Third Tier Classics (Get ‘Em While You Still Can)

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Some of you may have caught my recent article about the almost muscle cars of the mid-late 1970s (see here, if not). Cars like the Chevy Monza (and its Buick/Pontiac/Oldsmobile-badged twins), the Ford Maverick … and so on. A side thread was that these cars – which are looking better and better in retrospect – might be the last opportunity for the not-flush to own a rear-wheel-drive/V8-powered/carbureted (and pre-computer controlled) vintage American car. Something you can have fun with – on the cheap.'75 Monza pic

They’re the last ones that you can still buy for next-to-nothing. Two or three thousand ought to be sufficient. Five ought to buy you a really nice one.

For now.

Before you start tapping your keyboard to tell me I’m off my rocker, consider: There was a time (I lived it) when you could find Hemi Superbirds, fastbacked 351 C Mustangs and SS Chevelles in decent “driver” condition parked unloved and flat-tired in the way-back-there section of seedy used car lots, with “$3,500!” soap-written on the (often cracked) windshield. My high school parking lot was full of such cars. Teenagers owned them. They were just old cars; gas hogs that few people wanted. In high school, a friend of mine borrowed/begged  $2,200 from his parents to buy a ’71 Plymouth GTX 440. It was original, had about 62,000 miles showing. Hurst mags. Air grabber hood scoop. Gattling gun exhaust tips. Read that again. $2,200.1971 Plymouth GTX

This was 1987.

That same car today is worth about $40,000 – and not many 17-year-olds will be found behind the wheel.

What was it Cher once sang? If I could turn back time

Those first-echelon classics – the factory-powerful ones made between about 1965 and 1974, the final year before catalytic converters – are all out of reach now. People are paying five figures for rusted out hulks, if the numbers match and there’s a shot the carcass can be restored. The “drivers” – need work, but operable – are mostly all gone now. The ones still available are usually either hulks in need of a complete ($$$) restoration or they are already restored (even more $$$$) or they are preserved originals (the most $$$$). And that means they are not for you – unless you’re financially strong enough to spend $30k or so (which is pretty much the minimum for an operational example) on a hobby.'75 Maverick

And the second-echelon ones are following in their footsteps.

I read the other day that a Trans-Am like mine (1976) went for more than $50,000 at Barrett Jackson. Just a few years ago, mid-late ’70s “smog” muscle cars like my ’76 were easy to find for less than $10k in very decent “driver” condition. I bought mine in 1992 for $5,200 with 54,000 original miles on the clock and the car in strong “#2” condition.

It’s worth four times that now, easily.

It’s getting so I’m reluctant to drive it.barrett Jackson pic

Assuming the economy doesn’t tank, I am certain that cars like mine will soon fetch $50k and up, perhaps within ten years… while the earlier stuff will all be in solidly in six-figure territory. The truly rare ones – Superbirds, SD-455 Trans-Ams, 429 Mustangs – they’re already sailing toward (and passing by, in several case) the quarter-million mark.

It’s no mystery as to why. Such cars will never be made again. And, they only made so many.

And not very many of them are left.

This same reason will make cars like the Monza (and Ford Maverick) the final call for affordable old-style (traditional American carbureted/pre-computer V8, RWD) performance cars. These third-tier/almost-muscle-cars were indeed under-powered in factory trim. The V8 Monza I wrote about, for example, was powered (if you want to use that word) by the weakest and smallest V8 Chevrolet ever put into a post-war production car.'75 Monza V8 pic

But the Monza and its kind have all the necessary building blocks: rear-wheel-drive, factory V8. No got-damned computer. Very little in the way of electronic crap to wilt your wallet.

It is not at all difficult to double the output of those lamed-by-emissions V8s because they are fundamentally the same V8s that did power (very much so) the first (and second) echelon muscle cars that are now beyond the grasp of middle and working class mortals. The Monza’s available 125 hp 350 (5.7 liter) V8, for instance, shares DNA (and interchanges parts with) the 370 hp LT-1 350 V8 and 245 hp L-82 350 Corvette V8. Swap heads, camshafts; add headers. Or just pull the weak factory 350 and drop in an LT-1 or L-82 or any smallblock V8. It’s a direct, bolt-in deal. No modifications to the car are necessary. It was designed to accept the smallblock V8, so any small block V8 will fit.

