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20 Forgotten Malaise Era Compact Muscle Cars in History

Vukasin HerbezSeptember 1, 2018

In the past couple of years, car journalists and enthusiast have used the term, “Malaise Era,” to describe the American car industry between the early ’70s and mid-80s. But to be perfectly precise, the Malaise Era is the decade between 1973 and 1983. This is the infamous, “Dark Age of American Cars.” And this was when the performance market was killed due to the strict safety and environmental standards.

During those forgettable years, domestic car manufacturers fought a tough battle between their buyer’s expectations, their foreign competitors and the growing governmental restrictions. That resulted in problematic times that produced strange and sometimes even outright bad cars. And the 1970 model year was the paramount year for the classic muscle car period.

But just five years after, all the legendary models were gone. So, the car manufacturers replaced them with cars that had only the smallest fraction of performance, style and attitude. During those years, Detroit stepped down, introducing several muscle cars that were just compact cars with a little more power. They also came with crazy body kits and graphics.

The Malaise Era compact muscle cars are a forgotten piece of American car history. So, keep reading to learn a bit more about this segment. And although they didn’t deliver a convincing performance or have any muscle credentials, they were the hottest cars of the day.

In fact, some people still fondly remember those machines. Also, they produced most of those models in limited numbers. So, they were a rare sight even when they were new.

  1. 1974 Pontiac GTO

They downsized the once mighty Pontiac GTO from a separate model to only a trim line option for the 1974 Pontiac Ventura. The Ventura was the smallest and most affordable Pontiac at the moment because it was the Chevrolet Nova sister model. It was sad to see the once glorious muscle car as a trim level option.

All it meant was some new decals on an economy model with a measly 5.7-liter V8 engine pumping out only 200 HP. Pontiac experienced slow sales for the GTO line for a few years. And despite the relative success of the smaller Trans Am/Firebird line, the GTO just wasn’t popular enough to justify investing in a separate model. Car fans considered the 1974 GTO a pathetic attempt to recapture the former glory of the GTO.

However, the market didn’t fall for the trick. This was also the final year for the classic GTO nameplate, so after producing 7,000 examples, the GTO quietly left the scene. Today, those last year GTOs generate some attention because they are the last of the breed. But everybody agrees the ’74 Ventura GTO is a terrible, ugly and slow muscle car with a famous name.

  1. 1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra

The second generation of the Ford Mustang debuted in 1974. And it was on the market for four years until 1978. Despite the fact it was the subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was an important model. The downsizing of the Mustang range, economical four-cylinder engines and part sharing with other Ford models helped it survive the recession of the ’70s and the death of the muscle car movement.

But all that doesn’t mean there were no interesting Mustangs between 1974 and 1978. They just were quite slow. However, there was one particularly interesting model, and it was the special edition King Cobra. Ford knew their 5.0 V8 engine made only 140 HP in the Mustang II, so the performance was slow. But they also knew by dressing up the car, they could attract some buyers.

So, they presented the King Cobra with a flaming snake on the hood. Ford added front and rear spoilers and a full body kit, so the King Cobra was a typical ’70s factory custom car. Also, they mated a 5.0 V8 to a four-speed manual transmission to make a performance car. However, the performance was terrible, but the outrageous body kit stole the show. Today, the Ford Mustang King Cobra is a collector’s item.

  1. 1977 AMC Gremlin GT

The American Motors Company introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970, so everybody thought it was a joke. It was a subcompact American-made car with a funny design. However, it had good fuel economy by the standards of the day. Soon, the Gremlin became a popular and influential model, helping AMC survive the recession of the ’70s.

And AMC extracted all they could from the little Gremlin by constantly introducing different variants. So they managed to keep that old platform alive for almost a decade. But in 1977, AMC decided to turn the Gremlin into a muscle car. They installed a 304 V8 engine with just 120 HP. The ridiculously low power resulted in a terrible performance.

However, the Gremlin GT was quite a looker with a fresh graphics package, sporty wheels and interior equipment. Realizing that the performance was painfully slow even for a wannabe muscle car, AMC installed a 4.2-liter inline-six engine. Although it didn’t produce much more power, it had more torque, which was enough for some improvement.

