The year was 1976. We were listening to the Bay City Rollers and ABBA—(OK, I was listening to Aerosmith and ZZ Top). The Cold War raged, the Concorde flew commercially for the first time, we had 59-cent-a-gallon gas, Apple Computer was born, the VHS recorder made its debut, the ozone hole was discovered, the first space shuttle was revealed, and Detroit was reeling from the one-two punch of the OPEC oil embargo and new federal safety regulations. It might sound like a throwaway year when compared to benchmarks like 1969 or 1957, but it’s my era, so this month we’re going to belly up to the bar and drink deeply.
There’s big debate on whether mid-’70s cars are mere scrap, or good fodder for a hot rod project. Popular Mechanics recently published an article (“10 Wimpiest Muscle Cars Ever”) scorning them as a “dead zone in the history of performance cars,” a “‘malaise era,’ when machines were so strangled by new emissions rules that their performance levels were an embarrassment to even today’s compact cars.” We’ll remind them that even in the muscle car heyday, a stock big-block Chevelle was barely good for a 15-second e.t. It’s old news that ’70s cars are slow, the difference is, PHR readers are smart enough to see the potential and do something about it.
We think the boys at PM are missing the point and could benefit from a change of heart. It’s not about what a car came with from the factory, it’s about what you can do with it. Lucky for us, these cars can be picked up for a song. And since most of them are mechanically related to the more popular muscle cars of the ’60s and early ’70s, most stuff—from engines, transmissions, and rearends, to suspensions and brakes—will easily fit. As newer cars, they are safer and generally have superior handling dynamics. All that’s needed is some imagination.
This month, we’re taking a closer look at 1976 in particular. Why ’76? Because the laws in many states (California, for example) require smog testing for model years ’76 and up. As such, nobody wants them—yet. We predict that state smog laws will change as these cars roll up to the 40-year mark. (That’s in just three years.) At the moment, the sex appeal for anything ’76 is at its nadir, as are the prices. The desirability and price can only go up from here, which means it’s time to buy.
We put together a short list of potentially cool cars from 1976 and brought them to artist and designer Ben Hermance for some visual massaging. Ben normally does muscle car renderings from the ’60s, so this was a nice change of pace for him. We hope you’ll consider using one of them as the basis for a future project that we can feature in PHR!
“It’s old news that ’70s cars are slow, the difference is, PHR readers are smart enough to see the potential…”
1976 Chevy Laguna
This model is a Hunkins favorite, as some of you already know from Project Laguna. Not everybody, however, is into the period NASCAR look or satin black paint of Project Laguna, so on this version artist Ben Hermance slathered on some Camaro Inferno Orange Metallic and juxtaposed it with judicious use of satin charcoal graphics. Ben blacked out the window trim, recessed the grille pockets with a mesh insert, and swapped the headlights and turn signals for composite pieces. Ben also smoothed, tucked, and painted the bumpers, added a custom chin spoiler, and morphed the hood with cowl induction and ZL1 Camaro-style heat extractor vents. The hoops are 18- and 19-inch Grip Equipped “Knuckler” wheels.
1976 Olds 442/Cutlass S
Like the Laguna, the Olds also sits on the ’73-77 GM A-body platform. Its body-on-frame construction means it’s rock solid, even at almost 40 years old. Its Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) was also the first one designed by GM on a computer, making it light-years ahead of the ’64-72 A-body. Make sure to search for Cutlass S and 442 models; the normal Cutlass grille is a vertical brick wall, not beautifully beveled like this. Plenty of suspension parts exist for the A-body, virtually any GM engine/trans/rear powertrain configuration will fit, and there is loads of room for a large wheel/tire package (in this case 18- and 19-inch Grip Equipped “Grudge” wheels with 275 and 315 wide rubber). Ben’s mods: Mercedes-Benz Diamond White Metallic paint with silver metallic accents; smoothed, tucked, and painted bumpers; relocated directionals sourced from an ’80s Cutlass; W-30-style hood; ’80s 442 trunk spoiler; ’88-97 GM truck composite headlights.
