Top 10 Malaise Era Performance Projects
The “malaise era” in automotive history is often overlooked by gearheads. The power was down, complexity was up, and there were some seriously ugly designs that hit the streets. The Mustang had become an economy car, the GTO died with a whimper, and the Corvette had all of 165 horsepower. Still the years between 1973 and 1983 offer some interesting options for cheap performance projects, if you’re willing to sift through all the garbage.
1973 Opel GT
Kinda cheating a bit with this one, but the gas crisis/smog era had officially started by ’73. This was the last year for the “baby Corvette,” and the Opel GT delivered gorgeous looks in an economical and fun chassis. This German sports car had a stupidly small and unloved 1.9 liter paperweight under the hood, but that was easily fixed by adding four American cylinders. With the weight of Lotus Exige, excellent pop-up headlights, and project cars going on eBay for just a few grand, how can you go wrong?
1974 Chevy Chevelle Laguna
Think of this coupe as the Monte Carlo’s ugly brother. The Chevelle was no longer a big sexy brute by ‘74, but it was lighter, stiffer, and on paper, better. The Laguna package offered a unique look in coupe form, but could still be had with a monstrous 454. The Laguna was what muscle cars would have been like if they had made it to the mid ‘70s.
1975 Toyota Celica
Remember the Celica? That flashy but forgettable FWD economy coupe used to have real sporting pretensions. For the American market, the ’75 Celica was redesigned with a better looking, more flowing, yet muscular, design. The longer hood hid a more powerful four cylinder that was only 30 hp below the Corvette. Oh, and this little Celica was rear wheel drive.
1976 Volvo 240 Series
While Oldsmobile was killing everyone in sales with the old-style Cutlass, Volvo was quietly creating the car of the future. The small boxy wagon with that definitive Volvo grille stood out in a sea of bloat boats. The wagons were extremely dependable, and handled well, even while handling all your crap. Plus, the later years saw quite a few turbo models released on unsuspecting t-ball moms.
1977 Mazda B Series/Ford Courier
Redesigned for 1977, the new B Series/Courier featured a modern, almost ‘80s-like, blocky look. Disc brakes, great handling due to its super lightweight, and an approachable-yet-precise manual transmission led to a sales success. And the Ford Ranger. Why is this slow compact truck on this list? Because a Mustang 5.0 V8 and transmission drop right in. Ask me how I know.
1978 Datsun 280Z
Datsun had a winner with the original 240Z, and 1978 marked the last year of the iconic design. Like 1970s mustaches, the Z got bigger and uglier as the decade wore on. The ’78 offers some interesting features, like early Bosch fuel injection, and power was again on the rise. Plus, it still handled very well and sounded nice, and since it’s all the same generation, a lot of the better looking bits from earlier cars still fit.
1979 Ford Mustang
Finally shedding its stupid Mustang II form, the ‘stang switched from Pinto chassis to the larger Fox platform. Bigger is better in this case, and the Mustang benefited from more interior room, and a massively improved exterior. The chassis was fairly light, offered a lot of charisma, and proved durable enough for racers when serious V8 power returned. If you know someone with a new Mustang, remind them that 79 is the year that saved the Stang.
1980 Chevy Citation X-11
Sure, the regular Citation sucked, but the X-11 delivered surprising performance. Rather than GM’s usual “special” edition badging and stripes (although it received those too), the X-11 featured real suspension and steering upgrades, and even a 7,000 rpm tach and revised shift points. While it was still a quiescent Citation at the drag strip, it demolished everyone in SCCA. It’s like the Neon ACR, but 15 years early.
1981 Chevy El Camino
Unlike those gross mid-70s Caminos, the ’81 was a proper A-body (Malibu, Monte Carlo, Cutlass) with chiseled good looks. The 350 V8 was still available, although it would struggle to keep up with that Z car above. While it didn’t haul much ass, it could haul much stuff, with the seriously useful utility bed out back. This is one malaise era ride that needs to return.
1982 Porsche 944
With an early 944, you would have a Porsche with all of 148 horsepower. However, it’s still a Porsche. I consider all years of the 944 to be bargains, as they are stupid cheap, and are fantastic drivers. Lightweight, with a communicative chassis and steering, brilliant gear changes, and even decent reliability and gas mileage, this is a practical sports car you can daily drive. Plus it still looks fantastic.
1983 Chevy Camaro Z28
The fifth generation Camaro is sometimes derided as a heavy pig, but the Camaro wasn’t always this way. The third generation saw a focus on handling and light weight, and by ’83, the power was starting to return. Order a Z28 and you could have a 5.0 liter V8 with a 5-speed manual in a rear-wheel drive car for a hair under 3,000 pounds. Not bad stats even today.
By 1984 everything was getting better. The Mustang would get the famed 5.0 V8, igniting the digital muscle car wars. Corvette would receive torquey TPI fuel injection. Chrysler released a slew of crazy turbo K-cars. Nissan got serious and added an X, and a turbo, to their Z car, and Buick went absolutely nuts and threw high boost at a big black Regal. The malaise era was over, but these projects can find new life in your garage.
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