Good morning! I trust you all had a good weekend. We’re in the midst of a heat wave here in Portland, but we won’t let that stop us from checking out a couple of cool ’70s rides from opposite sides of the Pacific. First, though, let’s see how Friday’s runner-up battle went down:
Interesting… the classics edged out the sofa-on-wheels Buick, but not by much. And the Kia? Yeah, I don’t care about it either.
1976 was a dismal year for cars, all things considered. American cars just kept getting fatter and slower, like the high school quarterback at the twenty year reunion. Engine compartments became an unintelligble tangle of extra wires and vacuum lines, adding insult to the injury of lost power. The last vestiges of the good old designs were either being replaced by newer, fussier shapes, or disappearing under the crushing weight of 5 mph bumpers and landau tops.
Meanwhile, Japan was sending over boatloads of small cars that ran and drove a whole lot better than some of ours, and used about half as much gas, but often featured weird technology that didn’t always work well, and had a tendency to rust if you breathed on them hard. And, in my small town at least, faced the ire of an increasingly vocal group of folks who were convinced that Japanese cars spelled doom for their livelihoods. But they sold, in huge numbers, and changed the vehicular landscape forever.
So today, we’re going to take a look at two survivors from the Bicentennial year, both personal luxury coupes, both running and driving, both a bit scruffy. (Also, I just noticed, both red, white, and blue, if you count the air cleaners.) One is a Japanese upstart with a bizarre engine that looked and sounded like nothing else, and the other is a jumbo-sized American, clinging to the glory days of the ’60s with a neutered V8. Let’s see which one has aged better.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.3 liter 2-rotor Wankel, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Coeur D’Alene, Idaho
Odometer reading: 125,000 miles
I had to look this up – I didn’t realize that Mazda ever sold the Cosmo in the US. But they did, from 1976-78, powered by a 13B rotary and, in this case at least, a three-speed automatic. It’s a larger and heavier car than the early (and beautiful) two-seat Cosmo, but still small by American standards at the time. The American styling influence is clear, from the upright waterfall grille to the not-quite opera windows in the rear pillars. It works, though: this is a sharp-looking car.
Inisde, the feel is more European than American, with bucket seats, a center console, and an almost Alfa Romeo-like steering wheel. The Mazda Rotary logo on the horn button is a nice touch. Unfortunately, this car seems to have been parked out in the sun for a great many years; the upholstery is faded to pink, where it isn’t worn out, and the dash pad looks like someone attacked it with a machete.
Outside, things are better, with only a little rust, and a couple of dings and scrapes to add character. The original alloy wheels are present, and a great ’70s design. The American design influence was so strong with Japanese automakers in the ’70s that some US-market Cosmos apparently even came with vinyl roofs; this car has been spared that indignity.
The seller says this rotary-powered relic runs well, and it looks clean under the hood. The automatic is a bummer from an enthusiast’s point of view, and is certainly the wrong choice to back up a rotary, but as a period piece, it fits the car well. There aren’t many nice Mazda rotaries of any style left from this era, and this has got to be one of the rarest. Restoring it would be an absolute nightmare, but if you left it as-is and enjoyed it as a scruffy conversation piece, I think it could be a fun car.
Engine/drivetrain: 351 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Des Moines, WA
Odometer reading: 132,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sure does
Meanwhile, at Ford, Lee Iaccoca had pointed the shrink-ray at the Mustang, and apparently zapped that extra size into all the rest of their cars. Personal luxury coupes were all the rage, as was taking up as much space as possible with them. This eighteen-foot-long monster, believe it or not, was a mid-sized car; the ’76 Ford Thunderbird was even bigger, and the not-much-smaller Granada was considered a compact. Those size categories, of course, are based on interior volume, not exterior dimensions, which shows just how much wasted space there was in these designs.
What interior volume there was, however, was absolutely stuffed with comfort. Deeply padded seats worked in concert with the soft suspension to make sure no pothole ruined your ride, and the illusion of opulence was everywhere. I mean, when was the last time you saw a car with button-tufted door panels? And if I recall, these even had a very thin strip of fake wood embedded in the steering wheel rim. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but wonderful at the same time.
Part of the reason for the overwrought interior style, I think, was to distract buyers from the dismal performance. Ford offered two completely different 351 engines in 1976, and I don’t know the differences well enough to tell which one this is under all the bric-a-brac, but it hardly matters; both of them were in the 150ish horsepower range, and the 0-60 time in seconds was roughly equivalent to the fuel economy in miles per gallon – both around 13.
The seller says this Elite runs and drives fine, though they suspect a vacuum leak somewhere, and note that it could use a front-end rebuild to fix some play in the steering. It also has some telltale bubbles in the vinyl top, indicating rust underneath. Aside from that, however, it looks like a disco-era time capsule.
Let’s be honest – both of these cars are absolute crap compared to even the least-expensive new car today. Every aspect of automotive design and manufacture has improved since 1976: engineering, metallurgy, build quality, everything. But these cars represented the best that automakers could accomplish with what they had, within the constraints imposed upon them. And hey, they’re still here, still alive and kicking, so that’s saying something. Which one has stood the test of time better?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)