Ten cars turning 50 in 2021 | Axon's Automotive Anorak

22nd January 2021
Gary Axon

In recent years an early review of the significant new cars first launched half-a-century earlier has become something of an Anorak post-New Year tradition here at GRR, with 2021 being no exception.

So, despite a poor start to 2021, as we begin to settle into what ultimately promises to be a considerably better year than 2020 – an exceptional year for the wrong reasons and best forgotten – let’s nostalgically wind the clock back 50 years and look at ten of the top road cars that debuted in 1971.


In comparison to a wide roll call of significant new cars launched in 1970, 1971 was a much quieter year. Despite this, however, some interesting and important new models were first revealed half-a-century ago, including a trio of trend-setting automotive debutants, each hailing from Italy.

Ahead of kicking off with this trio of world beaters launched 50 years ago though, cars that went on to make a considerable impact on motoring in the 1970s and beyond, we should also quickly recall a few other newcomers from 1971, some of which were upgrades or variants of existing and established models.

These included the Triumph Dolomite, Jaguar E-type Series 3 V12 (Brown Lane’s first model to use this glorious V12 engine), the Rolls-Royce/Bentley Corniche (rebadged versions of the former Mulliner-bodied two-door Coupe and Convertible), the TVR M Series, Hillman Imp-powered Clan Crusader and iconic Nova kit car. Away from British shores, other new 1971 arrivals included Estate versions of the Citroën GS Estate and Peugeot 504, the new Mazda 818 and RX-3, plus the Australian Holden HQ and Statesman, and rival Chrysler Valiant VH and Charger coupe.

Ten other top new releases, set to blow out 50 candles this year, are as follows.


Alfa Romeo Alfasud

Alfa Romeo’s first ever attempt at a producing an entry-level front-wheel-drive model, the Alfasud (so called as it was built in an all-new factory in southern Italy) was an outstanding triumph in all areas, apart from coachwork corrosion protection!

Sandwiched by the legendary Mini Cooper in the 1960s and Peugeot 205 GTI in the 1980s, the Alfasud was (and remains) the best handling car of the 1970s by some margin, outclassing the dynamically adroit Volkswagen Golf GTI and even the entertaining Mini 1275 GT.

Skillfully (over) engineered by Austrian Rudolph Hruska, and styled by the gifted Giorgetto Giugiaro (his first true production car since going solo and establishing ItalDesign in 1968) the Alfasud instantly became the four-seater sporting family car of choice for the discerning and demanding driver.

Blessed with an elaborate suspension set-up, all-round disc brakes and an excellent Boxer engine (initially 1.2-litre, growing to 1.5-litre for the later 105PS Ti sporting derivatives), the ‘Sud was a revelation on the road, out-handling most ‘traditional’ sportscars in the same price, range such as the MG B, and setting a new dynamic benchmark.

Around 894,000 examples (plus an additional 121,000 Alfasud Sprint coupes) were sold, making the model one of the most successful yet for Alfa Romeo. Sadly though, poor build quality and a keen propensity to rust soon put paid to the Alfasud’s otherwise enviable reputation, with the eventual addition of a hatchback arriving too late to address the model’s then-tarnished image, though true driving enthusiasts remained loyal to the Sud right up to its 1980s demise.


Fiat 127

The Alfasud may have been the best handling car of the 1970s, but the honour of the decade’s best-selling car belonged to the ultra-popular Fiat 127.

Initially launched in 1971 as a booted front-wheel-drive saloon with a highly influential two-box body (the shape that swiftly became the default profile for all small hatchbacks from the 1970s to today), Fiat added a third-door hatchback version a year later.

This smart move helped to consistently keep the 127 at the top of Europe’s new car sales charts throughout the 1970s, with the model’s production being spread across the globe, with over 5 million examples ultimately being built, right into the late 1980s.

Just like the Alfasud, and far too many other cars of the 1970s, the shiny new 127’s pert two-box bodywork soon turned to rust, with pristine examples now a very rare find, even in Italy where the Fiat used to be everywhere. The influence and layout of the 1971 Fiat 127 still continues today, long outlasting the car’s fragile build quality.


Fiat 130 Coupe

The third Italian ‘best’ from fifty years ago was simply the best looking car of the 1970s, the influential and achingly elegant Fiat 130 Coupe. Styled by Paolo Martin at Pininfarina, this beautiful 130 sat at the pinnacle of the large Fiat range; an expensive and exclusive hand-crafted 3.2-litre V6 coupe to replace the earlier Ferrari-powered Fiat Dino Coupe.

With pure, simple and refined straight-edged coachwork, the 130 Coupe received huge acclaim, the Fiat winning more car design awards and plaudits than any other vehicle of the 1970s. The model’s clean and subtle styling went on to influence not only Pininfarina’s own in-house Ferrari 365 GTC 2+2-400-412, Lancia Gamma Coupe, Peugeot 604 and Rolls-Royce Camargue, but also strong-selling rivals such as the 1977 Ford Granada Mark II and 1978 Chevrolet Caprice and Impala, the USA’s most popular car for a decade.

Pininfarina went on to expand its award-winning 130 Coupe design with a pair of seductive prototypes; the four-door Opera and Maremma shooting break, both of which Fiat sadly rejected for production. With under 4,500 130 Coupe’s built, this dignified luxury Fiat was always a rare breed, with clean examples now keenly sought by discerning car collectors with taste for this Italian masterclass in car design perfection. 


Maserati Bora

Sticking with Italian machinery, the most exciting mid-engined exotica to debut in 1971 was the Maserati Bora. Styled by ItalDesign and powered by a mid-mounted V8 of 4.7-litres and later 324PS 4.9-litres, the Bora utilised some complex hydraulic controls, borrowed from its then-parent, Citroën.

Maserati’s inaugural mid-engine model was never a huge seller against fellow Italian exotic mid-engined rivals, such as the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, Lamborghini Countach (also first seen in 1971, but only in prototype form) and De Tomaso Pantera.

However, it did spawn the subsequent Merak, which shared much of the Bora’s coachwork, but mated to a more affordable V6 motor, taken from the Citroën SM, with a tight 2+2 cockpit configuration. By the time Maserati stopped Bora production in 1978, 564 examples had been built.


Ferrari 365 GTC/4

Pininfarina’s second production masterpiece of 1971, after its seminal Fiat 130 Coupe, was the short-lived and oft-forgotten Ferrari 365 GTC/4, an under-appreciated front-engined V12 2+2 coupe in the contemporary wedged fastback style.

Produced for just one year with only 505 examples made, the 365 GTC/4 was based on the chassis of Ferrari’s cult-like 365 GTB/4 Daytona, sharing its Colombo-developed 4.4-litre V12 motor, but marginally detuned to produce 340PS.

Strangely ignored by all but devoted Ferrari aficionados for many years, it is only in recent times that the 365 GTC/4 has finally been recognised and considered as a truly grand and collectable Maranello V12 coupe, worthy of wearing the coveted prancing horse badge.   


Fiat 128 Sport Coupe

At the risk of seeming like an Italian takeover, the sixth and final Latin entry of the top ten selected significant new car launches of 1971 is yet another Fiat, the stylish Sport Coupe version of the popular 128. The Fiat 128 was the 1970 Car of the Year saloon that redefined the real world drivability of transverse-engined front-wheel-drive family cars for ever more.

The 128 Sport Coupe was revealed at the 1971 Turin Motor Show as the successor to the bubbly rear-engined Fiat 850 Coupe, featuring the fluid ‘coke bottle’ styling so popular at the time. Available in 64PS 1100 and 75PS 1300 forms with two trim levels (L with rectangular head lights and SL with dual lights (only the latter being sold in the UK), the 128 Sport Coupe came a close second to giving its contemporary Alfasud rival a good run for its money as an exceptional well-balanced drivers car.

Strong in-house competition from its own 128-derived mid-engined X1/9 in 1972 prompted Fiat to soon update the booted Coupe to become the more versatile 128 3P (3P = Tre Porte; three door) in 1975, with the Coupe’s bodywork modified from the A-pillars backwards to add a rear hatch and split/fold back seats. 


Renault 15/17

Renault has an unenviable track record of producing dud sporting coupes, with its R15 and sibling R17 models of 1971 doing little to improve this poor reputation.

Based around the successful R12 family saloon range, the Renault front-drive coupe twins were created to battle other coupe competitors in period, such as the dominant rear-drive Ford Capri, Opel Manta and Toyota Celica.

