Muscle cars – the original-era muscle cars from the ’60s and ’70s – don’t seem to be as popular now as they were when I was in high school and college back in the ’80s. Sure, they’re still highly-desirable collectibles. But they’re mostly desired and collected by middle-aged and older guys.
I have a theory why.
Cost is a factor, of course. Back in the day – back in my day, in the ’80s – a typical teenager/young 20-something could buy one of those old war horses for a couple thousand bucks. I had a friend in high school, for instance, who got himself a ’71 Plymouth GTX 440 for (I still remember this) $2,200 back in 1986. It had some Bondo and the engine needed a ring job – but still. A big-block Mopar for the equivalent of about what a similarly tired Corolla would set you back today.
Today, that car – in the same condition as my friend’s car – would probably fetch no less than $20,000.
Plus we could afford to feed them. I still have the mid-’70s Trans-Am (455) I bought 20 years ago, when I was still in my young 20s and these cars were still within the orbit of affordability for a young 20-something. It only took about $25 to pump the 21 gallon tank full of premium. So it did not matter that the TA drank those 21 gallons like Janis Joplin drank Jack Daniels. Today – with unleaded premium over $4 a gallon in most places – it matters very much. It now takes almost $100 to fill up the TA. The only teens and 20-somethings who can deal with that have last names like Zuckerberg.
So, part of the reason is cost – no doubt.
But there is – there was – something else, too.
New cars once sucked – in a way that is hard to imagine if you weren’t around at the time.
Let me take you on a trip down Bad Memory Lane to the late 1970s/early 1980s. To a time when K-cars ruled – and most factory V-8s (if you could even get a factory V-8) were making less than 200 hp. In fact, 200 hp would have been considered – was considered – “high performance” during my high school era in the early-mid ’80s. The top gun engine in the ’84 Z28 (also used in the Monte Carlo SS of the same period) was the L69 5.0 liter (305) HO – rated at the then-stunning figure of 190 hp, SAE net (less in the Monte).
Only a rarified few topped the 200 hp barrier – and then, just barely. The ’85 Corvette with its Tuned Port Injection 350 offered up 230 hp. This was hot stuff. Well, it was the hottest stuff available – new – back in my day. And keep in mind that most new cars back then – meaning, not L69 Z28s and TPI Corvettes – were little FWD nonentities like the K-car. Now, the K-car (and its fellows) were functional little appliances. They were exceptionally economical (many could hit 40 MPG – better than most new cars today).
Slow in a way that is simply incomprehensible to today’s 20-somethings. Fifteen (or more) seconds to 60. Top speed, all out – maybe 100. And of course, they looked as sad as they ran.
Which made a car like the ’78 Camaro I drove in high school – let alone my friend’s ’71 GTX 440 – seem like Arnold Schwarzennegger next to Pee Wee Herman. Just having five-lug wheels at a time when most new cars had four lug wheels – let alone having a big V-8 (and in the early ’80s, a 350 V-8 was big… a 440 absolutely titanic) was a cut above. Plus, with just a little bit of work, something like my ’78 Camaro could be made powerful enough to mop the proverbial floor with the then-new “performance” cars. I remember in particular one night when I was out with my friend who owned the 440 GTX. We squared off against a brand-new ’84 Corvette. The 375 hp Plymouth made short work of the 210 hp ‘Vette. Imagine how it felt to roll up to a stop light in that fearsome old GTX… and give The Stare to some dude driving a new Omni – or LeCar.
But these days, the GTX’s 375 hp is not-so-much relative to V-6 powered new cars that pump out almost that much. A base model 2013 V-6 Mustang has 305 hp. It can do 0-60 in 5.6 seconds – plenty quick enough to sweat the old 440. The V-8 powered 2013 GT – with 420 hp – runs 0-60 in 4.7 seconds, leaving the old 440 sucking wind and way behind.
But it’s the everyday performance of mass-market – ordinary A to B units – that probably helped dim the shine of the old-school stuff I enjoyed back when I was in school. Today’s equivalent of an early ’80s K-car is a rocket sled relative not just to the K-cars of the early ’80s but also relative to the elite performance cars of that time. A 2013 four-cylinder Camry is capable of getting to 60 in less than eight seconds – which would have been considered scaldingly quick back in 1983. The V-6 powered Camry gets to 60 in about 6.5 seconds – quicker than a stock ’84 Z28 with the “HO” L69 V-8!
And – quick enough to sweat almost any factory-stock muscle car from the late ’60s-early ’70s Golden Era.
The point being: The performance of those old fire-breathers is nothing much by the standards of today’s fire-breathers… by the standards of today’s run-of-the-mill stuff. Who wants a lumpy-cammed, 10 MPG ’60s or ’70s V-8 muscle car when a 30 MPG Camry is quicker – and comes with AC, a great stereo and all the rest of it, too?
Some will, of course. Because there’s style and curb appeal – and just the experience that comes with driving one of these lumpy-cammed, rumbling relics from the era of $1 per gallon gas (and sluggard new cars). I’ll probably never sell my old TA for exactly these reasons. It still gets looks wherever it goes. And I feel great driving it. But I’m under no illusions about its performance capabilities relative to today’s new stuff. And I know that it’ll take a lot more work than it would have circa 1984 to make my TA a dominant – or even competitive – presence (looks aside) on the streets today.
Throw it in the Woods?
