Most of the 1970s and early 1980s are regarded as American automobiles’ “Lost Era.” Saddled by the sudden needs for improved fuel economy, lower emissions, and higher safety standards, American car builders struggled to redirect the inertia of bigger cars and engines. The resulting automotive time period from roughly 1973 to 1983—coined the Malaise Era years ago by Roadkill contributor Murilee Martin—is regarded as a time concurrent with other American oddities like disco, leisure suits, and the designated hitter in baseball. Unable to arrest the substantial momentum of big-car production, domestic marques suddenly realized their (righteous) infatuation with size and horsepower had put them behind the eight ball. Before American automakers downsized and engineering caught up with emissions and fuel-efficiency regulations, they had built some of the most audaciously land yachts of all time.
Because luxury fades with time, Malaise Era cars have aged poorly. Many of these boats met their fates when scrap prices were high; more still perished from the Cash For Clunkers program. However, the few remaining American cars should be attainable in running condition for less than $5,000. If you want a big American cruiser for cheap, this is your ticket. A modern engine engine like a GM LS engine or a Hemi crate engine under could turn any of these from a driveable couch into a highway star.
Let’s take a look at some dollar-per-pound values from the early (‘73 to ‘77) and late (‘78 to ‘83) Malaise Era, provided you can find one that isn’t rusted in half.
1973 to 1976 Cadillac De Ville and Fleetwood
There’s no point in starting with anything less than the most nautical American car. Full-size Cadillacs were absolutely humongous until General Motors shrunk all of their platforms in the late ‘70s. In true Cadillac fashion, everything in these cars was done in excess with bells and whistles galore, not to mention an absurd 500 cubic-inch V8 through 1975. Regular De Villes and Fleetwoods were already pushing Iowa-class tonnage, but if you had the extra scratch for a Super Sixty Cadillac, you got three more inches of wheelbase and another couple hundred pounds. If you don’t want a Caddy, the slightly shorter platform-mate Oldsmobile 98 or Buick Electra are properly huge.
Wheelbase: 130 inches (DeVille and Fleetwood) or 133 inches (Super Sixty)
1973 to 1979 Lincoln Continental
Ford trailed GM only slightly when it came to massive luxury cruisers. More slab-sided than the Caddy, the Lincoln came with as many frivolous options as a car of the era could pack. While Lincoln gave this generation of Continental a mid-life facelift in 1975, the wheelbase remained more than 10 feet for the whole decade. Ford’s 460 cubic-inch V8 was the standard engine until 1977 and was the largest engine still in production when Ford axed it for the ‘79 model year.
Wheelbase: 127 inches
1973 to 1978 Oldsmobile Toronado
The Toronado was the second-longest front-wheel-drive wheelbase car ever at 122 inches. The only car longer was the same-era Eldorado (126 in.), but since we already have a Cadillac on the list, we thought we’d give some thunder to the Toronado. Olds’ ubiquitous “Rocket 455” powered the Toronado through 1976, but in 1977, Olds debuted the small-block 403 to make modest fuel-mileage improvements. That engine also featured a rudimentary crank-triggered ignition system using a basic computer; that this system disappeared with the 403 in 1979 tells you how successful it was.
1973 to 1978 Chrysler New Yorker and Newport
When the first Oil Crisis took hold in 1973, Chrysler’s main offerings were built on the full-size C-Body platform. The lack of smaller offerings affected the company’s well-being, but Mopar’s prestige brand clung to the cars on 124-inch wheelbase through 1978. Because the New Yorker was prestige brand’s pinnacle vehicle, it came standard with the 440 cubic-inch Big Block V8 while the Newport came standard with the 400 and later offered the 360 small block as an option for mpg-conscious buyers. Both came with four doors or two for the upscale Mopar customer.
