We don’t typically look back on the 1970s as a decade of great cars and great car designs. Those years are largely defined by “Malaise Era” design, the oil crisis and tailpipe emission laws robbing cars of their horsepower.
However, there were some great cars, great car designs, and innovative technology that shaped the decade and continue to influence car design today. Wedge design, pop-up headlights, and the emergence of the supercar are just a few of the trends that hit the streets in the ’70s. From amazing concept cars to innovative technology and competition pedigree, here are 40 cars, concepts, and designs that shook up the status quo and made the 1970s bearable.
Volkswagen Golf GTI – 1976
It doesn’t get any more iconic than the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The very first GTI hit the streets in 1976 and became the original “hot hatchback.”
This was a small, 2-door hatchback with a hot engine, subtle styling accents, and performance-tuned suspension that could run with the best sports cars of the day. The OG Golf GTI was a featherweight at only 1,786 pounds, and its 1.6-liter engine produced 108 horsepower. But it wasn’t power that was the GTI’s party-piece, it was the way the car drove. The GTI was a car that proved cheap hatchbacks could deliver a thrill, handle as well as elite sports cars, and still carry a ton of stuff.
Alfa Romeo Montreal – 1970
Alfa Romeos hold a special place in every petrolhead’s heart. They’re beautiful, the engines sound amazing, and they are ruinously temperamental. That appalling reputation for reliability made owning and driving an Alfa that much more exciting.
But you don’t buy an Alfa Romeo as a replacement for a Toyota Camry, you buy it because it’s an objet d’art. And one of the best looking cars in the 1970s was the Montreal. Powered by a 2.6-liter V8 making north of 200-horsepower, the Montreal used the drivetrain from a sports prototype race car and the chassis from the iconic Guilia GTV.
Citroën SM – 1970
The French do cars differently. They don’t copy anyone and occasionally that means that incredibly innovative and ground-breaking vehicles come out of a country better known for art and food than cars. One such masterpiece to emerge in the 1970s from the French manufacturer Citroën was the SM.
This was the sporty coupe version of the revolutionary DS sedan, a vehicle that didn’t look like anything else, didn’t drive like anything else and certainly didn’t feel like anything else. The SM was chock-full of technology that is commonplace now, but in the 1970s was positively space-age. Self-leveling suspension, self-leveling headlights that turned with the wheels, and a variable power-assisted steering system are just a few of its features.
Lancia Stratos HF – 1973
The Lancia Stratos HF is a near-mythical automobile. It’s a car born for a singular purpose, to win the World Rally Championship. Impossibly wedge-shaped and powered by a 2.4-liter V6 designed and built by Ferrari, the Stratos took the world of rally racing by storm and captured the championship in 1974, 1975, and 1976.
The extremely short wheelbase, mid-engined layout, and up to 320-horsepower in race trim made for an incredibly effective rally weapon. Styling of the car was done by Marcello Gandini, possibly the most influential car designer of the late 1960s and 1970s. Only 492 were made, making the Stratos extremely rare and desirable today.
Nissan/Datsun 240Z – 1971
In the late 1960s Nissan/Datsun wanted a small sports car to compete with the established European brands. The car that Nissan designed was the 240Z, a front-engine, rear-drive sports coupe that was both good to look at and good to drive.
A 2.4-liter straight six engine with 151 horsepower mated to a four-speed manual transmission made sure that the 240Z performed at a high level. The “Z” was certainly easy on the eyes, with a long hood and a sloping rear hatch that made it a stylish sports car in line with the best modern European cars. It’s easy to see why they have become collectible in recent years.
Porsche 928 – 1977
In the 1970s, Porsche was searching for a replacement of the 911 range of cars. The thinking, from the German marque, was that a GT luxury coupe would have wider appeal than the aging 911. The first 928s rolled off the production line in 1977.
Powered by a 4.5-liter water cooled V8, mounted in the traditional position, up front, it couldn’t have been more different than a 911. Power was respectable at 220 horsepower, and the 50/50 weight distribution made for an excellent handling car. Production of Porsche’s grand tourer continued until 1995 with many variants and changes coming throughout its lifetime. The 1993-95 928 GTS is the last and best with over 354-horsepower on tap.