1976 Pontiac Ventura
The Ventura is one of those cars nobody remembers until they see one on the road, and sometimes not even then. The old-timers will tell you it’s a Ventura, and that as a fourth-gen GM X-body, it will take any engine, front suspension, or brake component from a ’70-81 F-body, and any rearend, rear suspension, or brake hardware for a ’68-74 Nova. If you score a Ventura, you can build it virtually any way you want with an unlimited supply of aftermarket parts. The Ventura pegs the coolness meter because it looks sleek, and yours will be the only one around for hundreds of miles. This one features Lucerne Blue paint from a ’70 Trans Am, satin white graphics, smoothed, tucked, and painted bumpers, recessed grille shells with honeycomb mesh inserts, composite headlights, blacked-out window trim and B-pillar trim, satin silver headlight and grille trim, and 18-inch Wheel Vintiques Pontiac Rally II wheels.
1976 Olds Omega
Never heard of an Olds Omega? They made over 58,000 of them in 1976 alone. It is the Oldsmobile variant of the fourth-gen X-body (Chevy Nova, Olds Omega, Pontiac Ventura, Buick Apollo), and is one of the better looking versions. The same massive fourth-gen Nova aftermarket is available to the Olds (see comments for the Ventura), only the body is more formal looking than the Nova or Ventura. Like the Ventura, you will be guaranteed to be the only one around with one, and you will look good driving one. You could score the Omega in ’76 with 260ci or 350ci Olds V-8s, as well as a 305ci small-block Chevy, but virtually everything else fits, from big-block Chevys and Oldsmobiles, to late-model LSs. Ben painted this one Volvo Vibrant Copper with dark pewter accents, and smoothed, tucked, and painted the bumpers with brushed silver accents. The side windows and B-pillar trim are blacked out, and this Omega rolls on 18-inch Budnik “Force” wheels with dark pewter accents.
“It’s not about what a car came with from the factory, it’s about what you can do with it.”
1976 Pontiac Firebird
When you think of mid-’70s F-bodies, you never think of Camaros, you think of Firebirds. And while Burt Reynolds was the ringleader behind the wheel of a full-chicken-dinner Trans Am, many enthusiasts took a more gentlemanly tact with the Firebird. Nobody epitomized “understated” and “high-class” more than James Garner’s Jim Rockford character, and his trademark Firebird. If Rockford was still working his gumshoe beat today, no doubt he’d be driving a ’76 Firebird very much like this one. You can’t buy a Pontiac anymore, so the only right thing to do is modernize Rockford’s steed with a full DSE suspension and a 620hp “Black Label” LS plant from Mast Motorsports. This one has BMW silver paint with dark red accents, recessed grille shells with honeycomb mesh inserts, a Trans Am spoiler, and 18-inch Foregeline MD3P wheels with titanium powdercoated centers.
1976 Ford Mustang II
No car is more maligned than the ’74-77 Mustang II. Maybe that’s a testament to how good the first-gen was, but we’re here to tell you that with only a little effort, most Mustang II’s can be built to run rings around their early counterparts—particularly the ’71-73 models. On the suspension side, there are probably more parts available for Mustang IIs than any muscle car ever built, and that includes first-gen Camaros. (Ironically, many companies actually specialize in putting Mustang II suspensions into Camaros.) Since these cars were originally built with small-block Windsor engines, it is an absolute slam dunk to build a fast, inexpensive one. The Mustang II is not an unattractive car, and in hatchback form has lines that rival the looks of many ’60s muscle machines. All it needs is the right wheel package (19- and 20-inch Grip Equipped “Megalyte” wheels here) and attention to stance and ride height. This one has Mustang Kona Blue Metallic paint with charcoal metallic accents, a Mach 1–style hood, a recessed grille shell with mesh inserts, a few late-model Mustang body mods, and blacked-out trim.
“As newer cars, they are safer and generally have superior handling dynamics. All that’s needed is some imagination.”