The R15 and R17 differed in subtle details, the R15 using the R12’s 60PS 1,289cc engine with oblong headlamps and full-length rear side windows as external identifiers, whereas the costlier 17 had the R16’s more powerful 90PS 1.6-litre motor with plusher interior trim, quad round headlights and ‘sportier’ split side rear glass.

More performance orientated R17 TS and Gordini 108PS variants were subsequently added to give the range sportier credibility, but this, along with a ‘Phase 2’ refresh with a tidier exterior and lavish multi-adjustable high-back ‘petal’ seats, did little to improve lackluster sales and the models were dropped in 1979.


Mercedes-Benz SL (R107)/SLC (C107)

After a successful eight-year production run, the Paul Bracq-penned second generation Mercedes-Benz SL W113 series was a tough act to follow. Mercedes pulled off a coup though with its W113’s replacement, the 1971 107 series SL, which went on to enjoy a long 18-year career with more than 300,000 examples sold.

The new two-seater SL roadster, plus its extended wheelbase 2+2 SLC sidekick (1971-81), hit the ground running, immediately attracting a healthy order intact. During its 18-year run, the appearance of the SL changed very little, from its horizontal head lights through to its fluted rear lamps, a Mercedes first that were later shared with the 1972-81 S-Class W116-series.

The SL model’s engine programme altered considerably though. Initially launched in 350SL, 200PS straight-six guise only, the 107 range was soon expanded to include an entry 280SL, 190PS, right up to a 560SL, 230PS V8 for the North American markets only, where the majority of SLs were sold.  


Alpine-Renault A310

Developed as the successor to the plucky but aging A110 Berlinette, Alpine’s larger A310 ran alongside the older model on the Dieppe production lines for far longer than originally planned, due to the Berlinette’s surprise World Rally Championship victory in 1972/73, just a while after the A310’s 1971 Geneva Salon world debut in prototype form.

Larger, heavier and pricier than the lithe A110 it was due to replace, the early A310 was intended to move Alpine more upmarket, but the model was initially too constrained by its rear-mounted, 127PS four-cylinder engine, sourced from the Renault 16 TS. This resulted in disappointing performance in comparison to the older and more affordable Berlinette.

Using a Lotus-esque tubular steel backbone chassis with a lightweight GRP body, the striking wedged new Alpine wore a distinctive face filled with six Cibie oblong headlights, mounted behind glass, just like the 1970 Citroën SM. The luxurious interior provided tight 2+2 seating for small kids in the rear, like a Porsche 911.

Five years after launch, in 1976 Alpine finally addressed the disappointing performance failings of the four-cylinder 1971 A310 original by fitting a more potent 2.7-litre V6 150PS PRV motor, at last providing acceptable acceleration with a reasonable 137mph top speed to match its sporting appearance. Production finally closing in 1984 after 11,600 units.


Morris Marina

We’ll end this whistle stop tour of the ten most impactful new cars launched 50 years ago with British Leyland’s great hope to steal lucrative business/fleet sales away from Ford’s all-conquering Escort and Cortina.

Launched under the memorable marketing strapline, ‘Beauty with brains behind it’, the new Morris Marina promised much, but delivered little, with the new car left wanting, being heavily based on the aged Morris Minor that first saw action way back in 1948.

Hurriedly conceived to replace both the ancient Minor and elderly ‘Farina’ Morris Oxford, the Marina was purposely utterly conventional in execution, with rear-wheel-drive and old BMC/BL 1.3 and 1.8 engines, dressed in inoffensive but staid saloon and coupe body styles (plus a later estate).

Despite its conservatism and some obvious short comings, the Marina actually sold quite well initially within the UK, with the 100,000th example built just eleven months after its late April 1971 introduction. Production continued until 1980, via ‘improved’ Series 2 and 3 versions, until being replaced over 1.1 million units later by the Morris Ital, in essence little more than an elaborate facelift of the Marina. The Ital was eventually killed off itself as the last Morris passenger car model ever made in 1984.

Maserati, Ferrari, Alpine and Fiat 130 Coupe images courtesy of Bonhams.

  • For Sale

  • Alfa Romeo

  • Alfasud

  • Morris

  • Marina

  • Alpine

  • Renault

  • A310

  • Mercedes

  • SL

  • Fiat

  • 128

  • 130 Coupe

  • Maserati

  • Bora

  • Ferrari

  • 365 GTC

  • 127

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