Same goes for the Maverick, if you’re a Ford guy. The factory 289 2-barrel is a gimp. But easily transformed into a hero – or replaced.

Plus these cars are relatively light (compared with the popular models, which were typically larger) and nimble/decent handling, too – something very few of the first and second-echelon classics were, as they came from the factory. As bad as the mid-late ’70s may have been as far as engines/power, handling (and braking) much improved during those years. Fix the acceleration issue – easily done – and you’ve got something.fast Firenza

For now.

I’d be willing to bet that the few survivors still around (though built in pretty large numbers, the majority have been used up/thrown away) will uptick in value soon once people realize it’s last call. Remember: They will never build such cars again. Not in this lifetime, not in this country – not on this Earth. Perhaps in another time, somewhere else.

If you want to get in before the door closes, forever – now’s the time.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. I once had a beautiful 1972 Ford Maverick with a 302 (yes a 302). That car would haul ass and give a 1970 Chevelle SS with a 350 a run for its money. I traded it for a 1976 VW Scirocco – which wasn’t bad either. But sigh.

    This is the second time I’ve come across your site by the way – this time was actually your article about owning a classic Beetle and whether that’s a good idea. Still debating the no AC issue being from central NC. The last time was looking for a good libertarian-themed article to discuss on the radio!

    Got you bookmarked now! 😀

  2. Let us sing praise to 2 great “American” engineers. I grew up reading about them in Hot Rod, Motor Trend, etc.
    John DeLorean and Zora Arkus-Duntov
    If you want to throw Carroll Shelby into the mix, I won’t object.

    • Don’t forget Bob Rodger and Willem Weertman at Chrysler, who sired the 300 letter series cars, the A/LA, B and RB wedge engines, Slant Six, Sonoramic induction and the 426 Hemi!

    • I have a car with a 327 and a Duntov solid lifter cam that was hard to find. I made special tools so I could rapidly remove rocker arm studs and replace the balls and rockers with the new studs. It was 1500 mile valve adjustment at most, sometimes not much more than half that. rump rrump rrrump

  3. Dad still has the ’76 Charger Daytona parked in the garage. First car he owned that ran on unleaded gas. I remember how the thing would alway stall at the bottom of the hill on cold days, which is interesting because the car only has 6K miles on it, so it must have been cold every time he got it out.

    I’d say avoid anything from 1975 until they figured out how to make cars run on unleaded.

    • Hi Eric,

      The only reason the Dodge stalls out is because of emissions tuning – carburetor jetting, ignition timing and EGR. All easily adjusted.

      It wasn’t a regular (or unleaded) fuel issue.

      Chryslers of that era were particularly prone to driveability issues due to a “lean burn” system Chrysler used to get past emissions. But these cars are smog-exempt now and adjusting them (richer jetting, proper advance curves; disable/defeat the EGR; replace the shitty OEM catalytic converters with high-flow modern units – or ditch them entirely) transforms them.

      • eric, to be honest, I’d rather drive my ’77 El Camino that just about anything, esp. if it had an OD transmission. It was quiet, smooth and handled well with the TA front end parts. Being a trailer tow option it had overload coil spring shocks instead of air shocks and would haul a load or pull a load. Someone asked me the fastest speed my Ranger bass boat had gone and I didn’t lie, a bit over 110mph. Sure, it was on the trailer but it makes everybody do a double-take when you say that. It was stout enough to pull a 3/4T Dodge van(Good Times, all loaded down)and big pleasure boat out of a lake when the van just couldn’t get traction. It left two black marks 100 ft up that boat ramp. It was cold as hell and we’d just stopped by to look at the lake. A family had their newly acquired boat out for a test spin but no soap on getting it back up the ramp(lake was low and the boat was off the ramp). That 350 and 360 had no problems jerking it over the end of the concrete ramp….together. I think it would have been easier without the van since I never saw a tire spin on it. Well, I’m sure they learned as we all do when taking on a new endeavor. It was almost dark, no place to call and decades before cell phones. You could see the relief on everybody’s face in that van. We’ve all been in a tight spot like that I’m sure.

        Well, all you Libertarians, anarchysts and such, it’s a bit over 20 degrees so we’re taking the liberty of moving equipment before the ground thaws. For all you Dead Heads, truckin’ got my chips cashed in……. Ta ta, toodle-oo and tally ho. Have a good one everybody. I will be.