I’m 46 and I wasn’t much of a fan of the cars of my teenage years and beyond. My tastes center on automobiles from about the mid fifties through the mid seventies cars from that pique my interest. By the later part of the ’70s automobile designs were becoming very boxy. The ’80s played the boxy styling route to the hilt. Chrysler built some of its worst looking cars ever in the ’80s with an exception of the attractive Dodge Mirada. The K-cars were and always will be those little four wheeled s*** stains that somehow saved the Chrysler Corp. from going under. The only ’80s automobile I’d consider owning is an 80-81 Camaro or Firebird since they still had the beautiful second generation bodies. I never cared much for the wedge shape of the 82-92 F bodies. Although the 93-02 Camaros and Firebirds looked more elegant with their more rounded bodies. As for today’s automobiles, well, there is nothing that GM, Ford and Chrysler builds that I would even remotely desire to own; that applies to most asian makes and european makes expect for some BMW models, Mercedes Benz and Jaguar models. Those companies get it right with style and quality materials. However there is one American car built today that really is beautiful and innovative and that is the Tesla Model S. If money was no object I would consider a Tesla, but money is tight.
I’m with you, Mike!
The last new car I really wanted was the ’95 Cobra R (last of the 351s) Ford let me have for a week…. because that car reminded me of a ’70s muscle car. Not because of how it looked, but because of how it felt and sounded and drove. It had almost nothing but the 351 up front, the Tremec 5-speed at your side… headers ticking under the floorplans. No radio, even. But who needed one in that car?
Muscle cars-I’ve had my share. I am what you would call a Chevy man. When I was 19 I ordered a 1968 SS396 Chevelle,Grotto Blue,4-sp wide-ratio. Now since my father was co-signing,he wouldn’t let me order anything more than the 325hp,or even posi-traction,which was a $5 option.The sticker was $3411 and got it for $2992. Changes were coming and I bought a posi rear end drum to drum for $35 and swapped it in after my buddy and I had a couple of 6-packs.Then Hooker headers,zero lashing the valves,getting it dyno-tuned with a curve kit. I actually turned 13.73 and won my class which was GSO(G stock option)and beat a 1967 440 375hp for the trophy.
Then the U.S Navy-after I bought from my uncle an original 1961 409 car,he pulled the motor and put a Dick Trickle of NASCAR fame L-88,it had 4:56 gears with a wide-ratio 4-sp. Let me tell you,it came out of the hole like a raped ape !! Never had actual times,but I believe it was high 10’s.Next came a ’73 Z28,it was OK.
Then when the cars turned wussy,I got into the 4wd trucks.Then an ’85 tuned port Z28 wussy until I added Nitrous.More trucks,then my uncle unloaded a 1970 SS454 Chevelle LS-5 Red,but auto.It was a beautiful car,very torquey.Then at nearly the same time,I bought from my cousin an original ’63 Biscayne 409,again no 409,but…you guessed it,another L-88. It had 4;10 gears packed into a Ford nine inch,it turned 12:10 ET,it was also a bear.
I’m at the age where I’m sick of working on vehicles. My brother bought a GrandSport Corvette,so… But I had no space,put them on CraigsList and sold both in a week.The I bought a Crystal Red GrandSport Vette. Now I’m telling you,this car is the most awesome car I have ever owned.It corners like a slot car,brakes on a dime and scares the crap out of me when I go thru the gears,6-sp of course. So,I love those old muscle cars,as they were really cool,but my Vette,I wouldn’t trade for my past !
You’ve owned some great cars… and a thought came to mind. I plugged the $2992 you paid for your ’68 SS into an inflation calculator to see what that car cost you in current dollars: $19,887.
This is a measure of what the Fed (via inflation) and Washington (via its mandates) have done to us. For the cost (today) of a FWD economy compact with a few options – something like a Civic or Corolla – you could (in 1968) buy a large, RWD, V-8 powered muscle car.
Be glad you were there…. I wish I had been!
Its just too bad people didn’t see what Ron Paul had to offer,but at the very least,I believe he has awakened many people,especially the young people.
Yeah,I had some cars and enjoyed them to the max and now that I’m retired and have “my” dream car,I can honestly say,it was some party !
Actually, I’ll take the K-Car. I had a Camaro and 2 Trans Ams… big hulking garbage… then I bought a Dodge Aries in late 1980’s… oh, HEAVEN, the cops got off my case, I could fit 5 friends into it and $10 worth of gas lasted a week.
I’ve grown to appreciate cars like the K car also. I test drive new cars every week. When I get something like a Corvette or a new Challenger, I feel as though I have a flashing red light on the hood and a big “Hassle me!” sign taped to the trunk. Use the car at all, and it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught – and crucified. But in a compact economy car or sedan? It’s much easier to drive fast, frequently – and get away with it. You blend in. You don’t call attention to yourself. And if you do get caught, you stand a much better chance of not being nailed to the wall completely.
I drive the same regardless of the car I’m in.
It’s not me. It’s not how I drive.
It’s the car.
I drive faster in my daughters ’99 Ford Escort than I do my T/A just because of the hassle factor. I don’t have as much fun in the Escort though
Me too. I drive the same regardless if it’s my most powerful car, my plain little economy car, or my bicycle. In my little economy car I am invisible and have never been pulled over and followed only once.
The reason they are not as popular now is the price, a free hand me down from the family is cheaper to build than a 40+ year old car that will not only need mechanical but body work, and by the way can cost thousands for the project car to begin with.
I keep tabs on the prices of the old muscle cars – and even the de-tuned, low-performance remnants from the mid-late ’70s cost more than most teens/young 20s can deal with on their own (no help from parents, etc.). The pre-’75 stuff (and ’72 and earlier stuff especially) is forget-about-it expensive, if it’s a real (not cloned) muscle car and in any kind of decent condition.
