We all know how bad cars in America became after Nixon won a second term. From that point until the end of Reagan’s second term, cars built here in America were, to most of the country, lacking in performance, quality, and innovation. I understand the sentiment. Looking into the cars built during the era, we see engines strangled by emissions regulations, stylists stymied by big safety bumpers and lighting changes, and salesmen who were stuck with cars that Americans didn’t want. I do not want to go into any of that today, however. The reason? I think the Malaise Era of the USA deserves another look, from a more universal perspective.
First off, in order to understand the Malaise Era, we should look at the historical events between about 1973 and 1983. Nixon spied on Watergate and it cost him his second term’s final two years. Meanwhile, the Middle East figured out that they can hold the USA’s economy hostage by holding back our precious oil reserves. This happened twice, in 1974 and again in 1979. Each of these two oil crises played heavily into the decision-making of not only the federal government, but the auto industry too. Among other things, other countries began producing more cars and started exporting to the USA as well, which, although not yet fully in effect, would definitely change the automotive landscape.
Other things within the United States government had a much more direct effect on the way we built cars. The EPA became far more powerful after the passing of the Clean Air Act, forcing automakers to rethink emissions. In fact, this is where the first distinction needs to be made. After leaded gasoline (let’s be honest, no matter what the benefit on performance of leaded fuel, I’d rather not breathe the stuff) was phased out of gas stations, catalytic converters came into play, which forced the Big Three (Plus 1) to actively monitor the air-fuel ratio of their engines. This forced computers to become a lot more modern in cars, but also forced automakers to start seriously considering fuel injection for its higher precision (in addition, EFI is far easier to monitor than a carburetor). We now know that EFI can be an easy way to tune an engine and increase power, but it allowed automakers in the 1970s and 1980s to more closely monitor the air-fuel ratio in an engine, allowing a cleaner burn and less emissions.
Emissions and fuel economy research got a boost during this period as well. While Cadillac’s experiment with cylinder deactivation was a failure, it spawned a legacy that is well-known now, where active displacement has become a widely accepted form of decreasing fuel consumption. In addition, diesel engines were not successful at first in the USA on a large scale, but over time, they have slowly become more popular. It’s not quite a stretch to say that the idea of smaller-displacement engines with more power and high efficiency were in their infancy at this point in automotive history, especially when one looks at Buick’s popular turbocharged V6.
Another issue that should be addressed is safety. After the 5MPH bumpers became a requirement, it forced automakers to rethink their approach to integrating safety items with styling. While the requirements absolutely caused issues with parts replacement and an increase in repair costs, it ushered in the era of safer interiors and crumple zones. Lest we forget, those two particular innovations were already being researched, but I believe the new laws accelerated their implementation into the consumer market.
Finally, let’s talk about globalization. Around the time that the Malaise Era began, the Japanese inflitrated the American domestic market, which forced the Big Three to pay attention to markets they had ignored for at least a decade. Although the Big Three still had a ways to go, the influence of Japanese cars during the changing atmosphere of the Malaise Era shaped each market segment distinctively by the late 1990s. The Big Three were forced to compete with the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and the Datsun B210, which were the sort of cars that America needed–not the cars that the Big Three thought Americans needed. As a result, tastes changed and during the Malaise Era, for the first time, the consumer had to be placed first instead of the automaker’s image of the consumer.
-Albert S. Davis