1976 Ford Gran Torino
Haters love to point at mid-’70s intermediates as bloated, over-styled land yachts with no redeeming features. Outside of the fact that cherry engine cores can often be found lurking beneath their hoods at salvage yards, they have no use. We say otherwise. Sometimes you want a big car for family and stuff, and a belly button SUV just won’t cut it. If you also want a hot rod, it’s easy to make a car like the Ford Gran Torino wickedly fast. (Hey! You got horsepower on my big car! Well you got big car all over my horsepower! Two great tastes that taste great together.) Fact: The ’76 Gran Torino features full body-on-frame construction, giving it a robust service life and simple maintenance. It also can swallow any Ford engine ever made, up to and including a 500-plus-inch big-block. Artist Ben Hermance updated the Starsky & Hutch theme for our rendering with smoothed, tucked, and painted bumpers; a body-colored grille shell; matte black grille, headlight bezels, and window trim; and a raked stance with 17-inch Vintage Wheel Works V60 hoops. The paint is ’12 Mustang Red Candy with matte black graphics.
1976 AMC Hornet Hatchback
The AMC Hornet is so obscure, even hard-core AMC guys don’t pay attention to it. Nevertheless, AMC built over 100,000 two-door hatchback Hornets between 1973 and 1977 (the years they all shared the style we’re focusing on). When equipped with the right rolling stock and the goofy factory stance/ride height is fixed, the Hornet hatchback is absolutely voluptuous. AMCs aren’t well supported in the aftermarket, so they don’t score any points in the suspension department, but Wilwood does offer brake kits. Hornets did come with 304ci V-8s (360s in earlier years) backed by Chrylser TorqueFlite transmissions, so you can build a modest performer without going too crazy. For this illustration, Ben went full tilt with Viper Snakeskin Green paint with matte black graphics. It’s got a custom aluminum chin spoiler and rear spoiler, an AMX Ram Air hoodscoop, rocker panel exhaust exits, blacked-out trim, modified grille with mesh insert, and brake cooling ports in the front bumper.
1976 Chrysler Cordoba
You can hardly get the name “Chrysler Cordoba” out of your mouth when someone will let loose a snide comment about “rich Corinthian leather” in a Ricardo Montalban accent. Even Mopar guys seem to disavow the Cordoba, and its doppelgänger, the Dodge Charger. Nevertheless, these cars came with the LA-series 318- and 360ci small-blocks as well as the low-deck 400ci big-block. In short, all the good stuff fits, which is a good thing, because you’re pretty much priced out of the market with any of the earlier B-Bodies. No worries though—you’ll be the toast of the town with a one-off B-Body like this! In this rendering, Ben tucked, smoothed, and rechromed the bumpers, shaved the hood emblem and spear, and painted it Porsche Macadamia Metallic with Sandrift Metallic accents and a gold pinstripe. Wheels are 19- and 20-inch Schott G5s with gold pinstripe accents.
“The desirability and price can only go up from here, which means it’s time to buy.”
1976 Dodge Aspen R/T
Don’t laugh—it was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1976, and the 360ci-equipped R/T was about as quick 0-60 as the L82 Corvette the same year. The Dodge Aspen and its twin, the Plymouth Volare, were known as the F-Body, and replaced the A-body that came before it. To their benefit, they had much improved suspensions, but to their detriment, they share little else with earlier A-Bodies. It probably doesn’t matter though—Mopar guys are notoriously apathetic when it comes to handling. It’s all about the straight-line “go,” and since the Aspens and Volares came with 360ci small-blocks, you can go crazy underhood. Feel free to clobber all the BMW posers you can eat. A set of decent Wilwood brakes, stiffer springs, and bigger rolling stock (18-inch Boss 338s in this case) are complemented by black paint with matte black and bloodred accents. Modified grille trim (deleted Dodge faceplate), a custom ram air hood, heat extractor vents, an R/T-style hood stripe, and blacked-out trim finish out the visual mods.