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Malaise Era Monsters: These 1970s Cars Should Be Forgotten Now

Vukasin Herbez December 11, 2023

The unfortunate “Malaise Era” in automotive history was the decade between 1973 and 1983. It was the so-called Dark Age of Cars and the period in which the performance market was killed by safety and environmental standards. During those forgettable years, car manufacturers fought tough battles between buyers’ expectations, foreign competitors, and government propositions.

The result obviously could have been better. Indeed some of the cars from the era might look imposing, but they needed to be faster, more dependable, and powerful. American cars are the best examples of this period but Europeans suffered as well. In fact, very few of these ’70s cars are worth owning and most should be forgotten. Find out why here.

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AMC Pacer X

In a desperate attempt to draw the performance-oriented crowd, AMC introduced the Pacer X, 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 with a raised compression ratio and more power (via Truth About Cars).

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The output was around 150 horsepower, and even though it sounds funny today, this was a serious performing car for late ’70s standards. Of course, with added power, AMC provided customers with a special appearance package to make the X stand out from regular Pacers.

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Pontiac Grand Ville

The early ’70s were good times for Pontiac Motor Division. During the ’60s, the company re-imagined itself and proved to be a leader in several segments with high annual production. So in the early ’70s, Pontiac entered the luxury car segment by introducing a new top-of-the-line model called Grand Ville in 1971. Even though the Bonneville was selling reasonably well and was considered a wise choice in the luxury field, Pontiac wanted more. Something that would be closer to the Cadillac or Oldsmobile than to the Chevrolet Caprice. Pontiac decided to offer 400 V8 engines as standard and 455 as an optional engine and a high level of equipment (via Hemmings).

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For those who wanted something extra, Pontiac offered a leather interior, climate control, heavy-duty suspension, AM/FM radio, and even adjustable brake and accelerator pedals. The Grand Ville was offered as a two- and four-door hardtop and luxury convertible, but the market responded only some of that well and sales figures were low. At the same time, the energy crisis hit the USA, and giant gas guzzlers fell out of favor with most customers.

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Mercury Cougar

The third generation Cougar was born in 1974 and was a significant departure from the athletic and performance models of before. The car was no longer based on the Mustang but instead moved to a heavier and bigger chassis, which meant that Cougars were more personal luxury cruisers than muscle cars, even though Mercury tried to present them as such. Acceleration times were disappointing, even with the optional 460 V8 with 220 hp (via CCA).

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Mercury moved the Cougar to the personal luxury segment and away from its muscle car roots. Cougars were cars for middle-aged Mercury buyers who wanted something sportier than a Thunderbird but with the same level of comfort and equipment.

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Oldsmobile 442 (1978-79)

Back in the late ’60s, the Oldsmobile 442 was a well-respected car. During the heyday of this model, the name stood for 400 cubic inch engine, four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhaust, but after the introduction of the big block and other options, this changed while the name stuck. Although many legendary muscle cars died in the early ’70s, Oldsmobile kept the 442 alive but far from the standards of its predecessors. The mid-’70s 442 was just an option on mid-size luxury coupes as a marketing gimmick rather than a full-fledged muscle car with powerful engines and crazy acceleration times. We have to admit that Oldsmobile tried to keep the 442 legend alive. Still, the industry’s restrictions at the moment kept it from being more than just a couple of stickers on regular models (via Autopolis).

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The lowest point in the 442’s evolution was in 1978 when the model was offered as an option for a smaller Oldsmobile, the compact Cutlass. The max power was 160 hp for 1978 and 170 hp for 1979, which was about 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, 442 returned as a more serious performance machine, but 1978-79 was the lowest point in the history of this legendary muscle car.

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Lincoln Continental

After the very popular and influential 1961 to 1969 Continental model, Lincoln presented an upgraded and elegant 1970 model, which served for a full nine years until 1979. It was designed similarly to other Lincoln and Mercury models but still retained several unique features, details, and trim (via Auto Evolution).

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Front headlights were under the automatically operated cover, which was a nice touch. Under the hood, the 460 V8 was present but gradually lost power due to tightening emissions standards. However, Continental retained signature comfort, luxury, and a high level of equipment and sold well despite its heavy price tag.

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Ford Mustang King Cobra

The second generation of the Mustang debuted in 1974 and was on the market for four years, until 1978. Although it was the subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was a very important model. The downsizing of the Mustang range, introduction of economical four-cylinder engines, and part sharing with other Ford models helped the model survive the recession of the ’70s and the death of the muscle car movement (via CJ Pony Parts).

Photo Credit: Ford

There was one particularly interesting model, and this was the special edition King Cobra. Ford knew that their 5.0 V8 engine made only 140 horsepower in Mustang II. Performance was very slow, but they also knew that dressing up the car could attract some buyers. With a flaming snake on the hood, front and rear spoilers, and a complete body kit, the King Cobra was a typical ’70s factory custom car. The 5.0 V8 was mated to a four-speed manual transmission in an attempt to make a performance car. Needless to say, the performance wasn’t excellent. It was terrible. But the outrageous body kit stole the show. Today, the King Cobra is a collector’s item.

