Historiography: We Used To Call Them "Foreign"
Being a kid in the 1970s does have its advantages.
For example, automobiles. By 1970, the car was considered a means of transportation that expanded to employing fun into people's lives. We soon figured out that family transportation went beyond just big station wagons and comfortable sedans. Volkswagen lead the charge for people to start thinking small. Soon, manufacturers from across both oceans started sending true alternatives to the big American car. By the end of the 1960s, VW, Toyota and Datsun got Americans to consider vehicles not made in this country.
That list would continue with veteran makes, such as Volvo, Saab, Jaguar, MG, Triumph, Opel, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Renault and Peugeot. Funny how some of these names still exist on these shores today.
The American market had seen some interesting vehicles from abroad since the end of World War II, including the names already mentioned here. Most of these nameplates were disappearing by the Age of Aquarius. Chrysler would soon stop importing Simcas and Sunbeams for Mitsubishi-made Dodges and British-made Plymouths. Holden and Vauxhall were long gone from General Motors showrooms stretching from Hawaii to Maine. Ford would send the Cortina back across the Atlantic for Mercury to sell lots of German-made Capris.
While some names left American spoil, others began to pop up. An interesting observation showed that for every European nameplate departing the USA, a Japanese name would take its place. It was a transition that saw its trajectory through the 1970s. These nameplates would soon become entrenched in the American psyche after the end of the 1970s.
So did we see this transition? What impact did the OPEC Oil Crisis had on our foreign car market? Why did these Europeans leave for the Japanese to take its place?
Why do we take these names for granted?
The answers to all of these questions would lead to one thing: It was more than just the Oil Crisis. Part of it was currency exchange and how it affected operations in the USA. European currencies were losing favor to the Japanese Yen. The strength of the Japanese economy would enable Toyota and Nissan (referred to as Datsun for this article) to strengthen their presence in the American market. It also opened up the door for Honda, Toyo Kogyo (er, Mazda) and Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) to set up shop or expand their presence with innovative products for sale here.
On the flip side, European manufacturers were getting beaten at their own game by the Japanese. Even more aspirational brands began to close shop. Citroen gave its grand finale with a Motor Trend Car of The Year award for the SM coupe, co-developed with partner Maserati. German automaker NSU was unable to sell their Wankel rotary-engined car stateside with no one understanding what it was supposed to do. British Leyland consolidated most of the UK's car brands into a showroom that resembled a hodgepodge of similar product.
Oddly enough, a European nameplate began to make its presence known by the end of the 1960s. Audi bucked the trend by emerging out of the shadows of NSU as a newly minted partner of Volkswagen. In 1970, a new company was formed to not only sell Audis in Anerica, but to partner with Porsche by doing so. The Porsche+Audi dealer chain became a main destination for enthusiasts.
To look further at how the 1970s took shape within the so-called foreign car contingent, I wanted to recall some of the vehicles that influenced me from these far away places. Vehicles that engaged help frame my childhood., even of my parents did not ever get a chance to own them. Some of these vehicles would become legends in their time. Others were simply reminders of a time when things were a bit simpler.
For the first part of the 1970s, Buick sold GM's German brand Opel at their dealerships. They did so because of the popularity of small cars to augment their larger lineup. In 1970, the mid-sized Skylark was the smallest offering by Buick. Opels were quite popular as a cheaper alternative to established Teutonic brands – including Volkswagen. They were conventional, as the Kadett was a front engine/rear drive compact available in various body styles – including a wagon.
Starting in 1969, Buick began to expand Opel's presence in America. First was a two-seat answer to the Corvette – the Opel GT. It's C3 inspired looks grabbed our attention. That front end with pop-up headlamps, leaning towards a swoopy fastback body that was undeniably sexy. The only thing that did not match the C3 was the GT's 1.9 liter four-cylinder engine. It did not inspire quarter-mile aspirations, but it certainly showed us some moves when twisting through some very nice roads in its wake.
Buick also brought in a larger Opel, that would eventually take over for the Kadett at the bottom of the lineup. The Germans called this car the Ascona, as we called it simply the Opel 1900. Then came the most beautiful coupe known in the GM range outside of America – the Manta. In Europe, this would be considered a medium range coupe with both sports and luxury editions. We got pretty much the same thing, with the GT's 1.9 liter engine and a smoother ride. It also had the moves of the GT, which is why you saw them participating in the rally circuit back in the day.
Also by 1970, Mazda had set forth a plan to convert Americans into rotary engine drivers. NSU failed because people were not ready for Wankel's motor. Mazda thought "maybe we can do this." They dropped their Wankel engine under the hood of the Familia sedan and coupe. Once they made their way to the States, they were rechristened the R100. This was followed up by the larger Capella sedan and coupe, known here as the RX-2. The old Familia spawned a more modern version that was a bit larger – about the size of a Toyota Corolla. Called the Grand Familia back in Japan, the RX-3 and its piston-engined partner, the 808, showed up alongside the RX-2. Mazda even added a rotary-engined pickup to the lineup. They were indeed bullish on the Wankel throughout the 1970s.
