The Decontented Car

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Everyone has heard about muscle cars – but how many remember decontented cars? Often, such cars were both.

Examples include the “5.0” liter iterations of the 1980s-era Ford Mustang that weren’t Mustang GTs – but did have the same V8 engine and related performance equipment that came standard in the GT. What they didn’t have was the additional equipment that didn’t make the Mustang GT any faster but did make it more expensive.

As well as slower – due to the GT being heavier than the “5.0” Mustang, which the GT was because it came standard with more features that were decontented from the “5.0”

What you got, basically, was a base trim Mustang LX with the GT’s drivetrain. The “5.0” also came standard with a lower profile because it looked at a glance like a base Mustang LX. The only giveaways that it was a GT under the skin being the dual exhaust tips and the “5.0” badges, which could be removed if you really wanted to operate under the radar.

Another example was the Firebird Formula version of the much-more-famous Pontiac Trans-Am that almost everyone knows about.

The Formula was a Trans-Am in all but name – and appearance. It could be ordered with the Trans-Am’s drivetrain and even (in later years) the Trans-Am’s upgraded WS6 suspension, including four wheel disc brakes (a rare thing in the late ’70s, even in performance cars) and aluminum wheels (also rare in the late 1970s).

But unlike a Trans-Am, a Formula Firebird wasn’t as obvious an offender. It lacked the Trans-Am’s gaudy fender flares, chin spoiler and quarter panel vents. Even the rear decklid spoiler that came with every Trans-Am was optional. Formulas did come standard with a scooped hood, but it was not as telling as the Trans-Am’s obstreperous shaker scoop that poked through its hood and literally shook as the engine idled.

(One exception to the above rule was the very rare 1973-1974 Formula Formula Firebirds equipped with the Trans-Am’s available-those-years SD-455 engine; these Formulas did come standard with the Trans-Am’s shaker scoop.)

The point was if you wanted everything that made a Trans-Am fast but didn’t want everything that made it expensive, you could order a Formula without everything that did.

I knew a guy who owned a ’70 Formula that didn’t even have gauges – other than a speedometer and a fuel gauge – because the guy who bought it originally didn’t want to pay for the full set of Rally gauges -including tach, oil pressure and water temp gauges – that came standard in the Trans-Am. The car had 14 inch steel wheels with the base Firebird’s pop-them-on hubcaps (remember them?) and didn’t have any power options. Forget AC.

What it did have was the same-year Trans-Am’s Ram Air III high-performance 400 cubic inch V8 paired with a three speed manual transmission. In italics because all Trans-Am’s came standard with a four speed manual that year. But who needs fourth to run the quarter mile? And that’s all the person who originally ordered the car needed this car to do. He was able to do it for much less than it would have cost him to buy even a base Trans-Am that year because even a base Trans-Am came standard with a bevy of additional equipment that cost extra in other Firebird trims.

Extra costs that could be avoided, once.

Such costs are now standard equipment. You cannot buy a new Mustang with the 5.0 V8 that is standard in the GT without buying the GT. And the GT costs about $10k more to start than the base Mustang ($41,495 vs. $30,920). A new base trim Camaro (the Firebird has been gone for more than 20 years) stickers for $30,900 to start – with the V6. If you want the V8 that’s standard in the $42,300 Camaro SS you have to buy the SS.

In both case, you must also buy the things that have made even the base-trim versions of the 2024 Mustang and Camaro much more expensive than the V8-powered “5.0” and Formula versions of the Mustang and Firebird, respectively, once cost.

For example, in 1985 you could buy a decontented base trim Mustang LX for $6,989 (sticker) which works out to about $20,300 in today’s devalued paper money (“inflation” is a hugely misleading term that is used deliberately to get people to think that things cost more as opposed to their money buying less). That left a lot of money available to opt for the “5.0” equipment that resulted – effectively – in a GT that cost a lot less than a GT.

There are two main reasons why you can’t buy a decontented car anymore.

The first is that the car companies do not want to sell you one. They’d rather sell you the most expensive car they can get you to pay for and a great way to do that is to not offer lower-cost versions of the car you want. More finely, the car with the equipment you want – and none that you don’t. It is why the performance equipment is only available in the performance trim – and those trims typically come with lots of additional equipment, all of which you must pay for to get the performance equipment.

But there is also another reason.

