The History of the American Muscle Car Era - 1972

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1972 American Muscle Cars


American Muscle Cars of 1972

1972 Dodge Challenger
By 1972 many believed America's love affair with horsepower and torque was over. True, U.S. carmakers continued to offer sporty, radically styled, youth-oriented cars after 1972 - 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 US Federal Trade Bureau had small-block muscle-cars in their cross-hairs and, along with the Federal Communications Commission, it seemed the many government departments had 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, carburettor 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 carburettors had to go. Not to mention the effect on power of the leaner carburettor, milder spark timing and dilution of exhaust gas required by EGR. Admittedly, the EGR could be cut off and the carburettor and timing hotted up at wide-open throttle, since emissions were not measured under full-throttle conditions. But the response was gone.

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 1972 model run until the NOx standards hit in 1973, 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 LT1 Corvette. Both used the basic LT1 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 1972.

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 1972. 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 1972 (with the 270-hp LS5 engine) and only 2600 Camaro Z/28s.

The Dodge Charger Rallye

In Lansing, Chrysler pulled a switch 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.

1972 Dodge Charger
1972 Dodge Charger.

1972 Pontiac Grand Prix
1972 Pontiac Grand Prix.

1972 Chev Corvette
1972 Chev Corvette.

1972 Plymouth Duster, Valiant and Barracuda
1972 Plymouth Duster, Valiant and Barracuda.

1972 Olds Cutlass Coupe
To help owners with insurance, Olds popular 4-4-2 package was not longer sold as a seperate model, but as a seperate option package on the standard Cutlass coupe.

The Plymouth Duster 340

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.

To sell high-powered Oldsmobiles to the youth market, the brass came up with a clever way around the early - 1970s 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-restriction dual exhaust and Olds' neat Forced Air system with the two broad air scoops at the nose of a fibreglass hood. This jumped power from an anaemic 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.

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 1 engine. These cars were definitely right in the thick of the stoplight wars in 1972.

Tempest Le Mans Coupe

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 1971.

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 US 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 1972 reached an all-time high, upping the record set in 1971 to 10,820,000. There was 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 1972 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 sold in '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.

The oil embargo, expensive insurance and the attack of the Naderists forced the automobile industry to plod through the 1970s at the newly lowered 55-mph US national speed limit. But there remained hope for a second generation of supercars. Smaller, multi-valve, turbocharged engines of the late 1980s were 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-litre Mustang and the Plymouth Laser, are even offered at a modest price, the mark of a true musclecar.
1972 Dodge Challenger
1972 Dodge Challenger
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