Market Spotlight

7 underappreciated 1970s cars

by Andrew Newton
18 June 2021 8 min read
Photo by Aaron McKenzie

The ’70s were a great time for music, film, and (arguably) fashion. For cars, though? Not so much. It was a turbulent time for the automobile. Engine performance couldn’t keep up with the pace of ever-stricter emissions laws, and insurance rates were making muscle cars increasingly hard to own. Crash regulations saw cars sprouting big, ungainly bumpers and nameplates that had been bywords for performance got fatter, softer, and more cruiser-y. There were oil crises and gas lines, and the influx of cheap, well-built little cars from Japan changed the car market forever.

All that has led to 1970s cars getting overlooked in the classic car market. Of course, some vehicles from the era have become extremely valuable, but more attention goes to cars from the golden age of the 1960s, which will always be cool, and to fast-appreciating cars from the 1980s and 1990s, which are popular among young enthusiasts with new money and come with the reliability of a modern car. For value-conscious buyers, though, there are some hidden gems from the 1970s that still aren’t as pricey as they could be. Here are seven of our picks.

Mecum

Dodge Lil’ Red Express

Well over a decade before Ford Lightnings were smoking their tires and GMC Syclones were dusting Ferraris, Dodge had its own sporty pickup in the showroom. And in that strange time that was the late 1970s, few contemporary performance cars could keep up with this cartoonish-looking pickup. When it was new, the Lil’ Red Express was the fastest domestic automobile to 100 miles per hour.

In building it, Dodge found an emissions loophole and drove straight through it, fitting its standard D150 pickup with a tuned 225-hp version of its hi-po 360cid V-8. A 3.55 Sure Grip axle and Canyon Red paint rounded out the package, and this truck is about as far from a sleeper as you can get thanks to the gold graphics and those ridiculous exhaust stacks. Dodge sold about 2000 examples in 1978. For 1979, Dodge was forced to add a catalytic converter and run a milder cam, but nevertheless sold another 5000 Lil’ Red Expresses in the model’s second and final year.

There is absolutely no missing one of these things on the road, so it's odd that they've flown under the radar on the collector vehicle market, especially compared to other vintage trucks. Median condition #2 (excellent) values for first gen (1966-77) Ford Broncos are up 128 percent over the past five years. 1973-91 Chevy C/K Blazers are up 82 percent, and the equivalent C/K Pickups are up 76 percent. 1973-79 Ford F-Series shot up 121 percent, while even 1969-75 International Harvester pickups are up 36 percent. And the Dodge? Just 13 percent over the same period, to $28,800 for a 1978 model and $26,900 for a '79. It's not nothing, but as people shell out more and more for shabby old Broncos and C10s, we're surprised that the Lil' Red Express has moved so...lil'.

Triumph TR8

We're stretching the dates a bit here since most TR8s carry a 1980 or '81 model year, but technically this car debuted in 1978. It's also based on a mid-1970s design, and although the TR8 was intended to hit the road not long after, things just moved at a famously glacial pace at British Leyland back then. OK, now that we've established the TR8 as a '70s car, let's look at why it's underappreciated.

The Triumph TR7, with its polarizing Harris Mann-penned wedge shape debuted in 1975. Reviews were mixed, with plenty of critiques pointed at the underpowered 2.0-liter slant-four borrowed from the Triumph Dolomite. The TR8 was Triumph's late but great answer, with the wedge now powered by the lightweight and eminently tunable 3.5-liter Rover V-8. Some California TR8s got a slightly more powerful fuel injected engine, while most got dual Zenith-Stromberg carbs and an output of 133 bhp and 168 lb-ft of torque—plenty of grunt for a little '70s two-seater. A 5-speed was standard, with an auto also available. After testing a new TR8, often dubbed the "English Corvette," Road & Track concluded that "the only other thing we could ask for is good looks."

Time (with some help from Radwood and the like) has been kind to those looks. Although the TR8 lacked some of the classic Triumph TR touches like a solid wood dash and thin doors, the TR8 is roomier and more practical. Many cars have very cool (and very '70s) plaid seats. It's also considerably faster than its predecessors—TR8s were winning SCCA races long after Triumph went bust. Finally, TR8s are quite rare. There aren't exact production figures, but total worldwide production was probably fewer than 3000.

And yet the #2 value for a TR8 is just $20,000. An earlier TR6 in the same condition comes in at $25,400 and that other V-8-powered British roadster—the Sunbeam Tiger (aka the "poor" man's Cobra) is worth 75 grand or more. Granted, the Tiger is a bit apples to oranges and the TR6 is a much prettier car than its younger cousin, but we still think the TR8 offers a lot more than its current price suggests.

