By on August 10, 2020

Today’s Junkyard Find, despite its dilapidated nature, delivered a jolt of adrenaline right when it was needed most. Monday mornings can be a slow-to-rouse affair, but the ’73 Century Gran Sport was a car aimed at reducing the sudden onset of depression afflicting America’s drivers. It still carries that same therapeutic effect.

Yes, the Seventies — a decade talked about heavily in the TTAC chatroom, though not nearly as much as the two that followed. Starting with a bang and ending in a forlorn whimper, the 1970s was a tumultuous time for the U.S. auto industry, with geopolitical events and government regulation kicking off a stigmatizing Era of Malaise that still echoes to this day.

Let’s see if we can find some points of light in all that darkness.

The Gran Sport 455 was certainly one of them.

5.8 seconds to 50 mph in a two-plus-ton barge with smog-strangled V8 underhood was not bad for that time, though one must assume the tall third gear can be blamed for the lengthy 0-70 mph run time. It looks like GM engineers also applied the appropriate spring rate to this machine.

A definite sleeper.

Everyone knows the Skylarks and Chevelles and 442s and Trans Ams and Camaros and Challengers and Mustangs from the outset of this era, but “interesting” American iron from this decade doesn’t end with that short list. Fun could be had in lesser machines, and not just in years ending in “0” or “1”.

They might not steal the show at a local car meet, but they were an attractive option to the polyester-clad car buyer of the time. With memory bands to comb and recollections to jar, lets take time to rustle up a few. These needn’t be the ultimate performers of their day, nor does exclusivity need to play the key role.

Mention the Pontiac Ventura Sprint, if you must. Three-hundred-and-fifty cubic inches can be all the engine you need if placed under the right hood. Mustang II Cobra? We’ll accept that, as everyone else at the show will be drooling over the older Boss or Mach 1.

You could even tap the end of the muscle car era for overlooked vehicles that packed a punch but paled in presence when placed next to better-known brethren. Mercury Cyclone Super Cobra Jet, anyone?

While hardly a vehicle that could hold its own (or the road) if stacked against a comparatively featherweight ’68 or ’69 pony car, the bloated ’73 and ’74 Dodge Chargers, especially in triple-opera-window SE guise, always interested this writer. Vinyl and muscle can mix, and a 440 V8 was still available to buyers who increasingly didn’t want it. The EPA was busy flexing its muscles, but a performance rear end still lingered among the many options greeting buyers. Life didn’t need to be entirely sedate.

With ten years to choose from and a laundry list of cars, what vehicle that can be arguably described as a sleeper stirs a little emotion in your mind?

[Image: Chrysler Corp.]

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39 Comments on “QOTD: Your Choice for a Seventies Sleeper?...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Ok, if you eliminate the early 70s cars which were still leftover 60s cars and started at 1973/74 when emission choking controls were added, I’d go with the Plymouth Duster/Dodge Demon and their derivatives. Even in 1974 these unassuming Chrysler starter kits still packed some punch with the 360 V8 @ 245hp. Not bad for 1974

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      I think the Duster/Demon were limited to the 340 cid V8 until production ended in 1974. The 360 began production in 1971, and was initially a step up from the 318 in full size cars.

      There were some Duster/Demon models with the 360 in 1974, but not many, as the 318 was the most produced as the standard engine. With the strangling of the 318, the 360 was the go-to option for the D/D in 1975, and the last year in 1976.

      Chrysler converted the plants making the D/D bodystyle to Aspen/Volare production during 1976. It was a good sales move, for a year or so, until tha A/V twins developed their infamous problems. By 1978, Plymouth dealers really wished they had Dusters (and Valiants) to sell.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        I see the 340 and 360 as interchangeable, at least in the Duster/Demon/Dart Sport lineup, since the bigger engine was also meant to compensate for the reduced output of the smog controls.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      For ’74 you could get the 360 in just the Dart Sport 360 and Duster 360.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    You could order a ’73 Cutlass Supreme with a 455 and a 4-speed manual. That’d be my pick. Preferably in Olds Racing Beige.

    It’s hard today to appreciate just how slow most 70s cars were, especially by mid-decade. Slant-six Aspens and Volares. 2.3 Pintos and Mustang IIs. Any air-cooled VW. Olds sold a shrunken version of the Rocket V8: 260 cu in and 110 hp. There’s a reason Murilee called this the Malaise Era.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    My parents had a powder blue 74 Maverick 302 (4-door) that – at the time – could move pretty well. First gear took you to 50 mph, 2nd to 75, and 3rd to 120. At least that’s what I’ve been told :).

