Mustache Muscle: The best of Malaise-era American performance

The Malaise Era is the tongue-in-cheek name for the period lasted from roughly 1973 through 1984. High compression big-block engines, leaded gas and SAE gross horsepower ratings were all things of the past, along with sub-15 second quarter mile times and muscle cars. Malaise Era performance cars made do with gimmickry and graphics. But to Gen-Xers, they’re oddly appealing and modern technology allows the cars perform the way they should have all along. Here are five Malaise Era greats, alphabetically:

1978-81 Buick Le Sabre Turbo Sport Coupe- Buick was just trying to wring a few more MPGs out of its newly downsized Le Sabre when it tried the then-novel exhaust-driven turbo out on its 231-cid V-6. What it built was the Malaise Era’s version of a 1960s Skylark. Although the Le Sabre Turbo only managed between 160 and 170 hp (depending on the year), that was, believe it or not, more than most Detroit V-8s were pushing in those days. Blacked out trim, Strato Bucket seats and a center console made the Sport Coupe most un-Buick-like. With only about 13,000 built, Le Sabre Sport Coupes are rather rare.

1978-81 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28- The second generation Camaro was an undeniably good-looking car. Few Gen-Xers can look at one without remembering the classic movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which a Z/28 owned by high-school football star Charles Jefferson (played by the great Forest Whitaker) comes to a very bad end. A bit less potent than Trans Ams of the era, urethane-nose Z/28s were powered by the ubiquitous Chevy 350-cid V-8 that produced between 175 and 185 hp.

1980-83 Dodge Mirada- The Mirada is one of the more obscure Mopar products from the time leading up to the first of several Chrysler financial crises. Since paying creditors was more important than marketing spend, the Mirada didn’t get a whole lot of love. It is however, a decently proportioned, and good-looking, sporty personal luxury car. Its 360-cid V-8 produced a then-respectable 185 hp. The Mirada was supposed to herald Chrysler’s return to NASCAR. And while Richard Petty opined that the racing version looked pretty slick, in reality, it had a UPS truck’s aerodynamics.

1983-84 Hurst Oldsmobile Cutlass H/O- When I first saw the pictures of the console of the 1983 Hurst Olds, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. The car had no less than three shifters sprouting out of the center console. It reminded me of a Saturday Night Live parody commercial of a digital watch so complicated, that it required three human hands pressing multiple buttons just to tell the time. It was no joke. There are, in fact, multiple YouTube videos that demonstrate the proper way to use a Hurst Lightning Rod shifter. It has to be one of the silliest gimmicks of the Malaise Era.

1977-78 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am- The Smokey and the Bandit-era Trans Am with the “Batmobile” nose was probably the best loved and most wanted of Malaise Era muscle cars. The whole “Mustache Muscle” genre comes from the famous ‘stache worn by the Bandit himself, Burt Reynolds. The 1978 version of the T/A with a 400-cid V-8 making 220 hp was not a bad performer. Road & Track got their test car to go 0-60 in 6.5 seconds, or about the same as their Porsche 911SC test car of the same year. Bandit-era T/As have appreciated significantly over the last five years.