The lyrics to Don McLean's 1972 chartbuster "American Pie" refer to the February 3, 1959, plane crash that killed Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson and Buddy Holly. But change the last line of the verse to "the year the musclecar died" and you have a fitting epitaph for America's passion for high performance automobiles. Much of the blame can be levied on insurance companies and Ralph Nader (who lost his spot on the list of Ten Most Admired Men in '72). Another overlooked factor was the American car-buying public, which decided—in the most time-honored forum, the marketplace - that its love affair with horsepower and torque was over.
True, U.S. carmakers continued to offer sporty, radically styled, youth-oriented cars after '72—and there were models that could legitimately be considered "high performance." But it just wasn't the same. "Put the pedal to the metal and go like hell!" This Ford ad from 1970 caught the attention of various Naderists in Washington, D.C., who wanted to know just how fast hell was. Pretty soon the Federal Trade Com- Small-block muscle-cars like the 340 Chalk mission, along with the Federal Communications Commission, became interested in the goings on in Detroit. This interest spawned federal mandates that took Detroit by the jugular and forced an industry-wide retreat from the high performance perch.
The first federal standards on oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in exhaust emissions were set for 1973, and Detroit responded quickly. Meeting these standards required the infamous trick known as exhaust gas recirculation (EGR). In other words, intake manifolds had to be designed to recirculate a portion of the exhaust gas back into the fresh fuel-air mixture going into the cylinders. Also, carburetion had to be leaned out more, and spark timing retarded more, to help meet the NOx standards. The whole idea was to reduce the heat of combustion.
But the overall result: All the good free-breathing hi-riser intake manifolds had to be tossed out after the 1972 models. Rich-jetted Holley performance carburetors had to go. Not to mention the effect on power of the leaner carburetion, milder spark timing and dilution of exhaust gas required by EGR. Admittedly, the EGR could be cut off and the carburetion and timing hotted up at wide-open throttle, since emissions were not measured under full-throttle conditions. But the response was gone.
Elsewhere, "American Pie" dropped to the No. 2 slot, behind A1 Green's laid back "Let's Stay Together," in February, when the Winter Olympic Games opened in Sapporo, Japan. The U.S. took three gold medals and eight overall, while the Russians dominated with eight gold and 16 total. Americans may have felt let down by our Winter Olympic showing, but Chevrolet fans had a legitimate right to gripe. Chevy gave up the brutal 454 LS6 engine option in the Chevelle line, though they didn't really need to. They could have kept it through the '72 model run until the NOx standards hit in '73, to offer buyers a "family-size" musclecar. But the Chevrolet top brass chose to concentrate on the small-block 350 engine in lighter, sports-type coupes.
These eventually boiled down to the Camaro Z/28 and LTl Corvette. Both used the basic LTl 350 engine with the big-valve heads, hi-riser manifold, 780 cfm Holley carb, solid-lifter cam and 4-bolt bottom end—still a very strong engine in '72. It netted 275 hp at 5600 rpm with the clean Corvette dual exhaust system, and 2 5 5 hp with the single cross-flow muffler in the Z/28. These were all of Chevy's big guns in '72. They could easily turn quarter mile times in the 14-second range at near 100 mph. It's just a pity that Chevy gave up on the big-block 454 one year too soon. But skyrocketing insurance rates were having an impact. Chevrolet sold only 3000 SS 454 Chevelles in '72 (with the 270-hp LS5 engine) and only 2600 Camaro Z/28s.
Rock and Roll?
In many ways, the rock scene experienced the same pitfalls as the high performance industry. The Billboard Top 40 was infiltrated by pop songs that were anything but rock 'n' roll. "Precious and Few" by Climax, "Hurting Each Other" by The Carpenters and "Puppy Love" by Donny Osmond all made it to the Top 5 at one time or another. Making the comeback of the year was none other than Sammy Davis Jr., singing about a guy who mixes it "with love and makes the world taste good." "Candy Man" reached No. 1 on June 10, 1972, and hung in the Top 5 through July 18. Even the Father of Rock 'n' Roll, ChuckBerry, got into the pop-'til-you-drop act, with a fun but un-Berry-like "My Ding-a-Ling."
