Old Muscle Cars Ruled… When New Cars Sucked

Muscle cars — the original-era muscle cars from the ’60s and ’70s — don’t seem to be as popular now as they were when I was in high school and college back in the ’80s.

Millennials don’t seem particularly interested.

You mostly see 40-something/50-something Gen Xers like me (and Keanu Reeves in John Wick) driving them. Because we drove them back in the day.

The generation after us invests their passion in electronics.

Cost is a factor, of course.

Back in the day — back in my day, in the ’80s — a teenager/young 20-something could buy an original-era muscle car for less than it costs today to buy a well-used Corolla or similar econobox. Because back in the early-mid ’80s, classic muscle cars were just old cars — and there were still lots of them around.

I had a friend in high school, for instance, who got himself a ’71 Plymouth GTX 440 for $2,200 back in 1987. The paint was chalky and it had some rust (they all did). The car needed exhaust work; it had peeling Cragar mags on.

But, still.

An operational big-block Mopar for $2,200.

Today, that car — in the same condition as my friend’s car — would go for at least $20,000.

I drove a ’78 Camaro.

Not a Z28, but it had a 350 that was the same as the Z28’s — and hopped up just as easily and — key point — cheaply.

A set of headers cost about $100 — and the rest was generic pipes bought at the local supply place. It technically required a catalytic converter, but that was easy enough to get around and even if not, there were no oxygen sensors and no computer — the huge cost-adders today. If you could turn a 7/16th wrench for the header bolts and 9/16th bolts for the pipes, you could install it all yourself, as a 16-year-old, with extremely basic hand tools and a willingness to bust some knuckles.

But there is — there was — something else, too.

New cars sucked — in a way that is hard to imagine if you weren’t around at the time.

Let’s take a trip down Bad Memory Lane to the late 1970s/early 1980s. To a time when 80 hp K-cars ruled — and most factory V8s (if you could even get a factory V8) were making around 150 hp.

200 hp — what most fours make today — would have been considered — was considered — “high performance” during my high-school era in the early-mid ’80s. For example, the top gun engine in the ’84 Z28 (also used in the Monte Carlo SS of the same period) was the 5.0 liter (305 cubic inch) “High Output” V8.

190 hp.

Less in the Monte SS.

Only a few topped the 200 hp barrier — and then, just barely. The ’85 Corvette with its Tuned Port Injection 350 offered up 230 hp. This was hot stuff. Well, it was the hottest stuff available — new — back in my day.

Meanwhile, most of the other cars coming off the line were under-gunned FWD nonentities like the Chrysler Aries K-car.

These were functional little appliances. They were exceptionally economical (many could hit 40 MPG — better than most new cars today).

But they were gimpy.

Slow in a way that is simply incomprehensible to today’s twentysomethings. Most took at least 12 seconds to achieve 60. A new Prius could prance around them like a Lipizzaner Stallion.

And of course, they looked as sad as they ran.

Which made a car like the ’78 Camaro I drove in high school — and my friend’s ’71 GTX 440 — seem like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first Terminator movie prime … next to Pee Wee Herman today.

Just having five-lug wheels at a time when most new cars had four lug wheels was a notable, visual difference in automotive potency.

And having a big V8 (in the early-mid ’80s, a 350 V8 was big . . . and a 440 was especially big) was very much like owning an exotic high-performance car is now, maybe even more so. Because back then, a ragged-out ’78 Camaro that could run a 14 second quarter mile (slow, by today’s bar) was not just quicker than almost anything else new, it was blindingly quicker.

Speed is relative.

Fast forward.

Even my high school buddy’s 375 hp GTX is not-so-much relative to what’s common today. The current Mustang’s base turbo four cylinder makes 310 hp — and runs a quicker quarter mile. The V8 GT would dance like a Lipizzaner around the GTX.

But it’s the everyday performance of mass-market, ordinary A to B units that have probably helped dim the shine of the old-school stuff I enjoyed back when I was in high school.

Today’s equivalent of an early ’80s K-car is a car that does zero to 60 in the mid sevens (quicker than a mid-late ’70s Z28 or Trans Am) and V6 family sedans like the new Camry or Accord are both quicker and faster than mid-1980s Corvettes.

It is no exaggeration to state that exotic performance has been democratized. Almost everything new is quick and much of them are extremely fast. Top speeds of 140 MPH are — again — V6 Camry/Accord territory.

One once had to buy a Ferrari to experience that.

Today’s V6 Camry is a Lipizzaner compared with a ’70s or ’80s Ferrari.

Remember Magnum, PI’s Ferrari 308? They had to launch it on grass to get the rear wheels to spin.

The classic stuff will always have curb appeal in its corner. I’ll probably never sell my old Trans-Am (which I’ve had since the early ’90s) for exactly this reasons. It gets looks wherever it goes. And I feel great driving it. But I’m under no illusions about its performance capabilities.

And I know that it’ll take a lot more work than it would have circa 1984 to make my TA competitive on the streets today.

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2 Responses to “Old Muscle Cars Ruled… When New Cars Sucked”

  1. Scott says:

    One thing overlooked in this article is the gross vs. net horsepower ratings. Besides far more actual horsepower, today’s performance cars handle and stop so much better. I’ll avoid using the author’s obvious equine fetish as a comparison.

    I’ll always enjoy my 79 Z-28 even with the knowledge that it’s a horrible piece of crap.

  2. Sherman Johnson says:

    Great column Eric!

    I graduated from high school in 1979, so I am very familiar with the cars you mentioned.

    That was a sad time indeed for ‘car guys’, although according to this article, perhaps not as bad as we thought at the time:

    “MUSCLE CAR HORSEPOWER – HOW EXAGGERATED WAS IT?”
    https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2013/08/13/horsepower

    Up through 1971, we were used to seeing ‘gross’ hp ratings. In 1972, auto mfrs began using ‘net’ hp, which dropped the numbers by up to 75-100 hp. Of course, even ‘net’ numbers are inflated compared to hp at the wheels.

    From the article:

    “Some Super Chevy readers must have been stunned to see that an LS6 Chevelle SS, with 450-hp rating, put down 288 rear wheel hp in the dyno test. That would have put a net hp rating at around 350 hp for that legendary big block.”

    ” A 1970 Trans Am with the same engine, but with a 4-speed and a 3.55 axle ratio, was tested by Muscle Car Review magazine in 1995. That car burned the quarter-mile in 14.68 sec. at 97.17 mph, quite close to the C&D test 25 years before. Pontiac gave that engine a 255 net hp rating for 1971.

    Now, let’s add a later model into the mix. When C&D tested a 1979 4-speed Trans Am with the emissions-controlled W72 400 engine, the one with a 220-hp net rating and the “T/A 6.6” decal on the shaker hood scoop, it ran a 15.3 second ET at 96.6 mph. That car had a 3.23 axle ratio. As a drag racer will tell you, the mph figure is the better indicator of horsepower than ET. So, the 35 net hp deficit from the 1971 engine seems accurate, and not nearly as bad as some might have thought three decades ago.”

    That said, the car I drove for driver’s ed in 1977 would barely run! It was brand new, on loan from a dealer. I think it was a Pontiac Astre. The thing had so much emissions control equipment that it would literally stall out if you weren’t careful with the gas. There were a lot of cars like that in the mid-’70s to mid-’80s.

    It’s amazing what some of those old muscle cars go for now, isn’t it? Some of the more rare ones are $100-$200K and up.

    I have a 1967 Camaro I bought in 1977. It’s in good shape but it was never anything special, just a base model, and I replaced the entire drivetrain. Still, I’ll bet it’s worth a bit more than the $700 I paid for it!