It is more expensive (and perhaps even no longer economically possible) for the car companies to offer decontented cars as these would be different cars, in terms of their equipment and leaving off equipment on the assembly line can actually increase manufacturing costs in a one-size-fits-all era.

Add compliance costs to the mix.

The car companies are under pressure to sell fewer performance versions of a given model because these use more gas (and “emit” more of the dread gas, carbon dioxide) and that is why – perversely – they price their performance models higher so as to sell fewer of them. The reasoning buying that at least they can still offer them, even if fewer people can afford to buy them.

It makes you want to do burnouts in an old “5.0” LX, doesn’t it?

. . .

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48 COMMENTS

  1. The closest you could get to a decontented car in newer cars is the 6.4 SRT motors in the RT pkg of the Dodge Challenger/Charger in the form of the ‘Scat Pack’ package. Basically, they left out leather and sunroof. They weren’t exactly the “Sally Rands” of yesteryear, but again, several thousand cheaper than an SRT with the right powertrain.

    • Morning, DrOtto!

      It’s a shame Dodge couldn’t (as a practical matter) sell a truly de-contented version of the Challenger/Charger. One with just the drivetrain goodies but hold the power options and maybe even the AC. Just the 6.4 V8 and (ideally) the six speed manual. Wing vent windows would look great on the Challenger, I think! And one without air bags and a touchscreen would be even better.

  2. I’m like you, I grew up on C&D, MT, R&T, and to some degree AutoWeek. I left no issue unread or unmemorized. I was “immortalized” in the May 1998 issue of R&T by asking about the current Mustang being on the Ford Fairmont’s Fox Platform and the bet I had with my roomate, double or nothing on that month’s rent. I’ve noticed ever since then the Fox platform is mentioned every time a mustang through the 5th gen is mentioned. Before that I could find no answers, even Dennis Simanaitas, whom I called and talked to, was unsure and suggested I “mail” not email the editor.
    That all being said, cars are dead. When I say that, I mean that Cars/Trucks/SUV’s are now appliances. They have no personality and the styling is always a variation on the same thing. I have no interest in a new car with the upcoming “safety switch” or all the stupid tech that doesn’t work or worse, is a danger to those who trust in it. I have a ’16 Navigator, and it’s certified and I’ll keep re certifying it as long as I can. After that, I’m buying a classic car. Personally, I think many people are where I’m at. New cars have lost their appeal. I think you should change your site’s direction to instead of focusing non-stop on all the stupid tech and the problems with the EV’s, you should assume that we all get it. Those that will be convinced have been, those that are brain-washed will remain so until some strange event red-pills them.
    So my suggestion is to focus on using classic cars as daily drivers and the associated problems with maintaining them. I think you will find a hunger for this information and you are the guy to provide it.

    • Hi Bryan,

      Your observations and suggestions are sound and – I’m working on it! One of the reasons I got the lift for my garage was precisely for the reasons you bring up (and then some).

  3. I think the only way this exists today is with trucks. So, I have a ’20 F150 XL model, but with the 2.7L ecoboost, locking rear differential, and 3.55 gears. $31k out the door in April 2020. Of course, this same powertrain is available, maybe even as standard equipment, in higher end trims. However, lots of extra bells and whistles that I, as a consumer, don’t value.

    The lack of getting good powertrain, or having to buy a lot of what you DONT want in order to get the one or two things you DO want (via packages, or wholesale trim upgrades) really pisses me off. Wanting to buy new Subaru Outback for the wife, and seat warmers are a must-have. Not available in the base package. So, Outback Premium is then necessary, for $3500 more. (Trying to sell to the wife, the idea of aftermarket seat warmers…) which is what I would do if the car was for me. Oh well, pick your marriage battles…

  4. I understand the sentiment. when it’s time to buy my next truck, I will be getting a 2500 series with as few options as I need, basically a trailer towing package & 4×4.

    Too bad it will be full of computers to break everything.

  5. Plymouth Barracudas are selling for 157,000 to 179,000 USD the custom restorations, a basic original model will run you 10,000 dollars.

    I test drove one one time, it had 50 some thousands of miles on the odometer. I found a oil change sticker near the driver’s door, it said more than 75,000 miles. I showed it to the salesman, he grabbed it from me. Where do you go from there?

    Still should have bought it for 800 dollars.

