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Car freaks know all about decontented cars. These were cars shorn of options that added weight – and expense – and which decreased performance. You didn’t just skip optional equipment; you delete-optioned what otherwise came standard.

My friend Jack owns such a decontented car. It is a 1970 Firebird Formula 400. This car is a 1970 Trans-Am disguised as a base model Firebird, shorn of everything you got (and paid more for) in a Trans-Am, except for the one thing.

Its engine.

Jack’s ‘bird has the same 335 horsepower Ram Air III 400 V8 that came standard in the Trans-Am. And that is pretty much all it has. No rear ducktail spoiler. No chin skirts. No air vents in the fender. Not even the famous three-spoke Formula steering wheel – which cost extra in the Formula.

It does not even have the Trans-Am’s four speed  manual transmission. It has a three speed manual transmission. One does not need fourth gear to run the quarter mile, you see – and that was what this car was decontented to do. It is why it does not have AC or power anything. No gauges (standard in the ’70 Trans-Am) but rather the same array of idiot lights that you got in the cheapest version of the Firebird.

Shift by ear, instead.

It doesn’t even have 15 inch wheels – also part of the standard equipment that came with the Trans-Am. Jack’s car was ordered with 14 inch wheels and the lowest-cost dog dish hubcaps that were available with a Firebird.

But, it is quicker than a RA III Trans-Am – because it is significantly lighter than a ’70 Trans-Am, which was the top-of-the-line in the Firebird line and even if ordered without some of its options, came standard with more features and amenities than you got in a base Firebird.

And it cost significantly more for that reason.

Which is why some buyers – who wanted Trans-Am (or better) performance but either couldn’t afford it or didn’t want to pay more for it – spec’d out a base ‘Bird with the one or two things they did want and could afford – and deleted the rest.

Being able to decontent a car also served to keep the cost of the contented car in check. If a buyer knew he didn’t have to buy a Trans-Am to get the essential thing that made it a Trans-Am perform like a Trans-Am in a less-pricey Firebird Formula, it could serve as a bargaining chip to haggle down the price of a Trans-Am.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have such bargaining power again?

Instead, we have no choice – if we want the performance – but to pay more for the rest. Because there are no decontented versions of today’s performance cars, which is a shame – because it serves to limit how many performance cars can be sold, which isn’t good for us as buyers nor for dealers, trying to make money by selling more cars.

Which they might, if more could afford them. Volume often makes more money than is made on a smaller number of higher-priced sales.

As recently as the ’80s and ’90s, one could still buy decontented versions of performance cars like the Ford Mustang GT – which was also available for less as the LX 5.0 – and the Camaro Z28 1LE, which was a Z28 with certain equipment deleted and more performance equipment added.

Back in ’95 – has it been that long? – I got to spend a week in a Cobra R, which was a decontented and much higher-performance version of the regular Mustang GT. It was the modern-day (well, relative to 1970) version of my friend Jack’s car. It didn’t even have back seats or a radio. What it did have was a 5.8 liter (351) V8 that was larger and stronger than the 5.0 V8 in the regular GT.

It thus rand much harder.

Imagine the same concept applied today. Imagine being able to order a base trim Mustang equipped with the current GT’s 5.0 V8 and nothing else you didn’t want – or wanted to pay extra for. Instead of paying $36,120 – the base price of a new GT – something in between that and the $27,155 it costs to buy a base “Ecoboost” turbo four cylinder Mustang. Actually – probably – or at least, possibly – a bit less than the cost of the base “Ecoboost” Mustang, since the turbo four and its peripherals aren’t inexpensive  – and the GT’s V8 may well be less so.

It would certainly be so, if one could delete-option some of the expense-padding equipment that comes standard in the base trim Mustang, such as Ford’s “Co-Pilot” suite of “driver assistance” technology (e.g., Forward Collision Mitigation, Lane Keep Assist) the LCD “infotainment” display – maybe even the AC. It would reduce the car’s weight – which would make it quicker than a GT – and it would reduce its cost, making GT performance more accessible.

The same principle could also be applied to economy cars, which don’t really exist anymore. They are just smaller, less expensive luxury cars – as all of them come standard with the luxuries that once defined a luxury car, such as AC (often, climate controlled) power windows, locks, defroster and usually at least a four and usually a six-speaker audio system. Which is why today’s economy cars aren’t that economical – to buy – or even to drive (being much heavier than they need to be).

Instead of $18k for an AC-equipped, power-everything no-so-economical car, imagine being able to delete $3k or so of otherwise-standard equipment and maybe shave 300 pounds off the car. Now $15k – and 40 MPG instead of so-so 35.

