Good morning, Autopians, and welcome once again to the only two-crappy-car shootout that matters: Shitbox Showdown! It’s Friday, which means it’s time for something a little bit special. Today we’re going to be looking at a pair of high-performance coupes from a time when the light was just barely visible at the end of the ’70s tunnel. But first, let’s see what you made of yesterday’s odd couple:
Looks like the Nova wins, although from the sounds of it, many of you were simply voting against the Fiat and its perceived title problems. Really, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal; estates sell cars all the time, and I can’t imagine every one of them has the title in hand. Anyway, for my money, it’s that Nova and its tacky-in-all-the-right-ways interior.
Today’s matchup was brought to mind by the latest installment of Jason’s brilliant “Glorious Garbage” feature, which showcased another vehicle that was tacky in all the right ways: the 1978 Plymouth Volaré “Street Kit Car.” This goofy NASCAR cosplay package was no one’s idea of a muscle car, at least by the standards of a few years prior. But this was 1978, when even Chevy’s mighty Corvette was taking seven and a half seconds to reach 60 mph, one hash-mark past the Federally-required giant orange “55” marking on the speedometer. That ’78 Nova we looked at yesterday, a fairly typical family car for the time, took nearly twelve seconds to reach the same speed. The Plymouth’s performance wasn’t all that shabby, all things considered.
Fast-forward 45 years, and a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, a fairly typical family car today, can out-accelerate the ‘Vette to 60 by a couple tenths (7.3 seconds, per Car and Driver), and absolutely blow the doors off anything else from 1978 short of a Ferrari or Porsche. Maybe performance and speed need to be “adjusted for inflation” like prices are. Or at the very least, performance cars from slower eras deserve a little sympathy.
So today we’re going back to a time when the worst of the malaise era was coming to an end, when power and performance were starting to creep ever so slowly back into sporty cars. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.
Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 2.8 liter overhead cam inline 6, 3 speed automatic, RWD
Location: Dallas, TX
Odometer reading: 58,000 miles
Quicker than a RAV4 Hybrid? Yes, but only a little
Datsun’s Z car was already a hero by the time the 280ZX gained a turbocharger in 1980, but the addition of forced induction gave the Z the power to back up its sporty looks: 180 horsepower, to be exact. This was good enough to take the 280ZX to 60 miles an hour in a little over seven seconds, at least with an automatic. The five-speed manual, surprisingly, was about a half a second slower.
This Z is an automatic, and is equipped with T-tops, a perfect combination for cruising around, or taking Jennifer Jason Leigh on a date. As Nissan’s flagship sports coupe, it’s loaded with other goodies as well: leather seats, power windows, and a very ’80s tape deck. It’s one year too early for the 280ZX’s best parlor trick, however; the voice warning module wasn’t available until 1982.
The seller says this car’s 2.8 liter inline six has had a lot of recent maintenance done on it, and it runs beautifully and accelerates like it should. The air conditioning doesn’t work, nor does the radio apparently, so there’s some work to be done still. The odometer shows only 58,000 miles, which if correct likely means this car was sitting around for a long time instead of being enjoyed like it should have been. It’s cool that there are some survivors like this still around, and available for sale, but honestly, I don’t mind seeing them rusty and beat-up and with 300,000 miles on the clock, because every mile and every ding and scratch tells a story.
Stylistically, this car is like a greatest-hits of the early ’80s. In addition to the T-tops, it has louvers on the rear windows, gold-painted alloy wheels, a NACA duct on the hood, and of course, 5 mph bumpers. The bronze-gold paint is definitely of the era as well. The paint is original, and pretty shiny, but there is a bit of rust along the bottom edge. It would be worth investigating how serious that is.
Still, even as it is, you could have a lot of fun cruising around in this car. It’s quick enough to effortlessly keep up with modern traffic, and as popular as these once were, there aren’t many left these days; expect to draw some attention. Fix the tape deck, slide in Journey’s Greatest Hits, pop the collar on your dress shirt, and paint the town bronze.
Engine/drivetrain: 5.0 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD
Location: San Jose, CA
Odometer reading: 61,000 miles
Quicker than a RAV4 Hybrid? Nope, sorry
High-tech turbocharged engines were one way of accelerating out of the malaise era, but General Motors took a different approach, or rather, the same old approach with some new technology thrown at it. The third-generation Firebird and Camaro arrived on the scene in 1982 with a new trick: electronic fuel injection, but only at the bottom and top of the engine range. The 2.5 liter “Iron Duke” four-cylinder had a single throttle body, and the Trans Am’s 305 V8 received the “Cross-Fire Injection” system, with two throttle bodies. This fancy new induction method didn’t make a ton of power; it was only rated at 165 horsepower, a mere shadow of the “Super Duty” Trans Ams of a decade earlier.
But even a low-output V8 makes the proper sort of noises for a car like the Trans Am, and gives it the proper attitude. And the 305 had a lot less weight to haul around; the third generation F-body weighed 500 pounds less than the second generation. An automatic transmission was compulsory with this engine; in 1983 this meant a TH700R4 four-speed with overdrive.
This car became famous on TV, of course, but these days the idea of a black Trans Am with a yoke for a steering wheel and a bunch of blinky lights on the dashboard is as tired and overdone as a pearl-white Beetle with stripes and roundels and the number 53 on it. It’s refreshing to see a nice clean steel-blue Trans Am like this with no hint of Knight Rider to it. And I like the turbine-style wheels without the “bowling ball” wheel covers, especially with the white-letter tires to set them off.
This 61,000-mile car is just about as clean as an ’83 Trans Am has been since probably 1986 or so. It looks practically new, inside and out. Now, it is still a Firebird, so I’m sure that dash top squeaks and rattles and the windows wobble in the doors when they’re halfway down. These cars were always more about style than substance.
But if you are of a certain age and background, this car’s style speaks to you. No, not speaks; it shouts at you like Vince Neil shouts at the devil. I remember seeing a Trans Am similar to this in the window of Jim Detzler Pontiac when I was young, and being absolutely transfixed. It’s the automotive equivalent of a chunky riff being hammered out on a Jackson guitar through a Marshall stack, and it makes no apologies for it, and I love it for that.
Neither one of these cars is going to win any drag races today. The Chrysler 300 I drive every day would leave either of them in a cloud of dust, and even an average minivan would give them a run for their money. But that isn’t really the point. In their day, they were decent performers, and they still have the fast-car attitude. At the end of the day, if you feel cool driving it, who cares how fast it actually is? All that’s left for you is to make your power choice: high-tech Japanese turbo wizardry, or good ol’ American V8 rumble?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)