Despite the entry of pop rock, honest-to-God rock 'n' roll was alive and kicking, if not always topping the charts. The Hollies had a major hit with "Long Cool Woman," and the Raspberries uncorked a rocker in "Go All the Way." Never out of the limelight for long, the Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks 1964-1971 made the Top 5 albums list. Even Mick Jagger couldn't have dreamed that this greatest hits collection would span less than one-third of the group's 25 years in the biz. With the release of Led Zeppelin's fourth album, Plant, Page and Co. scored three major hits in "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll" and the nation's new anthem, "Stairway to Heaven." To the great confusion of music merchants and buyers, neither title, artist, label nor any other information appeared on the record jacket.
On the political front, Richard Nixon visited the Great Wall of China en route to Peking for historic talks with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, making him the first president to visit China while in office. Returning a week later, he described his visit as the trip that "changed the world." Another of Nixon's foreign relations coups was an agreement with Russian party leader Leonid I. Brezhnev that put certain limits on strategic weapons. But "Tricky Dick" could not keep his campaign promise of '68 to end the Vietnam War. On April 6, the U.S. resumed massive bombing of North Vietnam after a 3 1/2-year pause. In May, Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong and other harbors in North Vietnam as well. Campaign promises notwithstanding, Nixon and presidential advisor Henry A. Kissinger were selected "Men of the Year" by Time magazine.
In Lansing, Chrysler pulled a cute switcheroo in 1972 that gave it the hottest model on the street that year. Although all the Detroit companies were dropping compression across the board by then, Chrysler announced it was keeping the limited-production 440 Six-Pack engine and offering it as a $306 option exclusively in the Dodge Charger Rallye model—with full 10.3:1 compression but without the famous hood scoop system. It kicked out 330 net horses at 4700 rpm on a good Sunoco 260 fuel and would propel the heavy Charger to quarters in the low 14-second bracket at over 100 mph. In reality, few of these heavy hitters saw the light of day, as less than a dozen were reportedly built.
Chrysler's most popular youth model by far in 1972 was the Plymouth Duster 340. This was based on the 108-inch A-body platform, so you ended up with a neat little 3300-pound coupe with the strong 340 engine. Though the 340 lost its share of punch from emissions regulations, it still pumped out 240 net horses at 4800 rpm—so you could figure on quarters in the high 14s at 95 mph. Plymouth dealers sold nearly 16,000 of these Duster 340s in '72. And Dodge dealers sold half as many "Demon 340" cousins. Other popular Chrysler youth models, like the Dodge R/T~ Super Bee, GTX, Hemi-'Cuda, etc., were either emasculated into "option packages" or dropped altogether as insurance rates ate into sales. But the famed Plymouth Road Runner line was retained intact, with the new-for-'72 400-cube B-block 4-bar-rel engine, making 255 hp at 4800 rpm, as the standard power. This couldn't beat a Duster 340 though, and sales slipped to 7600 units. Chrysler was obviously suffering from the same disease as everybody else in '72: too much weight in the most popular lines, and too much emissions restriction on the big-cube engines needed to heft them around. The little A-bodies with the 340 engines seemed to be their best combination.
Another combination that worked in '72 was Sonny and Cher. "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" became the top-rated variety program on television. Unfortunately, both their marriage and the series fell apart two years later. One artist who didn't fall apart in 1972 was Carole King, winner of a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Album of the Year with Tapestry in' 71. The album dominated sales in '72, stayed on the LP charts for over six years and sold over 13 million copies. Until 1976, it was the largest-selling album ever.
To sell high-powered Oldsmobiles to the youth market, the brass came up with a clever way around the early-'70s crisis in insurance rates. Instead of merchandising their popular 4-4-2 as a separate model—which had to be registered as such on the license form—they switched it to a simple option package of special body trim and heavy duty suspension for a bread-and-butter Cutlass coupe. And they used a mild 350 2-barrel as the standard 4-4-2 engine. Then if you wanted a really strong 4-4-2 for street racing, you ordered the W-30 package at an extra $648. This consisted of the heavy duty 455 4-barrel engine with a hot 294-degree cam, low-restric-tion dual exhaust and Olds' neat Forced Air system with the two broad air scoops at the nose of a fiberglass hood. This jumped power from an anemic 140 to 300 net horses at 4700 rpm. And yet this monster was registered as a standard Cutlass coupe! A '72 W-30 4-4-2 with automatic and 3.42 axle gears was capable of 0-to-60 mph in 6.6 ticks, with quarters in 14.5 seconds at 92 mph. That was good, solid street performance for that year, and about all you could hope for in showroom form. A standard 4-4-2 with a 350 engine was in the 16s. It was a clever move by the folks from Lansing.
