The eight best road cars of the 1970s

04th August 2022
Henry Biggs

The 1970s is not generally regarded as a golden era for the automobile. Early attempts to curb emissions, knee jerk responses to fuel crises plus industrial action disrupting production all took their toll. The Americans refer to this period with brutal honesty as ‘the malaise era’ but that’s not to say there weren’t some highlights, a few of which we have gathered below.


Citroen SM (1970)

Genuine question; is the Citroen SM the coolest car of all time? Work on a sporting variant of the Citroen DS had begun in the previous decade, getting increasingly complex and spurred on by the firm’s purchase of Maserati in 1968. The Italians contributed a 2.7-litre V6, derived from Giulio Alfieri’s V8, but the rest was pure Citroen innovation. As well as the DS’s hydropneumatic suspension and cornering headlights the SM gained speed sensitive power steering, all-round disc brakes with automatic balance adjustment, rain sensitive wipers and even carbon fibre reinforced wheels as an option.

Incredibly aerodynamic for its time, the SM’s beautiful teardrop shape gave it a drag coefficient of 0.26, making it the fastest front-wheel drive production car of its day. Despite being the first non-American model to be named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year the SM was outlawed in the US as it couldn’t adopt the federal 5mph bumpers and with European buyers leery of owning a car that required both Citroen and Maserati specialists to service it, the SM was not a sales success with just under 13,000 produced.


Dodge Challenger (1970)

Now most famous for its starring role alongside Barry Newman in the counter-culture movie ‘Vanishing Point’ the Challenger was Chrysler’s belated entrant into the ‘Pony Car’ class created by the Ford Mustang. These were compact muscle cars offered with a wide range of options, an approach exemplified by the Challenger which was available with almost every possible Chrysler engine option, including the legendary Hemi.

Sharing the Chrysler E platform with the Plymouth Barracuda, the Challenger was likewise intended to be a step up from the Mustang in both performance and luxury, matching the aspirations of increasingly wealthy young Americans. The Challenger R/T topped the tree, offering 431PS (317kW) from the 7.0-litre Hemi option. Only in production for four years, the Challenger fell victim of the contraction of the market in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, making it one of the most collectible cars of that era today.


Range Rover (1970)

We recently drove the latest iteration of the Range Rover, only the fifth new generation in a little over 50 years but still following the template laid down by the original. Inspired by some of the less agricultural 4x4s popping up in the US but not intended as the luxury car it quickly became, the Range Rover was the brainchild of Rover engineers Spen King and Gordon Bashford.

With coil springs and disc brakes all-round, permanent four-wheel-drive and a lightweight, powerful V8 licensed from Buick, the Range Rover was a world away from the very agricultural Series Land Rovers that preceded it. Its styling, displayed in the Louvre as an “exemplary work of industrial design” was apocryphally simply the temporary sheet metal created for the prototype, but which the Rover board liked so much it insisted it stay. The original Range Rover, now referred to as the ‘Classic’ stayed in production for more than a quarter of a century and even today is in a class of its own.


Mercedes S-Class (1972)

And now another car that could be said to be the one by which all others are measured. Although its predecessor had been unofficially dubbed the ‘Sonderklasse’ or ‘special class’, the W116 generation launched in 1972 was the first to officially be designated an S-Class. Development began in 1966, just a year after the launch of the preceding W108 series with an emphasis, for the first time, on safety above styling.

So, the S-Class received more rounded styling to reduce pedestrian injuries, a padded dashboard and steering wheel, a standard first aid kit and rain gutters to help visibility. Those famous ribbed taillights were designed to remain clear of dirt and later the S-Class was among the first to fit airbags and anti-lock braking. Engines were inline six and V8 units, the latter including the monster M100 unit. At the time this was the largest engine fitted to a post-war Mercedes, creating the legendary 450 SEL 6.9 which became the fastest and quickest European saloon on sale for a number of years.


Lamborghini Countach (1974)

How do you follow a car like the Lamborghini Miura? Well initially by detailing areas for improvement in the car regarded as the first true supercar. The Miura’s high-speed handling was poor, with stability issues and a tendency to lift off oversteer. The transverse engine placement also caused weight distribution, access and cooling issues. Its replacement, dubbed ‘LP112’ had a longitudinally mounted V12 – a first for a road car – with the transmission between the front seats and driveshaft running back from it, through the engine sump, to the rear differential, placing most of the mass centrally in the space frame chassis.