    I’d be rich! har

  6. It is more expensive (and perhaps even no longer economically possible) for the car companies to offer decontented cars as these would be different cars, in terms of their equipment and leaving off equipment on the assembly line can actually increase manufacturing costs in a one-size-fits-all era.

    Hence the antics of companies like BMW, which tried to charge a monthly fee to activate heated seats. Expect more of this in the future – the car will come fully equipped (since it’s cheaper to build it in as few variations as possible), but will require a subscription for certain features to be activated. (And of course, if you employ a workaround to activate the feature for free, it will void your warranty, or even worse.)

  7. Wish I had the old ’54 Ford pickup with a stepside box, a six cylinder, and could go back in time. Had all of the content necessary to make it go, all that mattered back then.

    When you are 18, you begin to have young women on your mind.

    Another winter of discontent, it is dark too.

    The auto companies have turned into trained dogs, mules, horses, even camels and llamas.

    Adhere to the diktats of the trainers, don’t have to think for yourself, just comply like beasts of burden.

    There’s a new strain of bullshit and a third-wave of propaganda just been discovered… the lies have mutated

  8. “Hold the pickle hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us…”

    One of the ways Burger King differentiated itself from McDonalds was the fact that they made your burger as you ordered it, as opposed to the clown who made extras and kept them on a warming tray. McD could process orders faster but if they ran out of “buffer” then the kitchen would back up. Serial vs parallel cooking.

    Factories used to be run more like Burger King. But when US manufacturers looked at Japan they found they could build complicated subassemblies in cheaper factories and have them shipped “just in time” to the final assembly plant, saving warehousing space and some amount of time. But it meant less customization since that would screw up the supply chain.

    Now we have ridiculous ideas like BMW’s heated seats and Tesla’s Autopilot options being nothing more than a software flag. Much like IBM’s “golden screwdriver” that would suddenly make your mainframe run faster, it’s cheaper to just build one box and throttle it than it is to custom build at factory scale.

    I would think there’s a real potential grey market for unlocking features, for the right hacker.

    • It’s getting difficult, because body control modules are now locked down with cryptography. In the past, they were usually standard microcontrollers with standard memory interfaces, and you could just snoop what’s happening with logic analyzers or even connect to a debug port that most boards had, but now, there’s a secure boot loader which blocks unauthorized code and even encryption between modules, so it’s hard to snoop and reverse engineer the signals.

      I used to do this kind of thing, but now, you can’t really “hack” stuff anymore, you have to build a workalike replacement, which is difficult when you can’t snoop the data bus.

      • It will require someone with a lot of time and motivation for sure. There’s always reading traces on circuit boards and black box reverse engineering. The rise of custom silicon probably is another attempt at keeping prying eyes off the code.
        But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if suddenly a bunch of decompiled code just started appearing from Chinese factories. Maybe when they take Taiwan they’ll help themselves to whatever secret sauce is loaded up at the factory and start cloning F150 computers, this time with an unlock switch.

  9. First brand new car I bought was an 86 Mustang GT. 10.5K OTD with my brother’s Ford A plan discount! After the fact I was super bummed to discover about being able to buy the LX with the same powertrain. Not in any regard to the cost…but that the LX “notchback” was 200 lbs lighter than the GT hatchback! Thats a huge gain in acceleration contests! I should buy me a used one someday soon!

  10. I can remember the original Plymouth Road Runner with the rubber floor mats and “taxicab” interior. These cars were relatively inexpensive, and were wickedly fast, even with the “base” 383 engine. Those were indeed the days…

  11. Yes, those were the days. Even with the emissions regs choking the life out you could still have a nice driving car. Eric mentioned the WS6 suspension package from GM, a must have if you liked slinging your car through the corners.

    My first post high school job was working for a local car rental business owned by a Seattle Buick dealer. The fun part of the job was ferrying cars around the Puget Sound area, from Vegas to Electra 225s. I was pleasantly shocked the first time I drove a ‘74 Monte Carlo, that beast with the 8 ft hood drove unlike any other big GM car. Perfect tracking, quick steering, minimal roll in the corners. Found out later DeLorean was in charge of the Monte redesign for ‘73. He had the crew analyze his Mercedes suspension and the result was a radical departure for GM suspension design. Five degree caster angle ensured it would drive straight, huge roll bar in the rear for flatter cornering. It all worked together making for a real nice driving big car.

