We all know that the 1970’s weren’t exactly beneficial for the automotive world. In fact, the dreaded oil crisis lead to the decadence of the great American muscle cars, dictating decades of mediocrity for the once fantasy rides like the Mustang or the Thunderbird. However, the 70’s did have one very interesting particularity, one I think it’s extremely rare in car history: grandiose designs in troubled times. The fact that much of the style, the design idealized in the 70’s is so over the top makes no practical sense. This very odd tendency matches solely with what happened in the 30’s when brands like Duesenberg were creating the most expensive cars in the world right after the great depression. For better or worst, what was made, was made to be big and even when it would fail, it would do it in a spectacular way, so spectacular that the bad is actually amazing!
There are several cars that failed miserably in their intents of becoming great machines, best sellers filed with innovation but that, at the same time, were able to carry themselves a very singular charm. This indefinable (I’m gonna go with) greatness nowadays fuels whole companies devoted to solving the catastrophic problems that some of the 70’s icons had when they were first presented to the public. For instance, when the XJS came out back in ’75 it was such a complete disaster that not even the Jaguar executives wanted one…for free! A series of changes implemented by Jaguar over the years had limited effect and until today the reputation of the XJS as a terrible car still burns bright. However, a small company called Knowles-Wilkins Engineering saw the potential of the car and fixed all the troubles which tormented the poor Jag all these years, transforming it in the reliable enjoyable sports car it always should have been.
But getting back to the achievements of the 70’s, while manufacturers like Ferrari and Porsche were creating wild concept cars such as the Modulo and the Tapiro (with its appealing lady in the leopard bikini – go ahead and Google it, you know you’re curious) that appeared to belong only in the best sci fi shows of the time, other manufacturers bet on luxury and the results were (and still are) pure genius. For your consideration 3 cases: the Lagonda, the Quattroporte III and the 375/4.
In 1976, Aston Martin’s financial situation was critical. In fact, all along the 1970’s not only Aston but the whole auto industry in England facing a debilitating crises. So, with an act that can only be described as the purest of wonderful lunacies, Aston shocked the world by coming out with the Lagonda. Everything about the conjecture of the era should have dictated the Lagonda to be a reliable and conservative car. Nope. Instead, Aston produced something that is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most utterly insane cars ever made!
At first appearing to be a fairly simple design, the Lagonda’s shape is actually unbelievably complex when you really ponder it; every time I look at the car I see something different, no matter how many times I repeat the exercise. The whole thing is just so radically different from anything that came before and so far, after. Bravo Mr. William Towns, I salute your memory Sir! The month you spent designing the Lagonda was totally worth it.
Even if all the drama going on the outside -and what an outside! Over 16 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and a weight of over 2 tons! – is not enough for you, the madness continues on the inside with a seemingly never ending succession of lights and touch panels that besides disorienting any Lagonda owner for life, never actually worked.
Calling again on James May’s orientation, he stated back in 2003 on a “Top Gear” episode that the total budget for the development of the Lagonda was exceeded by 400% and the really hilarious part is all that money was spent just to try and make the electronic bits work. The first Lagonda got to its owner over a year behind schedule and completely impossible to drive. The price for all this unadulterated Aston Martin madness? 50.000 pounds, that’s almost 81.000 dollars, in 1976! For a car that wouldn’t work! Brilliant.
As far as performance, the Lagonda was equipped with a 280bhp V8 that allowed it (when Aston actually got it to work…well, sort of…every now and then) to go from 0 to 60 in 7.9 seconds and from then to 143 mph.
Despite gigantic limitations, this amazingly bad and simultaneously fantastic Aston was produced during 12 years in 4 different versions. However, the total was limited to just 645 units. Today, a Lagonda in (reasonably) good condition will set you back (in Europe) 28.000 dollars, maybe less…of course you’ll spend double that by trying to make it actually drivable. Madness, right? Why would anyone want a Lagonda? Surprisingly, there are very good reasons to get one. I cannot stress enough how the Lagonda is almost hypnotic; I’d argue it’s art in motion – when it manages to be in motion. Even with all its limitations, it’s impossible not to appreciate its shape, its style, its presence but above everything else, its ideal. Looking at a Lagonda is not just looking at a car, at an inanimate object, a thing…it’s looking at an ideal, something that exists way beyond the boundaries of reason itself. Think about it, how many things in this world could you possibly see describe this way? Even at the end of the production run, Aston was still messing with new electronics and they were even crappier than the original ones! But they didn’t give up in making it cutting edge, ahead of its time.
