Chrysalis Cars

The “real” muscle cars of the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s have been financial instruments since the ’90s, if not earlier. Out of reach for the average person. Because the average person generally hasn’t got the minimum entry fee of — roughly — around $35,000 it takes to buy any of these cars in decent, get-in-and-drive-it condition.

That’s for a nothing-special example. If you want something special — a big block Mopar, for instance — the bar rises to $50k at the least. Multiple carbs? Forget about it!

Some blame speculators and heap abuse on auctioneers such as Barrett-Jackson for turning cars that as recently as the late 1970s and into the ’80s, even, were routinely found in high school parking lots driven by 17-year-olds into six figure Americano exotics and might-as-well-be Ferraris.

There is an element of truth to this, but the real truth is that scarcity and Horsepower Legend are to be credited for the financial deification of early muscle cars. They didn’t make that many of them, for openers. And the ones they did make were all powerful to one degree or another — and so, instantly desirable.

I’ll use Pontiac as an example — and why not? It was, after all, Pontiac that ignited Muscle Car Fever in 1964 by taking a Tempest, which was meant to be an economy car, and turning it — via a high-powered 389 V8 — into the first GTO.

The first muscle car.

By 1970, every major car company was making muscle cars.

But the government was making something, too: Regulations. Specifically, the Clean Air Act of 1970 — which had the same effect on muscle cars that dousing the witch in the Wizard of Oz with water had. Horsepower quickly melted away — and soon thereafter, so did the muscle cars. Ten years after the introduction of the ’64 GTO, the very last GTO — the ’74 GTO — left the line.

It had a lukewarm 350 (5.7 liters, in modern metric-speak) that made all of 200 hp. Just four years earlier, GTOs had 400s making 370 hp. An even bigger 455 HO V8 was available optionally.

And thus the world ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.

But while Pontiac had stopped building GTOs, it continued to build GTO-like cars for many years thereafter. Well into the ’80s, in fact. So did every other major American company.

These cars — unlike the original-era muscle cars — didn’t have a lot of power from the factory, but they did have the potential to make horsepower. Most came standard with — or could be ordered with — V8 engines and were, of course, rear-wheel-drive.

Cars like the Ventura (which served as the basis for the last GTO) and larger models like the Grand Prix and sportier models like the Firebird. Chevy had the Camaro, of course — but also the Malibu — which was basically a Chevelle just begging to be transformed into an SS Chevelle.

These post-’74 cars were muscle cars in chrysalis form, ready to emerge from their cocoons.

Even the much-mocked Mustang II. It had all the prerequisites, too. Including a 302 V8 under its boarded-up fake hood scoop.

All it took was a little wrenching — no computers yet — and not much money to transform, as an example, the low-performance two-barrel 400 in a ’77 Grand Prix into a homemade Ram Air III 400 four barrel — making more horsepower than the ’70 RA III 400 made. Or transform that 120 hp Mustang II King Cobra into a real Cobra.

Remember: The V8s were basically the same V8s as used in the high-powered muscle cars, just shorn of their high power. This could be restored to them. Just like putting air back in a flat tire. A weekend spent putting in a hot camshaft and a big four barrel and a set of headers, so it could breathe again. These were (and still are) cars that you can work on.

With basic hand tools. And — at most — a few hundred bucks for the cam and the four barrel and the headers.

The rest was even easier: Wheels and tires, some graphics if you wanted those. Add a full set of gauges — these often transferred directly from the older, original-era muscle cars.

Presto!

You built what Pontiac or Chevrolet no longer could.

And because these chrysalis cars were made in very large numbers — and didn’t come with a lot of horsepower from the factory — they were and still are within the financial reach of average people.

But this is changing.

First, because attrition. While the ’75-up could-be-contenders were made in vastly greater numbers than the already collectible (and expensive to collect) classics of the mid-late ’60 and early ’70s, it’s been 40 years since the mid-late ’70s and the once-everywhere nothing-special cars are now themselves becoming scarce. Which causes their prices to rise.

My own chrysalis car is a ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am.

When I bought it more than 20 years ago, it was among the least desirable — and thus, least valuable — of the so-called “second generation” (1970-’81) Firebirds. Even though it has the gigantic 455 V8, the as-delivered power was pathetic.

Just 200 hp.

Two years prior, the regular Firebird (not the Trans-Am) had a 400 that made more power. And offered a 455 that made much more power. And, the next year (1977) Pontiac offered a hopped up 400 that also made more power and, of course, there was the epic car-chase movie, Smokey and the Bandit — which made the ’77-up cars instantly iconic.

And thus, desirable.

For a long time, not many people cared about the ’75 and ’76 TAs. I got mine for about the going rate of a used economy car, circa 1992: $5,200.

