Malaise era. Supposedly the time when cars were the worst, and especially the American ones. Compared to the glory days of the 1960s, when the gas was cheap, horsepower plentiful and cars the most beautiful ever, the 1970s are considered to be dark ages. Emission-strangled engines with pathetic power-to-weight ratio, huge and hideous bumpers, as well as floaty suspensions with not even a pretention of “sportiness” or “handling”, traits so popular with modern car enthusiasts.
But, was it really that bad? I had a chance to find out.
Recently, I offered a friend of mine, who makes a living by importing classic American cars and parts, to write some advertising copy for his website. This means I have to check out his new arrivals, and to get a feel for them, I have to drive them, at least a little. And since we’re in Czech Republic, which is not exactly the richest of European countries, most of the cars are classic landbarges from 60s or 70s – it’s not like no one wants muscle cars over here. Just the big ones have more of a novelty (imagine driving a 18-feet long car in our narrow streets) and, what is maybe more important, even people who would like to have a muscle car usually can’t afford one and have to settle for a four door fullsize sedan. You have to bear in mind that average late 60s – early 70s landbarge in nice shape, the kind of car that can be had in US for, say, three to seven grand, will cost more like twelve to eighteen thousand bucks, after shipping, handling, custom duties and, most of all, the dreaded VAT, are counted in.
But I digress. The first new arrivals I got to check out and write about were, by luck, two Buicks. Both in extremely nice shape for their age, and both great examples of their respective eras. Let’s begin with older one – a dark green 1965 Electra four-door hardtop, with a 401 Nailhead engine and not much else when it comes to options. A typical old man’s car, kept by original owner until 2008, when it still had under 30 thousand miles on the odo. After the second owner daily drove it for a while, it has 31 thousand, but it still looks pretty much like new, and even very drives so for the most part. Basically, the thing needs just a new set of whitewall tires instead of the worn and unbalanced winter ones, fixing the upholstery on the driver’s part of the front bench, and some suspension work.
The second one is a 1972 LeSabre, also a four-door pillarless hardtop, but this time powered by emission-choked 350, offering just 160 horsepower (although if we count in the difference between post-1972 SAE net horsepower and older SAE gross horsepower, it may be much less a difference than it seems). Also a one owner for much of its life (until 2011), this one is a bit less original, with the rear of the car having a respray after an accident a few years ago, but mechanically, it works just like new. No play in the steering, taut suspension… I imagine that the sucker drove just like this when it drove out of the Taylor Motor Company in Waynesville, NC about 40 years ago.
Although I drove them in opposite order, I will start with the older car first. the Electra was one of my first experiences with 1960s GM fullsize cars, with the other being just a really short drive in a much more “muscle car like” 1968 Catalina. But I owned 1960s US cars, and in my days as independent car importer, I got behind the wheels of about a dozen more, so I kind of knew what to expect. As I mentioned in my earlier review of 1988 Caprice, these things are just wonderful as toys – driving really brings you back in time – but as a real-world cars, they tend to suck quite a bit. While the comfort and style of a 1960s land barge can be hardly matched by anything else, all the prejudices about the old US metal come true here – with some more added to the mix. The cabin is not only extremely light any airy, but also wonderful to look at. But the instant you try to reach for anything on that beautiful, flat, jet-age designed dashboard, you realize why modern cars do not have flat dashboards. The suspension will have the car gliding over the railway crossing like there’s nothing there and over-assisted steering lets you drive with just a finger. But once you have to change your direction swiftly, the whole thing starts to wallow and keeping it on the narrow road at quicker pace is quite a challenge. You know nothing about what’s going on with the front wheels, everything is imprecise and you can feel that once you would start pushing a bit, the tires’ would lose traction and the front end with heavy engine would wash wide. And some hub caps would probably fall of, like in an old time movie. In short, it’s everything you expect from 1960s American car. Comfortable, torquey and fast in a straight line, but lacking even the slightest notion of road feel or handling.
And if the car from the heyday of American carmaking, the height of the performance era, is lovely to cruise, but terrible for any other kind of driving, how bad must the Malaise era beast be? Every time we read about Malaise era American cars, we hear about absurd outside dimensions, mushy suspensions, comatose steering and terrible, castrated engines. I didn’t have much experience with 1970s American cars before, although I have driven more than my share of earlier and later ones.
