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 dream rides like the Mustang or the Charger. However, the 70’s did have one very interesting particularity, one which is fairly rare in car history: grandiose designs in troubled times. The fact that much of the style idealized in the 70’s is so over the top makes no practical sense whatsoever and yet…
This very odd tendency matches with what happened in the 30’s for instance, 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 meant to have an impact and even when it would fail, it would do so in a spectacular way, so spectacular in fact that even the bad stuff turns out to be pretty amazing in the end.
There are a bunch of cars that failed miserably in their purpose of becoming great pieces of machinery and best sellers filed with innovation, but which at the same time were able to carry themselves with very singular charm and appeal. 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, when a small company called Knowles-Wilkins Engineering saw the potential of the car and fixed all the troubles which tormented the pretty Jag all these years, it turned the XJS into the reliable enjoyable sports car it always should have been. Many companies do the same for other models/manufacturers, so just because something isn’t exactly perfect from the start, it doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there.
But we digress, so 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 which look like they belonged in the best sci fi shows of the time, other manufacturers bet on luxury and the results were (and still are) pretty damn amazing. Today we’ll take a quick look a 3 of the greats: 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 in fact the whole auto industry in England was 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 fairly reliable and conservative car but nope. Instead, Aston came up with something that is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most insane, experimental, incomplete 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 you look at the car you see something different. The whole thing is just so radically different from anything that came before and so far, after. Bravo Mr. William Towns, we 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 beyond disorienting any Lagonda owner for life, never actually worked.
In 2003 James May stated that the total budget for the development of the Lagonda was exceeded by 400% and the really hilarious part is that all the money was spent just trying to make the electronic bits work. The first Lagonda got to its owner over a year behind schedule and was 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. Iconic.
As far as performance, Lagondas have a 280bhp V8 that allows them (every now and then) to go from 0 to 60 in 7.9 seconds and from then on to 143 mph.
Despite pretty severe limitations, this amazingly bad and simultaneously fantastic Aston was in production for 12 years in 4 different seriess. However, the total production run was limited to just 645 units. Today, a Lagonda in (reasonably) good condition will set you back (in Europe) about 28.000 dollars, maybe less…of course you’ll spend double that trying to make it actually drivable. Madness, right? Why would anyone want one? Surprisingly, there are very good reasons to get a Lagonda. It cannot be stressed enough how almost hypnotic the car is; we’d argue it’s art in motion – when it does manage 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, it’s actually looking at an ideal, something that exists way beyond the boundaries of reason. Think about it, how many things in the world could you possibly 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 on 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 singlehandedly proves 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 is anyone’s guess. Before moving on, we have to express the deepest disappointment in finding the Lagonda on Time Magazine’s list of the 50 worst cars of all time (and several other lists of the sort). It’s an unfair, superficial and ultimately just plain wrong label, one which shows the weak judgment that prevails when people cave in to laxity and refuse to take that extra minute to think outside the box.
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 sales, in fact 60% of all Maseratis sold were Quattroportes. Betting on the III was a genius, bold move from Maserati’s new owner Alessandro De Tomaso (THE brilliant Alessandro De Tomaso twhich gave us achingly beautiful stuff 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 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 from the start with bumpers compliant with the annoying U.S. regulations, something that on most of the competition had to be an afterthought which would completely ruin the look of the cars. Any unreliable madness (à la Aston) was denied, only conventional and fairly reliable equipment was used throughout the car: regular suspension instead of hydraulics, breaks and manual gearbox lifted from good old Chryslers. Sounds uninspired, but it was actually a brilliant move for the company. While Aston was reaching out to new domains, Maserati was building and solidifying a client base. For that you need a reliable car, something nice to drive and the Quattroporte III offered just that. 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 the big 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 tthe QUattroporte III were made long after the 70’s were over, such as 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 what’s the point of even having a car, right?
In total, 1876 units of the 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, keeping 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 by today’s standards.
How can you tell if an automobile is truly exclusive? Well, there are a few tells among which, production numbers. The car we’re gonna talk about now is so exclusive that no one even knows 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 this gorgeous thing, what exactly is a Monteverdi? The name may be unfamiliar to some car aficionados.
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 the car world, Monteverdi decided to make a carrier for himself 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. Enzo should have really taken the time to think twice before annoying the hell out of people. But thank goodness he didn’t.
In 1967, Monteverdi came out with the stunningly beautiful 375 S High Speed, the first of an impressive lineup of models carrying the Monteverdi badge. Here, we truly wholeheartedly love Monteverdi cars. They look like nothing else out there and sure, Peter was also a wiz at creating something fairly fresh from uninteresting stuff (the Sierra and Safari models are nice examples of that), but it’s the cars made from scratch that we really appreciate, even if they are kind of parts bin specials. The 1970 375 L High Speed for instance is achingly beautiful abut that’s only our second favorite Monteverdi. Let’s talk about the number one on the list.
In 1971 Monteverdi presented his most exclusive creation ever: the 375/4, an unbelievably striking car, luxurious and very, 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 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 and almost two tons could easily reach 143 mph. 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 able to go around corners decently as well.
Brainchild of Monteverdi and acclaimed designer Piero Fissura, the 375/4 is impressive in every sense of the word. 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? It was the 70’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…bet someone’s mad about that today…The 375/4 was and still is something completely different, it really is tough finding the words to describe it so we can only recommend that you find out more about it, look for information, check out pictures…try to find every angle of this thing, we promise is well worth your time.
Today you can see three 375/4 at the Monteverdi Museum in Binningen, Switzerland. The rest of them are…somewhere. 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. The Lagonda was a spark of barely 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.
All of these have a unique appeal, 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 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. 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 just won’t do.
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