Automotive History: Muscle Cars To Malaise Era-Part 2

muscle malaise part 2 cover

In part 1 of this series,  I took a look at the cars that moved us from the Smokin’ Sixties to the Somnambulant Seventies. These are the transition cars, the ones whose styling got a bit convoluted compared with the simple purity of the “peak” generation before it. They didn’t all have opera windows and vinyl roofs but such frippery became more frequent, under the guise of “broadening market appeal”. Transition cars warmed us up for the Malaise Era, and reflected (or perhaps reacted to) the massive cultural changes that our country was experiencing.

I have loosely defined the transition era as 1969-1974. While not all the models will slot precisely into that six-year timeframe, it provides structure for the discussion. I waited until everyone weighed in with their commentary on part one before I created part two. But if your car didn’t make the cut, don’t worry–stay tuned for part three. Another convention – I limited my design analysis to the two-door models in the lineup, ignoring any convertible, sedan or wagon stable mates. The specialty hardtops had the most interesting styling as the designers were given a bit more freedom to stretch, with swoopy fastbacks and trick rear window shapes that were not possible on the workaday models.

1970-1971 Ford Torino / Mercury Montego

When I lined up three generations of Tornios, as seen in the header graphic, I really felt the malaise ooze off the screen, as I scanned from left to right.

1968 montego torino

The ’68-’69 design was clean and honest, if not a beauty contest winner. After all, it was up against the sexy new GM A-Body coupes. Although Ford went to the trouble of producing a fastback (aka SportsRoof) and hardtop, the Chevelle still outsold it by about 93,000 units [source ChevelleStuff.net & Hemmings.com], across the board with an all-new-for-’68 design. Still, this was Ford’s best effort to date in the growing intermediate market, with a big increase in sales from the ’66-’67 models.

Typically, the Mercury twin didn’t have much in the way of differentiation except for a fussier nose and more conservative tail end treatment. Small reason to pay extra for an allegedly upscale nameplate. But in retrospect, I’d take a ’69 Torino GT SportsRoof or Cyclone CJ with a 360 hp R-code Ram Air 428 over the contemporary Chevelle.

If you thought Ford wasn’t trying hard enough in ’68, just two years later the ’70 Torino / Montego swooped onto the scene.

1970 montego torino

It was the proverbial lower, longer, wider, heavier design, driven in part by a desire to win the NASCAR aero wars. Now sporting a 117″ wheelbase and 206.2″-209.9″ overall length, they began to stretch the size boundaries for mid-sized automobiles. Lead stylist Bill Shenk was influenced by supersonic aircraft. I recommend reading this fascinating piece about the design process for the ’70 models. The takeaway from Mr. Shenk was this. “…back in those styling days anything went, so long as it could be built and looked different.” It sounds like designers had a lot of fun right before the days of malaise, which ushered in worries about 5-mph bumpers, roll-over standards, and development budgets getting sapped by engineers struggling to meet new emission regulations with early 1970s tech.

Ford stuck with the SportsRoof/Hardtop split, although even the “regular” hardtop was so sleek one wonders why they bothered. That said, the Torino GT and Cobra SportsRoof was a dramatic design, and foreshadowed the flatback ’71 Mustang waiting in the wings. In case you suffered from Scopophobia,  (an anxiety disorder characterized by a morbid fear of being seen or stared at by others), Ford thoughtfully provided window louvers (Sports Slats, in marketingese) on the Cobra and GT, thus eliminating the already small chance that anyone could see in or out of the steeply angled backlight.

For 1970, the Montego had only the 2-door hardtop roofline, settling for that famous Cyclone GT gunsight nose to stand out. Also note that in ’70-’71 the Montego had the greatest styling differentiation from the Torino than at any other time in its long and relatively anonymous career. Personally, I like the Torino much better. The Montego is more bulbous and unresolved, as though they were still trying to justify the higher price without investing too much in new tooling. If it speaks to me all it says, “I’m worth an extra $783 for my oddly hewed front clip, because I kinda look like a ’67 Olds 88”. Ironically, even though far more people bought Torinos than Montegos (as was always the case at FoMoCo), I think the Montego styling predicted what was to come for the Malaise generation that followed.

As one of the earlier Malaise mobiles, it appeared that Ford was out in front of GM by releasing their all-new intermediates for ’72, a year ahead of the Colonnade crew.

1972 montego torino

In reality, this was due to a strike that ended up delaying production of the GM A-bodies rather than genius product planning from Dearborn. Still, consider that FoMoCo intermediates body styles had been significantly revamped every 2-3 years since the 1962 introduction. (Yes, I’m counting the unfortunate looking ’65 model as revamped.) You just don’t see that much visual change anymore from year-to-year. Also note that Ford had taken unit construction about as far as it could go, and in the quest to achieve LTD style smoothness and silence, they switched to body-on-frame for ’72.

