RAC Cars News


Reaching middle age: the most popular cars 40 years ago

By raccars Published


Like many of us, the cars born 40 years ago are now reaching middle age.

1976 was a memorable year, thanks to a summer heatwave, sky high inflation and music charts topped by Bohemian Rhapsody and Dancing Queen. British cars were the best-sellers on home territory, with the Ford Cortina pushed off the top spot by the upstart Ford Escort, although neither are still in production. The same can be said about the rest of the top ten, which was mostly British Leyland output such as the Maxi and the Mini.

What else was going on in 1976?

Apart from a crippling drought, Joanna Lumley was taking to the road in 'The New Avengers' as Purdey, with a fabulous pudding bowl haircut and an MGB roadster. The Mk3 Ford Cortina bowed out in 1976 to make way for the smaller Escort.

1976 also saw the launch of the Ford Fiesta, the company's first supermini. The Fiesta was largely a response to the fuel crisis of the early part of the decade, when Ford needed something economical to take on the Renault 5 and Fiat 127. Since then Ford has sold over 16 million Fiestas and the supermini has been the best-selling car in the UK for the last eight years.

While the top ten was still mainly British, European cars were growing in popularity in the UK. Volvo was an early immigrant while small Italian cars were also cutting a dash. The Fiat 126 was far from brilliant but was the ideal solution to the decade's fuel crisis compared to the thirstier vehicles which had been favourites up to that point.

Exceptional Seventies cars

Not in the top ten best sellers list but a great example of Seventies car design was the Lotus Esprit, which appeared as a submarine in the 1977 James Bond film, 'The Spy Who Loved Me', with Roger Moore at the wheel.

Another glamorous vehicle was the Aston Martin Lagonda, launched in 1976 as a sensational luxury saloon. Production was limited to 645 units over a 14 year period but the AML pioneered features such as computer engine management and digital instruments. It didn't meet with universal approval but remains an interesting and iconic piece of metal.

The Triumph Dolomite was having a good year, with a successful rallying and touring car career as well as commercial popularity. Made from 1972-1980 the stylish saloon range was topped by a 2.0 litre 16v Sprint flagship model.

The young VW Golf was also making waves. Launched two years previously, its sassy modern design made other cars look dated. 1976 saw the first Golf GTI 'hot hatch'.

Those which didn't reach middle age

In 1976 the Austin Allegro with its rather odd square steering wheel had been on the market for three years and was still going strong. By the time it was discontinued in 1982, nearly 650,000 Allegros had left the production line, but time has not been kind to the squat, lumpy car.

Jaguar's XJ series had been on the market since 1968 and by 1976 was a big hit for the firm. This was the last Jag in which the company's founder, Sir William Lyons, had a hand and it remained in production until 1992.

The Rover SD1 was launched in 1976 and the following year won the 'European Car of the Year' award. Arguably one of the last great Rovers, its design was based upon the Ferrari Daytona. Unfortunately, its legacy is blighted by British Leyland's poor build quality and reliability issues. Just over 300,000 SD1s were made in total, but not many have survived.

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