Cars turning 50 in 2024 | Axon's Automotive Anorak

05th January 2024
Gary Axon

To continue with the now annual Automotive Anorak tradition, once again I am going to kick off the New Year with a turbocharged blat through a handful of the most significant new cars that were first introduced half-a-century ago, way back in 1974. The unwelcome cocktail of high inflation, union strength causing work disruption with frequent strike rates, plus the impact of the late 1973 fuel crisis plus frequent power cuts at home, made for a miserable times of things overall. Inevitably, this impacted on the automotive industry, with UK new car sales falling by a significant 400,000 units for the year in comparison to 1973.

Many of the world’s leading car makers announced huge losses, especially for local market leader British Leyland, which through regular industrial unrest and poor quality, finally lost the British market lead to arch rival Ford for the very first time. The overall global economic apathy and fight to remain profitable in 1974 was reflected in some of the new car models that were first launched fifty years ago. Consequently, after a bumper 1973 for new car introductions, 1974 was a ‘light’ year, with only a handful of significant major new model introductions. Here they are…


1. Alfa Romeo

When Alfa Romeo introduced its new Alfetta Berlina 1972, it was only a matter of time before its launched a more glamorous coupe version, which it duly did in late 1974, with the handsome Alfetta GT, a Giugiaro-design three-door fastback, using the Berlina’s front engine/rear transaxle layout on a short wheelbase, plus its 1.8-litre motor, with 1.6 and 2-litre GTV versions added later.

Intended to supersede the timeless 105-Series GT coupe, also styled by Giugiaro in his days at Bertone, the fine handling Alfetta GT for many was the epitome of what an Alfa Romeo should be, the GT going on to spawn the V6-powered GTV, which lived on until 1987.

Arguably even greater than the Alfetta GT was another 1974 Alfa debutant, the sporting Ti two-door version of the game-changing Alfasud. Although originally a booted two-door saloon (a hatchback version came later in the early 1980s), the sure-footed Alfasud Ti redefined what a small performance front-wheel-drive car should be. It’s just a shame the ‘Sud’s build quality and its fondness for rust took its toll on so many examples of this outstanding machine.


2. Citroen

Replacing a legend of its own lifetime is always a tough task, yet Citroen succeeded in 1974 when the iconic DS gave way to the equally revolutionary CX. Ultimately and rightly named the Car Of The Year for 1974, the CX was introduced just as former-rival Peugeot was taking over control of Citroen; the high development costs of the CX and equally remarkable GS and SM of 1970 bankrupting this most idiosyncratic of car makers with its overly ambitious new model roll out.

Citroen’s first ever transverse engined model, the advanced CX was inevitably front-wheel-drive, as all of the marque’s models had been since 1934, and employed an improved version of Citroen’s all-hydraulic suspension, braking and steering, to set the CX leagues apart from its prestige all-rear-drive rival dinosaurs.

More than one million examples were built until the CX’s demise in 1991. 1974 also saw Citroen revamp its more iconic and successful model, the infamously Gallic 2CV, with a subtle facelift, and more importantly, a return to the British market, to suit the austere times, after an absence on these shores of more than ten years. Second time around, us Brits finally came got our senses and enthusiastically embraced the 2CV, ironically the UK becoming one for the top export markets for this basic characterful shed on wheels.


3. Fiat

At the Turin Show in November 1974, Fiat replaced one of its most successful models of all time, the square-cut 124, with the equally conventional new 131 Mirafiori (named after the vast Fiat plant where the 131 was made).

Utterly conventional in every way, the rear-drive and boxy 131 went on to feature Fiat’s acclaimed twin-cam engine, and even become a surprising World Rally Champion machine in Abarth form, taking the Manufacturer’s WRC title in 1978, as driven sideways to victory by Alen- Kivimaki and Bacchelli-Rossetti. The Mirafiori lived for a decade before being replaced by the front-drive Regata.


4. Ford

Five years after the introduction of ‘the car you always promised yourself’ first-generation Capri, in 1974 Ford replaced the popular booted coupe with the Capri II, the visually similar new model’s main difference being the addition of a third-door hatch, whilst retaining the original 1969 Capri’s technical layout, engines and suspension.

Now more spacious and glassier than before, the Capri II lived a long life, its basic shape remaining in production until 1986 as the mis-named Capri III (nothing more than just a facelifted Capri II with quad round headlights and a revised bonnet). In the same year, Ford also added a Granada Ghia Coupe to crown its most prestigious range, with all two-door Granada Coupes being built exclusively in Germany, with the 3-litre V6 engine only for the UK, but lesser four-cylinder options being available in other Continental European markets.


5. Lotus

Reprising the Elite name he first used in the late 1950s, Colin Chapman’s all-new Lotus Elite (501) was the first of a new generation of wedge-shaped road car models built at Hethel (with the Eclat, Excel and Esprit to follow), using a backbone frame, as with earlier models, but purposely aimed at moving the Lotus brand distinctly up-market.

This expensive glass-fibre 2+2 used Chapman’s new 16-valve 2-litre engine, a four-cylinder motor that he had persuaded Jensen to use as his guinea pig in its 1972 Jensen-Healey model, not without problems. The dramatic Elite wedge hatch sold well initially, but the model’s quality never quite matched Chapman’s ambitious high pricing for the car, which was dropped in 1983 and outlived by its fastback Eclat/Excel sibling, which shared the same frontal styling, fore of the A-pillars.