      • Yes, back in the early ‘70s the city cleaned up Pioneer Square, nicer restaurants moved in. It was worth a drive from the ‘burbs into downtown then for a nice night out. Dad was Seattle born (1914) and raised. He was thrilled with the ‘70s “rebirth”. Sure gone to s**t now.

    • Re: Monte Carlo
      Great reference Sparkey. Forgot about those, and yes they were really good, relative.
      My mom had the Pontiac Grand Prix version and it was a great car of my youth, but with low HP.

  12. I’ve always been a fan of what I call ‘sleeper’ cars. Look plain but go fast.
    Some of my fav’s in the 90’s were the Park Ave with the blown 3.8, and the Impalla SS which most cops probably thought it was one of them when it went by at 80 in a 55, haha…..
    There is absolutely a psychology to it.

    • Girlfriend’s mom, 1973, mom-sie had a sleeper ‘63 white Impala with a 409. No smog gear in ‘63 cars, all power all the time from that 409! She would chuckle about smoking some home grown hot rodder stoplight to stoplight.

      • My “sleeper” was a 1966 Plymouth Satellite with a 426 “wedge”. 915 heads and a “six pack” carb setup. 12.5:1 compression made normal starting like the dead of winter, no matter the outside temperature. From “dog dish” hubcaps to a normal stance, I would “play” with my street racing opponents by maintaining a 1/2 to 1 car distance ahead of them while not even “breathing hard” (engine wise). I was always asked “man, what you got in that thing?” Those were fun (if not sometimes irresponsible) times.
        We had two “public road” dragstrips (with no cross traffic) on the east side of Detroit. Fun times indeed…

        • Holy criminy! Those were light cars too, what a combo. The high compression motor start, “oh please” as the starter motor stalls out trying to push thru the 12+ compression!

    • My husband is also a fan of sleepers. He had a 2011 Dodge Ram 1500 when we got married (which we still have). At some point I noticed that some other 1500 Rams had Hemi stickers on the front fender panel just behind the wheel well. Being that our Ram has the Hemi V8, I asked my husband how come ours didn’t have those same stickers. He laughed and said he removed them. I asked why, and he said he wanted a sleeper…. Plus, when he bought the truck he procured a chip (from a relative in the automotive industry) that he swapped out for the factory installed one. The replacement chip does something to increase the engine horse power – while still enabling it to pass emissions inspections.

      Speaking of sleepers, my mom had an 87′ Buick Century T-Type. While not a hard-core sleeper, still, that car would move out when you hit the gas. Had a lot more power than the 83′ Regal she traded in for it. One time I was driving it (with neither of my parents being present, I might add) I got the speedometer needle to point straight down to my feet! No idea how fast I was going, as cars of that era had that stupid speedometer panel that only went up to 85….

      • Those were nice cars, GM finally woke up and started building small cars with big car comfort, thanks Buick! We had one for a few years. ‘87 had the better V6, the 3800 with sequential fuel injection. Finally, a motor that met emissions but with good punch when you hit the gas. That explains your fun with burying the speedo!

        • That gm 3.8 probably one of their best. And in supercharged trim it was really great (for me) back then.
          I bought a few later model 3.9’s in Impalla’s (the FWD suckers) and it wasn’t the same. This was the timeframe GM started touting the religion of ‘mpg first’.

    • My best friend convinced his mother to buy a Regal with the turbo V6. He used it to remove about 200 feet of guardrail on Ohio street one afternoon.

  13. Tell me about it everything is bundled. Getting a new car….oh you want leather in the seats? Ohh well then! Looks like you need to opt for the “premium package”. That only comes with the “performance package”. Basically the only things you end up being able to choose are ancillary options. Driving Assist package? No? How about the Driving Assist Professional package”. Surely you want the Shadowline package. Geez whoop dee do. The shadowline package. How about the electrified version?? Its the future come on don’t you want it? You can get it three months earlier!

  14. I had a GXE Maxima with cloth seats, a 5-speed manual and hubcaps (I later bought some Maxima OEM wheels off EBay). It had no Bose, no sunroof, no spoiler, but was very fast and comfortable. The stock suspension was a bit floaty, but it did handle well.

    I used to say “I want the biggest engine and brakes with nothing else.” The only place you can get that now is with a truck and I don’t know how much longer that’s going to be around.