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Ford Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is the ultimate classic of the personal luxury coupe genre, and it is the model that singlehandedly created the segment. However, its sixth generation, produced from 1972 to 1976, is a typical ’70s luxury cruiser and a perfect candidate for this list (via Hemmings).

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The reasons are many. First, this Thunderbird was very similar to the Lincoln Continental Mark IV coupe. Second, it was a top-of-the-line Ford and offered with all imaginable luxury items. Third, it was also the heaviest and biggest Thunderbird ever produced, topping the scale at over 5,000 pounds. With a hefty 460 V8 and just 220 hp, this model could have been faster and more agile, but buyers loved its presence and comfort, and Ford sold almost 300,000 examples.

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AMC Gremlin GT

The American Motors Company introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970, and everybody thought this was a joke. The subcompact American-made car has a funny design and good fuel economy for the standards of the day. Very soon, the Gremlin became a very popular and influential model and helped AMC survive the recession of the ’70s. AMC tried its best to extract all that it could from the little Gremlin by constantly introducing different variants and versions and keeping that old platform alive for almost a decade (via Motor Trend).

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In 1977, AMC decided to turn the Gremlin into a muscle car and installed a 304 V8 engine with 120 hp. The ridiculously low power resulted in a terrible performance. But the Gremlin GT was quite a looker with a fresh graphic 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. Which didn’t produce much more power but produced more torque, enough for some improvement. However, even this and heavy discounts by AMC’s dealers didn’t help since the production was low at around 3000 copies. The GT option was discontinued for the 1978 model year.

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Imperial LeBaron

Despite being a once respectable luxury brand, by the mid-’70s, Imperial had pretty much faded and was only reduced to rebadged Chrysler with different details, trim, and name. Under the hood was a hefty 440 V8, which produced just 215 hp (via Hemmings).

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The 1975 model year was the last for classic Imperials. There wouldn’t be another Imperial for several years. Even then, it would be just a rebadged Chrysler again.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

Mercury Capri

The success of the Mustang made it highly influential, inspiring American car brands to offer a pony car of their own. Even in Europe, the Mustang was popular and common. However, Ford wanted to explore the market further with a smaller European version. That’s how the Ford Capri came to be in 1969. In the US, it was sold as Mercury (via Augusta Chronicles).

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Designed in the UK, the Capri was a European Mustang in every way. The Capri looked great with the “long hood-short deck” formula and semi-fastback styling. Although they based it on the standard Cortina and used the same engine, the Capri looked like a thoroughbred muscle car. Most people thought it was a U.S.-built Ford. However, most Capris had diminutive four-cylinder engines. Even the six-cylinder versions were less powerful, even for fastback.

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Dodge Charger Daytona

You’re probably familiar with the original Dodge Charger Daytona from 1969. A big coupe based on the Dodge Charger with a pointy nose and massive rear wing. Designed for racing in NASCAR and produced in only 500 examples. The Daytona, with its cousin Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, still is one of the craziest muscle cars ever. Less than 10 years after the memorable Daytona, Dodge, in a terrible case of self-reinventing, decided to use this glorious name again (via GKM).

Photo Credit: Dodge

However, this time, it was on a Dodge Charger, a Chrysler Cordoba, a big two-door personal luxury coupe with no muscle car credentials. The move was not well since the Cordoba had a pretty lame 145 hp V8 engine. It was more focused on luxury and a well-appointed interior than the looks, performance, and driving dynamics. Fortunately, the buyers punished Dodge for using the precious Daytona nameplate for a not-so-special and pretty dull car. In the end, only 250 examples left the factory. Daytona’s reincarnation was left on the margins of muscle car history.

Photo Credit: Ford

Ford LTD

Ford’s primary full-size offering in the mid-70s was the LTD, a big sedan, wagon, or two-door coupe marketed as an affordable luxury sedan. Drawing design cues from Mercury and Lincoln, LTD, buyers got everything they needed but for less money (via Hemmings).

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For 1977, the LTD line was redesigned and still sold well, although the end for luxury cruisers was in sight. The standard engine was 351 V8, but many customers opted for 400 and 460 V8, although the latter only delivered 197 hp.

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Triumph Stag

The Stag was new for 1970 and in production until 1978. The market was pretty impressed by the new model, which featured cool styling and open-top driving but still enough room for four adults and their luggage. The Stag had a 3.0-liter V8 engine with 145 hp barely enough. With its muscular appearance and V8 rumble, the Stag looked like a luxury muscle car and attracted some buyers (via SOC).

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Unfortunately, pretty soon, owners experienced the Stag’s notorious unreliability, which, along with its higher price, sealed its chances on the American and global market. When production ended in 1978, only 25,000 cars left the factory.

