1 August 2013

Heavier. Slower. Safer.

Cars of the Malaise Era

The 1970s have been called “the decade without quality control.” Classic rock gave way to disco, plastic replaced metal in nearly everything and that powder blue polyester prom tux was, let’s face it, a far cry from the classy wool duds Dad wore to prom in the 1950s.

The automobile faced a similar fate. The period of 1973–85 has come to be known as the Malaise Era, and here we mark its 40th anniversary — the introduction of the 1974 model year in the fall of 1973. Either the cars reflected the times or the times came to mirror the cars. In any event, it was hardly an era of optimism, with Vietnam still an open wound, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the impossibility of inflation and stagnation at the same time.

The first golden age of automotive performance (we’re in the second one now) ended abruptly in 1973. Not unlike the dinosaurs near the end of their time, the muscle car population had been under stress from various directions. A comet or an asteroid strike delivered the knockout blow to Tyrannosaurus rex and his seemingly endless Cretaceous buffet of defenseless herbivores. However, the comet that ended the days of horsepower-driven fun was the Arab Oil Embargo in the fall of 1973. Or so it might have seemed.

Other contributors to the Malaise Era were plentiful: Insurance companies were coming down harder on performance cars, and safety and emissions regulations, which bowed in 1967, were getting ever more onerous. The requirement of bumpers that could withstand a 5 mph collision without damage also did much to damage the looks of Malaise Era cars. With few exceptions, the new bumpers evoked battering rams.

Pollution regulations mandated restrictive exhaust systems, lower compression ratios, leaned-out carburetion, air-injection pumps, thermal reactors and retarded ignition timing, all of which hurt drivability and performance. Big-block engine options were sacrificed to the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, enacted in 1975. Adding insult to injury, congress voted in a 55 mph national speed limit as an “emergency” conservation measure. The long national nightmare lasted 13 years.

The Poster Children

The Malaise Era was famously the era of the Pinto, Vega, Chevette, Pacer, Mustang II and Citation. But was it really as bad as we remember, or is it a case of the bad old days really not being so bad after all? Perhaps it was a little bit of both. One thing is certain, though: Contrary to popular belief, there were some truly great cars produced during the Malaise Era, to go along with the clinkers.

Perhaps the car most emblematic of the Malaise Era was the Ford Mustang II of 1974–78. To this day, anything that carries the Pony badge has large shoes to fill. The Mustang II had the unenviable task of replacing the first-generation Mustang, which was one of the most revered and admired cars of all time. Pinto-based and with no V-8 option upon introduction, the II never had a prayer of being accepted into the Mustang fraternity. Even when Ford decided to offer the 5.0-liter V-8, it was so emasculated that it never made much more than 140 hp. A loud stripe package and the “Cobra II” name did nothing to hide the fact that this was a car incapable of a sub-10-second 0–60 mph run.

General Motors did a little better by the Mustang’s chief rival; most Malaise Era Z/28s at least made in the vicinity of 180 hp. It was the X-car, however, that was GM’s prime contender for one of the malaziest cars of all time. The X-cars were GM’s bid to build a modern front-wheel-drive compact. To the extent that any are remembered at all, the Chevrolet Citation comes to mind, although the automotive fossil record does contain the Pontiac Phoenix as well as the Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark. Built from 1980 to 1985, the X-cars did enormous damage to GM’s reputation, putting together a most unenviable record for recalls and poor quality control.

Spring Again for Performance

Yet, as fun as it is to dump on the Pintos, Vegas, Matadors and Mustang IIs of the era, some good and even truly great cars made it onto American roads. Ironically, the much-derided Citation had a performance variant — the Citation X/11 — which was actually a credible sport sedan. It even put up numbers that bested the BMW 320i. The X/11 was actually the spiritual successor to another hot version of a badly regarded Malaise Era car, the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega.

Much scorn has been heaped upon the Corvettes of the period, but in reality, only the infamous California 305 Corvette from the 1980 model year deserved anything approaching the lack of respect directed toward the 1974–82 C3 Corvette. Actually, Corvettes were among the best cars of the Malaise Era. Quality didn’t really suffer, and both Car and Driver and Road & Track consistently got sub-seven-second 0–60 times from L82-optioned cars, while C/D clocked a base 1976 four-speed L48 car at 6.8 seconds from 0 to 60 mph — at the height (depth?) of the era. Corvettes even weathered the dreaded 5 mph bumper storm nicely, with an attractive urethane nose arriving in 1973 and a matching tail in 1974. C3s from this era are among the best bargains in the Corvette world.

Germany produced some truly sensational cars during the Malaise Era, the most notable being the mighty 911 Turbo Carrera, or 930, of 1976. With a sub-five-second 0–60 time and capable of a 13.9-second quarter-mile, the 930 was the match of nearly any muscle car from the previous decade. Audi met the challenge of the 930 in a different way, with a fat-fendered, all-wheel-drive version of its very pretty 4000-based GT coupe. Known as the Quattro coupe, it set the rally world on fire when it arrived in 1981, and it is generally regarded as one of the most significant cars of the late 20th century.

As the fuel crisis receded further into history and the country in general began to get its mojo back, performance was no longer a dirty word. Advances in emissions controls, such as electronic fuel injection and the Bosch oxygen sensor and three-way catalyst, allowed for greater performance tuning.

The long-dormant muscle car culture at Ford and GM began to wake up, and 1985 became a watershed year; the Fox-body 5.0-liter Mustang saw its cylinder heads reworked, and rated horsepower climbed above 200 for the first time since the early 1970s. Buick was the other standard bearer and took a different route with the turbocharged V-6 Regal T-Type (later the Grand National and GNX), which also broke the 200-hp barrier. After that, the floodgates opened, as cars as diverse as Shelby-modified Dodge Omnis and the Mazda RX-7 Turbo II blazed onto the scene. The final nail in the coffin of the Malaise Era came when the national speed limit was raised to 65 mph in 1987.

If the Malaise Era proved anything, it’s the truth of the old saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

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