Muscle Cars Were Slow – Part II

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I wrote a column a couple years ago (see here) that mentioned an unspeakable truth: Relative to now — classic muscle cars were slow. Back in the day, when the typical passenger car took 10 seconds (or more) to get to 60 MPH, a car that could get there in seven was faster-than-light.

Today, it’s Camry Speed.

Today, the performance (0-60, quarter mile, top speed, etc.) delivered by most factory-stock ’60s and ’70s-era V-8 muscle cars has been equaled — or bettered — by family cars with V-6 engines. Today’s V-8 performance cars completely outclass the V-8 “performance” cars of the classic era . . . stock vs. stock.

Ah, but there’s the out. The catch.

Stock — vs. stock.

What about modified vs. stock?

One of the many things that was — and still is — appealing about the classic stuff is how easy it was (and still is) to amp up their performance.

And, how inexpensive they were, relatively speaking.

Let’s compare some apples and oranges.

My muscle car — a 1976 Trans-Am — doesn’t rate much when compared with even the base/V-6 powered versions of today’s muscle cars. Though it came with an engine packing more cubic inches (liters, in today-speak) than any of the new stuff (excepting the Viper, but that’s not fair because it’s got a V-10 and my Pontiac’s only got a V-8) the power output and performance — delivered in stock trim — was feeble. Or rather, is feeble — relative to the performance of today’s stuff: Zero to 60 in about 7.2 seconds, a low 15 second quarter mile — top speed (mechanically limited, due to the axle ratio and non-overdrive transmission) about 118 MPH.

But, Pontiac gave me a lot to work with. And — when the car was new — for about the cost of a current-day base V-6 powered sporty coupe. This opens some doors that are shut when you buy a new muscle car. If you can afford to buy a new muscle car.

My car’s sticker price, back in ’76, was about $5,800. Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to about $24,000 in today’s dollars (see here), which is almost to the dollar what Chevy asks for a brand-new (base trim/V-6 powered) Camaro: $23,555.

A V-8 powered Camaro SS stickers for $33,335 — about ten grand more, in real dollars, than my ’76 TA cost when new.

Stock vs. stock — and apples vs. oranges — the new Camaro V-6 is stronger/quicker — and much faster — than my old Pontiac was when it was new.

The V-8 Camaro SS even more so. It is literally no contest.

The 455 in my Trans-Am only managed 200 hp — out of 7.4 liters! . . . in stock trim. The new Camaro’s 3.6 liter V-6 (half the size of my TA’s V-8) makes 323 hp and the car can get to 60 in the sixxes. The Camaro SS’s 6.2 liter V-8 makes 426 hp and gets the car to 60 in 4.8 seconds.

Very impressive.

Even more so when you factor in that the new car is wife-drivable (none of the really quick classic stuff was) has air conditioning, and you probably won’t need to touch much (other than oil/filter changes) for the next decade.

But, here’s the difference — Now vs. Then:

My Trans-Am, when it was new, was much more accessible. In the same way that a new V-6 Camaro is accessible. But when my TA was new, you got a V-8 Trans-Am, not a base trim V-6 Camaro. And that V-8 had tremendous performance potential locked up inside all those cubic inches, easily — and inexpensively (compared with today) accessed.

A new V-6 Camaro is — effectively — hyper-tuned. The as-delivered engine is optimized, or not far from it. The 455 that came in my TA was de-tuned. Deliberately crippled, in order to slide by the government’s emissions rigmarole, which was making it hard for GM to sell a V-8 at all, however gimped.

“Fixing” this — de-gimping the big V-8 — was the first thing most of us did, once we got our hands on something like the Trans-Am. We usually started by hacksawing off the factory exhaust system — which in those days garroted the output of the engine by 20 percent or more, due to the restrictive plumbing. Simply replacing the factory system (cast iron manifolds, narrow diameter — and often crimped — pipes, primitive catalytic converter) with headers and a good set of duals — sans the catalytic converters — freed up serious hp. And gained serious performance. For very little money. Even today, a set of headers for an old muscle car’s engine, a pair of free-flow mufflers and — if you must — a couple of modern high-flow catalytic converters (stand-alone units, they don’t need 02 sensors, because the car has no computer) will cost you about $1,000 or so.

And installation is DIY-doable, with hand tools.

This mod — along with some tuning work (adjusting the carburetor, ignition timing) which is free (or nearly free; replacement jets for the carburetor might cost you $20 or so) will make the TA perform better than a new V-6 Camaro. The horsepower number might not be as high — yet — but the big V-8 already produced a great deal more torque than the small V-6 in the new car. And the old car is much lighter than the new car. With 240-260 or so hp (and 450-plus ft.-lbs. of torque vs. the new Camaro V-6’s puny 278 ft.-lbs.) the otherwise stock 455 Trans-Am will be quicker than the new V-6 Camaro.

But wait, there’s more.

Spend another $300 or so — today’s dollars, much less back in the day — for a high-performance camshaft, also easily installed with hand tools — and without having to remove the engine, as you would in the new Camaro.

Now you’re in the 300-plus hp ballpark.

Maybe go ahead and pull the engine — very easy to do — and build the bottom end to complement the new camshaft. High-compression pistons, for instance. You could give the 455 — any classic muscle car V-8 — a mechanical makeover for a couple thousand dollars in parts and machine shop work.

And now, you’d be able to go toe-to-toe with a new Camaro SS.

For not much more than you’d have spent to buy a new Camaro V-6.

The new stuff comes ready to rock out of the box — provided you’ve got the wherewithal to afford the box. The old stuff was maybe a little tepid as it came, especially the mid-late ’70s stuff like my car, which bore the full brunt of Washington’s frontal assault against classic muscle cars. But one could buy them without breaking the bank — and have money left over to massage the potential Pontiac, et al, managed to smuggle past the gate.

And that’s the big difference, Then vs. Now.


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