Chrysalis Cars

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The “real” muscle cars of the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s have been financial instruments since the ’90s, if not earlier. Out of reach of the average person. Because the average person generally hasn’t got the minimum entry fee of – roughly – around $35,000 it takes to buy any of these cars in decent, get-in-and-drive-it condition.

That’s for a nothing-special example. If you want something special – a big block Mopar, for instance – the bar rises to $50k at the least. Multiple carbs? Forget about it!

Some blame speculators and heap abuse on auctioneers such as Barrett-Jackson for turning cars that as recently as the late 1970s and into the ’80s, even, were routinely found in high school parking lots driven by 17-year-olds into six figure Americano exotics and might-as-well-be Ferraris.

There is an element of truth to this, but the real truth is that scarcity and Horsepower Legend are to be credited for the financial deification of early muscle cars. They didn’t make that many of them, for openers. And the ones they did make were all powerful to one degree or another – and so, instantly desirable.

I’ll use Pontiac as an example – and why not? It was, after all, Pontiac that ignited Muscle Car Fever in 1964 by taking a Tempest, which was meant to be an economy car, and turning it – via a high-powered 389 V8 – into the first GTO.

The first muscle car.

By 1970, every major car company was making muscle cars.

But the government was making something, too: Regulations. Specifically, the Clean Air Act of 1970 – which had the same effect on muscle cars that dousing the witch in the Wizard of Oz with water had. Horsepower quickly melted away – and soon thereafter, so did the muscle cars. Ten years after the introduction of the ’64 GTO, the very last GTO – the ’74 GTO – left the line.

It had a lukewarm 350 (5.7 liters, in modern metric-speak) that made all of 200 hp. Just four years earlier, GTOs had 400s making 370 hp. An even bigger 455 HO V8 was available optionally.

And thus the world ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.

But while Pontiac had stopped building GTOs, it continued to build GTO-like cars for many years thereafter. Well into the ’80s, in fact. So did every other major American company.

“Dick” doing what he did best…

These cars – unlike the original-era muscle cars – didn’t have a lot of power from the factory, but they did have the potential to make horsepower. Most came standard with – or could be ordered with – V8 engines and were, of course, rear-wheel-drive.

Cars like the Ventura (which served as the basis for the last GTO) and larger models like the Grand Prix and sportier models like the Firebird. Chevy had the Camaro, of course – but also the Malibu – which was basically a Chevelle just begging to be transformed into an SS Chevelle.

These post-’74 cars were muscle cars in chrysalis form, ready to emerge from their cocoons.

Even the much-mocked Mustang II. It had all the prerequisites, too. Including a 302 V8 under its boarded-up fake hood scoop.

All it took was a little wrenching – no got-damned computers yet – and not much money to transform, as an example, the low-performance two-barrel 400 in a ’77 Grand Prix into a homemade Ram Air III 400 four barrel – making more horsepower than the ’70 RA III 400 made. Or transform that 120 hp Mustang II King Cobra into a real Cobra.

Remember: The V8s were basically the same V8s as used in the high-powered muscle cars, just shorn of their high power. This could be restored to them. Just like putting air back in a flat tire. A weekend spent putting in a hot camshaft and a big four barrel and a set of headers, so it could breathe again. These were (and still are) cars that you can work on.

With basic hand tools. And – at most – a few hundred bucks for the cam and the four barrel and the headers.

The rest was even easier: Wheels and tires, some graphics if you wanted those. Add a full set of gauges – these often transferred directly from the older, original-era muscle cars.

What Pontiac couldn’t build… but you could!

Presto! 

You built what Pontiac or Chevrolet no longer could.

And because these chrysalis cars were made in very large numbers – and didn’t come with a lot of horsepower from the factory – they were and still are within the financial reach of average people.

But this is changing.

First, because attrition. While the ’75-up could-be-contenders were made in vastly greater numbers than the already collectible (and expensive to collect) classics of the mid-late ’60 and early ’70s, it’s been 40 years since the mid-late ’70s and the once-everywhere nothing-special cars are now themselves becoming scarce. Which causes their prices to rise.

My own chrysalis car is a ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am.

When I bought it more than 20 years ago, it was among the least desirable – and thus, least valuable – of the so-called “second generation” (1970-’81) Firebirds. Even though it has the gigantic 455 V8, the as-delivered power was pathetic.