Mecum

AMC Javelin

American Motors was a bit behind the Big Three in entering the pony car wars, but the 1968 Javelin gave AMC a serious contender even if sales were always a fraction of Ford's Mustang and Chevrolet's Camaro. The Javelin got redesigned in 1971, getting a little bigger and sprouting exaggerated wheelarches—the Javelin's most recognizable feature. The two-seat AMX body style was also retired, with the AMX name now joining the Javelin lineup as a trim level. Engines ranged from economical six-cylinders to 304, 360, or 401-cid V-8s, and on track the Javelin won the Trans Am championship in 1971, 1972, and 1976.

Lots of owners channeled their inner Mark Donohue and drove their cars hard—fewer Javelins seem to have gotten pampered to the same degree as many Firebirds, Camaros, and Cudas. And for the most part, Javelins haven't been worth enough money to receive the kind of high-dollar restorations we see elsewhere in the muscle and pony car market. It doesn't help that parts can be difficult to find, although basic maintenance isn't particularly expensive.

Another factor working against the Javelin is that its badge just doesn't have the staying power and name recognition of the Big Three pony cars. This comes through in our insurance quote data. For Javelins, 52 percent of quotes come from Baby Boomers, who make up just 37 percent of the market as a whole and between 34 and 36 percent of quotes for the equivalent Mustangs and Camaros. Blame the fact that AMC had been all but absorbed into Chrysler by the time most millennials were being exposed to cars. So despite their good looks, race-winning ways and relative rarity, the median #2 value has hovered around 20 grand for years now, and these cars from Kenosha are still a tempting choice for somebody who wants both muscle on a budget and something a little out of the ordinary.

Mecum

Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna Type S-3

The Chevelle was all new for 1973, and while the glory days of roaring LS6s were already starting to look like a distant memory, performance wasn't totally gone. The Laguna S-3 carried the Chevelle's sporty torch for three years. Introduced in 1974, the S-3 did have those typical '70s flourishes, such as a vinyl half-roof, opera-type rear quarter windows with available rib coverings, and body side striping. But the S-3 also came with stiffer suspension, a front stabilizer bar, and Rally wheels with radial tires. Engines started with a 350/145hp two-barrel, but a 454/235hp four-barrel was available along with a 400/150hp two-barrel and a 400/175hp four-barrel. For 1975, the Laguna S-3 added a slanted urethane-covered aero-style nose designed for NASCAR, where the Chevelle Laguna was particularly successful. But after 1976, Chevrolet dropped the Laguna and after 1977 dropped the Chevelle altogether, leaving the Malibu as Chevy's midsize offering.

It was a short run, then, and the mid-'70s Chevelles will always live in the shadow of their predecessors. Fair enough. But even the most expensive Chevelle S-3 Laguna 454 carries a $24,300 #2 value—a pittance for a Chevy muscle car with unique looks, race pedigree, and enough performance to have fun with.

RM Sotheby's

Opel GT

Opel is one of the world's oldest, largest carmakers and it sold about 70,000 GTs in this country from 1968–73. Maxwell Smart even drove one in the final season of Get Smart. Yet if you ask the average American what they know about "Opel" they'll probably talk about jewelry. For decades, Opel GTs have been some of the absolute cheapest vintage two-seaters around. That's still the case, with GTs offering the look and feel of a shrunken C3 Corvette at a fraction of the price.

Opel, based in Germany, became General Motors' main European subsidiary in 1929 and for most of the 1960s made bland commuter cars. It was therefore a surprise when boring old Opel unveiled a sharp-looking concept coupe at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1965. The first production versions hit the road in 1968, and sold in the U.S. through Buick dealerships.

Thanks to wind tunnel testing at the University of Stuttgart, the Opel GT was one of the most aerodynamic cars you could buy at the time. Most GTs got a 1.9-liter, 102-hp "cam-in-head" engine with the camshaft placed over the combustion chamber, but the valves operated by tappets and rocker arms. Performance wasn't earth-shattering, but the Opel could keep up with an MGB GT all day long, and a period ad probably summed it up best: "Our car may not win at Le Mans or Sebring, but it's great if you just want to have some fun."

