The Malaise Era. When the cars bled power onto the design house floors. A quick history lesson for those of us too young to remember: In 1973, several members of OPEC suddenly attacked Israel, a US ally. After some assistance to Israel with military resupply, the United States became the target of some OPEC smackdown, and they turned off the oil supply to punish the US government.
To Joe Consumer in his big, heavy, V8-powered Detroit hulk, this meant a huge hike in fuel spending and long (very long) lines at the pump. Eager to respond quickly, the Big Three began stamping a new generation of small, anemic cars, cars that would get the job done, and that’s about it.
Now, in some cases, small economy cars were already in the works long before the crude stopped flowing. The Chevrolet Vega, for instance, had been in development since the late ‘60s. But the Embargo, combined with tightening federal emissions restrictions and a firm reliance on old-school carburetion, meant that even the fast, high-powered variants of those cars had to be slow and suffocated.
But what if they hadn’t been? What if the emissions restrictions had never passed and OPEC had remained happily our bros for life? Take a look at three cars that could have been so much more.
The aforementioned Vega debuted in 1970 for the ’71 model year as a small, economic, forward-thinking car of the future, but kept many aspects we love about old cars. It had rear-wheel-drive. Manual transmissions sprouted from center tunnels like mushrooms in your college apartment shower. And it was available in three body styles- a tidy, sleek hatch-/fastback, a “Sedan” notchback, and even a “Kammback” wagon, though discriminating blog-readers know a three-door wagon as a shooting brake.
But though its no-more-than-three doors gave it a sporty look, it never delivered the power. It wasn’t really meant to. It was meant to compete with proportionally powered cars from Japan. Yet John DeLorean was head of Chevy at the time, and he wanted to make the Vega stand out over its platform mates from Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile.
So he did what any sane person might and ordered some engines from a company who built them for F1: Cosworth. They released the Cosworth Twin Cam Vega in 1975, and it should have been awesome. DeLorean sent Cosworth that sand-cast aluminum block and they used their ancient, Prydaini sorcery to build some new heads and cams and get it up to 265 hp. They were using it in race cars before they even put it in the Vega.
But then they did, and that meant it was subject to EPA emissions regulations. And that meant it was gelded back to 110 hp, the exact output of the 1971 Vega.
Now take a moment to imagine what it could have been. For the day, 265 hp in a consumer-level production car was insane. The Lamborghini Countach LP400, the first Countach for sale, only produced 375 hp, and it was one of the fastest cars in the world. A 265 hp Vega would have certainly been worth its sticker, which was actually only slightly less than the Corvette that year.
Lightweight, RWD, and fastbacked, the Cosworth Vega could have been a genuine American muscle car-with only 4 cylinders. It could have dominated the American performance market. Fox-body Mustangs? The performance community would have let out a collective psht if everybody had been cruising around in a 265hp Vega in 1979.
Speaking of muscle cars, the Mustang II wasn’t one of them. We’ve discussed it at length before, but the Mustang II was little better than the Vega itself in terms of performance. Lee Iacocca had pulled the Mustang kicking and screaming into the ‘70s, putting it on a diet and sending it to work like a controlling girlfriend. It was no longer a muscle car, a sports car, or even a sporty performer. It was now a commuter for the masses. And it was pathetic.
Most of them carried a 2.3 liter four (like the Vega). And most of them made under 100 hp (like the Vega), but one of them stood out above the rest. 1978 saw the great and victorious return of the performance Mustang- the King Cobra. It was flashy. It was suped up. It had a hood mural and T-Tops like the Firebird. It was…brown. And it produced 140 hp, slowly and reluctantly turning that almost-was Cosworth Vega into a cloud of smoke at the tree.
Now before you start shrugging and firing out “at leasts,” those 140 horses came from a 302 V8. That’s a 5.0 laying down 140 hp. It was more hesitant to get moving than a college student in the middle of a semester. The same engine platform had powered the Shelby GT350 with a heady 315 hp. Once again the EPA restrictions had reduced a great motor to a frightened puppy.
But what if they hadn’t? A thirstier carb and a better cam could have raised the 3,000 lb King Cobra into a 315 hp track killer. Yes, it would have still looked like Ford’s attempt to be Burt Reynolds’ cool little brother, but at least it would have lived up to that hood mural. Like the Cosworth Vega, it would have been considered a true muscle car, instead of a true waste of money.
Let’s return for a moment to John DeLorean. He’s not mostly remembered for that Vega, or the GTO, or the Firebird. He’s remembered for his eponymous and infamous gullwing, the DMC-12. Before Marty McFly and drug scandals, there was just an idea for a cool, stainless steel car with a mid-engine layout. And though that engine was soon moved all the way to the rear, the car remained very, very cool. Suspension was inspired by the legendary Lotus Esprit, and steering and handling were state of the art. It only weighed 2,712 pounds, about the same at a Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ.
Would you like a rear-engined BRZ? Why the heck not? And while DeLorean couldn’t have looked into the future to see Toyota’s 86 twins (sorry, had to), that 200 hp seemed just about right. Yet for some reason, DMC chose the 2.7 Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6, which had never produced more than about 165 hp. In production, that was down to 150 hp. Then came the addition of catalytic converters for the US market, which meant just 130 hp. That amounted to a 9.6 second 0-60 and a top speed of 130 mph. Yes, it shared performance figures with a Mercury Grand Marquis.
Unlike with our other examples, we’re going to stretch this one a bit, because hypotheticals need no boundaries. French company Venturi was founded in the ‘80s to develop high-performance cars. Venturi is another awesome story for another day, but at one point they developed their 400GTR- with that same 2.7 PRV. But they tuned and turbocharged it to 402 hp. You see where we’re going with this. The DMC-12 could have conquered Porsche as the kings of the rear engine, and it would have been remembered as more than a movie prop.
The good news is you can do pretty much all of this today. A Cosworth Vega might be tough to find, but a B18 Honda engine can be dropped into any Vega and tuned for the same results. If you can find a 302 Mustang II that won’t disintegrate when exposed to fresh air, a little carb tuning can get it performing beautifully. Or you could skip the carbs entirely and go for fuel injection. As for the DMC-12, well, anything can be engineered, right? Or you could plug in an LS V8 and call it a day.
What craptastic Malaise-era cars could have been so much more? How would you tune these three?