      • I had a 75 Dodge with the slant six; great engine to work on, almost enough room to sit inside the engine compartment and all the maintenance parts were easy access. I got it to run well by advancing the timing about 6 degrees and disabling the egr valve, and it still passed the emission test at the time. the biggest problem with that car was rust, the frame rusted out enough that the passenger side torsion bar let go with a bang while driving down the highway; scared the crap out of me at the time but the car was still driveable until I got rid of it. Always thought if I ever could afford a nice boat someday that 225 six would be the perfect engine for it, as long as I remembered to keep spare ballast resistors on hand 🙂

  4. Except for a few high-performance models pretty much anything from AMC fits this category, though some might consider them to be “Fourth Tier” or “the classic of last resort.” 🙂

    I currently have 3 AMC V8 vehicles picked up for cheap. Best bet for a driver would be 1972 and later as these are equipped with niceties such as electric windshield wipers and the best automatic tranny ever made, the Chrysler Torqueflite.

  5. My brother had a 1969 Olds Cutlass S that my dad had bought him during college. In the summer of 1971, he traded it for a baby blue Toyota Celica. At the age of 8, I had no idea of what a Toyota Celica was. He described it to me as some kind of high performance sports car. When I saw it on a trip to visit him in Diego in June 1972, I laughed.

  6. “But the Monza and its kind have all the necessary building blocks: rear-wheel-drive, factory V8. No got-damned computer. Very little in the way of electronic crap to wilt your wallet.”

    In one way you’re right. I’m sure all American RWD pre-electronic V-8s will have “some” collectable value.

    But the Monza, Maverick, Mustang II do NOT have all the necessary building blocks.

    The Trans Ams, Mopars, 351 Mustang Fastbacks and SS Chevelles you talk about appreciating so well? They ALL had Presence, Sizzle, Glamor, Lust Factor and Street Cred that the lower caste you’re promoting Never had.

    In fact, when they were new, those tape package Monzas and Mavericks were viewed as pretty lame. Back then, it didn’t matter if they had RWD and a weak V-8 that someone theoretically “could” build up. They had no class.

    Classic Car buyers want cars that are culturally significant, or that instill pride of ownership, and impress their friends. Investors should keep that in mind.

    • You’re right about the “third tier” cars, don’t put a bunch of money into one unless you love the car and are planning to keep it.
      That said, we had a (barely) street legal ’74 Monza with a lowly SBC that ran 10.80s in the 1/4 mile. Very satisfying to spank a big block (insert whatever here) like it was tied to a stump…. and no, it wasn’t for sale.

  7. If you’re looking for an affordable, pre-computer classic, don’t forget about the “family cars” and “land yachts” from that era. Think Ford Galaxie 500s, Chevy Impalas/Pontiac Bonnevilles/Olds 88s/Buick LeSabres, Chrysler Newports, Plymouth Furies, and AMC Ambassadors. If you want that plush, luxury ride, but not that steep cost, consider Cadillacs, Lincolns, Chrysler Imperials and New Yorkers, and Olds 98s/Buick Electra 225s. Many can be found in excellent original condition. There’s not a huge crowd to restore these cars, but it’s out there and growing.

    First, they’re likely to be more affordable. You can snag a decent one for less than $5,000, and a really cherry one for around $10,000.

    Second, they’re more likely to have been treated better than the muscle cars of that era. Junior’s GTO was likely ridden hard and put away wet; Mom’s Catalina, Dad’s Bonneville or Grandpa’s Sedan DeVille probably wasn’t.

    Third, they have, as you put it, the building blocks for fun, cheap performance. True, they tend to ride on the marshmallowy side, but that may be just fine for you…almost no modern car has a soft ride, thanks to the “sport” craze. But you can find parts to firm up the ride if that’s what you want. What’s more, many already come with big, powerful V8s that need minimal tweaking for serious power. You can get many drivetrain parts from places that cater to the muscle car crowd.

    There are some disadvantages: Parts specific to those models may be hard to find, particularly interior/trim items. These cars usually come with a lot of power options, some of which may break.

    • Bryce, you’re right. Those full sized family cars and land yachts were icons of the American Middle Class at it’s high water mark.