Adjusted for today, this is just over $9k. Loose change . . . for a low-miles (48,000) unmolested, undamaged, one-owner loaded Trans-Am (mine has rare options such as electric rear defrost, power windows and locks, the optional Honeycomb wheels) and in a cool color — Carousel Red.

Today, you might find a restorable ’76 TA for about the same money. A tired, bedraggled-looking one in need of pretty much everything. Drivetrain work, cosmetic work. If you wanted to buy one in the same condition mine was in back in ’92 today, the outlay would be closer to $25k — and that is getting into serious money.

History repeats.

As far as these chrysalis cars go, it is as if it’s 1980 all over again and you can still pick up a big block Mopar for $2,200 (one of my high school friends did this, with money he earned from his after-school job at . . . McDonalds).

But, better hurry.

These truly last-of-their-kind cars (factory V8, easy to upgrade, rear-drive, no got-damned computers) are on track to become what my high school buddy’s 71 GTX 440 is today — a $50,000 car that is as out of a 17-year-old kid’s league — or for that matter an average 35-year-old guy’s league, financially speaking — as Christie Brinkley was out of Clark Griswold’s league in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

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2 Responses to “Chrysalis Cars”

  1. Kris says:

    Mr. Peters, it’s an interesting point you make.

    But your facts are, in a nutshell, wrong.

    Point 1: the first muscle car was not the 1964 GTO, although it was one of the first. The concept of the “large-car engine in a midsize or smaller body” has been around since cars came in more than one size. But the first car generally recognized as the first modern musclecar was the 1949 Oldsmobile “Rocket 88”, using the new OHV V8 from the larger 98 line shoehorned into the smaller “budget size” 88 body. Or, if that’s too old for your liking, perhaps the 1957 Rambler Rebel, featuring the large Nash/Hudson 327 cid V8 in the smaller Rambler bodyshell. Maybe the various Chevrolet, Ford or Mopar big-block packages like the Ford Thunderbolt, Falcon Sprint, Dodge D-500, Chevys with the 409? All of which predate 1964?

    Secondly, the Clean Air Act did little to curb rising HP levels and speeds. I know you’re no champion of government intervention, Mr. Peters, but laws and taxation didn’t kill the era of the muscle car. Insurance regulations were mainly responsible, and the 1973 OPEC crisis was the final nail in the coffin of many storied nameplates. After 1971 it was difficult to get insurance for any new vehicle over 300 HP or boasting over 400 CID.

    Thirdly, let’s speak of horsepower. You are well aware of the industry shift of 1971, where gross HP ratings were changed to net HP ratings. This was a more honest system which made allowances for things like power steering pumps, alternators, air filters and exhaust manifolds. The very same engines with the same compression ratio, cam grinds, etc would get a lower net HP rating than a gross rating. Suddenly that 300 HP engine made 255 HP. Big surprise right? So it isn’t fair to say that suddenly, engines made less power due to regulations.

    Lastly, I’m glad to see mention – yet again – of your ’76 Firebird (you often mention it in your columns where you deride the electronic complexities of today’s vehicles, and how “government intervention” makes automakers include things you don’t like – but I digress.) In it’s day, it was a hot car, even if, as you say, compression ratios were down, cam grinds were far more conservative than in previous years, and timing and carburetion favored economy over power. Sure, there were mandated devices like the air pump. But most of the strangled power came as a knee jerk reaction to 1973 and the energy crisis. Suddenly 12 mpg wasn’t acceptable. It was truly a car of its’ time, as are many of your examples like the Mustang II with the 302.

    Fortunately, potential can be unlocked, as you state. You don’t necessarily need a rear drive V8 to do it either. Hot rodding is not going to die, regardless of the opinion of the old school crowd. Instead of bemoaning the advent of computers, you can understand that a computer can adjust so many things so easily, and on the fly too! Try changing jets on a 4 barrel carb 8 times in ten seconds, and then realize that an average MPFI setup – the default standard since the late eighties – can do virtually the same thing in ten microseconds, simply by changing injector pulse width. And you don’t have to be limited to stock injectors.

    Mr. Peters, while I find some of your columns informative, I find many risible due to factual flaws and a bewildering hatred of government. Leave the political talk aside and stick to what you know, new-car reviews.

  2. Luke Ball says:

    Great article! But I’d expect nothing less from Mr. Peters. One of the few “car-guy” writers left since Mr. Bedard started writing less. I was going to respond to the subsequent writers revisionist history questioning your portrayal of the major events that affected cars at that time, but anyone who would defend or minimize the gov’ts affect at that time is an ideologue not worth a car guys time.