The cars of the mid-1970s to the early 1980s are often looked down up on by car enthusiasts. Much of this is for good reason. Styling was compromised by the huge 5 mph bumpers, driveability suffered from the archaic emissions controls, they had weak power plants that often didn’t get good fuel economy and they were either bloated and oversized, or tiny and unsubstantial. Despite all their faults though, there are many decent cars from this era.
Prices on the more desirable 1950s and 1960s survivors continue to be relatively high, and their supply is dwindling as more cars are restored. However, there are still a considerable number of original untouched cars from the so-called malaise era. Best of all, they often come at a price that is significantly more affordable than the older cars. These malaise era cars have some advantages, such typically having better brakes than their older counterparts, and most of the mechanical parts are readily available and relatively cheap (depending on the model).
As the owner of a car that falls right in the middle of the malaise era, I can say that while some of the stereotypes ring true, but if you pick the right car from this era they can be a truly great vehicle. Furthermore, as LT Dan pointed out, with his Grand Prix, it doesn’t take much effort or money to make some of these malaise era cars into great driving machines, even by modern standards. Anyone who is somewhat mechanically inclined can often update the engines and suspensions with basic cheap modifications to improve drivability, power and fuel economy.
I decided to peruse eBay to see what cars were on the malaise market. There were quite a few nice original cars from this era for affordable prices. When searching, I set the price limit of $2500 to $10,000 and only searched for cars with asking prices to avoid finding cars that were priced artificially low due an ongoing auction. I also tried to find a variety of cars that would capture an assortment of budgets and interests.
So c’mon, let’s take a walk through the Malaise Market Place sales lot and find a car for you. We’ll start off with the lower priced cars and move up towards the $10,000 price cap. First up is this 1978 Cougar XR7. This Cougar appears to be an original but well used survivor. The body is mostly rust free but it certainly isn’t free of marks and imperfections. Those are just signs of life experience. It is equipped with a base 302-2V V8 with about 118,000 miles but the cylinder heads were recently rebuilt. The current owner reports that he uses it regularly so it should be a fairly reliable driver as is. Parts on these cars are plentiful and cheap and it’s easy enough to squeeze more power or efficiency out of a Ford 302 should one desire. At $3750, the price seems to be fair.
If you desire something smaller and sportier, take a look at this 1984 Camaro Berlinetta, economically priced at $3000. It has a 2.8L V6 and a TH700-R4 overdrive transmission. The car is low mileage original with only 33,000 miles, but has been sitting for about 3 years. So chances are, unlike the Cougar, this car will need some mechanical work to make it roadworthy and reliable. This is supported by the stalling issue the seller mentions. A carb rebuild and a good go over of the brakes would be needed at minimum. The body and interior appear to be pretty decent, but the hood definitely has some serious structural rust at the front edge. Luckily a replacement shouldn’t be hard to find, but I am sure one could also just drive it as is.
Perhaps the best budget buy is this ’86 VW Scirocco. It probably falls outside the so-called malaise era, but when I came across it, I thought it was such a great find, I had to include it. This unmolested survivor looks to be in excellent shape. It has Washington plates on it and based on the excellent condition of the body, I suspect it spent most of its life in that state. The car has the 1.8L four cylinder with a 5-speed, and loads of new parts. Even the wheels have been restored. The only concerning thing I see in the listing is that the owner suspects that “based on the condition of the camshaft” the engine was recently rebuilt. So it seems that he hasn’t owned it long and if the engine was rebuilt, hopefully it was done correctly. For $2500, it’s probably worth the gamble.
Moving on to cars that fall into the more middle area of our price range, is this 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88, a Curbside favourite. Being a ’77 Olds, this is car is the center of the 350 “corporate” engine fiasco. And as luck would have it this Olds is equipped with the engine that was the center of that, the Chevrolet 350-4bbl LM1. While many will turn their noses up at this Oldsmobile not being powered by an Oldsmobile V8, I’d rather have the Chevrolet 350 over the 1977 Olds 350. The LM1 Chevy 350 was one of the best American engines of the late 1970s and it would easily out-perform a 350 Oldsmobile and likely a 403 as well. In addition by 1977, Olds V8s had undergone a number of cost and weight reductions which reduced its quality. Overall this car appears to be in very good original condition, with a decent interior and body. The only down fall is the non-working aftermarket A/C. For $5795, you could have this cheap and easy to maintain classic B-body.