However, the added power and heavy discounts by AMC dealers didn’t help since the production was low at around 3,000 copies. So, AMC discontinued the GT option for the 1978 model year.

  1. 1977 Chevrolet Monza Mirage

Chevrolet presented the Monza in 1975 as their newest compact model. It came with a modern design, updated equipment and a wide arrange of versions and trim levels. The Monza succeeded the Vega, selling well in the U.S., as well as abroad. However, the lack of a performance version was evident since the compact, relatively light platform could benefit from a powerful engine.

But Chevrolet didn’t think a performance or muscle car version would have a big market so they didn’t bother developing it. However, Chevy contracted an outside company, Michigan Auto Techniques, to make a muscle car Monza for 1977. They called it the Monza Mirage, and they produced 4,000 of them. The Mirage featured a 305 V8 with just 145 HP.

The design was quite striking with a white body, front and rear spoilers and special wheels. And the paint scheme was patriotic with red, blue and white stripes all over the body. But Chevrolet realized there was still a market for sporty variants. So, they decided to introduce the Monza Spyder for 1978.

This left Michigan Auto Techniques without a contract for 1978, sending the Monza Mirage to the automotive history books. Today, only a handful have survived, so if you find one, try to restore it since it is a rare, forgotten muscle car.

  1. 1980 Mercury Capri RS

The introduction of the third generation Mustang had a big influence on Mercury. This is because the brand got its own version in the form of the Capri in 1979. But from 1970 to 1977, Mercury sold the Capri. It was a model they imported from Germany with four and six-cylinder engines.

However, in 1979, thanks to the Mustang, the Capri was new and featured a unique front-end design. Since it was a Mercury product, it was more upscale than Ford. But other than a few aesthetical changes, it was identical to the Mustang. As the performance version, Mercury introduced the RS model featuring a 2.3-liter turbocharged engine delivering just 135 HP.

The performance was expectedly bad, but the car looked cool with a big air intake on the hood, big RS badges and a rear spoiler. Today, those RS models are quite rare although not that valuable or sought-after by car collectors.

  1. 1981 Chevrolet Citation X-11

The Chevrolet Citation X-11 is an interesting car. It is a compact, front-wheel-drive hatchback Chevrolet produced from 1980 to 1985. But it had a somewhat powerful V6 engine and muscle car looks. This car was a fine line between an American hot hatch and compact muscle car since it featured aspects of both segments.

The Citation was a modern model that Chevrolet needed to fight the import models. And it came in a wide arrange of flavors. The X-11 featured a 2.8-liter V6 engine and 135 HP. Despite the fact it doesn’t sound like much today, it was solid power for the time. But the X-11 had a few more features, such as a sports tuned suspension, sharper steering and better brakes.

From the outside, you can differentiate the X-11 by its special bulged hood and trim details. However, the magazine testers of the day spoke highly of the X-11. In fact, they said it was much more than just a stronger engine and appearance package.

  1. 1971 AMC Hornet 360

The early ’70s marked the beginning of the end for muscle cars with the downsizing and tightening emissions and safety standards. But AMC was one of the first companies to realize a new breed of muscle cars was necessary to keep the power-hungry customers happy. So, in 1971 they unveiled the Hornet 360 just before the Malaise Era, but it still fits the profile.

AMC based the Hornet on a regular economy car but equipped it with a better suspension and sharper steering. And they added a graphics package and a 360 V8, turning this hot Hornet from an ordinary compact to a proper muscle car. The power was not that big at 245 HP. But in a lightweight body, those horses could really make the Hornet fly.

The rest of muscle cars offerings in 1971 had problems with big sizes and weights, as well as engines that didn’t make power anymore. But the Hornet 360 was one of the fastest cars on sale. Also, this is the only time a Malaise or Pre-Malaise Era car possessed some real performance numbers.

Unfortunately, the buyers didn’t understand the forward thinking of AMC, so they sold less than 800 Hornets in 1971. This makes them rare, obscure muscle cars. In an era when bigger was always better, the Hornet 360 was unusual for its compact size and strong engine. So, people failed to realize how great the idea was behind it.