      Couple months ago, I saw a nicely restored ’61 Ford Galaxy wagon, with the big (391 cubic inches, I think,) V-8 on a flat bed. Probably on it’s way to the Barrat Jackson auction in Scottsdale. Was beautifully restored, with just a few “mods,” like Cragar Mag Wheels.

      It looked AWESOME!

  8. Great article. The time for buyiong these third tier cars is now.
    My first car in 1974 was a semi-clean ’65 Impala 2-door hardtop. Paid $300.
    Had a ’69 Chevelle SS396 in high school in the ’70’s. Paid $650.
    Bought a super clean ’64 GTO in 1978 for $850. Kept it for about 14 years.
    Had a factory fresh loaded ’68 Lemans. Paid $600. Wrecked that one.
    Here are a few that got away in the ’70’s:
    ’66 GTO, 40,000 miles, functional A/C, spare tire had never seen the ground. $800. Didn’t buy it because I didn’t like the color of the (perfect, factory) paint job.
    ’69 Mach 1, 54,000 miles, functional A/C, super clean. $650. Once again I didn’t like the color.
    Fool.
    Oh, for a time machine!!

  9. I’m seeing people doing resto-mods on my college car – the Mercury Zephyr/Ford Fairmont, and the prices are starting to go up.

    Which is amazing – they’re the definition of Malaise-Era family sedans.

    But .. but — they’re Fox bodies, so you can drop any number of Mustang parts in them. So you could get rid of the 200 cid inline-six like I had, and put a 302 Windsor V8 in there (which was available as a factory option). A 351 V8 might be doable, which would require some frame strengthening, plus a new transmission and drive-line.

    Chip H.

    • At one of the local car shows there’s a ’78 Fairmont with 4.6L V8 from an ’05ish Mustang in it. Fox body cars have remarkable interchangeability and the early ones are light. If you want to go fast and don’t care about the ugly…. the lesser liked ones will do it.

      • Of the Fox body cars, I think the notchback 5.0 Mustangs that the California Highway Patrol drove are likely to be the most collectible.

  10. In 1982, my dad sold his 68 Pontiac GTO convertible. All original. $1100. I remember crying about it. I was only 3, but I loved riding in that thing. Those were some of my of my earliest memories. I remember thinking it wasn’t fair that the guy just drove it away. I didn’t understand what selling something was…….just hated the guy who bought it. I have often wondered if the guy still has it, or if he sold it to someone else for cheap.

    That sucker would probably be worth $40,000 or so in good condition.

    • I was 6 years old… good bye 1969 Mach 1…. $450. Still ran and drove.
      Yeah it was beat down and well rusted. Today a mach 1 in that condition probably wouldn’t be less than ten times that.

    • My uncle still has his 68 GTO conv. (400 + 4spd.), bought it new. He’s currently about $30k into a resto/mod at the moment…

        • My dads was a manual. Green, factory paint. He thought it was a good deal selling it for $1100. He had paid $1000 when he bought it in highschool. If he hadn’t been in his mid 20’s, going bankrupt trying to farm at the time he’d maybe still have it.

          I’d love for my 2 year old son to be able to turn a wrench on a machine like that in a few years.

            • True Philip. I had a younger brother too.

              I don’t fault him for what he did. Just wish it were different. One of those what might have been type deals……we all have them.

        • eric,One of my more stupid moments was selling my ’67 Malibu Sport, a very rare car now. Originally a 275 HP 327, 4 Sp. I found out you get get in excess of 425 Hp from a 327, also found out about Schiefer racing clutches, rebuilding every single part of the clutch linkage including replacing the ball stud in the block, all new C-50 truck parts. Also found out the original close ratio Muncie wouldn’t handle it with a bit of traction delivered via Polyglas GT’s but the rock-crusher could although I didn’t care for the ratios on the RC. Decades later, another Chevelle, a ’71 had a close ratio aftermarket gears in a RC, the only way to fly. My custom cab ’55 Chevy pickup with wrap-around back window was another stupid sale I made. woulda coulda shoulda

  11. Mavericks only had one V8 available from Ford in the US and Canada, the 302V8 with a 2bbl carb. No V8 for 1969.5 & 1970. It was backed up by 3spd manual or C4 auto.

