Though by far the smallest of the Detroit auto makers, American Motors Corp was aggressive and dynamic in the small and compact segments of the market; the 2/3-length Gremlin, the functional Hornet Hatchback and Sportabout, and AMC's unique Buyer Protection Plan did much to get AMC moving in the profit direction. And the big news for 1974 was the great looking Matador coupe. But apart from the new Matador the various car lines were mostly carryover. Matador and Ambassador continued with the recoverable front and rear systems introduced the previous year, Javelin and AMX used reinforced static bumper systems with strengthened bumper guards, and Gremlin and Hornet offered free-standing recoverable front and reinforced static rear bumpers.
Seat belt interlock for the ignition was standard, these units (along with the automatic transmissions) being purchased from Chrysler. A small company could not have been expected to do everything; AMC had wisely chosen to purchase some components from an outside source rather than spend scarce design and engineering money. AMC's engine lineup was unchanged, but improvements included induction hardening of exhaust
-valve seats on V-8s for greater durability with low-lead and unleaded fuels, as introduced on 6-cyl engines in 1973. Engine options ran from a 232-cu-in. six to a 401-cu-in. V-8.
A new Rallye Pack included tachometer, oil and ammeter gauges, disc brakes, variable-ratio power steering, front anti-roll bar
and padded steering wheel.
Hornet, like Gremlin, was basically a carryover for 1974. Optional packages offered on the Hatchback included the Levi interior, "X" performance group and Rallye Pac, all comparable to those available on Gremlin. The Hatchback offered individual reclining front seats for the first time; steel-belted radials are optional on all models.
Two models of AMC's sporty car, Javelin and AMX, were available again for 1974. Handling and performance were stressed on both models. A "GO" package that included either a 360 or 401 V-8, full instrumentation, handling package, heavy-duty engine cooling, limited slip differential, vacuum-assisted disc brakes
and FR7Q-14-radial tyres
was exclusive to the AMX.
Full-size AMC cars came with extensive standard equipment including V-8, automatic transmission, air-conditioning
, power steering and brakes, AM radio and tinted glass. Changes of note included optional steel-belted radials and instrument panels redesigned for improved serviceability.
The biggest carmaker offered a considerable variety in its different car lines, from the compact Vega and its sporty Cosworth variant to the vast, baroque Cadillac Eldorado. There were seven basic cars from GM: Vega, Corvette, Camaro-Firebird, Nova-Omega-Ventura-Apollo, Chevelle-LeMans-Cutlass-Century, the "fullsize" (read gargantuan) family cars from all five divisions, and the Toronado-Eldorado front-drive pair. Only the Chevrolet Division produced cars wholly unique to a division.
The various GM divisions thus shared frames, main suspension components, transmissions, axles and body shells. But they still went their own ways on engines (only the 6-cyl Nova engine was shared among divisions) and worked out many detail engineering matters on their own. The multiplicity of engine designs - there were four distinct 350-cu-in. engines, two 400s and four circa 450 engines - was remarkable and, with the steadily increasing cost of meeting anti-pollution legislation, many were to soon disappear as new engine designs appeared at GM.
In the General Motors hierarchy the best things came from the "low end." In 1974 Chevrolet Division's cars showed far greater variety in engineering than all the other divisions combined, the range of size was much greater and the people at Chevrolet were far more aware of what was happening in the rest of the world than their compatriots at the other GM makes. Thus the Vega evolved into a fully competitive economy car that was fun to drive, and for 1974 it was available in the Cosworth version with the obligatory performance engine. All 1974 Vegas had new bumpers to meet the then new federal requirements which were more stringent and there were four states with their own bumper laws.
But whereas heavy steel bumpers on hydraulic cylinders were the rule in American cars, Chevrolet had given the Vega a set of 5-mph front and rear bumpers appropriate to its light, economical nature: aluminium bumpers on metal springs. These added 68 lb weight and 3.2 in. length to the Vega - but a conventional steel system also considered would have added 150 lb. Front and rear ends of the car were redesigned to harmonize with the more massive bumpers; at the front a slope-down treatment with multi-slot grille visually minimized the bumper projection. Vega owners who took long trips would have appreciated a fuel tank enlarged by five gallons – the then new 16-gal. capacity providing at least 400 miles of cruising range at legal speeds.