Gone are the days when you could snap up something like my high school buddy’s 71 GTX 440 for $2,200…
And then, once you have the car, you’re looking at lotsa dollahs for the NOS/repro stuff you’ll need to bring it back into shape.
Classic muscle cars are mostly the playthings of older guys who bought them when they were still cheap – and rich people who can afford them regardless.
I think however, this is a good way for rice lovers to have a support group. They know they really will never compete with the old domestics, so they create opinionated stories about old muscle cars to help them through the inferiority complex they have for building the japanese car that was a hand me down from their grandparents or mother. But hey, Ive seen school buses running sub 10s, anyone can make anything fast, but to have both function and form is almost impossible in an import thats base price is under 80k. Keep beating the dead horses, it is why muscle cars will always be on a plateau that you will always be so jealous of, that you will have to write articles to convince yourself that muscle cars are not just plain cooler than anything you could ever create with your economy imports.
“Cooler” – is completely subjective.
I prefer classic V-8/RWD muscle cars myself; why is it any less valid for someone else to prefer FWD/AWD import late-model performance cars?
I can appreciate almost any type of car – and respect that other people may have different preferences, no less valid than mine. My choices – my preferences – don’t mean someone else’s different choice is “not cool.”
Only assholes think that way.
On the objective stuff:
You claim that late-model import “rice burners” (your words now) “really will never compete with the old domestics.” This statement reveals you to be an ignoramus. There isn’t one classic muscle car that could corner or brake even remotely as competently as a modern performance car – just for openers.
In fact, most of the classic-era stuff had atrocious brakes and handled horribly compared with any humdrum modern FWD sedan – let alone a modern performance sedan.
They were also much less reliable, rusted early – and were typically worn out after six or seven years and 70,000 miles or so. They leaked, they overheated. They stalled. They needed frequent adjustment and tuning. Few new cars need much besides gas, oil, brake pads and tires every now and then for the first ten-plus years.
Reality. Not in-the-rearview fantasy.
The straight-line (0-60/quarter-mile) stuff has already been discussed at length. Yes, in their day, the muscle cars were quick… relative to the typical cars of that time. Relative to the performance of the typical modern car, they’re middling performers. A 6-7 second 0-60 time is Camry performance now. A 14 second quarter mile is … yawn… something a V-6 Accord can do, easily. 13s? Get a new Mustang V-6.
The handful of classic era stuff that was quicker than a current Mustang GT – that is, capable of getting into the 12s – were beasts, cars set up for maximum performance in the quarter mile, which made them barely street driveable. Driving a Hemi ‘Cuda or LS6 Chevelle or L-88 Corvette to work everyday, in traffic… a non-starter.
Were they cool? Sure! But that’s go nothing to do with the fact that they were built to do one thing well – go really quickly in a straight line for a quarter mile at a time – and did all the other things most cars do pretty piss-poorly.
To deny all this is to admit to being ignorant of what the classic-era stuff was capable of – and of the limits imposed by the engineering/technology of 50 years ago.
Wow…thats pretty simple minded. Have you seen what some of these Japanese “rice burners” can do right off the showroom floor?
Japanese econboxes, while bland looking and not as high performance, handle and brake better than just about every single Bowtie, Blue Oval or Molar could ever dream of. Yeah, 1/4 mile may be a different story, but I’d wager a bone stock 1.5L single cam 4 cylinder Honda Civic from the mid 90’s could easily pull away from any golden era muscle car on a nice set of twisties.
My car is the Japanese equivalent of a muscle car.
2.6L, twin cam, twin turbo inline 6 cylinder that puts out more than 120hp per litre in stock trim. How many big V8’s cam claim that?
I get so tired of the “American muscle is better than Japanese cars” from people who have no idea what they are even talking about. My dad was the same way till he visited me here in Japan and drive my car. He came away with a whole new appreciation of Japanese sport and sport compact cars.
I love ALL cars, no matter the make or country they’re built in. I’m an enthusiast, not a purist.
This guy’s posts only display his ignorance (and arrogance).
I drive new cars for a living; been doing it 20-plus years. I am very well aware of the performance capability of modern cars. And as someone who also owns (and has owned) a number of classic muscle cars – and driven dozens of them, including a real AC Cobra – I am also well-aware of what the old stuff could do.
And couldn’t do.
Each type of car has its different appeal – and different pros and cons.
What we each like, well, that’s up to us – and it’s certainly not up to us to dictate to others what’s “cool” and what’s “not cool.”
The old stuff was neat; still is. They have character and (in my mind) look great and deliver a unique experience.
But the modern stuff has its virtues, too – and to deny that (and pretend that the old muscle cars did everything better) is the kind of nonsense most people outgrow after they turn 20.
Nothing says slow like my first car. Try a 36-hp VW beetle. The only way you could get to 70mph was downhill with a wind at your back. Zero to sixty? It got dark before we could measure it with a sundial. I’d barely get up to fourth gear on the Connecticut Turnpike when I’d have to slow down to put another quarter in the toll booth.
They are popular and expensive today, mostly because a lot of guys who wanted one in the day, couldn’t afford them or had to be conservative in their vehicle choices because of domestic considerations. Now that they have the money and less obligations, they borrow against their house(or did) and buy that old dream car of their youth. Those inflated house prices really ruined the hobby.
The idea that ‘almost anyone’ could afford to buy those cars in the day, just doesn’t fly. Of all the people I knew in the Sixties and early seventies, only two people I knew, besides myself, ever bought a new HiPer car, and they were all in my rather large family.
I was lucky and bought my first one when I was still in HS(1964 Olds 442 Convertible), and then another about every two years, 1966 Olds 442 Coupe, 68′ Charger R/T, 69′ ElCamino 396″/375HP, 72′ Grand Prix ‘SJ'(still have it). I also had other performance cars that I picked up used, and I traded in Corvettes.