It was not about the cars themselves, but the euphoria around this new kind of engine. There were some drawbacks, however. Being carburated, they were not all that powerful or efficient. Although, you could add more power to the rotary, but that would come at a worse cost to fuel economy. Eventually, the rotary would find a suitable home in perhaps one of the most iconic cars of the decade – the RX-7.
In-between the R100 and the RX-7 were some very interesting Mazdas. The Cosmo became the first Japanese luxury coupe on sale in the USA. In truth, the Cosmo was actually more affordable than the Ford Thunderbird of its time. Ironically, the Cosmo would be replaced by the RX-7 in Mazda's USA lineup by 1978.
Being a quarter Alsatian, I used to have a fascination about my French heritage. Some may argue that Alsatians were more German than French, but that is another unrelated topic. Obviously, being French steered towards looking at French cars. After Citroen left the American market, only Peugeot and Renault remained. Some people thought that they were a bit behind the trends on some aspects. However, the Peugeot 504 offered a diesel engine option. When the Oil Crisis came to an end, some people thought diesel was a viable option for customers looking for better fuel economy. What they got instead was a slow car spitting out a lot of noise and dirty exhaust.
For some odd reason, my father was interested in the 504. They were part of a new design wave that hit Europe in the mid-1960s as a push to modernize the automotive industry. Yet, the 504 was undeniably French with its smooth, balanced suspension and accommodating cabin. This car actually kept Peugeot in the US market for another decade, though it was replaced by the now upmarket 505 for 1980.
This left us with Renault. No one knew that Le Regie would become a player in the American automotive industry by the 1980s. Before that, they had a curious little car for us to buy – the Le Car. Elsewhere, the affably named Le Car would be known as the Renault 5. It was an innovative subcompact that worked the roads of Europe with its longer wheelbase, smooth ride and willing driveline.
Then, it came to America. It was great on fuel, which helped its cause in the face of downsizing American metal. Yet, it was only available in a manual. This was an interesting development since we saw an uptick of American drivers opting for an automatic rather than engaging a clutch, like their ancestors had to. Some may argue that the Le Car had no chance against its rivals – mainly the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit. Incidentally, those two rivals offered automatic transmission options.
Perhaps the saddest story to be told of the 1970s was British Leyland. Maybe it was not a sad story after all, thanks to all of the inefficiencies the company had through the many mergers it went through. That lead to constant labor actions that shut down many parts of the company along with a terrible reputation for quality.
My hometown of Reseda had a small showroom selling all of BL's brands. It was indeed a hodgepodge of offerings, some even competing against each other. MG was the most popular brand with its iconic roadsters, although Triumph had its own line of roadsters. One had to decide whether they wanted a MGB or a Spitfire, as they were pitted against each other. You also had a selection of Austins, Land Rovers, Rovers and Jaguars – all under one roof.
If you loved British cars, a British Leyland dealership was a candy store. But, no one really knew how bad the candy was. People bought Jaguar XJs only to swap them for Small Block Chevrolet V8s. The Austin Marina was simply the worst car sold in this country in 1974…worst than the Ford Mustang II or the Chevrolet Vega! Even the AMC Gremlin was much better than the Marina!
If one car defined the 1970s for me, it was the Toyota Celica. It was a coupe that came at the right time in America. It looked like a Ford Mustang with some bits of AMC Javelin and Dodge Challenger thrown in. Yet, the original Celica was pure and full of excitement. Its 1.9 liter engine matched the prowess of its contemporaries, including the Opel GT and Manta. The chassis was shared with the Carina – a car that showed up in this country for a minute.
There were other cars that made my childhood full of fond memories – the W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the original Datsun 240Z, the Volvo 164/264, the Saab 900 and so forth. Where the Celica stands is based on a single story. Though I do not recall whether this happened or not, I recall being brought into the Principal's office at Vanalden Elementary School in Reseda. Supposedly, he knew about my early knowledge of automobiles. As the story goes, he asked what car he should buy (a familiar question by a lot of you over the years…). I supposedly said the Toyota Celica. Mind you, this was in 1971 – it's first year – and I as in First Grade! He bought one…and kept for a very long time. End of story.
Actually…no, it is not the end of the story. The one thing the Toyota Celica brought to the game was the fact that it combined contemporary style with outstanding reliability. Toyotas were made to last back then and the Celica was a refreshing symbol for enthusiasts to grab hold of. Eventually, it became the vanguard of a new class of affordable coupes that did not need high horsepower to excite the driver.
The 1970s were a fond time in my life. I learned so much about the automobile that I forgot I had to do school work. So many cars have come and gone during that decade. Even that ebb and flow helped make things interesting during a time when gas shortages, emissions controls and new safety regulations made for some interesting machinations.
Foreign cars actually signaled the future of where the automotive world was heading to. They showed us that small was good and had staying power. There was something deeper than just this observation of the decade. The tide turned towards Japanese automakers over European ones in mainstream markets, while premium brands from Germany, Sweden and Britain were growing taking key customers away from the domestics.
What a wonderful time it was.
All photos by Randy Stern