It is said American car buyers have gone soft and won’t buy cars without all that content. Maybe so. But it’d be interesting to give them the option – and see whether that’s true.

. . .

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  1. Closest thing today in what the article describes is the bare bones pickup truck. You can get the F150 xl with 5.0 and nothing else! Same with the Silverado work truck. But you have to start with the bare bones model

    • Pickups are indeed about the only thing similar to the bygone era. I haven’t “decontented” my truck but I have stripped it of everything unnecessary. Due to various reasons Toyota has for many years now (at least 10 or so) only put stick shifts in their top spec trucks, the TRD Offroad and TRD Sport.

      So when I went looking for one a few years ago, a manual transmission being non-negotiable, the only option was to get one despite the fact that I only really wanted a base truck. So I’ve had to strip most of the junk I don’t want and would never have paid for in a non-upside down world to make my top spec truck into essentially a base truck. Peeled the badging off and everything.

      The normal American would think I’m nuts, I ruined any future resale/trade value and that’s all they seem to care about. I simply just do not understand shopping for a vehicle with the expectation of selling it. This truck replaced a nearly 30 year old Toyota truck that I just plain wore out and that’s the assumption for this truck. It won’t last 30 years I bet but it’s expected to do the things I need of it – commute, haul house rehab stuff and go off road – until it becomes impractical or impossible to keep fixing. I have literally driven wheels off vehicles. They are tools. Tools I value highly and maintain, but tools none-the-less.

      I’ve only left the electric locker (other than the stick) as indications of what it once was. I’d have done a locker anyway, though. It’s too bad, I had a fixed amount of money to spend (I pay cash) and would have happily given it to Toyota for a new truck (base plus locker option, perhaps) but I instead bought one used. Which I prefer anyway. A Toyota with 35k on it is just barely broken in but to the state DMV being 5 years old means it’s not of nearly the same value to registration and taxes are MUCH cheaper.

  2. When I was a teenager, I had an Uncle John, who was the family cheepskate. I remember waxing his Ramble Rebel station wagon. Zero chrome except the bumpers, black walls and tiny hub caps. No radio, no air, manual steering, manual brakes, three on the tree stick shift, wind up windows, rubber mat on the floor, no carpet. I truly believe he only had a heater because you could not drop it from the option list.

  3. On the plus side modern used cars last a helluva long time compared to the rusty old days and pack some serious power to haul around all that luxurious heft. If one was so inclined to have a “formula” Camry all it would take is some basic tools and effort to remove tons of weight. From my experience other than setting a code and maybe a dash light cars run fine with most modules disabled. Of course this may not fly in some inspection states, just another reason to move. You may also need to cut springs or install adjustable coilovers to restore a normal ride height with all the fat removed.

  4. First post, long time reader.
    I’m in Scotland, though born in NC and 6 decades later still a NC citizen.
    Until the latest model release we could buy a bare bones vehicle, a Dacia Sandero. It came with the mandated electronic “safety” features but no radio, no power windows, no AC, rubber “carpet”. Cheapest new car in Europe.
    I bought the next level up with a pension payout. It comes with manual AC, 4 speaker radio, power front windows, emm that’s it. You open the boot-trunk with the key, not even a handle release. 3 cylinder 1.0 litre normally aspirated engine. 56 mpg, if driven like a clover and at our gas prices I have too but it will cruise 80 mph no problem on the motorway if I feel like it.
    Best car I’ve owned, simple and does what I want it to do.

    • Had to look up ‘Dacia Sandero,’ as Uncle don’t allow that here:

      ‘The Dacia Sandero is a supermini car produced and marketed jointly by the French manufacturer Renault and its Romanian subsidiary Dacia since 2007.’

      Kinda reminds me of the exotic European vehicles I read about in Motor Trend … as a kid in short pants, riding his bike for transportation.

      Back then, Uncle’s fledgling regulatory state presented no barrier to importing them, if one so desired.

      Now, no go. ‘Papiere, Bitte.

  5. wow, didn’t know you could do that back then. Thanks Eric.
    I owned a 69 Judge with the RamAirIII and it was rated at 366 gross horsepower and 445 lb-ft of torque. Although I learned from somewhere that this was de-rated numbers for some reason.
    My particular car had the close ratio Munci 4-sp and 4:11 geared posi.
    Although I never put it on a real track, I was told it did low 13’s in the qtr, and I believe it, cause that care would spin both rears 4-gears deep. it was amazing for a relatively heavy car.
    I’m sad to report however that I totaled it, 16yrs old, cause I had to decide to either pay the $100/month insurance or tires, and I chose the insurance to keep driving it, and I hydro-planed on bald tires, not going fast either, and smacked a pole. Car was totaled. I got a lot of crap from local Judge owners, deservedly so. It got rebuilt (not by me), but it had to get a new frame, etc… and was not a numbers matching car anymore.
    Thanks for the memories.