  15. I never appreciated these Mustangs when they were new. They were just some new platform whatever Ford called a “Mustang” . I resented the abandonment of any sort of connection to the original one.
    The size was just right. What we have now is the modern version of the 71-73 bloater. These seem perfect in comparison and very much like the original in length and other proportions.
    A shame that I just dismissed them. Over time they became as recognizable as a “Mustang” as the 65-66 is.

    • Ditto, Bostwick –

      It’s true that we often don’t appreciate what we had until it’s gone. The “5.0” Mustang being an example of that…

    • I don’t know. They look good now for sure. Any Mustang built since 2015 hasn’t looked like a Mustang at all. Sure, they have the go fast engine, but they are too tarted up with electronic garbage to be worth more than 2 cents for me.

      I never liked the 79-93 Fox Mustangs. Too boxy. My faves were the 94-04 Mustangs. The 05-10 were problematic with the 3V engine. I heard the 4V solved a lot of those issues. My favorites were the modular SOHC mustangs or even the old 150 HP V6. You could still burn the tires in one. I miss those cars.

  16. I have always preferred a base model trim with cloth seats, etc. They’re much simpler and tend to age better. The LX 5.0 Mustang was a great thing indeed. Affordable, fast and simple. What more could you want?

    Porsche found a way to increase the price of its 911 by de-contenting them.

  17. Perhaps if there is a huge demand for the Ram 1500 Classic, which I suspect there will be, Ram and other makers may offer similar option models?

    • Forget the manufacturers. A dealer won’t make any money off of a Ram 1500 classic either, and it is still easy to talk a man into $1300 worth of monthly truck payment even when it is a third of his household income.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey60bCnjr64

      The F&I room was shameless with that guy.

      America has to get its “needs” straight before this thing turns around.

  18. My youngest bought one of those 85 LX Mustangs with the 5.0. It was probably about 10 years old when he got it, so it was pretty much a beater by then, but it sure was fun. Someone before him had put magna flow mufflers on it, so it definitely didn’t fly under the radar. As I recall, no options at all. No power windows or locks, no cruise, no ac. Might have had an AM radio, but that’s about it. Even better, though it’s hard to remember that far back, I think he only paid about 500 bucks for it.

  19. ‘You cannot buy a new Mustang with the 5.0 V8 that is standard in the GT without buying the GT. And the GT costs about $10k more. … Add compliance costs to the mix.’ — eric

    Eric raises a fascinating question: when it comes to ‘gas-guzzler’ fines on larger-engined models that push a manufacturer’s fleet out of compliance with CAFE, how much are they actually being charged by the US fedgov?

    This has got to be public information. Hypothesis: larger, noncompliant engines are offered only in top-of-the-line trims, so that ‘gas-guzzler’ fines can be concealed within the multi-thousand dollar upcharge. Anybody feel like investigating this? CAFE penalties are passed on to buyers — and their foul burden can (and should) be made explicit, I think.

  20. It’s a shame that performance models (sleepers or otherwise) as a whole seem to be winnowing away.
    In 1993, a customer could walk into a Chevrolet dealership and have performance options on nearly every model and price point. Cavalier z24, Beretta GT/GTZ, Lumina z34, Camaro z28 and of course the Corvette. You could even get a performance truck with the final year C1500 454SS. (And the Impala SS return was only a year away.)
    Despite most of those performance models now being considered “slow” by today’s standards, at least the intent was once there to give customers multiple choices.

    • I remember those days….I had a 92 Cavalier with the sport package. It only had a 4 cylinder (with not much more hp than a lawn tractor, but was certainly better than an 85′ Dodge Aries K which was the slowest car I’ve ever driven) but it had the sporty look. I guess it was the opposite of a sleeper, kind of like a king snake looks like a coral snake but lacks its venomous punch…
      While it wasn’t quick, it did handle well and was pretty reliable. It was comfortable to drive long distances in, and it actually had a good bit of interior room for a small car. Plus, you could fold back the rear seats and carry a surprising amount of stuff (as long as it wasn’t too heavy). I had it up to 155K miles when someone ran a stop sign and totaled it.
      But sadly it is difficult to even get a basic small car like that these days, especially one where you can pick and choose what you want.

      • Those J-cars used to be everywhere.
        I believe you could still get the V6 as an option on the RS – to save money over the Z24.
        Low 16 1/4s and low 8’s of 0-60 wasn’t too shabby considering the terrible performance of cars starting about 15 years prior.
        Definitely not much cheap new fun to be had on any new car lots.

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