A not-so-clever-move was conducted by the "plumbers" on June 17. In what was only small news at the time, police arrested five men at 2 a.m. in Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. The men were caught with electronic surveillance equipment and charged with second degree burglary. But Watergate was not to tear at the moral and ethical conscience of America for another year. Receiving more attention at the time were the results of the Democratic Convention itself. South Dakota Senator George S. McGovern won the nomination and selected Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. Less than three weeks later, Eagleton formally withdrew as the VP candidate after disclosing that he had been hospitalized three times during the 1960s for nervous exhaustion. Sargent Shriver was okayed as his successor and the race was on.
The race among the top high performance models was probably more competitive than the national election. Buick continued to offer the Gran Sport 455 models in the Skylark intermediate line, with the popular Stage I option package: Ram air, a hotter hydraulic cam and bigger valves in the heads. Advertised net power was 275 hp at 4400 rpm, with 395 lbs.-ft of torque. That was not too shabby, even with the low compression and other emissions restrictions. The 1972 Buick GS Stage 1 setup with automatic up-shifting at 5600 rpm, cheater slicks and optional 4.30 axle gear could pull an impressive quarter mile time of 14.10 at 97.12 mph. Of course, this was probably 0.6 seconds and 5 mph quicker than with standard 4600 rpm up-shifting and 3.36 gears. But it showed there was some horsepower potential in the Stage I engine. These cars were definitely right in the thick of the stoplight wars in '72.
The image of sports as an unblemished arena of pure competition also went the way of the musclecar in' 72. On April 1, major league players waged a strike against baseball club owners in a pension dispute; it was the first strike in 102 years of organized ball. Hardball was also played in the courtroom, where it was decided in the Curt Flood case that baseball's reserve clause, which ties a player to a team indefinitely, was not in violation of antitrust laws. This controversial decision was described by Business Week as "applesauce" and subsequently overturned.
But the baseball news was nothing compared with events at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich. Mark Spitz swam for seven gold medals, the best performance in Olympic history. Young Olga Korbut captured the hearts of the world on her way to one silver and three gold medals. But the Games faced increased politicization: The International Olympic Committee barred Rhodesia because black African nations threatened a boycott if it competed, and banned American 400-meter medal winners Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett for life for their indifference on the victory stand.
And then there was tragedy. On September 5, eight members of the Black September Organization, an Arab terrorist group, slipped into the Olympic Village, killed two athletes from the Israeli Olympic team and seized nine others as hostages. Later the same day the hostages were killed at a military airport during a shootout between the terrorists and West German police and soldiers. The events of Munich stunned the world and proved to be an ominous foreshadowing, as the United States and then the USSR boycotted the Games in 1980 and 1984 for political reasons.
Back in the States, Pontiac did much the same as sister division Oldsmobile in the face of the 1972 insurance/emissions crisis. Pontiac pulled in its horns, made the popular GTO model a simple option package for the Tempest Le Mans coupe (with a standard 350 2-barrel engine) and then offered street fans one carefully conceived option package that would give them all that was possible within the existing emissions limitations. This was known as the WW5 package. You not only got the 455 HO engine (still with the big-port Ram Air IV heads and 288-degree cam carried over from '71), but also the rally steering wheel, rally instrument cluster, Saf-T-Track differential, electronic ignition and the Ram Air hood scoop system. It was a bargain at $990. The net rating held at 300 hp at 4000 rpm, the same as in '71.
The GTO "insurance special" was very similar to the Olds W-30 4-4-2. It was good for 0-to-60 mph in 7.3 seconds and did the quarter mile in 14.6 at 95 mph. The slight loss in 0-to-60 time and quarter mile ET for the GTO was probably due to the 3.07 axle gears used, compared with 3.42 gears in the 4-4-2.
