driving one will subject a person to constant and terrible Wayne's World references.

3. Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr

Introduced in 1978 and running into the early '80s, the Ford Fairmont and its clone, the Mercury Zephyr, make this list mostly because they're just so uninspired-looking and plain. If a car could be called "dowdy," these would definitely qualify. It's as if the designers, beaten down and depressed after years of a downturn from the glory period of American cars, just turned in the plans for these boxy, boring and plain ugly machines, probably thinking they'd hit rock bottom. If the auto designs of the 1960s had been exciting and a little dangerous, the car equivalents of being a rock star, the Ford Fairmont was the vehicular embodiment of working at the county clerk's office. Sure, it was a car and would get people around, but its uninspired styling made these look like something low-level Soviet officials might drive.

2. Chevy Vega

In 1970 Chevrolet introduced this economy car to its line, and it was a popular choice with the American public, selling in huge numbers in its first year. With just 80 hp under the hood in stock form, Vegas weren't going to light any fires in regards to performance, but they sold well enough to be considered a success for GM. Unfortunately, they soon acquired a reputation for having lots of mechanical problems, so the honeymoon was over. Major engine problems plagued Vegas, as did defective axles and problems with fires. The body was also famously prone to rusting, sometimes within only a year or two of purchase, and after three massive recalls, consumers grew tired of an underpowered vehicle that might rust out from under them if the engine didn't blow first. Production ceased in 1977.

1. Ford Mustang ll

Proving that Ford had wandered into a scary place by the early 1970s was its release of the Mustang ll, a second generation of the company's flagship pony car, but with no real connection to the Mustangs preceding it. Instead, Ford decided to base the design of the new Mustang on another "classic" — the subcompact Pinto. While the Mustang ll was popular initially and received some good reviews, it was soon clear that the cars weren't interesting enough to hold a warm spot in the hearts of America's car-buying public. They weren't fast and didn't handle well, and unlike with almost all other Mustangs, few people seem eager to restore or collect these models today.

A Vega showing its true colors. Rust.
A Vega showing its true colors. Rust.

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