There are a couple different ways to look at this car. The first is that it’s an old piece of crap car. This Firebird is slow with pretensions of speed and ugly with pretensions of beauty. I’m pretty sure that’s what most people single out as a pitifully bad old car. Most car enthusiasts would probably back this opinion up – 1974 was at best a transition year between the completely bloated, underpowered and overstyled late 1970s Firebirds and the respectable for their time early ’70s examples. For instance, 1974 was the first year that the Firebird got this weird, sloping plastic nose treatment, but the last year that it had its more delicate shallow rear window. If you fell asleep in that last sentence, that’s okay, there are far more nerdy details to gush about this car. http://www.musclecarclub.com/musclecars/pontiac-firebird/pontiac-firebird-history-2.shtml is a good place to find such details.
But I think that it’s beautiful. I think it’s interesting. Certainly a contributing factor to my lust after this car is that I love the regulatory drama of the 1970s. There is so much evidence in this car of how the American auto industry struggled to comply with safety and emissions standards while keeping some of its designed-in pride. The sloping front isn’t just ugly, it’s an attempt by Pontiac stylists to integrate the incongruous and federally-mandated 5-mph bumpers into a cohesive and sporty whole. In addition, it also represents the beginning of the designers’ campaign to legitimize their feild, as federal safety and fuel economy standards threatened to make all cars look the same. For example, the idea was that genuine struggle for improved fuel economy demanded improvements not only in drivetrain efficiency, but also in the aerodynamics of a car. The generally accepted understanding of styling within the car industry was that it was purely for aesthetics and that the once-free hand of styling would have to bow out in the name of the rational, masculine, scientific pursuit of aerodynamics that was necessitated by federal regulations. There was a definite sense of styling vs. safety, especially after the public acceptance of Nader’s criticisms of Unsafe at Any Speed.
So design teams attempted to claim both the aesthetic and functional sides of the argument for themselves, and this 1974 Firebird represents the first year that such a synthesis was attempted on Pontiac’s production cars. The ugly nose we see here is a stylistic approach to incorporate aerodynamics (the smoothed, sloping shape), safety (the top of the hood blends in to the what-would-be jutting extended bumper), and “design” (apparently, people thought this would look attractive! Who woulda guessed?).
Would this car be, despite all of its fascinating details, utterly embarrassing to own? Is it too much of an ironic hipstermobile? Assuming you don’t have a mullet or false teeth, can you own this car and not look like a tool? Can anyone own this car without looking like I tool? I hope so. Moreover, I hope that someday I can pick one of these things up for cheap and ride off into the sunset in my expansive, bucolic, Western dreamscape.
All of my information on struggles for stylistic legitimacy in the 1970s came from the thorough, Marxist volume:
Gartman, David. Auto Opium: a social history of American automobile design. London; New York: Routledge, 1994.
Everything else came from assorted online accounts of GM’s 1970-1981 F-Body (the Camaro and the Firebird). For another take on this car and its context of regulatory drama, see Ate Up With Motor’s article on the contemporary Chevolet Camaro:
or read up on a sense of what later Firebirds were like on Curbside Classics:
Or for the prespective of those who remember fondly uninhibited Detroit designs and scorn federal regulation as a lamentable injustice, look here: