Top 10 1970s motors: The best car from each year of the decade

A hit and miss era for cars, but if you wanted to be Superfly on the streets, these were your top choices

1y ago

Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.


With trouser flares big enough to launch you into space and shirt collars so wide you could land a Boeing 747 on them, the 1970s was not a timid time. Truth be told it was something of a bridge between the sexy 60s – epitomising cultural, political and technological revolution – and the exquisite 80s in which confident exuberance peaked to give us the best of everything, as I've previously proven in my 1980s best cars feature.

Nonetheless we were bogeying on down to the Bee Gees, Boney M and Abba, grooving to the Jacksons, Temptations, and the Commodores, and rocking with Bowie, The Who and of course Queen. Meanwhile Shaft, The Professionals, Starsky and Hutch and The New Avengers kept us glued to the box, while Star Wars, Jaws, Superman The Movie, Dirty Harry, Grease, The Godfather, Smokey and the Bandit and Rocky had us munching popcorn in the movie theatres.

So what were the most bitchin' rides to beat the drag with?

1970 – Range Rover

The Alfa Romeo Montreal is so pretty it should arguable win the year. But then so is the De Tomaso Pantera, and perhaps even the Lamborghini Urraco. Other major stars introduced in this year include the second gen Chevrolet Camaro, Datsun 240Z, Citroen SM, Opel Manta and even the first Toyota Celica – a sort of mini Japanese Mustang. And then you have the fearsome Russian ZIL-114 saloon, and I do like the honest brutishness of a Plymouth Duster.

On the other hand the AMC Gremlin and Ford Pintos are clear mistakes, the Bond Bug is hilarious and the AMC Hornet only gets a pass for having done that barrel roll jump in the James Bond movie 'The Man with the Golden Gun'.

But one car this year was introduced with remarkable foresight, so much so that it endures to this day in modern form rightfully sitting atop a great mountain of copycat luxury SUVs – the original Range Rover, a class act from day one!

1971 – Mercedes R107 SL Roadster

It was tempting to give 71 to Alfa Romeo's best-selling and much-loved Alfasud, but then there's the Alpine 310 and the gorgeous Maserati Bora. How about the rotary-engined Mazda Savanna which eventually made way for the fabled RX-7? Then there's the fourth-gen Cadillac Deville and fifth-gen Chevrolet Impala land yachts, and I could mention the Morris Marina, but I won't... oh damn.

However the car with the greatest impact is Mercedes-Benz's enduring roadster that was as dominant on a German Autobahn as it was glamorous on a Hollywood Boulevard. The Mercedes SL (R107 series) is still achingly desirable.

1972 – Honda Civic

Alfa tries a third time with the Alfetta, but still without quite winning; BMW launches its first 5 Series; Fiat's cute little 126 tries to pick up where the 500 left off; the Lotus-engined Jensen-Healey's pretty cool, as is the Lancia Beta; Ford gives us its flagship Granada and the Triumph Dolomite thought it was a British BMW.

However Japanese company Honda had its break out moment with the epochal Civic – a compact yet spacious, frugal but fun thing that arrived at just the right moment: during a global fuel crisis. From here on, Honda would be hit makers for the next three decades or so.

1973 – Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer

I love the rakish rally-winning audacity of the Lancia Stratos and the Matra Bagheera French sportscar is intriguing, but this was a year mostly of sensible sedans: Austin Allegro, Datsun Sunny (B210), Renault 5, Volkswagen Passat and of course the majestic Mercedes S-Class (W116).

But Ferrari, despite having a few misses this decade already with the Ferrari 365 GTC/4 (1971); Ferrari 365 GT4 2+2, 400 and 412 (72) and 308/208 GT4 (73), finally got its mojo back with the seductive Berlinetta Boxer, the first in a line of Prancing Horses to be endowed with Flat 12 motors. And it was frankly shagadelic.

1974 – Lamborghini Countach

It feels like after Ferrari's success with the BB, Lamborghini's response was instantaneous and brutal. The Countach has defined 'Supercar' since it was first gawped at in awe. It was the ultimate poster car for generations and remains a template for today's hypercars.

