Motor Trend 1971 — 40 cars under $2500

While cleaning my office last Saturday, I stumbled upon a pile of old magazines. Most of these are copies of Modern Mechanix from the 1930s and 1940s, but the issue that caught my eye was the July 1971 edition of Motor Trend. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a Buyer’s Guide that offered “40 cars for under $2500”? I took a break from cleaning to see what I could learn.

[cover of the July 1971 issue of Motor Trend]Some industry experts [forecast] a small car penetration of more than 40 percent in the near future. It is no small wonder, therefore, that more and more automobile companies are getting into the sub-compact field, particularly in the United States.

That this is true is borne out by the ever increasing number of these cars on the road and in the showroom. Whereas a few years ago a person in the market for a small car had only Volkswagen and maybe Renault to choose from, there are now many new names to consider: Subaru, Pugeout, Fiat, Honda and Datsun to name a few. In fact, more than 40 cars on the American market now have sticker prices under $2,500; most of them are foreign.

So, for your interest and edification, on the following pages is a complete small car buyer’s guide listing specifications and prices for 40 of the best-selling compacts in the United States. Included in the guide is a list of options, with prices, which most car buyers want on their vehicles. All this is done with an eye on the price tag, trying to stay under a magical, mystery retail cost of $2,500.

There’s no question that small cars were much more popular during the 1970s and 1980s, but did they ever reach a market penetration of 40 percent? And how many are there now? When we were in London last summer, I was startled by the prevalence of small cars — it made me realize just how few you see on the road in the U.S. The small car market has been lethargic here for the past decade or more, but that may be about to change.

If gas prices continue to increase, more people will consider smaller cars. It’s already beginning to happen. At Kris’ office, a couple of her co-workers are purchasing “commuter cars”. They’re not selling their SUVs, but they’re looking for something small and fuel-efficient for their everyday commutes.

It seems that back in 1971, fuel efficiency wasn’t even a consideration. Take a look at the Motor Trend Buyer’s Guide (which lists “forty, count ’em, forty cars you can buy for under $2,500”). There’s no mention of fuel economy:

[The buyer's guide lists 40 cars under $2,500]
Click to open larger version in new window.

Two thoughts related to this list:

  • The Volkswagen Beetle has held its price well. In fact, I found a 1972 VW Bug on Craigslist for $2,350. You could have bought the car in 1971, driven it for 37 years, and then sold it at a profit! So much for depreciation. (Ha! But then, as a couple people have noted in the comments already, inflation makes $2,000 in 1971 worth more than $10,000 today. So that theoretical profit is just that — theoretical.)
  • In 1985, during my junior year of high school, I worked at Burger King with a guy who owned a 1971 Ford Maverick. He loved that car. He worked like a dog to earn money to spend on that thing. “Wanna race?” he’d ask every night after work. I never did. I was driving my father’s 1983 Datsun 310GX, and wasn’t willing to take any chances.

This issue of Motor Trend also contains an interesting article about a plan to rent Minicars (small cars designed to reduce congestion) with the Select-A-Car System. Now this sounds like a way to rent a car.

[photo of the Select-A-Car System, which looks like a cross between a phone booth and a vending machine]

Imagine you jet into Los Angeles, make your way to the vehicle garage, and find the Select-a-Car machine. You insert your credit card into the key dispenser to select your vehicle. To make the car start, you have to insert the credit card into the vehicle’s dashboard.

[photo of credit card being inserted into dashboard]

“It could be,” says the president of Minicars, the brains behind this contraption, “that once the public gets used to using the Select-A-Car System eventually regular cars could be phased out in favor of genuine Minicars.” A grand vision, sure, but 37 years later we know it didn’t happen. Not even close.

Though this issue includes several articles on smaller cars, it also contains a sneak preview of “1972 Detroit cars”. There was nothing small about these monsters:

[The new car preview highlights some BOATS]
Click to open larger version in new window.

Now those are some cars.

The best part of reading any old magazine is looking at the advertisements. They’re a window to the past. (Those Modern Mechanix from the 1930s are fascinating.) For example, today we know Motorola as a manufacturer of mobile phones and microchips. But in 1971, they were all about car stereo systems:

[Advertisement for Motorola stereo products]
Click to open larger version in new window.

