5 one-year-wonder muscle cars from the Malaise era

Buick built a version of the Monza type body, called the Skyhawk if memory serves. There was a rare version of it where the front half of the roof was glass, very similar to what Ford made in the 50’s. By the time the car was 10 years old the replacement cost of the glass was more than the Bluebook value of the car. Only ever saw one. And I recall walking into a body shop long, long ago, seeing a black King Cobra and thinking “what an insult to the Mustang name!”

Here’s my “malaise era” story. I was discharged from the navy in March, 1974 at the height of the Arab oil embargo. The ship was in drydock in Philly. Pennsylvania had a gas rationing system in place that required gas stations to only sell gas on even days to cars whose plates ended in an even number, and on odd days to those ending in odd numbers. I had an odd numbered plate and was discharged on an even day, and didn’t have the foresight to fill up the day before, or maybe I figured it wouldn’t be a problem finding a station that would take care of me. I had a 600-mile trip west ahead of me. My '73 L82 Vette was on empty and I drove from station to station trying to find someone unscrupulous enough to fill me up. I finally found one who agreed to sell me six gallons for twelve bucks - about five times the going rate for gas at the time. I happily paid up.

But my problems were just beginning. It was only enough to get me about 100 miles across PA. The gas stations on the turnpike were authorized to sell only one gallon of gas to someone with a wrong-numbered plate. So I had to stop at every single gas station along the turnpike to keep me going until I made it to Ohio. There I could buy all the gas I wanted, but for 10-cents a gallon more (bringing the price to about 50 cents/gallon).

My 'Vette was stolen a year later. Never saw it again.

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Having been under 20 in 78, I missed out on all the “real” muscle cars. Living in a rural city, 60 miles away from Toronto, finding any muscle car with floors, frame rails or body e’s not rusted away was near impossible. I was just starting my second year of my auto mechanics apprenticeship and was working at a Plymouth Chrysler dealership. Anyone around in 77/78 knew that the volare/aspen cars were the subject of countless “campaign” changes, like flex hoses, shields for brake lines running under battery mounts, fenders for rust outs, a couple of transmission issues, and so on. I was going to purchase a new car in late 77, and had it down to 2 cars, the Mustang King Cobra and the Volare street coupe. I only ever saw “broken” volares, and even brand new cars were having campaign changes being done on them. And the final thing that forced my decision was that you could not get a 4 speed in the Volare with the 360 engine. You could get a manual transmission with the 318 2bbl, but it was lean burn engine and not a 4 speed. It was a 3 speed plus over drive. I bought the king cobra and had to explain my choice to the dealership owner the day I took delivery at lunch and drove it back to work.
It’s easy to look back now and make uninformed comments, the choices at the time were what they were. Changing the original br70-13 to er60-14 on slotted aluminum wheels made a big difference in the appearance. I even put the original wheel caps on the 14 inch wheels to help convince people that the bigger wheel and tires were original.

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Wow, you had the ability in 1978 to afford a new car when you were under 20? And you bought the King Cobra? When I had the money to buy a new car in my mid 20’s I put on my thinking cap and thought about my dreams and said NO to junk. Instead, I bought an old Californian Porsche 911SC I imported to Alberta for the same money as a new Mustang. Years later I sold it for every penny I paid for it. Now many years later, I drive a Porsche Carrera 3.2 – which I also bought instead of a new car when I was flushed with cash in 2007. Needless to say, I can’t find one for sale on Autotrader in Canada at less than triple what I paid.

Listen, Doug, I am speaking from not an uniformed position, but from an INFORMED one. That’s why I never blew it when I had my chances. I saw the mistakes others made. I didn’t make them. IF I HAD BEEN OLDER AND LIVED IN ONTARIO IN 1977, and was in the position to afford a new car as a young man, I would have gotten the hell out of Ontario to make my purchase and shopped out in salt-free Southern Alberta or imported from the southern States. It is hard to even imagine the masterpiece you could have bought with an informed mind back then. Damn, I’m now remembering the Superbird Hemi that the neighbour across the fence had in his backyard in Southern Alberta in the late 70’s when I was a kid. I still remember the Roadrunner with his helmet sticker on the wing which almost made it to the top of our fence. It could have been yours. He was desperate to sell.

