In the 90s, cars from the 70s and 60s were seen as classic, but in 2022 cars from the 90s or 2000s can still be seen in daily use, and in terms of body design, many don’t even look that far off modern cars. What happened around the late 80s?


Edit: great responses, Reddit. People have largely addressed the form factor aspect of my question. But am I wrong in sensing that cars from the late 90s seem to be more reliable and functionally acceptable in 2022, than most cars from the 70s were in the 90s? Was there some engineering breakthrough that made them more long lived?

In: 91

Globalization happened around the late 80s. That gave us a homogenization of products, and more importantly, it crushed the marketing strategy which had been followed by the “big 3” from the 50s to the late 70s, which focused on stylistic change instead of technical innovation. That had given us the large change in styles over that period, but the cars were easily out-competed by the foreign manufacturers to which globalization exposed north american consumers. So the big 3 culled their lines, dropping things like pontiac and oldsmobile which were essentially just separate style lines, as styles converged on more functional and aerodynamic designs.

Late 80s still looks pretty dated, the styling shift you’re talking mostly happened in the mid 90s.

What happened is three things converged: fuel economy, unibody construction, and company consolidation.

Post the fuel crisis of the 70s (and the rise of the must more economical Japanese models in the 80s), a number of jurisdictions put in fuel economy requirements and consumer sentiment shifted much more towards fuel economy. Among other things, that drives you to going to lower drag bodies, and since everyone is working with the same physics that tends to drive body styles together.

Up through the 70s, a lot of cars were build like trucks…ladder frame with a non-structural body riding on top. Among other things, that means your body styling could really be done independently of what the car had to to structurally. Unibody is when the car is basically a shell, the body is part of the structures. This means, especially as you have to meet more and more stringent crashworthiness standards, shapes start to converge too.

And, more into the 2000s, auto makers started to consolidate. This is when you got the giant groups (VW Group, Fiat/Chrysler, the rebooted GM), who mostly went to “platform designs”…the same underlying architecture is usually behind a *really* wide range of cars across brands. That tends to drive a lot of their major look together.

This isn’t from an expert, by any means, but I started driving in 1990, if that helps. I’m going to say “Japanese Cars.”

When people think about classic cars from the 50’s-70’s, at least in North America, they’re all American-made cars. In 1980, my mom got a Mazda RX-7, and the sporty, affordable cars tended to be Japanese. American cars were boxy and clunky (do a Google Images search on 80s K Car). As the 80’s went on, foreign cars had new and interesting designs, and it took awhile for the US automakers to catch up. In fact one of my early cars was a Saturn SL1. If you see what early 90’s Saturns looked like, they were 4-door versions of previous 2-door Japanese cars (very much like Mazda RX-7’s but with 4 doors).

tl;dr – sporty design and lower prices from foreign cars.

TLDR: The 70s Gas crisis and Climate Change

In 1973 the OPEC nations started an oil embargo on the US and other nations that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war.

This caused fuel prices to skyrocket, and there were shortages throughout the US for a time.

The embargo lasted till March 1974 when it was negotiated away, but had long lasting economic effects. Americans no longer had *Cheap gas*.

Gas guzzling Detroit made *classic* cars were suddenly out of fashion and demand for fuel efficient European style small cars suddenly increased in the US market.

Japanese manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, and Datsun (Nissan) benefited greatly from this and their increased market share started to eat away at domestic manufacturers (GM, Ford, Chrysler).

Throughout the 80s environmental concerns rose and laws were passed to force manufacturers to make more efficient cars which essentially forced manufacturers to adopt smaller engines, lighter bodies, catalytic converters, and electronic engine management.

Manufacturers also switched to unibody construction for cars, where as previous cars were built like truck with a body ontop of a chassis, modern cars don’t have a frame anymore with the strength coming from the body panels themselves.

Aerodynamics became more and more important and the body shapes of cars all started to look similar because it became about aero efficiency, not style.

Not all cars from 20-30 years ago are classics. Most are considered scrap but a few are classics that is worth preserving. That is how it was in the 80s as well. Lots of cars from the 60s and 70s were in daily use in the 80s and ended up as scrap when they were no longer economical to repair. You do not see many 70s Oldsmobile station wagons being preserved for example.

But there have been changes. Firstly the early 70s saw an oil crisis where the price of fuel increased a lot. That meant that fuel mileage became a major selling point and everyone made the cars streamlined and small. Most of the cool looking designs sticking out of the car and sharp lines would be killed in the wind tunnel testing before the car was released. If you put two very different car designs in the wind tunnel to make them as aerodynamic as possible they will end up looking the same by the end of it. The second change was safety standards. That ruined any remaining sharp lines as they were not safe for pedestrians. And a lot of the space for cool looking design like the front of the grille ended up being needed for crumple zones. So again the cars ended up looking more and more alike.

There are still some classics remaining. But a lot of them are not classics due to their looks but rather their mechanical design or pedigree.