I love the illustrations here, and I love the ad copy:

WRAP-AROUND SOUND in a 4-channel, 8-track tape player. 4 amplifiers and 4 deluxe 5-1/4″ Golden Voice Speakers matched to circuitry wrap the sound around you. Motorola’s TM920S makes turning on a car tape player a whole new happening.

And, of course, there are the ubiquitous record club ads. I never figured out how these companies made money giving away so many free records, but then I know I poured a lot of my own cash into them as a kid, so maybe they knew what they were doing:

[This record ad pitches 8-track tapes]
Click to open larger version in new window.

My favorite offering in this ad? Orson Welles‘ “Begatting of the President”. I had to look it up. It’s an anti-Nixon satire!

And, finally, I was of course intrigued by a brief profile of the Mini Clubman, a “highly popular” car in England:

[photo of the 1972 Mini Clubman]

This year, the Mini Clubman arrived on U.S. soil. Maybe someday I’ll own one.

30 comments

  1. This sure does bring back memories! I was just beginning to read car magazines when this one was published, and remember vividly when one of our neighbors bought a new Toyota, which no one in our Detroit neighborhood had ever seen before…small cars weren’t especially popular back then, when a “small” car was a Plymouth Duster or Ford Falcon, although one of the older people in the neighborhood had a 1960 Rambler American, which we all called the Clown Car. These days I drive a Scion xA, which would fit in the trunk of my first car, a 1959 Chevy Belair.

  2. The Select-A-Car system may not have phased out regular automobile ownership nationwide, but CarSharing programs like CityCarShare in the SF Bay Area and Zipcar, which is now in multiple markets from Seattle to Washington D.C. allow you to have access to a car without owning one. I sold my car three years ago and exclusively use Carsharing when I have to drive. This works well when you are living in a dense urban environment or visiting a city for a few days.

  3. At some point in the 80s, we had a Plymouth Fury. I don’t know what year it was, but it pretty much looked like the one in the picture (except it was pea green). I was so embarrassed riding in that car. My friends loved it, though – the backseat was as big and comfy as a sofa!

  4. Great post. The Minicars system actually sounds a lot like Zipcar (www.zipcar.com), which is here in DC and in several other cities. We use it a lot when we need a second car, and it saves us money and a lot of headaches in car payments and insurance.

  5. JD, just a minor quibble, but your beetle example is flawed. You’re not including the effect of inflation. 2500 in 1971 is not 2500 today

  6. D’oh! Jerichohill is absolutely correct of course. How come I can remember about inflation when discussing IRAs, but not when discussing cars? 🙂

  7. See, here is the trouble with comparing something like the Datsun 510 with something like a Kia Rio 5 Door. The Datsun wikipedia page shows it reached 20-30MPG in the US, which is why I used it.

    So lets look, the Datsun 510 Sedan final price says $2340. Adjusted for inflation that’s $12,412.00 according to the BLS inflation calculator.

    The Kia Rio5 base price is $12,915. Pretty darn close. The Rio gets around 30MPG combined, so around the same as the Datsun too.

    Has anything really changed?

    The Kia Weighs 2438lbs, the Datsun as 2041lbs.

    The Kia puts out 110HP, the Datsun about 96HP. Considering the weight to power ratio they are near equal.

    The Kia is 158in x 66in, the Datsun 160 x 61 . . .

    Though the Kia comes with air and a CD player, it has sensors up the yin-yang for finding out what’s wrong with it. It’s much safer thanks to it’s air bags all over the place. It’s probably a pile more comfortable too.

    I think we’re pretty much exactly where we were except we have mandatory catalytic converters now so emissions are lower.

    Oh, and 1 tape back then was 20 bucks, so a CD now should probably be 106.09 . . . but they are still around 15-20 bucks. Who’s complaining about expensive music?

    Plus one more thing, in 2006 dollars the median income for 1971 was 39,196, and in 2006 was 48,201. So the Datsun was (12412 / 39196 ) 31.7% of median income and the Kia is now (12915 / 48201) 26.8% of median income.

    Looks like I like where things are going. It looks dramatic because all those cars are under 2500 bucks, but when you really dig deeper things are pretty much getting better.

  8. JD-Great post. What a blast from the past.

    The record companies broke even with the deals. You were required to buy more tapes at full price, which countered the gazillion you got for 1 cent. The real money was for all the people who forgot to return the monthly card saying they didn’t want the “tape of the month.”