While some argue that the relatively slim-bumpered ’72s don’t deserve the Malaise label slapped on them, particularly in SportsRoof form (which oddly returned to the Montego again), they lasted only one year before being saddled with some of the most poorly integrated battering rams this side of the Matador Coupe. The ’72 SportsRoof grew a touch longer, with a 3-inch shorter wheelbase, while width ballooned from a hardly svelte 76.8″ wide to a fulsome 79.3″. Those are Malaise-style stats in my book: more overhang front, back and side-to-side, mixed with a cream puff ride. And that’s before the 5-mph bumper was tacked on for ’73 with a new nose to match, extending the length to 212 inches. The nail in the muscle car coffin was the 429 V8’s plunge in horsepower from 370 gross in ’71 to 208 net, along with a corresponding increase in 0-60 times from the six-second range to a sad 9.3 seconds in ’72. [Source: automobile-catalog.com]. Even the new name, Gran Torino, was a Malaise moniker if there ever was one–pretentious, overblown, and disappointing.

As you can see from the photo section, the Torino/Montego brought us to Broughamsville, with a plethora of opera windows, vinyl roofs, and even fender spats. The bumpers are so poorly integrated that they look bent in the side profile of view of the ’75 Montego. These bloated bodies were less space efficient than the prior generation. Huge on the outside, relatively small on the inside, sporting 100 inches of front and rear overhang by ’74.

Ford may have gotten a year’s lead time over GM in the intermediate market, but they didn’t seem to learn any lessons when it came time to redesign the Torino for ’77. Witness the LTD II, Thunderbird, and Cougar bodies, which were woefully out of step with the times, and clearly just a mild rehash of a platform that was obsolete back in ’72. In the meantime, GM went small in a big way with their radically downsized ’78 A-body platform. Ford no doubt sold quite a few more monster mid-sizers to customers in love with length, as both company and customer clung to a culture that reveled in the gloriously inefficient Malaise Era. But we have the General to thank for leading American cars out of one of the darkest decades in recent memory.

1971-1973 Ford Mustang / Mercury Cougar

I’ll bet tens of millions of words have been written about the original Mustang, so I’m not even going to try to top what the best automotive journalists have expertly depicted for the last 50 years.

gen 1 mustang cougar

The ’64-’66 was not only peak Mustang, it could be considered peak muscle / pony car, period. And its elegant Cougar cousin was proof that if a company really tried, they could achieve significant styling differentiation while platform sharing. Personally, I have always loved the original ’67-’68 Cougar, and even owned a ’70 many years ago. If there were ever a car that gave Mercury a genuine identity, it was the Cougar. Sadly, they frittered away that individuality in the Malaise Era, as we’ll see in a few paragraphs.

I’m cheating a bit here, and sneaking in the ’69-’70 models because I couldn’t bring myself to put them into either the peak or transition category.

Gen 2 Mustang Cougar

I chose my favorite example of each: a ’69 Cougar XR-7 and a ’70 Boss 302 Mustang. Yes, they were bigger then their predecessors, but I already made up my mind that the ’71-’73 models were the transition targets. I received more compliments on my ’70 Cougar than anything I’ve driven since. But back to the ’69. With its hidden headlights, delicate chrome grin of a bumper, and well-defined body tuck-under, these sat very nicely on the street. The C-pillar flows gracefully into the short trunk, especially from the front 3/4 angle. Not too formal, not too fast. With all four windows down, it cuts a clean hardtop profile. And how can you not love the gimmicky sequential turn signals? When people malign this generation of Cougar for being a fat cat, it is only in comparison with the ultra-crisp ’67-’68 cars. True, the coke bottle hips and Buick-esque side spear that blossomed for ’69 could be interpreted as cribbing yet again from the GM design playbook, but I think they work rather well here.

As for the ’70 Mustang, it cut a mean fastback profile that when accentuated with the bold stripe package defined what muscle meant in 1970. I personally prefer the ’70 front end with its large dual headlights over the ’69’s staggered quad arrangement. Magnum 500 wheels are a must on these cars, and really on all the Fords of this era. They give that extra bit of depth and definition that just makes the body styles pop.

But for ’71-’73, things got longer, lower, wider, and weirder.

Gen 3 Mustang Cougar

This generation was designed during the Bunkie years at Ford, and as discussed in part 1, Bunkie liked big. The hood length reached cartoonish proportions, the “flatback” SportsRoof on the Mustang provided a nearly horizontal sliver of glass for you not to look out of, all topped off with a steeply raked windscreen. Outward visibility must have been Job None at Ford in the early 70s. But it was the nearly 3″ increase in width over the prior design the really put people off. Admittedly, they had a functional engineering rationale. Bunkie wanted to fit the 429 engine under the hood without all the custom work required for the old Boss 429, but with so few produced it all seemed moot.