Lamborghini Countach LP400 – 1974
Few cars are as instantly recognizable as the Lamborghini Countach. It was the ultimate supercar of the 1970s and 1980s. Its wedge shape defined an era of automobile design. Penned by Bertone’s designer, Marcello Gandini, the Countach debuted in 1974 with a mid-mounted V12 engine displacing 3.9-liters and churning out a wild 380-horsepower at 7,800 RPM.
The scissor doors, which have now come to define Lamborghinis, were first introduced on the Countach. Low, wide, impossible to see out of, and with a sonorous V12 that could push the Countach to a top speed of 180 MPH made the Lamborghini Countach one of the most desirable cars of the time. They’re highly coveted today and one of the greatest supercars ever built.
Fiat X1/9 – 1974
If you wanted Italian style, a mid-engined layout, and fun-to-drive characteristics but didn’t have Ferrari or Lamborghini money in the 1970s, then the Fiat X1/9 was the answer. Designed by Bertone and using the wedge-shape esthetic of the time, the small Fiat provided a ton of fun in a compact package.
Initially powered by a 1.3-liter engine that made just 74-horsepower, the X1/9 had a top speed of slightly over 100 MPH. Later cars came with a 1.5-liter engine that upped the power to an eye-watering 85-horsepower. The important thing to remember about the diminutive Fiat is that this wasn’t a car for the drag strip, it was a car for a twisty road on a summer day. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Saab 99 Turbo – 1978
Saab likes to do things their own way. Their cars, prior to GM ownership, had always been known for their uniqueness and quirkiness, with 2-Stroke and V4 engines, the ignition key located between the seats, and ergonomics that Saab says is patterned after their fighter jets.
Saab’s iconic 99 model originated in the late 1960s, but it was in 1978 that they fitted a turbocharger to the backward-facing 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and dropped it in the distinctive 3-door body to create a legend. Mid-range thrust is where the 99 Turbo really shines, and it was every bit the match for its competition. So good was the car that Saab won the Swedish International Rally in 1979 with rally superstar Stig Blomqvist.
BMW 2002 Turbo – 1973
Like Saab’s 99, BMW’s 2002 had been introduced in the late 1960s. The small 2002 is arguably the car that put BMW on the map of driving enthusiasts in the US and cemented the company’s reputation for building well-engineered, fun-to-drive cars.
In 1973, BMW fitted a 2002 Tii with a single turbocharger, flared the fenders, and added a deep chin spoiler and bespoke graphics to create the 2002 Turbo. At the time, it was one of the very first cars to come with a turbo, behind only GM in the 1960s. The legendary M10 four-cylinder engine, which was the basis for BMW’s 1400-horsepower F1 engine program, produces 170-horsepower, easily making it the fastest in the 2002 range.
Lancia Stratos Zero – 1970
Sometimes a concept car comes along and defines an entire era of car design. Bertone’s masterpiece, the Lancia Stratos Zero, penned by super-designer Marcello Gandini, is that car. This design inspired the Lancia Stratos HF, the Lamborghini Countach, the Fiat X1/9 and pretty much every other wedge-shaped car of the 1970s.
Gandini and Bertone combined cutting edge automotive design with architectural and industrial design that defined the aesthetic of the 1970s. The Stratos Zero is impossibly low and is powered by a 1.4-liter V4 engine plucked from the Lancia Fulvia. If 1970s car design could be summed up in one concept car, it might be the Stratos Zero.
Nissan 126X Concept – 1970
Chock full of wedge-y goodness, Nissan’s 126x Concept was a huge departure from the designs of Nissan’s road cars. Debuting at the 1970 Tokyo Motor Show, the 126X is often referred to as one of Nissan’s greatest concept cars.
The design is a mix of 1960s Batmobile, space-age and the wedge styling of the time. The 126x was actually a four-seat vehicle with gullwing doors and a mid-engine layout that featured a 3.0-liter V6 driving all four wheels. The 126x Concept was never road-worthy and currently lives in Nissan’s design studio.
Ferrari 512 S Modulo – 1970
The 512 S Modulo is one of Ferrari’s most famous and outrageous concept cars. Designed by Pininfarina, the Modulo may look like a Star Trek shuttlecraft but is in fact built on one of Ferrari’s most famous race cars, the 512 S.