The Cosworth Vega was available only as a black hatchback coupe with gold lettering, stripes, wheels and instrument panel. The wheels were cast aluminum, in 13 x 6 size, anodized to their gold color. Tyres were BR70-13 radials; steel-belted Firestones. A quicker-than-standard steering ratio (16.6:1 overall) was optional on the Vega, and we think standard on the Cosworth. On the road the Cosworth Vega was a revelation, the suspension's roll resistance was redistributed toward the front to give more understeer than the standard Vega handling package - anti-roll diameters were 0.900 in. front, 0.625 in. rear vs 0.875 and 0.750 - to keep the car tame with its greatly increased power. It worked - the Cosworth Vega cornered flat and fast and it was simple work to make it corner in just the attitude you wanted it to.
Those who hoped for a smoother engine in the Cosworth would have been disappointed, however. A raucous exhaust
system and high level of engine vibration let you know that it was very much still a Vega. At high revs (the redline was 7000 rpm) the engine developed 135 bhp (@ 6400 rpm) - but it sounded and felt strained even though it was pulling strongly. It was definitely an engine that needed the high revs, too - not much torque below 4000 rpm. A high idle speed (1400 rpm) was necessary to keep within emission limits.
Chevrolet applied basically the same bumper ideas to the big 2 + 2 GT as to the Vega, and again the result was minimum weight penalty as well as relatively good looks, although the car grew by 7 inches. A single eggcrate grille sloped down to the front bumper; at the rear there were new wraparound tail-lights that eliminated the need for separate side marker lights and looked Firebird-like. Otherwise the Camaro remained the same handsome self. There was some revision of trim options and the Camaro was also fitted with a larger fuel tank (by three gallons); engine options remained the same although Californians who would order the 2-barrel 350 got a low-powered 4-barrel version instead. This was a general trend for 1974; apparently it was easier to control emissions with four barrels than with two. Chevrolet offered no 2-barrel V-8s in California for 1974 and Oldsmobile had dropped 2-barrel V-8s altogether.
Yet another approach to meeting bumper laws was used on the 1973 Corvette front end, and for 1974 this was extended to the rear end. But the Corvette's non-restoring bumper system failed to meet the US Governments federal pendulum test, but fortunately it didn't have to because 2-seater cars were exempt from it for the year. The 1974 Corvette rear end involved a soft urethane cap forming the entire rear panel, including taillights and license-plate depression. The cap covered an aluminum bar that was actually the bumper structure; the bar was connected to the Corvette's frame with a slider bracket and long bolts with metal dies around them.
Upon impact the dies were forced down the bolts, shearing off part of the bolts and thus absorbing energy. But the bolts and dies had be replaced after the bump. The new rear impact system brought with it a new look; gone was the 1960s-fashionable kickup and the rear deck instead sloped toward the simple and smooth soft panel with its four taillights recessed deeply. Otherwise the Corvette was about the same for 1974. There were minor mechanical refinements, some new color and trim options, and a new Gymkhana suspension option consisting of stiffer springs and front anti-roll bar
Chevrolet's other series, whose components were shared widely with other divisions, had changes more typical of the corporation at large. The Nova got energy-absorbing cylinders for its front and rear bumpers, as did all the Nova variants sold by Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick. There were minor sheet-metal changes for the Chevelles and a new Malibu Classic version featured a wide but blatantly Mercedes-like grille - a curious feature to come from GM Styling, whose head had called Mercedes styling "totally antiquated" only the year before.
The Monte Carlo was virtually unchanged and remained Chevrolet's only car with high-caster steering. In the huge Bel Air-Impala-Caprice series there were mechanical refinements, shared with the Pontiac-Olds-Buick oversize cars for the most part, and an odd-looking new coupe roof in the Caprice Classic line. The then new shape featured a thick center roof pillar and large quarter windows; this change also appeared in the other divisions' big-car lines.
This division's model range spanned from Pontiac versions of the Camaro and Nova (Pontiac Firebird and Ventura) to Pontiac's version of the "fullsize" GM car. For these models the story was the same as for other GM divisions - mostly changes to meet 1974 state and federal regulations plus a few minor twists of real progress and typical annual styling changes. Firebird models got the single most interesting change for the division: new impact-absorbing front and rear ends that not only met the most demanding 1974 damage-resistance laws but looked reasonably good. In contrast to the Camaro's aluminum bumpers on springs, the Firebirds were solidly mounted thick front and rear bars of urethane foam to soak up the shock and at the rear there was an aluminum reinforcement to provide the necessary strength with minimum weight penalty.
