A while back, Paul wrote a very enlightening article about the 250 six powered 1975 Ford Granada winning the dunce cap award for having Ford Model A levels of power per cubic inch as well as a few other dubious distinctions. Cars with such attributes simply don’t come about every day.
But the premise of Paul’s article prompted me to be curious about the opposite; what was the best of this era? Nothing is as clear-cut for good as the Granada was for ridiculous, and this question could be likened to asking who had the least bothersome case of small pox. Any determination of what is “best” is a dicey proposition.
Let’s break this down by make for better enlightenment, of which there is a considerable amount.
Jumping into the the 1979 Motor Repair Manual, and continuing forward to 1983, I started scouring engine outputs. It’s pretty depressing in some cases as any engine having more than one-half horsepower per cubic inch was nearly a spectacular enough event to prompt a federal holiday. In many cases, it is obvious the drop in power after 1974 is a reflection of the advent of catalytic convertors and only American cars are being examined as they were the ones who most struggled with their game.
Note that some engines, such as those in Cosworth Vegas, Corvettes, and anything specifically for law enforcement were excluded due to being speciality pieces. We’re looking at an epidemic among the masses!
The Best of the Worst: 1977 and 1978 Gremlin 2.5 liter
Output: 0.66 hp / cid
So the ever awkward Gremlin wins an award four decades later. Who said the car was all bad? However, just don’t let this fire breathing 0.66 hp per cubic inch lure you into thinking it’s some form of drag racer. At 2,654 pounds, the poor Gremlin’s 2.5 liter still had to pack around 33 pounds per pony. A rocket sled it was not.
Dishonorable Mention: 1975, 1976, and 1977 258 straight-six
Output: 0.37 hp / cid
While still not quite in the depths of despair the Granada was, at 90 horsepower the aroma was getting rather putrid. For having nearly two liters more displacement than the 2.5 four, the 258 only provided an additional 10 horsepower.
Imagine how delightful a stuffed to the brim 3,900 pound Matador wagon with the 90 horsepower (or 100 according to the Standard Catalog, which is still nothing to brag about) 258 would be to drive in hilly terrain. That makes for the type of horror story about the bad old days you tell your grandchildren.
The Best of the Worst (naturally aspirated, tie): 1974 350 and 455 V8s
Output: 0.56 hp / cid
As mentioned earlier, 1974 was before the belly of output was scraping the bottom of the barrel but it was close. Extra credit is given for Buick being consistent in output between two different series of engine.
Give Buick a pat on the back.
Honorable Mention (naturally aspirated): 1979 305 V8 (5.0 liter)
Output: 0.52 hp / cid
Since 1974 could be considered a smidgeon too early, 1979 should not prompt such sentiments. This is also a reflection of GM’s engine sharing gaining momentum as this is a Chevrolet powerplant.
The Best of the Worst (turbocharged): 1979 231 (3.8 liter) V6
Output: 0.80 hp / cid
It took a turbocharger, but Buick obtained the second highest output per unit of displacement of any car mentioned here. When placed in the 1979 Regal Sport Coupe, weighing a click over 3,000 pounds, the 231 had only 16.6 lbs per horsepower to tote around. The Century, as seen just above, was also available with the turbo 3.8 but weighed a few pounds more than the Regal, thus the Regal getting the nod here.
Inclusion of a turbocharged engine cannot be used as a direct comparison against naturally aspirated engines. Or can it? It’ll be used for another comparison later.
The turbocharged 3.8 was a peek into the future, with a better glimpse being provided with the much refined 1987 Regal Grand National and GNX, perhaps the most awesome American cars of the 1980s.
The Best of the Worst: 1977 Cadillac Seville
Output: 0.51 hp / cid
It took fuel injection for Cadillac to succeed in that herculean feat of blasting through that seemingly insurmountable barrier of 0.5 hp per cubic inch. With the carbureted engines, one can figure output being mostly in the 0.45 range.
But there were exceptions.
Dishonorable Mention (tie): 1975 500 cid V8 and 1981 368 cid V8
Output: 0.38 hp / cid
It takes some work to obtain only 190 horsepower from 8.2 liters of gasoline engine, just like it does to squeeze 140 from 6 liters. If you really want to put this unmitigated misery in some form of perspective, let’s think about how Cadillac put a naturally aspirated diesel engine in the Seville for 1978; output was not much worse at 0.34 hp per cid.
Let’s also not forget the legendary HT4100 engine, that suicidal wonder, had a higher output per unit displacement than either of these two.
Torque, however, is a much different story.
The Best of the Worst: 1982 2.5 liter four
Output: 0.60 hp / cid
Chevrolet deserves credit for being relatively consistent across its line but nothing was outstanding. Output for the ultra smooth and refined (okay, maybe it’s just durable) 2.5 liter Iron Duke was 0.01 hp per cubic inch more than the 2.8 liter V6 available in many of the same cars. One could consider it a tie, but the hair needs to be split somewhere.
Dishonorable Mention: 1975 350 cid V8
Output: 0.41 hp / cid
If ever an engine has had a more bountiful history than the Chevrolet 350, it would hard to pinpoint. From being the weakling seen here to the much more potent LT1 of the 1990s, the 350 has seen and done it all, having been placed at some point or another in nearly anything powered by an internal combustion engine.