Pontiac did much the same with its popular Firebird Trans Am models. That is, a 350 2-barrel was used as the standard engine for registration purposes, then you could order the 455 HO with a "shaker" hood scoop for performance needs. Both GTO and Trans Am combinations gave very competitive street performance, considering the limitations of the day. But it took 455 cubes to get what 350 or 400 achieved only two years earlier.
The Nixon administration also mandated a "5 mile per hour" bumper— made to withstand a 5-mph frontal impact or a 2.5-mph rear impact without damage to safety-related items on the car (fuel tank, exhaust, cooling, lighting and door latching). According to Henry Ford, the bumper and the anti-pollution controls would add at least $750 to the cost of a new car.
Luckily, these mandates did not affect motor racing. 1972 was a good year for Offenhauser, Porsche and AMC. Joe Leonard drove a Parnelli Offenhauser to capture the 11-race USAC series for the second year in a row. George Follmer won the SCCA-sponsored Canadian American Challenge Cup in a 5-liter turbocharged Porsche and the Trans-American in an AMC Javelin. Mark Donohue was hurt and missed much of the SCCA season. The irrepressible A.J. Foyt won the Miller High Life 500 at Ontario, California, and the Daytona 500 with a '71 Mercury prepared by Glen Wood. But it was Bobby Allison who was NASCAR's overall money and race leader, with 10 hard-earned victories to Richard Petty's eight and David Pearson's six.
Bobby Unser set an Indy speed record for qualifying, averaging 195.40 mph in an Olsonite Eagle, with an Offenhauser engine prepared by Dan Gurney's All American Racers. It was Mark Donohue, however, who won the Indy 500 and the $218,768—in a McLaren-Offenhauser entered by Roger Penske. Larger, raised rear airfoils contributed to the higher speeds, gluing the 175-plus-mph cars to the track. While the rest of motoring America was slowing down, it was reassuring that at least on the racing circuits, cars were pushing the edge of the envelope.
The street slowdown was not without high points, though. It was announced in December that 80 percent of the 42,500-mile interstate highway system was completed and open to traffic. More than 1400 miles of the system were built during 1972 alone.
And while fewer and fewer muscle-cars were seen on the highways, they were not without replacements. New "compact" cars, such as Chevy's Vega, Ford's Pinto and AMC's Gremlin, were selling like hotcakes. In fact, domestic new car sales in '72 reached an all-time high, upping the record set in 1971 to 10,820,000.
There is no question that the success of the Pinto et al directly coincided with the extinction of the Mach I Mustang and its like, as Ford too capitulated to the pressures of insurance rates and emissions restrictions. Where its 1971 model line-up offered a broad choice of small- and big-block performance engines, as well as several specially trimmed sporty models, the 1972 Ford catalog was mostly special engine specs that were hard to find.
The best performance combination available from Ford in '72 was a Mustang with the 351 HO engine and optional Ram Air hood with the two NAC A-type air scoops. The 351 engine was the lusty Cleveland 4-barrel type with the huge ports and valves, so the net power rating of 275 hp at 5600 rpm with a 290-degree solid-lifter cam and Holley carb was not surprising. With Ram Air, it was undoubtedly the strongest small-block powerplant available in the '72 model year.
Of course, the Mustang had also put on a lot of weight since the mid-'60s. By the early '70s, it was an "intermediate"-size car. So the small-block 351, with limited mid-range torque, had its hands full hefting it around. The HO engine could produce quarter mile times in the high 14s at 92 to 95 mph with a 4-speed and the standard 3.25 axle gears—not world-shaking that year. And considering the total price of over $1100 on the above option combination, it's no wonder only a few hundred were soldin '72.
If you wanted the family-size Torino, you could only get the standard 351-C 4-barrel engine with 266 hp, so the promise was even less here. 1972 was not a great year for Ford fans on the street.