Ever stricter emissions laws, plus the arrival of the Datsun 240Z, spelled the end for the Opel GT, and it quietly disappeared after 1973. Father Time and rust haven't been too kind to these oddballs, but there are still a lot of GTs out there, and although their #2 value is up 7 percent over the past five years, it still sits at just $17,500, and condition #3 (good) cars are still four-figure classics.

Mecum

Oldsmobile Toronado

The original 1966 Toronado was a groundbreaking car. A 1971 redesign made it more of a luxury car on par with the Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Riviera. These days, though, it's worth less than both of its GM E-Body cousins. Part of what's holding the Toronado back may be name recognition (Olds was a defunct brand after 2004) as well as some stigma around its front-drive layout. It also looks bloated and over-styled compared to the original Tornado, a 1960s design icon. Whatever the reason, the most expensive second-generation (1971–78) Toronados in the Hagerty Price Guide carry a #2 value of just $12,500, and excellent examples can still be had for four figures.

In the purely physical sense, it's hard to think of anything that offers more car for the money. The engine is a 455 cid V-8 (or 403 after 1976). It weighs nearly 5000 pounds, and it's over 18 feet long. Many have air conditioning, an 8-track stereo, and power windows/locks/seats. The only thing small about a Toronado is its fuel economy—expect around 10 mpg.

Barrett-Jackson

Pontiac Grand Am

For most of its life, the Grand Am was an overstyled and generally underwhelming front-drive car, synonymous with Pontiac's decline and, more generally, GM's failure to compete with Japan's best commuter cars. It didn't start that way. The 1973 Grand Am was supposed to be a perfect mix of the qualities that had made Pontiac a dominant brand in the 1960s. The very name hinted at the luxury of the Grand Prix and the performance of a Trans Am. A period brochure touted "Foreign Intrigue...American Ingenuity." Built on the rear-drive A-body platform shared with the Le Mans, Chevelle, Malibu, Monte Carlo, and 442, the Grand Am was available as a two-door "Colonnade" or a four-door pillared hardtop with the unmistakable Pontiac beak up front. Grand Ams came standard with a 400cid V-8 but a 455/250hp was available. Radial tires, sport-tuned suspension, bucket seats, front and rear sway bars, and variable-ratio power steering were standard.

Although it sold well at first, the fuel crisis hit big cars like the Grand Am hard, plus the Grand Prix was a more prestigious car at an only marginally higher price, so Pontiac axed this iteration of the Grand Am after 1975. Most people didn't pamper the cars, and their Endura noses tended to disintegrate (fiberglass replacements are now available). They're a rare sight these days. When one does pop up, though, it's hard to miss that sloping rear deck and the pointy Pontiac face, but even as other vintage Pontiacs have appreciated in recent years, the Grand Am has stayed somewhat steady and currently carries a #2 value of just $16,800.

Comments

  • OldFordMan says:

    Except for Lil Red, I saw nothing but DAWGS barking.

  • Martin Waters says:

    Great choices, except the Toronado. It’s actually a very excellent example of everything that was so horribly wrong with most American cars of the ’70s. Bloated (as your text says), ugly, just plain stupid. It especially is hideous in the context of the great original version of the Toronado. More 1970s’ idiocy from General Motors — let’s make all our mid-level to high-level cars look as grotesque as possible, like our Cadillacs. The world would be a better place if the whole lot of them went to the crushers.

  • Paul says:

    No early 70s Chrysler Imperial? Certainly under appreciated.

  • Joe Koenig says:

    Your taste for classic cars is all in your mouth. Most US built cars of the 60’s and 70’s are at least worth saving from the crusher! You’re just pissed because none of your Old Ford models made the list! 😁

  • ree geemon says:

    just cause its “old” doesn’t make it a classic or collectable, it’s just old

  • MustangJim says:

    Interesting choices. I like the opel gt out of these as you just don’t see them, not that you see to many. I thought that these were nice cars when new, not fast…but nice.

  • Steven says:

    Great article! It makes one think of all the different cars.

  • James Kreamer says:

    Why is it that Hagerty has no recogntion of the ONLY Factory built Custom Van of the 70,s 1976 & 1977 FORD Cruising Van (not a aftermarket custom van) Built on the Ford Assembly line 2,958 Cruising Van,s mfg, which I have owned all these years & purchased new, but yet Hagerty has insured it all these years ?

  • Frank says:

    Laguna S 3 was a 1973 intro.

  • Tom D says:

    A sorted TR8 is both a huge amount of fun and a surprisingly good touring car, smart choice.

