Ford Bronco 302 (1969 - 1977)

24 Malaise Era American Cars That Were Actually Pretty Cool

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, American carmakers kept pushing performance boundaries, but then it all came crashing down. 1973 marks the beginning of what’s known as the malaise era, a period infamous for its underpowered and ugly cars that lasted until 1984.

It was a perfect storm of misery as the oil crisis, tightening emissions standards, and soaring insurance rates all hit simultaneously. Beautifully styled performance cars with high-compression engines running on leaded gas were crushed by regulations and became a thing of the past.

That being said, some malaise-era cars held on to their big-block V8s, although they did lose some power. Other models looked terrific thanks to the unique graphics that defined this era’s “performance” models. There were even vehicles that circumvented the regulations altogether by exploiting loopholes. Let’s look at some cool cars from one of the worst automotive periods.

1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD-455

1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD-455
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

While most legendary cars from the 1960s and early 1970s were neutered or completely gone by 1974, the Pontiac Firebird rose like a phoenix from the ashy remains of the American automotive industry.

The Trans Am with the Super Duty 455 engine was still around, and while it only produced 290 horsepower, it was still the highest-rated Detroit V8 in ’73 and ’74.

1980 Buick LeSabre Turbo Sport Coupe

Buick LeSabre Turbo
Image Credit: Lou Costabile / YouTube

In an attempt to improve the fuel consumption of its downsized LeSabre, Buick stumbled upon turbocharging, which was like black magic back in the late 1970s.

Once the 231-ci V6 engine received some breathing help, it churned out between 160 and 170 horsepower, which was more power than most V8s of this era. Buick only built around 13,000 LeSabre Sport Coupes, and who knows how many are left today?!

1974 Plymouth Barracuda

1974 Plymouth Barracuda
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

The Plymouth Barracuda kept its iconic design for 1974, and it was even packing a V8 engine, although the 426 Hemi and 440 versions were long gone.

At least the Barracuda still had two V8 options: a 150-horsepower 318-ci was the standard engine, and a 360-ci with 245 horsepower was the performance option. Car buyers shifted to more fuel-efficient models, and Plymouth sold fewer than 12,000 ‘Cudas in 1974.

1974 Pontiac GTO

1974 Pontiac GTO
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

The Pontiac GTO is often credited as the car that started the muscle car craze in 1964, and it was shocking how far the mighty had fallen just ten years later. In 1974, the GTO was reduced to being an option for the Pontiac Ventura, which was nothing more than a rebadged Chevy Nova.

It could only be had with a 350-ci V8 that produced 200 horsepower, and an optional four-speed manual with a Hurst shifter was available. Pontiac discontinued the GTO after 1974, and it only returned for a couple of years in the mid-2000s as a badge-engineered Holden Monaro.

1978 Mustang King Cobra

1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra II
Image Credit: WikiCommons.

The Mustang II isn’t exactly a sought-after classic. It sold like hotcakes in the 1970s, but only because it was an affordable car that sipped fuel. Ford then created the King Cobra version to boost sales.

The 1978 Mustang King Cobra had an aggressive chin spoiler, different wheels, and a King Cobra decal on the hood, a blatant rip-off of the Trans Am’s screaming chicken. Under the hood, it had a 302-ci V8 that produced a measly 139 horsepower, so its performance didn’t exactly match the bold styling.

1983 Hurst Oldsmobile Cutlass

1983 Hurst Oldsmobile Cutlass H/O
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

In 1983, Oldsmobile celebrated the first Hurst/Olds, introduced in 1968, by making an all-black 15th Anniversary Edition. It featured the Hurst Lightning Rod floor shifter, 15-inch chrome wheels, silver rocker panels, a power bulge hood, and a rear spoiler. The ’83 H/O’s 307-ci V8 sent 180 horsepower to the wheels via its unique transmission.

It proved to be a popular option, and while the original plan was to only build 2,500 cars, they sold 3,001 in 1983. Olds even brought it back in 1984 and sold an additional 3,500 units.

1982 Ford Mustang GT

1982 Ford Mustang GT
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Thankfully, by the end of the 1970s, Ford had moved away from the Pinto-based second-gen Mustang and introduced the Fox Body ‘Stang. It remained underpowered for the first couple of years, but that would gradually change.

In 1982, Ford reintroduced the GT trim, and it actually came with additional power, not just more aggressive styling like the King Cobra package. The new 5.0 pumped out 157 all-American horses, and Ford was only getting started.

1980 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

1980 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Throughout the ’70s, Chevrolet never gave up on the Camaro, and the second-gen car survived until 1981. Even the Z/28 performance trim made it into the new decade, but it had lost some ponies along the way.

