Driven to Write forces down some Texas tea.
A year which appeared to consist of little but tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests by opposing cold war powers, that uniquely played host to three different Catholic pontiffs, where the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, and where Spain finally renounced the last vestiges of dictatorship by declaring a democracy, 1978 experienced its share of geopolitical turmoil.
Distraction was the order of business, with cinema-goers enjoying the top-grossing musical, Grease, while the music charts remained dominated by disco’s glitterball. The Bee Gees’ soundtrack to 1977’s Saturday Night Fever held the number spot in the American billboard chart for a death-gripping 21 weeks, with Night Fever the year’s top-selling single. In the UK, it was German (open inverted commas) recording artists (close inverted commas) Boney M, with Rivers of Babylon, which kidnapped the affections of the mainstream UK record buying public.
But not all. While Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ 1978 release attempted to bite the hand that fed them, radio listeners were rooted to the spot by the extraordinary tones of a distracting young woman by the name of Kate Bush. Meanwhile, in sitting rooms across America, TV viewers thrilled to the racy goings-on in the hit TV series, Dallas.
Mercifully, Boney M wasn’t the only German export in 1978. Originally conceived for the Procar racing series, the BMW M1 was the first roadgoing car to emerge from the Petuelring’s motorsport division, under Jochen Neerpasch. Lamborghini was commissioned to engineer the car’s chassis and dynamic package. They were supposed to assemble the car as well, but when St. Agata Bolognese fell into administration, development was completed in Munich, with consultancy work carried out by former Lamborghini staff and assembly by Bauer.
The M1’s well executed body design was by Giugiaro’s Ital Design, based upon themes established by the 1972 Paul Bracq Turbo concept. With excellent proportions, fine detailing and a high standard of finish, the M1 was unlike most mid-engined supercars in that it was designed to be usable and accessible, a generation before Honda’s NSX altered perceptions. UK monthly, Supercar Classics summed it up in 1991 as “an untempermental car of great ability, neither aggressively vocal, nor tricky to conduct”. All of which perhaps told against it, but really shouldn’t have.
“Built to Win You Over”, the advertising jingle played over images of new Horizons leaping from moving trains. All very dramatic. Chrysler’s Horizon was notable for being sold across Europe under three distinct brandnames, owing to the convoluted nature of its parentage.
The C2 programme was derived from the Alpine platform, itself a modified version of the evergreen Simca 1100. Designed in Chrysler’s Whitley studios under Roy Axe, the neatly styled body was modish and attractive, and was possibly the Horizon’s strongest suit. Blessed with decent, if understeer-prone handling and a supple ride, the Horizon hit the Euro-norm bullseye, garnering the 1979 Car of the Year trophy.
The American market version, while looking broadly similar, in fact differed considerably, sharing few body panels or engineering hardware for that matter. Sold in the US under Dodge and Plymouth nameplates, it developed a sound reputation as a thoroughly median, inexpensive car. Which probably about sums it up.
Having endured an embarrassing recall of the Pinto model, following reports of fatal conflagrations resulting from rear-end impacts, Ford’s reputation was under strain in 1978. A matter which might have precipitated Henry Ford II’s boardroom coup, which saw the flamboyant Lee Iacocca fired.
Ford’s Fox-bodied Mustang was another 1978 entrant which relied upon contemporary styling to mask prosaic underpinnings. Replacing the Pinto-based Mustang II, the ‘Stang employed a larger platform – essentially a shortened Fairmont saloon chassis, and by most contemporary accounts, it showed.
The Pony that masqueraded as a fox was designed by Fritz Mayhew, working under the supervision of Jack Telnack at Ford’s Dearborn studios. Styled with one eye on European trends, and another on ease of assembly, it proved to be a car that failed to hide its formal saloon underpinnings or Dearborn’s cost-cutting approach to carmaking during what is fondly known as the Malaise era. Rugged, cheap and disposable. That was the Detroit way.
Honda’s approach to coupé-building wasn’t that dissimilar, but started from a far superior engineering basis. The 1978 Prelude wasn’t a direct rival to Ford’s Mustang, but in reality, it probably offered a far superior driving, not to mention ownership experience. Unlike uncle Henry, Honda went to the trouble of designing an all-new platform for the Prelude, to which engines, drivetrain and suspension from the popular and critically acclaimed Accord model were affixed.
Hondas of this era were terrifically well-engineered motor cars and the rather conservatively styled (in the contemporary Japanese-American idiom) hardtop Prelude proved a popular and well-regarded car in the US and Japan, whereas, a combination of high pricing, import restrictions and its notable resemblance to the contemporary Honda Civic/Ballade dented its commercial chances in European markets.
While General Motors wasn’t immune to the wider US malaise, its Rüsselsheim satellite introduced a creditable new European executive saloon. The Opel Senator was a replacement for the ageing Commodore, employing similar engines but a new rear suspension design. Based on the platform of the Rekord E introduced the previous year, the car’s handsome bodyshell was lengthened front and rear, but the Rekord’s wheelbase was retained, a matter which could have impeded the Senator as a car to be driven in, but probably didn’t.
Largely because the Senator was a car to drive. Well regarded by the gentlemen of the press, it was arguably a nicer and more exclusive machine than its top-spec Granada rival from Köln-Merkenich, and according to Car’s Georg Kacher, a superior (and cheaper) proposition than a contemporary BMW 7-Series. The availability of an even nicer Monza Coupé further bolstered the Opel’s appeal. Sold for a few years alongside its virtually identical Vauxhall Royale twin, the car’s UK fortunes vacillated owing to GM Europe’s inability to decide what to call it. Lets simply call it a nice car.
Nice is the adjective which could be called upon to describe the Renault 18, but dull might be a more objective one. The replacement for the long-lived and successful 12 saloon, the 18 was the first 1970s design from Billancourt to aim directly at the mainstream market. Devoid of the stylistic or technical quirks which had alienated some potential customers, the 18 brooked no hesitation or reservation.
Employing similar underpinnings to that of the outgoing 12 model, the 18, came with a wider selection of powertrains, which later would include a fleet-footed Turbo model, (LJKS was a fan). The main action in the UK and Ireland however was the 1647cc TS and GTS models, which came with very full specifications. With over 2 million built in France alone (and the 18 was built in more than ten other countries Worldwide) the 18 proved a highly successful product, but not a car to engender affection or linger long in the memory.
Similarly amnesiac was Vauxhall’s take on the 1977 Rekord. GM maintained an element of stylistic differentiation for its British offshoot under the leadership of Wayne Cherry, who developed the so called ‘droop-snoot’ front end design theme. 1978’s Carlton therefore, arrived on the market very much as a rhinoplasticised, if slightly more upmarket Rekord, which even more confusingly, was sold alongside for some years.
Like its German sibling, the Carlton was a thoroughly pleasant motor car, and an infinitely nicer one than the upmarket Cortinas which would have offered competition. However, Ford’s lower spec Granadas provided sterner rivalry. Rationalisation came in 1982, with differentiation relegated to badging.
One of one of the first TV shows to be distributed globally, Dallas was eventually translated and dubbed into 67 languages across over 90 countries, a record that to this day still stands for a US television series. After all, nobody got rich over-estimating the viewing public, illustrating that there was more (or possibly less?) to life than simply watching the detectives.
The cars of 1978 we did write about.