But I so nearly gave 74 to a more humble machine, the Volkswagen Golf, which did all the same things but for the hatchback genre. The VW was probably the most important car of this year.

It was a good year all round though, because we also got the VW Scirocco, the Volvo 200 series, Jeep Cherokee, Fiat 131, Citroen CX, and the extraordinary but short-lived Bricklin SV-1.

1975 – Ferrari 308 GTB/GTS

Till today, largely thanks to Magnum, when I think Ferrari, I imagine the 308 – it epitomises supercar sexiness, potent performance and cool charisma. It has to win. Close behind would be the Jaguar XJS, another personal favourites thank to The Saint, and the Triumph TR7 mostly because of Purdey (Joanna Lumley) in The New Avengers TV series.

The year also gave us the Volkswagen Polo, Vauxhall's Cavalier and Chevette, Mazda 121 which in its first gen was actually a sports coupe, Lotus Eclat, Hyundai Pony (which launched the Korean company internationally), Cadillac Seville and BMW E21 3 Series. Porsche's 930 iteration of the 911 could also have made a play for the podium, but the AMC Pacer and Rolls-Royce Camargue could not.

1976 – Aston Martin Lagonda

This was again a very tough year to choose a winner from, and logic dictates it should be the Mercedes W123 E-Class – this enduring saloon will outlive humanity itself.

But the Lotus Esprit arrived on our planet in 76 too. Since I already cheated in my 1980s feature and gave it the throne in '81 (for the S3 Turbo) even though the Delorean DMC-12 should have won really, I have to quash my bias and relegate it to second.

Sticking with the radical wedge theme though, my winner is a controversial choice, Aston Martin's hyper-futuristic luxury Lagonda – low volume, overly complex and jarringly edgy, but one of a kind.

Another three big favourites of mine from this year are the BMW E24 6 Series, Rover SD1 and first generation Honda Accord. There was also the first Ford Fiesta, the Volvo 300 series, Toyota Cressida (Mark II in Japan), Cadillac Fleetwood and of course the Porsche 924.

1977 – Porsche 928

Porsche has to win one though and the meaty 928 still looks contemporary 42 years on! The classically evocative Aston Martin V8 Vantage could also have won in an otherwise staid year that gave us the first BMW 7 Series, Chrysler/Talbot Sunbeam (Lotus version was cool), Daihatsu Charade, Opel Rekord/Vauxhall Carlton and Peugeot 305.

The Volvo 262C is actually quite desirable and off-road fans got the legendary Lada Niva, Lamborghini Cheetah (precursor to the LM002) and Matra Rancho, which now looks like a prototype for an original Land Rover Discovery although it wasn't actually four-wheel drive.

1978 – Mazda RX-7

Part of me thinks the BMW M1 should be the car of the year and there's always the outlandish Vector W2. But there were a string of great sportscars including the Triumph TR8, Toyota Celica Supra and Datsun 280Z.

Ford's Mustang started getting interesting again with the third gen model, but Mazda ruled supreme with the RX-7 – it was deemed a Japanese Porsche and its unique Wankel engine made it an icon.

Other notables this year were the Citroen Visa, Fiat Strada/Ritmo, Ford Crown Victoria, Mitsubishi Colt, Opel Monza and Senator, Renault 18 and the Saab 900.

1979 – Mercedes G-Wagon

The decade really did wind down dramatically, with the industry seemingly holding back its onslaught for the incredible 80s. The only mentionables are the Datsun Bluebird, Peugeot 505, Vauxhall Astra/Opel Kadett, Suzuki Alto, immensely popular fourth gen Toyota Corolla, and the car that would spawn a rally champ, the Lancia Delta.

So the indestructible Mercedes G-Wagon takes an easy but robust win especially as it remains the oligarch's choice even today, and when you think back to 1970's winner, we seemed to have come full circle!

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Comments (49)

  • Though I disagree with some of your choices (Stratos, come on!!!!) I largely enjoyed the article, reminding us all of great cars that we seem to forget every now and then. Keep this series up, it's great fun!

