1969: Crisis? What Crisis?


1969 was a critical moment in the history of the American and British car industries: it was the beginning of the end. Both were about to endure a pretty horrible 1970s; within a few years there would be virtually nothing left of the home-owned British car industry, and while the US carmakers would survive and sporadically prosper in the future, they would never be as dominant and confident as they were in ’69.

I don’t mean to trivialize the Vietnam War but it’s tempting to compare what was happening there with what was happening in the car world. In both cases, an over-fed, over-manned, over-confident West faced a modest, adaptable, nimble, clever Asian foe able to get by on a bowl of rice each day. Just as the North would win in Vietnam, the Japanese would take advantage of the coming recessions and oil crises to rout the complacent American and British carmakers in their home markets and the new ones that were springing up around the world.

But like all empires, they went out with a party. In America, 1969 was all about the muscle car. Just a year later, the Clean Air Act would kill them stone-dead. But in ’69, you could still buy a Plymouth Barracuda or Superbird, or a Chevelle SS454 or an AMC Rebel ‘The Machine’, all introduced in ’69 for the 1970 model year.

You love muscle cars. You might not think you do, but you just haven’t yet stared slack-jawed at the vast wing on the back of a Superbird, or into the ultra-clean, chrome and body-colour engine bay of a custom. You haven’t seen their candy-coloured paintjobs looking perfect in Californian sunshine. You haven’t smelt the sickly-sweet unburnt petrol, old vinyl and car wax, or heard the lazy whump-whump-whump of a seven-litre V8 that can’t be bothered to make more than 400 horsepower. These things are the inbred, mutated spawn of an utterly isolationist car culture that just didn’t care what the Europeans or Japanese were doing. But their self-confidence makes them instantly, impulsively covetable.

And in possibly the single coolest act in the history of the car industry, Chrysler somehow got over the rule-by-committee that usually cripples creativity in a big corporation and offered those muscle cars in colours called Sub-Lime, Go Mango, Panther Pink and Plum Crazy. The guys at Ford thought this was a great idea, so they loosened their Mad-Men-style tightly-knotted skinny ties, lit a massive doobie and came up with some colour names that were even better. Bring ‘Em Back Olive was probably a thinly-veiled reference to Vietnam, Anti-Establish Mint described the political mood, Original Cinnamon reflected what everyone was up to and Freudian Gilt probably over-estimated the intelligence of the average muscle car buyer. Hulla Blue, History Onyx and Good Clean Fawn were just funny.

Of course, if you really were part of the counter-culture you probably didn’t care much about cars, unless you were into the nascent environmental movement and had a vague idea that a 7-litre V8 wasn’t good for, like, the air, or something, or had no other way to get to Woodstock or Altamont. Probably couldn’t afford them either, unless you were a Beatle.

By 1969 John Lennon had finished work on the Rolls-Royce Phantom V – also used as transport by the Queen – which he’d bought three years earlier. He added a double bed, a thumping sound-system with loudhailer, and finally a gyspy-caravan-meets-mescaline paintjob by Dutch art collective The Fool. A year later, the Beatles would split and John and Yoko would ship the Rolls to New York, but in 1969 it was still a regular sight on London streets.

But the Beatles’ other car choices reflected the classness of the time. Brian Epstein had bought them each a Mini Cooper S. George Harrison painted his with mystical Indian scenes, and he, John, Cynthia and Patti Boyd are reported to have folded themselves into its tiny cabin to take their first acid trip.

The Italians weren’t much concerned with the counter-culture, and were just taking advantage of the relative economic prosperity to produce some of their most seductive supercars and GTs. Ferrari and Lamborghini were in full flow – the Miura was unquestionably the star – and they were briefly joined by super-exotic marques like Iso and the Swiss-based Monteverdi. ’69 driving Italian-style is perfectly encapsulated in the opening scenes of The Italian Job, released that year, in which Beckermann in his big shades and driving gloves pilots an orange Miura over the St. Bernard Pass, managing somehow to light a (conventional) cigarette as he tackles the Alpine hairpins. The reality of ’69 Italian motoring was rather different: an unreliable Fiat 124, with premature rust.

The Italian Job made heroes of its British star cars; not just the Minis, but the E-Types, a Land Rover, an Aston-Martin DB4 and a Bedford coach too. It ought to have launched a colossal export drive; plainly, the British car industry could do sexy, fast, clever, tough and affordable too. But another film – this year’s Made in Dagenham, set a year earlier in 1968 – shows why it didn’t happen. The film captures the atmosphere of a sixties car plant perfectly; all brown overcoats, roll-ups, tea breaks and sexism. The boxy MkII Cortina gets a starring role. It tells the story of the walkout by 150 women employed by Ford to stitch Cortina seats when they were reclassified as unskilled labour and denied the better pay of the men – often their husbands – who assembled the cars’ oily bits with varying degrees of success at the main plant across the road.

The Ford strike of 1968 was different to the walk-outs led by the infamous Red Robbo at Longbridge in the ‘70s. It wasn’t directed specifically at the mismanagement of the car industry but was inspired by the general principle of equal pay, and led, admirably, to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. But it marked the start of a decade of industrial action that, together with that mismanagement, some terrible products and terrifying new competition from Japan and Germany, effectively killed the British-owned car industry. As the Dagenham women walked out, Britain was making more cars than ever; peak production actually came in 1972 with a slightly freakish 1.9 million. Less than a decade later that figure had halved.

But in 1969, nobody really knew what was coming. Cars reflect their times. The times were good.