As we continue reading through our 1970s Road & Tracks, absorbing the culture of the times and trying to note the differences with today, there’s one thing which truly stands out: foreign cars in the US were often spectacularly unsuited for the market.
I’m not talking here about Ferrari, Mercedes or BMW. Like today, those factories knew what they were doing, offering a superior product at a premium price. Likewise, Japanese imports, taking advantage of the weak Yen and effective quality procedures, had a chokehold on the lower end of the market which they only relinquished to Korea in the 2000s, mainly because Japan had more profitable fish to fry (or to fillet and eat as sushi, I guess).
But in 1972, a road test of a Renault 15 was included on the cover. I assume it was supposed to be a selling point, but it might simply have been for the comic relief. I can hardly think of a worse car to try to sell in the US, unless it’s a Peugeot 304 or a Saab Sonett (see the other cover). Simply stated, peopel were much quirkier and individual back then, apparently enough to buy a Saab Sonett of all things. That’s probably why there were fewer tattoos and personalized iPhone protectors in evidence: people actually had real, as opposed to manufactured, individuality.
Still, though we respect individuals, some of these were really crappy cars.
Another point of interest is just how much technical knowledge the editors assumed on the part of its readers. These are mass-market magazines, remember. Today, while adolescent readers might know exactly how many valves a Lamborghini has, most of them would never know how to gap a sparkplug or how to build one’s own head gasket… but 1972’s readers apparently did. So the technical analysis of components (tires, for example) and race cars is wonderful.
Finally, the cluelessness of legislators was once again gleefully put into evidence, as two safety cars with airbags (1972, remember) were put to the test… and failed miserably. In part due to these tests and also because of the fact that the proposed safety car rules were utterly stupid, that particular initiative was eventually abandoned (sadly too late to save the MGB’s chrome bumpers).
But other legislation went forward. The clean air act controlled Nitrous Oxides (NOx), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and unburnt hydrocarbons. I think we all agree that it was a good thing for air quality.
Ironically, however, the same rules meant that cars were getting worse as manufacturers scrambled to meet these massively-quickly applied regulations. By getting worse, I’m not just talking about things like losing power, becoming more complicated and more unreliable and gutting the Detroit car industry. Those are actually minor things in the big picture–people just needed to suck up and take it.
The bad part is that fuel economy also suffered, so cars were burning more fuel to get less power and work worse (the reasons have to do with compression ratios and fuel octane, mainly). When a car burns fuel, one of the INTENDED emissions is Carbon Dioxide. By burning more fuel, you create more carbon dioxide… so it meant that, until the Fuel Crisis caused regulators to clamp down on economy, the application of the clean air act actually meant that countless more tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air.
Of course, thirty years later we all realized that carbon dioxide, as the main greenhouse gas, was not really a good thing.
The road to hell and all that…
But in 1972 no one knew about those things. All they cared about was that the suits in Washington seemed determined to extract all the joy from the automobile, preferably to kill it altogether.
I, for one, am delighted that they failed.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His novel Outside also deals with unintended consequences, of the kind that could shatter entire civilizations. You can check it out here.