Forty-five years ago, we lived in interesting times.
The USA general election produced a landslide victory for incumbent President Richard Nixon. Yet, what laid below the surface was a major scandal that began earlier that year with the break-in at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, DC at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Meanwhile, the USA was still fighting a war in Southeast Asia. Nixon escalated the war effort in 1969, and it was not going well for our troops. Meanwhile, the Olympic games held in Munich, (West) Germany was marred by the attack on the Israeli team by a terrorist group at the athlete's village.
At home, a major change happened in our family. My father left us. He decided that after 22 years of marriage that he did not want to be a father to my brother and I and a husband to my mother.
Our Holiday season changed.
My mother tried to keep our religion at the forefront of our lives. She returned us to a Jewish household and observed Hanukkah instead of Christmas.
At the same time, we also saw a change in the automobile. The government said it was for our own good. Or, was it? You decide.
Under Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was created. It was an answer to finding a solution to ensure that we have clean air and water in our country. One of the initiatives the EPA undertook was to tell the automotive industry to find a way to lessen exhaust emissions towards achieving a pollution-free nation.
Also, the EPA reached out to the oil companies to have them introduce a lead-free gasoline for motor vehicles. It was thought that unleaded gasoline would also help reduce pollution coming from the engine.
Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stepped up on addressing vehicle and occupant safety. They mandated that automobiles sold in the USA must have a new bumper that should protect an automobile at 5 MPH. They also began to mandate the three-point seat belt to protect front seat occupants, as well.
Though these regulations were either just being implemented, or will become standards within a year or so, the first fruits of a new era in the automobile were just coming into play in the fall of 1972 at the dawn of the 1973 model year – just in time for the holidays!
Automobile manufacturers will tell you how hard change can be unless there is enough time to do the research and development of these new components.
Prior to 1972, we saw some of these changes come into play. In 1964, the Positive Crankcase Ventilation system appeared on most cars sold in the USA. Soon after, they would appear on most vehicles around the world. It was a simple first step towards meeting new tailpipe emissions standards that were being proposed for the latter part of the 1960s.
Seatbelts were being developed further by Volvo in Sweden. Volvo would become the first automaker to install three-point harnesses in their automobiles in 1959. With the impending new standard looming, we began to see more vehicles with the three-point seatbelt – not two seat belts buckled for one person – coming into play.
The most visible addition to many automobiles in the fall of 1972 was the 5 MPH bumper. The mandate for the 1973 model year basically changed the way the automobile looked. It also lengthened cars that were already long, to begin with. For example, a 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Town Sedan was 221 inches long. The 1973 model received four more inches thanks to the new bumper standard.
The American automakers were the first to implement the new bumper standard. European and Japanese automakers attempted to comply, but not everyone was on board. For the 1974 model year, we saw almost every automobile adopt the 5 MPH bumper standard. Some went further to design the new bumpers integrally to the car.
In some cases, we saw some automakers meet the bumper standard, even half-heartedly. British Leyland saw some of its famed roadsters add elongated rubber bumper guards to meet the crash impact standard. Volvo and Saab simply added thin 5 MPH bumpers on the 1973 models, though some wondered if they tried harder to fulfill their safety leadership.
The Holiday season of 1972 saw some interesting new vehicles come into North American showrooms. General Motors did a complete overhaul of the A-Body midsized cars. The past three model years saw the A-Body grow into an icon among muscle car enthusiasts. Chevrolet's Chevelle SS, Pontiac's GTO, Oldsmobile's Cutlass 442, and Buick's Skylark GS created a quadruple threat in 1970. With emissions controls and a new Society of American engineer horsepower rating standard taking place, those four iconic automobiles lost their mojo.
GM redesigned the A-Body into the Colonnade design, a notchback design that emphasized great all-around vision and a lift towards an upmarket clientele. At least, that's what Oldsmobile and Buick's customers saw when they first glanced at the Cutlass and Century/Regal respectively. Chevrolet used the new A-Body to try a new way to play with the 5 MPH bumper standard, by creating an absorbent front end for the Chevelle Laguna. Instead of the bumper being the first piece in vehicular impact, the entire front end was designed to take on the impact as a single piece with the internal frame-bumper absorbing the impact. Though this kind of design is now commonplace today, it was a revolutionary answer for Detroit to pursue.
The result was a win for Oldsmobile, as the Cutlass extended its lead as the top-selling car in the USA. The new design suited Oldsmobile perfectly, including the adoption of a new design feature that would become part of the 1970's look – the opera window.
Lincoln has been implementing the opera window on their Continental Mark IV personal luxury coupes. They took the thick C-pillar and carved an oval window into it, giving it a neo-classical look befitting of a coachbuilt car from the 1920s and 1930s. Other products began to play with the opera window, with Oldsmobile creating a small window opening after the B-Pillar for the Cutlass Supreme coupes. This window also appeared on the Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna, Buick Regal, and Pontiac Le Mans.