  • JPK says:

    It was a shame for the Pontiac Grand Am that Motor Trend named the Monte Carlo its Car of the Year when the Grand Am was the real winner. Chevrolet offered Motor Trend a larger annual ad purchase than Pontiac would commit to.

  • KY Colonel says:

    Javelin 401 V8 for me. It’s a muscle car bargain with “to-die-for” looks.
    I had one 30 years ago and was stupid enough back then to sell it.
    My wife has never forgiven me.

  • Scott says:

    These are all sleepers that often remain sleeping. Not only did most 70’s cars Suffer greatly to rust and poor quality but also the great lack of parts to restore these cars.

    Lean example are rare and NOS part even more.

    Many 70’s and later cars with no support will fade away due to the cost to restore is more than the value.

  • Cobra says:

    I tried to order a 1973 Grand Am but the wife nixed it. The brochure said the the 455 Super Duty was an option but that never materialized. Would have been a fantastic ride!

  • Cobra says:

    I tried to order a 1973 Grand Am but the wife nixed it. The brochure said that the 455 Super Duty was an option but that never materialized. Would have been a fantastic ride!

  • Mr. Alvin Davenport says:

    I think the Grand Am was an attractive design, but the Can Am sold later in the 70’s may ultimately become more valuable due to limited production. For some reason I still find the Chevy Monza appealing. Dynamically, it wasn’t a great car, but I think the fastback design was quite good. There don’t seem to be many unaltered ones left.

  • James Hayton says:

    I agree with “Old ford man”
    Dawgs except for the pickup
    And to even mention Triumph! Good thing they are mostly sticks as British POS’s require lots of pushing! Genuine garbage

  • Harry Jacobs says:

    I think the 1961 Mercury Monterey Convertible has been overlooked and under valued by the Car Culture.

  • AE Newman says:

    Isn’t this article really saying that these cars are now collectable, only because there are quite a few still in good condition, Available? You can’t buy a nice 1970 390 AMX for less than 35 nowadays, but 71+ Javelins are available cheap. Why? Because they are still the same dogs in terms of looks or performance that the were in 1975! Same with any Malibu made after 1972.

  • Larry Lewis says:

    One that I think has been over looked is the 1965 thru 1967 Rambler Marlins (65 only) AMC Marlin (66 & 67). Like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo (first generation) 1970 thru 1972.

  • Havnaer says:

    1978-’79 G-Body El Camino – The most beloved car that nobody wants.

  • Randy says:

    These are great choices, especially the Grand Am, Laguna, and Lil Red Express, everyone gets too wound up in “they were dogs”, it was the 70’s, accept it, or move on. One car missed here is the 73-77 Cutlass, I believe one of those years (’76?) it was the top selling nameplate. The mid-size GM cars were everywhere. With HEI at least the GMs were reliable too. The comments about lack pf parts though is real, mechanically simple to restore but both interior and exterior parts don’t exist. In the long run, that may hold back the popularity more than anything else.

  • Tim Bowles says:

    James,
    The first car I owned was a 1964 mgb. It was reliable, top down excitement, with fantastic handling. Calling British cars POS that require lots of pushing, can be excused as coming from someone who speaks out if ignorance. My next British car I bought was a series 1 e type. I can assure you it’s 100% British, stone cold reliable, and very sought after by collectors. Hardly a car that requires being pushed. This is 37 years of ownership talking…

  • Mark Porcaro says:

    Laguna and Javelin are good choices ! Overall list was interesting

  • Douglas Threlfall says:

    For 17 years I owned a 1973 Grand Am coupe that was made in the classic cameo white with the oxblood (dark red) interior. It was a pretty rare car being it was the 400, 4 bbl. & a four speed manual trans. Plus it was well optioned, power windows, power door locks, grid type rear window defroster & automatic temperature control air conditioning (just like in the Cadillacs!). I had added the electric trunk release, the left six way power bucket seat, tilt steering column, sport mirrors (LH remote controlled) and rally II wheels. It was a great driving car but a bit thirsty to run. Best gas mileage was 10-12 MPG around town and lucky to get 15 MPG on the highway. I restored the car in 1980/1981 when most parts where still available from GM. Must have done a pretty decent job as the car appeared a feature in the April 1989 issue of High Performance Pontiac magazine.

