Classic metal: Cars of 1972

By: Jesse Taylor

Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72
Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72 Classic metal: Class of '72

Rewind to the cars and controversies of 1972 ...

Classic metal: Cars of 1972
Classic metal: Class of '72


Cars of 1972

It was the era of flares, shagpile carpet, mutton chops and Gough Witlam but 1972 also produced some cracking cars.

On the world stage, 1972 was a hell of a year. The Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland killed 14 unarmed marchers; The Godfather was released; 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed by Arab terrorists at the Munich games; the Watergate break-in took place. And back home, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established in Canberra.

In the automotive world, 1972 was the year VW built Beetle number 15,007,034 to overtake the Ford Model T as the most numerous car ever built (since eclipsed); Peter Brock won his first Bathurst endurance race (the last 500 mile event); Emerson Fittipaldi won the F1 World Championship; Graham Hill and Henri Pescarolo were victorious at Le Mans. And Wheels magazine controversially withheld its Car of the Year award, deeming no Aussie-built car worthy.

Rewind the clock and travel back 40 years to revisit the cars and controversies of 1972 ...


- Alfa Romeo Alfasud

We can thank Italy’s 1970s love affair with industrial action for the ’Sud’s appearance on this list. It debuted at the Turin motor show in 1971, but didn’t go on sale in Europe until well into 1972 (and Australia in April ’74). Italian for ‘south’, Sud (rhymes with could, not dud) refers to the purpose-built factory near Naples in southern Italy, a long way from Alfa Romeo’s headquarters in Milan.

Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro from ItalDesign, early Alfasuds were not hatchbacks as their shape suggests but sedans with a small bootlid. A hatch finally arrived in 1981, though the Alfasud Sprint coupe featured a hatchback from 1976 and the rare Giardinetta wagon had a liftback.

Unfortunately, the gorgeous body didn’t stay pretty for long. Built from recycled steel, the unpainted bodyshells were often left outside during times of industrial disputes. In coastal Naples. The poor ’Sud rusted like few cars in history, though Italians like the Fiat X1/9 and Lancia Beta also spring to mind.

But like the Fiat and Lancia, the Alfasud’s driving experience helped you forgive a bit of tinworm. Along with the Mini Cooper S, it was one of the first great-handling front-wheel drive cars, with lively steering and lightning responses. Powered by a delightfully rorty flat-four (first 1186cc, followed by 1286cc, 1350cc and 1490cc capacities), the southerner had an irresistible charm.

Italian production ended in 1983 (after 723,093 units were built), but the ’Sud continued to burp out of factories in Malaysia and Malta until 1990.


- Lancia Stratos

I once returned to my Fiat X1/9 to find an even smaller, wedgier Italian parked beside it. At 3710mm long on a tiny 2180mm wheelbase, and standing just 1114mm tall, the Stratos’ cartoon proportions need to be seen to be believed. That rally legends like Sandro Munari and Bjorn Waldegard managed to tame the Lancia’s notoriously razor-edged handling (courtesy of that tiny wheelbase) to win the World Rally Championship in 1974 and ’75 says more about the incredible skill of the men than the motorsport pedigree of the wedged wonder – the first car to be purpose-built for rallying.

Though the Stratos was allowed to compete in Group 5 prototype races as early as 1972, Lancia had to build 500 road cars (Stratos HF Stradales) to compete in Group 4 rallying. In a slight bending of  the rules, only 492 cars were built when production ended in 1974, by which time the Stratos was tearing up forests on its way to its first World Championship.

Though initially shown with a 1.6-litre Fulvia engine, then a 2.0-litre Beta donk, the Stratos was famously powered by the same 142kW 2.4-litre Ferrari-built V6 from the Dino 246. The Fiat Group made good use of that engine, with variants used from 1966-73 in the Fiat Dino Spider and coupe.


