The Automotive State of Play – 1974

While I learned the hard way that the racing offseason does nothing to make old Road & Tracks more entertaining (after all, the road cars are a bit depressing), it does give us a chance to stop and smell the roses and see what cars were like in 1974 by seeing what developments were exciting to the journalists of the day.

Road & Track - May 1974

And make no mistake about it.  Automotive journalists are wonderful human beings (they wouldn’t be automotive journalists if they weren’t – it takes a particularly passionate and luminous soul to love performance automobiles), which means that they can find the light in even the darkest times of regulatory overreach.

In the mid 1970s, they had a lot of fun, despite the gloom.  Why? Because engineers were working overtime trying to minimize the damage caused by clueless legislators.  What started off as huge bumpers slowly became design elements integrated with the harmony of the cars themselves.

Carburettors and injection were being measured for their relative merits.  We now know that injection won that battle, but in 1974, the catalytic converter was still being developed, and only mentioned as pie-in-the-sky technology by those in the know.

Road & Track - June 1974.jpg

In the meantime, the energy crisis was being resolved, but for some reason, the idiotic speed limits applied with the excuse of the crisis were not being repealed in the US and other places.  The only place where they were rolled back was in Germany, where individual rights are actually respected and not sacrificed to the gods of timid people who like to rule everyone else’s life.  There is an excellent analysis in the May issue pictured above which puts numbers to the safety benefits of highway speed limits.  The conclusion is absolute: the safety gain is so tiny that it can never justify the economic losses and psychological frustration.  Strange that it still took the US so many years to repeal the hated 55.

In Europe, of course, 60% of people didn’t own a car, so they voted to keep the limits in place.  Probably, as usual, to “keep those rich bastards in their place.”  Now that Europe is prosperous, all but the Germans are paying for being resentful pricks.

But in 1974, 2020 was still a long way away.  Aluminum was being explored as an automotive material.  Separate shoulder and lap belts were giving way, slowly, to the inertial belts we wear today.  American cars were being downsized with more or less success.  The Wankel, as we saw earlier, was being developed.  Radial tires were in the process of removing crossplies from the scene forever.

So yeah, a lot of interesting things were happening, mostly driven by the market, some driven by morons in Washington and “concerned citizens” who probably never drove over 40 mph and yet felt themselves qualified to opine regarding automobiles.

But if you got past the anger at the concerted attack on the main source of personal freedom in the West, it was a truly interesting time.  And with hindsight, we know the engineers, as they always do, beat the legislators at their own game.  But it took a while.


Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Jungle Lab Terror is a romp through the jungles of Panama and Colombia, ideal as a summer read or simply for hose days when you want non-stop action combined with well-realized characters.  If that sounds like you, you can check it out here.


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