Historiography: The Malaise Era

Merriam-Webster defines the word "malaise" as follows:

1: an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness

2: a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being

In the automotive context, the word "malaise" recognizes these definitions but uses them to describe an era of decline in engineering, design, and execution. In America, the "malaise" era described a period where the industry acquiesced to new Federal standards in emissions controls and vehicular safety, several engineering-based measurements by the Society of Automotive Engineers, and a challenge by oil producers outside these shores regarding access to petroleum products.

These themes should be familiar to you – as they often appear in the Historiography column. I am all too familiar with these issues, as I lived through them as a young person. What transpired since 1972 would set the tone of a time where my interest in the automobile would blossom amid the challenges by external forces to contain the industry towards a dervish of events that almost sent it packing into oblivion.

And, yet, out of this era came triumphs – small victories, at first – that lead to the roaring comeback of a corrected industry. Not to mention how the era would affect other places around the globe thanks to the gravitational pull of the then-largest automotive marketplace on the planet.

The Malaise Era prepared me for getting my driver's license, fueled my interest in the subject matter that you are reading on this site, and exposed me to many machinations of the automobile, manifesting in various micro-movements enjoyed by plenty of enthusiasts worldwide.

All Ford Show - Apple Valley

The boundaries of this era began when the USA's Federal government implemented a plethora of policies, standards, and measured designed to ensure automotive sustainability. The Environmental Protection Agency asked the automotive industry to cut emissions substantially in order to reduce pollution across the country. From EGR valves to catalytic converters, the rush to reduce exhaust emissions was forced upon an industry that was content with how the way things were for decades.

Then came the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They also asked the industry to design automobiles with bumpers that would take a frontal impact at 5 MPH without damaging the vehicle any further in a collision. That would lead to engineering safety throughout the vehicle from crumple zones to a combined three-point safety belt, and, eventually, to airbags.

Perhaps the biggest change in the automotive industry came from within, The Society of Automotive Engineers reset the standards on how engine performance was measured. Pressures from outside of the automotive industry created a rethink towards measuring horsepower by a net figure as a new standard. A mighty V8 would be measured at 300 horsepower in 1970 would find itself measured at 225 (or below) by 1972. This was not a mathematics problem since the new standards imposed by the government forced the mighty V8 towards being less powerful physically. In other words, you felt the loss in power when comparing the same engine from a 1970 model year car to a 1972 one.

Some would say that the year 1972 marked the end of automotive innocence. I agree. What we knew about the American automobile – and other foreign vehicles – would change in rapid succession. It would remain in this state of confusion, correction, and derision for the next couple of decades.

Back To The 80s

When we see the series of unfortunate events that would take place in the global automotive industry starting from 1972, there are those who actually give it a nostalgic lens. There are enthusiasts who actually celebrate this era. They look at the word "malaise" and turn it into a "term of endearment" To those enthusiasts, there is a place for you at the table – alongside the hot rodders, sports compact hoons, the supercar lovers, and so forth.

In my way of thinking, I found this twist in the plot worth celebrating. After all, this was my era. I remember what my parents drove, then my brother, up until I got my California driver's license in 1980. It was this series of events that laid down the foundation of a deeper understanding of the machinations of the automobile and the industry. If it weren't for the Malaise era, you would not be reading this work.

Maybe it helped to honor this era by bearing witness to those unfortunate events. The effects of the OPEC Oil Crisis that lead to gasoline rationing. Seeing my mom having to fuel up on the days that corresponded to the last numeral digit of her license plate. Noticing the drop in quality of certain vehicles throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. Following Chrysler's attempt to avert financial collapse and the overtures towards Federally guaranteed loans to save it. Then, seeing the resurrection of Chrysler under Lee Iacocca and the K-Car platform.

This lead to the resurrection of Ford by implementing a new design philosophy through aerodynamics that would change the domestic industry. All of this, while fending off the Japanese from taking over the American market, ushering Hyundai and Yugo under everyone's radar.

WOI 2011 15

I also witnessed the decline of the European automobile in this country. British Leyland had not been successful as a government-run enterprise comprising of many moving parts that never worked together. Labor strife and poor management had eventually reached our shores with automobiles that were losing favor in this market. Not to mention being forced to meet Federal standards on safety and emissions through their half-hearted execution.

During this era, we would see the exit of Fiat, Lancia, Peugeot, MG, Triumph, Rover, and Citroen from the USA market. Only Fiat would return here through another rescue of Chrysler.

Yet, this era saw some changes to our marketplace. Mercedes-Benz became the preferred luxury brand over Cadillac starting with the W116 S-Class. BMW and Audi would follow suit with vastly improving vehicles for their discriminating clientele. Lincoln had a run as the leading luxury car in the USA. In all, the mighty "Standard of The World" began to fall.

New nameplates would arrive during the Malaise era. Aside from Hyundai and Yugo, we were introduced to Mitsubishi’s own branded products, as well as Isuzu and Suzuki. Daihatsu arrived here for a brief spell. Towards the end of the era, Kia would emerge with their own products.

American automobile production would grow thanks to facilities run by Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Subaru, Isuzu, and Mitsubishi also had production facilities pop up during this era through joint ventures across the USA. Up in Canada, Suzuki, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota would also establish production activities, as well.

AMC Spirit

This would be the era when Renault saved American Motors. Not only did we receive Wisconsin-made Renaults, Jeep began to skyrocket as one of the most desirable brands in this country – if not the world.

There was plenty of activity that denoted the Malaise era. All of which changed the North American market through to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. As derided as a term where there was government intervention, an oil crisis, a lesser emphasis on build quality, reliability, and design, there is a movement to raise the profile of this era as one where there is an appreciation for it.

It is reflected in a generational shift. Those of us who bought these Malaise era vehicles new are the ones celebrating them. This is our nostalgia. We look at the vehicles from the pre-World War II era and the immediate post-World War II era and feel a lesser attachment to them. Something from 1972 to 1995 was more tangible, offer immediate memories – good and bad – and, you can still afford to repair them than older classics and vintage vehicles.

My personal path through the era helps to understand the growing appeal of these vehicles. I remember walking through auto shows and showrooms as they appear in a tangible form. Driving them added another dimension to understand the nuances of these vehicles. You knew the visual differences between the domestics and foreign models, but you went deeper into how they drove, how easy or hard they were to operate, and how comfortable to drive or not.

This is really a jump off of a series of articles based on topics around this era. I plan to offer newer perspectives on the vehicles and stories within the Malaise Era. I have covered a few of them already on here – just go to the Categories drop down on the right and select Historiography for those articles.

This is my nostalgia. It may be yours, too. Let's remember those times together.

All photos by Randy Stern

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  1. Very nicely written.. Having been born in the era, I always look at cars from the period and own 3 of them.

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