The Most Stylish Seventies Cars
The BMW 3.0 CS. Photograph by BMW Group UK
We pay tribute to the vehicles that helped to define the era .
The 1960s – as a cultural force – ended well before the 1960s actually did. In 1968, Sir Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones channelled the febrile prevailing anti-war mood in “Street Fighting Man”. A year later, he was seeking sanctuary in “Gimme Shelter”.
So, perhaps that makes the 1970s the hangover decade? Certainly, the symptoms were all there. It was a seeping paranoia in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and a massive headache in the form of a worldwide energy crisis in 1973 that sent shockwaves reverberating through the motor industry. In the US, consumers swapped their thirsty gas-guzzlers for frugal Japanese compacts, and the once-glorious Detroit plunged into a near-terminal tailspin. In Europe, the crisis all but killed off the market for sports cars and big saloons, while in the UK, the government’s adventures with British Leyland proved that, whatever your thoughts on privatisation, politicians had no business running car companies.
Yet despite the turmoil, the 1970s were not lacking in automotive inspiration. Europe’s star designers diverted their immense creativity away from exotic eye candy to create affordable gems such as the original Volkswagen Golf, Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Having played with form and surface language to outstanding effect throughout the previous decade, the 1970s saw greater risk-taking and, in the pre-eminence of the “wedge” shape, perhaps the first sign of post-modernism in car design.
The car industry has always squared up to the challenges of the time. In the 1970s, those challenges assaulted the business from every angle, and the result was some of the most memorable cars ever. Read on as MR PORTER picks seven of the most compelling cars from the era.
Lamborghini Countach LP400
The Lamborghini Countach LP 400 (1973-1981). Photograph by Lamborghini
It’s the defining car of the decade, and is still unrivalled for sheer visual outrage. The Countach – the name is effectively a word in the Piedmontese dialect used to express a sense of eyebrow-raising astonishment – cemented Lamborghini’s status as the new super car king. Pushing all of the formal constraints of design and engineering to the limits (and sometimes beyond), the Countach, at just 1m tall, was almost impossible to get into, see out of, or drive if you were of above-average height. The car’s dimensions were so ludicrously impractical that the first 150 models came with a roof-mounted “periscope” to improve rear-ward visibility. These early models are now highly sought after. Trailed by a 1971 prototype, the Bertone-designed LP400 looked like an emissary from a parallel universe when it landed into production in 1974, shirking off the deprivations of the previous year’s oil crisis and touting a then unheard-of top speed of 186mph.
Defining 1970s feature: in a body of countless highlights, the scissor doors are a timeless piece of theatre.
Notable owners: Messrs Jay Leno and Rod Stewart.
Current value: a decade ago, a decent Countach would cost up to £100,000 ($155,000) – that same car would be valued at £300,000 ($465,000) now. Meanwhile, an early LP400 Periscopica is currently a £1m ($1.5m) proposition, and rising.
The 1973 Citroën SM. Photograph by Morgan Sheff
In the late 1960s, idiosyncratic French manufacturer Citroën took a controlling stake in the perennially troubled Italian Maserati marque, and the 1970s’ SM was the result. Designed by Mr Robert Opron, the SM’s dramatic shape retains its shock value 45 years later. Closer to contemporary cinema or art than a mere automobile, the SM is half Mr Jean Luc-Godard and half Barbarella. The glass nose, rear wheel spats and aerodynamically tapered rear glass are wilfully complex visual highlights, while Citroën’s clever suspension system imbued it with a magical ride quality, and Maserati’s 2.7l (and later 3l) punchy V6 engine supplied athletic GT performance. The “SM” name has a second meaning though, and owning one of these tricky cars could prove to be a painful experience. Modern-day collectors will want to keep a specialist mechanic on speed dial.
Defining 1970s feature: hmm… just look at it.
Notable owners: Messrs Graham Greene and Charlie Watts.
Current value: around £30,000 ($46,000), plus extensive maintenance costs.
Aston Martin Lagonda
Aston Martin Lagonda Saloon, 1984. Photograph by Bonhams
In many ways, the Lagonda is the 1970s on wheels, given that it’s one of the most radical-looking cars ever made. The Italian design trio, consisting of Messrs Giorgetto Giugiaro, Marcello Gandini and Nuccio Bertone were largely responsible for the decade’s pronounced “wedge” theme – one standout example being the Lamborghini Countach – but it was Englishman Mr William Towns who, in the Lagonda, gave it its fullest expression. The car was launched in 1976, just as Aston Martin was emerging from one of its periodic financial crises. The new management were very brave to give it the green light. We remain thrilled that they did. As progressive inside as it was out, the Lagonda’s reputation at the time was almost undone by its hideously complicated and unreliable digital instruments. But collectors need not be put off. Specialists can troubleshoot the glitches effectively these days, while the 5.3l V8 is robust. Only 645 were made during the car’s 13-year lifespan, and as the value of higher-profile classic Astons has spiked, so the fabulously outré Lagonda is finally having its moment.
Defining 1970s feature: the distinguished “wedge” silhouette.
Notable owners: Mr Evel Knievel.
Current value: £50,000-120,000 ($78,000-186,000).