    I personally made them a fortune several times. I have an uncle who bought over 1000 CD’s through these clubs.

    @Traciatim-Great comparison of then vs. now. People forget this when they complain about how much stuff costs now. In most cases they cost a less. We just buy a lot more!

  9. What amazes me about that list of cars under $2500 is the horsepower ratings! Most are under 100 HP. That’s amazing. It shows how Americans’ desire for power and speed has progressed.

  10. Well, as long as you are throwing in inflation, you might as well add the cost of not owning the car and see which is more profitable. Taking the bus for 30 years (or even the car share programs) would have cost more and been far less convenient. I’d say the beetle investment would have been a VERY profitable move.

  11. Small cars are a topic near and dear to my heart. We researched carefully what would be the smartest buy, mindful that gas prices will only continue to rise — and in my view, hybrids are the only cars with the capacity to evolve into the future. We just brought our new hybrid home a few nights ago. For our decision, see http://alison97215.wordpress.com/2008/05/14/our-new-honda-hybrid/
    best,
    Alison in Portland, Oregon

  12. Just in case you wanted to know, Motorola got it’s name from making car radios. They made the first car radio way way back. Motorola derives it’s name from Motor (car) Victrola (radio). Motorola has a museum at their corporate headquarters in that has a bunch of crazy stuff Motorola built/builds.

  13. I saw a new Clubman at work just yesterday! And it was already terribly dirty. They made quick work of that…

  14. Red, I saw my first Clubman this morning’s run. A group of us were walking back to our cars, and one woman got in a Mini. I did a double-take, though, because it was a station wagon! “Is that a Clubman?” I asked. “Yup,” she said. “I love it!” I still want the Cooper S, though. 🙂

  15. You might want to list those old Modern Mechanix from the 30s and 40s on ebay. I see some of them have sold for $5-10 per issue. Just a thought.

  16. Kinda makes you want to move to India and order one of those new $2500 Tata automobiles, doesn’t it…. OK, maybe not…

    When I was living in England about 30+ years ago, the little minis were quite the rage for midnight illegal road-rallys… They’d pump them up and scream through the English countryside at speeds in excess of 100 MPH ( Referred to as ‘the Ton’ in those days.. ).. I’d drive 3 or 4 hours a night after work to go to college (University of Maryland night classes ) and get home in the wee hours. I got run off the road twice by a bunch of these guys … You’d be barely making the turns at 60and these guys would be screaming towards you at incredible speeds…. Not much else to do in those days in England. Pubs closed at 10:30 PM and only two channels on TV and the last one BBC would turn off at 11PM… Soooo, idle hands and all that .. Ahhh memories….

    Thx jegan

  17. People want smaller cars and better gas mileage, yet auto makers are producing small cars with worse gas mileage. The Toyota Corolla of 5 years ago got 5 mpg better on the highway. I really think Americans could adjust to a little less horsepower–if that’s the issue–if it means not getting hit so hard at the pump.

  18. I agree with nicstarling. I recently bought a Kia Optima. I wanted that size car, but would have been happy to have a smaller engine (and the better gas mileage). It wasn’t even an option.

  19. I’m interested in the horsepower in that day. Take the Corolla @73. Today, it’s nearly double that. I know Corollas are probably bigger and more comfortable today, but could Toyota have doubled the mileage, and kept the horsepower the same?

    Nicstarling, are you taking into consideration the new vs. old EPA mileage ratings?

    My first new car was a 1992 Civic VX hatchback: EPA 55 hwy, 48 city. 102 horsepower. $10,000.00. (@$15045 in today’s dollars). I never got above 50 mpg, but was still very pleased with the average 46-48 mpg I got. The 102 horsepower was good for just about everything, except getting over the Rocky Mtns. For that, downshifting was definitely required. http://www.edmunds.com/used/1992/honda/civic/3912/specs.html

  20. I love how much LIGHTER the Honda is than most of the other cars on that list. Even today, ricers like to take light Honda frames like ’90s Civic and CRX and shove in an H22 v4 VTEC engine out of a later-model Prelude or Accord, because you get unbelievable performance out of it for bargain-basement dollars. Cheap by car-enthusiast standards, anyway. On top of that, smarter owners don’t lower Hondas because the factory-standard suspension and coilovers are so excellent. That’s just plain good engineering. That’s why the best cars today relative to cost are Honda and Toyota — superior design and build quality. And I’ve owned many different cars before learning this the hard (costly) way.

