“Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared”.
Dystopian paranoia and reactionary politics were the order of play as this turbulent decade faded out. Having become inured to kidnappings, airline hijackings and low-level terrorism, 1979 witnessed the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the ascent to power of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to power, proving Britain could elect a leader every bit as divisive as anyone’s tinpot dictator.
The dark mood was reflected in popular culture; Pink Floyd’s opus, The Wall documenting the emotional breakdown of a rock musician, not terribly removed from that of the album’s writer and creative lynchpin, Roger Waters. Further afield, as the Skylab space station prematurely re-entered earth’s atmosphere, raining debris upon unsuspecting heads, the theatrical release of Ridley Scott’s Alien led to cinemagoers running from theatres in terror. Meanwhile, Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus, Apocalypse Now plotted a dark journey of obsession and madness, set against the backdrop of a conflict still painfully raw in the memory. The film itself wasn’t bad either.
A second fuel crisis slammed into an automotive industry barely recovering from the first, leading to America’s Chrysler Corporation to request a $1.5 billion government bailout to avoid bankruptcy. Amid this febrile background, it was perhaps unsurprising that the bulk of introductions were of a more revisionist nature.
Audi’s upmarket ambitions, having centred upon the C2 generation 100 model of 1976, were further bolstered in ’79 by the advent of the 200 model in both normally aspirated and turbocharged form. Both powered by Ingolstadt’s 2.2 litre in-line five, the 200, especially in artificially-aspirated form had sufficient performance to nip at the heels of larger engined executive rivals, but apart from a modified nose and a loftier standard of trim, there was little visual receipt for the additional outlay. BMW and Mercedes slept soundly.
Another late in the day reworking was that of Ford’s evergreen Taunus/ Cortina, also a 1976 debutant. With European sales flagging and its replacement still some way off, it was deemed appropriate to furnish the car with a modified canopy, featuring a larger glass area; an alteration at odds with Ford’s usually more pragmatic approach and one most customers were unlikely to have discerned. It did lend the car a sharper, more up to date appearance, aided by subtle visual tweaks which modernised a car that by the close of the decade was starting to look a little stale. By 1979, style and ruggedness were the Cortina’s primary offer.
By 1979, Honda had garnered the respect of the European (and US) industry, not to mention the devotion of their customers. However, the second generation Civic, which debuted at that year’s Frankfurt motor show, disappointed all comers with its rather iterative visuals. But if the exterior was very much the same wine in a subtly larger bottle, the car itself would prove considerably more significant. Produced not only in hatchback (and estate) Civic form, its three volume Ballade equivalent would form the centrepiece of the most significant collaboration in British automotive history and change the face of car manufacture in the UK.
The GS had been in production almost a decade before Citroen got around to a significant refresh, a matter both complicated and delayed by its financial collapse and PSA’s subsequent acquisition. Given this, the 1979 advent of the GSA amounted to considerably more than a perfunctory facelift. Very likely to have been orchestrated while Robert Opron was still heading the Bureau de’Etudes, the GSA’s major reworking took place aft of the C-pillar, where the roofline was altered to accommodate a fifth door – a development which was of questionable value, given the cars age and purpose and one whose aesthetic value could equally be called into question.
The GSA’s cabin however received a far more comprehensive makeover, with an evolved version of the Visa’s PRN Lanule ‘satellite controls’. Overall, the GSA was an intelligent update, but not only did it come rather late, how much of a real improvement it was remains a matter of debate.
Attempting to get on terms with more progressive European rivals, Opel’s 1979 Kadett D (Astra in the UK) saw Russelsheim taking a long hard look at an Alfasud, thereby creating a German facsimile. A better car than the ‘Sud, when it came to the fundamentals at least and it has been said, good to drive, it lacked the Neapolitan car’s warmth, finesse or charisma – flatulent exhaust note notwithstanding. That said, it made Ford’s rival Escort feel as antediluvian as it by then appeared. A good effort, if one in perennial Opel fashion which never quite captured the imagination.
While GME was adopting a front-wheel drive layout for the Kadett D, Toyota saw no need to radically change the recipe for its rival Corolla. Technically similar to the outgoing model, apart from the adoption of a coil-sprung rear axle, the Corolla’s main draw lay in its all-new, clean limbed and attractive Euro-centric styling, fine build and peerless reliability. The Corolla was no technical (nor dynamic) paragon and if anything, rather revisionist in principle, but stylistically at least, the Toyota was arguably as finely honed a product as anything from Uwe Bahnsen’s studios.
Volkswagen were rather tardy when it came to joining the growing ranks of c-segment saloons. Derived from the Golf, 1979’s Jetta looked as topped and tailed as it seemingly was. Despite this, it became very much a model in its own right, well regarded by the press, although criticised for a lack of interior space – a consequence of its comparatively confined centre section. Priced against larger, more commodious rivals, the Jetta traded on VW’s virtues and quality image, but wasn’t really as complete a product as its European mid-range rivals. VW would do better.
If we agree that cars reflect the times in which they are created, what can we conclude from the class of ’79? What we see is an industry attempting to adapt vehicles created under vastly different circumstances to an altered reality. These cars were mostly placeholders, intended to suffice until better, more appropriate products were readied – one notable exception being Mercedes’ ground-up W126 S-Class, a car which perhaps reflected its times better than any other launched that year. But if terrible times are indeed the handmaidens of great art, perhaps terror is our friend.
The class of ’79 we did write about.
Outlier: Mercedes G-Wagen