Saturday, June 08, 2019


When I first became aware of cars as a thing in the early '80s, the auto world in the US was at something of a nadir.

From the giddy horsepower wars of the late Sixties/early Seventies, we'd gone through a couple of shocks. The glory days of the muscle car era had been ended by skyrocketing insurance premiums and safety standards. Hot on the heels of those came a fuel crisis in '73, followed by a second one in the early '80s.

Direct comparison of power numbers between early '80s and late '60s cars is hard, because part of the sweeping federal regulations that transformed the scene in the early '70s changed how car makers advertised engine power.

Prior to 1972, car makers used SAE gross horsepower, which measured a motor on a test stand with all power-sapping accessories like a/c compressors or power steering pumps (and sometimes water pumps) removed. Occasionally automakers would do other tricks to enhance gross horsepower numbers, like running tube headers instead of exhaust manifolds, using low-restriction air intakes instead of silenced street ones, or just making the numbers up out of whole cloth.

Net horsepower ratings required the motor to be in a configuration like one would find actually in the vehicle. Between this requirement and the sudden tightening of emissions rules and raised mandatory fleet fuel economy standards, horsepower numbers plummeted.

Imagine, if you will, a very fortuitous high school graduate of the Class of '71 whose parents told them they could have their choice of a new Mustang, Camaro, or Firebird. The top motors in those cars produced 375, 300, or 335 SAE gross horsepower, respectively. Ten years later, an equally fortunate graduate of the Class of '81 would have seen the the most potent powerplants in those same three cars reduced to 122, 185, and 200 SAE net horsepower.

I remember that in high school, as I got into that car-shopping age demographic and began to bend the focus of my nerdery in that direction, that I considered 130bhp to be the threshold for "a lot", in much the same way that I considered an eight second zero-to-sixty time to be "quick".

These days, the Zed Drei (189bhp) and the Five-Oh (215bhp) are coming up lacking even when compared to generic base model secretary-mobiles from the Mustang and Camaro lines. The current rental lot Mustang has an EcoBoost turbo 4-banger pumping out 310bhp and its rival Camaro sports a 2.0L 275bhp turbo mill.