The 512 S was a sport prototype racing car specifically designed to win Le Mans and international racing championships. The Modulo uses the chassis and drivetrain from the race car and thanks to some tuning, produces 550-horsepower from the 5.0-liter V12. That amount of power in a car this small is going to make for “exhilarating” performance. Top speed is 220 MPH and the Modulo can hit 60 MPH from a standstill in 3 seconds flat.
BMW Turbo Concept – 1972
The early 1970s was an interesting time for car design. Most concept cars being exhibited by manufacturers featured similar themes and design cues: wedge shape, non-traditional doors, impossibly low and wide, innovative engines, and incredible performance.
BMW’s Turbo Concept of 1972 checked all of those boxes. Fitted with gullwing doors and powered by a modified version of the 2002 Turbo’s engine mounted behind the driver, it had the makings of a perfect BMW supercar. The design of the Turbo Concept would go on to influence the M1 sports car, the 8 Series Coupe and the Z1.
Porsche 911 Turbo (930) – 1975
The ’70s was also a time of manufacturers experimenting and putting into production turbocharged performance cars. Today, the technology is commonplace, but back in the 1970s it was pretty rare on a street car.
Porsche’s 930 Turbo is the poster child for turbocharged performance cars. Today, it’s a benchmark by which most sports and GT cars are measured against, but when it debuted in 1975, it was a difficult handling performance machine with gobs of turbo lag and frightening speed. Big fender flares, a big wing, a big turbo, and big performance define the car that would go on to be a legend from the German marque.
Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7 RS – 1973
The Porsche 911 might be the single most recognizable car on the planet. It is THE sports car that everyone knows and is largely considered to be the benchmark for sports coupes. Every new sports car that comes along inevitably gets compared to the Porsche 911.
The engine may be in the wrong place and early cars had fearsome reputations for trailing-throttle oversteer, but despite those issues, the 911 is probably the single most successful racing car in the history of motorsport. One of the pillars of Porsche is the 1973 Carrera RS, a lightweight, stripped-down 911 meant for racing. And with the ducktail spoiler, it’s an icon of 1970s sports car design and engineering.
Ferrari Studio Cr25 – 1974
In 1974, Ferrari and Pininfarina collaborated to create a unique and high tech concept car. The result was the Cr25, a long and low concept with a focus on aerodynamic performance.
The Cr25 had a drag coefficient of just 0.256, which was one of the best in the world, at that time. Pininfarina didn’t stop at making the car slippery, the front bumper has an integrated spoiler for downforce and the car could seat four people. The Cr25 proved that lightweight construction and highly efficient aerodynamics could boost a vehicle’s top speed as well as a powerful engine could.
Chevrolet Aerovette – 1976
The origins of the mid-engine Corvette date back to the 1960s, but the concept that was initially approved for production was the 1976 Aerovette.
The concept started life being powered by a 4-rotor Wankel engine, similar to the now-famous Mazda rotary engines, which produced 420-horsepower. But we all know that it just isn’t a Corvette without a V8 and in 1976 the rotary was ditched in favor of a 400 cubic inch Chevrolet V8. Unfortunately, plans to put the Aerovette in garages across the country were canceled and we had to wait 44 years to see what a mid-engine Corvette was capable of.
Mercedes-Benz C111-11 D – 1970
The Mercedes-Benz C111 was a test bed vehicle for experimenting with new engine technologies, chassis technology, and luxury interior parts. It was never meant for production but remains today as one of the great cars that Mercedes-Benz produced.
The first C111 was produced in 1969, but the other 15 cars were all made in the 1970s, so we think this is really a ’70s car. 13 cars were fitted with 3 and 4 rotor Wankel engines, 2 cars were fitted with diesel engines and the final C111 was built with a monster twin-turbocharged V8 that produced over 500 horsepower. That final car, the V8 beast, set a speed record at the Nardo Test Track when it averaged 250.958 MPH over a single lap.
Jaguar XJS – 1975
In 1975, Jaguar presented the follow-up to the mighty E-Type, the XJS. Based on the XJ sedan, the XJS was initially offered as a coupe with a convertible version finally arriving in the 1980s. Series 1 cars were all powered by a 5.3-liter V12 engine with 242-horsepower. The venerable Jaguar straight six-cylinder engine wasn’t offered in the XJS until 1983.
