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. Sure, they’re still highly-desirable collectibles. But they’re mostly desired and collected by middle-aged and older guys.
I have a theory why.
Cost is a factor, of course. Back in the day – back in my day, in the ’80s - a typical teenager/young 20-something could buy one of those old war horses for a couple thousand bucks. I had a friend in high school, for instance, who got himself a ’71 Plymouth GTX 440 for (I still remember this) $2,200 back in 1986. It had some Bondo and the engine needed a ring job – but still. A big-block Mopar for the equivalent of about what a similarly tired Corolla would set you back today.
Today, that car – in the same condition as my friend’s car – would probably fetch no less than $20,000.
Plus we could afford to feed them. I still have the mid-’70s Trans-Am (455) I bought 20 years ago, when I was still in my young 20s and these cars were still within the orbit of affordability for a young 20-something. It only took about $25 to pump the 21 gallon tank full of premium. So it did not matter that the TA drank those 21 gallons like Janis Joplin drank Jack Daniels. Today – with unleaded premium over $4 a gallon in most places – it matters very much. It now takes almost $100 to fill up the TA. The only teens and 20-somethings who can deal with that have last names like Zuckerberg.
So, part of the reason is cost – no doubt.
But there is – there was – something else, too.
New cars once sucked – in a way that is hard to imagine if you weren’t around at the time.
Let me take you on a trip down Bad Memory Lane to the late 1970s/early 1980s. To a time when K-cars ruled – and most factory V-8s (if you could even get a factory V-8) were making less than 200 hp. In fact, 200 hp would have been considered – was considered – “high performance” during my high school era in the early-mid ’80s. The top gun engine in the ’84 Z28 (also used in the Monte Carlo SS of the same period) was the L69 5.0 liter (305) HO – rated at the then-stunning figure of 190 hp, SAE net (less in the Monte).
Only a rarified 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. And keep in mind that most new cars back then – meaning, not L69 Z28s and TPI Corvettes – were little FWD nonentities like the K-car. Now, the K-car (and its fellows) were functional little appliances. They were exceptionally economical (many could hit 40 MPG – better than most new cars today).
Slow in a way that is simply incomprehensible to today’s 20-somethings. Fifteen (or more) seconds to 60. Top speed, all out – maybe 100. And of course, they looked as sad as they ran.
Which made a car like the ’78 Camaro I drove in high school – let alone my friend’s ’71 GTX 440 – seem like Arnold Schwarzennegger next to Pee Wee Herman. Just having five-lug wheels at a time when most new cars had four lug wheels – let alone having a big V-8 (and in the early ’80s, a 350 V-8 was big… a 440 absolutely titanic) was a cut above. Plus, with just a little bit of work, something like my ’78 Camaro could be made powerful enough to mop the proverbial floor with the then-new “performance” cars. I remember in particular one night when I was out with my friend who owned the 440 GTX. We squared off against a brand-new ’84 Corvette. The 375 hp Plymouth made short work of the 210 hp ‘Vette. Imagine how it felt to roll up to a stop light in that fearsome old GTX… and give The Stare to some dude driving a new Omni – or LeCar.
But these days, the GTX’s 375 hp is not-so-much relative to V-6 powered new cars that pump out almost that much. A base model 2013 V-6 Mustang has 305 hp. It can do 0-60 in 5.6 seconds – plenty quick enough to sweat the old 440. The V-8 powered 2013 GT – with 420 hp – runs 0-60 in 4.7 seconds, leaving the old 440 sucking wind and way behind.
But it’s the everyday performance of mass-market – ordinary A to B units – that probably helped dim the shine of the old-school stuff I enjoyed back when I was in school. Today’s equivalent of an early ’80s K-car is a rocket sled relative not just to the K-cars of the early ’80s but also relative to the elite performance cars of that time. A 2013 four-cylinder Camry is capable of getting to 60 in less than eight seconds – which would have been considered scaldingly quick back in 1983. The V-6 powered Camry gets to 60 in about 6.5 seconds – quicker than a stock ’84 Z28 with the “HO” L69 V-8!
And – quick enough to sweat almost any factory-stock muscle car from the late ’60s-early ’70s Golden Era.
The point being: The performance of those old fire-breathers is nothing much by the standards of today’s fire-breathers… by the standards of today’s run-of-the-mill stuff. Who wants a lumpy-cammed, 10 MPG ’60s or ’70s V-8 muscle car when a 30 MPG Camry is quicker – and comes with AC, a great stereo and all the rest of it, too?
Some will, of course. Because there’s style and curb appeal – and just the experience that comes with driving one of these lumpy-cammed, rumbling relics from the era of $1 per gallon gas (and sluggard new cars). I’ll probably never sell my old TA for exactly these reasons. It still gets looks wherever it goes. And I feel great driving it. But I’m under no illusions about its performance capabilities relative to today’s new stuff. And I know that it’ll take a lot more work than it would have circa 1984 to make my TA a dominant – or even competitive – presence (looks aside) on the streets today.
Throw it in the Woods?forum.