The Malaise Era of American automotive history refers to the period of model-year 1973 through model-year 1983; it takes its name from the commonly accepted shorthand name for President Jimmy Carter’s notorious “Crisis of Confidence” speech of July 15, 1979 (interestingly, Carter did not use the word “Malaise” in his speech).
Carter dared to suggest that Americans couldn’t always have everything they wanted, cheap, and for this— plus his reluctance to turn the residents of Tehran into clicks on a Geiger counter after a bunch of beardo Islamo-loons took advantage of the power vacuum resulting from the CIA’s man losing control of our oil-soaked real estate and taking US embassy personnel hostage— conventional American wisdom regards him as The Worst President Of All Time, Except For Maybe That Guy That Did The Teapot Dome Thing. The idea that things were always going to get worse took root in America sometime between Walter Cronkite revealing himself as a paid agent of Vo Nguyen Giap and a Georgia preacher getting whacked by some asshole while supporting a bunch of Memphis trash collectors; the inflation resulting from the Vietnam War’s endless kidney-shots to the federal government’s budget (and Nixon’s resulting desperation moves) coupled with the Saudis finally figuring out that they were the pushermen feeding the West’s oil jones and that witholding the sweet black horse gave them power, and Southern Californians getting sick of several hundred “shelter in place” Stage 1 Smog Alerts per year meant that, by the early 1970s, the era of cheap horsepower, chrome-and-Naugahyde-slathered luxury, and general automotive optimism was deader’n Jimi Hendrix. The muscle cars of the late 1960s were essentially marketing creations— their symbolism as mighty-fisted avengers of perceived slights against the American Way Of Life came later, during the period of Southeast Asian Conflict historical revisionism that got rolling in the mid-1980s, and if you think there’s a link between the auction value of the ’70 Chevelle SS 454 and the level of certainty of the Silent Majority that we were stabbed in the back by the media in Vietnam, you’re right— and the once-vaunted quality of Chrysler, Lincoln, and Cadillac had already begun its long drop off a cliff long before the insurance companies, the NHTSA, and the State of California ended the cheap-horsepower-and-chrome party. At this point, I think it’s time to cue up the Merle Haggard; Merle expresses the “rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell” sense of the country’s direction at that time better (and in way fewer words) than I ever could.
So, the Malaise Era: I’m defining its span as the 1973-1983 model years and defining its origins with such certitude because I invented the term during my first few months at Jalopnik, as a semi-ironic reference to Jimmy’s speech and the general sense that the future would suck permeating the formative years of my generation. When Eddie Alterman dropped it in a New York Times piece, its usage really took off. Hey, no problem— it’s my gift to the car-writing world— but it’s still exasperating when I get a bunch of static about how 1972 has always been considered to be the first year of the Malaise Era (because of the gross-versus-net horsepower changeover) or that the Malaise Era ended in 1981 (when Ronald Reagan took office and erased those shameful memories of helicopters on the embassy roof and a Dilantin-addled Orange County lawyer trying to rat-fuck the already helplessly disorganized opposition. I invented the term and I say it extends from the year of 5 MPH crash bumpers to the year the Fox Mustang became properly quick, and that’s that!
No vehicle better sums up the pluses and minuses of Malaise Era Detroit machinery to me— yes, there were pluses— than the 1979 Ford Granada that my parents bought in 1980 from Hertz. It served as my dad’s daily driver for a year or two, until he upgraded to a new Bonneville, and then it became the unloved “extra car,” driven only when the A-list car was in the shop or doled out to the teenage offspring to ensure humiliation at the hands of their Celica-driving peers. I took my first driver’s-license test in this car— dubbed “The Ramada” by my well-traveled salesman dad— and drove it whenever I couldn’t fire up a single one of my wretched personal fleet (including, at one point, a $50 ’69 Corona, a $113 ’67 GTO, and the world’s most terrible ’58 Beetle; you can see the Competition Orange ’68 Mercury Cyclone that succeeded these cars in the photo above). In many ways, the Ramada was a truly miserable car to drive; I struggle to come up with an adjective that does justice to its 250-cubic-inch six-banger’s performance. Dreary? Lackluster? Punitive?
