“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 style, 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.
7 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz – Never Get Out of the Boat”
It was the Audi that changed the game.
They elbowed their way into a market, and gradually worked their way up towards the leaders.
Blandness worked for them (although never for me).
I well remember the launch of the fourth generation E70 Corolla in 1979. It was a thoroughly contemporary design with simple, geometric lines and minimal ornamentation. The two previous generation Corollas were popular and well regarded in Ireland for their reliability and mechanical robustness. The price one paid for this was the rather chintzy styling* inside and out and a tendency to rust enthusiastically. Here’s an example of the second generation E20 Corolla in a typical colour:
Such was the pace of Toyota’s development (and brevity of its model cycles) that it would take just four more years before the Corolla’s modernisation would be completed with the introduction of the fifth generation E80 model, which featured FWD and the option of two different five-door variants, hatchback and longer liftback:
* Many (older?) buyers regarded the Corolla’s stylistic flourishes positively, comparing them favourably with the dour and spartan low-line Escorts against which it competed. Chromed (plastic) highlights on the dashboard? Yes, please! As to equipment, there was no contest: A MW/LW radio and heated rear window fitted as standard was indeed a luxury back then!
Eóin’s photo of the Kadett D above neatly illustrates the dilemma GM Europe faced in deciding whether or not to embrace the hatchback bodystyle. The company hedged its bets by offering both hatchback and booted versions within the same silhouette, and paid further homage to the Alfasud with the latter’s exposed hinges. Does this makeshift solution imply that the booted version was a late addition to the range? In any event, subsequent booted versions were offered in a different bodystyle with a “proper” extended tail. The Vauxhall version of the Kadett/Astra E was even given its own name, the rather twee “Belmont” which may have hindered rather than helped sales.
The Corolla was the world’s best-selling car.
And even today, I wonder if the Ghosn affair might not be related to the Japanese government wanting to keep Toyota as the country’s major player.
I am terribly sorry but I beg to completely differ when it comes to the supposed superiority of Kadett D over Alfasud, particularly with regard to their fundamentals. The ‘Sud had infinitely better engines and a vastly superior chassis, it offered more passenger space and its interior was much more attractive even in its simple Mk1/2 form, let alone with Mk3 dashboard and fabric door trim.
That’s before you find out that the ‘Sud is much better to drive and above all, it’s fun to do so with no GM ‘sneeze factor’ in its steering and laser sharp throttle response. The ‘Sud’s smooth and free-revving engines and its double bulkhead made it possible to drive the cars at speeds far beyond what was deemed appropriate for a car of its class and its roadholding and handling made it possible to drive circles around much (supposedly) faster cars, therefore it must have been fundamentally right.
Its only problem was that it was even more badly made as the Kadett (quite an achievement in itself). The ‘Sud only ever was let down by its production problems or by being made in Naples instead of Milan.
Dave, I realise that I was not being very clear in what I was saying as regards the ‘Sud. Allow me to explain. As a former Alfasud owner – I rebuilt one from a rather sorry heap back in the mid-’80s – I came to know them rather well and yes, mechanically, and of course dynamically, the Alfa was leagues ahead of everyone – perhaps Citroen’s GS excepted. However, while the car was cleverly production engineered so as to be straightforward to repair, the execution was lamentable – not simply in build, which was woeful, but in material quality, which was worse.
So when I spoke of the fundamentals, I was referring to the car’s ability to remain in one piece – and not simply dissolve into blackened shavings of ferrous oxide within months of delivery. While I’m quite prepared to believe that the Lancia Beta’s rust issues were overplayed by the press, those of the Alfasud were, if anything, downplayed. I have never known a car to be as fundamentally rust prone. Then there were the frangible cabin fittings. And the electrics. One day I might be moved to tell my Alfasud experience in full, but I fear neither of us would come out of it well.
But of course, they were an absolute delight to drive – not a term I’d ever use to describe the dynamics of the equivalent Kadett. But, fundamentally, it was the better car, insofar as it performed its duties as it ought and didn’t fall to pieces at the slightest provocation. The Kadett wasn’t a great car but it was a good one. The Alfasud was great, but not good. I adored mine, and would agree that in conceptual terms it was quite brilliant, but there is no doubt in my mind that almost anything else was superior as a consumer durable.
Giancarlo Catarsi’s book ‘Alfasud‘ from Nada Editore’s series ‘vetture che hanno fatto la storia’ has an interesting story that’s depressing/infuriating to read.
When the ‘Sud’s corrosion problems became obvious Alfa’s reaction was to first sideline Rudolf Hruska and accuse him to have caused the problems by design faults and second to task an external consulting agency specialised in automotive industry to investigate the problems. The book quotes the report which stated that
– The problems were not rooted in the design of the ‘Sud. (Rudolf Hruska was immediately rehabilitated and tasked with redesigning the Alfetta’s front end)
– The problems were not related to the materials used in the construction of the car. Steel and paint were the same as used in Milan where no such problems occurred at that time. Pomigliano was the much more modern plant and there actually should have been less problems
– All quality problems were related either to non-observance of intended production processes or to the consequences of the frequent production stoppages caused by strikes.
The report gives a long list of examples for incorrect application of anti-corrosion treatment or of corrosion starting in degreased naked and untreated bodies stored for days or weeks because of a production outage.
And that’s before they tell the story that tolerance classes for engine piston/bore pairings had to be reduced from five to three and completely abandoned later because nobody on the production line would pay any respect to them.