As the 1970s got underway, the Big Three in Detroit were caught up in a sticky situation. The federal government was hard-pressed to end the muscle car era, a time when Chrysler, Ford and General Motors were producing cars with beastly engines designed much more for the drag strip than your local neighborhoods.
Unfortunately for the Big Three, those cars, the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, Plymouth Road Runner, Pontiac GTO and Ford Mustang chief among them, were selling like hotcakes. That didn’t stop the federal government and insurance agencies from discouraging the sales of those cars, starting with the 5 MPH crash bumper made standard on all 1973, forcing most muscle cars that thrived on thin bumper design to rethink their strategy. And it was only going to get worse.
The first OPEC embargo began in October 1973, making it nearly impossible for owners of most American cars to fill up their gas tanks (my mom, who drove a 1968 Buick Wildcat then, told me you could only get gas on the day that match the first number of your car’s tag), driving the United States’ economy into a serious ditch.
While that was happening, Japanese automakers Honda, Toyota, Datsun and Subaru were refining their products, inspired by Volkswagen’s import dominance in the 1960s, and were poised to make a run at frustrated Americans who were tired of paying arms and legs for fuel.
The first car to make a serious dent in the Big Three (and Volkswagen’s) armor was the Honda Civic, first available in the US in July of 1972 as a ‘73 model. The Civic was a roomier, more modern version of the Honda 600 that had been in the States for two years prior and it immediately made life difficult for the already-problematic Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega. Whereas the Pinto and Vega won in style and name recognition, the Civic trumped them in reliability with a small (70 cubic inches) but sturdy engine and a body frame designed to take a licking and keep on ticking.
Meanwhile, Toyota, which had been in the United States for 15 years at the time of the OPEC Embargo, rebooted their flagship Corona sedan to complement rising sales of the Corolla E20 and one of the earliest SUVs on the market, the Land Cruiser. By 1975, Toyota knocked VW from its perch as the top-selling import brand in the United States.
Datsun performed well also thanks to its sporty but thrifty B210, a car that looked the part of a rally racer (the hatchback coupe, maybe) but was capable of getting over 40 miles per gallon of gasoline.
Subaru changed the game in their own unique way with the DL series, which came in coupe, four-door and station wagon form. While other Japanese imports also had gas mileage and reliability going for them, Subaru kicked it up a notch by offering the DL with four-wheel drive, a rarity in the United States at that time for anything not classified as a truck.
These four companies, along with Mitsubishi loaning out its Colt as an import to Chrsyler Corporation, changed the automotive industry in the United States for good. As the Big Three scrambled to put out more economical cars, they didn’t have the same value or craftsmanship as the Japanese Invasion Cars did. And arguably, the Big Three never recovered. Of course badge engineering and unimaginative designs helped exacerbate that, but the Japanese Invasion of the 1970s and the gas crisis that spurred their rise also had a lot to do with it.