This is the only bumper system among 1974 Pontiacs that could survive all applicable governmental tests without damage either to itself or the rest of the car. The federal test for 1974 included repeated bangs from a V-section bar swinging as a pendulum to contact the bumper at heights between 16 and 20 in. - the pendulum was weighted to simulate weight equal to the car's - and barrier crashes front and rear at 5 mph, all with no damage to "safety" systems.
California and Maryland allowed no damage at all in 5-mph barrier crashes; Georgia and North Carolina allowed bumper damage only in 5-mph front and 2½-mph rear barrier crashes. Whereas the pendulum test "chewed up" steel bumpers, including the rubber-faced ones of Pontiac's Grand Am, the Firebird system could take it with no damage, so it exceeded federal requirements, and met the Georgia and North Carolina ones easily and satisfied California and Maryland.
In a shift of emphasis, probably based on awareness of which way young buyers were headed, Pontiac transferred the GTO name from the Le Mans (212.8 in. long) to the Ventura (199.4). In this car it now meant a 350-cu-in. V-8 with 4-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, relatively stiff shocks and springs, anti-roll bars
front and rear, wide-section E70-14 tires either bias-belt or radial, stylish and wide-wheels, and trim items. Suspension tuning for radial tyres
were optional on all Pontiacs except the Grand Am, on which it was already standard. This tuning involved modifications to the frame, body mounts, engine mounts, bushings, jounce stops, steering ratio, wheel width, springs and anti-roll bars
- some or all of these depending on model - and it was marked by an RTS (Radial-Tuned Suspension) plaque on the dash of some models. The other divisions share this development.
A really nice new item was adjustable pedals, unfortunately only for on the big-body Catalina-Bonneville-Grande Ville line. A simple mechanical linkage actuated by a lever under the dash moved the pedals back and forth by up to 4 inches to provide better driving positions for very short people or to allow others merely to sit farther from the steering wheel. This was similar to Maserati's arrangement, but lacking hydraulic actuation, was simpler. For those who still equated an overpowered car with performance and had unlimited fuel budgets, Pontiac offered in the Firebird a 455-cu-in. Super Duty engine developing 290 bhp - the highest power rating in any domestic car for 1974. This was an expensive engine to buy too and had many design features aimed at durability in hard driving.
The selection of models at the Lansing division was parallel to that from Pontiac: a Nova, a GM "intermediate" and a bus-size line. Old's 98 series was even bigger than anything Pontiac offered (232 in. long!) and there was still the exclusive front-drive Toronado, with which only Cadillac Division shared basic components. Olds also had a sporty version of its Nova (called Omega Rallye) and had the same availability of "GM specification" radial tyres
as Chevrolet and Pontiac - standard on one series, optional on others. These tyres
were the result of tyremakers' conforming to a new set tyre
criteria developed by GM to suit the corporation's cars best; the GM people were convinced that, by 1974, they had arrived at an excellent balance of ride, handling and tread life in these steel-belted tyres.
Another feature now shared with corresponding intermediate and fullsize cars from the other divisions was a useful one Olds pioneered on the Toronado in 1972: spring-steel tabs that came into contact with the front brake discs as pads wore out to indicate audibly that it was time for new pads. Yet another shared improvement was a high-energy electronic ignition system: Olds and Buick offered this on the fullsize cars. There were only three engine sizes at Olds now: the 250-cu-in. Chevrolet inline six for the Omega, the 350-cu-in. V-8 for Omega, Cutlass and 88, and the gigantic 455 V-8 for Cutlass, 88, 98 and Toronado. Olds had abandoned 2-barrel carburetors for the V-8s entirely, and dual exhausts were available on most V-8s to boost power by 20 bhp.
Olds used the same integrated seatbelts, with ratchet-positioned lap and inertia-locking shoulder sections, found on most other GM cars. These were arguably the best belts then available on a US built car. And easy to use seat belts were even more important given the federal government required they be tied into an interlock system that prevented you from starting the engine unless the front occupants were belted in. Olds, responsible for a portion of GM's airbag development program, offered airbag restraints in the big cars during 1974, but we are not too sure exactly which month these came to market.
All Olds bumpers for 1974 were mounted on hydraulic-pneumatic cylinders, and with this sort of government-required equipment increasing weight each year the Olds people were taking a fresh look at aluminum for bonets and boots (or, as the Americans would say, hoods and trunklids). Little else, however, was fresh at Olds. There was a one-off "W30" Cutlass at the 1974 model lineup press preview, it being built to show super-powered engines could still be built and made to conform to U.S. emission limits.