So I was pretty excited to get the opportunity to find out how they really were with this gold LeSabre. Being a ’72, it represents the very beginning of the Malaise era cars – it’s already built on the new generation of ´GM’s B-body platform, which lasted until 1976, and it’s the first model after the biggest horsepower drop (or perceived drop), but it still retains sleek shapes, unmolested by large, federal mandated 5 mph bumpers. In fact, it looks surprisingly sleek and elegant from the outside – and it seems quite a bit smaller than it actually is (especially parked next to the humongous Electra). And the line flowing from the hood to the rear quarter panels is just amazing.
But maybe even bigger difference can be seen, and felt, when you sit inside. Unlike the Electra, with its flat dashboard, full glittery bits and with controls laid out with design in mind, instead of ergonomy, the LeSabre has a then-modern “cockpit” style dash, wrapping around the driver, a little bit like in the 1990s BMWs. These’s much less shiny stuff and on first glance, the interior looks quite a bit less interesting for it, but it has its advantages. Like the fact you can actually reach things without leaning forward in your seat.
But enough with interior, however beautiful it may look after just a little over 30 thousand miles. Let’s see what that 350, fed with measly two-barrel carburetor and choke with the first round of emission standards, can really do. While the Electra offered 325 SAE gross horsepower (which should be something between 250 and 300 of “modern” horses), the LeSabre must make do with just 160 hp (SAE net). Which seems like awfully little, considering that this car is about a foot longer than current S-class Mercedes. In the LWB version at that. But it’s lighter than you would think – probably under two tonnes – and with the kind of driving its handling inspires, the power is in fact quite adequate. It won’t win any drag races, it will probably have a hard time doing a burnout, but it’s powerful enough for overtaking and it chirps the tires under acceleration, which is enough to make you feel like you’re Clint Eastwood or Telly Savalas.
But back to the handling. Because, surprisingly, here lies the biggest difference from the previous generation of the B-body and, in fact, most 1960s American cars I have ever driven. While part of it may be caused by the fact that this car is in unbelievable shape and really drives “like new” (and it should, with 36 thousand miles on the clock…), it’s still surprising how stable and even taut the thing felt on the road. While the big Buick is definitely not a sports car, and it still glides over the road surface, instead of following it, there’s something very different to the older Electra. The steering wheel still has no feel, but it’s much firmer, and the suspension seemed to have much better balance between comfort and handling than the older car. I drove about 20 miles, mostly on tight European back roads, and the LeSabre dealt with it was surprisingly similar to the way my friend’s old Mercedes W124 does. There’s the same, strange same of stability and control on top of the dominating suppleness – like car was stiff, but gliding just above the road, or the soft springs were underneath the stiffer ones. It’s surprisingly vast difference compared to the older car, and it makes the newer LeSabre actually quite useable on twisty roads. You still won’t break any records, but the suspension will keep up in any speed you may reasonably expect from a land yacht – or, in fact, at any normal speed at which people usually drive.
So, what does it all mean to us, classic US car enthusiasts? What I took away from this wonderful afternoon is that we shouldn’t underestimate tha Malaise Era cars just because they’re low on power and maybe a bit bloated. Between the suspension improvements, better soundproofing and more ergonomic interiors, they can, in fact, be much nicer to drive in any other way besides the engine. The ’72 Buick was much closer to the ’88 Caprice I tested recently than to the ’65 just eight years before it. Both the improved handling and comfort (important to take it as combination – 1960s cars can be made to handle, but you will sacrifice any comfort they had before), and those little details, like easy-to-reach controls, make driving experience much more bearable. While I would absolutely love to have the Electra as a weekend cruiser, I would probably start to hate it after more than a few thousand miles a year in it. The LeSabre I would be happy to drive daily from spring until fall. And, since the shortage of horsepower is probably the easiest fault to remedy in old American cars, I may even prefer it as a toy.
Now, please excuse me. I’m off to search the ‘net for some GM Colonnade car and a big block engine…
Both cars, and a gallon or two of gasoline, were kindly provided by www.ameriky-hk.cz