After dying off in the early 1970s, the great American muscle car was reborn a decade later
By most accounts, America’s original muscle car was born in 1964 with the Pontiac GTO. The breed died off about 10 years later, with another Pontiac, the 455 Super Duty Firebird, which briefly kept hopes alive in 1973 and ’74. Sure, the Trans Am did survive the 1970s — and even rolled on uninterrupted into the current millennium — albeit in a vastly diminished state. Save for Chevrolet’s Corvette — always in a class of its own — surprisingly, Detroit’s hottest offering by 1978 was Dodge’s Li’l Red Express pickup truck.
As Rob Sass detailed in Fall 2013 (“Heavier, Slower, Safer: Cars of the Malaise Era”), tightening federal emissions standards, followed by soaring fuel costs, forced the fall from grace. Low-lead gas arrived in 1971, and this octane-challenged distillate required lowered compression, which explains why all high-squeeze, high-power engines (Mopar Hemi, Ford Cobra Jet, etc.) failed to see 1972. The dreaded performance strangling catalytic converter arrived three years later and further inhibited horsepower. By 1975, most industry watchers figured they’d seen their last muscle car.
They were wrong.
Cut to the bone during the 1970s, horsepower didn’t stand a chance of a comeback until engineers discovered how to marry oomph and efficiency. Early attempts to squeeze as many ponies as possible from emissions-controlled, low-compression engines involved bolting on exhaust driven turbochargers. Standouts included Pontiac’s turbo Trans Am V-8, introduced in 1980, and Dodge’s Omni-based GLH and GLHS variants.
Dearborn’s Euro-style SVO Mustang, introduced in 1984, also relied on boost, in this case using a 2.3-liter intercooled turbo four that initially produced 175 horsepower, then peaked at 205 for 1986.
While Buick engineers also chose to take the unnaturally aspirated route, they added two more cylinders to their Regal to yield the bad, black Grand Nationals, built from 1984 to 1987. Output for the GN’s intercooled 3.8-liter V-6 turbo ranged from 200 to 245 horsepower, and published quarter-mile times ran as low as 14.2 seconds. Even more impressive was Buick’s “Super Grand National,” the GNX, created in 1987 with the help of McLaren Engines and the American Sunroof Company (ASC). Featuring 276 pressurized ponies, this limited-edition beauty could smoke the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds.
Every bit as bodacious as the GNX was Pontiac’s 20th Anniversary Trans Am GTA, unleashed in 1989 with another version of Buick’s boosted V-6, now producing 250 horses. Although published quarter-mile times read 13.4 seconds, the 0–60 clocking was a sensational 4.6 ticks, making the T/A “the quickest sprinter in any U.S. showroom at any price,” according to Car and Driver.
Clearly, turbocharging played an important role in the rebirth of American high performance, but so did the advent of electronic fuel injection (EFI). Replacing clunky carburetors with computer controlled fuel delivery systems opened the door to horsepower levels never imagined previously, and this newfound precision simultaneously worked wonders for fuel economy and emissions.
In 1970, Pontiac engineers were among Detroit’s first to successfully test an EFI system in a V-8, inspiring Motor Trend’s Karl Ludvigsen to claim that the advance “could be the vital link in enabling the internal combustion engine to meet stringent emission standards.” And if not for California’s always-tougher smog standards, domestic EFI advances might have taken even longer.
By 1980, Corvettes sold in California were relegated to a mundane 180-hp 305-cid small-block, which used stainless steel tubular headers and a “Computer Command Control” system that automatically adjusted carburetor mixture and ignition timing. These advances were applied to the 1981 Corvette, and further tweaks resulted in the 1982 Corvette’s truly fresh innovation: “Cross-Fire Injection.”
Cross-Fire Injection was Chevrolet’s high-performance variation on GM’s throttle-body injection (TBI). Simpler and less costly than EFI systems, the TBI setup featured a pair of Rochester supplied injector units commanded by an electronic control module (ECM) capable of dealing with up to 80 variable adjustments per second.
Cross-Fire Injection also became a Camaro option in 1982, but only for the Z/28’s 305-cid LU5 V-8, rated at 165 horsepower. Boosted by 10 horses, the LU5 returned for the 1983 Z/28, then was replaced in 1984 by the L69, a 190-hp 305 topped by a conventional carburetor. Pontiac also offered Cross-Fire Injection as a Trans Am option in 1982 and 1983.
Chevrolet’s first true EFI system, called Tuned-Port Injection (TPI), appeared in 1985, again for both Corvette and Camaro. The Corvette’s L98 350 produced 230 real horsepower, while the Camaro’s 5.0-liter LB9 small-block was advertised at 215 horses for the Z/28 and the new IROC-Z, named for the International Race of Champions series. These Camaros remained on the scene until 1992, during which time GM’s 5.0-liter TPI V-8 served equally well beneath Pontiac pony car hoods.
Countering Chevy’s Cross-Fire Injection Z/28 in 1982 was Ford’s revived Mustang GT, powered by a new two barrel carbureted 5.0-liter High Output V-8 producing 157 horsepower. Fitting a four-barrel in 1983 helped raise the GT’s output to 175 horsepower. Though Ford debuted Electronic Engine Control (EEC) for carburetor applications in 1978 and entered the modern injected age in 1980, with its 5.0-liter EFI-equipped Lincoln Versailles, initially Dearborn didn’t allow its latest technology to trickle down into its pony car ranks.
Thoroughly modernizing the Mustang was left to the Special Vehicle Operations guys, who needed half as many cylinders and 162 fewer cubic inches to make the same horsepower as the HOV-8. Dearborn engineers had first mated a turbocharged four-cylinder with port fuel injection in the 1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, and a similar combo was further enhanced the next year with cutting-edge EEC IV electronics to power the SVO Mustang, effectively sealing the carburetor’s fate at Ford.
As impressive as it was, the SVO Mustang stuck around only until 1986, the same year an injected V-8 was introduced for the ever-faster GT. Exhaling through true dual exhausts, the 1986 GT’s 5.0-liter HO produced 200 horsepower, thus joining the battle with Chevy’s TPI Camaro for street supremacy. GT output reached 225 horsepower in 1987, arguably making it Detroit’s biggest bang for the buck until 1993, when Chevrolet unveiled a redesigned Camaro with the Corvette’s LT1 V-8. The competition really got rolling from there.
Today’s muscle breed is alive and well like never before. For the most part, collectors have yet to embrace many of the 1980s’ best, perhaps because they’re still viewed as “too new” to be collectible. But just as it did nearly 30 years ago, their time will come.