Buick's idea of "significant change" was a restyling job on the Riviera. Generally the same changes outlined above for Pontiac and Olds applied to corresponding Buick models. All Buicks, from the Apollo (Buick's Nova) through the Electras, were aimed at Americans with strictly traditional values.
The standard of the world stood still while the world changed all around it - and even in 1974 it could afford to because Cadillac customers kept right on buying the well-built though bargelike vehicles.
Ford motor company was only number two in Detroit but in 1974 they were trying hard to become number one. Once again Ford had beaten the rest of Detroit to the punch with an all-new offering for an expanding segment of the market - the Mustang II. There was plenty of sharing of engineering talent and thus mechanical components such as engines, transmission, bumper systems, basic body shells and complete chassis between Ford and sister division Lincoln-Mercury. This made sound economic sense in a corporation very much smaller than GM and left time and money to be better spent elsewhere.
For 1974 the Pinto got many of the Mustang improvements. These included better isolation of the front and rear suspension, chassis tuning for radial tyres, new floating-caliper, single-piston disc brakes
and longer front suspension arms for less camber change with wheel travel. The German 2-litre engine previously standard only on the station wagon was made standard on all three models: sedan, runabout and wagon; available as an option on all models was the then new U.S.-built 2.3 litre that was standard in the Mustang. For 1974 the 4-speed gearbox used behind the 2.3-litre engine had a stronger 1st gear to handle the extra torque.
Bumpers and restraint systems were a major part of what was new. The Pinto got an impact-absorbing front bumper of the same type found at the front of 1973 Ford large cars: a big steel bumper feeding impact energy into rubber blocks. Derivations of this system were used throughout Ford's lines except on Mustang II and at the rear of Maverick and Pinto. Hydraulic energy devices called Poly-Gel Mitagators were used at the rear of Pinto and Maverick and both ends of Mustang II; these were cylinders filled with a silicone gel material which acted like shock absorbers to absorb impacts.
Ford's compact Maverick was basically unchanged for 1974. The popular Luxury Decor Option (LDO) continued - 25% of 1973 Mavericks were built with this option - and includes reclining individual front seats, steel-belted radial tyres, a deluxe sound package and other interior comfort and convenience items. Non-assisted front disc brakes
were offered for the first time: removing the Maverick and Comet from the "no-disc" brake ranks meant that in 1974 every model produced by Detroit had front disc brakes
either standard or optional. All 400- and 460-cu-in. V-8 engines for 1974 had a solid-state ignition system. Neither of these engines was available in the Maverick (a 302 V-8 was the largest here) but all Ford cars with engines of 200 cu in. or larger equipped with California emission controls got this ignition also.
The Big Fords
Very little to report here; there are the expected jugglings of bumper and sheet metal to meet the new regulations, and on the Torinos (which Ford calls intermediate and we call big) a 302 cu-in. V-8 displaces the 250-cu-in. 6-cylinder engine from the standard equipment list. Torinos also get bigger fuel tanks to go with the expected heavier fuel consumption. Several of the Torino and the even larger "fullsize" Ford models offer radial tires as either standard or optional equipment.
More interesting for its interior decoration than its behavior on the road, the Thunderbird did have a couple of little technical items worth describing. One was a new maintenance-free battery
that never required the addition of water; except for a one-way vent valve it was completely sealed. The other was a quick-defrosting heat system for windshield and back window. Instead of the usual grid lines on the glass there was a layer of gold-plated mylar within the safety-glass "sandwich"; the gold plating carried electrical current just as grid lines did, turning the entire surface into a heating element.
The Comet was just another version of the Maverick; changes outlined for the Maverick (above) apply to it. In the past the Cougar had been derived from the Mustang. Now, with the Mustang completely realigned and this division already offering a compact, sporty car (the Capri from Germany), Mercury shifted the Cougar name over to a high-style version of the 2-door Montego. That meant the Cougar was now a larger car and rode on a separate frame rather than one built in unit with the body. This car was aimed at the middle-price status market - the segment occupied by cars like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Am. The other Lincoln-Mercury cars - from the "intermediate" Montego (a version of the Ford Torino) through the "fullsize" Monterey and Marquis (versions of the biggest Fords) and the vast Lincolns to the super-status Continental Mk IV - were all basically carryover for 1974.