Wheelbase: 124 inches
1973 to 1976 Ford Thunderbird
Ford’s personal luxury coupe was built on similar auspices to the upmarket Lincoln Mark IV two-door, including Ford’s biggest production V8s, the 429 in 1973 and the 460 from 1974. The sixth generation of Ford’s coupe proved popular, peaking in sales just as the Oil Crisis tipped the scales in the direction of smaller cars and engines. Nevertheless, Ford built the yacht-sized Thunderbird through 1976 before downsizing the platform. For its time, the “beaked” Thunderbird looked attractive among its contemporaries and, unlike most of the cars on this list, these ‘birds have held their value reasonably well.
Wheelbase: 120 inches
1974 AMC Ambassador
The Ambassador got an attractive redesign in 1974, but American Motors’ last full-size car was doomed by car-building’s shift toward economy. Its final year saw the Ambassador offered as a Brougham with only AMC V8s on the options sheet: 304, 360, or 401 cubic inches. While the changing market damaged sales on all full-size cars in 1974, AMC lacked the financial flexibility to keep the Ambassador in production. The company instead focused on smaller, more fuel-efficient cars like the Gremlin and Pacer. That leaves the ’74 Ambassador a one-year orphan of the era.
Wheelbase: 122 inches
1977 to 1983 Buick Electra and Oldsmobile 98
GM downsized their entire C-Body platform by nine inches and more than 800 pounds in 1977. They also removed the big-block Oldsmobile and Buick V8s, making the biggest engine option the Olds 403 V8 through 1979. The engine options would also include, through the model years, everything from the 262 cubic-inch Buick V6 to the ill-fated Oldsmobile 350 Diesel V8. Despite the shrunk body and emissions-choked engines, both Buick and Olds managed to keep the cabin size very similar to its much-longer predecessor. The boxy late ‘70s doesn’t work for all the era’s cars, but both these cars wear the squared-off look nicely.
Wheelbase: 119 inches
1975 to 1979 Chrysler Cordoba, Dodge Charger SE, and Dodge Magnum XE
The end of the line for Chrysler’s B-Body was not pretty. From the rounded, burly bodies of the collectable Chargers, Chrysler molded these square bodies with unfortunately round elements. This is most noticeable on the Cordoba with its four-eyed front on a brick-shaped body. The ‘75 to ‘77 Charger and its horizontally grilled successor Magnum look almost appealing, but the wheezing engine options—318, 360, or rare 400—struggled to make 200 horsepower with Chrysler’s terrible Lean Burn system choking them Still, few can argue with plush appointments when Ricardo Montalban smoothly pronounces his affinity for the Cordoba’s “Fine Corinthian leather.”
Wheelbase: 115 inches
1977 to 1983 Cadillac De Ville, Fleetwood, and Fleetwood Brougham
While GM downsized the battleship-sized De Ville in ‘77, one could still consider the smaller Caddy a heavy cruiser in the company flotilla. Early years of this generation got the 425 cubic-inch V8, essentially a shrunk 472/500. However, the successive engines paint a picture of General Motors struggling with the new world of emissions regulations. The disastrous V8-6-4’s horrors were superseded only by the diesel Olds 350 V8, which was available for an incredible five years. The High Technology (HT) V8 that came later was far from perfect, but it looked like a million-mile Volkswagen engine by comparison. Neverthless, if you can find one with a 425 or an HT, these “small” Caddies are solid land-yacht material.
Wheelbase: 121.5 inches
1977 to 1979 Lincoln Mark V
Lincoln’s two-door Mark V held strong as the last bloated American personal luxury coupe. At a time when GM downsized their entire model line, Ford gambled that they could hold on with the Mark series’ ‘77 redesign. The wheelbase remained at 10 feet with a curb weight of more than 4,700 pounds, making it an auspicious offering in the face of the Malaise Era’s depths. Sure, the engine was the forgettable Ford 400M, but the huge options list on the Mark V included enough designer and special editions to appeal to the pinnacle-luxury crowd. The true land-yacht era ended when Ford switched the Mark VI to the then-new Panther platform in 1980, trimming 750 pounds and six inches of wheelbase from the big Lincoln.
Wheelbase: 120 inches
What other ship-grade American cars do you love? Which have you owned or maybe even still own? We’re guessing many of our readers have stories galore of these boats.