The XJS is a fairly conservative but stylish design that’s aged exceptionally well. The most notable styling feature is the flying buttresses, an element added for aerodynamic efficiency. The big Jag Coupe is less of a sports car like the E-Type and more of a “gentlemen’s express.” This is a long-distance GT car made for comfort and style.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage – 1977
The 1977 Aston Martin V8 Vantage was Britain’s muscle car of the late-1970s: a 390-horsepower grand touring beast that had muscular good looks, badge pedigree, and performance that was the best in the world at the time. 0-60 MPH could be had in 5.3 seconds and the Vantage could top 170 MPH, which is still respectable today.
A gentleman’s muscle car, the V8 Vantage was also James Bond’s ride in The Living Daylights. Styling was a classic take on the familiar GT formula: long hood, sloping rear, and curves in all the right places. Its classic good looks bucked the trend of 1970s wedge design.
Dodge Challenger – 1970
It doesn’t get any more “muscle car” than the 1970 Dodge Challenger: big American V8 up front, rear-wheel drive, and handsome good looks.
The brilliance of American muscle cars is their infinite potential for customization. Available with a choice of eight different engines, the sky was the limit in terms of what a potential owner could spec. But from the endless choices emerged two extremely tasty trims. The 290-horsepower, homologation special T/A (Trans-Am) and the over-the-top 425-horsepower R/T (Road and Track). Both were fast, both were available in crazy colors and all of them were completely awesome!
Mazda RX-7 – 1978
1978 saw Mazda debut a rotary-powered sports car called the RX-7. Small in size, but big in fun, the lightweight coupe helped prove that Japanese cars of the 1970s were more than just everyday efficient people movers.
Powered by a 1.1-liter Wankel engine, the tiny mill made 100 horsepower and propelled Mazda’s coupe to 120 MPH. Later cars got the well-known 13B 1.3-liter engine which upped the horsepower ante to 135. Horsepower isn’t everything when you’ve got a lightweight chassis with excellent handling characteristics. The styling was on point too, with a classic wedge shape and always cool pop-up headlights.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class – 1979
Today’s Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen is an ultra-luxury SUV with some pretty incredible off-road abilities. But it wasn’t always a boulevard cruiser for the well-off. The G-Glass or G-Wagen or its proper name, the Gelandewagen, began life in the 1970s as a military truck.
Manufactured by Puch in Austria for Mercedes-Benz, the G-Glass SUV has been the go-to all-terrain people-and-troop mover for over 40 years. The G-Wagen’s styling is boxy, utilitarian, and classy. It’s aged exceptionally well over the years, which is likely why Mercedes hasn’t messed with it. Power comes from a dizzying array of gas and diesel engines, and configurations made it as versatile as a Swiss Army knife.
Ford Mustang Mach 1 – 1970
The Ford Mustang Mach 1 was introduced in 1969, but received a facelift for the 1970 model year so we’ll count it as a ’70s car. And what a car it is!
The top-of-the-line Mach 1 could be specced with a monster 428 cubic-inch Super Cobra Jet V8 and a 4-speed manual transmission. That mill was good for 335 horsepower and a tarmac twisting 440 pound-feet of torque. Tick the option box for the “Shaker Hood” and you had a recipe for one of the coolest cars to hit the streets: power, panache, and irrefutable street cred.
BMW 3.0 CSL “Batmobile” – 1972
In 1972, BMW needed a sports car that was capable of taking on the European Touring Car Championship. The motorsports team in Munich turned to the sublime E9 coupe and created the 3.0 CSL (coupe sport light). Powered by a 3.0-liter straight six-cylinder engine that produced 200 horsepower, the mighty CSL was built to take on the best cars and racetracks in the world. In 1973 the CSL received its now-famous flares, fins, and wing which earned it the nickname “Batmobile.”
In racing trim, the CSL dominated touring car championships in the mid to late 1970s. Group 2 cars were tuned to produce 400 horsepower and the Group 5 cars were fitted with a turbo to juice horsepower up to 750.