      1 year ago
    • Thanks so much - do name your favourite 70s cars too though! Would love to hear them.

        1 year ago
    • I largely agreed with your choices and understood the concept to pick the cars. But, here's my changes. Multi WRC winner and overall iconic car, the Lancia Stratos for the 512BB, as I don't think you can pick a more iconic Lancia, and that's...

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        1 year ago
  • While I can agree with some of the picks, I did my own list just for the sake of argument:

    1970 - Opel Manta. Euro pony-car and popular race-car basis of the era. Also gained huge cult in Opel's main markets. For many BMW and Porsche executives the childhood dream car was a Manta, so it had it's influence on the automotive history.

    1971 - That's the only year for which I can't nominate a more fitting best car. Agreed, it's the SL!

    1972 - Fiat 126. 1972 was a good year for small cars. There was the Renault R5 with ~950 kg. Not bad, but there were lighter. The Peugeot 104 weighed 200 kilograms less. Let's go further, there's the ultimate king of lightness, the Fiat 126, with just about 600 kilograms. And while it was way underpowered straight out of the factory, for those who could get a better engine in there, that lightness potentially equaled a lot of fun.

    1973 - Mitsubishi Lancer. While the first Lancers were awful and didn't sold worldwide, it was the beginning of a great automotive journey, so I'd give the credit for Mitsubishi for embarking on this route.

    1974 - Tatra 613. Rear engined air cooled V8 luxury car. Is there a better recipee than that? Often overlooked by Western car journalists and feared by the Eastern Bloc population (it was used mainly as a state police vehicle), the Tatra is a 10/10 car.

    1975 - BMW E21. I'm not really fond of BMWs, but the '70s were a good time to have one (especially a small one). They didn't had the bad image like nowadays and they were refined at hillclimb races instead of the Nürburgring. Today it also seems odd that the model names referred to the actual engine size instead of just random numbers.

    1976 - Yes, I pick the obvious W123, the main reason being I wouldn't buy any Merc introduced ever since.

    1977 - Rover SD1. I'm not a fan of British cars to say the least, but the SD1 was a milestone indeed. Too bad Rover couldn't profit from it.

    1978 - I go for the Saab 900. Not because it was a particularly interesting car, but it had something called a turbocharger. Not a big thing today, but back then it sounded like out-of-space technoly in cars (though it was used with great success on trucks by then). Other interesting choice would be the first gen. Ford Fiesta.

    1979 - Lancia Delta. Much like with the Mitsubishi Lancer, the first iterations were genuinely bad. Like awful. But as Lancia transformed and got equipped with rally experience, the roadcars became better and better as well.

      1 year ago
    • Excellent choices, very well considered, and thanks so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. Yep you surprised me with the Tatra 613, it does sound cool. Great stuff Prof!

        1 year ago
  • It is simply astonishing that the Countach is 45 years old. Some of the modern cars from 2 or 3 years ago seem more dated than the Lambo.

      1 year ago
  • Love this, Shahzad. Which decade are you going to do next?

      1 year ago
  • Range Rover. Hands down was a decent car in its day as it was rugged and had a hose down interior to match its 'go anywhere' ability. unfortunately it is now one of the most pointless cars on the planet, with huge wheels that often cant be fitted with any form of mud/off road tyres, and are almost NEVER going to be used off road enough to get the tyre sidewalls dirty, never mind the chassis! its nothing more than a status symbol, but less stable (laws of physics) than a Jaguar or a Bentley, uses more fuel, (aerodynamics are worse due to its height, again, laws of physics dictate this) and you dont generally need a 4x4 if the most 'off roading' that you do with your car is the occasional grass verge or school car park that hasnt been surfaced with tarmac! a 1970s Mini will manage all of that! it should have stayed true to itself. now its overly complicated (and issue laden as a result) and just stupid. personally i think you should have to prove the need for an off road vehicle before you are allowed to purchase one. this would reduce the pollution issues in the UKs cities almost instantly!

      1 year ago