Today the demand is/was higher then the availability, so now even nice clones bring some pretty big bucks.
It should be noted that even then ‘affordability’ was relative.
Most HiPer engine options were just a hundred to a few hundred dollars more, but that stopped a lot check offs in the order book.
In 68′ I opted for a 440″/375_HP when I really wanted a ‘Hemi’, but it was about $6XX.00 more dollars. Minimum wage was a $1.675 an hour 66′, and my salary as a Boeing engineer in 1968 when I bought the Charger was less then $800.00 a month. Luckily I had other sources of income, so I could afford my car, boat, bike, and airplane habits.
You ended with nice turn of words there, Mike.
I’m not old enough to have experienced the original-era muscle cars as new cars, but I can relate from personal experience that as I came of driving age in the early ’80s, it was very doable for a teen to buy a used original-era muscle car. My high school parking lot was well-represented with Chevelles, Camaros, Mustangs, Novas, Cutlasses, Darts and other Mopars (including my friend’s 71 GTX 440).
Now, mostly these were pretty rough to look at. Spray can paint, Bondo. Rusty Keystone Klassic and Cragar mags – etc. But we were able to buy cars like this – and the local speed shop was a favorite hangout. We were not rich, either. Most of us worked at fast food places (I had a job at McDonalds) and this (or work like it) provided adequate funds to partake. When I look back on those days I can’t believe how fortunate we were. We had no idea.
If I could turn back time…
Perhaps another reason these pre-emission muscle cars cars are popular is that they represent America’s high water mark. They were built during the Viet Nam era, when we still had military and economic resources to burn. They mostly preceded our first major gas crisis which occurred, if I recall, around 1972. They represented the concept that almost anyone in America’s then vast middle class could own a real high performance car, if they wished. Back then these muscle cars were straight line faster than almost every European sports car, with the exception of Ferraris, and the very early model Jag XK-Es.
Today’s 400+ horsepower Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers are amazing echoes of a species that roamed our highways over 45 years ago. Like seeing a Tyrannasaurus Rex on steroids, hunting in your HOA’s greenbelt. They are a fitting swan song to a bygone era.
I think you’re dead on with that.
The fond memories are not just of the cars but of the times. An era when things seemed to clearly be getting better for most people. Not stagnating, or declining – as today.
A man was put on the Moon; routine supersonic commercial air travel seemed imminent. Gas was cheap, good jobs plentiful. A working class guy could afford a V-8/RWD car, a home and a family. Without his wife having to work.
All gone now.
Not many Vipers out there? Real, gut wrenching torque, amazing thrust to those big rear wheels. Twelves, stock, no problemo.
I had a 2001 Vette, pretty quick, but the raw power seduced me. Traded it for a 98 RT-10.
The Viper is the distilled essence of the muscle car, mixed with the old AC Cobras for looks and sex.
They get around a track decently, but no match for the very best of the last few years, I gess.
But, old Detroit iron, yes, to the max.
In 1972 I was a senior in high school. Couldn’t play football so I bought a ’66 big block Corvette for $1700.($9,300 in today’s dollars}. This had the desired affect in terms of a status bump. Young and stupid; sold it. Then bought an original condition ’63 Corvette convert..$1000. Decided to improve it by getting rid of the solid lifter motor with it’s “old fashioned” mechanical fuel injection. Kick me please
Looks like the post I thought didn’t get posted, did. Can you remove my very first post. The one that ends in the middle of a sentance.
I’m in my mid 30’s so I was around for that generation of “muscle cars.” Fortunately for me, I was old enough to hear the stories of my dad’s ’68 Firebird vert with a 400RA, or my mom’s 67 Mustang coupe with a 289, stories of my uncle’s ’66 Vette vert with a 327 or any of the guys my dad ran around with. This made me long for a real muscle car from the mid to late 60’s. I still want one, even though my dream muscle car would be a 1973 455SD T/A. Not for it’s performance but for its styling. I think they are one of the most beautiful Birds to have ever been produced.
I own my midlife crisis car already. My 350hp 1995 Nissan Skyline GT-R does all the fast acceleration, superb handling, and neck turning that I need. It makes me grin ear to ear each time I get behind the wheel. For a car that’s just south of 20 years old, it’s a better performer overall than any other American car of the same period.
However, my dad does own and resto-modded a 1963 Impala wagon with retro fitted 4 wheel disc brakes and an LT1 from a 1995 Z28. That car makes me tight in the pants with it’s big ole white body and grumbly V8 fuel injected engine. LOVE IT!!!
Anyway, again, a great read. Thanks!
That Skyline is a really special car; you’re very lucky to have one!
I also dig the ’73 SD-455. It had the winning combination of the early first generation styling, but with much better color combinations (my favorite being Brewster Green) as opposed to the white on blue or blue on white of the ’70-72s and of course, that magnificent SD engine.
I could have bought a (rough, but drivable) red ’73 SD, 4-speed back in the early ’90s for $5,000 – which might just as well have been $50,000 at the time (recent college grad, broke).
But I do have my Carousel Red ’76 – and while it may not be an SD, it does have a 455 – and makes similar sounds and does similar things!
I’d shoot for finding the black with white stripe option if I could find one. I’ve only seen one picture of that combo in an old High Performance Pontiac magazine.
As for my GT-R, well, I’ve lived in Japan for 8 years now, and was here for 3 years when I was in the Navy…which was how I learned abou them. I first saw one in 1998 and vowed to own one one day. Took me 10 years of waiting, but finally got the one I wanted in 2008.
