21 March 2017

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.

7 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jaime Pando SC March 22, 2017 at 19:08
    It really displease me when this period of time is referred as the "malaise-era". I own a 75 Imperial, a 76 and a 77 ,Cordoba, which are probably some of the most ill spoken examples of this era, but their character, and panache, makes them some of the best vehicles to own. I love the way they look, ride, and the excitement they create among people wherever I go. I worked very diligently to make sure they were as original as Chrysler intended, and I feel they represent a transition era in American culture and industry. So, a little more respect and appreciation for our mid 70's jewels!
  • 2
    John Oakland, NJ March 22, 2017 at 19:21
    If you define the "malaise era" as 1973 through 1984, how can you omit the 1973 and 1974 Pontiac Trans Ams with the 290+ horsepower Superduty 455 powerplant. They were perhaps the only cars of that era that were able to run a sub 14-second quarter mile.
  • 3
    daryl judd Spokane March 22, 2017 at 19:29
    Why did you not mention the '83-84 Thunderbird? Those were miles ahead of these GM boxes, the beginning of actual aero styling, either a V-8 or turbo 4 cylinder and the V-6, these had actual build quality not seen in any GM vehicle at the time.
  • 4
    ACZ Southeast U.S. March 22, 2017 at 21:02
    I had four LeSabre Turbos, back in the day, as company cars. No, they were not as fast as a GN but they handled great. Fat stab bars, stiff but not uncomfortable springs, they were a blast to drive. Small, light engine in front, the car was very well balanced for it's size. I wish I had one today.
  • 5
    Billy Wisconsin March 22, 2017 at 22:39
    I have had a Mirada for 31 years. Its beautiful, a great road car. The 360 was only available in 1980, and only a very small number were made. The 318 and 225 made Chryslers MPG numbers they needed for the fleet total, so the 360 lost out. Too bad, it had more HP then the standard Corvette had that year. My Mirada is always a hit at the car shows, many do not even know what it is. Mine presently is getting some body work and a pro paint job in its original Nightwatch Blue color, so it will most likely out last me by a great many years.
  • 6
    Scott Allred Chico CA March 23, 2017 at 13:30
    There are many cars from this era that are in great shape, cheap, and fun to drive. If people would stop being so hypnotized by the Net HP ratings, and realize that many still have good, American V-8s in them, they can get some good deals! I had a '79 Chrysler Cordoba with the (E56) 360 4bbl motor. I removed the "lean-burn" ignition system and installed a Mopar Performance Ignition, put on a dual-snorkel air cleaner, and installed a "cat-back" exhaust system. I will tell you that car was great! I also saw 18 MPG on the highway many times, which for that heavy beast was not bad at all. There are many cars like this made in the years of this article. People should give them a try!
  • 7
    Chad Marquardt Cadillac MI March 23, 2017 at 16:15
    I have a 1979 Camaro Z 28 T top car that needs some restoration. I look forward to the day my son and I start to work on it. I do remember the Z 28 on Fast Times, it reminded of being a kid in Flint MI walking across Chevrolet Ave on my way to school and seeing these cars brand new with the Z 28 stripes and I thought that they are bad a$$ then and I still do. Sure the 350 we are putting in ours has a few goodies on it to up the horsepower. I cant wait to get behind the wheel, and go to our first cruise night as a family in it.

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