  6. But even in this era the marketeers were on the lookout to get rid of these concepts. They had not gotten to the options list where to get A you had to get B,C,D,E, and F yet. But one thing they were doing was crippling one model to force people into another more expensive one. You could buy one of these oddly ordered cars in the more expensive model but often you couldn’t build a cheaper model into essentially the same thing never mind the cars being very close in what today is called the platform.

  7. RE: “It is said American car buyers have gone soft and won’t buy cars without all that content.”

    That’s not quite exactly a true statement. Here in rural Iowa – all over the hyways outside the city limits are UTV’s – they are just that, cars without all that content. The prices aren’t too terrible and even HomeDepot sells them. You can get a Vector 500 4WD 500cc Utility Vehicle for $8,000. Or, a 700 4WD 700cc UTV in Camo for $10,000.

    Tractor Supply has an 800 cc 60 HP fuel injected V-twin liquid cooled Massimo for about $14,000, which seems to be their most expensive offering.

    The mods people do to these things would be real interesting, imho.

    • Are they street legal (lights, turn signals, etc) or do the locals just know to watch out for them? We had a case a few years ago where two young people were riding a 4 wheeler on a country road at dusk. They were hit and killed by a pickup truck. The parents tried blaming the pickup truck driver but a) they didn’t have the headlight on (assume they have a tail light but I don’t know) and b) 55 mph = about 81 ft/sec and say the low beam gave 160 feet of distance that’s only 2 seconds to react in the best case.

        • That’s seems bass-ackwards. Little slow vehicles would pose practically no issue in town except for maybe noise (but that’s just mufflers etc) but out on a rural highway is where they would be in the way, hard to see, etc.

    • Folks drive side by sides and atv’s everywhere but the interstate and within city limits here in NWFLA. Within city limits tons of golf carts.
      Long live the redneck riveria!

  8. Probably not available anymore, but 15 years ago Mazda offered a “Club Spec” model MX5, which had some strippage. I do recall it did NOT have AC. What else it may have lacked I don’t recall. I believed it was intended for those who were going to do serious performance mods anyway.
    I’ve long bemoaned the fact that you can “build your car” on a makers website, but if you leave it stripped to a base model and do a search for availability, few if any are found. Not that there is such a thing as a “base” model anymore. Haven’t looked at trucks in a LONG time. Can you still buy a “fleet” model, which is mostly stripped for the purpose of keeping down price for working trucks?

  9. The only modern options I’d keep is AC and power mirrors. Other than that all the bells and whistles I don’t need are merely wasted money (e.g. I listen to Audible on the road, don’t need high end sound system for that). And I keep cars until the end of their life so it’s not like I’m worried about resale value of a car without the extras.

    • That’s about where I am as well. For decades, I have thought power windows, power locks, and cruise control were needless, although I do enjoy using cruise now.

      My first new car was a 1987 Acura Integra. It came with A/C, manual transmission, manual windows, locks, an AM/FM Casette, with no cruise, no sunroof and nothing else. It was the RS trim level. The LS came with cruise, an optional sunroof, aluminum wheels and power windows. The only difference was that the pile on the carpeting was a little thicker on the LS vs the RS. Big deal.

      A lesson is that in addition, a car doesn’t have to feel like a cheap POS to be a stripper model. The cost difference between the two was about $3k. I paid 11k for mine including tax. An LS was about $14k. In today’s money, that’s about a $6k difference. Imagine taking 6k out of today’s base model cars, which come equipped with features unheard of in 1987.

      I believe that the first car manufacturer who designs out some of the needless options could beat the chip shortage and sell a lot more cars. There has to be one…

  10. I often think about removing the unused passenger seats in my Cherokee. Not to save weight necessary, but because I can then customize the interior space for my needs. I’d love to have a nice working desk with storage, for example. Maybe even a small freshwater tank and space for a house battery. Sure I can fold seats down and have a flat cargo area, but all that mass is still there.

    So why not? Well, the front passenger side seat has an elaborate wiring harness. Some of those conductors run to an airbag. Some run to the seatbelt tattler. I’m fairly sure if I disconnect those wires I’ll get warnings and alarms. Back seat looks like a nightmare of clips and star-head bolts too. Then I have to find some place to keep the darn seats. Back in the day I knew someone who had a VW bus obsession. She had a rear seat in her apartment for a couch. No wires dangling down, no seat belts, just a bench and a back. Had to be careful to not rock it too much or you might end up on your back, but hey, when you’re 20 that’s a feature, not a bug.


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