Just 200 hp.

Two years prior, the regular Firebird (not the Trans-Am) had a 400 that made more power. And offered a 455 that made much more power. And, the next year (1977) Pontiac offered a hopped up 400 that also made more power and, of course, there was the epic car-chase movie, Smokey and the Bandit – which made the ’77-up cars instantly iconic.

And thus, desirable.

For a long time, not many people cared about the ’75 and ’76 TAs. I got mine for about the going rate of a used economy car, circa 1992: $5,200.

Adjusted for today, this is just over $9k. Loose change . . . for a low-miles (48,000) unmolested, undamaged, one-owner loaded Trans-Am (mine has rare options such as electric rear defrost, power windows and locks, the optional Honeycomb wheels) and in a cool color – Carousel Red.

Today, you might find a restorable ’76 TA for about the same money. A tired, bedraggled-looking one in need of pretty much everything. Drivetrain work, cosmetic work. If you wanted to buy one in the same condition mine was in back in ’92 today, the outlay would be closer to $25k – and that is getting into serious money.

History repeats.

As far as these chrysalis cars go, it is as if it’s 1980 all over again and you can still pick up a big block Mopar for $2,200 (one of my high school friends did this, with money he earned from his after-school job at  . . . McDonalds).

The way it was . . . really.

But, better hurry. These truly last-of-their-kind cars (factory V8, easy to upgrade, rear-drive, no got-damned computers) are on track to become what my high school buddy’s 71 GTX 440 is today – a $50,000 car that is as out of a 17-year-old kid’s league – or for that matter an average 35-year-old guy’s league, financially speaking – as Christie Brinkley was out of Clark Griswold’s league in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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18 COMMENTS

  1. I’m starting to see 80’s fox-body Mustangs getting restored. They’re probably not Serious Money just yet, but they’re on their way. While they have computers to them (EEC-IV in 83+) they’re using old-style thru-hole integrated circuits that can be found new old stock, or as scavenged parts. You just need a soldering station and a ground strap.

    • There were quite a few fox body Mustangs at the car shows this summer. They are getting more popular again. They have their charms for sure, i always liked them when I was a kid (when they were new cars).

    • People have been restoring fox bodies for a long time now. There’s been mustang part houses for them for about 15-20 years now.

      Now here’s the old car shocker of the year…. A company that makes maverick sheet metal, the owner posted on facebook yesterday that the big order he got for another car was for Chevettes. A month or more ago he said there would be a pause in Maverick part making to develop and make parts for another car. I think he said something like 200 sets of floor pans alone or some such. The order was hundreds where it made business sense to do so. So some Chevette owners group sent him NOS parts and a parts car to use as examples along with the big order.

  2. My 1968 Olds Delta 88 could be the poster child for a Chrysalis Car. Bought it in 2002 for $2800, put another $2800 or so in it worth of high performance parts, and had a family size 442. But it looked like any old land yacht of the time.

  3. There are still fun machines out there if you’re patient and flexible. Admittedly I haven’t seen any 69 Mustang fastback at a price I would pay for 20 years. But last week I grabbed a v12 Jag XJS HE for 500. Nothing sounds cooler than a V12! Patience and mechanical ability goes a long way…

  4. OMG I am bursting out of my Chris Salice over your new Gay Car Guy reviews, Air Rick.

    I’m so glad you finally let your alter ego out of the faraday closet and into the rainbow corny copey yuh.

    Air Rick’s Rant on Gay Car Culture
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSQpvvP9zfQ

    Air Ricks new Car Culture Club song::

    I’ll Tumblr 4 Ya – Car Culture Club
    Downtown we’ll drampf drown
    We’re in our never splendour

    Flowers, showers
    Who’s got the new boy gender?