It seems that by election day, the Democratic Party had lost as much compression as the FoMoCo engines. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew won 49 of 5 0 states and 520 electoral votes in the second largest margin of victory in U.S. history (FDR copped 523 electoral votes in 1936). McGovern's call for an immediate cease fire, a redistribution of the nation's wealth and a clear preference for butter to guns was too much for the burgeoning "silent majority." Nixon took 60 percent of the blue collar vote, over half of the labor vote and 60.7 percent of the popular vote. America wanted change, but not as extensive nor as immediate as the Democrats had inmind. Losing three of the next four presidential elections, it seems this was a hard lesson for the Democrats to learn.
Accepting the Grammy award for Best Pop, Rock, and Folk Vocal Performance—Female for "I Am Woman," Helen Reddy said, "I want to thank everyone concerned at Capitol Records, my husband and manager, Jeff Wald, because he makes my success possible, and God because She makes everything possible." "I Am Woman" became an anthem for the women's liberation movement in the '70s. And '72 was a year for women. On March 22, the Senate ap
proved what was known then as the Women's Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Hawaii became I he first state to ratify it, that same day. By late 1972, 20 states had passed the amendment. Seventeen years later, however the ERA is still several states shy of the 38 needed for ratification.
Television was everything but shy in 1972. Bold programming focused on adult themes, such as homosexuality, menopause, ethnic humor and racial bigotry. Showcasing these themes was the hugely popular "All in the Family," the top-rated show and winner of six Emmys.
Another award-winner in 1972 was The Godfather. Described as a wedding of anti-social violence and social intimacy, The Godfather featured Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton, grossed a Swiss bank-worthy $125 million and took the Oscar for Best Picture.
Before the year was up, Harry Nilsson, Bill Withers, Neil Young and America scored with Top 40 hits. Thinking of the loss of a pet cat, Roberta Flack recorded
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which won the Grammy for Record of the Year. Former Beatle session man Billy Preston scored a Top 20 hit with "Will It Go Round in Circles."
And people in the rock world wondered too. For only a few years later, rock 'n' roll faced the rude interruption known as "The Hustle," and was sent reeling by a new, larger fad called disco. Rock veterans like The Who and the Allman Brothers, the Kinks and Lynyrd Skynyrd kept vigil over an industry invaded by Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Commodores.
But disco faded. Seventies rock acts, such as The Who and Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and Van Halen, competed With the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, and won. Rock 'n' roll did evolve somewhat, extending to Punk, Fusion, New Wave and even New Age music. And while Prince is no Jimi Hendrix and Motley Crue is not Creedence, rock did not stagnate. Flip through a copy of Rolling Stone and you can feel the vitality of rock music, even today.
If only the same could be said of the musclecar. The oil embargo, expensive insurance and the attack of the Naderists forced the automobile industry to plod through the '70s at the newly lowered 55-mph national speed limit.
But there's hope for a second generation of supercars. Smaller, multi-valve, turbocharged engines of the 'late 80s are strong performers in their own right. Equipped with better traction, the emphasis is on all-'round, rather than straight line, performance. Some models, such as the 5.0-liter Mustang and the Plymouth Laser, are even offered at a modest price, the mark of a true musclecar. Will the automotive Halcyon Days known as the Musclecar Era ever be relived? We can only hope.
Formula One Championship:
Emerson Fittipaldi (Brazil) / Lotus-Ford
Billie Jean King d. E. Goolagong (6-3 6-3)
Stan Smith d. I. Nastase (4-6 6-3 6-3 4-6 7-5)
- The Godfather
- The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
- Best Picture - The Godfather
- Best Actor - Marlon Brando (The Godfather)
- Best Actress - Liza Minnelli (Cabaret)
- "American Pie," Don McLean
- "Alone Again (Naturally)," Gilbert O'Sullivan
- "Without You," Nilsson
- "Brand New Key," Melanie
- "I Gotcha," Joe Tex
- "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast," Wayne Newton
- "Let's Stay Together," A1 Green
- "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Roberta Flack
- "Brandy," Looking Glass
- "Lean on Me," Bill Withers
- "If Loving You Is Wrong," Luther Ingram
- "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me," Mac Davis
- "Heart of Gold," Neil Young
- "Candy Man," Sammy Davis, Jr.
- "Nice to Be With You," Gallery
- Gil Hodges (Famous American baseballer)
- J. Edgar Hoover (Director of the FBI)
- Harry S. Truman (Former US President)