Photo Credit: Dodge

Dodge Aspen R/T

Very similar to the Plymouth Volare Road Runner, the Aspen R/T was Dodge’s effort to present a muscle car in the period when such vehicles were almost impossible to construct and sell. However, Dodge Aspen R/T looked like a real deal. It even possessed some power to distance itself from other brands with similar attempts and disgraceful power outputs (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Under the Ram Air hood of the Aspen R/T was a 360 V8 engine with 170 hp. The selling point of this car was its looks, and it came fully equipped with all the bells and whistles of the late muscle car era. Body kit, stripes, white letter tires with wide wheels, spoilers, and even a T-top option. It is just too bad that those cars didn’t have the power of their ancestors since they could easily earn top spots in muscle car history. Similar to the Volare, the Aspen had big problems with rust, so there are just a few surviving examples today.

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Chrysler New Yorker Brougham

In those years, Chrysler was a competitor to Buick, Oldsmobile, Mercury, and even Cadillac. Its lineup consisted of full-size models with plush appointments, big engines, and lots of chrome (via Hemmings).

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However, in 1978, the last of classic New Yorker Broughams was born with a big 440 V8, a comfortable interior, and a long list of optional extras. Those last big Chryslers were handsome models with elegant styling, vinyl roofs, and a prominent “waterfall” grille.

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Oldsmobile Toronado

Mechanically almost identical to the Cadillac Eldorado, the Oldsmobile Toronado was dramatically new for 1979. The new Toronado featured 22 22-inch shorter chassis with different body and engine choices in a downsizing effort that affected all GM products. The downsizing was not just simply shortening last year’s model and Toronado’s proper engineering and production methods. The result was a much more compact and efficient car with the same level of comfort and driving dynamics (via Auto Evolution).

Oldsmobile Tornado
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Retaining its signature front-wheel drive layout, the Toronado now featured 350 V8. As well as an exciting and innovative but not precisely durable diesel version. Due to the unique front and rear end and some options, Toronado kept its identity compared to the very similar Eldorado.

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Bricklin SV-1

The SV-1 was the brainchild of automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin. It was produced in Canada from 1974 to 1975 in less than 3000 examples. For a short while, the SV-1 was the best and most advanced American sports car. But as soon as the first cars started rolling from the assembly line, it was clear that the SV-1 was not as good as people expected it to be (via Car and Driver).

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The idea was to produce a safe and fast sports car, as the name SV-1 (Safety Vehicle One) suggested. Bricklin designed the car with big bumpers, numerous additional features, warning sensors, power Gullwing doors, no cigarette lighters, an integrated roll cage, and lots of other things. Making it very heavy and not very agile. The power came from a 360 AMC V8 engine, which could have been more powerful. Later, the company turned to a 351 Ford V8 but couldn’t deliver any actual performance.

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Lancia Scorpion

In 1976, Lancia presented the Scorpion, a US-spec version of its Beta Montecarlo model. The Montecarlo name couldn’t be used for the American market since Chevrolet already had Monte Carlo. So Lancia decided to go with the aggressive Scorpion nameplate. However, despite the car’s modern looks and technical layout, the Scorpion could have been a better performer. Its four-cylinder engine delivered only 81 hp in US spec (via Motor Trend).

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The Scorpion was on sale for two years (1976 and 1977) and sold around 1,800 examples in America. Today, these Lancias are rare but not exactly expensive. And most of them have Fiat’s 2.0-liter engines, which produces more power and gives Scorpion the performance it deserves.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Chevrolet Caprice Wagon

The station wagon’s popularity started to drop in the late ’70s along with the economic recession and fuel crisis. The extensive and thirsty long roofs needed to be more rational transportation. And buyers turned to smaller cars or foreign models. However, one of the models that had its fan base was the Caprice Wagon. Which was in production from 1977 to 1990, with minimal changes (via Barn Finds).

Chevrolet Kingswood 427
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This was one of the last classic, boxy American station wagons. It had room for nine passengers, simple but durable mechanics, and numerous extras. Despite the appearance of the minivan in the early ’80s and its rising popularity, better fuel efficiency, and lower price, the Caprice Wagon kept on selling. It became one of the symbols of the ’80s American suburbia lifestyle along with Chrysler’s K-Cars or Fox Mustang.

Photo Credit: Hemmings

AMC Matador

AMC was an independent American car manufacturer which closed its doors in the early ’80s. Their lineup mainly consisted of economy models, and design was never their strong point. Among the ugly AMC models, the early ’70s Matador has to be the worst. It was a strange-looking coupe with round headlights and an ugly, almost hatchback silhouette (via TAC).

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No wonder AMC was bankrupt a few years later. AMC even tried to spice things up with a muscle car wannabe version called Matador X. Buyers could get the 360 V8 or optional 401 V8, producing 235 hp. But even with the dress-up kit, big V8, and go-fast goodies, the Matador X was still ugly.

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