Strange? And how! Impractical? Count on it! Problematic? In every single aspect you can think of and then some! An icon? Without a shadow of a doubt. This car single-handedly proofs that somewhere along the 70’s in the middle of all the troubles, there was true inspirations and boldness. The Lagonda is more than a long (extremely long) luxury car, its pure untamed style and charisma, it’s a loud affirmation that no matter the circumstances, a radical idea can overcome and be remembered as such for a long, long time.
However not everyone recognizes greatness in a radical idea, that’s why how an idea will actually live on it’s anyone’s guess. Before I move on, I have to express my deepest disappointment for finding the Lagonda on Time Magazine’s list of the 50 worst cars of all time (and several other similar lists), an unfair, superficial and ultimately ridiculous label that only reinforces the week judgment that prevails when people cave in to laxity and refuse to take that extra minute think.
On a completely different side of the history of 70’s luxury, we find Maserati, a company which went through the exact opposite of what affected Aston Martin. Maserati’s Quattroporte III dominated the sales of the manufacturer, in fact 60% of all Maseratis sold were Quattroportes. Betting on the III was genius, bold move from Maserati’s new owner Alessandro De Tomaso (THE brilliant Alessandro De Tomaso that gave us achingly beautiful creations like the Mangusta and Pantera) who took control of the company after Maserati was abandoned by the previous owner, Citroen. De Tomaso provided Maserati with a new vision, new designs and new equipment which allowed the Quattroporte to be quite a pebble in the shoes of big German and British manufacturers like Mercedes Benz and Jaguar. The Quattroporte III, or as it should be correctly called, the AM 330 Berlina Quattroporte took Maserati right to the top in terms of design and luxury.
Idealized by legendary automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Quattroporte III was extremely well adapted to the reality of its time, it was even equipped with bumpers compliant to the annoying U.S. regulations, something that on most of the competition had to be an afterthought , completely ruining the look and personality of the cars. Any unreliable madness (à la Aston) was abandoned, only conventional reliable equipment was used throughout the car: regular suspension instead of hydraulics, breaks and manual gearbox lifted from good old Chryslers. Sounds restrictive and uninspired, but it was actually brilliant. Simon Park from “Italia Auto Magazine” stated that the gear changes were so smooth that they make any automatic gearbox of today look bad.
The interiors featured leather everywhere (including a special kind similar to the one used in driving gloves applied to the steering wheel), wood, velour roof lining…had to be velooooooour…! The equipment available was surprisingly comprehensive with air conditioning and anatomically designed seats as standard. All the information relevant to the driver was displayed on a discrete and minimalistic instrument panel, key words “discrete” and “minimalistic”, something not often applied to big luxury Italian cars.
As far as power, the Quattroporte was paired with a 4.2 (or 4.9 in some cases) V8 with 250 bhp, capable of reaching 155 mph. A spectacular, radical unit? No, but pretty reliable and capable, ideal for such a Maserati.
It’s no wonder the Quattroporte III was a success story, its timeless design is a bit of a paradox: simplicity attached to an undeniable sense of exclusivity, something not easy to accomplish. Several versions of this model were produced long after the 70’s were over, like a limousine and the Royale in 1986, a variant just slightly distinguishable from the III on the outside, but with much more comprehensive interior equipment; even a gold watch was included. You gotta have a gold watch on your car or else, what’s the point of even having a car, right?
In total, 1876 of these magnificent Quattroporte III were hand built between 1979 and 1988: 1821 IIIs and 21 Royals (built only by special order). This amazing car helped Maserati maintain a considerable reputation during a tough period in which big risks very rarely implied big rewards. Alessandro cunningly denied the eccentricities of the era, maintaining Maserati faithful to its clients needs and in doing so, created a car with reasonable reliability, exclusivity and so much beauty that it’s still extremely impressive even by today’s standards.
How can you tell if an automobile is truly exclusive? Well, there are a few indications among which, production numbers. Now, this car is so exclusive that no one can even tell for sure how many were built; exclusive enough for you? Should be. This is the Monteverdi 375/4 and it is…magnificent.But before we talk about the gorgeous thing, what exactly is a “Monteverdi”?