The Camaro Z/28 was as gorgeous as ever, with spoilers, racing stripes, and fancy wheels. In 1980, it had a 165-horsepower 305 V8 and an optional 350 that produced a respectable 190 horsepower. The following year, the 350 only made 175 horses.

1977 Chevy Monza Mirage

Monza Mirage
Image Credit: Birgir & Björn Kristinsson/Flickr.

Chevrolet introduced the Monza coupe in 1975. Based on the Chevy Vega, the Monza was a smaller, more affordable alternative to the Camaro.

In 1977, Michigan Automotive Techniques Corp developed a package that turned the Monza into the Monza Mirage. The package consisted of widebody fender flares, spoilers, and racing stripes. Engine-wise, the Monza could be ordered with a 145-horsepower V8.

1973 Chevy Corvette 454

454 Chevy Corvette C3
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

In 1973, Chevrolet introduced the 454-ci LS-4 big-block V8 to the Corvette. It was a replacement for the LS-5 version, and with 275 horsepower, it convinced 15% of Corvette buyers to opt for the massive lump.

All ’73 ‘Vettes had a new cowl induction hood which increased horsepower and lowered acceleration times. The 454 lost a few horses in 1974, and in 1975, the big block engine was no longer available.

1976 Plymouth Volare Road Runner

Plymouth Volare Road Runner
Image Credit: WikiCommons.

In the 1960s, the Plymouth Road Runner was one of the most popular muscle cars, thanks to its powerful 426 Hemi and 440 Six Pack V8 engines. It even spawned the Plymouth Superbird NASCAR homologation special that dominated the racetracks.

By the mid-’70s, the Road Runner name was attached to the basic, midsize Volare. The most powerful engine option was the 360-ci V8, producing 175 to 195 horsepower, depending on the year. While not particularly powerful, the Volare Road Runner did look the part, as long as owners managed to keep the rust at bay.

1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SE

1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SE
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Smokey And The Bandit is a cult-classic movie among gearheads, and it’s the reason why the 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am became a huge success. With black paint and gold details, the Special Edition became one of the most popular Pontiacs ever.

Under the hood, the Trans Am came with a standard L78 400, an optional W72 400, or an L80 403 sourced from Oldsmobile. The W72 400 was the one to go for, as this 6.6-liter unit had higher compression and other parts that helped it churn out 200 horsepower.

1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

As cool as the 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was, the new third-gen Pontiac model still made it look old. The 1982 Trans Am was sleeker and more aerodynamic than any previous model.

Unfortunately, the standard engine was just a 90-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder unit. At least it was possible to spec it with the optional 5.0-liter, which produced between 145 and 165 horsepower.

1977 Pontiac Can Am

1977 Pontiac Can Am
Image Credit: TropicDave/WikiCommons.

From the legendary Trans Am to the more obscure Can Am, a special edition option package based on the Pontiac LeMans. The Can Am package was only available in 1977 and named after the Can Am racing series.

Pontiac only offered the Can Am in white with tricolor red-orange stripes. It also had black rocker panels and blacked-out moldings. Under its shaker hood was the same 6.6-liter V8 engine as fitted in the ’77 Trans Am.

1973 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna

1973 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Between 1973 and 1976, the Laguna was the top version of the Chevy Chevelle, but most enthusiasts want its predecessor, the iconic 1968–1972 Chevelles. However, for a mid-’70s car, the Chevelle Laguna is quite the looker.

It had a urethane front and a unique grille, which made it more attractive than other models in the lineup. The Chevelle Laguna even had some decent engines. A 145-horsepower 350-ci two-barrel V8 was standard, but buyers could opt for a 350 four-barrel V8 with 175 horses and a 245-horsepower 454 four-barrel V8.

1980 Dodge Mirada CMX

Dodge Mirada CMX
Image Credit: WikiCommons.

The Dodge Mirada was a big, two-door coupe built on the same full-size chassis as the Diplomat sedan—a favorite among the police at the time. Inside, the Mirada offered plenty of space, and its stylish exterior hinted at decent performance.

Unfortunately, the styling wrote checks that the engine couldn’t cash. The Mirada CMX’s 360-ci V8 produced 185 horsepower, which was decent for the era, but not exciting. The Mirada was gone within three years, and the new K-platform was taking over.

1978 Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare Street Kit Car

1976 Dodge Aspen R/T
Image Credit: Greg Gjerdingen/WikiCommons.

In 1978, Chrysler attempted to capitalize on its relationship with The King, Richard Petty. They created a hotter version of the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare, fitted stiffer suspension, front and rear spoilers, fender flares, and quarter-window louvers, among other things.

