Cars turning 50 in 2023 part 1 | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

12th January 2023
Gary Axon

Happy New Year!  As has become something of an Anorak tradition over the last seven or so years, once again I am going to kick the new year off with a quick romp through a handful of the most significant new cars first introduced half a century ago, when flares, huge wing collars and glam rock were all the rage, way back in 1973.


Unlike previous Anorak 50th anniversary reviews, 1973 proved not to be a stand-out year for new car launches, with fewer important or note-worthy debuts than in most of previous years that I have covered in previous early January’s. That said, many of the models reviewed here have now gone on half-a-century later to achieve collectable and classic status. A couple of the British contenders (the Austin Allegro and Reliant Robin) have gained a cult following, if not necessarily for the right reasons.

Broken down into four key areas; I have divided the new stars of 1973 into the categories of sports GTs and mainstream family cars (and missed opportunities) in this first part of a double feature, with part two shortly covering off the 1973 cars that were launched too early and performance versions of existing models. So here goes, and happy 50th to each of our 1973 heroes and see you again with part two very shortly.

First up, we have a trio of sporting GTs first appeared 50 years ago; each one making its own mark but ultimately failing to really move the automotive game forward, with mixed commercial successes.


(Ferrari) Dino 308 GT4

Launched to huge expectations as the ‘tough act to follow’ successor to Ferrari’s exceptional and beautiful Dino 206/246 GT, the 1973 308 GT4 at launch was seen as a disappointment to many. As the first, and only, Ferrari model (though initially not badged as a Ferrari until 1978), the wedged Dino was designed by Bertone, rather than Maranello’s preferred and more sinuous stylist Pininfarina. As well as its uncommon designer, the new 308 GT4 featured Ferrari’s first production V8 engine (a 255PS (188kW), 3.0-litre 16-valve unit, related to Ferrari’s 1964 158 Formula One motor) and was also its premier 2+2 mid-engined model. It was intended to tackle its Italian rivals of similar layouts – the Lamborghini Urraco (also Bertone designed) and Maserati Merak. With almost 3,000 examples built up until 1980, the Dino 308 GT4 proved a great commercial success for Maranello.   

In 1973 Ferrari also released the first production examples of its new range-topping mid-engined Berlinetta Boxer (in 344PS (253kW), flat-twelve 365 GT4 BB form), first revealed the previous year by Pininfarina in prototype form only.


Matra Bagheera

Using its extensive knowledge gained by being the longest-established producer of mid-engined sportscars at the time (the Rene Bonnet/Matra Djet of 1962 being the world’s first production mid-engined sportscar), the Matra Bagheera was arguably the most innovative new car of 1973. Featuring clever three-abreast seating, with composite panels draped over a steel space frame platform, the exotic-looking mid-engined Bagheera was affordable, stylish and distinctive.

It was cunningly launched to the world during the Le Mans 24 Hours preview, where Matra was about to take another of its trio of victories at this celebrated endurance race with its V12 MS670. The Bagheera (named after the black Panther in Jungle Book) promised much, yet was slightly let-down by its easily-serviced but unrefined Simca-based engines, which never quite matched the performance potential of this dynamically very superior three-seater GT. The Bagheera took almost five years to become available in right-hand-drive form to British enthusiasts.  


Lancia Beta Coupe

A year after the release of the important new front-wheel-drive 1972 Beta Berlina saloon, Lancia revealed the first of numerous extensions to its new Fiat-developed Beta range. It was the ultimate successor to the popular V4 Fulvia coupe the neat Beta Coupe. Using a 19cm shortened Beta Berlina floorpan, this neat new 2+2 Coupe was a welcome lighter and sharper addition of the Beta family. It used the Berlina’s same free-revving twin-cam engines, spanning 1.3-litres to 2.0-litres, with an unusual supercharged Volumex derivative featuring much later in the Beta Coupe’s 11-year lifespan.

This spritely Beta was to be joined by the successful Reliant Scimitar GTE-inspired HPE in 1975, along with an alfresco semi-convertible Spider model, designed by Pininfarina, but strangely built by rival Zagato. A mid-engined Beta Montecarlo derivative was also added in 1975.

The Beta Coupe has never quite enjoyed the cult following of the purer, rally-winning Fulvia that it was designed to replace –it wasn’t helped by the harmful Beta ‘rust scandal’ in 1980. Today the stylish Lancia has a growing fan base, as reflected by its increasing values.

Mainstream family cars

A handful of new mainstream and mass-market production family cars first debuted 50 years ago, with most of these being quiet underwhelming and representing missed opportunities. A couple of these unremarkable 1973 debutant models are now noteworthy, one for being General Motors’ first successful attempt at building a true world car, the other for establishing one of the new car markets most successful model names, which is still in use today.


Austin Allegro

Fifty years after its launch, the Austin Allegro has become the stuff of mirth, myth and legend, mostly for the wrong (but understandable) reasons. It was savagely out-classed by its benchmark continental rivals of the day, the Citroen GS, Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Fiat 128, not to mention the sensible Volkswagen Golf that was introduced just a year after the Allegro’s 1973 debut. This now-iconic chunky new Austin came to epitomise everything the was wrong with the British motor industry in the 1970s, with poor quality and frequent wildfire strikes becoming the norm.