Not many cars are so underpowered as to be genuinely unsafe, but the Ramada makes the list (the dual-control ’78 Rabbit Diesel in which I took my driver-training classes in 1982 is the only car that beats the six-cylinder ’79 Granada in my personal Dangerously Underpowered Cars Hall of Fame voting). From a standing start, you’d mash on the gas and the car would hesitate for a second or two, seemingly gathering its thoughts, and then there’d be this grooooooaaan sound from under the hood and the car would ooze forward. No amount of water or bleach on the rear tires could make it perform any sort of a burnout— hey, I was a teenager in a street-racing town in which only revving big-blocks could drown out the incessant Randy Rhoads solos and low-flying A7s— and even the most vicious, C4-annihilating neutral-drop couldn’t get more than a pathetic chirp out of the Ramada’s tires. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the car had sipped gas through a cocktail straw, what with fuel prices being pretty brutal in the early 1980s, but the Ramada gulped the stuff like a Delta 88 towing a cement truck uphill with three flat tires and five pulled plug wires. As I recall, it never managed to top 20 MPG in super-stingy highway driving (cue the enraged comments from readers whose Granadas habitually knocked off 38 MPG with the air-conditioning on), and nobody in my family wanted to know what its city mileage really was (cue the enraged comments from readers whose Granadas beat Honda Insights in city fuel economy).
At this point, I ought to break out the curb weight and horsepower figures, but I’m writing this while sweating out a 10-hour flight delay at Shadow Government World HQ and don’t have access to my reference library; I’m going to guess at a curb weight of 3,400 pounds and a horsepower rating of 92 (I checked later: turns out it’s 3,098 pounds and 97 horses).
The Ramada, as my family’s much-abused extra car, ended up as the “Phone Police Enforcermobile” in this 1984 Super 8 production I did for my first college scriptwriting class (the lack of a sound-enabled camera hampered the dialogue somewhat). My ’68 Cyclone and a buddy’s ska’d-out ’56 Bel Air also have cameos, but the Ramada is the star.
Thing is, the Ramada was ugly and slow and uncomfortable and leaked in the rain and wandered all over the highway and sucked gas, but it always ran. Well, to be more accurate, it could always be made to run, with enough coaxing and maybe 20 minutes of tinkering. Jump the starter relay with a screwdriver, or maybe hose down the carb with starter fluid. Some medium-grade hassle that got you pissed and dirty but always ended up with the 250 reluctantly coughing to life. The “automatic” parking brake release was vacuum-operated, and the driver would sometimes need to stick his or her head under the dash and suck on a vacuum line to disengage the brake. What really endeared it to my parents, however, was its crashing ability. More precisely, they loved its ability to get into non-injury wrecks with insured drivers who were always at fault, coupled with my ability to beat the thing back into some semblance of shape with junkyard parts and blue rattle-can spray paint. I wrecked it twice (once when a dude with a parked Farrah Fawcett-era Cougar popped his ten-foot-long driver’s door open as I drove by his parking spot; the Ramada tore the door completely off the Mercury, while sacrificing its grille and right fender in the process), each of my two sisters wrecked it twice apiece, and each of my sisters’ boyfriends wrecked it. The most dramatic wreck was a T-bone incident in which the driver of a Sedan de Ville passed out after a few too many gin rickeys at The 19th Hole and plowed into the Ramada. Each time, the insurance company kicked down at least five times the cost of the parts I needed from U-Pull-It to put the car back together, and I honed my sledgehammer-and-come-along bodywork skills. I think I went through four Granada and Monarch grilles, three hoods, and at least seven doors. I replaced every light on the car at least once, affixed the radiator using hundreds of zip ties, and bought Bondo in the extra-large economy-size buckets.
In a way, the Granada was emblematic of Malaise Era America: it lived in the past, suffered from a vast array of problems— many of its own making— and faced widespread scorn, but it just kept plowing ahead and got the job done. Ford’s marketers sank to a new, humiliating low with their claim that the Granada was just like the Mercedes-Benz W123. What’s next, putting lederhosen on the Statue of Liberty?
It’s too bad that the Coup’s “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night” didn’t come out in 1980; Ford might have made the car into a favorite with the under-30 crowd.
The Granada’s chassis design can be traced back to the Falcons and Fairlanes of the early 1960s, and well before that time if you want to get really nit-picky. Obsolete before Eisenhower left the Oval Office, the Granada’s suspension was fairly sturdy and very cheap to manufacture. By the time Ford made a Fox Platform Granada in the early 1980s, the Granada name had become synonymous with “Malaise Rental Car Misery” and buyers avoided it all costs. While Ford may resurrect the Galaxie or even Maverick names from the grave, we can be sure that North Americans will never, ever have the opportunity to buy a new Granada (though it might be a different story in Europe).
What happened to my family’s Granada? Well, after so many wrecks and resulting amateur repairs, all the tape-measure alignments and chain-and-telephone-pole frame-straightening in the world couldn’t disguise the fact that the Ramada crabbed like a sumbitch, facing about 20 degrees away from its actual direction of travel, and the amount of time required to get it to start got past the half-hour mark at times. My mom eventually traded the car for a replacement door for her daily-driver Midget (yes, even a British Leyland product was more dependable than the Granada), and the Ramada was gone. Hmmm… maybe it was two Midget doors. Ramada, can’t say I miss you… but I respected you.