A Guide to 1978 Cars

From Dodge’s little-known Li’l Red Express to the bucking Ford Bronco, these are the best 1978 cars.
Written by Maxine Boyko
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
We name the Ford Fairmont the best car of 1978, but this certainly wasn't an easy call.
1978 was a bit of a wash for much of the auto industry, with strict emissions regulations clamping down on heritage manufacturing processes. Even so, brands like Cadillac and Porsche quickly adapted and managed to produce some impressive vehicles.
In this article, we'll present our compilation of 1978’s best cars. Now sit back and enjoy the ride.

The best cars of 1978

1978 may not be at the forefront of anyone’s mind when they think of the best cars in history, but in the words of Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again—this time more intelligently.”
Despite a crackdown on emissions during this time, many auto manufacturers saw the challenge as an opportunity to innovate. And so they did, with sedans, sports cars, pickups, and even one of the first commercially available (and supremely successful) SUVs.

The best car of 1978: Ford Fairmont

NADA Guides value: $3,744
Powertrain: 2.3 L I4 with four-speed manual transmission
What makes it special: 
The Ford Fairmont succeeded the
Ford Maverick
and introduced Ford's third generation of compact sedans sold in North America. The Fairmont was also the first design that was no longer based on the Ford Falcon, instead opting for a blend of the Pinto and the Granada (later known as the
Escort
and LTD).
The Fairmont earned the title of “best-selling new car ever introduced”, and it’s easy to see why. For one, the standard drivetrain was also used in the well-known Pinto and Mustang, but now with a variety of other customization options—all the way up to a 5.0-liter V8 automatic with 139 horsepower
In addition to several engine families, the Fairmont came on board with three body configurations: a four-door sedan, a two-door sedan, and a five-door station wagon. Later on in the model year, the Futura, a two-door coupe, was also introduced. 
Overall, the Fairmont not only delivered a wide choice of models but also quickly became valuable to the average American. The futuristic, fuel-efficient, and roomy Fairmont offered 31 MPG highway/20 MPG city, a 193.8-inch cabin, and stylish and generous standard features and design.

The best luxury car of 1978: Cadillac Coupe de Ville

NADA Guides value: $2,050 to $8,050
Powertrain: 7.0 L V8 with three-speed automatic transmission
What makes it special: 
Cadillac
was considered the gold standard for luxury vehicles in the 1970s, and the fifth-generation
Coupe de Ville
was lauded as “America’s Favorite Luxury Car.” Just one year prior was Cadillac’s 75th anniversary, which ushered in a massive downsizing of the de Ville sedans and coupes. Subsequently, Cadillac introduced new, luxurious features to the market.
A big reason Cadillac decided to retool the 1977 Coupe de Ville was to improve fuel economy and emissions regulations brought about by the U.S. federal government during that time. The engine was downsized to a smooth 180-horsepower, 425-cubic-inch V8. The body was 4 inches narrower, 9 inches shorter, and a half-ton lighter than the year prior, but the car ironically provided more trunk space, headroom, and legroom
The 1978 model featured a new grille, a hood ornament, and vertical tail lamp insets that became a design mainstay for 16 years.
Customers could also add on the $1,929 Phaeton package, which offered a simulated convertible top, leather upholstered seats, and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. The package was available in several colors, making the de Ville all the more personal and luxurious.

The best SUV of 1978: Ford Bronco

NADA Guides value: $14,750 to $63,100
Powertrain: 5.8 L or 5.4 L V8 with either four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission
What makes it special: 
The SUVs we know today weren’t quite available on the market until the 1980s. That said, the 1978
Ford Bronco
played a big part in getting the agricultural truck to cross over into daily driver territory. This paved the way for SUVs everywhere—eventually including the
Expedition
.
After debuting its second generation in 1978, Bronco sales reached record highs, having revved up in size, toughness, and off-roading features. 1978 offerings included:
  • Part-time four-wheel drive with optional automatic
  • Rear footwell for comfortable seating
  • Four-speed transmission
  • Front quad shocks
  • Front stabilizer bar
It’s no surprise that the ‘78 Bronco swept up a variety of awards and was even touted as the “first four-wheeler that puts it all together.” In addition to incredible key off-roading maneuverability features like approach and departure angles, the full-size SUV also looked the part, coming in a bold assortment of two-tone colors and a rugged body style.