    I’ll be your baby, I’ll be your score
    I’ll run the guns for you and so much more
    I’ll tumblr for ya, I’ll tumblr for ya
    I’ll tumblr for ya, I’ll tumblr for you
    I’ll tumblr for ya, I’ll tumblr for ya
    I’ll tumblr for ya, I’ll tumble

    Uptown their sound is like the native you send her
    Junction, function the boy with pop is slender

    Did he say maybe or I’m not sure?
    He’ll be a boy for you but you need so much more

    ::: ::: ::: :: :: :: :: :: ::: :::

    Also love your boo tee full new song Chrome Gives Me A Bone – by Air Rick Pee Turds. So Soulful.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unWQzeTIja8

  5. I think it’s already too late Eric. I grew up and started driving in the late 60’s, early 70’s. There were lots of cars that had V8’s but weren’t “muscle cars”. Mavericks, Novas, Dodge Dart, Dusters, etc. Nobody cared about ‘em, they were just run of the mill transportation. Even your typical “family car” – Plymouth Fury, Chevy Impala – probably had a big block in it. Anyway, our ship has sailed. RWD V8’s of any stripe have gone through the roof, if you can even find them at all. I had a 72 Duster with 318 motor that I bought for about 300 bucks in 1977 or so. Just about gave it away when I was done with it, cuz nobody gave a crap about a car like that back then. What do you think that second rate grandma car is worth today? Probably more than you and I can afford.

    • Hi VZ,

      They definitely cost more, but some are still within reason – $10k or less. That money will still buy you a solid #3 “driver condition” ’77-’79” TA with the Olds 403/automatic combo, or an ’80-’81 with the 305 Chevy or 301 (non turbo) Pontiac V8. Out of reach for a high school kid, certainly. But us older freaks could still possibly contemplate one.

      They are, however, rapidly upticking in price.

      • I think I need to get my ass out there and start looking before it’s too late! I would dearly love to find myself a 440 cid 76 Córdoba, (most of my memories of that car are from the backseat!). As always, thanks for the article Eric. I am seriously afraid of the crazy technology of the new cars, and I’d really like to find something that I can just keep for the rest of my life – I’m old, don’t have that many years left to worry about! Would love to pick up an early 2000’s Toyota Tacoma or Highlander, but, Holy Shit, prices are unbelievable! Gotta find me something before Elon Musk and his gang make real cars obsolete.

    • I agree with you. The sun is setting on the affordable 70s or even 80s car. I feel the closest thing to indestructible is something like a mid 2000’s Acura, a Toyota Highlander, Lexus, or a Camry. Yes, they have electronics on them, but they are minimal compared with today. They don’t have the gunslit windows, backup cameras and direct injection. No turbos. A well cared for car can be found and the cars are durable. Parts are available. I own a 2005 MDX, a 2003 Lexus ES and a 2007 Mustang GT convertible. I picked all of them up for less than $20k. I am going to sell the Mustang Convertible soon. I have noticed that better bargains can be found in 2-3 year off lease cars than 10 year old cars relative to what they used to cost. That’s because a sizable number of people are catching on to what’s really happening. My cars burn a lot of gas. They all were manufactured when Reagan era CAFE rules were in effect.

      • They all drive well as I went through the entire suspension, the most important part of a car in my opinion. Just ask Bud Lindemann.

  6. Nice when your money increases in value instead of what Normie Americans have sadly grown used to.

    Ultra-rare 1996 McLaren F1 goes on sale, you won’t believe how much it costs
    http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/cars/868046/mclaren-f1-for-sale-price-classic-car-tom-hartley

    One car worth north of £12 million. All using Eric’s one simple trick. Fiat bankers hate him.

    Now there’s something that’s worth stuffing under the mattress and keeping for a rainy day.

  7. I just want my Boeing B-17G back, fully loaded, so to speak. Those were the days, dropping bombs on Nips and Nazis. And you knew who you were then, girls were girls and men were men.

    • Funny how we’re still their occupying the Niplands and Nazilands.

      Yet her in the homelands, we can’t compete with those to guys for shit anymore.

      Turns out we’re the emotional girls and they’re the productive men sad to say.

  8. Eric,

    “I’ll use Pontiac as an example – and why not? It was, after all, Pontiac that ignited Muscle Car Fever in 1964 by taking a Tempest, which was meant to be an economy car, and turning it – via a high-powered 389 V8 – into the first GTO.”

    Back to the diversity thing.

    Would automotive beastiality get you back on GM’s list.

    I’m gonna guess that you fucked a 389 or two. I know I did.

    Considering 4,000rpm wouldn’t produce 60mph, it was pretty easy.

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