    Most other Mavericks of the day were running the 250 I-6. But despite the gas crisis, my dad ordered the V8 because he didn’t want a totally lame family sedan.

  • avatar
    texan01

    The one i currently own. a 1977 Chevelle Malibu Classic sedan, just with a bigger engine. or a 73 Malibu SS station wagon with the 454 and 4 speed manual and all the HD suspension options.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    “the tall third gear can be blamed for the lengthy 0-70 mph run time”

    I don’t think it makes quite that much difference for this Buick in this case. I found the specs for this car (disclaimer: I don’t completely trust everything I read on the internet…) and it’s got the 2-3 shift point for the manual transmission at 68mph. I checked the math myself and that’s 5000rpm in second gear, so mayyyybe 68 is a bit optimistic.

    (Source is on the site automobile-catalog dot com, the other numbers are G70-14 tires, 3.42 final drive, 1.64:1 second gear ratio in the Muncie four speed… and of course those are theoretical numbers that don’t account for a handful of details that might make plus or minus a few mph either way.)

    That 3.42 final drive is pretty short for a post-fuel crisis, mid-1970s U.S.-built car. Other than special order cars like this one, most U.S. iron came with something less than 3:1 (sometimes in the low 2:1 ratio). With the contemporary automatic transmissions, that gearing would push the wide open throttle 2-3 shift out to 70-90mph. Even my lowly Valiant with the Slant 6 would hold second until 76mph. This was actually pretty ideal for 40-70 freeway onramp acceleration; cruising fuel economy would have benefitted from even taller gearing but at the same time the engine revs were in a nice, quiet range once you got settled on the freeway (mid-2000s). At the other end of it, at idle that shift point would happen at 10mph.

    On the topic of sleepers and the late model Dart/Valiant, the four door with a 318 V8—with the optional 3.21 rear axle instead of the standard economy 2.45—was a pretty good sleeper in its day.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      Oops- the editing window for my comment is closed, but I just noticed the “automatic” grease pencil writing on the windshield in the previous article.

      The same website suggests about 74~75mph for that 2-3 shift in cars with the Hydramatic and the same 3.42 rear axle.

      The seventies were a weird time for cars…

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The 73-75 Pontiac Grand Am. The Euro inspired A-body Colonnade came standard with the 400ci and offered the 455ci as an option. A 4 speed was available with the 400ci. The Radial Tuned Suspension was standard equipment along with bucket seats, console and a rally gauge package.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I really liked those. Test drove one when I was shopping for my first car, the undercarriage was acres of rust so I passed.

    • 0 avatar
      55_wrench

      Absolutely agree with MRF 95 Tbird. Having owned a ’73 LeMans Safari wagon (brown too), with a 400-4V and TH400 trans, I always wanted the Grand Am with that delicious Grand Prix dash and instrument stack.

      I’ve never seen it published here, but I always wondered if those Colonnade coupes were meant to evoke the GM coupes of 1946-1948. Check out the door glass and rear quarter window treatment here:

      http://smclassiccars.com/pontiac/254271-knockout-1946-pontiac-fastback-coupe-bone-stock-restoration-excellent-driver.html

      Pontiac went out on a limb with the Grand Am, having some crazy slippery fender treatments that translated very well on the wagons. Polarizing design maybe, but I still like them 40-odd years later.

  • avatar
    snorlax

    It wasn’t really a sleeper at the time, but I would say the Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 certainly qualifies as one nowadays. Fastest sedan in the world when it was new.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I’ll go with the the mid-’70s Nova police car. Quick for its’ time, and a good handler to boot. Remove the cop stuff, make some engine mods, and you’d have a VERY good sleeper.

    (And the good news in the ’70s was that smog equipment was needed, but wasn’t all that hard to remove, and you didn’t have emissions testing back then. Just pay the guy at the shop a few bucks for the “pass”, which is exactly what my dad did with our ’75 Olds Custom Crusier wagon. De-smogged, it became something of a sleeper itself.)

