The Decontented Car

  • January 9, 2024

Everyone has heard about muscle cars – but how many remember decontented cars? Often, such cars were both.

Examples include the “5.0” liter iterations of the 1980s-era Ford Mustang that weren’t Mustang GTs – but did have the same V8 engine and related performance equipment that came standard in the GT. What they didn’t have was the additional equipment that didn’t make the Mustang GT any faster but did make it more expensive.

As well as slower – due to the GT being heavier than the “5.0” Mustang, which the GT was because it came standard with more features that were decontented from the “5.0”

What you got, basically, was a base trim Mustang LX with the GT’s drivetrain. The “5.0” also came standard with a lower profile because it looked at a glance like a base Mustang LX. The only giveaways that it was a GT under the skin being the dual exhaust tips and the “5.0” badges, which could be removed if you really wanted to operate under the radar.

Another example was the Firebird Formula version of the much-more-famous Pontiac Trans-Am that almost everyone knows about.

The Formula was a Trans-Am in all but name – and appearance. It could be ordered with the Trans-Am’s drivetrain and even (in later years) the Trans-Am’s upgraded WS6 suspension, including four wheel disc brakes (a rare thing in the late ’70s, even in performance cars) and aluminum wheels (also rare in the late 1970s).

But unlike a Trans-Am, a Formula Firebird wasn’t as obvious an offender. It lacked the Trans-Am’s gaudy fender flares, chin spoiler and quarter panel vents. Even the rear decklid spoiler that came with every Trans-Am was optional. Formulas did come standard with a scooped hood, but it was not as telling as the Trans-Am’s obstreperous shaker scoop that poked through its hood and literally shook as the engine idled.

(One exception to the above rule was the very rare 1973-1974 Formula Formula Firebirds equipped with the Trans-Am’s available-those-years SD-455 engine; these Formulas did come standard with the Trans-Am’s shaker scoop.)

The point was if you wanted everything that made a Trans-Am fast but didn’t want everything that made it expensive, you could order a Formula without everything that did.

I knew a guy who owned a ’70 Formula that didn’t even have gauges – other than a speedometer and a fuel gauge – because the guy who bought it originally didn’t want to pay for the full set of Rally gauges -including tach, oil pressure and water temp gauges – that came standard in the Trans-Am. The car had 14 inch steel wheels with the base Firebird’s pop-them-on hubcaps (remember them?) and didn’t have any power options. Forget AC.

What it did have was the same-year Trans-Am’s Ram Air III high-performance 400 cubic inch V8 paired with a three speed manual transmission. In italics because all Trans-Am’s came standard with a four speed manual that year. But who needs fourth to run the quarter mile? And that’s all the person who originally ordered the car needed this car to do. He was able to do it for much less than it would have cost him to buy even a base Trans-Am that year because even a base Trans-Am came standard with a bevy of additional equipment that cost extra in other Firebird trims.

Extra costs that could be avoided, once.

Such costs are now standard equipment. You cannot buy a new Mustang with the 5.0 V8 that is standard in the GT without buying the GT. And the GT costs about $10k more to start than the base Mustang ($41,495 vs. $30,920). A new base trim Camaro (the Firebird has been gone for more than 20 years) stickers for $30,900 to start – with the V6. If you want the V8 that’s standard in the $42,300 Camaro SS you have to buy the SS.

In both case, you must also buy the things that have made even the base-trim versions of the 2024 Mustang and Camaro much more expensive than the V8-powered “5.0” and Formula versions of the Mustang and Firebird, respectively, once cost.

For example, in 1985 you could buy a decontented base trim Mustang LX for $6,989 (sticker) which works out to about $20,300 in today’s devalued paper money (“inflation” is a hugely misleading term that is used deliberately to get people to think that things cost more as opposed to their money buying less). That left a lot of money available to opt for the “5.0” equipment that resulted – effectively – in a GT that cost a lot less than a GT.

There are two main reasons why you can’t buy a decontented car anymore.

The first is that the car companies do not want to sell you one. They’d rather sell you the most expensive car they can get you to pay for and a great way to do that is to not offer lower-cost versions of the car you want. More finely, the car with the equipment you want – and none that you don’t. It is why the performance equipment is only available in the performance trim – and those trims typically come with lots of additional equipment, all of which you must pay for to get the performance equipment.

But there is also another reason.

It is more expensive (and perhaps even no longer economically possible) for the car companies to offer decontented cars as these would be different cars, in terms of their equipment and leaving off equipment on the assembly line can actually increase manufacturing costs in a one-size-fits-all era.

Add compliance costs to the mix.

The car companies are under pressure to sell fewer performance versions of a given model because these use more gas (and “emit” more of the dread gas, carbon dioxide) and that is why – perversely – they price their performance models higher so as to sell fewer of them. The reasoning buying that at least they can still offer them, even if fewer people can afford to buy them.

It makes you want to do burnouts in an old “5.0” LX, doesn’t it?

. . .

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