- Supercar Scare

Sunday June 25, 1972. The Phase IV XA Falcon GT didn’t die that day but it was mortally wounded. The Sun-Herald’s front page screamed, "160mph Super Cars Soon". The late Evan Green’s front page story outlined, correctly, that Holden, Chrysler and Ford were all working on road-going homologation specials in order to have the biggest stick at the annual Bathurst endurance race. But proving that sensationalism and reactive governing isn’t a new phenomenon, the story also suggested that these killer cars would soon be in the hands of the youth of the time and they’d be off terrorising their
neighbourhoods before wrapping themselves around the nearest telegraph pole. Sound familiar?

It didn’t help that Chrysler announced its V8 Charger program the very next day...

The story was discussed in federal parliament and CAMS and the ARDC were forced to respond by changing the rules and effectively outlawing cars that didn’t yet exist. By June 30, Holden had killed off the V8 XU-1, postponing the bent-eight Torana until the bigger-bodied LH arrived in 1974. Meanwhile, Chrysler pushed on with a less-sporty V8 Charger. Two weeks later, Ford axed the Phase IV XA GT program after only four cars had been built. Some of the Phase IV parts finally saw the light of day in the XA RPO83 (Regular Production Option), of which 129 sedans and 130 Hardtops were built. But the RPO83 missed out on the Phase IV’s hot cam, valve mods and finned sump. What might have been…


- Honda Civic

Like Datsun’s 180B, the humble Civic lacks the collectable cache of an RS Porsche or the World Rally Championships of the Stratos, but the first-generation Civic fathered a lineage that has now entered its ninth generation.

In comparison, the older Mercedes SL is now in its sixth generation, the 911 its seventh, and the Falcon in its eighth and probably last. With the Civic still racking up annual global sales around 700,000, more than 19 million Civics have been sold in the last 40 years. That puts the Honda in sixth place of most numerous nameplates, about a million units behind the defunct Ford Escort and two million adrift of the VW Beetle, but ahead of the Ford Model T and VW Passat. Of the active nameplates ahead of it on the list (Toyota Corolla, Ford F-Series, VW Golf), only Golf has had a shorter lifespan.

Launched in July 1972, the Civic arrived 15 months ahead of the Oil Crisis. That its 45kW 1169cc four-cylinder would run on both leaded and unleaded was a boon in the fuel-starved US. Not known to accept small cars, the US market embraced the Civic wholeheartedly, and it’s rarely fallen outside that country’s most popular cars over the last 40 years

- Porsche 911 Carrera RS

It may be known as the ’73 RS, but the Porsche 911 Carrera RS was actually a 1972 model – about 1000 of the 1580 built rolled off the Stuttgart line in ’72.

Debuting at the Paris motor show in October 1972, the RS 2.7 was the first time ‘Carrera’ and ‘RS’ were used on a 911 (Porsche tragics will know that the Carrera name was first used on a 356 and RS on the 550). The 911 Carrera RS also debuted the bürzel ("duck’s tail").

To homologate the 2.8 RSR for the Group 4 ‘special GT’ category, Porsche needed to build 500 road-going 2.7-litre examples of the 2.4S. Porsche’s management was so pessimistic about selling these lightweight homologation specials that the fall-back position was to ‘force’ them on senior and middle managers as company cars. To the surprise of the brass, the first 500 sold within a month of the show debut and a further 500 units sold by Christmas. With 1000 cars built, the RS now also qualified for Group 3 production GT racing. The first 1036 cars used thinner-gauge panels (0.8mm instead of 0.88) for the doors, rear quarter panels, roof and bootlid.

Two hundred of these were M471 Sport models (the remainder were M472 Tourings) and they added thinner side glass, fibreglass bumpers and the removal of rear seats and most sound-deadening. The Touring weighed 1075kg, the Sport 975kg. The final 544 Tourings built from April ’73 used the heavier-gauge 0.88mm steel body from normal 911s.