Plymouth Superbird – 1970
Eighteen and a half feet long, the Plymouth Superbird is a lot of car. A lot of hood, a lot of wing, a lot of horsepower, and a lot of performance.
The story of the creation of the Plymouth Superbird is well known. It was designed to maximize the rules in NASCAR and lure Richard Petty back. The big winged coupe dominated the race season and in race trim could hit 200 MPH. Rarest of the rare is the Superbird equipped with the 426 HEMI V8, a 425 horsepower brute that could launch the massive car from 0 to 60 MPH in 5.5 seconds.
Maserati Bora – 1971
Officially introduced at the Geneva Auto Salon in 1971, the Bora was Maserati’s first mid-engined supercar designed to compete against Lamborghini, De Tomaso, and Ferrari.
The Bora was offered with a choice of two V8 engines, a 4.7-liter with 310 horsepower and a 4.9-liter with 320 horsepower. The later was potent enough to get the mid-engine coupe up to 177 MPH. The wedge shape is more understated on the Bora, as the car was designed at Italdesign and was meant to be classy, practical, and comfortable for everyday use. This was restrained performance for the distinguished gentleman.
De Tomaso Pantera – 1971
The De Tomaso Pantera (Italian for panther) enjoyed one of the longest production runs of any Italian mid-engine supercar. Launched in 1971, the Pantera remained in production until 1992 with over 7,000 being built.
That sharp wedge shape was on point at the time of its debut. Penned by famed automotive designer Tom Tjaarda, the Pantera is a classic shape that remains attractive to this day. Powered by Ford’s 351 Cleveland V8, it was initially capable of 330 horsepower which gave the car a top speed of around 160 MPH with sprints to 60 MPH coming in 5.5 seconds.
Ferrari 512 BB – 1973
Ferrari’s BB, or Berlinetta Boxer, refers to the car being a coupe with a boxer or flat engine. Originally introduced in 1973 as the 365 GT/4 BB, it was Ferrari’s first foray into mid-engine supercar design and performance that the company is now so well known for.
The 512 BB is arguably the more attractive variant and came along in 1976 as a refresh for the 365 GT/4 BB. The curvaceous design blends the wedge styling of the time with classic Italian styling to create one of the company’s most beautiful cars. As you would expect from the prancing horse company, the 512 BB is powered by a 5.0-liter boxer/flat 12 cylinder engine with around 340 horsepower.
BMW M1 – 1978
The M1 was BMW’s first mid-engine supercar, a car specifically built to meet the homologation rules for racing and was designed, developed, and built by some of the greatest companies and figures in motorsport.
The chassis was originally specced and designed by Lamborghini and the tubular space frame was designed and developed by world-famous racecar engineering firm Dallara. Styling was handled by design legend Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign and the mechanicals were built by BMW. The gem of an engine was developed by BMW Motorsports and came in the form of a 3.5-liter straight six-cylinder with individual throttle bodies, BOSCH mechanical fuel injection and churned out 273 horsepower. Good enough for a 162 MPH top speed.
Stutz Blackhawk – 1970
For some, the 1970s represents a decade of disco, decadence, and polyester. There is no better car to personify that side of the era better than the Stutz Blackhawk. Over-the-top is a term that is far too mild to accurately describe the 19-feet of automotive excess that is the Blackhawk.
The Blackhawk is based on the Pontiac Grand Prix’s running gear and featured custom hand-built bodywork by Carrozzeria Padane in Italy. A large number of engines could be had for the car, but it was the outrageous ultra-luxury interior that was the star of the show. Gold-plated trim, maple and redwood dash components, Connelly leather, mink carpet, and even a liquor cabinet in the back seat. Elvis owned four… need we saw any more.
Ferrari 308 GTB – 1975
One of the prettiest cars to emerge from the stables of Ferrari during the 1970s was the 308 GTB/S. The 308 was available in two trims: the GTB, which was the coupe, and the GTS, which featured the Targa roof.
Powered by a mid-mounted 2.9-liter V8, it produced a respectable 252 horsepower. The sharp nose and flowing body lines made the car distinctive and timeless. The 308 chassis would go on to influence the follow-up cars from Ferrari, the 328 and the epic 288 GTO. Made famous by Tom Selleck in the TV show Magnum P.I, the 308 remains as an icon of screen and road.
Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 – 1970
One of the baddest cars to hit the street in 1970, the updated Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 was a monster of a muscle car.
The single year only styling looks tough, and fortunately, the beast under the hood meant it had the performance to match. The top of the line car was the Chevelle SS 454. Ticking the LS6 option box on the order form gave you a 7.4-liter V8 with Holley performance carburetor and a cowl-induction hood. That meant that 450 horsepower was on tap with an axle-snapping 500 pound-feet of torque. A 0-60 time of 6 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 13.8 seconds made the big Chevy a legend.
Aston Martin Lagonda – 1974
The Aston Martin Lagonda sedan was certainly one of the most striking designs of the 1970s. Sharp lines and the distinctive wedge shape made it stand out from traditional luxury offerings of the time and remains one of the most amazing cars ever to come out of the Aston Martin factory.
Powered by a 5.3-liter V8 with 280 horsepower, the big luxury sedan could hit a top speed of 150 MPH. But speed was not this car’s forte, luxury and technology were. The Lagonda featured the world’s first digital dashboard. The screens were designed for the F15 fighter jet and the electronics were state-of-the-art at the time. Reliability issues with the electronics were frequent, but in 1974 this was the most innovative car you could buy.
Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am – 1977
The second generation of the Pontiac Firebird debuted in 1970. It was a complete redesign of the Camaro/Firebird platform and was available in either a coupe or T-Top version. But there is one model and model year that stands out as a high-point of 1970s car design: the 1977 Firebird Trans-Am Special Edition with the “Screaming Chicken” hood decal.
This car is an automotive icon because of a single movie, Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds. Black and gold, the stylish “snowflake” wheels and of course the hood decal could have only happened in the 1970s and this car epitomizes the era of American pony car design.
Maserati Boomerang – 1971
Styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign, the 1971 Maserati Boomerang was meant to be a one-off concept car showcasing a new design language for upcoming models. The Boomerang would influence many production cars including the Maserati Bora, Lancia Delta, Lotus Esprit, and the DMC DeLorean.
Power came from a 4.7-liter V8 pushing out 310 horsepower. A 5-speed manual transmission sent power to the rear wheels despite the car never being intended to hit the road. The interior was just as wild as the exterior, as the dashboard was circular and within the steering wheel, which rotated around it.
Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Daytona – 1971
The Ferrari 365 GTB/4 and GTS/4 are known commonly as the Ferrari Daytona. The GTB (coupe) debuted in 1968 and was a direct competitor to Lamborghini’s Muira supercar. But the model we’re focusing on is the GTS, the spyder or convertible version of the V12 sports car.
Introduced in 1971, Ferrari only made 122 convertible versions of the 365 between 1971 and 1973. A 4.4-liter V12 with 347 horsepower motivates the svelte spyder to a 0-60 MPH time of just 5.4 seconds. As you might expect from a rare and pretty Ferrari, values for real 365 GTS/4s are skyrocketing.
Lotus Esprit – 1976
Simplify and add lightness, goes the Lotus mantra. You don’t need a massive engine and huge horsepower with a car that’s lightweight. And that’s exactly what the Esprit is, a lightweight sports car that puts a premium on handling prowess and driving enjoyment.
Weighing in at only 1,984 pounds, the Esprit made excellent use of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 160 horsepower. It couldn’t match the top speeds of similar cars from Ferrari and Lamborghini, but it could keep up with them through the corners. Styled by Italdesign, the Esprit is known by many as James Bond’s ride in the film The Spy Who Loved Me.
NASA LRV “Moon Buggy” – 1971
The 1970s were an amazing time for NASA and space exploration. Apollo astronauts had just landed on the moon and the subsequent missions would need to see more, explore more and study more of the moon’s surface.
Enter one of the greatest vehicles ever created, NASA’s LRV (Lunar Roving Vehicle). It weighs just 460 pounds (on Earth) but could carry over 1,000 pounds of astronauts, gear and moon rocks. The wheels are made of spun aluminum with woven steel and titanium tread. Each wheel has an electric motor and the LRV was able to hit a top speed of 11.2 MPH on the Moon. This incredible car was used on the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 moon missions.