If you look at the ’70 and ’71 Mustang together in profile, you can definitely see the relation. But it’s as though they just took the ’70 design and turned all the styling cues up to 11 without any particular consideration of the outcome. It was clear that the larger Mustang was an evolutionary dead-end, reflected in the plummeting sales. The 429 only lasted one year, a victim of higher insurance premiums, tightening emissions standards, and lack of buyer interest in the whole package. The Mustang was a fish out of water, or more accurately, a high-compression 429 CJ out of Sunoco 360. I was even as kind as possible, by not showing a “Grande” model replete with whitewall tires and vinyl roof. Still, I have to admit that a ’71 SportsRoof Mach 1 with a dual-Ram Air induction 429 SCJ on Magnum 500 wheels had undeniable curb presence. It represented the absolute last gasp of the original muscle car revolution at Ford. I just don’t think I’d enjoy driving it much.

The Cougar of this era actually continued its journey down the path to excess, and I feel the ’71-’73 models were a clear harbinger of the opera-windowed mini Mark that we got for ’74. What’s most unfortunate about the ’71 is that the lithe, elegant feline of ’67-’70 appeared to have gotten into a Costco sized bag of Meow Mix. Did they have to make the grill so huge? The body so bloated? Where did my disappearing headlights disappear to? And where did that flying buttress roof come from? Surprisingly, while the Cougar gained an inch in wheelbase to 112″, it lost a little weight compared to the ’70 model. It just didn’t look that way.

Finally, Ford got in tune with the times, and let its Malaise flag fly for ’74 with both the Mustang and the Cougar, but in very different ways.

Gen 4 mustang cougar

Ford took a lot of heat at the time for bloating its sweet little pony car into a lumbering Clydesdale. I uncovered some clay models intended to be extensions of the ’71-’73 platform. I’m not sure who would have been fired if those had made it to market. Speaking of firing, if Henry II didn’t have enough reasons to terminate Bunkie in September of ’69, the sales failure of the ’71 Mustang would have been just cause. But now Lee Iacocca was back in charge of the next generation Mustang, and he wasn’t looking back. Or maybe he was…to the original formula that worked so well ten years prior. Take one pedestrian economy car chassis, make the trunk smaller, the hood longer, build a youth image around it all and watch them fly off the showroom floor. He liked proven formulas for success, and turning a Falcon into a Mustang was a stroke of genius. So why not turn a Pinto into the Mustang II?

What makes this a Malaise Mustang isn’t its size, which was radically reduced from the prior year to a close approximation of the original pony. No, the ‘Stang II suffered from underpowered engines, typically terrible bumper integration, vinyl roofs, and silly decals on the King Cobra and Cobra II models. Also, I’m assigning T-tops the Mark of Malaise, as seen in my photo example. I shot that one myself at Caffeine and Octane here in Atlanta. I have to give the owner credit, he was not the least bit ashamed to show his ’78 King Cobra alongside the usual pristine ’69 Boss 302s and Z/28 Camaros. And while I would never buy one, then or now, you can’t argue with the sales numbers, which topped 385,000 for the first year.

The Cougar chose not to try the Pinto diet for ’74. Not everyone was worried about the oil embargo – precisely the 91,670 people who bought the newer, larger cat. It was substantial uptick from the 60,628 units moved in ’73. If they couldn’t get enough fuel to wet the bottom of the Cougar’s 26-gallon gas tank, they’d just walk to the disco. Although the Cougar seemed to have lost its way in the past few years, it was actually crouched, ready to pounce upon the burgeoning personal luxury market. This kitty has it all–hood ornament, stand-up grille, opera window and enough vinyl to side a subdivision. Really nothing more than a Torino in drag, it pushed potential buyers’ buttons, despite a rather awkward C-pillar compromised by Ford’s insistence on clinging to those exaggerated coke-bottle hips. Compared with the wildly popular Monte Carlo / Grand Prix Colonnade designs, it’s hard to see today why someone would have chosen the Cougar. But I believe it successfully marked its territory as a mini Mark IV. As long as the front could fool your neighbors into thinkin’ you were rollin’ in a Lincoln, perhaps no one was paying attention by the time their eyes wandered their way back to the lumpy trunk and fussy tail lamp detailing. Who knows. Fussy detailing was a Mercury hallmark, especially in the ’70s. For me, the only mark it carries is the Mark of Malaise.

1970-1973 Chevrolet Camaro

The ’69 design is generally acknowledged as “peak Camaro.” This is reflected in both the prices a first- generation car will bring, and in the current model’s heritage design, which slavishly pays homage to that one-year-only body. And yes, I’m giving the Firebird a “Get Out of Malaise Free” card, but more on that later.