Send me an e-mail addy and I’ll mail ya a few pictures!
Hey Neal where ya at in Japan?
I’m in Yashio city, Saitama prefecture. About 30 minutes north east of Tokyo by car.
Why do you ask?
I was in Kitakyushu for a couple years and came back in 2006. My wife is from there.
Oh, wow…you were way down south of me.
I’m in Kanto area.
Was here from 98-01 in the navy and moved back as a civilian with my family in 2004.
I was out in the boonies (still packed with people though). I’ve lived in Japan a few times and love Okinawa the best. Do you still have access to the bases and commissary?
Nope. I’ve been out for 11 years. I wish I could have gotten access after getting out, but I didn’t know about being able to.
Did they offer black in 73?
I’ve never seen – or even heard of that!
I actually just checked one of the best-known (and considered very solid) ‘Bird books – The Fabulous Firebird, by Michael Lamm. According to his data, the following colors were available for the TA in 1973:
In ’74, Pontiac added Admiralty Blue and dropped Brewster Green.
As far as I can tell, 1976 was the first year that Starlight Black (or any black) became available as a factory color for the TA…
PS: Thanks in re the pics; see my handle – e-mail’s right there!
Hummm…maybe it could have been a repaint. Was the Brewster green a dark color? Maybe I just don’t remember right. Sorry…
About the e-mail…all I see is just your name in the replies.
I’m betting it was –
Brewster Green was a dark forest green – but definitely not black.
There are some one-offs, though. HPP had an article recently about a red ’72 TA. It was custom-painted, by the factory, on the assembly line, at the request of a high muckety-muck. Beautiful car. And one of a kind!
Ok. Thanks. Will get on that here in a couple minutes. Gotta find some good pics to send ya.
e-mail sent, Eric.
1995 Nissan Skyline GT-R
We know that car well. In Australia it is called “Godzilla”!
The fastest I ever traveled on land was 203 MPH in a 1995 Nissan Skyline. That really is too fast…Anything over about 170 MPH on the public highways is just nerve-racking. (For Me!..Maybe Not for others!)
A factor unaccountably not yet mentioned is the ludicrously low specific outputs of even quite fierce American engines of the classic muscle-car era. Not even the fire-breathingest – and most optimistically rated – of them could boast 65bhp/litre, if measured to DIN methods (I hazard an explanation here: http://artisanalcars.blog.com/2012/08/27/energy-and-transportation-issues-response-to-kevin-carson/). Slightly-sporting versions of stock mass-market Alfa Romeo engines touched 70bhp/litre over a decade earlier.
This meant that the classic muscle-car engines had a lot of untapped potential for anyone willing to address issues of breathing, reciprocating mass, etc., though using no technique which had not been perfectly vernacular for a long time. And in the absence of legal restrictions a lot of that happened for a brief, golden season. Never before or since have engines been put on the market as closer to blank canvases, as it were.
One limiting factor was airflow capability. For instance, modern aftermarket-design cylinder heads for the classic Pontiac V-8 have CFM numbers that are much, much improved over the old cast iron originals. The aftermarket alloy heads also permit higher CRs.
Also, camshafts. Today we have roller – vs. the old flat tappet type. Again, significant improvement in power, without killing driveability.
But you’re absolutely right about untapped potential. This was particularly true of the mid-late ’70s “smog” V-8s. In factory stock trim, these were often really wimpy. But all it took was a little fiddling and you could massively increase the hp.
I’ll give you an example. In 1976, the year my Trans-Am was made, the 455 only made 200 hp, SAE net. Part of the reason was the hugely restrictive single exhaust and cat. Replace the factory system with duals and no cat and some carb/ignition tuning and you could pull another 30-plus hp out of the engine. Go a little deeper and spend a Saturday installing a performance grind cam and – along with the exhaust upgrades, you could easily pull 300-plus hp out of the “smog” 455 and have a very capable performance car for a relatively small investment of money and effort.
Indeed. The definitive iteration of these engines in many minds is something out of CarToons, with a 320° cam, a furniture-size tunnel ram, and an idle like a handful of rusty nuts and bolts shaken in an empty coffee can; which one might deem driveable if one is very optimistic and imaginative. Fun, though … 🙂
I had a 1968 Dodge Coronet A/T with the 318. It had a fair amount of power, and looked cool. It got 20 mpg. Not too bad. It would steer ok, but the drum brakes were marginal. When it wore out, rusted out, I replaced it with a six year old Chevy Vega. Yes the engine was under powered, but it handled quite well. Loved those disk brakes. Then a 1973 Dodge Dart A/T with the 318. A fair amount of power, and the power disk brakes were nice.
The next cars made an interesting comparison. I bought a 1973 Volvo wagon. 4 cyl, M/T A whopping 115 hp. . It had beefier aftermarket sway bars. It was quicker than one would think. It handled very well. The 4 wheel power disk brakes were amazing. It got 30 mpg.
Then I inherited a 1982 Pontiac Firebird with an embarrasing 130 horsepower 305 V-8 and A/T. It looked fabulous, kind of like the the Corvette. It felt great only when driven at a steady speed on the freeway. Its MPG was less than the Volvo. It was SLOWER than the Volvo. The handling was not as good, and could not stop as well. My preferred car was the Volvo. I swallowed my pride and sold the Firebird.
I had a 1977 Porsche 924. What a dog. It had 95 whole horsepower. It was slower than my Vega.It boke down all the time. It did look good. The handling was amazing.
Now I drive a 1996 Nissan Maxima 6 cyl, M/T.190hp It is the fastest car I have ever had, It handles almost as well as my old Porsche 924. The 4 wheel PDBs are as good as the Volvo. The car looks somewhat dated, but not bad.