    Now things get different when you go to Mexico and Brazil. Mavericks were first tier pony/muscle cars in those countries. There they got 4 spd manual transmission, tach, and other goodies on the option sheet never available from Ford in the USA.

    Rear axle ratio’s vary by year, trans, etc. The ‘newer’ they get the less performance the gearing becomes. Especially for the 200cid I6. Automatics got less performance oriented gearing. My memory is foggy on exact numbers, my 250cid I6 ’73 has a 3.08 in it. If engine swaps are to one’s liking you want a 250cid I6 car because most of the rest is common with the V8 cars. If you buy a big bumpered ’74 and up Maverick with a 200cid I6 it will be mostly compatible. The rear axle ratio will need changing and few other things. Now the earlier Mavericks like early Mustangs the 200cid and lower 6 cylinder cars got 4 lug wheels, tiny brakes, etc.

    Speaking of which, Mavericks in the US had 4 wheel drum brakes through 1975. In 1976 they got front discs. However ’76 & ’77 disc brake assemblies can be fitted to the earlier cars. Also Granada and it’s L-M siblings are stretched Mavericks. Here’s the problem, these cars are also the parts bin to upgrade early Mustangs.

    Unlike some of GM’s lower end performance offerings a Maverick is an early Mustang under the skin. The parts are often identical and when they aren’t we are talking the same exact design with a few dimensions changed.

    Now that short correction note has got me rambling I’ll stop there…

    • Mustang, Maverick, Granada and their Mercury badged siblings were all built upon 1960 Falcon architecture. Much like the basic 1955 Chevrolet drive train and underpinnings that carried the brand along for decades. This makes for easy rebuild and restoration, compare that with hunting down parts for the unique 1960-63 BOP compacts based on the comparatively short lived Corvair platform.

    • They look better and better all the time… in retrospect.

      I worked on one back in the mid ’90s. It was owned by a friend, who got it for his teenage son. I helped the kid hop it up. We replaced the factory intake/2-BBL with a dual-plane intake and spread bore 4 BBl. Added dual exhaust; gave it a power tune. Put a shift kit in the transmission and had a shop install (as I recall) 3.08 gears in the rear.

      It was a lot of fun to drive!

      Sounded great (all Ford small blocks do) and would bark the tires hard on the 1-2.

      Car was chocolate brown with a vinyl roof and a real sleeper, too.

      • My dad had a Maverick back in the day. I think it was the first car he bought brand new. Imagine an “economy” car with a V-8 today! It was a different world back then.

        Never got to drive it, the folks got rid of it in the early 80’s before I began driving. The main reason being, it was horribly rusted (plus mom doesn’t drive manuals). Winter and road salt were really rough on pre 1990’s cars. Even on garage kept cars, it rarely spent the night outside.

        Combined that with the old man’s horrible driving habits and his poor preventive maintenance skills. I have probably seen him wash a car about four times in my four decades. For being a “car” guy, he sent far too many cars to the junkyard, he was the only one who ever owned that Maverick, he bought it from the dealer and 12 years later brought it to the junkyard. Its no wonder there are few old cars around. Hey, I am not ripping on him in particular, there are millions of people just like him, who couldn’t see the future. Even then cars were seen as disposable because hey, cars are only getting better, right? If only we knew what was to come.

        On another subject maybe you should write about when it time to give up the car keys (maybe you have). I know its a hot topic for many people my age who’s parents are now in their golden years. My dad is now in his early 70’s, and some of the bad habits he has had for decades are now becoming kind of dangerous (for him and for others). Some of those habits have only gotten worse as time goes on. My brothers and I have had discussions about how we will have to take the car keys before too long. We know he will fight it. So far he has only had a few minor accidents, but its only a matter of time before he needs to quit driving. I would like people opinions on how to deal with this, without causing a huge fight (if that is possible). Its extra hard now, since he just bought a new car, a fiat 500.

        • Advice for “taking” Dad’s drivers license that worked for me. Speak to his doctor privately regarding declining driving skills and put the onus on the doc to revoke his license. Better for Dad to resent the doctor instead of family. Best of luck.

        • Ah yes, the rust on my friend’s mom’s Maverick. The entire back end of the car bubbled up. I still remember us getting yelled at for kicking the rear fender and laughing because of all the “dirt” coming out of the body…

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