    And how much you want to bet that Buick in the video was a ringer? GM was infamous for sending out “massaged” models for the press to test in those days.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      “Just pay the guy at the shop a few bucks”

      Not only that, little things like advance the base timing to something other than factory setting, which was usually about TDC for a lot of mid/late-1970s Detroit anything. Even an extra 5° made a world of difference.

    • 0 avatar
      2drsedanman

      “GM was infamous for sending out “massaged” models for the press to test in those days.”

      Agreed, probably other manufacturers as well. Four-speed cars sometimes got a hotter cam and I suspect some were hotter than stock for the sake of magazine tests. Also, I remember reading somewhere that Buick used stiffer throttle return springs on some 455 equipped cars. This would make you have to push harder than usual on the accelerator pedal, thereby tapping into the massive torque at low rpm and causing the car to feel quicker, easier to spin tires, etc. Lots of tricks back in those days it seems.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        The most (in)famous example was the ’80 X-cars that GM sent out to the buff books, which were apparently all hand-built. The mags fawned all over them. Then customers got REAL production examples, and they were all pure excrement.

        The shame of it, of course, is that these cars *WOULD* have been great, and probably would have put quite a dent in Toyota/Honda sales, if GM hadn’t decided to manufacture the, from spit and glue. As it was, they ended up turning off pretty much every customer who ever bought one.

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          My first job out of school was with a company that had a fleet of X-cars as company cars. After a nightmarish year of stranded employees we got rid of them all :(

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          If you had to make special cars for the press, you had to know the actual product was sub-par. Yet, they moved forward with them anyway. If that is not the ultimate in corporate hubris I don’t know what is. Imagine if the cars were actually average in terms of reliability – forget being Honda-like – GM would have prevented setting the stage for their long decline and failure.

          GM sold a supply-constrained +800K number of Citations alone in the first year. Yet six years later the X line was dead. Talk about a wasted opportunity.

          • 0 avatar
            CobraJet

            I traded a 74 Gran Torino for a new 80 Olds Omega X body. I special ordered it because the dealer had none on the lot. Waited 12 weeks for delivery. Not the best car purchase decision I ever made.

  • avatar
    volvo

    When I think of sleeper I think vanilla looking 4 door sedan with potent engine/drive-train/suspension options.

    From US manufacturers probably Dodge and Plymouth came closest. The Dodge Dart and Plymouth Fury basic 4 door sedans (and their variants) could be ordered with 360-400 cubic inch V8 and upgraded suspension. The 440 CI V8 was reserved for the police package and I don’t know if that could be ordered by civilians.

    Most US Iron from that era offered the high output V8 and upgraded suspensions only on “boy racer” packages including hood scoops and gaudy appliques and with that you no longer have a sleeper.

    For other than straight line acceleration and speed there were lots of 70s sleepers but they were all imports. Early 70s BMW, Volvo and Datsun come to mind.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      Dart or did you mean to write Coronet? I agree that the “mid-size” (ha!) Mopars with the 400 made good sleepers, although again, you’d be best off finding one without the standard economy rear axle ratio.

      Funny you should mention the early 70s BMWs and Volvos… look underneath those and look underneath a few Detroit family haulers from the same vintage. The Detroit cars were certainly more affordable while the Euro imports had a certain snob appeal (a modern, sophisticated suspension was part of that appeal). Regardless, when you compare the suspensions of several cars, it’s pretty evident why the Buick in the SpeedWeek video looks like like a fat kid running the obstacle course at high school football practice. Auto journalism was part of the marketing system long before the 1970s (I’m not bent out of shape over this, it’s how the game is played and the game is all about money) but it’s still pretty laughable to hear the guy in the video rave about how great the “upgraded” suspension is in that car. Just to be clear, while I might laugh about the fat kid at practice, I wouldn’t want to take a hit from him either. There’s a lot to be said about mass and muscle, whether we’re talking about cars or people.

      • 0 avatar
        volvo

        You are correct. Other than the police package the early 70s dart only offered the 340 V8. Downsizing engine so that the Dart would not steal sales from the Challenger.
        The 360 was brought back the last two production years in the mid 70s in the sports package and the police package option

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      My 72 Fury had a 440 option available on non-police spec cars. Wish I had that engine…

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    I agree with all of the above. Here’s a lower-powered (and lower-priced) option that I used to surprise a number of small-block pony cars back in the day: An AMC Gremlin with a 304 V8.

