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Home/News and Feature Articles/Special Features/ The Performance Car Chronicles/

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Ford's Mustang II was introduced in the 1974 model year.

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By 1975 notice that instead of quoting horsepower or torque figures, the company is now touting mileage and fuel economy -- a far cry from the 60's

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1975 - 1982 The Big Sleep
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By Society Staff - Reprint with Permission Only

Emissions and fuel economy put the performance car in a deep sleep

Once the major automakers were faced with increased regulation for emissions as well as increased fuel economy, performance engineering and performance cars as we knew them in the 60’s were all but abandoned.  Auto manufacturers tried to comply with fuel emission and economy standards by a wide variety of mechanical devices – smog pumps, vacuum systems and “tamper-proof” carburetors.  Additionally, increased sales and market share by foreign automakers from Germany and Japan hastened the demise of the classic big engine, high compression, radical cammed muscle car.

The major sanctioning bodies reflected this shift away from the big engine car. NASCAR approved a new engine specification in 1971 allowing ANY newly offered “production engine”  to be designated legal up to 366 cu.in.  Engines like the Chrysler 426 Hemi and Ford’s 429 Boss were forced to run “restrictor plates” to “equalize competition’. By 1975, the transition from big block engines to smaller engines was complete. All cars were now equipped with the same size engines (350 -366 cu.in) and restrictor plates were gone (for a while anyway).

Over in NHRA, the popular Pro Stock class was also subject to “handicap” weight / engine  types (most notably the Chrysler Hemi) and for years after, Pro Stockers were Vegas, Pintos and other small American compacts that were more of a shell with smaller V8 engines even though they never had a V8 engine option to begin with.

The widely  popular SCCA Trans-Am series came to an end in 1972. It would continue as a stage for Datsun, Alfa Romeo and other foreign brands for many years.

With the move by General Motors to have a “Corporate V8” (the Chevrolet 350 cu.in. engine) for all brands, victories in NASCAR for Oldsmobile, Buick and Chevrolet were largely based on whose body was most aerodynamic. Teams switched back and forth.

By the mid-70’s manufacturers were stagnate.

  • Chevrolet -- after 1975, Chevrolet no longer offered the 396/427/454 big block in the Chevelle, Camaro or Corvette.  By 1981, the largest engine in Camaros and Firebirds was a 305 Chevy small block.  Only the Corvette offered the 350 cu. in. engine (greatly detuned) during this period.
  • Pontiac – the once mighty GTO faded into obscurity with the loss of the 455 big block and Ram air 400 by 1975. The Trans-am soldiered on with the 455 through 1976 and the Pontiac 400 through 1979. In 1980 -81 the Trans am offered a Pontiac turbo 301. All firebirds after 1980 used either the 301 or the “corporate” 305.
  • Oldsmobile – By 1977, the 442 no longer offered the big block (455) engine and was relegated to an enlarged version of the Oldsmobile small block 350 – the 403. This engine would be used in the late 70 series of Pontiac Firebirds sold in California.
  • Buick – after 1975, the big block 455 that was so surprisingly strong in 1970 was quietly dropped. The Buick small block 350 remained until 1978. In 1980 Buick re-introduced the V6 engine in their mid-sized cars. This engine – later turbo charged -- would be the foundation for a remarkable performance car – the GNX.
  • GM “corporate engine” – In a move to reduce overall manufacturing costs, GM eliminated all “division related” engines after 1980.  All V8 engines in GM cars regardless of division used a 305 cu.in.  “small block” based on the Gen II Chevy small block.  Only Buick was left to produce the V6.
  • Chrysler – --  the mighty Hemi was no more after 1971 (it actually ceased production in 1970) and after 1974, the 440 was assigned to full sized cars for police duty.
  • Dodge – the Dodge Charger was a model of the Chrysler Cordoba coupe until 1976. After that it was an optional package of the “K car” Dodge Omni with a turbo charged 4 cylinder. Shelby (under contract from Dodge) made a version called the GLH still with the turbo 4.  The Dodge Dart was dropped as a model in 1976.
  • Plymouth – as with Dodge, the Roadrunner was made an option of the Valiant/Duster line in 1977.
  • Ford --  Ford stopped putting big block motors in their performance cars after 1977. The big block 429 cu. in was dropped from the Mustang line in 1972 and in the larger (mid-sized) Torino/ Granada in 1977 when it was replaced with the Fairmont (Fox chassis) line. Ford continued to offer the 351 both Cleveland and Windsor versions through 1977 when they were dropped. Hereafter, Ford would focus on its 302 cu.in.. (5.0 liter) V8.
  • Mustang – as stated, after 1973, the Mustang II was introduced. While there were “Cobra versions” of this car. The 302 V8 was a far cry from a performance engine during this time. In 1979, the Mustang line was redesigned around the “Fox” chassis that had debuted in the Fairmont line in 1977. This “Fox” body line would suffer from a downsized 5.0 engine of 255 cu.in.  1980-81.

This was truly the time of the Big Sleep for American high performance cars. What was once an engineering playground for horsepower and "bragging rights" had transformed into a period of dull (remember the "5 mile bumpers" that were stuck on cars) low performance machines that lacked the "soul" of the earlier era cars.

But, the engineering that was developed in the quest for greater emissions control and fuel economy also showed the way to extract (dare we think it) horsepower and performance.  The car that is most closely associated with this rebirth is the Mustang -- that is the next chapter.

Compare this ad for the 1976 Pontiac to the iconic 1964 GTO ad (below)

 

In NHRA Pro Stock -- these cars never came with V8's -- but that didn't matter -- no current year V8 car would be competitive

By the late 70's the Dodge Magnum was relegated to "family car" status with the 318 V8 as the "big engine"

The most touted GM engine of the late 70s was the "Corporate" (Buick) 231 CID V6 - a far cry from the 400+ CID V8s of the 60s.