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The top 10 worst ‘Malaise Era’ muscle cars

Published July 25, 2012

With governments around the world stepping in with tougher fuel economy regulations, and automakers responding with smaller engines across their lineups, for readers of a certain age, it’s hard not to think we may be edging back into the Malaise Era—part two.

Coined by automotive journalist Murilee Martin, the term Malaise Era is defined by the years between 1973 and 1983, when multiple oil crises, government-mandated fuel economy and emissions standards, and economic woes killed-off the mega-horsepower muscle cars from the late 1960s and early 1970s, leaving emasculated models that were all show with little go.

As a reminder of how bad these so-called “muscle cars” once were, chronologically, here are my 10 worst Malaise Era “muscle” cars:

1971 to 1975 Ford Maverick Grabber

The “all-new” for 1970 compact Maverick was a virtual ox-cart, essentially a re-bodied 1960 Ford Falcon. And to try and hide its lack of freshness, Ford launched the Maverick Grabber pseudo-muscle car, a sheep in wolf’s clothing if there ever was one.

While first-year Grabbers only offered wheezy straight-sixes, at least the ‘71s saw the Mustang’s 5.0-litre V8 employed. Not that 210 horsepower was anything to get excited about. Underhood performance only got worse as the years went on and the smog controls were added. In the end, the Grabber’s emasculated eight was making a mere 129 hp.

1974 Pontiac GTO

In response to the compact muscle cars like the Maverick Grabber, General Motors’ Pontiac division moved its legendary GTO nameplate from its original Tempest/LeMans mid-sizer home to the compact Ventura platform. Needless-to-say, its performance equally shrank.

After peaking with various GTO “big block” 7.5 L V8s (making in excess of 370 hp), the ’74 GTO came with a “small block” 5.7 L eight, producing a weak-kneed 200 hp.

1976 to 1977 Dodge Charger Daytona

As a low-volume, homologation special that ended up a NASCAR legend, the original 1969 Charger Daytona came by its name honestly. However, its Malaise Era successor never enjoyed such credible success.

On top of its gaudy two-tone vinyl stripe-and-decal package (that tried to mask its voluminous fenders), Dodge’s Chrysler Cordoba-clone offered virtually no (zero, nada, zip, etc.) performance improvements under its hood. So instead of the original Daytona’s 375 to 425 hp engines, the ’76-’77 versions wheezed along with only 245 hp on tap.

1976 to 1980 Plymouth Volare Road Runner/Dodge Aspen R/T Super Coupe

No amount of vinyl stripes, decals, window louvres, T-tops, or spoilers could mask the lack of performance from this pair of Chrysler Malaise Era muscle cars.

Only five years removed from the peak of Mopar performance (where a 440 Six Pack V8 with three two-barrel carbs pumped out over 390 hp) the compact Volare/Aspen twins offered 5.2 or 5.9 L V8s, coughing out between 150 and (wait for it!) 170 hp.

1978 Ford Mustang II King Cobra

The Mustang will be 50 years old in 2014. And like a lot of the Ford pony car’s loyal fans who are of a similar vintage, some years have been better than others. Yet it’s hard not to argue that the ’79 King Cobra is the low-point in ‘Stang history.

Five years before the 175 hp ’83 Mustang GT arrived with its 5.0 L V8 (the car that arguably closed the first Malaise Era), the Pinto-based Mustang II King Cobra had a hard time getting out of its own way, weighed down by hectares of vinyl decals and pin striping, and puffing out only 139 hp.

1978 to 1979 Oldsmobile 4-4-2

Like the Maliase Era Ventura GTO and Volare Road Runner, the late-1970s’ Olds 4-4-2 (4-barrel carburetor; 4-speed manual transmission; 2 exhausts) was a government-neutered former shadow of itself.

For its first year, the “downsized” ’78 4-4-2 could be had with either a 3.8 L V6 or an optional 5.0 L V8. At least it had a 4-barrel carb, and a four-speed manual gearbox standard, but it only put out 160 hp.

For ’79, a special-edition Hurst/Olds 4-4-2 was released, with a 5.7 L eight from Olds’ full-size sedans. But horsepower only went up by 10 to 170 hp.

1979 to 1980 AMC AMX

I can forgive lipstick-wearing pigs, but it’s hard to forgive AMC and its Malaise Era AMX cars. Working with a decrepit lineup of vehicles based on the 1960s Hornet, the ever-struggling AMC sullied any good will conjured by the original 1968-’70 two-seat AMX muscle car by applying the same three letters to a bunch of pin-stripe specials.

The most egregious example was the AMC Spirit-based versions. In ’78, the Spirit AMX’s 5.0 L V8 made a whopping (that’s sarcasm, folks) 130 hp. The eight was dropped the next year, supplanted by a 4.2 L six that was rated as low as 110 hp.

1980 to 1981 Mercury Capri Turbo RS

The mechanical twin to the equally un-awesome Mustang of the time, the Capri Turbo RS is a subtle reminder of the current trend of underhood downsizing.

Instead of the 140 hp 5.0 L V8 that was optional the year before (and would appear later), the Capri’s only “performance” mill was the legendarily unreliable turbocharged version of the naturally aspirated 2.3 L four, puffing out a mere 132 hp.

1980 Chevrolet Corvette California 305

Like the Mustang II King Cobra, this 1980 California 305 is the one model Corvette fans would hope has been forgotten. Not only was the car’s styling becoming a caricature of ‘Vettes from the past, emission controls had strangled horsepower down to record lows.

Because of California’s more stringent tailpipe emissions regulations, Corvettes sold in that state only came with a 5.0 L V8, mated to an autobox, and putting out only 180 hp. That said, the non-Cali ‘Vette’s 5.7 L mills made only 10 hp more…

1980 to 1981 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am

With the last of the 7.5 L V8s gone from the lineup in 1976, Pontiac struggled to keep its Firebird pony car relevant in an age when auto engineers could not keep up with government regulations.

But like what’s happening today, the General Motors’ brand tuned to forced-induction to make lemonade from lemons.

This particular lemon was Pontiac’s 4.9 L V8. By the late 1970s, it was producing about what you get from a modern compact car’s four-banger — about 150 hp. The solution was to add a turbocharger — et viola — Pontiac engineers found another 60 hp, and the Turbo Trans Am was born.

Unfortunately, period road tests saw 0-60 mph times between the non-turbo and Turbo Trans Am models virtually the same, around a leisurely eight seconds, mainly due to the turbo motors tendency to detonate at full-throttle.

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