Passenger pigeons were the most common bird found in North America. So common that flocks numbering 2 billion were up to a mile wide and 300 miles long. In other words, the average North American in the 18th and 19th Century saw a lot of these pigeons. You could easily argue that a passenger pigeon sighting in 1812 was something on the same scale today as seeing mind-numbing crap on TV. Not a particularly noteworthy or unique experience. So what took the passenger pigeon down? It was a combination of things but the biggest factor was that these pigeons tasted pretty good (a lot like chicken) and they were plentiful-hence a cheap source of food.bThey were wiped out at the pace of millions per year, so the last documented passenger pigeon named Martha died on September 1st 1914. In other words, something the average American had seen every day was extinct in a matter of a few decades. Quick extinction of a very common species is not a phenomenon exclusive to Mother Nature because cars can disappear overnight too. Here are a few that will soon be joining that “whatever happened to…” list.
The 1971 Chevrolet Vega-this car had the best press in the world because GM orchestrated a brilliant pre-introduction PR campaign. They kept dropping hints about the car to an extremely curious press but never really leaked any substantial information. Then, when the Vega was unveiled, it really captured the imagination of the auto world. It had a sporty European look, disc brakes, coils all around and an exotic aluminum engine.
It was Motor Trend ‘Car of the Year’ in 1971 and was picked as Reader’s Choice ‘Economy Car of the Year’ at Car and Driver. They sold 277,000 of these 1st year econo- boxes and it was a great moment for Chevy-until the reviews came in after 20-30,000 miles. GM cheaped out on the aluminum engine and used cast iron heads so the bond was never really good between head and block. Vegas became instant oil burners and to be honest, they also cheaped out on the build and material quality.
The net result was the cars sucked mechanically and in build quality, they were cheap and disposable and they disappointed a lot of owners in 1971. They were as common as dirt in the early 70s but try and find a stock, mint condition 1971 Vega in 2009. It would have to be stored in a vacuum sealed garage with 2 miles on the dial.
1972 Dodge D100 pickup-these were actually a pretty decent looking departure from the boxy D 100 look that Dodge leaned on from 1961-71. In fact, the cosmetics compared favorably in some ways to the legendary 1972 Chevy C10 plus Chrysler trumped the competition by introducing the Club Cab-the first entry into more space in a pickup.
The problem was that Chevy was at the end of the run for its design from 67-72 and the 1973 GM set the bar for design in 1970s trucks. In 72, Dodge had a nice looking truck with decent appointments but it was stuck in the 60s design that GM had just left behind.
Dodge also had some serious rust issues with these trucks around the wheel wells and the government mandated smog crap was a disaster for Mopar engines. They just hated damp and cold conditions and that automatic choke problem was a big problem for anything with a pentastar on it for most of the 70s.
They sold 100,000 of these trucks but try and find a 72 Dodge truck at a show. Worse, if you want to be cruel, count the number of 72 Chevys at the same show. Dodge trucks were just that-trucks. So they lived a fairly short, beat the hell out of me, unglamorous life as a workhorse then disappeared off the face of the earth.
Because of this horrible abuse, the AT&T, or highway maintenance 72 Dodge fleet trucks that were so common in the 70s were used up and became a part of automotive history by the time Ronnie Reagan took the oath of office. They didn’t even save the 1972 Dodge call truck from the TV show Emergency.
1973 Plymouth Fury-This was the workhorse of cars back in 1973. They were a natural taxicab with great interior room and, if you were falling down drunk and didn’t take a cab home, they also made great police cars. Either way you got the roomy back seat. 1973 Furys were all over the place. They were unglamorous working vehicles and the closest they came to looking sporty was when Dad ordered a station wagon with the fake wood on the side.
The Arab oil embargo sounded the death knell for these giant cars- nobody outside of police agencies saw any value in these big Furys and the styling was getting old. They had some rust issues but no more than average. The quirky “I hate cold, wet weather” carb was probably their biggest mechanical liability.
They were just too big and outdated at the wrong time so even though Chrysler sold 288,000 of these 4-wheeled Clydesdales, they are a heartbeat away from the passenger pigeon Hall of Fame. Vintage NYPD police car collectors are the only guys with even a remote interest in these cars that used to jam up every urban street in North America.
1974 Honda Civic-The Civic was the answer to the problem that 73 Furys couldn’t solve-they were fun, ran great and most of all they were lethal to the efforts of OPEC to hold a world hostage to oil prices. The Civics looked contemporary-even cutting edge in style so they clearly said “welcome to the 70s” to buyers. They pulled down 40 MPG, had decent power and, with the addition of the CVCC motor and a 5 speed, gave the little Civic some real sportiness. Sales topped 100,000 in 1974.
They ran like Swiss watches, quickly establishing early Honda engine reliability as a constant but they had one fatal flaw. In their rush to save weight, Honda put some pretty thin metal in the Civic-the result was disastrous for the future of these mid-70s icons. Most owners really enjoyed their Civics but the concept of a long-term relationship for the tragically rusty Civic was, at best, a dream for anybody living outside the non humid- no rainfall Death Valley zip code.
1977 Toyota Celica-Most people liked to call the lift back version of this car the Japanese Mustang and the term fit. This was a good-looking little car and, even though those back seats made a Mustang fastback back seat feel like a limousine ride, the Celica was a winner in every way. The 20 R engine was evolved from earlier engines and it was indestructible, economical, reliable and it had decent power and great economy. These cars sold like crazy from the start-1.5 million from 1970-77. They were found everywhere as North Americans became more familiar with the positives of these imports. They appealed to younger buyers and like the Civic, their timing was great during the soaring gas price era of the mid-70s.
The Celica was taken down by some of the same issues as the Civic. The light metal wasn’t great so these cars practically disintegrated over 2 or 3 North American winters. Heat was also a bit of an issue in northern climates for Celicas-they had trouble keeping up with the demands of a real winter and drivers often looked through frosty windows as part of a Celica cold weather experience. Interiors weren’t really big enough for super-sized Americans either and seats didn’t hold up well with 200 pounders.
Like the Civic, the Celica established Toyota as a player in car building and as we all know, they cured most of the rust and interior space issues. But it didn’t stop these cars that were once so common, from becoming a member of the Passenger Pigeon Hall of Fame.
In almost every example these were above average vehicles in many ways and they covered city streets in the 70s like a flock of passenger pigeons.
But like those unlucky birds, we’re down to the “Marthas” of 1971 Vegas, 72 Dodge pickups, 73 Plymouth Furys, 74 Honda Civics and 1977 Toyota Celicas.
For more of Jerry Sutherland’s work go to mystarcollectorcar.com