The six best car innovations from the 1970s

01st August 2022
Simon Ostler

By the 1970s, the world was beginning to see genuine advancements in electronic technology. Television was commonplace, and arcade goers were reveling in the joys that were Pong and Space Invaders. Cars were also subjected to several innovations in technology, efficiency and safety during this most industrious of decades.


Cassette tape stereos (1970)

This is by far our favourite automotive innovation of the ‘70s, and we’re pretty sure drivers at the time would have agreed. Prior to the invention of the convenient and relatively portable cassette tape, and its eventual introduction to car stereos in the early 1970s, drivers were having to make do with the good old radio, or shell out for a Rolls-Royce or Bentley if they wanted to make use of their eight-track tape players.

Cassettes presented the first opportunity for ordinary drivers who couldn’t afford a Rolls to pick and choose their driving soundtrack. Glove boxes, footwells and door compartments were all crammed with the tiny and affordable music boxes, and it remained that way until the early ‘90s, although the very last car to be sold with a cassette player was the Lexus SC430 in 2010. We’ll be honest, we’d bring them back.


Low-speed bumpers (1970)

As more and more cars were sold and the roads were becoming increasingly congested, it would seem insurance companies were becoming concerned by the number of pay-outs they were having to make. Innocuous and low-speed collisions were leading to expensive repairs because cars were often fragile and fitted with minimal protective features.

By 1973, regulations in the US were in put place that dictated front bumpers were required to withstand a 5mph impact, while the rear end would need to stand up to a 2.5mph hit without any other component of the car such as lights, doors or safety equipment suffering damage.

Today’s specially designed and painstakingly engineered plastic bumpers have gone a long way towards reducing the costs of those annoying little prangs, but we had to start somewhere.


Anti-lock braking system (ABS) (1971)

Another year, and another innovation that would help to improve safety on the roads. Anti-lock brakes as we know them today were invented by Mario Palazzetti, working for Fiat at the time, in 1971. He initially christened it ‘Antiskid’ before Bosch acquired the patent and renamed it ABS.

The basic idea was to introduce an automated system that would assist with maintaining control of the car in instances of extreme braking. A car with locked brakes will just skid down the road and leave the driver completely out of control, ABS would implement cadence or threshold braking to maximise stopping power while still keeping the driver in control.

Early adopters were Chrysler with a ‘Sure Brake’ ABS system on its 1971 Imperial, and the Toyota Crown, Fiat introduced the system on a truck for the first time in 1972. The Mercedes W116 was the first production car to use an electronic four-wheel ABS system in 1978.


Catalytic converter (1973)

This is another one that had been worked on for several decades prior to its eventual introduction to production cars in 1973. The catalytic converter is an emission control system (emissions were a big problem in the US at that time) that takes the toxic pollutants from the engine and converts them (shock) into a less harmful substance. The earliest ‘two-way’ converters of the ‘70s took oxygen and carbon monoxide together with other harmful unburned hydrocarbons and produced substantially less harmful carbon dioxide and water in their place. Still far from ideal, as we’ve found out some 50 years later, but better than pumping actual poison into the air.

Stricter emissions regulations in 1975 meant that a majority of cars produced for that model year were fitted with catalytic converters.


Airbags (1973)

Yet another safety innovation! This time to try and protect drivers and their passengers during collisions should their ABS systems not prove effective enough. Airbags have proven their worth over time, but their initial implementation was less than perfect.

General Motors was the first manufacturer to begin equipping cars with airbags with its Chevrolet Impala in 1973. It broadened its implementation of this new safety kit in 1974 when the Oldsmobile Toronado was offered with the first passenger-side airbags, although there was minimal public interest and the idea was scrapped in 1977. 

The early years of airbags were littered with incidents and bad press, to the point that Ford and GM lobbied against their use, although GM eventually started marketing its airbag system as an alternative to three-point seatbelts. By the early 1980s, however, airbags were implemented in much the same way they are today. 


Digital Dashboard display (1976)

Yes, that’s right, the first car to feature a digital instrument panel was the Aston Martin Lagonda Series 2 in 1976. While this absolute wedge of a car was not packing a 10.3-inch colour touchscreen with sat-nav and a G-Force metre, it did indeed have an LCD dashboard with touch sensitive controls.

The Lagonda’s interior was a quite incredible preview into a future that we are now living in. While the technology has moved on somewhat, the large screen behind the wheel and the lack of actual buttons is something many of us are starting to get used to.

Drivers in the ‘70s clearly weren’t quite ready for this kind of innovation though, and the whole idea was scrapped by 1980.

  • List

  • Innovations

  • Imperial

  • Mercedes

  • W116

  • Chevrolet

  • Impala

  • Aston Martin

  • Lagonda

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