The Maxima has 175k miles on it. I have done less work on it in the last 75k miles than any of the other cars.
I know that by modern standard, my car is considered slow. I will just enjoy what I have. I have learned that pride is expensive.
This brings up a whole ‘nother subject.
I mentioned earlier that my son wants a 69 Chevelle, he doesnt care what kind of engine, we looked at one with a 307 and 3 speed on the column, he just wants a cool 60; early 70s car, like a 71 Firebird or 70 Torino fastback or 66 Thunderbird.
he also really liked the 63 Falcon featured on Jay Lenos Garage.
Im somewhat concerned about the safety of the 60’s & 70’s cars.
Id of course want to add shoulder belts, perhaps a collapsible steering column from a later model, and if it was a Ford, a metal shield between the truck and the backseat, to keep the gasoline out of the passenger compartment. (in the Fords, the top of the fuel tank IS the bottom of the trunk.)
All good choices – and there’s nothing “wrong” with the 307. It just wasn’t a performance engine in stock build (as you know). It was more of a grocery getter type of V-8. Good low end torque to move the heavy (usually automatic, too) car it was in.
He might also consider ’70s Novas. They’re still pretty cheap – and of course, very amenable to modification!
The gas tank top/trunk bottom practice was not unique to ford. I believe Ford had full trunk floors in mustang etc starting in 1971.
If you are concerned about crash structure safety ’73 up is better than ’72 down. As I recall side impact beams and such became mandatory in ’73. This doesn’t mean prior cars don’t have them on a model to model basis. Stop/go/turn safety is about the same through the era.
’68 and up have shoulder belts (required, may vary by model and options before that). However they aren’t the kind most people are used to. They are two piece. They can be worn as lap belts or three point belts. If it’s your car you get used to them. Passengers won’t know what to do. (I have a ’73 with two piece three point belts) However, having all three anchor points later belts can be retrofitted more easily.
Another thing to consider is how dated these cars are now with regards stop/go/turn. Driving one daily when everyone else can out brake and out turn what you have is going to become chore in short order. Other people don’t realize the disadvantage that a manual four wheel drum car has, they will cut in front and hit the brakes assuming the old car can stop. Back in the 1990s when I drove a car of this era daily I could still find a few others on the road that did. It was relief when I could settle near another 60s or 70s car in traffic. Being on-par made things easier. Now I wouldn’t do it without a car that got optional disc brakes from the factory or had it’s front drums replaced with disc.
Excellent point on the brakes! Four wheel drums in modern traffic won’t cut it.
Id definitely install front discs,
dont see any point to rear discs, other than the coolness.
I have a 74 Bronco,
I installed discs,
from a 76 Blazer, power steering from a 77 bronco,
Fuel Injected 302 from a ’90 Mustang,
5 speed transmission from a ’01 Wrangler, and seats from a Miata.
With the Chevelle, he wants a 68 or 69, no other year.
Doesnt care about paint, thinks patina is cool.
The ones with 307s are half price of the 396s and Im thinking it aint a good idea for a new driver to have that much power anyway. I care nothing about matching numbers or engine codes in the VIN, its a driver.
My ’76 TA has the stock disc/drum brake set-up and is still as comfortable to drive in routine A to B modern traffic as any modern car. Of course, in not-routine/performance driving, they’d overheat and fade very quickly (trust me) and panic braking distance isn’t going to be competitive with a new Mustang’s or Camaro’s. But provided you pay attention, don’t tailgate and know how to threshold brake (if it becomes necessary) you’re ok going from A to B. It’s not a white-knuckle experience; the car doesn’t feel completely (or even significantly) out of its depth.
The handling is actually very good. With decent tires – if decent tires were available for 15 inch rims – it would be competitive with modern sporty cars. Might ride a little rougher and have more NVH, but the thing corners flat, with very little body roll – and you can drift the tail out and throttle drive it pretty easily.
The mid to late 1960s muscle cars were very different beasts than the emissions castrated eunuchs of the 1970s through mid 1980s. Some got 0 to 60 a lot faster than 7 to 8 seconds. Compared to today’s performance models, they were/are slower…but not nearly as lame as your 1970s examples .
The appeal those cars have to middle age and older guys is a flashback to the dreams of their youth. Most of those guys couldn’t afford them back then. But they can now. In a way, they can fire up that 1965 Mustang, or 1967 GTO, and sort of, relive their “glory days.” As a member of that age group, I can understand the concept. But in my view, acceleration trumps nostalgia every time. If I want a “muscle car,” I’ll get a 2013 Mustang GT. 🙂
Some of the early ’70s stuff was as or more potent than the strongest ’60s stuff. For example, the ’70 Buick GS Stage I 455. Or the ’70 LT-1 Z28, which was much quicker than the peaky ’67-69 302 Z28.
And in 1973, Pontiac released the quickest factory stock Trans-Am ever – the SD-455. It was quicker than the previous 455 HO and RA III 400, quicker even than the very radical RAIV 400. In fact, the quarter mile performance of the SD-455 would not be beaten until the ’89 turbo Trans-Am appeared.
Classic-era performance arguably peaked around 1971-’72. It was after ’72 that the slide began.
By 1975, – first year for mandatory catalytic converters – next to nothing was left.
From about 1975-79, the only cars with any balls at all were the L-82 optioned Corvette and the W72/”TA 6.6″ 400 Trans-Am, which still had as much as 220 hp.
The TA lost its big engine after ’79 – and became an overweight, underpowered (but still great handling and looking) disco machine. The Corvette managed to hold the line – sort of.