6. Panther

One of the jaw-dropping stars of 1974 was the outrageous Panther De Ville, a hand-crafted Bugatti Royale-inspired pastiche of questionable taste, using Austin Maxi doors, a separate chassis and superb Jaguar V12 engines. A surprising ‘must have’ for wealthy clients with more money than taste, the roll call of De Ville customers included Elton John and Liberace (plus famously the fictitious Cruella De Ville in the 101 Dalmations movie).

Always two-tone, the majority of the 60 De Villes built were four-door saloons, with a separate ‘trunk’ boot at the rear, although a few two-door convertible versions were made too at Panther’s Brooklands base, Panther also unveiled two other new models 50 years ago, the wild Lazer wedged super dune buggy, using Jaguar V12 power with an extreme raised rear spoiler and huge wrap-around windscreen, plus the Ferrari 330 GTC-based FF, for Swiss client Felber, with 12 of these neo-retro 1947-type Ferrari 125s being built and sold at eye-watering prices.


7. Volkswagen

Following the 1973 debut of VW’s first in-house air-cooled, front-wheel-drive model – the Passat – in 1974 the Wolfsburg manufacturer fully revealed its future product hand by launching two more, very important front-drive models to wave aufwedersen to its crude and outdated rear-engined air-cooled models; the attractive VW Scirocco coupe, followed six months later, by its sector/brand-defining Golf.

In a possible sign of corporate nervousness, unusually VW chose to introduce the Scirocco first in its great technical leap forward before showing the Golf, as a niche three-door coupe to replace the pre-historic Karmann Ghia which had graced the Volkswagen range since the 1955.

Appealingly styled by Giugairo of ItalDesign (along with its VW Passat and Golf siblings), the Scirocco gave Volkswagen a fresh, new cool and modern image which the brand had previously lacked, and this was reinforced the following autumn when Wolfsburg also revealed its first teaser black and white images of its Golf, famously with a mis-matched door (not a great start for the Golf’s quality reputation).

Available instantly in both three- and five-door hatchback configurations, powered initially by 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 transverse water-cooled engines (the trend-setting 1.6 GTi came later), the Golf soon became Germany’s best-selling new car; a position it has held ever since. Now eight-generations on, the Volkswagen Golf has become the benchmark in the low-medium family hatchback segment, even when better rivals exist). 


8. Volvo

Fifty years ago was a busy time for Volvo. In late summer ’74 the Swedish marque not only revealed its revamped 100-Series (140, 164) range, to become the new, improved ‘boxy-but-good’ 200-Series. The new 200 models used the previous 1966 140 square-rigged bodyshell from the windscreen back, with a new, heavy-handed sloping front end grafted on, yet the new baulky 240 and 260 defined Volvos for a generation or two in the public’s minds, with the huge and versatile 245 estates becoming the darling of the antique dealer and dog-owning fraternity, comfortably outselling other large estate cars in the process, and lasting in production until old age, with long-overdue retirement finally coming in 1993.

As well as all of its new 200-Series launch activities, Volvo’s car division also bought out DAF’s car division in ‘74, this giving the Swedish marque instant access to a lower, entry car sector, plus the promise of a new, fully developed smaller Volvo hatchback waiting in the wings, the almost-ready to launch DAF 77, which became the Volvo 343 on introduction in 1976. The DAF buy out saw the Dutch-built DAF 66 model immediately revised with sturdier Volvo-esque bumpers to be relabelled as a Volvo, plus the previous DAF 44 model renamed DAF 46 to incorporate some of the 66s technical features.


New derivatives, new marques

All these introductions were joined during the year by a few added derivatives of existing, established cars to reflect the pressing need for more economical models in 1974. These included the BMW 1602, Datsun Cherry F10, the Fiat 850-based Seat 133, the Triumph 2500S to replace the thirstier and troublesome fuel injected 2.5 PI, the ‘plush’ Vanden Plas 1500 version of the controversial Austin Allegro.

These came alongside the British introduction of cheap-but-not-very-cheerful socialist Eastern Bloc cars at false ‘dumped’ low prices from communist countries, with the first Lada and Polski-Fiat (later FSO) ex-Fiat models arriving en masse in the UK.

1974 also saw the debut of the Japanese Mitsubishi marque in the UK, sold here under the Colt Car Company banner, its first UK model launches being the reliable but technically dull Lancer and Galant saloons. Less than 50 years later, Colt (rebranded as Mitsubishi in the early 1980s) withdrew from the British market in 2021, despite interesting new Renault-based models subsequently being launched in Continental Europe.

More significantly, the Turin Auto Salon in November 1974 saw the global introduction of a new name in car making; Hyundai, with its conventional rear-wheel-drive fastback Giugiaro-styled Pony. It would take eight years before the Hyundai marque eventually appeared in the UK, to now become a major force in the British new car market with a market share exceeding 5 per cent, plus the world’s third largest player in the automotive sector, giving both leaders Toyota and Volkswagen a real run for their money.

Well, that was it for 1974. Not an outstanding year perhaps, but one that bought us the wonderful Citroen CX and sector-defining Volkswagen Golf, plus a few other new cars now firmly regarded as true classics, so overall it wasn’t a bad vintage. Happy New Year…

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