The Volare was painted in two-tone blue and the Aspen in two-tone red, then they slapped on some “43” decals on the doors and roof. The 360-ci V8 provided 175 horsepower, which wasn’t too bad. However, Richard Petty left Chrysler and began driving a Chevy Monte Carlo, so the Mopars never became big sellers.

1974 Ford Bronco

Ford Bronco 302 (1969 - 1977)
Image Credit: Charles/Flickr.

It seems everyone wants to get their hands on a first-generation Bronco these days, as it has become a very popular platform for restomods. Off-road, the Bronco could keep up with the offerings from Jeep and International Harvester.

The 1974 Bronco was available with a 200-ci inline-six that was introduced in 1973 or a 302 V8 that came along in 1969. Both engines were available through the 1977 model year. Initially, the Bronco was solely available with a three-speed, column-shifted manual transmission, but in 1973, Ford began offering a three-speed automatic transmission option.

1974 Buick Century Regal

1974 Buick Century Regal
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Buick introduced the Regal nameplate in 1973 as the most luxurious trim level of the Buick Century. Its exterior remained largely the same until the coupe received a facelift in 1976.

The most common engine found under the hood of the Buick Century Regal was Buick’s 350-ci V8. However, in 1973 and 1974, a 455 engine was optional, and with 250 ponies, it was a serious machine in the Malaise Era.

9th-Generation Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

Cadillac Eldorado Convertible
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

The Cadillac Eldorado was one of the most luxurious American cars money could buy when it debuted in 1953. The ninth-generation Eldorado arrived in 1971 and remained in production until 1978.

It was humongous in every way, and during a time when everyone else was downsizing, Cadillac still offered a 500-ci V8 with a serious drinking problem. Despite the engine’s massive size, it only managed to produce 190 lethargic horses. It was still the most stylish car on the road, though.

1974 AMC Javelin

1974 AMC Javelin AMX
Image Credit: MercurySable99/WikiCommons.

By 1974, most American cars were all-show and no go, and manufacturers tried to milk the once-iconic nameplates for what they were worth. One manufacturer that refused to play that game was AMC.

Whereas other manufacturers had mostly gotten rid of their big V8 engines, AMC still offered the Javelin with its 401 engine. Thanks to its 255 wild American stallions, AMC sold 27,696 2nd-gen Javelins in the car’s final year, more than any year prior.

1978 Dodge Li’l Red Express

1978 Dodge Li'l Red Express
Image Credit: WikiCommons.

As once-respected performance cars had been reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves, Dodge had a stroke of genius when it discovered a loophole in the regulations.

The new emissions standards didn’t affect trucks, so the carmaker dropped a 360-ci V8 with 255 horsepower under the hood of its D-series truck. The Li’l Red Express truck was the fastest American-made vehicle in 1978, leaving Corvettes in its dust when the lights turned green.

1981 Chevrolet Camaro Yenko Turbo Z

1981 Chevrolet Camaro Yenko Turbo Z
Image Credit: Mecum

It took Chevrolet a couple of years to come up with an answer to the Ford Mustang, but when the Camaro arrived, the two models were forever locked in a race on the sales charts. Don Yenko, a Chevy dealership owner and race car driver, saw the potential in the Bow-Tie pony and developed some extra-special models over the years.

In 1981, 19 Yenko Camaro Turbo Zs were made. Sixteen were Stage 1-tuned cars, and the remaining three were Stage 2. Stage 1 cars had an estimated 300 horsepower thanks to the turbocharged 350 V8. Other upgrades included a functional hood scoop, 15-inch Turbo White Rally wheels, and a selection of aero parts.

1974 AMC Gremlin

1974 AMC Gremlin
Image Credit: Greg Gjerdingen/WikiCommons.

AMC introduced the Gremlin in 1970 as a competitor to compact cars, such as the Toyota Corolla, VW Beetle, Chevy Vega, and Ford Pinto. As the Arab Oil Embargo hit in October 1973, the Gremlin’s 1974 model year had just started.

In ’74, the Gremlin was still available with its largest V8 engine options. Since the model year lasted until November 1974, catalytic converters weren’t introduced until the 1975 model year. The Gremlin saw a 40% increase in sales that year compared to 1973.

Andre Nalin

Author: Andre Nalin

Title: Writer

Bio:

Andre has worked as a writer and editor for multiple car and motorcycle publications over the last decade, but he has reverted to freelancing these days. He has accumulated a ton of seat time during his ridiculous road trips in highly unsuitable vehicles, and he’s built magazine-featured cars. He prefers it when his bikes and cars are fast and loud, but if he had to pick one, he’d go with loud.

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