But the thing to bear in mind is that these cars were downright heroic compared with the typical car of that period. They provided a way to do an end-run around the then-shitty new stuff, with their crude emissions controls, terrible power/performance and sad-sack looks.
So, the old muscle cars were very desirable. Not as collectibles – but as drivers.
Today, new performance cars are much better performers than the old stuff. It’s not even close. So the main reason to buy/keep an old muscle car is for the nostalgia, or the attitude, or the animal feel (and sounds) they provide.
The new stuff will run circles around them, though.
Young people think my ’78 T/A (W72/”TA 6.6″ 400 Trans-Am version) is fast cause of its looks and sound, they always want to know if I race it. I have to explain to them how the newer cars with the smaller engines put out so much more power. Seems to break their hearts a bit. But doesn’t matter much to me, I just love driving that thing around.
I’m still looking for just the right late 80’s/early 90’s, 3rd gen Iroc or T/A GTA to work on and fix up for my 15 y.o.
I’ve worked on two W72 cars – one a ’79 10th Anniversary car, the other a gold ’78 SE.
That 400 really responds to a few minor mods. Lose the shitty factory log manifolds. Replace them with repro RA III “cast iron headers.” Lose the cat. Install a good dual system with a crossover pipe and a set of Flowmasters behind that. Get a carb kit from Cliff Ruggles. Performance tune the ignition timing.
Without even getting into the motor itself, this will get you solidly into the 14s – quick enough to be respectable, even today.
The seat of the pants pull from that big torque V-8, the screeching tires and all that other good stuff also makes the car feel quicker.
you’ve mentioned those headers before, they are on my wisf list. Gonna get the entire exhaust system done and lose the factory stuff.
I’ll check out the carb kit you mentioned.
Thanks for the tips
The manifolds are it. No sealing issues; they fit the tight engine bay, too. Last forever, pretty much – so can be re-used over and over. Now downside other than they’re heavier than tube headers. But tube headers have many downsides in the second gen. ‘Bird. They almost always leak. Clearance is usually a big problem – especially at the collectors.
Cliff’s a good dude. Might be the best Q-jet guy in the country. He’ll actually talk w/you on the phone, too. Not just some guy handling the phones/taking orders.
I turned 15 in 1980, in a small Appalachian town, and my First car was a 66 Ford with a 428, ($500) then had a 69 Ford with a 429,($600)
then paid $275 for a ’69 Mercury Cyclone Cale Yaroborough edition, drove it for a year and sold it for $450, thought I was rich, thing would be worth $25K now.
In 1983, I test drove a 69 GTO Judge, 455/4 speed, went back and looked at it twice, and didnt buy it ’cause I thought $1600 was too much money.
Friend of mine had a Super Bee with the 440 4 speed, ($1200)
and another had a 70 Firebird, ($1200) and another had a 70 Torino ($900) with Boss 351 from a Mustang.
They were all just worn out gas guzzlers than no one wanted. Thats why they were the cheapest cars to buy.
My 14 1/2 year old son just announced that he wants a 69 Chevelle for his first car..
said he wanted something cool, not interested in a Toyota or Honda.
I think it is that they had such a long reign thanks to government intervention that there is so much anger when pointing out how slow the classic muscle & pony cars are compared to today’s cars.
As to the youth not buying them, they are just simply way too expensive. Too many old guys chasing them with their 401K money. The prices in real terms will fall eventually. When lots of these guys can’t play with them any more and the buyer demand isn’t there.
These cars also can’t really stand up to the climate in much of the country as daily drivers. They weren’t designed to last more than 5-10 years. Winter drive them in Chicago and they deteriorate rapidly. Back in the early 1990s when lots of older stuff that wasn’t pony/muscle was affordable students would bring it in from other places or once they arrived from europe buy whatever garaged old iron they found in the classifieds. The cars would begin to suffer quickly. Especially noticeable was what happened to the 1970s and early 80s Japanese cars. They would start to dissolve. The detroit iron would hold up better but cosmetics would suffer. My ’73 was an original daily driven but low miles, Chicago car. Plus I put in the upkeep. These students from other places didn’t know they had to fight the salt and rust from eating their cars. Modern cars take this sort of environment so much better with a lot less effort.
And then there is the mechanical care required to daily drive these things. It’s simply beyond most people and more hassle than most of those who can want to deal with.
Alot of interesting commentary here!
My first car was a 1987 olds cutlass supreme 4 door. My girlfriend and I setup the test, and managed a run to 60 in 14.6 seconds. It was about the blandest car possible. Completely flooring it resulted in no particular feeling of acceleration per se. I did have this great simulated woodgrain though….
Your article expresses rather eloquently some of the musings that have been in my head over the last couple of years. My ’84 vette is my ‘daily’ (I use an old truck and beater Mitsubishi for nasty conditions, or just stay home.) Whenever I’m wondering why I tolerate my old girl’s idiosynchracies, I do the algebra. She requires more TLC than a new Camry of similar performance levels. She’s not the most comfortable way to travel 100 miles. My dad has a hard time getting into the car. I have to avoid, rather than engage, races with cars (and even trucks) of lower pedigree. On the other hand, I remember that I have a pass on emissions inspections, which in Maryland is tantamount to a complete escape from oversight from the automotive SS. I am in no danger of my car being totalled because my airbags deployed (I haven’t any). She costs a third of a new average car, and a fourth of any new car I’d actually want to drive. The V-8 is satisfying. Maintenance is more frequent, but less expensive than a new car. Kids give me thumbs up at stoplights. My dashboard is a collection of bar graphs, which for some reason I like.