1969 Camaro

While Ford may have gotten the muscle car / pony car ball rolling with the Mustang, Chevy perfected the look with the ’69 Camaro. Chevy clearly avoided any attempt to copy the wildly successful Mustang’s design, no doubt reflecting that famous GM hubris. But they also couldn’t afford to ignore the market any longer after watching Mustangs sell like ice cream in August for three years. There was one lesson they learned from Ford, which was platform sharing with an economy model. As the Falcon begat the Mustang, the upcoming ’68 Nova shared many bones with the new Camaro.

I find the ’69 to be a crisp, aggressive design that looked tight and right from any angle. Those character lines over the wheel wells might have seemed contrived on a lesser car, but on the Camaro they convey a genuine sense of speed. I do like the Rally Sport package with its hidden headlights, but perhaps people who went the Z/28 route preferred to spend their money on performance options like the cowl-induction hood or Positraction rear end. Also, as I searched for images of the peak years, all the sales literature I could find showed the RS package with vinyl roofs. Which kind of destroys my whole peak premise.

This is the first generation where I’m declaring the transition to malaise takes place within the same basic body design.

1970 Camaro

The ’70 model was a dramatic departure from the prior year, with a clean, fuselage-shaped core that introduced a high degree of tumblehome to the greenhouse and said goodbye to the convertible. The rear-quarter windows and corresponding hardtop styling were gone. In fact, they wouldn’t show up again until the 2010 homage- mobile, albeit with a fixed B-pillar. Fractionally longer, lower, and wider than the ’69, the wheelbase stayed the same and weight bumped up about 100 lbs. Along with the hardtop styling, the windshield wipers disappeared. I’ve noticed this is a characteristic of all the transition cars so far. And it’s a design element nearly ubiquitous on all modern cars. I can’t think of a new vehicle whose hood doesn’t stretch clear up to the cowl, to at least partially tuck away the wipers.

The strong horizontal crease along the sides accentuated the pronounced lower body tuck-under, which was common on ’70s cars. This set off the wheels and tires nicely, supporting that aggressive stance so key to the Camaro’s presence. Unfortunately, much of this effect was lost in its final years as a winged warrior when the Camaro sprouted all manner of spoilers, air dams and side scoops. Back to the sweet stuff – the split front bumper of the ’70 is by far my favorite feature. It could have come from Ferrari, or maybe Jaguar, but it flows with seamless form into a distinctly American hood of heroic proportions. Yes, many Jags and Ferraris have long hoods too, but the Camaro could be purchased by anyone with a job at Jiffy Lube. And herein lies the sales story, which wasn’t good for the first four years or so. In fact, it’s astonishing to think that this body style, which ultimately ran for an unprecedented 12 seasons and became an integral part of the American automotive landscape, was up for cancellation early in life.

Which brings us to 1974, the Camaro’s malaise debut.

1976 Camaro

A victim of middle-age spread, the Camaro’s weight increased 300 lbs., length was up over seven inches, and the most horsepower you could buy was 245. Larded up with safety and luxury equipment, it was sort of frustrating to car guys that production cleared 150,000 units for the first time. Wasn’t this the car GM had halfway to the guillotine just a couple of years before? Perhaps there was a backroom arrangement with the boys at Pontiac, who were making a concerted effort to keep the Firebird flames alive with smog-friendly 455 SD motors. We’ll let them worry about the gearheads, we’re selling plenty of Type LTs with color-coordinated vinyl roofs to the golf pros and secretaries. And as long as we’re comparing the Camaro to the Firebird, why on earth was Pontiac able to make decent looking bumpers all through the ‘70s while the Camaro cowcatchers were stricken with the same park bench disease that afflicted every other Malaisemobile? It just seemed like Chevy wasn’t trying very hard, although by ’77, they had developed a more integrated looking design.

By 1975, the Z/28 was cancelled out of embarrassment over the 155 hp LM-1 V8, though it did reappear in ’77. But with less than 200 hp, it was more cynical marketing tactic than an honest attempt at a performance car. It was clear people weren’t buying these Camaros for a fast rip down the drag strip.

Firebird Footnote

The Firebird is off the hook in my book, as Pontiac consistently handled the 5-mph bumper challenge with a deftness of design not seen anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Corvette. If anyone can think of other cars that had acceptable solutions, please comment below. Even more admirable was Pontiac’s ability to field a high performance V8 of some sort, while Chevy just transplanted a 155 hp 350 chuffer from some leftover Biscayne.


See all my other posts at my blog, Wired On Cars. It’s about car culture; the focus is on car shows, car museums and car design. But all things automotive are fair game.