The best family car of 1978: Oldsmobile Cutlass

NADA Guides value: $2,825 to $13,150 (fifth generation four-door sedan)
Powertrain: Standard 3.8 L V6 or a 4.3-5.7 L V8 with five-speed manual transmission
What makes it special: 
The
Oldsmobile Cutlass
was the best-selling vehicle in North America for years—in 1978, the automaker sold a whopping 520,279 of these cars.
That same year, the Cutlass downsized to a shorter wheelbase and turned out lighter than the earlier version. The resulting base engine was the 3.8-liter V6, but customers could also choose larger engines, including two diesel options.
For Oldsmobile, the emissions crackdown resulted in a long line of flexible family vehicles. The Cutlass rode on a modified GM A-Body, available in many configurations including wagons, sedans, and coupes. The well-engineered Cutlass was customizable, comfortable, and affordable—and ultimately a no-brainer for families seeking both practicality and value.

The best sports car of 1978: Porsche 928

NADA Guides value: $11,050 to $23,200
Powertrain: 4.5 L V8 
What makes it special: 
The 1978
Porsche
928 is a luxury sedan/sports car blend that was the automaker’s first production V8-powered model. The water-cooled, front-mounted engine drove the 928’s rear wheels. While this design change alienated many Porsche purists, the 928 became somewhat of an underdog.
The ‘78 two-door coupe was larger and more powerful than the 911. The 928 was rated at 219 horsepower with 268 lb-ft of torque.
To keep things light and improve aerodynamics, the doors, front wings, and bonnet were made from aluminum. The 928’s rear axle arrangement—known as the Weissach axle—was a new development that helps stabilize and reduce oversteer in vehicles. 
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The best truck of 1978: Dodge Li’l Red Express

Average price: $22,355
Powertrain: 360 CI four-barrel small block engine (EH1) with a specially modified 727 automatic transmission
What makes it special: 
With only 2,188 built, the 1978 Li’l Red Express is one of the rarest and most unique pickup trucks
Dodge
ever produced. According to Car and Driver, this model was the fastest American-made production vehicle that year, with a 0-100 mph time of 19.9 seconds.
The Li’l Red Express was powered by an engine called the "360 Express." This was a 5.9-liter V8 engine with 225 horsepower@ 3800 RPM and 295 lb-ft of torque.
The chrome, five-slot disc road wheels were wrapped with Goodyear radial tires. These were just emerging as the standard tire design, still used today for their durability, improved gas mileage, and better steering.
Demand was so high for the Li’l Red Express that Dodge decided to extend production and roll out an additional 5,188 the next year. If you’re interested in purchasing one of these iconic pickup trucks, just know less than half of them remain today—best of luck on your search for this Canyon Red two-year wonder!

What cars came out in 1978? 

The "Malaise Era" describes the 10-year period when U.S. market cars suffered from poor performance. Even so, the industry pressed on through 1978 and churned out several new cars. Here are a few of that year’s best.
Model
Vehicle type
Engine
Value
Notes
BMW M1
Sports car
3.5-L (M88/1) six-cylinder
$416,400 to $922,700
BMW’s first mass-produced mid-engine automobile
Mid-size 2-door coupe
5.2-L V8
$875 to $3,175
Introduced as the more aerodynamic, NASCAR-eligible supplement to the Charger
Ford Fairmont
A-body sedan/wagon/coupe
Standard 2.3-L I4
$475 to $1,325
The best-selling car of the time
Full-size car
4.2-L V8
$725 to $2,150
The last body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered American sedan
Mid-size car
2-L I4
$2,500 to $5,150
A truly unique, high-performance vehicle presented in a small package, with a 12.5-second 0-60 mph time—not bad for 1978
Subaru BRAT
Coupe utility
1.6-L H4
$1,525 to 3,625
Developed in Japan at the request of the Subaru of America president to match demand for small trucks
AMC Concord
Sedan, coupe, hatchback, and station wagon
Standard 3.8-L I6
$16,618
A revision of the Hornet, but more luxurious, quieter, and roomier—and offering a smoother ride
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FAQs

The best-selling car of 1978 was Chevrolet’s
Impala
/
Caprice
. The Oldsmobile Cutlass came in second. The Ford Fairmont earned third place and was titled the “best-selling new car ever introduced.”
As tested by Car and Driver at the time, the fastest American-made vehicle in 1978 was the Dodge Li’l Red Express,with a recorded 0-100 mph time of 19.9 seconds. Two other 1978 vehicles recorded 0-60 mph times of 5.5 seconds: the 1978 Porsche 911 SC and the 1972 Jaguar E-type V-12.
The best-selling car of 1978 was Chevrolet’s
Impala
/
Caprice
. The Oldsmobile Cutlass came in second. The Ford Fairmont earned third place and was titled the “best-selling new car ever introduced.”
As tested by Car and Driver at the time, the fastest American-made vehicle in 1978 was the Dodge Li’l Red Express,with a recorded 0-100 mph time of 19.9 seconds. Two other 1978 vehicles recorded 0-60 mph times of 5.5 seconds: the 1978 Porsche 911 SC and the 1972 Jaguar E-type V-12.
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