The Allegro had big boots to fill as it replaced BMC/British Leyland’s hugely popular ADO16 Austin-Morris 1100/1300 range. ADO16 had been Britain’s best-selling car for the previous decade, widely outselling popular rivals such as the Ford Cortina and Escort. With unresolved in-house styling, questionable reliability and variable build-quality, plus needless gimmicks such as the infamous Quartic steering wheel that was canned within a year, the Allegro was soon nick-named ‘All Agro’ and widely regarded as Britain’s automotive joke. Against its locally-built rivals, plus it’s better-equipped and assembled up-start Japanese competitors such as the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Viva, Hillman Avenger and Datsun Sunny, dynamically the chubby Austin was superior, being surprisingly pleasant to drive.  It also offered a wide choice of engines (BMC’s faithful old A-Series, plus the larger capacity Maxi units), compliant Hydragas suspension, a five-speed gearbox and a bucketful of character, to now become the stuff of legend, even if not always for the right reasons.


Reliant Robin

Alongside the Austin Allegro, the fellow 1973 debutant three-wheeled ‘plastic pig’ Reliant Robin has walked the line between British motoring joke and automotive legend for debatable reasons. It was actually launched at Goodwood, and the Ogle-designed Robin ‘borrowed’ the pleasing practical glass-hatch style of its posher Scimitar GTE sibling, briefly making the three-wheeler seem quite cool. Powered by Reliant’s in-house Austin Seven-derived 750cc (later enlarged to 850cc), the Robin sold well and went on to spawn the Mini-troubling four-wheeled Kitten derivative.


GM T-Car (Chevrolet Chevette, Opel Kadett C)

Internally coded T-Car as GM’s first true world car, the very first incarnation of the ambitious T-Car project was presented in early 1973 as the Chevette, built in San Paulo by Chevrolet do Brasil. A conventional three-box booted rear-drive saloon, the Brazilian Chevrolet Chevette was joined a few months later by the German-made Opel version of the T-Car model, badged as the third-generation Kadett (C). This led to the Vauxhall Chevette in 1975 – Britain’s first volume hatchback model – plus the ‘flashier’ North American Chevrolet Chevette variant, also launched in 1975, with the latter not to be confused with the original Brazilian Chevette T-Car of the same name.

GM’s T-Car platform then also appeared in production around the world. It landed in Japan as the Isuzu Gemini, Australia as the Holden Gemini, Canada as the Pontiac Acadian, Argentina as the GMC Chevette and the United States as the Pontiac T1000, to name just a few. Millions of T-Car models were built the world over, well into the 21st century, in a wide variety of body styles, from hatchbacks and coupes, to saloon, estates, vans and pick-up trucks.


Datsun Sunny 120Y

After some Italian influence and flair had helped to add some welcome glamour to the first two generations of Nissan’s utterly conventional Sunny models, Nissan styled the new 1973 third-generation Sunny 120Y in-house with a totally new and overly fussy bodyshell. Although not as attractive as its two predecessors, the new Sunny 120Y was well-built, dependable and generously equipped against its established European rivals, ensuring huge sales. It was particularly popular here in the UK, where it sold like hot cakes, often to disgruntled ex-British Leyland clients who had grown tired of the inferior quality and poor value offered by an Allegro or Morris Marina.

Datsun supported its new Sunny 120Y 1973 introduction by launching a slightly larger Violet J sister model too for more affluent buyers that found the Sunny’s dependability and standard equipment appealing but couldn’t come to terms with the 120Y’s awkward styling.


Volkswagen Passat

Launched to replace the strange and out-dated rear-engined Volkswagen 412, the original 1973 Passat was the first front-engined, front-drive, water-cooled car to be developed in-house by VW. The Passat was also significant in being the first of Volkswagen’s modern ‘transformation’ models to be styled by Giugiaro of ItalDesign, ahead of his famous Scirocco and Golf that followed in 1974. Based around the 1972 Audi 80 (also Giugiaro-penned), the Passat was a more affordable family saloon, coupe and estate, sharing the Audi’s engines, disc brakes, suspension. The 1973 Passat began a legacy of six generations of worthy but dull Passat family models that still exist today, making the Passat name the longest-lived of any VW model.

That’s it for part one of the Class of ’73, see you again very soon for the second part of this summary of new cars celebrating their 50th birthdays in 2023. The next edition will cover off cars launched too early, plus highlight some of the performance derivatives of existing models that first appeared half-a-century ago. Thanks again and happy New Year.

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • Dino

  • 308 GT4

  • Ferrari

  • Matra

  • Bagheera

  • Lancia

  • Beta

  • Coupe

  • Austin

  • Allegro

  • Reliant

  • Robin

  • General Motors

  • T-Car

  • Datsun

  • Sunny

  • Volkswagen

  • Passat

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