1974 Pontiac Grand Prix. Brochure and advertising images from author’s collection.
If you recoil at the sight of landau tops, opera windows, barrier-busting bumper designs, pillow-top crushed velour seats, double-digit 0-60 times and speedometers that top out at 85 MPH, you should stop reading now, as this blog is not for you.
If, however, you’re like me and you still recall the rolling chandeliers of the 1970s fondly whenever you see one, and if the ever-escalating prices of the 1960s rides you revere have depressed you, keep reading.
Often those entering the market for a vintage car instantly aspire to own the most valuable and fastest example. Then they get discouraged when they learn how much it will cost to buy it. Many would probably be satisfied with a nice old car to drive, one that evokes a feeling of nostalgia and draws a modicum of positive attention out in public.
1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Though I covet them, not all of us require a 1960s Ford Thunderbird, Olds Starfire, Chrysler 300 letter series car, Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Riviera or an Olds Toronado to enjoy ourselves on the road. For those of us on more limited budgets, the personal/luxury cars of the 1970s can offer real opportunities. Since the early 1970s examples are still highly valued, this discussion pertains mostly to 1973 to 1979 models.
A few of my favorites include the Grand Prix, Cutlass Salon, Cordoba, Monte Carlo, Thunderbird, Elite and the Cougar XR-7. I know that there are other cars that fit into the personal/luxury category (and you can discuss them in the comments), but you get the idea. I also appreciate the Dodge Magnum and the Pontiac Grand Am, but like the few remaining muscle cars of this era, I feel those models more emphasized a sporty image than one of luxury.
Just what the automakers wanted you to believe in the 1970s holds true today, when you buy one of these models, you are buying luxury, not performance, so don’t expect it to be as quick as most 1960s or early 1970s cars.
1975 Ford Elite.
1. Luxury on the Cheap
When you compare the values of a 1960s or early 1970s model to the values of its counterpart or similar model of the mid or late 1970s, the earlier car will almost always be worth considerably more. Though many buyers are enamored with the 1960s car’s styling and power, they will get less in technology, engineering and safety features and will have to perform more maintenance. Also, many of the later vehicles can still be found in very good driver condition for reasonable asking prices, while the earlier cars command top dollar and solid examples are more difficult to find.
2. Economical Ergonomics
Though it can certainly be argued on a model-by-model basis, largely, interior ergonomics improved throughout the 1970s when compared to the more-expensive-today 1960s vehicles. Cars became more comfortable and easier to drive via improved cabin and seat design and construction and revised instrument panel, controls and door panel layouts.
3. Safe and Secure
Advancing federal regulations through the 1970s resulted in those cars being safer than 1960s models. Front and rear bumpers were made larger, set further from the body and featured revised mounting systems to better absorb impacts; guard beams were added inside the doors; roof designs were revised to meet new rollover standards; seatbelt systems were improved; and many additional occupant safety features were developed.
1976 Mercury Cougar XR-7.
4. The Pounds of Silence
Methods for sealing bodies and reducing wind noise around the windows improved through the 1970s. Combined with the use of additional and better sound deadeners and weather-stripping, personal/luxury cars were capable of surrounding their passengers in a cocoon of quiet. The price in many instances was added weight, however.
5. Feels Like Overdrive
Five-speed overdrive manual transmissions and four-speed automatic O.D.s rose to fame in the 1980s providing the best of both worlds regarding acceleration and maintaining low revs on the highway. There are tons of kits to bolt overdrive manuals or automatics into vintage cars today. However, if you don’t mind giving up on the brisk acceleration aspect, most of these ‘70s machines have the other end of the O.D. spectrum already covered. In an effort to increase fuel economy in cars that were laden with safety equipment, sound deadening and added emissions controls, many automakers began reducing rear gear ratios. Whereas 1960s and early 1970s cars would normally have 3.08, 3.23 or 3.42 or similar gears standard, in the mid-1970s we started to see more cars with 2.73, 2.56 and 2.41 rear gears or similar. This kept RPM low on the highway like an overdrive, and saved fuel, but it did adversely affect acceleration.