- BMW M Division

Though best remembered for his later roles at Chrysler and General Motors, back in 1972, cigar-chomping Bob Lutz was BMW’s Board Member for Sales. Upon christening the new BMW Motorsport division, Lutz said, "A company is like a human being – as long as it is fit, well-trained, full of enthusiasm and performance".

Starting with the 3.0 CSL, itself a homologation special, the M division has built some of the most desirable road weapons of all time – four generations of M3, five generations of M5, and the M1, BMW’s one and only mid-engined car.

Aside from the road-car division, M has built multiple Australian, British, European and World touring-car champions. They won Le Mans in 1999, and a BMW engine powered Nelson Piquet’s 1983 Formula One championship-winning Brabham. More recently, BMW had a relatively fruitless time in F1 (2006-09) as a manufacturer with just the one win.

Perhaps the M division’s finest hour was the 6.1-litre V12 that powered the McLaren F1. Designed by Paul Rosche, who also built the 1.5-litre turbo firecracker in the Brabham F1 car, the naturally aspirated engine was essentially two E36 M3 in-line sixes spliced together. The V12 made 468kW and propelled the F1 to world’s-fastest-car status with a 386km/h Vmax in 1998. It held the record until 2005 and the arrival of the 407km/h Bugatti Veyron, though the M-powered F1 remains the world’s fastest naturally aspirated car.


- Range Rover

It’s not the first luxury SUV (that would be the Jeep Wagoneer), but the original Range Rover is certainly the most influential.

Launched internationally in 1970, Charles Spencer (Spen) King’s two-door Range Rover didn’t go on sale Down Under until the middle of 1972. The two-year delay mattered little as this first-gen Rangie wasn’t replaced until 1994, though a four-door and long wheelbase were added during this time.

Like the Mini before it, the Range Rover transcended class and was rugged enough to be at home on the farm or on the high street of a well-to-do suburb. Both the New York Museum of Contemporary Art and the Louvre in Paris have displayed the Range Rover – the Louvre citing it as an "exemplary work of industrial design".

The original car was fitted with a 101kW version of the Buick-designed 3.5-litre all-alloy V8 that had already seen duty in the Rover PB5 and would live on with fuel injection and in bigger capacities until 2002 and the end of the second-gen Rangie. Alloy body panels cloaked a traditional ladder-frame chassis and the Rangie sat on a 100-inch (2540mm) wheelbase, placing it halfway between the 90 and 110 Land Rovers.

The first of only three generations of Range Rover (the current 10-year-old model will soon make way for a fourth-gen), the original was voted by Wheels magazine as the most influential car from the 50 years 1953-2003.


- Fiat X1/9

The Bertone-designed X1/9 began life as the 1969 Autobianchi Runabout concept. It finally reached production in 1972, bringing the exotic mid-engined layout to the masses by using the 1290cc SOHC four-banger, four-speed manual and suspension components from Fiat’s front-wheel drive 128. Indeed, Toyota followed a similar blueprint, and arguably executed it better, in 1983 with its first-generation MR2.

At 3830mm long, riding on a 2202mm wheelbase, the X1/9 is seriously tiny. A 1989 Mazda MX-5 measures 3950mm and 2270mm respectively. Depending on the model, the Fiat weighs just 880-962kg.

The X1/9 was updated at different times in different markets but the general rules of identification suggest: all 1972-77 cars are LHD slim-bumper cars, RHD production started in 1978 with slim bumpers and the big bumpers arrived in 1979 for both LHD and RHD, though some LHD markets had fat bumpers in 1977! Fiat stopped production in 1982 and Bertone took over until 1989. Confused? Don’t be, they are all great little cars to drive, though the 65kW 1.5-litre five-speed makes marginally more rapid progress than the 56kW 1.3.

A 1978 split bumper, 1.3-litre model was my first car and it was a basket case. Mine had ‘minimal’ rust, which in any other car would have been considered terminal. I did a clutch the day I bought it, then had slave and master cylinders go in quick succession, and it suffered from horrendous hot-start issues. But it was once mistaken for a Ferrari by a pretty girl so all was forgiven. I still miss it.