The coupé, saloon and estate from the Mercedes-Benz 123 series (1975-1985). Photograph by Mercedes-Benz
Not the prettiest Mercedes, and categorically not the fastest, the W123 – the internal code name for Mercedes’ late-1970s saloon – is otherwise pretty much everything that’s great about the world’s oldest car brand distilled into one car. According to W123 guru Mr Mark Cosovich, it’s nothing less than “the finest-engineered car of the 20th century”. This is a vehicle that’s still so revered in certain geopolitically tricky parts of the globe, that W123s are routinely stolen, never to be seen again. They’re not literally bulletproof, but Mercedes’ quality reached such a peak with the W123 that it’s safe in all other respects. A properly maintained car is easily good for half a million miles or more, as a legion of taxi drivers will attest. The W123 was also the first official Mercedes estate, although the slightly shortened coupé remains the most stylish version. The passing of time has bequeathed even the rather solid-looking saloon an ineffable charm.
Defining 1970s feature: the W123 is a masterpiece of restraint, but the protective strip that runs around it is a signature flourish.
Notable owners: Jamiroquai’s Mr Jay Kay, who has no fewer than three W123s, in what is one of the finest car collections in the world.
Current value: starting at £4,000 ($6,000) for a good saloon. Up to £30,000 ($46,000) for a fully restored, ultra-low mileage example.
Fiat 130 Coupé
The 1971 Fiat 130 Coupé. Photograph by Fiat
Mr Dante Giacosa’s wonderful Cinquecento helped mobilise the post-war Italian masses, and there were other affordable Fiats. Despite this, the Italian brand struggled for traction further up the food chain. Enter the 130 Coupé: twice the price of a Jaguar E-Type V12 when new. It was unveiled by its designer Pininfarina at the high-profile 1971 Turin Motor Show in the hope that it would sprinkle the rest of the range in glamorous fairy dust. That it conspicuously failed to do so has left this boxy, but magnificently proportioned, luxury coupé in the margins as an esoteric, left-field choice. Highlights include its rectangular Carello headlights, enormous doors and an airy interior whose crushed velour seats came in a variety of psychedelic colours (the first-class compartments of period Italian trains used the same material).
Pininfarina later developed the model into a “shooting brake” called the Maremma, an example of which was regularly enjoyed by Fiat industrialist and style icon Mr Gianni Agnelli in preference to the Ferraris he could have driven.
Defining 1970s feature: the cabin is a virtual time capsule.
Notable owners: Mmes Dusty Springfield and Sophia Loren.
Current value: only 5,000 were made, and because of the low-quality Russian steel Fiat used at the time, most have rotted away. Good ones are now worth up to £20,000 ($31,000).
The 1977 Jaguar XJ-S. Photograph by Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust
As the replacement for the E-Type – the car Mr Enzo Ferrari rated the most beautiful he’d ever seen – the XJ-S had a Herculean task ahead of it. According to automotive lore, two journalists stumbled upon a prototype somewhere in Jaguar’s Browns Lane headquarters in the early 1970s, but found it so ugly that they couldn’t believe it was for real. Like everything that emerged from the 1970s – the decade that style forgot – it’s only now, 40 years since its launch, that the original XJ-S is getting the kudos it deserved. Naturally, this appreciation is buoyed up by the generation that grew up in the 1970s, but the XJ-S’ supple ride and surprisingly adroit handling need no nostalgic apology.
Defining 1970s feature: the flying buttresses on the rear wings. Perhaps Jaguar’s designers were influenced by the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notable owners: Sir Patrick Stewart and Mr James May.
Current value: rising fast, especially for early cars. Mileage dependant, prices can vary between £10,000 ($15,000) to £45,000 ($70,000).
BMW 3.0 CS (E9)
The BMW 3.0 CS, 1971. Photograph by BMW Group UK
BMW didn’t actually coin its sublime “ultimate driving machine” advertising slogan until the mid-1970s, but the 1968 3.0 CS, code-named E9 Coupé, was where the company finally got its groove on, following a perilous 1950s for all car manufacturers. The template is right here: the forward-leaning nose and quad-headlight set-up that framed the famous double kidney grille would be mimicked by every other BMW for the next 20 years, while the hockey-stick curve on the rear window – named the “Hofmeister kink” after its creator Mr Wilhelm Hofmeister – survives on today’s cars. The shape is elegant, the proportions are perfectly balanced, and by 1971 the silky six-cylinder engine had grown in size to give it the mouth to match its perfectly tailored trousers.
BMW also took it racing, where, in its be-winged “Batmobile” guise, it stamped its authority all over the vibrant 1970s European endurance motor racing scene. The rules dictated that BMW “homologate” a certain number for road use – 1,095 in total – and these CSL models are now highly prized.
Earlier this year, BMW unveiled a Hommage concept at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, reimagining the spirit of the original in modishly contemporary carbon fibre form.
Defining 1970s feature: the slender pillars – a sure sign of a less safety-conscious era.
_Notable owners: _Messrs Hugh Hefner and David Crosby and Sir Sean Connery.
Current value: a kempt CSL will set you back £250,000 ($388,000), the regular CS between £25,000 ($39,000) and £50,000 ($78,000).