The next step was to invite the Miura’s designer, Marcello Gandini back for a second go. After the curvaceous Miura, Gandini had gone on to explore extreme wedge styling with the Lancia Stratos Zero and Alfa Romeo Carabo. It was these he looked to for inspiration for the new Lamborghini with its extremely low, steep nose running straight into the windscreen, trapezoidal shapes, scissor doors and sharply truncated tail. Gandini has also claimed it was he who jokingly suggested that the car be called ‘Countach’, a Piedmontese profanity expressing surprise.


Jaguar XJ-S (1975)

Never mind the Countach, was this the hardest second album of all time? The XJ-S was Jaguar’s replacement for the E-type, so perhaps nothing would have been good enough for the era’s equivalent of internet haters. The E-type had evolved from sports car to grand tourer over its lifetime, gaining a longer wheelbase for all variants and the then-new V12 as well as the option of an automatic gearbox.

The XJS took the E-type’s final form as its starting point and ran with it. The chassis was shared with the XJ saloon and initial styling work was undertaken by Malcolm Sayer, the aerodynamicist behind the C, D and E-types. After his death it was completed by Jaguar’s in-house team led by Doug Thorpe. At launch the only engine available was Jaguar’s 5.3-litre V12, a configuration that was still something of a rarity, otherwise only offered by Ferrari and Lamborghini. This placed the XJS’s performance well above most of its competition but its consumption was not ideal in an era of fuel crises. It was joined by a straight-six variant and later a High Efficiency V12. It went on to become Jaguar’s longest serving model, soldiering on until 1996.


Lotus Esprit (1976)

Speaking of longevity, surely no one would have predicted that the Lotus Esprit would remain in production clear into another millennium. Lotus engineer Tony Rudd first outlined a successor to the Europa in 1970. Like that car it would be a mid-engined two-seat coupe and a meeting was arranged between Lotus founder Colin Chapman and Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Italian presented a quarter-scale model which Chapman was apparently dissatisfied with and minded to scrap the project.

Italdesign pushed ahead with a full-sized concept on a stretched Europa chassis, presenting it at the 1972 Turin Auto Show where public reception convinced Chapman to continue. The S1 Esprit launched in 1975 with a fibreglass body over a steel backbone chassis and fitted with the Lotus 907 inline-four. Initially underpowered despite a sub-1,000kg weight it wasn’t until early in the following decade that Lotus added turbocharging and the Esprit legend began to grow. Various redesigns and eventually a V8 kept the Esprit alive until 2004.


Porsche 928 (1977)

The 928 came about during one of Porsche’s periodic wobbles over the longevity of the 911 due to a sales slump in the mid-1970s. Then managing director Ernst Fuhrmann believed that Porsche’s future lay in luxury grand tourers rather than spartan sports cars like the 911. Porsche’s first ever clean sheet design toyed with both rear and mid-engined layouts before eventually deciding on a front engine, rear-wheel-drive set-up for packaging practicalities. A V10 based on the Audi Quattro’s five-cylinder was proposed but a 4.5-litre V8 won out with a Porsche-first of water-cooling

Thanks to all-alloy engine construction and a rear-mounted transaxle the 928 ended up with ideal 50:50 weight balance making it almost as quick as a 911 as well as easier to drive quickly, helped by a passive rear steering ‘Weissach axle’. Styling was done in-house by Wolfgang Möbius under the aegis of Porsche’s design chief Anatole Lapine. The car’s pop-up headlights were shared with the Lamborghini Miura, it had a practical hatchback and an instrument panel which moved with the steering wheel. In 1978 it was crowned European Car of the Year in 1978 – the only sports car to have done so – and remained on sale into the mid-1990s.

  • List

  • Best cars

  • Citroen

  • SM

  • Dodge

  • Challenger

  • Range Rover Classic

  • Mercedes

  • S-Class

  • Lamborghini

  • Countach

  • Jaguar

  • XJ-S

  • Lotus

  • Esprit

  • Porsche

  • 928

  • best-nineties-supercars-list-1-honda-nsx-goodwood-17042020.jpg

    Formula 1

    The best '90s supercars that aren’t the McLaren F1

  • roger_moore_anorak_list_05062017_03.jpg


    Axon's Automotive Anorak: The late great Roger Moore's top six movie motors

  • best-car-designers-list-marcello-gandini-lamborghini-miura-goodwood-11032021.jpg


    The 12 best car designers