Car design was changing across Southeastern Michigan, but its influence was growing elsewhere. Yet, a different kind of revolution would take place in a different part of the world – Sindelfingen, (West) Germany.
The W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class was its own revolution. They took the latest innovations Daimler-Benz had been concocting – including meeting crash protection standards – and wrapped it up in a mix of classic and modern design. The W116 sported four-wheel independent suspension and disc brakes all around. In all, the new Mercedes-Benz flagship was the most innovative car at the top of the class.
No one knew how much this S-Class would have an impact on the luxury car market in the USA. Cadillacs continue to sell, but many of the new monied customers wanted something with better driving manners and higher efficiency. To do so, these new customers would have to look beyond an impactive historic event to even consider the new Mercedes-Benz flagship – World War II.
Even in the Stern household, the war was remembered with a mix of victory and anger. Our families left Europe well before World War I, therefore my mom was second-generation USA-born. She was a young teen as World War II broke out. While the Holocaust helped to improve relations with Jewish citizens in the USA, there was still resentment towards Germany – both West and East – because of it. It used to be that a Jewish family would never buy a Ford before World War II due to Henry Ford's anti-semitism. After the war, that rule has changed to German cars.
As a postwar generation began to gain success, Mercedes-Benz won over the new money. This catapulted the W116 S-Class as a threat to America's long dominance in the luxury car field.
A lot more of the World War II generation held is an equal disregard for the Japanese – the other axis power that the USA and its allies fought for some 30 years before. Part of it was fueled by this country's resentment towards "the other," something that we all thought was quelled by the end of 1968. Still, the average American wanted nothing to do with any of the "tinny crap" Toyota, Nissan (Datsun, back then), Mazda, Honda, Subaru, Mitsubishi (via Chrysler), and Isuzu (via GM) were selling on these shores.
The rest of the country forgot about California. I grew up in a market that embraced everything and everyone. Most of these brands began in that state. Through improvements, Californians saw high value in the latest wares from Japan. We helped boost the legend of the Datsun Z – heck, the idea was hatched in California. Toyota trotted out the Celica to the delight of Californians wanting a lower priced and economical Ford Mustang.
It was Honda's turn to shine. It did so by introducing the car that will get us through the impending OPEC Oil Crisis – the Civic. It was a small car – though larger than Honda's earlier offerings in the USA – one full of innovation that absorbed the upcoming new regulations head-on. Though the CVCC engine would wait until 1975, the Civic was seen as an advanced car that other subcompacts would eventually aspire to.
While the world was on a cusp of a few automotive revolutions, an oil crisis, and other historic moments, one memory came from the 1972 Holiday season. It may have been this particular Hanukkah that it happened, but it is something that pretty much defines the influences of this work.
Hanukkah is celebrated over eight nights. Tradition states that you are given gifts for each night. There was no rule on how these gifts should be given and to what weight they should be presented. At least of what I knew of this celebration of light.
Whether it was in 1972 (or the year after), I recall getting a 1/25 scale model for every night of Hanukkah. These glue-together (or snap-together….I'm relying on a scattered foggy memory here) models were my way to connect with the automobile. They were tangible, three-dimensional, and provided a challenge for someone like me. As an eight-year-old chubby kid, I can say that "I made something." They were my hobby, despite my wanting to build them as fast as they were at an assembly plant.
Model car building does have its downsides. The gluing part was not my forte. I usually over glue, which is not a smart thing to do. My painting skills were equally poor. We left some remnants of overspray on the front porch over the years. Still, I can transform a body-on-white-plastic 1973 Dodge Charger (or, was it a Plymouth Satellite Sebring?) into something…finished.
Those plastic put-together models were my link to the automobile. They brought joy as the wax from the candles on the menorah dripped down onto the kitchen table. The detail of those models gave me a deeper look into a car – putting together the engine without going deeper into the crankcase, which would help if I did. The basics were there for these AMT and MPC models. My fascination sealed the deal to my love for the automobile.
It has been decades since I last lit a menorah and said the prayer in either English or Hebrew. It has also been decades since I practiced my birth religion. I have become neutral when it comes to such things – faith and spirituality are subjects that I rarely tread and should editorially be left off of a site like this. I mention this as a historical time-space in the theme of this article, however.
The year 1972 was a time of transition and change. Some would say it was a regrettable transition, considering the consequences that would take hold in the pressing months after turning into 1973.
However you witness history, understand that memories should not be measured by good tidings and long-lasting fondness. Some memories serve as a reminder of how far one has moved forward in life. They point to a transition – good or otherwise – that one could look back, be reminded of the aftermath, and look for solutions to make things better.
For me, that would be the fall and winter of 1972.
All photos by Randy Stern