I was teaching GM Factory Service when the '71s appeared … no more stock hot performers … compression ratios dropped across the entire lineup … many engines from 10.5 compression on premium fuel to 7.5 on regular fuel with other performance drainers / emissions reducers as std. equip. The trick in the '70s for the car manufacturers was not to simply provide beastly performance but to do it in conjunction with super low emissions. You should witness a '71 472 & 500ci Cad engine idle with its 3/4 race stock cam grind used to reduce emissions. Cad owners DID NOT like to see their engine rock at idle … the motor mounts hid the shake from the driver’s body as best they could. When the govt. won’t let you 'let ‘em run’ you offer trim packages to give the illusion of performance … some folks will pay extra for that illusion of macho! The '70s were not fun years for Car Guys! … then the computerized controls started to appear and now we have both brute performance AND clean runners! Ain’t tech amazing?

And I should add that the entire corporate lineup had to be certified to pass the stringent emission standards for no less than 50,000 miles or face heavy fines for each failure … how would you like to have that kind of demand placed on your work product? You should have seen the daily operation of the GM Proving Grounds … every car model scheduled for market [aprox 170 when I was there] was DRIVEN 24/7 in a simulated daily ‘drive schedule’ to accumulate those miles in time to go to mkt [not all done on the high speed oval] … and try to picture how big the safety program must be to prevent cars from running into each other with 49,998 miles or less on them at 334am with non-reparable emission control damage … WOW! PONDER THIS - you drive 48 min. in traffic to get to work at the Proving Grounds … you drive an 8-hr shift in a test car in simulated city driving … you drive home after work for 48-min in traffic … you go in the house and your wife says, ‘I forgot to tell you we have to go to Mother’s house for her birthday party tonight.’ [her mom lives 45-min on the other side of Detroit]. SWEET! ha!

And, oh Yes! 100% of the fuel used by the 170-car 50,000 mile test fleet went thru chem analysis to make sure contaminated fuel wouldn’t be used which could cause the failure of the emissions tests. Now see if you can picture if the 50,000 mile testing could increase the MSRP of your favorite new ride! … do trucks now have to meet emission standards? WOW! Your govt. at work … All it takes is Money! ha.

these were not bad choices compared to the silver , cookie cutter , plastic built , throw away cars we have to chooses fromtoday: Hyudai, kia, Toyota, Mazda, Honda…etc

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OK, so I had a brand new 1971 454-375 Vette coupe that was a blast to drive but could not stay out of the service department…until it was stolen in '73. I took the insurance money and, without doing any research, bought a 1973 454. When I picked it up I drove it down the block and did a U-turn back to the dealer. Told the salesman that there was something wrong with it…maybe the emergency brake was stuck on…the thing was a total boat anchor. Nope, that was the '73…leaned out, EGR, etc. etc. Drove it for about 2000 miles, got so disgusted, tore the engine and drive train out…decked and cc’d, high top pistons, fairly radical cam, better lifters, Edelbrock intake, headers, Holley, multi-spark discharge ignition, Hurst shifter, regeared the tranny and pumpkin, a few other things I can’t remember…and still street legal. Good enough to bracket race with open pipes and slicks. 11.5@112. Not bad for a reformed anchor but totally worthless on the resale market like all the other mid to late 70’s Vettes.

I won’t be as scathing as Slapp15, but yeah, none of these cars deserve to be discussed in the same vain as the ‘64-‘71 muscle era. The ‘71 AMC Hornet doesn’t qualify for this story since it is within the original muscle car era (not that it was a competitor anyway). The Volaré? . . . Are you kidding? Decals, graphics, cladding etc. do not substitute for the heart of a car. That said, the 1977 Pontiac Can Am is a looker.

