The 39th President of the United States, Peanut Farmer, Billy Beer's brother & all around wet blanket Jimmy "The Hammer" Carter.
A CRISIS IN THE MAKING:
By 1979, when President Carter delivered his infamous Crisis of Confidence Speech, automotive manufactures were a hollowed out shell of what they had been in 1969. The loss of creative freedom that makers had just a decade before would become apparent in the decades to come. Compliance with Federally mandated rules was unquestionable and as a result would lead to some pretty bad exterior design, but an increase in fuel efficiency. Ultimately, the U.S. would see just how dependent it was on foreign cooperation for its oil..
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
As the above advertisements for the General Motors line up of mid sized cars indicates, innovation, in exterior car design, wasn't something that existed in the early 1980's. This phenomenon didn't only happen at GM, the dissemination of designs from the head department to all makes in the company, would happen at all of the Big 3 automakers. This convenient tactic wasn't limited to only one car line. To my knowledge GM shared at least 4 different models during this period of ineptitude. As far as GM is concerned, I will concede to the point that there is value to shared parts across a company, but I have to draw the line at body panels. As far as FoMoCo & Chrysler Corp are concerned, if you've ever listened to someone speak wistfully about Chryslers K-cars or gleefully point out the fact that the F bodied Mustang shares X number of parts with the first generation Fairmount, then I submit those people probably fall into one of the following categories. Firstly, they probably weren't alive to experience this soul crushing time in the automotive world. Secondly, they have forgotten what it was like to drive by a dealership full of these abominations and experience the complete and total let down that regular cars annually handed out during this era. Yes, I'm being harsh. Yes, it's deserved.
Yeah, I can't believe I managed to write an entire paragraph about this thing either. From the Custom & Hot Rod Life vast historical archives.
In 1984 the floundering Chrysler Corporation, headed up by Lee Iacocca, introduced a automobile that changed the way people would think about cars. If you are asking how people allowed themselves to be duped into purchasing one of these then you need to remember that as bad as the Caravan/Voyager looked, it was actually a well made car. Chrysler was also somehow able to make the thing get 37 MPG. Good MPG's and the fact it was a larger automobile were enough to sell many people on them. In contrast, the "SUV's" (quotation marks are because no one called them that until the late 1990's) of the era Blazer, Suburban, Bronco & Jeep Grand Wagoneer got between 20 & 25 MPG under the absolute best circumstances. I've found its helpful to think of the minivan in the following way: It saved Mopar. That's a good thing. Technology that was developed in order to get acceptable fuel mileage from it, was more than likely used in developing more exciting cars. That too, is a good thing.
A repeat of nine years earlier. Photo courtesy of: The National Archives.
FUEL PRICES CONTINUED TO RISE:
The second fuel crisis occurred in 1979, with the start of the Iranian Revolution. Despite the oil markets only suffering a 4% drop in production, panic at the pumps doubled the price of a barrel of oil to $39.50 at the height of the crisis. It would take over 5 years for prices to get below that again. Any hope of cheap and easy fuel was over. Even when the price of a barrel of crude oil went back down, the prices at the pump never did. Rampant inflation was a hallmark in U.S. society during this time and that has always been the reason given by big oil, when asked why prices never went down. If car companies were going to bring any kind of excitement back, they were going to have to figure out how to burn fuel more efficiently.
A HIGH NOTE:
The one automotive market that seemed to be immune to fuel prices at the time, just happens to be the same one that is currently immune to them. The truck market. Regardless of the cost of a gallon of fuel, the prices on both new and used trucks continue to climb. This is because a truck at its very core is a tool. Trucks are no different from a hammer or a wrench to most of their owners. As a result of this, people will always see trucks as a necessity and they will pay the high price of fuel, in order to make a living. I would argue that the only segment of the automotive market in this Era that was consistently good, were the trucks. All three manufactures produced ever better versions. From Fords F150 to the Cummins Diesel powered Dodge Ram, to the never say die Chevrolet Square Body, quality and features got better during this time. For the entirety of this Era, this segment very rarely let anyone down.
Probably the most Iconic American car of the 1980's. 1987 Buick GNX. Photo courtesy of: GM Heritage Center
ONCE YOU REACH BOTTOM...
Most things I've read, state the Malaise Era occurred between 1973 and 1983. I think this is way too narrow of a window. I would say that, whether or not people knew it at the time, the Era started in 1970. I believe it ended sometime in 2005 or 2006. In 2008, Chrysler released the new Challenger. If something was so obvious to a major auto manufacturer, the market had to exists for a couple of years prior to that. The odd thing about the Malaise Era, for me atleast, is after having lived through it. I find that I have an enormous appreciation for high horsepower factory cars. It's been over a decade and I am amazed by current horsepower levels everytime I read the specs on a particular car. The Second Era of Factory Horsepower owes its existence to the cars of the Malaise Era. The secrets to high horsepower, low fuel consumption and low exhaust emissions were learned in the proving grounds of the least exciting automotive Era to have ever existed!
Keep on Cruisin'!
CHECK OUT THE NEXT STORY IN THIS SERIES BELOW:
CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS STORY IN THIS SERIES BELOW:
Art by: Chris Breeden
About the Author:
"Chris Breeden is a Social Media content creator for Custom & Hot Rod Life on DRIVETRIBE, YouTube and Facebook. After spending 5 years in Southern California, a.k.a. Hot Rod Heaven, while serving as a jet engine mechanic in the United States Marine Corps, he moved back home to Tennessee with an even greater love for Hot Rodded Vintage Tin. Since then he has worked in retail sales and the transportation and logistics industry. In 2018, seeing a gap in Hot Rod and Custom Car coverage on DRIVETRIBE, Chris began advocating for their inclusion on the platform. During the summer months, he can be found all over the Tennessee region covering car shows, meets, and cruise-ins. During the winter months, he can be found in the garage working on his custom 1949 Ford two-door sedan and 1954 F100 truck."