But with this type of output it’ll take a while for it to do much of anything, especially when planted in a 4,500 pound Impala as many of them were for 1975. Chevrolet may have made sense for America, but 145 horsepower from 5.7 liters didn’t.
Although with 1975 being the first year for catalytic converters, maybe it did make some degree of sense.
The Best of the Worst: 455 V8 from 1974
Output: 0.60 hp / cid
Despite their size, weight, and fuel appetite, these big Oldsmobiles still had something going for them by having the highest output per unit of displacement of any Oldsmobile for a long time. It makes one realize there is indeed a silver lining in every cloud.
(Dis?)Honorable Mention: 403 V8 from 1977
Output: 0.50 hp / cid
In comparison to some engines seen here, this 403 is toward the bottom of the heap. In relation to Oldsmobiles, it was toward the top. Intriguing, is it not?
The Best of the Worst: 455 V8 from 1974
Output: 0.55 hp / cid
Much like Oldsmobile, there wasn’t much earth-shattering at Pontiac. The Trans Am only SD455 from 1974 did produce 0.64 hp / cubic inch, which wasn’t too far from regular Olds 98 territory, seen above, and it’s pretty close to the average of another brand soon to be discussed.
Dishonorable Mention: 1976 350 (5.7 liter) V8 (Ventura only)
Output: 0.40 hp / cid
When the 350 found elsewhere at Pontiac had an additional 20 to 25 prancing ponies, somebody saw fit to shortchange the two barrel carbureted Ventura. Go figure. Opting for a four-barrel 350 in your Ventura gained fifteen horses, but was still noticeably short of the B-body Catalina.
Ford / Lincoln / Mercury
The Best of the Worst: 1975 2.8 V6
Output: 0.64 hp / cid
Did you really think Ford would have any of their straight sixes or V8s being proclaimed a winner? Output was so bad for those engines, generally less than 0.5 hp / cubic inch but with one exception seen below, I generally didn’t figure their output per displacement – why bother? We already know the 1975 Granada with the 250 handily wins the championship in the dishonorable mention category.
Honorable Mention: 1974 351 (5.8 liter) Cleveland
Output: 0.66 hp / cid
One Ford V8 engine did jump off the old spreadsheet. While making a hair more power per cubic inch than the 2.8 V6, the Cleveland was on its way out and the 2.8 was on its way in.
Chrysler / Plymouth / Dodge / Imperial
The Best of the Worst: 2.2 liter from 1983
Output: 0.70 hp / cid
Gaining 10 galloping ponies for 1983, the 2.2 liter was starting its attempt in living up to Carroll Shelby’s claim about how it had the potential to kick a lot of fanny out on the streets. There were no stipulations for where this engine was installed as it was now the regular 2.2 found throughout the Mopar line. The prime reason for the power increase was a bump in compression from 8.5:1 to 9.0:1.
Honorable Mention Number One: 1974, 1975, 1976 360 (5.9 liter) V8
Output: 0.68, 0.64, and 0.61 hp / cid, respectively
This was the engine found in the Dart 360, Duster 360, and Valiant 360 but there is one exception.
The 1974 Challenger could be found with this engine. So equipped, the Challenger had 13.1 lbs / hp, a power-to-weight ratio that is still admirable in contemporary times.
Honorable Mention Number Two: 1976 400 V8
Output: 0.60 lbs / hp
For this time period Chrysler products generally had the highest power per unit of displacement of anyone, which is admirable given how many engines were generally emasculated during the 1970s. There won’t even be a dishonorable mention for Mopar as their larger engines all stayed above the magical 0.5 hp per cubic inch mark which helps eclipse the 318 taking a larger relative hit.
The Stand Up & Shout, Good Golly Miss Molly, Look at the Grand Champion Winner
1983 Ford Escort
Output: 0.90 hp / cid
There was no way to see this coming. While this fuel injected 1.6 liter four-banger was standard on the Escort GT, it was optional on both the regular Escort and the EXP providing a broad availability. Has this engine helped Ford atone for the convergence of sins that was the 1975 Granada? Or is this simply blind luck by Ford?
For perspective, this output per unit of displacement ties with the Cosworth Vega and its sixteen valve heads from 1975 and 1976.
The original Escort was many things – rough, crude, and packing a lot of (relative) power.
Looking at these “winners” and “losers” one thing becomes apparent; four-cylinder engines typically provide a higher specific output as they are often able to rev better.
An example of this is the VW Rabbit from 1977 and 1978 having a specific output of 0.82 horsepower per cubic inch. That’s better than the turbocharged Buick 3.8 mentioned earlier. And examples having higher specific outputs than nearly anything discussed continue as a 1977 Honda Accord produced 0.74 horsepower per cubic inch.
The sunset of what many have described as the Malaise Era brought about many things, particularly smaller engines that packed more punch per inch than the old engines had realized in quite some time – if ever. It was a time of altering needs and requirements, a time of growth with the inherent struggles that brings about. But what was learned certainly was retained as engines now possess more power for their displacement that many thought imaginable not that long ago.
That’s a great thing.