If you prefer your luxury to be from Coventry rather than Lansing, then take a look at this ’83 Jaguar XJ12. This original car only shows 123,000 kms (76,400 miles) on the odometer. It was an obviously well cared for car, with solid body (some minor rust on the rear valence) and a decent looking interior. Being from Canada, I suspect this car was rarely (or never) exposed to the harsh winters. At $5695 CDN, it’s only $4300 USD, so it’s a fair bit cheaper than the Olds – such a deal! Somehow I suspect it might cost a bit more in upkeep and not be as trouble free as the big Olds.
Paul recently asked where all the Dusters went, so I went searching for one. This is an original 1975 Plymouth Duster powered by a Curbside favourite, the venerable slant-six. The car is being sold by a dealer and the description incorrectly lists the car as a “Dodge Duster.” The seller claims that it has spent its life in Arizona. Despite this, it has some perforation rust developing on the one of the lower quarter panels and one of the rockers. The Duster has an automatic and it has logged 107K miles. At $5250, it’s bit cheaper than the big Oldsmobile, but also a little rougher around the edges.
If you prefer your mid-70s compacts from FoMoCo rather than Ma Mopar, then take a look at this original ’76 Mercury Comet 2-door. It apparently only has 32,000 miles on it and runs and drives well. Of course whether this is the 200 six, or the more likely California mandatory 250 six, both aren’t exactly held in high esteem. So maybe that is a reason it wasn’t driven much. The car is listed in California, which explains the very clean looking body and its interior and engine compartment look very good as well. The prices are climbing on our little car shopping adventure, and this Comet has a price of admission of $6900.
How can we cover off the Malaise era without looking at some more personal luxury coupes, right? Well wait no more, as the prices continue to climb, I found this very nice surviving Chrysler Cordoba for $7500. It is described as being “showroom clean inside and out” and from the photos it doesn’t look far from the truth. This is probably the cleanest looking Cordobas I have ever seen. The silver exterior with the red interior works quite well on this car, but unfortunately there is not Corinthian leather. Powered by a smog era 360 it would have Chrysler’s electronic ignition, and not the problematic Lean-Burn of the later cars. The 360 only accumulated 40,000 miles in the last 45 years.
Cordobas are nice, but the king to the PLC segment was the Cutlass Supreme. I didn’t come across any Colonnade Cutlasses but I did find this downsized 1979 Cutlass Supreme. These Cutlasses were a bit less substantial and plainer than the Colonnade forbearers. They also had styling that was a little quirky compared to the 1981 and newer Cutlass Supremes. Nevertheless, this particular Cutlass looks to be a very nice survivor in a nice period brown. Under the hood it is stuck with a truly malaise V8, the Oldsmobile 260 that racked up 82,000 wheezing miles. At least it will keep those Olds purists happy, since it has an Olds V8, right? No darn 305 Chevy here for that true Oldsmobile man. The body and interior look excellent, but from the undercarriage photos, I’d say this car spent some time in northern climate. At $7575, it’s priced about the same as the Cordoba, so less value if you buy your car by the pound.
Not all of us want an old car though, so I didn’t forget about trucks. Many lament about the days of yore, when men were men and trucks were trucks. That meant trucks were all work, no pleasure. Regular cabs, 8-foot boxes, bench seats, and stiff suspension for carrying lots of weight were the ingredients to a real truck. Well then if that’s the kind of truck you want, I have just the truck for you, this 1978 Chevrolet K20. The truck is very period correct in the medium green with an old style cap over the box. Inside is nothing but a plain vinyl bench and a rubber floor. While under the hood is a trusty 350 Chevrolet V8. The Chevrolet trucks of this vintage virtually disintegrated with rust before your eyes, but the body on this one appears to be excellent. The undercarriage is solid, but not perfect, suggesting it has seen some inclement weather in its time. For $7,995 you can this truck could be yours and it will work to your hearts content.