Swiss national Peter Monteverdi was a young and successful racecar driver. In his 20’s, he founded and raced for the Monteverdi Binningen Motors racing team until a violent accident forced him to retire. Wishing to maintain his connection to cars, Monteverdi built a carrier as a distributor for luxury manufacturers like Rolls Royce and Ferrari. Everything was good until he had a very serious falling out with Enzo Ferrari, so he decided to build his very own sports car. Sounds familiar? It should, same thing happened with Ferrucio Lamborghini…Lamborghini owned a Ferrari and was having troubles with it so he complained to Enzo who basically told him to go to hell…fast forward a bit and the world welcomed the earth shattering Miura. Ferrari should have really thought twice before annoying the hell out of people.
Back to our “hero”, in 1967 Monteverdi presents the amazingly beautiful 375 S High Speed, the first of an impressive lineup of models carrying the Monteverdi badge. Now, I love, truly wholeheartedly love Monteverdi cars. They look like nothing else out there and I doubt anything could ever again be created with this much style. True, Peter was a wiz at creating something fairly fresh from uninteresting things (the Sierra and the Safari are nice examples of that), but it’s the cars made from scratch that I really appreciate. The 1970 375 L High Speed for instance it’s achingly beautiful and I promise to do an article about it or including it, however, that is only my second favorite Monteverdi. Let me tell you about the number one on my list.
In 1971 Monteverdi presented his most exclusive creation ever: the 375/4, an unbelievably striking car, luxurious and very – and I do mean very – expensive. Most of the 375/4’s were quickly bought by wealthy Middle Eastern clients; Qatar’s royal family reportedly bought 5 of the 28 that were supposedly built. Again, this number is an estimate, there are no real values for the 375/4 production, some people claim 30 units while authors like Martin Buckley actually restrain this estimate quite considerably. In his work “Cars of the super rich – The opulent, the original and the outrageous”, Buckley claims that the 375/4 run was actually limited to just 7 units.
Equipped with a 3 speed automatic gearbox and a Chrysler 440 Magnum V8 engine (7.3 liters, approximately 375 bhp), this titan of 18 feet in length and almost two tons of weight could reach 143 mph easily. But the car wasn’t just fast just on a straight line, the disk brakes were extremely efficient and the adjustable Koni suspension made sure Monteverdi’s creation was stable going around corners as well.
Brainchild of Monteverdi and acclaimed designer Piero Fissura, the 375/4 is impressive in every single way you can possibly think of. Besides the gorgeous exterior, different from anything until and since, the interior was a pure expression of luxury. It even had a TV! Doesn’t sound like much? Remember it was the70’s!
Originally this particular model was supposed to be sold to the Swiss government, but the deal fell apart when the country’s officials stuck with the more conventional Mercedes Benz…I bet someone’s mad about that today…The 375/4 was and still is something completely different, I really have trouble finding the words to describe it so I can only recommend that you find out more about it, look for information, check out pictures…try to find every angle of this thing, I promise is well worth your time.
Today you can see 3 of these 375s for yourself at the Monteverdi Museum in Binningen, Switzerland. Peter Monteverdi died in 1998 and despite the glory of his 60’s and 70’s creations fading throughout the following decades (limited to the sale and transformation of Range Rovers and Chryslers), cars like the 375/4 will remain forever at the top of the scale that determines what a luxury car can and should be.
So what can these 3 cars teach us today? Well, thanks to them we can acknowledge the 70’s as an era of ideas and aspirations, proof that not every car of that decade was born limited and bland like it’s usually considered. The Lagonda was a stroke of calculated insanity and for better or worse, it continues to be truly unique and inspiring; the Quattroporte showed that quality could coexist with style; and the 375/4 proves that legendary automobiles can come from anywhere at any time.
I would love to own any one of these because they all have something unique, a history, traits that make them special and a special car is something very hard to find these days, especially in the segment of big luxury cars plagued by a chronic lack of inspiration and refusal to take big risks. When we see these 3 cars we understand that every one of them was a risk, but they all have undeniable greatness, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that nothing of true meaning will ever be created if formulas remain the same, if molds aren’t shattered. It seems to me that the 70’s can (and should) teach something to our time: reality is tough, but a world populated with nothing but concept cars and good intentions won’t do.
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