6. Subtly Suspended
Even though personal/luxury cars were built with the intention of coddling their occupants, suspension design and ride and handling characteristics did consistently improve through the 1970s. As radial tires became more popular, systems like Pontiac’s Radial Tuned Suspension for example, were design for them. Front disc brakes also became standard during this decade.
1977 Chrysler Cordoba.
7. Accessories Explosion
Generally, factory A/C, power windows, seats and door locks etc., stereo systems and many other options are more likely to be found in a 1970s personal/luxury car than its 1960s counterpart.
8. Modern Maturity
Since these cars were upscale models when new, chances are their original buyers were a little older than average. We can hope the advance in age resulted in an advance in responsibility that led to the car being properly maintained. Older and/or affluent owners are also likely to have had a garage to store their pride-and-joy, so more well-preserved examples may have survived than if the vehicles were base models.
9. Gawk Factor
Though these latter-day luxo-machines still garner positive attention out on the streets and at cruises and shows, are you guaranteed crowds will gather when you lift the hood to show off your Lean Burn 400 as they would for a cross-ram 413 in a 1962 Chrysler 300H? No. But then again you didn’t have to spend a bucket of money to buy your Mopar, and chances are the 300H will ride home on a trailer while you’re enjoying the open road in your Cordoba, lounging in the genuine Corinthian Leather seats.
1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon.
10. Worry-Less Cruising
A weekend escape machine that didn’t cost you your kid’s college fund is way more enjoyable on the road simply due to the reduced stress of knowing that if something goes wrong, you haven’t damaged a huge personal investment…and kept your kid out of college.
I’m sure you can come up with more reasons, but this is a start. Tell us yours.
It’s also important to balance this blog with a few caveats. In order to reap the benefits of this approach, the personal/luxury car that you buy must be in solid driver condition from the outset. You cannot buy a restoration project and not expect to lose a ton of money on it and not go nuts trying to find the parts to complete it. Reproduction body sheet-metal and interior restoration parts availability for cars of this era pales in comparison to that of the 1960s and early 1970s models.
1977 Ford Thunderbird.
Regarding service replacement parts for a weekend driver, engine, drivetrain and suspension items shouldn’t be much trouble sourcing from auto parts stores or online specialty parts houses, as these cars were all conventional in design and shared many parts with sister models over the years. Finding good used specific body trim and interior parts will likely prove more challenging, however.
Vehicles from this era can be finicky regarding carburetor and ignition tuning because of how they were set up from the factory to get through emissions testing and how many emissions controls they had to function with. Finding a mechanic to maintain the car who is well versed in these areas will be money well spent.
If you choose to do the maintenance and tuning yourself, a service manual and the vacuum line diagram and carb and emissions control servicing procedures contained in it will likely be your best friends when troubleshooting engine issues. For those leery about owning a 1975 and later catalytic converter equipped model, keep in mind that today’s replacement units are likely a much better design than the original and should you need one, it may even free up a little horsepower. If local emissions laws allow, installing a custom true dual exhaust with twin cats will free up more power and improve fuel mileage.
1979 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Should you prefer your personal/luxury rides a bit smaller, GM substantially downsized the Grand Prix, Monte Carlo and Cutlass, among others, for 1978. The Thunderbird and Cougar got the same treatment from Ford and Mercury for 1980, and Chrysler followed suit with the Cordoba that same year.
If this blog has piqued your interest in these models and you’re willing to forgo some power (and some would argue styling, which is a matter of opinion of course) to gain a much lower buy-in price, additional safety features and the potential for an improved ride, better braking and many more comfort and convenience options, then you’re a great candidate to buy and enjoy one of these sharp-dressed disco-era drivers.