Although there was an all-new big car from Dodge and Plymouth, 1974 was basically a year of refinement at Chrysler: quieter, more convenient, easier-to-service cars. There was more "sharing" between Dodge and Plymouth than any other separate divisions of any of Detroit carmakers.
A continuing ray of sunshine in the Chrysler annual report in 1973 was the success of its compact cars. While Chrysler's overall market penetration was only in the mid-teens, its compact cars Dart and Valiant and their more sporty offshoots Duster, Swinger and Scamp resulted in a 38% share of the compact car market. For 1974 the Valiant 4-door went from a 108-in. wheelbase up to the Dart's 111-in. size, so there was more rear seat leg room and luggage space. All Valiant-Dart models had hydraulic shock-absorber recoverable bumper systems for 5-mph front and rear impacts. Restraint systems were similar to those explained in the Ford and GM sections.
Heading the engine lineup was a high-performance 4-barrel 360-cu-in. V-8 replacing a similar 340-cu-in. version. In performance trim the 360 included windage tray, shot-peened crankshaft, heavy-duty bearings and dual exhausts. Exhaust-gas recirculation, unfortunately, was an integral part of the emission-control system on every 1974 Chrysler engine. As at GM and Ford there was chassis tuning for radial tyres
on various Chrysler cars, and a Dart Sport with heavy-duty suspension and radials which offered a considerable improvement in ride and handling over previous A-body Chrysler cars.
There was a slight resurgence in the ponycar market in 1974. Ford has abandoned this field to market its smaller Mustang, but Chrysler was back in 1974 with Barracuda and Challenger. Chrysler claimed these were the money makers, but strengthened conventional bumpers rather than the hydraulic type found on other models spoke of Chrysler's reluctance to pour any new money into these cars There were still performance versions, 'Cuda and Challenger Rallye, but they were detuned from the "supercars" of the past. A 4-speed transmission with Hurst shifter was an option with the 360 V-8.
Chrysler's intermediates still came in high-performance versions, Road Runner and Charger - models which had gained many victories in stock-car racing. Like in Australia, racing victories equated to sales, and both these cars continued with a "performance image" for 1974. Engine options (all V-8) ranged from 318 cu in. up to 440 cu in. Upgrading of trailer towing packages allowed Chrysler intermediates to pull up to 6000 lb when properly optioned.
Chrysler Large Cars
Traditionally, Chrysler built its fullsize C-body sedans - Fury, Monaco, Chrysler and Imperial - on the same chassis, varying overall length and refinement for the four models. This was not the case for 1974. All Furys and Monacos except wagons were built on a 122-in. wheelbase, but Chrysler and Imperial now shared a 124-in. chassis with the station wagons. Yet all these models were actually shorter in overall length than comparable 1973s - on the Monaco the reduction amounted to over 8 in., a refreshing change from usual Detroit practice. Still, at 220-plus inches none of these cars was likely to get lost in a crowd. All Chrysler big cars were of unitized construction, unusual for cars of this size.
Increased use of electronics was introduced across the range. Electronic ignition became standard on all Chrysler Corp engines built in the U.S. for the second year, but an electronic digital clock was new. So was a gauge-warning light system with gauges for coolant temperature, fuel level and battery
condition plus light-emitting diodes that glowed whenever coolant temperature exceeded 245 °F, low fuel indicator, and low voltage indicator. The Imperial had a feature unique to American sedans for 1974: 4-wheel disc brakes. Rotors of 11.6-in. diameter were used front and rear, reducing design and manufacturing costs to a minimum. As with most 4-wheel-disc systems, a small drum brake was mounted within the hub of the rear brake disc. The 4-wheel anti-lock brakes
offered in 1973 as an option were dropped because of lack of customer acceptance. Which just goes to show, safety does not sell.
Now for the Bad News
Industry-wide production levels fell by almost two million vehicles (around 22 percent) during 1974. Most of the decline was traced to larger and medium-sized cars that had poor fuel economy. Production of compact and subcompact cars rose, but not at an equal pace with the decline of larger cars. As the Nixon wage and price controls ended in August 1974, inflation figures boiled upward to above 12 percent. Chrysler, faced with an inventory of cars that would last for 120 days, closed five of its six U.S. assembly plants. The U.S. car industry lagged behind the times in adapting the automobile
to a rapidly changing environment. The old emphasis on size and overstyling lingered on in 1974, and with exceptions like the Vega and Pinto, there was little to indicate any fresh thinking.