Happy 50th: The five best new cars of 1972


Rob Margeit


The year is 1972 and Richard Nixon is in a spot of Watergate bother. David Bowie releases his seminal album Ziggy Stardust and the Spider From Mars, the world’s first pocket calculator goes on sale, and Vesna Vulovic survives a 10,160 metre fall from an aeroplane without a parachute – a world record – following an explosion that ripped through JAT Flight 367. She was the sole survivor.

Nolan Bushnell started Atari with the aim of bringing video gaming to the home but was beaten to market by the $100 Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first commercially-available home video game console.

In Sweden Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad started ABBA while in Washington notorious future serial killer Ted Bundy was unironically appointed to the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Committee.

And American food brand Doritos, never one to rest on its laurels, introduced cheese-flavoured corn chips to its range alongside its existing plain and taco-flavoured little triangles of goodness. They were onto a winner.

In the world of automotive, a slew of new models hit dealerships around the world. From the Alfa Romeo Alfetta to the Volkswagen SP2, the new car calendar of 1972 gave rise to some of the most enduring models in the history of the motor car, some of which are still in production today. Here then, is our pick of the Class of 1972.

The Paul Bracq-designed 5 Series heralded the revitalisation of BMW, the Bavarian brand still riding the coattails of the successful Neue Klasse range of cars that saved it from bankruptcy.

Designed to slot in between the smaller BMW 2002 and the larger BMW E3 range of sedans the first 5 Series helped define the mid-size executive saloon segment. Initial European only models featured either an 85kW carburetted 2.0-litre M10 inline four (BMW 520) or a more powerful 96kW fuel-injected version of the M10 inline-four (520i).

By the end of the decade, the engine range had grown to include inline-sixes while in 1980, the M535i and its 160kW 3.5-litre inline six became the first M-badged 5 Series.

The 5 Series, has through seven generations, become on the most iconic nameplates in automotive history. It remains BMW’s second-best selling model behind the 3 Series. In 2008, the five millionth 5 Series rolled off the production line, a Carbon Black diesel powered 530d.

The mid-sizer was the first BMW to be given the ‘Series’ moniker while the ‘5’ refers the model’s position as the fifth Neue Klasse BMW.

It only enjoyed a brief production run (March 1972 to September 1973), but the Ford XA Falcon was a significant car for the local arm of the Blue Oval.

After 20 years of borrowing from Ford’s American design book for our own locally-built Falcon (XK through XY), the XA earned the distinction of being the first Australian-designed Falcon (although Jack Telnack, the chief designer of Ford Australia at the time was an American).

With a choice of six- and eight-cylinder engines, the XA Falcon range included the full gamut. Four-door sedan? Of course. Family-friendly station wagon? Yep. Tradie-spec ute? Yup. Delivery special panel van? Tick.

But, the hero of the XA Falcon range then, and arguably still, was the two-door coupe, somewhat quizzically dubbed by the factory ‘Hardtop’. In its most potent form, the XA Hardtop was fitted with Ford’s hero 351ci (5766cc) V8 making 224kW.

Despite enjoying a short 18-month production run before being replaced by the XB Falcon, some 129,473 XAs rolled off the Blue Oval’s local production line.

The Ford Falcon remained in continuous production through seven generations, enjoying a 57-year run that only ended in 2016 when Ford Australia closed its local production facilities. That earns the Falcon a place on the list of the world’s most enduring nameplates as well as the distinction of Australia’s longest-running nameplate, a record that will now never be broken.

“It’ll get you where you’re going”. So said Honda’s original marketing slogan for its new Honda Civic when it launched the compact car onto the market in 1972. Honda’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

With the oil crisis of 1973 in full swing, new car buyers were eschewing big, thirsty fuel-guzzling cars in favour of smaller, more efficient vehicles. In the Civic, Honda had ready-made solution.

With its transversely-mounted 1169cc four-cylinder CVCC (Convex Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine that could run either leaded or unleaded fuel – and which would go on to meet 1975 Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards – the Civic quickly earned a reputation as small, reliable and fuel-efficient car.

It was an export hit, the first for Honda, and helped establish the Japanese brand globally.


Now in its 11th generation, the Civic has grown in stature while racking up in excess of 27 million sales in the intervening fifty years. Only Volkswagen’s Golf, Ford’s F-Series truck and the Toyota Corolla have enjoyed greater sales success.

The three-pointed star’s Sonderklasse (special class) flagship existed before the advent of the ‘S-Class’. But the W116 generation Mercedes-Benz, introduced in 1972, was the first to wear official ‘S-Class’ designation, setting a standard that has continued through seven generations and 50 years of production, design and technological innovation.

Pioneering technologies under the skin of the imposing W116-gen S-Class included electronic anti-lock brakes, and a reinforced passenger cell with crumple zones.

Engine choices ranged from Merc’s 2.8-litre inline six to the heroic 6.8-litre V8 found under the bonnet of the Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9. With 210kW and a generous 550Nm, the 450 SEL 6.9 has since gone on to attain ‘legend’ status and remains a much-sought after classic today.


In all, 473,035 W116 S-Classes rolled off the Sindelfingen production line between 1972-79, replaced by the W126 generation which, thanks to its 12-year life cycle and production run totalling almost 900,000 cars, remains ubiquitous to this day.

The Renault 5 story begins in 1967 when Pierre Dreyfus, Renault boss at the time, tasked his engineering team with coming up with a small car that would appeal to the masses, in his words “a car for all seasons, for holidays and for work, for weekdays and for weekends, for town and for country”.

A young Renault designer, Michel Boue, had heard of Dreyfus’ vision – codenamed Projet 122 – and although he wasn’t involved  in the project, decided to put pen to paper anyway. In his own time. At night.

Renault management was soon across Boue’s design and overjoyed with the Frenchman’s vision, pushed what would become the Renault 5 into development.

The result was one of the first super minis, and tellingly, one of the first proper hatchbacks, a style already patented by Renault in 1965 with its R16.

It was an immediate success and by the time production of the first generation wound down 12 years later in 1984, some 5.5 million Renault 5s had been produced including the deplorably named U.S. export version, Renault Le Car.

A second-gen Renault 5 launched in 1984 and remained in production until 1996. But the competition had caught on to the appeal and charm of super minis and Reggie’s faced stiff competition for its new ‘5’, now called Supercinq (Super Five), most notably from crosstown rivals Peugeot (205)./

Sadly, Boue never got to witness the impact of his side project creation, the young designer succumbing to cancer in 1972, just months after the launch of the Renault 5.

Rob Margeit

Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.

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