5 Malaise Era Wagons that Would Make Perfect Sleeper Cars
The mid to late 1970s were a tough time for American cars. Following the gas crisis of 1973, power levels were decimated, and the high horsepower muscle cars of the '60s all but disappeared from the American landscape.
Aesthetically, changing safety standards really did a number on the idea of any hope of sleek, minimal designs, while the style of the time dictated that everything be bathed in shades of dull browns, greens, and oranges. While some of the best models came off as inoffensive at best, the worst offenders utilized shapes that either ended too abruptly, or were comically too long.
While the cars of ‘60s have become iconic, and the best of the ‘80s is currently being remembered through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, the Malaise Era autos mostly sit unloved and forgotten. Looking closer, however, many of these cars are rear wheel drive, and were at least offered with V8s, however anemic they may have been at the time.
That means that, at least from a concept perspective, a potent sleeper car is not only possible, but doable on a budget. And if one is going to make a Malaise-era sleeper, one of these less-than-popular wagons is an absolute must.
Pontiac Sunbird Safari
The Pontiac Sunbird Safari is a strange footnote from GM’s bad habit of rebadging and reselling in the latter half of the 20th century. Originally branded as Pontiac Astre, the wagon was shifted to the Sunbird line after the Astre was discontinued in 1978. The car was offered with a 305ci V8, a 3.8L V6 or the 2.5L I4. It was, safe to say, not considered by anyone to be a performance car.
The owner of this wagon, Hugh Morris saw potential in this old car however, and pulled the weak factory engine out and replaced it with a '65 Corvette-derived 327ci engine that has been massaged to make 365hp to the wheels. With a rebuilt Turbo 350 transmission and Posi-traction rear end with a 3.42:1 gears, the Sunbird is sure to surprise any modern muscle car at the track.
Mercury Bobcat Villager
Looking at Ford in the '70s, the biggest standout of era-specific malaise is the infamous Ford Pinto. While the Pinto isn’t exactly a classic, the rebadged Mercury Bobcat Villager would be our pick for an unloved sleeper wagon.
While it was never offered with a V8, it was offered with Ford’s 2.3L I4, an engine that would later be turbocharged for the Mustang SVO and Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. While there are plenty of examples of 302 swaps for both the Pinto and and Bobcat, personally we think the 2.3L Ecoboost would be the perfect replacement. Give the Bobcat the turbo 4 it always deserved!
AMC Pacer Wagon
Few cars personify the '70s like the AMC Pacer. While the coupe had a profile that is legendary in its aesthetic offensive, the wagon was a little more tame. AMC marketed the Pacer as the first “wide small car,” a feature that proves useful in the compact car’s ability to swallow a V8.
While the Pacer was offered with a variety of straight six and V8 engines, it was originally designed for a Wankel rotary. With AMC having disappeared from the modern automotive landscape, we’d like to see tradition thrown to the wind and a turboed 13B from Mazda’s RX7 in the engine bay.
For the Mopar fans, the Dodge Aspen Wagon is the best candidate for a compact malaise sleeper. Offered in a variety of body styles, there was even a “high-performance” coupe that was sold with a 5.9L V8 that was able to muster a disappointing 170hp. The Aspen is long overdue for a real performance makeover.
While any number of Dodge V8s would be a perfect match for the unloved Aspen, we have to believe that someone out there has the means to fit a Hellcat engine under the hood.
Although the Malaise era was largely an American phenomenon, the Japanese imports at the time were so derivative of American designs that they largely blend in unnoticed with contemporary domestics. The Toyota Cressida wagon, with its round headlights and long hood are a near dead-ringer for the above Mercury Bobcat.
While the Cressida name was American only, the car itself was a close relative of the Japanese-spec Mark II, the grandfather of the Chaser and Cresta lines that would become synonymous with Japanese straight six performance. With factory numbers over 300hp, this homely Cressida would be a perfect home for the legendary 1JZ-GTE.
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