Then again, I know pick-up buyers are loyalist, and so no self-respecting Ford man will by a Chevy. Don’t worry, I found a Ford too for you Ford guys. Although it is pricier at $9999 and so it will bring us to the most expensive vehicles on our shopping trip. This 1984 Ford F250 is also a 4×4 like the Chevrolet, but is equipped with the International 6.9L diesel, the predecessor to the much loved 7.3L. While these early diesels were sluggish by modern standards they did get excellent fuel mileage and I’d argue this 6.9L was the best diesel engine offered in a pickup during this era. This Ford truck is more costly than the Chevy, but it also appears to be in even better shape. With only 90K miles on the odometer, I suspect this truck has much more life left in it do some heavy hauling.
Both of the trucks I found were ¾ ton 4×4’s which means high stances and stiff rides. So for those of you who want to haul cargo in comfort and low to the ground, here is a nice 1976 Chevrolet El Camino. This El Camino is in great shape and appears to be well cared for. It even has a spray in bed liner so you won’t damage its pretty cargo box when you are hauling materials. It didn’t list what was under the hood, but it’s most likely a 350, although it could be a 305 or 400. However, it does show that it has 189,000 miles on the odometer, so it may be tired if it hasn’t been rebuilt. Nevertheless, as the owner of the car equivalent of this ute, I can attest these cars are very good drivers. For $9500, it’s cheaper than the big Ford truck too.
If you prefer to haul your cargo enclosed and in something more economical, then maybe you’d like this 1978 Datsun 510 wagon. With only 12,500 miles on the odometer, it is described as “a fabulous original time capsule.” This car obviously has not seen much use, but the seller reassured that it’s got a new battery, tires, wheel cylinders, along with a fresh tune-up, oil change and fuel system flush. The Datsun has original paint, which has been buffed to a shine to remove the oxidation, and the interior carpeting was replaced due to musty smells. Unfortunately it is an automatic, but it does have air conditioning. For $9995, you won’t find many other comparable cars in this condition.
For those not interested in hauling, I have two more cars that fall into our price range. The first is this absolutely meticulous looking 1976 Mercedes 280S. This W116 Mercedes was built when Mercedes arguably built the best cars in the world. These cars were solidly built and said to feel like they were carved from a solid block of granite. This particular example is a beautifully preserved California survivor, with 79,000 miles on the clock. The M110 2.8L six only pumped out 120 hp, considerably less than the European tune, to meet the strict US emission standards. So these cars were sluggish, even by 1976 standards with a 0-60 time of about 16 secs. The body and interior look top notch, and it reportedly wears its original paint and has had no body repairs. The undercarriage looks nearly flawless as well. For $9900, this is probably one of the nicest W116 Mercedes around and would make a nice leisurely weekend cruiser.
I am going to finish this shopping trip the way I started. Our first car we looked at was an economically priced 1978 Cougar. The last car is an immaculate brother of that Cougar, an ultra-low mile 1978 Thunderbird. This Thunderbird is the lowest mileage car I found on our shopping trip, with its 351M only accumulating 7708 miles. It looks to be a near perfectly preserved car, with the only significant flaw being the road rash on the front left fender due to a missing mud flap. The vibrant red velour interior should satisfy even the most discerning brougham lover. And on top of that, the car was apparently used in the 2020 feature length documentary Dog Valley, which is about a horrific murder that happened in Utah in 1988. Many of the events of this murder are centered on this 1978 Thunderbird owned by the victim in the film. For a buy it now price of $9995, this infamous T-bird could be yours.
That brings us to the end of this little malaise market place shopping adventure. I hope that in this wide variety of cars you were able to find a car that meets your budget and tastes. So which of these cars would you buy?