  • chrlsful says:

    surprised the foreigners want the above but even the shore-ta-shores here surprise me. I’m w/OldFords but for the Opel, well Toranado too but only if 1st gen (seems not). Dawgs~

  • Terry Judd says:

    Cheers that the often ignored AMC Javelin is included among the seven cars listed. Maybe it’s partly the camera angle, but the purple example so prominently displayed at the top of the article appears to have a misaligned hood and front bumper, creating “I’m melting”-look more worthy for the Emerald City than a California beach. The silver Javelin AMX highlighted later in the article is a better presentation.

  • David C. Holzman says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Martin Waters that the Toronado was the one lousy choice. That thing is bloated and plug ugly! I also would have included the Pacer. Yeah, it’s funny looking, but in an interesting way. How else did it get to be the car star of Wayne’s World? I do a lot of classic car photography, and I have some nice shots of the Pacer–although I can’t even remember the last time I saw one.

    I would also include the 1970 Valiant. It’s a crisp, well designed car with no extraneous lines, unlike so many others. Boxy but beautiful.

  • Peter Madison says:

    You left out early 70’s Jensen Healeys. A Lotus twin cam 16 valve four (in 1972, long before they became common) that can be modified to 200 HP in a 2,300 lb roadster with good handling (especially fitted with sway bars and summer tires) equals lots of fun and performance. Very comfortable even if the top leaks. I doubt there are 500 left, so they are unique in British car shows. And inexpensive at $15,000 in #2 condition.

  • Salvatore A Frasca says:

    I have a lil red ex, I think the Opel is a great choice and well written. Grand Am also. All choices are to be more recognized in the future if in #2 condition.

  • Luigi says:

    The Opel “mini-vette” is the only one I’d even test drive. As a teenager in the 70’s, these cars held little appeal, even less so now.

  • Mike Hagerty says:

    Guess one could argue they were 60’s holdovers, but you left out the early 1970’s muscle cars like the GTO, which wasn’t neutered until 1972. The 60’s ushered in the Space Age, but the 70’s were just plain silly.

  • Paul Villforth says:

    I saw 1970 Ford Maverick here in Houston Texas about a month ago and compared to new cars it looked really sharp. It was a metallic blue with a blue interior. Bumpers and lights looked like they were new. I wonder what these go for now?

  • Del says:

    I agree with a lot of these comments but especially it was the 70s malaise Era. If you do not like it move on. It was what was

  • New york bill says:

    Funny you guys talk muscle cars i never liked any of them all i know is when i take my cherry 1961 chrysler imperial rag top to the shows i get the crowds as far as speed ive dusted many a chevelle with my sleeper the 413 wedge could power an air craft carrier and its faster then most of the muscle cars. Have a great day. Ps as far as value ive turned down 6 figures for my car several times.

  • Jesse says:

    I was surprised to see that you left off the 1976 Gran Torino “Starsky and Hutch” cars some came with the 351 and a few came with the massive 460.

  • James James says:

    The Toronado is a brutally poor choice for this decent list. It came from such great design origins starting in 1966, but by the 1971 year it was simply hideous looking. While the Buick Riviera (Boattail) and the Cadillac Eldorado (Convertible and Biarritz!) we’re still in a stretch of epic designs, the Oldsmobile group came out with a front end that only a mother could love. It basically had no grill on the front. It looked like a cheap Cadillac and that’s exactly how it was for the most part between 1971 and 1978. It echoed the Cadillac Eldorado’s body, use cheap variations of their interiors, and even tried an awkward squared off rear window toward the end of the run. I compare it to the Mustang 2, when Ford lost all of their great design ideas and came out with a uninspired economy car wrapped in pretty lipstick and decals. The 3rd generation Toronado in 1979 was a pretty decent step forward again but the damage was done. The homeliness of the 1971-78 era killed a lot of interest in the car. The first generation, however, are timelessly epic!

  • Azad Ally says:

    The first muscle car i ever saw was a 1966 dodge charger 426 hemi and a 1970 ford torino 429 both manual cars back in 1973 that my neighbor owned. I enjoyed your article and as i look at these cars i see how original each one was in their respective design. Cars today all look alike and you cant tell a hyundai from a lexus. I am the proud owner of a 1970 torino 429 cobra jet four speed orange in color and i think any of these cars as well as any american muscle car are worth restoring. Just my 2 cents.

  • Walter McMillan says:

    I’ll take that Grand Am or a 77 Can Am all day long. Someone send me a note if you’ve got a nice one for sale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More on this topic

Hagerty Insider Newsletter

Your weekly dose of auction reports, market analysis, and more.

Thank You!
Your request will be handled as soon as possible
Hagerty Insider Newsletter
Your weekly dose of auction reports, market analysis, and more.
Share