Boomers and Cars in 1971

It’s hard to believe 1971 was fifty years ago, but time is marching on. Mister Boomer remembers 1971 in many ways, one being the first year he purchased his own car. As is our customary mode of operations, let’s explore what was happening fifty years ago in the auto industry and see what effect that had on growing baby boomers.

By 1971, roughly half of the Boomer Generation was of driving age, approximately 38 million people. In Mister Boomer’s experience, the first car boomers called their own was either a hand-me-down from their parents, or a used car purchase. The Baby Boom had changed the auto industry in many ways, not the least of which was accommodating growing families. Large, “family-sized” four-door vehicles led the lists of best-selling cars for decades. In 1971, the best-selling car of the year was the Chevy Impala; it had been the number one seller, with few exceptions, since the end of the war.

The 1970s ushered in an era of pollution awareness, which seriously affected the auto industry. Sales of muscle cars, introduced in the mid-60’s and popular with early-year boomers, waned as fuel prices started to rise and environmental concerns over smog grew.

Another influence on U.S. auto manufacturers was the influx of foreign cars into the U.S. After hardly being more than a blip in terms of marketshare through the 1950s, foreign car companies made inroads into the U.S. market, most notably, Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun. In an attempt to regain some lost marketshare, U.S. manufacturers introduced more fuel-efficient cars and compact options, the forte of foreign models.

To cut costs in a shifting market, U.S. car design didn’t change much in 1971, if at all, from those of 1970. However, with specific model sales plummeting and a new emphasis on sunroofs, both AMC and Chrysler stopped selling convertibles in 1971.

American insurance companies began lobbying in earnest for impact-resistant bumpers in 1970. A year later, regulations were enacted requiring, by 1973, that back bumpers would absorb an impact of 2.5 mph without damage to lights or latches, and front bumpers were required to take on a 5 mph impact without damage to lights. Standards and the entire approach to car bumpers has changed since then.

1971 was an interim year in many ways. The writing was on the wall that consumers valued safety, and were willing to pay the hundred or so dollars that these features added to the price of a new car. California, the most populous state, and known for its Los Angeles smog, led the way on restricting car emissions. This prompted manufacturers to meet California standards for cars sold across the U.S. Ironically, this very principle, that a state could regulate the emission standards of automobiles, is a political football even today.

The emphasis on emissions and smog control was the harbinger of 1970s regulations. The Oil Embargo of 1973 clearly illustrated the need for more fuel efficiency and less dependence on foreign oil. Coupled with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, standards for emissions were set that car companies would have to meet within a few years. Thus 1971 saw efforts to move consumers toward their fuel-efficient models. Catalytic converters were added to production vehicles in 1973 as a further method of controlling car emissions.

Fifty years ago, in the Mister Boomer household, Ford was the car of choice. With the exception of a 1956 Chevy, Mr. B’s father bought Fords throughout his boomer years. In 1971, the family car was a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500. Mister B remembers it as a behemoth, not only in appearance but the way it drove. It was a two-door model, but the doors were longer and heavier than previous cars the family had owned. That year, Mister B’s father told him about a car a co-worker was selling and the two hopped in the behemoth to take a look. Mister B bought his first car, a 1964 Plymouth with push-button automatic transmission, for $200. Mister Boomer was environmentally conscious by then, having participated in local demonstrations on the first Earth Day in 1970. However, when it came to his car in 1971, affordable transportation to his college classes took precedence over emissions concerns. Nonetheless, he was happy to have a practical and reliable car that was not a parental hand-me-down.

What were you driving in 1971, boomers?

3 thoughts on “Boomers and Cars in 1971”

  1. First it was a 19xx Ford Galaxie that I called my James Bond car because of the smoke screen that enveloped it from the oil it burned. Every time i filled it with gas I had to add a qt of oil to the engine. (Hand me down from an aunt and uncle.)

    Then I got a 19xx Chevy hand me down from my dad.

  2. My theory on the dip in sales of convertibles in the ’70s and resurgence of convertibles more recently – men’s hair styles. The 1970s saw the longest hair on men. Even President Jimmy Carter’s hair covered the tops of his ears. It is difficult to drive with hair whipping into one’s eyes. As a result, convertible sales plummeted. Also, almost everyone smoked, and ashes were on the dash. A/C was a novelty. Rear windows on convertible tops yellowed as soon as the car spent a few days with the top up in the sun. AS soon as men’s hairstyles became short or the bald skinhead look took over, t-tops and convertibles were back in style.

  3. My first 2 cars were hand-me-downs, a 19xx Ford followed by a 19xx Chevy.

    The muscle car bust occurred in the early 1970s as a result of rapidly rising insurance rates, not concern for the environment. Pete Dunton’s “Old Car Memories” March 1. 2016: “As an example an 18 year old male high school graduate with a job and a brand new Chevrolet Chevelle SS in 1965 paid reasonable insurance rates. By 1970 a 18 year old with a new Chevelle SS was paying eye-watering insurance rates in comparison. It wasn’t uncommon for the cost of monthly insurance coverage in these cases to be substantially higher than the monthly car payment. That’s when the youth buyers threw in the towel and muscle car sales dove and never recovered.”

    Moreover, today’s youngsters do not have the job opportunities that we boomers had. Many boomers walked off the HS graduation stage across the street to an auto plant, steel mill, etc. to a good paying job with benefits, where his/her dad, uncles, aunts, cousins worked. Today those jobs are long gone. Even the McD jobs and the Walmart greeter jobs are not there, having been grabbed up by – you guessed it – boomers who can’t afford to retire. So it is not for lack of ambition that millenials can’t find work – the jobs are not there.

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