“This morning, shortly after 11:00, comedy struck this little house on Dibley Road. Sudden…violent…comedy.”
As the 1960s drew to a close, centuries of hierarchy and forelock-tugging deference were under attack in class-riven Blighty. Television shows like The Frost Report saw a younger generation of university-educated writers and performers taking increasingly accurate potshots at a hidebound establishment who deserved every critical drubbing they received. The 1969 debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on BBC television therefore marked a watershed in what was deemed admissible for a primetime audience.
Owing a debt to the earlier Goon Show and Round the Horne radio formats, the Python’s anarchic, whimsical and often downright silly TV sketch series brought absurdist comedy into living rooms across the length and breadth of Britain, sending up authority and making household names of its creators – at least amidst those who understood, or at the very least appreciated its gleefully skewed logic. Post-Python, comedy would never look, feel, nor sound the same.
Overall, 1969 could be viewed as a year of firsts. But while the NASA moon landings lent the defining images and soundbites of the decade (perhaps the Century), and the successful maiden flight of the Anglo-French Concorde announced the prospect of attainable supersonic travel, a far more significant event took place rather more quietly. Funded by the US Department of Defence, the ARPANET sent its first message, marking the beginnings of the world wide web and ultimately the internet.
Cinemagoers were treated to Disney’s Love Bug movie, while those who preferred a little less sucrose in their diets, found more uneasy enjoyment amidst Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. But despite Herbie’s hilarious celluloid antics, it was business as usual for the domestic US auto industry, basking in what would be subsequently viewed as ‘peak musclecar’, a last high octane cubic-inch orgy before emissions regulations and downsizing began a steady process of emasculation.
In Italy, two sides of a broadly similar coin emerged from the engineering headquarters of Fiat Auto under the auspices of Dante Giacosa and Ettore Cordiano. Cleaving to the Giacosa doctrine of progressive yet economically sustainable technology clothed in a compact, functional, and broadly accessible envelope, the Autobianchi A112 was perhaps, even more than its Primula ancestor, the archetype of the modern supermini. Based on similar engineering principles to that of the Fiat 128 which launched the same year, with a pert and perfectly judged body style, the junior Autobianchi (sold in some markets as a Lancia) not only paved the way for an entire genre, but generations of top-selling front-wheel drive Fiat superminis. Was there a more significant car of 1969?
Meanwhile, the Fiat 130 was simultaneously conceived somewhat under protest, with Fiat’s engineering leadership in staunch opposition to management’s imposition to produce a more upmarket, Mercedes-rivalling flagship, befitting Lignotto’s push into more profitable sectors of the market. Despite this creative tension, the 130’s engineering package was impressive, even if the car itself, especially in early 2.8 litre form, was a little underbaked. The 130 berlina, even in its much-improved second generation, never quite gained a foothold – even in its native Italy – but charm and raffishly discrete elegance it had in spades, despite its rather formal appearance. The most convincing big Fiat ever?
Unlike Fiat, the Ford Motor Company never particularly over-estimated the sophistication of its customers, but even its most ardent detractors couldn’t fail to be impressed by Henry’s grasp of their desires and insecurities – even if they didn’t necessarily realise it themselves. The 1969 Capri perfectly encapsulated this. A product of marketing from its thrusting nose to its truncated tail, the Capri was every suburbanite’s dreams made flesh.
Employing tried, trusted and entirely conventional componentry (Cortina mostly), enveloped in a phallocentric, more European interpretation of contemporary Transatlantic-influenced style and available in a huge array of engine sizes and trim levels to suit every pocket, the Capri was not only a resounding commercial success, but a car which would become as culturally significant (in Blighty at least) as its better known US cousin.
Both acknowledging and reflecting the growing affluence of the French middle classes, two compact berlines from two contrasting domestic carmakers broke cover in 1969 – both of whom cleaved to marque-specific characteristics. The Peugeot 304 was to an overwhelming extent, a slightly larger, more upmarket variant of France’s best seller, the 204. Clothed (by Pininfarina) in a determinedly formal fashion, it evolved the 204’s basic style, excellent road manners, fine suspension (struts all round) and aura of refinement, with additional performance (courtesy of a larger displacement engine) and creature comforts.
The Renault 12 on the other hand, while replacing the R 10 and sitting below the seemingly larger hatchback R 16, was in fact longer than either. Like it’s Belfort rival, it was powered by a 1.3 litre engine (the Cléon unit), mounted longitudinally and driving the front wheels. Technically different from both its rear-engine predecessors and its front-driven Billancourt contemporaries, it was designed for ease and cheapness of manufacture and use – hence its rigid rear axle, in opposition to Renault tradition. Its body style, attributed to Robert Boyer was a curious affair, with its low nose, odd stepped roofline and dipping rear, which lent it a slightly broken appearance.
Both Peugeot and Renault were fine cars – markedly better than most of their European and UK rivals, both too would prove long-lived, although it was the Renault which survived longest, ending production in Romania (as a Dacia) in 2004.
Having inherited responsibility for Citroen’s bureau d’etudes upon the sudden death of chief designer, Flaminio Bertoni in 1964, Robert Opron presided over a rather difficult time for the double chevron. Mired in stillborn projects (Projet F in particular), Citroen exited the decade with a sizeable hole in its mid-range. The 1969 debut of the Ami 8 was intended, firstly to soften Bertoni’s rather polarising and by then quite dated looking visuals, and secondly to offer something of a more sophisticated mien to a more affluent customer.
Of course, what they really needed was a rival to Peugeot’s 304 and Renault’s 12; one was in hand (1970’s Projet G), but for now, the Ami would have to suffice. Changes wrought were mostly cosmetic, with mechanicals largely shared with those of the 1967 Dyane model. A revised nosecone was added, and while the door pressings were retained, the canopy was altered to provide a fastback profile (reminiscent of the stillborn F), which suggested a hatchback, but it was left to the popular break estate to provide one.
If the Ami 8 can be characterised as a placeholder, it was a long-lived one, lasting almost another decade on sale. But then, lengthy production runs were not an entirely unexpected phenomenon in the French auto industry, quite unlike the Spanish Inquisition, for instance.
The class of 1969 we did write about.
Some of the class of ’69 we’ll get around to at some point. Volkswagen K70/ Maserati Indy/ Porsche 914.