- Audi 80

Sometimes it takes just one model to change the direction and cement the future of an entire car company. Audi’s Bavarian rival, BMW, altered its course and cemented its current path with the E3 and E9 sedans and coupes of the late 1960s, but it took until 1972 and the second-generation 80 for Audi to do the same.

The first-generation Audi 80 (the F103) was built from 1966-69, based on the DKW F102. In fact, the F103 was the first model to wear the Audi nameplate since World War II. Unlike the first 80, the second-generation 80 (the B1) moved the brand away from post war styling and technology, and with the option of mechanical fuel injection, started Audi on its path of Vorsprung Durch Technik (‘lead through technology’), though the company didn’t use the slogan until the early 1980s and the third-gen 80.

A year after launch, the 80 spawned a Volkswagen twin – the fastback-shaped, but otherwise identical Passat. Aussie sales started in 1973, the same year that the 80 was awarded European Car of the Year, though it was badged Fox in both Australia and North America.

Wheels magazine tested a 73kW 1.5-litre, three-speed automatic Audi Fox in November 1975 and concluded its glowing road test with these words: "Even without some of the appointments that would ice its cake, the Fox stands as a luxury/ quality car. Please form an orderly queue…"

And form a queue they did. From 1972-78, Audi built more than 1.1 million 80s and began the brand’s establishment as a major player in the German luxury car business.


- Ford Falcon XA

By early 1968, Ford HQ in Dearborn, Michigan had decided to kill off its Falcon model. As the two previous generations of Aussie Falcon (XK-XP and XR-XY) had been based on US designs, Ford Australia would have to go it alone for its new car.

Ford US did try to convince the Aussie outpost to take a modified Fairlane/ Torino but this was rejected in favour of a clean-sheet design. The XA project – X for experimental, A for Australia –  started in earnest when Ford Australia’s design boss, Jack Telnack, and designers Brian Rossi and Allan Jackson relocated to the US in May 1968 (Australia didn’t have experienced clay modellers so the

car was done in the US). Rossi did the original sketch of a GT Hardtop and the range quickly expanded to include sedan and wagon (on Fairlane’s longer wheelbase). The latter two launched in March of 1972 while the Hardtop arrived in August. The XA was longer, lower, and wider, yet barely any heavier than the XY it replaced. But it was basically a fashionable new body over an existing mechanical package, right down to its live rear axle and cart springs. It famously failed to win Wheels’ Car of the Year. But it was a good car to drive. The mag praised its "finely tuned chassis which allows a good driver to set the car up and really get with it".

- Datsun 180B

Before the arrival of the super cheap and soon-to-be-ubiquitous 1994 Hyundai Excel X3, Datsun’s 120Y and 180B were the transport of choice for the poor and poor students alike. In the high school and then uni carparks of my native Bathurst, my impossibly exotic (and rusty) Fiat X1/9 looked other worldly next to mouldering 120Ys and 180Bs!

Unfortunately, the 180B was always overshadowed by the 1600 it replaced. But after a 1000-mile test, Wheels magazine concluded at the time that the 180B was "almost a BMW at half the price. At $2570 it can’t fail."

Launched in late 1971 in the Japanese market as the 610 series Bluebird, the 180B, in coupe, sedan and wagon body styles, was originally sold alongside the 510 (1600), but soon replaced it in all markets.

Powered by a 78kW 1770cc SOHC four-cylinder engine and backed by a four-on-the-flour manual, the Safari Yellow 180B Deluxe tested by Wheels in November 1972 recorded 0-60mph (97km/h) in 12.4 seconds and a 172.1km/h top speed. For the record, that’s only 1.4 seconds slower to 100km/h than the X3 Excel.


Unique Cars magazine Value Guides

Sell your car for free right here


Get your monthly fix of news, reviews and stories on the greatest cars and minds in the automotive world.