  1. 1983 Dodge Omni GLH

While Europe was embracing the hot hatch class and developing it further in the mid-80s, America seemed uninterested. Although the Golf GTI sold well in the states, domestic car manufacturers didn’t produce any models they considered hot hatches. And then the legendary Carroll Shelby teamed up with Dodge to present his version of the compact Omni model.

They called it the Omni GLH and it was a proper hot hatch. Also, it was one of the best affordable performance models money could buy in those days. But nobody expected Dodge could produce a hot hatch to beat its European competitors. However, with Shelby’s help, it did just that.

Shelby took the 2.2-liter four-cylinder and added a turbocharger to produce a total output of 175 HP. It had an acceleration time from 0 to 60 mph of fewer than seven seconds. This was impressive and highly competitive for the day. They gave the Omni GLH some suspension modifications and other improvements, so it could handle all that power.

The best thing about this car is the name, GLH, which meant “Goes like Hell.” Also, Shelby and Dodge produced an improved version they called GLHS, which stood for “Goes Like Hell S’more.” But they only made 500 of those models, so they are rare today.

  1. 1975 Chevrolet Vega Cosworth

After the debacle of the Chevrolet Corvair in the ’60s, they were reluctant to enter the compact market again. But the since the segment had grown, Chevrolet didn’t have a choice. So, they revealed the new Chevrolet Vega as a 1971 model. The Vega was a compact, modernly-styled model. And it came in three basic body types, a two-door coupe, two-door sedan and a three-door wagon.

The front end resembled closely to the design of the 1971 Camaro with similar grille, headlights and bumper. But in 1975, Chevrolet introduced the interesting although not as successful Vega Cosworth model. It featured a high revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin cam motor producing 110 HP.

Although it wasn’t particularly fast or strong, the Vega Cosworth was attractive with its interesting black and gold paint and unique wheels. They produced the model in cooperation with the British engine engineering company Cosworth famous for their Formula One engines.

  1. 1983 to 87 Dodge Charger

Even though the Charger from the late ’70s was a lame, slow car that threatened to kill the muscle car reputation of the glorious late ’60s and early ’70s, Dodge felt the name deserved another chance. In those days, Chrysler was all about K-platform front wheel drive cars. So, Dodge introduced the Charger as an option on the compact, boring Dodge Omni for 1981.

However, the appearance package proved somewhat popular. In fact, it was enough to convince Dodge to try it as a separate model for 1983. And that is how the L-Body Charger was born.

Despite the famous name, the 1983 to 1987 Charger was just a sportier version of Chrysler’s compact models. With four-cylinder power, front wheel drive and a lack of performance, the Charger was just a model to fight import compacts.

  1. Plymouth TC3

The Plymouth TC3 and its twin brother, the Dodge Omni 024 are forgotten Mopars. And they came from the time when American performance was a pale shadow of its former self in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The idea behind this car was to offer a compact, modern looking sports model with a small engine and cool features. Unfortunately, the engine displaced only 1.7-liters. And it had the diminutive power of just 63 HP. This meant the TC3 was a slow, forgettable model.

  1. Ford Mustang Cobra

The 1979 model year brought several major improvements to the Mustang range. First, they presented a new model featuring a modern design, updated chassis and wider track. Second, they introduced an interesting performance version they called the Cobra.

Although not as powerful or crazy as those Cobra Jets of before, the 1979 Cobra featured a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with 140 HP. And although this was pathetic even by the standards of the day, it was a step in the right direction. In fact, it helped the American performance market finally start to recover.

  1. Ford Mustang SVO

Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) department introduced a special Mustang SVO for 1984. And it featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 175 HP. So that was quite the power output for such a small engine. As a light car, the ’84 Mustang SVO was hot at the time.

The package included four-wheel disc brakes, a stiffer suspension and sharper steering, transforming the little Mustang into a capable sports car. For 1985, the SVO upped the power to an impressive 205 HP. And this turned the eyes of the motoring public back to those third-generation Mustangs.

