Anniversary Waltz 1978 – This Year’s Model

Driven to Write forces down some Texas tea. 

(c) pinterest

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.

Shades of Uracco? BMW M1. (c) silodrome

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.

Ford Mustang. (c)

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 Prelude (c) youtube

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.

Senator/ Monza. (c)

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.

Renault 18 (c)

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.

Uncredited image

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 1978 – This Year’s Model”

  1. Just for the record, I’m not a big fan of Fox platform cars or Mustangs, but Fox body Mustangs soldiered on until 2005.

    Ford sold millions of those things, one of the longest lived and cheapest per unit development cost platforms ever.

  2. May I add a minor correction?

    The M1’s body was built at Baur, but final assembly actually took place at ItalDesign – which marked the first and only time ID ever produced anything but a one-off in-house. That they managed to do so, and built the car to such a high standard, speaks volumes about the qualities and importance of the other man behind ItalDesign, Aldo Mantovani.

  3. The first Carlton had a whiff of British “make do and mend” about it. Vauxhall was understandably keen to distinguish it from the Rekord E, as it had done quite successfully with the Ascona B to create the Cavalier. Unfortunately, the budget didn’t stretch to new headlamp units (unlike the Cavalier) so the Rekord units were retained. Their profile was different to that of the new “droop snoot” and the gaps were filled with some rather homespun metal pressings, an unsatisfactory compromise.

    At the rear, the number plate was relocated below the bumper. The space vacated between the tail lights was painted black and contained the V A U X H A L L lettering. The bumper was changed so that it extended around to the wheelarches, a definite improvement over the rather mean looking Rekord item.

    Inside, a new symmetrical dashboard moulding was installed, supposedly to facilitate an easy conversion to LHD. (Was the Carlton actually soldoutside The British Isles?) The space that would have contained the instrument cluster was filled with a plank of “wood” to which was affixed a small and rather cheap looking plastic “Carlton” badge (not visible in photo below):

    Design sketches show this space containing an additional upper glove-box, but I guess the budget didn’t run to this:

    This Carlton is significant in that it was the last Vauxhall to have sheet-metal unique to the brand. The Royale saloon and coupe only had different grilles and badging to distinguish them from the Senator and Monza, likewise the Viceroy* version of the Opel Commodore C.

    * Would a British company use this name for a product now, given its possibly negative associations with the country’s colonial past?

    1. I remember droop snoot Vauxhalls being sold in Switzerland, so I guess the Carlton must have been one of them. And quite certainly, they were converted to LHD.

    1. Yes, especially the facelifted version with the smoother front end. It’s tragic that there’s no market for such a car (large GT coupé from a non-premium brand) anymore.

  4. “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.”

    Oh, yeah?

    Malaise era refers to the coughing sputtering first go at smog engines using carburetors and air-pumps, and huge 5 mph bumpers that weighed a ton. Engines reduced to woefully low power, hiccupy power delivery and poor fuel economy. I modified my ’74 Audi 100LS engine which wouldn’t even tick over at idle and stalled by plugging vacuum tubes. My parents’ 1978 Fairmont six cylinder required 15 to 20 minutes of warmup to even idle, 89 hp at 2900 rpm powerhouse that it was. VW showed the way with fuel injection and Detroit gradually caught up in the 1980s. By 1992 when Europe finally went unleaded, the work to having decent smog engines engines was already done for you.

    Malaise sra hardly signified fondness on the consumer’s part.

  5. The Renault 18 estate has always fascinated me. I have never been sure of what to make of it.

  6. I was more interested in Roscoe P Coltrane, Boss Hogg and the rest of the Dukes of Hazzard gang at this time of life.
    But I’ve always had a Vauxhall Carlton soft spot, even aged 7 ish.

  7. Senator and Monza, please. Does anyone think the R18 is very suggestive of the aero-smoothness of the later Audi 100? Despite having deployed integrated plastic bumpers on the R5, Renault gave the R18 has old-school metal bars. Yet if it had had R5 bumpers it would have been way ahead of the pack.

    1. Not just the R5: the R14, which predated the R18, also had plastic bumpers. Perhaps Renault reverted to chromed steel bumpers on the R18 because nobody had yet worked out how to reliably paint the plastic items in body colour and they thought the grey plastic was a bit downmarket?

      One of the first European cars to have smooth gloss painted body colour bumpers was the Austin Maestro/Montego. Unfortunately, the plastic they used to take the paint was ver brittle and cracked easily, rather negating the point of bumpers!

    2. Daniel: that is a good point and it´s embarrassing I did not think of it. The uncomfortable thing for the designers might have been knowing that the technology existed to make an integrated bumper and that it was the matter of appearance that held them back – so form did not follow function.

  8. Interestingly, Rover reverted to grey textured plastic for the early versions of the R8 generation 200/400, presumably after being stung by the problems with the Maestro and Montego’s body-coloured items. They mitigated the utilitarian look with the simple expedient of painting the lower body sides in a matching colour, creating a two-tone effect:

    Eventually, paint and plastics technology overcame the problem and body-coloured items became standard an the facelifted cars with the traditional Rover grille:

  9. Those grey/black lower body sides became something of a design trope in the mid-1980’s. Ford and GME amongst others used them, with an obligatory red stripe, as a signifier of sportiness:

    In all cases, I’m sure the real intention was simply to help integrate the grey plastic bumpers better, which was a success, even if the sportiness was wishful thinking in many cases.

  10. On the subject of bumpers, I’m currently driving around Tenerife in a Seat Ibiza rental car in a particularly basic (possibly a rental special) spec. The door mirror cases are black (now faded to grey) plastic and the interior is as dull as ditchwater, yet it still has body coloured bumpers. The latter show the scars of many parking nudges and innumerable suitcases loaded and unloaded by careless temporary custodians. It would be far more fit for purpose to have unpainted grey plastic on such a rental car. Likewise, the plastic wheel covers are extensively scuffed from kerbing, so silver painted wheels with small hub caps, as was common back in the 1980’s would be much more practical.

    Why not? Well, I think the problem is that the bumpers are now so well integrated with the rest of the bodywork that to leave them unpainted would be visually jarring and scream “poverty spec”. Here’s a mock-up from those nice people at whose Photoshop skills are considerably better than mine:

    Would you buy (or even rent) a new Focus that looked like that? Here’s a real example of a relatively recent production model with unpainted bumpers (and off-road pretentions) the Seat Altea Freetrack:

    Again, the bumper-grille-bonnet conjunction looks very uncomfortable to my eyes.

    I have another missive on bumpers in mind, but I’ll keep that for tomorrow as there’s a nice bottle of Rioja waiting for my attention…

  11. Finally, on bumpers, when Mercedes-Benz facelifted the W124 and renamed it E-class, they went their own way with coloured bumpers, mainly to good effect. The plastic they were using at the time had a slightly textured, rather than smooth, surface. Realising that it would therefore be a mistake to try and colour-match them exactly to the bodywork, they instead chose different, complementary shades of the same or similar colour:

    This generally worked well, but I recall the bumpers on red cars turning a strange purple-ish colour, presumably as a result of exposure to UV light:

    That’s all on bumpers. I’ll pop out now and see if I can get a life…

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