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Motor muscle

The 1960s was a fascinating decade for motoring – because it was unashamedly about muscle. CHARLEEN CLARKE flexes hers and starts writing…

The 1960s were about flower power and rebellion. And, while the cars of that time didn’t necessarily fit the flower power mould, they were most certainly rebels on wheels. Big, brash, in your face – the cars of the 1960s were anything but timid.

America ruled the automotive roost in this decade, producing the lion’s share of the world’s cars (around 7,9 million). Germany (just over 2 million), Britain (1,8 million) and France (almost 1,4 million) languished behind, while the Japanese – at around half a million – were still waiting in the wings. And it was clear that the Americans’ taste in cars was as subtle as a knockout in a boxing match.

One of the best examples of this era is undoubtedly the iconic 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge (some say that the muscle car was born with the 1964 Pontiac GTO). By 1968, muscle cars were as common as Beatles haircuts – the GTO was up against the Charger from Dodge, the AMX from AMC, the Chevelle from Chevrolet, the Torino from Ford, the Montego from Mercury and the Road Runner from Plymouth. So Pontiac had to dazzle the market. It did so with the Judge, which boasted a 360-hp Ram Air III engine as standard (the more brutal 370-hp Ram Air IV was an option). Incidentally, the Judge also went topless; a grand total of five convertibles were produced in 1969, making them highly sought-after collector’s pieces today.

Another car of the 1960s that deserves a mention is the Ford Mustang. Development of the first Ford Mustang began in 1961; around the same time astronauts were taking tentative first steps into space, which would ultimately land them on the moon. When it was finally launched in 1964, the Mustang’s fabulous looks and low price tag saw it become an instant success. It was massively profitable for Ford as Mustang buyers tended to purchase a bundle of options too. More than nine million Mustangs have been built in the past 50 years, and the latest derivative is about to be launched in South Africa.

Because of the raw power of cars such as the Judge and Mustang, street racing was the name of the game in the 1960s, and ‘speed shops’ were born. They took the already fast muscle cars and made them even faster. It was all quite insane…

America wasn’t the only nation besotted with OTT cars. As Classic & Sportscar magazine reported, this is was an age “when flaunting your wealth wasn’t a crime” – hence the Mercedes-Benz 600, which made its global debut at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show, was an immediate sensation. “The 600 is a masterpiece of engineering, a quantum leap over its opposition, and redefines the word opulence,” Classic & Sportscar crooned at the time. And, with its overhead-camshaft, fuel-injected, 6.3-litre V8 engine, air suspension with variable ride control, four-speed automatic transmission, all-round disc brakes, power-assisted steering, central locking and separate air-conditioning systems for front and rear compartments, it soon attracted a celebrity following (Coco Chanel, Hugh Hefner, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, George Harrison, Aristotle Onassis and Elvis Presley were among the proud owners).

The 1960s also saw the birth of the iconic Porsche 911. But this German masterpiece wasn’t intended to have that name. The 911 came into the world in 1963 initially as the Porsche 901. However, the rights to using a zero in the middle of a three-digit car designation had already been snapped up by French manufacturer Peugeot. Which meant that when this legendary, sports car-to-be eventually arrived on the scene a year later, it was as the Porsche 911. It is unlikely that the use of the number one to fill the gap was a coincidence. Fittingly, it remains the number one in its class to this day; now in its seventh generation, the 911 has sold over 800 000 units – a figure beyond the reach of any segment rival.

But the 1960s were not only about torque and talk (as in being the talk of the town). It was also a groovy era – epitomised by the Beach Boys and their hit Fun, Fun, Fun (when daddy takes the T-Bird away). Drivers were passionate about their cars and musicians joined this craze, penning songs such as Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally. This fun era was also epitomised by wacky cars like the Vanden Plas Princess R. Dubbed a poor man’s Rolls, it boasted an aluminium, six-cylinder engine courtesy of Rolls-Royce and a body built by British Motor Corporation. It sold for the equivalent of about R58 000, versus R161 00 for a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III.

Even colours took on a whole new funky meaning in the 1960s, with companies such as Dodge and Plymouth coming up with off-the-wall names such as Tor-Red, Plum Crazy and (our personal favourite) Go-Man-Go.

And then came the 1970s. Common sense returned and practicality prevailed. The mood had shifted from the fast and the furious to sense and sensibility. The focus was now on economy and safety.

The former was driven by oil embargoes and higher fuel costs; the latter by legislation. It was a tough decade for the motor industry. For instance, in 1975, auto production in the United States slumped a whopping 24%.

But it was not all doom and gloom. This was the decade of compact cars and hatchbacks, with manufacturers like Volkswagen coming to the fore. In 1973 sales of the Beetle passed the 15 million mark (not too bad for the car called “a little shit box” by Henry Ford II). The Japanese car industry truly came into its own in this decade, and cars from this country developed a reputation for being reliable, economical and affordable. Vehicles like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Datsun Sunny made their first appearance in their decade, and they were joined by a host of new models paraded out by Mazda, Mitsubishi and Subaru.

Luxury wasn’t lost though, and the German automotive sector was also marching on. Mercedes-Benz launched its magnificent 350 SL in April 1971. For the first time in the history of the model series an eight-cylinder power plant did duty under the long bonnet. Besides elegance and quality the body radiated safety, since the crash behaviour of the two-seater was far ahead of its time.

The decision to manufacture the car followed much muttering in the German company’s boardroom. At issue was whether there should be a Targa roof version, ie, one with a removable roof panel, instead of the fabric-topped variant, because owing to higher safety standards alarming news was to be heard from the USA regarding the licensing of open-top cars. That a decision was finally made in favour of an open-top two-seater with a fabric roof and an additional removable hard top can be attributed to Hans Scherenberg, the head of development, who fought tooth and nail for it: “The SL gave me great pleasure, but also caused me great trouble. This was no easy decision for us,” he summed up the decisive meeting. His decision turned out to be the right one; a total of 237 287 of these open-top two-seaters were sold in 18 years.

Meanwhile, down in Munich, BMW was rapidly gaining in size and stature, which necessitated the construction of a new head office. The story behind the construction of what’s now known as the BMW Tower is simply fascinating – instead of resting on foundations, the 16 800-tonne building was designed to be suspended from a cruciform steel beam construction on the roof. When Munich played host to the world at the 1972 Olympic Games, the BMW Tower was finished and could be seen in its full glory for the first time, although the interior was only finished the following year and the official opening ceremony for the new complex of buildings – with a price tag of DM109 million (around R787 million) – was held on 18 May 1973.

Two years later, the company introduced its first 3 Series, one of the company’s greatest success stories. The BMW 7 followed in 1977. In the same year, BMW became the first vehicle manufacturer in the world to offer professional driver training.

However, by the end of this decade, the Japanese dragon was looming large. The automotive industry in that country had propelled itself forward in both quality and productivity to the point that many European and American companies would battle to compete in the 1980s. But that, dear readers, is the subject of our motoring pages in the next (September/October) issue of DEKAT.