  1. Plymouth Volare Roadrunner

Back in 1976, Plymouth introduced the Volare. It was a successful mid-size model they produced in many variants and exported worldwide. Also, it was the twin to the Dodge Aspen featuring a rear-wheel drive platform. And it came with a wide arrangement of engines and sleek designs. Both Dodge and Plymouth had successful muscle models in the past.

So, the heritage was still strong when they introduced the Volare. This was the perfect platform for a muscle car if it weren’t for the grueling emissions and safety regulations killing the performance. But, Plymouth tried and presented the Volare Road Runner that featured a 316 V8 engine delivering a measly 160 HP.

However, what it lacked in the performance department the Volare Road Runner compensated in looks. And it had a full body kit with rear window louvers and a spoiler. It even came with a cool graphics package and sports wheels.

  1. Dodge Aspen R/T

Like the Plymouth Volare Road Runner, the Aspen R/T was Dodge’s effort to present a muscle car when they were almost impossible to construct and sell. However, the Dodge Aspen R/T looked like the real deal. In fact, it even possessed some power to distance itself from similar attempts from other brands with disgraceful power outputs.

So, under the ram air hood of the Aspen R/T was a 360 V8 engine with 170 HP. But the selling point of this car was the looks. It came fully equipped with all the bells and whistles of the late muscle car era. In fact, it came with a body kit and stripes.

Also, it had white letter tires with wide wheels, spoilers and even a T-top option. It is just too bad the Aspen R/T lacked the power of its ancestors. It could have easily earned a top spot in muscle car history.

  1. Oldsmobile Starfire GT

The mid-70s weren’t an especially good period for Olds performance. So when they introduced the new compact Starfire model, their engineers decided to present a performance version. They called it the Starfire GT, and it was basically an appearance package on a regular Starfire hatchback.

With special body stripes, color, details, wheels and a stabilizer bar, the Starfire GT was more dynamic than the regular model. Also, it was the closest thing Oldsmobile had to a sports or muscle car in 1976.

  1. AMC Pacer X

In a desperate attempt to draw the performance-oriented crowd, AMC introduced the Pacer X. it was a high-performance version of their legendary compact car. Equipped with a VAM package for 1979, the Pacer X featured a 4.6-liter straight six engine. And it had a raised compression ratio, delivering more power.

The output was around 150 HP. And despite the fact it sounds funny today, this was a serious performing car by late ’70s standards. But with the added power, AMC provided customers with a special appearance package to make the X stand out from regular Pacers.

  1. Oldsmobile 442

The lowest point in the 442’s evolution came in 1978 when they offered it as an option for the smaller Oldsmobile model, the compact Cutlass. The tragedy is that the offered the 442 option on a V6 and 305 V8 model with a four-barrel carburetor. The max power was 160 HP for 1978 and 170 HP for 1979.

But this was approximately a third of what a true Oldsmobile 442 would generate back in the day. The other shocking fact is that the 442 option could be had on a hatchback body style, which was absurd. Fortunately, in the early ’80s, the 442 returned as a more serious performance machine. But from 1978 to 1979, it was the lowest point in the history of this legendary muscle car.

  1. AMC Spirit AMX

Introduced in 1978, the AMC Spirit AMX was a true compact muscle car due. It had an optional 304 V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. Also, customers could get it with a manual transmission. And AMC designed it as the performance version of the Spirit compact car.

The sold it for just two years, but the Spirit AMX had some success because it was inexpensive and cool looking. The AMX package included a body kit, a special livery and wide wheels. Unfortunately, AMC decided to kill the model, so the Spirit AMX did not return in 1980.

  1. Pontiac Sunbird Formula

The Sunbird was a typical hatchback-type GM compact of the ’70s. It was almost identical to the Buick Skylark or Chevrolet Monza. However, in the Pontiac version, the Sunbird had an interesting muscle version the called the Formula with an optional V8 under the hood.

The borrowed the name from the Firebird line up because it always marked a model they equipped with a V8 engine. And if you chose the Formula, you could get a 305 V8 engine with 165 HP with a hint of performance. But since the Sunbird was relatively light, you could call this Pontiac a muscle car.

These were 20 forgotten malaise era compact muscle cars in automotive history. Which one was your favorite? Although they faced many challenges, these cars left their mark forever.

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