Detroit’s big boys were more than happy to meet the nation’s insatiable appetite. As the years went on, however, their mission to build great cars took a backseat to enhancing their bottom lines. That meant building ever-larger vehicles that changed substantially with each model year. It also meant cutting corners when it came to quality. After all, why sell a family an automobile every six or seven years when you can put them in a new set of wheels in half that time?
By the ’60s, many people knew that Detroit was losing its edge. In his book “Travels with Charley,” John Steinbeck mentions that he chose a new 1960 GMC pickup for a cross-country trek. He says that he did so because America’s automakers still built good trucks, while the same could not be said for their cars.
America went through gut-wrenching changes during the Vietnam decade. But some of the old scars on the national memory were beginning to fade. In particular, animosity against our old foes Germany and Japan was declining. Taking note of this fact, VW began a major push to sell the Beetle in the US. Against all expectations, the little car proved wildly successful.
Watching the German’s success with rapt attention were the Japanese, who had made giant strides in the quality of their automobiles since the 1950s. By 1970, driving a car made in Japan was not only respectable, in many circles it was considered a sign of high intelligence.
That’s where the Datsun 1200 comes into the picture. Introduced to domestic buyers at the beginning of the decade, it offered features like McPherson struts, available disc brakes, and a peppy, trustworthy 1.2-liter engine. Americans fed up with Detroit’s so-so offerings began to take notice.
Then came 1973, the year that everything changed. During that 12 month period, the oil-producing nations of the Middle East imposed an embargo on American shipments. The reaction in the States was catastrophic. Gas prices shot through the roof, motorists waited in station lines for hours, and in some cases people were shot dead for fuel.
For buyers at the time, those facts were all that mattered. The Datsun 1200 became the most powerful vehicle in the country virtually overnight, rivaled only by the VW Beetle and Toyota Corolla. The Big Three had lost their grip on the domestic car industry, and things would never be the same.