After the large V8s and bulky shapes of the 1960s, times got tougher for automakers. The market got more competitive and challenges like safety concerns and fuel shortages drove manufacturers to think harder about what cars should be like. It was a complicated process, but Peter Wherrett is here to coach us through it.
The Peter Wherrett Files is our exploration of a bygone era in automotive journalism, a time when television was new, the cars were often bad, and the threads were always stylish.
By 1979, the conditions that had shaped the decade’s impact on the auto industry had largely done their work and it was time for a recap. Wherrett, who had moved on from Torque, which had largely featured car reviews, to Marque, a motoring show with a wider focus, was in a position to provide just that, and he dedicated this half-hour to the topic.
Wherrett decides to focus his attention on a few basic changes that took place during the decade, starting with the safety issues brought forth by Ralph Nader. Wherrett was clearly impressed by Nader’s consumer advocacy and mentions him a number of times as he outlines the innovations in safety pioneered by Volvo, Saab and other European manufacturers.
After that, Wherrett turns his attention to the rise of Japanese automakers, a topic that he would continue to explore later on in his career. Wherrett attributes the success of these brands in the late ‘60s and ‘70s to their combination of conventional front-engined, rear-wheel-drive designs with a far smaller footprint and price, giving buyers the option of a Volkswagen-sized car without the quirks and outdated packaging.
Finally, Peter explores the state of sports cars at the end of the decade. He hasn’t got many nice things to say about late MGs, and he’s worried that Lotus has lost its way with the then-new Esprit. On the other hand, Wherrett is excited to share with his viewers that Morgan was still at it in 1979. Even back then their offerings were positively ancient compared to the competition and that gave Wherrett reason for pause. If Morgan was on such worryingly shaky ground, would anyone keep up the mantle for enthusiast car design?
Luckily, Wherrett’s concern was unfounded and Morgan lives on. Aside from that, I have to say that I am very impressed with the depth of his industry analysis. His knowledge is deep and he is unafraid to bring up complex concepts that likely wouldn’t make the cut on certain newer car shows.
Additionally, by this point in his career, Wherrett has refined his style considerably. Shorter cuts give him the ability to polish his delivery over multiple takes and the camera work is far more advanced than his earlier work. It makes the piece a lot more watchable than some of Wherrett’s reviews, I think.
Regardless of advances in production, Wherrett is still at it with his wardrobe. The man always had a sense of style on camera and this film is no different. The man has never met a sport coat or an over-sized cap he didn’t like. Maybe he should have done a film on how the 1970s changed clothing design too.