Summary, in a world of increasing requirements and reduced choices, my old bird is an oasis of freedom for me. If I’m going to spend years of my life behind the wheel, let the seat at least be nice.
I wouldn’t mind one if those muscle cars, but the cost is definitely an issue. A late 60’s Afa GTV is still one of the cars I’d quite like to have.
And I understand that my current 350z is much faster than any of the cars from that time.
Most fun car I’ve ever had was from that era: A 1989 Subaru XT. Yes, some thought it ugly. I thought it was amazing. Pop-up headlights, controls all around the steering wheel, and one big huge windshield wiper.
The little fuel injected engine made all of 90HP, but when mated to the 5 speed, 4WD transmission it could jump off the line. And it had the old “ejector seat button” manual 4WD system, so it could get 50MPG on the highway.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take care of it. The air suspension started to leak, causing it to list to one side, and the radiator started leaking, which lead to an overheated block and subsequent other problems. But still, it went like a trooper for about 180K miles. The final blow was when they raised the speed limit to 65. It just didn’t have the power to do that anymore, so it was traded for a used Lumina Z34. Not anywhere near as good a car, it turned out.
A friend of mine had the XT turbo. It was fun to drive. 🙂
I had one of those P.O.S. ’81 Horizon/Omni’s with the 2.2L engine and a whooping 110 HP, lasted me 4 years and 60K miles before it essentially wore out the engine – I remember driving it on 2 cylinders in the middle of the night to the junk yard just to get rid of it because it would go more than 15mph at that point.
Not one of Chrysler finest efforts.
Later I owned an ’86 PowerWagon250 with the 318cid, also a P.O.S. that couldn’t get out of it’s own way. My buddy could tow our boat with his 4.3L Chevy Astro better than the Power Wagon could.
Ever since I have owned Chevy’s – Chrysler may have improved but I will never own another….’nuff said.
A buddy had the Plymouth Champ – we called it the Chump!
Next to something like that, a stock ’79 Z28 was a freakin’ Ferrari!
I’m not sure if I was a Chrysler hater I’d be holding Chevrolet products up as something better. In 1971 I was a young tech for a Chevrolet dealership and for the next 9 years I was kept constantly busy replacing engines in Vegas, Citations, Novas and Camaros, etc., some with less than 20,000 miles on them. Not to mention the camshaft failures that were so prominent at one time that the factory was back ordered for months, and the plethora of other problems.
As owner of an independent auto service center I have worked on few Chrysler 2.2 motors, and with the exception of problematic head gasket leaks in the early years, I cannot think of one that ever exploded or had any other serious issues. (Even at that head gasket issues were common across many car lines back then.) But I cannot say the same for GM V6s which, in my opinion, have the worst record for catastrophic failures of any motor. After 40+ years in the auto repair business I can tell you this: they have all had their ups and downs. Even Honda and Toyota have had their share of mechanical imperfections.
As for me, my last two Silverados were pretty unsatisfactory, and I’ve replaced the last one that had piston knock with a 2009 Ram that has never been back to Chrysler for any repairs. And after more almost 4 years and 80,000 it is the first vehicle I’ve ever owned that I could say that.
Honestly, I never liked the Transam or the firebird, or most domestic cars from that time. I’ve changed somewhat now, a few decades later: I don’t like the looks of 99% of the cars I could stretch to afford. There is that Audi super car for 100K that’s nice..but…
Now, my 1985 Honda CRX SI (bought used) was a kick in the ass and was fun. Manual, engine would groan under the AC load, and acceleration would suck, and the torque steer was rather bad, but winding it though the 5 gears was fun! (with the AC off) It got over 50MPG on regular gas on the highway. I do miss that car.
And it looked good in comparison to all the other crap
I can dig that CRX, too.
Just like you said: They were fun little units, though slow as Forrest Gump with a buzz on.
On the ’70s-era stuff: If you had one in the early ’80s, you were King of the Road. Almost nothing – new – could keep up. I think this was a big part of their appeal.
Today, unless they’ve been heavily worked, their performance is nothing special compared to the stuff you can buy new – and that includes fambly-type cars like the Camry V-6!
The thing about the CRX was it felt fast and it had decent handling and was “sporty”. I don’t know how long it too 0-60 but it “seemed” quick.
For my next car, which I bought new, I looked at the Acura Integra, Celica, Ford Probe and a few others. They all looked boring (Probe) I didn’t fit in the seat with a sunroof-which was mandatory for me (Celica), so i went with the integra. Fun car. Bad torque steer though.
Now, I can’t even find a coupe that looks nice and I hate sedans….
My TA still feels fast, too – because the huge V-8 makes lots of angry sounds… but a new Boss 302 would humiliate it.
Back in the mid-’90s, I raced a guy on I-95 in a (then new) Mustang GT in a press car Probe GT. He just barely edged me out at 130-plus MPH… respect for the Probe!
All props to the SOUND of a sexy engine. My step mom still tells the story of hearing/feeling a M3 idle through a parking lot. “it sounded like sex”. 🙂
I’ve got to get hip to technology and figure out a way to post the sounds of my just-rebuilt Kawa S1 triple… if you went by ear, you’d step back out of fear that the meanest, fastest SOB in town was headed your way!
its just too bad that there are almost no decent looking japanese cars, all very boring except the 280zs which again are 40 years old. Besides just like the new stuff, people build their old nice looking cars.
According to whom? You? Millions of owners of Japanese cars disagree with you. What makes you the Great Lawgiver with regard to “decent looking”?
Your post is of a piece with the comments one sometimes hears at car shows: Fords rule – and Chevys suck.
Embarrassing childish bullshit.