    Mine wasn’t even a Gremlin X. It was an otherwise base 1972 Gremlin with gray/green paint and subdued pinstripe vs. the more-typically seen hockey stick graphic on the side of the car. It even had a bench seat and hub caps on body-colored steelies.

    Someone might have noticed something was up if they spotted the 70-series blackwall tires – and the Gabriel Strider shocks underneath.

    I wasn’t looking for this car. My father was the big AMC guy. I was with him at the local dealership when I spotted my next car on the showroom floor – still just under $2,000 even with the $500 V-8 option and three-speed Torqueflite transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      Gabriel shock absorbers… hehehe, when you remove the original shock and is falls apart in your hands and anything would be an improvement.

      Cliff Clavin little known fact about car suspensions- the control arm bushings, surprisingly, contribute a lot to the overall damping.

      • 0 avatar
        Steve Biro

        I hear you. The Striders were Gabriel’s top-end adjustable shocks – with three settings. I had them on the stiffest setting and was quite pleased with them at the time.

        When you got the V8 option with the Gremlin, a front anti-sway (anti-roll) bar was standard. AMC actually sold a little-known rear bar as an accessory. I had one on my car. The Gabriels, along with the bars, gave me a decent-handling car for the day.

        Most domestic performance cars in the 60’s and 70’s were over-sprung and under-damped.

  • avatar
    justVUEit

    A mid-70’s Nova could be had with a 350 v8 that while emissions strangled still had a healthy dose of torque. With a beefed-up suspension (F41?) it could take you by surprise. Ford even offered a 351 in the Granada/Monarch although I don’t recall if they had a heavy-duty suspension option.

  • avatar
    texasjack

    1976 Firebird Formula in YELLOW!

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    The ’77 or ’78 Mercury Cougar Villager wagon. That’s the biggest Cougar ever, station wagon, and the last years they could be had with a 351, Windsor or Cleveland, or 400 big block.

    Luggage rack and woody vinyl sides of course.

    upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/1977_Mercury_Cougar_Villager.JPG

  • avatar
    CobraJet

    I bought a new 74 Gran Torino 2dr that had the 351 Cleveland. The horsepower was less than 200. Not sure of the torque number. It was a decent cruiser but there was no way it had enough power to burn rubber with its 2.75 axle ratio. If you had a couple of miles if straight highway it would top out at 95 mph. That was ok since it’s Firestone 500 radials would come apart easily at higher speeds.

  • avatar
    285exp

    My father bought a 22 ft I/O fishing boat in 1971, so for his company car that year he ordered a Plymouth Fury with a 440. He had rear air shocks with an onboard compressor added to keep the rear level when towing. Being a typical teenager, the first thing I’d do when he let me borrow it was pump the shocks up all the way to jack up the rear end. I thought I was a badass. Gas mileage wasn’t much to brag about, but it would smoke those skinny bias ply tires.

  • avatar
    B-BodyBuick84

    Best 70’s sleeper would be with out a doubt the 1974 Buick leSabre/ Electra coupe and sedans. Despite being a couple of big old land yacht’s, 74′ was the last year the 455 Stage 1 engine was an option along with heavy duty sport suspension, posi rear diff, heavy duty cooling and electrical, and dual exhaust (last year before cats as well). The 455 stage 1 option turned these otherwise mundane grandpa cars into some of the most unassuming sleepers the 1970’s could spit out. It took very little tuning before those engines could push out the same power as their 1970-72 era parents.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Lots of fun memories here .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    nrd515

    My ’74 Roadunner with the 360 4 barrel was terrible out of the box, wrong fuel pump, carb linkage wasn’t close to correct, the secondaries didn’t open fully, etc. It would literally run out of gas at full throttle, popping and surging. I was totally humiliated by a friend’s ’70 307 Camaro, even though it had an 4 barrel carb and a new intake manifold, I still should have beaten it. After the pump got changed, and the carb(Carter Thermo-Quad) adjusted correctly, my car avenged itself and easily beat his Camaro. My next target was another friend’s ’71 Olds 442. The first time we raced, on a closed dragstrip, he won by about a car length. A set of headers and some carb changes made it a toss up most times who would win, and then a cam change to a slightly more lumpy one made my car beat his 100% of the time, and from about 1/8th mile on, I just walked away. When I stupidly traded in the car in 1977, it’s best ET was [email protected] on slicks at Irwindale. The “HP” 360 was a great motor in the mid 70’s.

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