I love the 70’s just like that VH1 program…man, just what didn’t we do back then…I guess its like most memories of that time…YOU HAD TO BE THERE!!!I I got my permit in freshman year but didn’t get my car till I was a junior in 1979…By that time we had made it through the oil embargo…like l said “YOU HAD TO BE THERE”…My sophomore year I had my 73 Nova with the straight 6 , one barrel carb and my Pioneer Super Tuner with 6 X 9’s in the rear deck and 6 inch rounds in the rear side panels…Dad had a brand new 79 Plymouth Voyager full size van and my oder sister had 77 Pontiac Firebird with the 3.8 V6 in it…The summer of 1982 my grandfather passed away, and my dad ended up with his car…and it was a 1976 Dodge Aspen, four door, cloth seats AM radio with roll down windows. Not a guys first choice for a car but dad had 2 more kids getting their license’s soon…Until one day in the Aspen coming back from Grams house dad pulled over on the side of street and said… GET BEHIND THE WHEEL AND DRIVE…I looked at him like he wanted to do something before we got home, and we did… I’m telling you that this car was by all means the fastest car I had ever driven in my life…till 1983…We were still at the curb when my dad excitingly told me to “FLOOR IT” HOLY SHEET Batman… I left a batch about 20 feet long and it took about 20 feet more for the back end to finally straighten out with the front of the car…It still had the Poly-glass tires on it from the factory…from that point on it was dads daily driver and he was just about racing anyone he could ( stop light to stop light) every time someone pulled along side of him and gave him that look “old man in an old mans car” …he’d beat them every time. It had a 318 in it and after I got four GoodYear steel belted radials on it it seem to be everyone favorite car. My 2 younger sister were fighting for the rights to drive it and with all the argument about who used more gas and didn’t fill it up, dad took it back from them and drove it till the rust eat through the sub frame…
I knew those days were just about the best they could be when my dad came home and said that he raced some guy in a Camaro and he have a smile on his face like he was 18 again!!! I only drove it a few times, by then I passed my Nova to my younger sister and I got my 80 Cutlass, but when I was behind the wheel of the Aspen I knew there would be someone out there looking to laugh it up at my expense…till I FLOORED IT!!!

Another thing this 5 had in common: to a car, all massive piles of crap…:wink:

Actually, this article is playing “one of these things are not like the other”. The
“Malaise era” came from Jimmy Carter’s speech in the late 70s. The '71 AMC is not part of that era.

As someone else here suggested, the inability of America car makers to make cars that still had decent engine performance while meeting new emissions regulations contributed to the malaise in the automotive market.

5 one year wonder muscle cars

  • Boss 351

I grew up with the muscle cars, especially, Mopar. I have owned too many to even discuss here. The 1978 Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare’ street kit car blew me away! Never seen or heard of such rad car. All those NASCAR accents are all the things a high performance guy would love and it all came stock. Just the looks of this car would scare the pants off of todays kids, even though their vehicles would probably walk away from the “43”. I would own one in a heartbeat!

Trans Am Grand Am Can Am Pan Am…Flip the letters and Grand Am becomes Grand Ma.

Not a Muscle Car per se but in '73 VW had the Sports Bug- A Super Beetle in Saturn Yellow or Petrol Blue with Satin Black bumpers & trim , Factory Recaro seats, styled steel wheels 1" wider than their Porsche 914 counterparts shod with Pirelli CN36 radial tires, a stubby small padded 3spoke steering wheel and black megaphone exhaust tips. That was a 1 year only at least in the US



I always thought the 78 King Cobra, like the one shown in all black, was a pretty decent looking car & the intent that Ford had was to get the Mustang back to a smaller lighter car. When they did, most people seemed to like the look when they first came out, especially the fastback. Funny they never broke the ban & made a convertible, but if they would have powered these with the 5.0 that was later in the Fox body, & put some decent rubber under the car, more guys may have been interested in saving them over the past 30 years.

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Anything prior to 74 doesnt qualify since the term was coined by President Carter…, but, the 78 King Cobra couldnt shake the Pinto influence in my opinion.

I agree that these aren’t “muscle cars” in the accepted sense of the term, but insulting the author’s intelligence for comparing these cars doesn’t do anything to strengthen your case… just a friendly PSA


I’d say the Malaise era started a couple model years earlier, 1968 with emission controls.