  21. “The Volkswagen Beetle has held its price well. In fact, I found a 1972 VW Bug on Craigslist for $2,350. You could have bought the car in 1971, driven it for 37 years, and then sold it at a profit! So much for depreciation. (Ha! But then, as a couple people have noted in the comments already, inflation makes $2,000 in 1971 worth more than $10,000 today. So that theoretical profit is just that – theoretical.)”

    Profit less maintenance, gas, insurance…more maintenance…you’d probably be driving a totally different car given all the parts you’d have to replace…Sticker price does not reflect the true “price” of a car.

  22. I understand the horsepower argument. At the time I bought my 2002 Honda Civic coupe, my then-girlfriend actually test drove the same car, because we were both in the market for cars at the time. She liked the car, but it didn’t come off the line fast enough for her. I bought it because 36 MPG seemed unbelievably high to me at the time and I liked the way it handled.

    It took a couple of weeks for me to learn to get it to accelerate acceptably and for the first few days a lot of people flashed their brights at me as I struggled to reach 60 coming onto the highway. If they offered an even smaller engine, I don’t think many people would buy it. It’s sad.

    Given that I burn $40 worth of gas a week now in an economy car, the thought of picking up a 20-year-old CRX to use as a commuter car has crossed my mind. But given the number of times people in large vehicles lose my Civic in their blind spots, I’m afraid to drive anything smaller.

    I think the biggest reason small cars haven’t caught on in the United States the way they did in Europe is because there are so many large vehicles on the road, driven by people who are unable (or unwilling) to watch for smaller cars. Then again, I may be jaded because someone in a Suburban nearly ran me off the road during my morning commute today when he decided to change lanes. That doesn’t happen to me every day or even every week, but it happens often enough to really irritate me.

  23. @ #24 Dave Farquhar:

    If you think it’s annoying/frightening to have your Honda get lost in someone’s blind spot, try bicycling around these idiots with their smog-belching behemoths. I’ve thought about getting one of those 115dB airhorns for my bike to make damn sure I get their full attention when necessary. Fortunately, most Portlanders are used to bikes on the road, and 99.9% are very aware, cautious, and considerate.

    Still, it only takes one idiot who can’t or won’t handle his/her vehicle properly to flatten you like an opossum.

    Maybe I need airbags for my bike? 😉

  24. @Dave Farquhar:

    This brings up an interesting point on safety. Things like a Toyota Yaris, Chevy Aveo, Honda Fit all may be good on mileage . . . but what about stats on deaths in car accidents vs deaths on larger vehicle.

    The NHTSA does frontal ratings by ramming the car in to a wall at 56KM/h. They use the same speed but a 3,015lb weight hits the side of the car at the same 56KM/h.

    So sure, the Yaris gets a 4 star (of 5) on it’s front impact, if you hit a wall dead on at 56KM/h you’ll probably be OK. What happens when you swerve to miss a deer and smack dead on with a 5527lb GMC Yukon and you’re both going 80KM/h. Which do you want your baby seat in?

    This is why I drive a full sized car. Though I purchased the performance engine since it got 200HP instead of 155HP, and got the same mileage which I found strange. Why would you not purchase the big one 🙂

    I don’t need a truck, don’t like mini vans very much, SUVs are for soccer moms, but I like being in comfy vehicles and feeling like if I hit something I’m not going to turn in to a pinball.

  25. Not sure if you are aware, but these magazines could be worth a good deal of money on Ebay if you;re willing to part with them. You should check into it…..

  26. My mother bought a brand new Datsun 510 station wagon in 1972 (her first new car post divorce) and paid something close to $2,295 with 4 speed and optional hub caps. She drove that thing for 10 yrs with some small issues, but managed to get 3 growing boys, one irish setter and many a buddy to and fro without much drama. She even took us all camping in Vancouver BC (1973, female alone with 3 kids!) and back (Portland, OR) without one hassle. Great car. Would love to find one to restore. I drive an SUV now because I’m 6’4 and 215 lbs. Can’t imagine driving a small car anymore. Too scary with all the texters and idiots in our state.

  27. People want smaller cars and better gas mileage, yet auto makers are producing small cars with worse gas mileage.

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