It’s a new phrase in my lexicon: “Decal GT”, coined by Jim Wangers, the guy better known for Pontiac performance, but is responsible for some of the most well-known examples of sticker performance, including the Pontiac Can-Am, Ford Cobra II, and the AMC Hornet AMX. You know what it means: those cars, especially from the 1970s, that went above and beyond in the looks department but came up seriously short in the shorts as far as performance goes? That’s a Decal GT…all promise, no delivery. Some of them tried their best with what they had to offer, and some were better than others, providing handling packages or having looks that were good enough to fly on their own accord. Some of them really were meant to be performers but fell short of the mark. Let’s take a look at a few and see for yourself: do they deserve the criticism they get or do they deserve every bit of it?
11. 1978 and 1979 Oldsmobile 442 Aeroback
I’m picking on the Aeroback 442 mostly because that one design feature alone kept the Oldsmobile 442 from being more popular. Meant to emulate a European design theme, to say it didn’t catch with the American buying public would be seriously understating what happened. For the day, the 442 did offer options with engines and transmissions, and it was possible to get a V8/five-speed Olds if you worked the options list, so we can’t ding it too badly there. But that roofline…aack.
10. 1976-80 Dodge Aspen R/T and Plymouth Volaré Road Runner
Another couple of cars we can’t ding for performance are the Mopar F-body mid-level performance twins, the Dodge Aspen R/T and Plymouth Volaré Road Runner. Sure, most of the trim package was based on looks, but the 360 cars could hang with any other “performance” car of the day and if you ignored the premature rust, looked pretty good too. If Chrysler had taken one more year and had gotten quality control to actually do a job, these two might have been somebody.
9. 1979-81 Ford Mustang Cobra
We will discuss the 1978 King Cobra in a minute, but for now, let’s look at the Four-Eyed Fox Cobras. Other than the Cobra hood graphic making a return, for the most part they had a bit going for them: the fresh styling was a welcome departure from the Mustang II, the TRX performance handling package tried to work on the handling, and for 1979, you could still get a 302 cubic inch V8, as well as a turbocharged 2.3L four-banger. Come 1980, and the V8 became the boat-anchor-worthy 4.2L V8 and the turbo mills suffered from issues that included inadequate lubrication and the occasional fire.
8. 1979-80 AMC Spirit AMX
The fact that AMC even tried to make a muscle car in 1979 was a bit of a shock…the company, long known for not having cash to fling around at low-return projects, decided to bring out the “AMX” badge one last time in hopes on capitalizing on the success of other muscle cars, and AMC tried to do it right. Considering that the Spirit is really a reskinned Gremlin, we’d say they succeeded, and while the “AMX” hood decal isn’t our favorite, the rest of the look is nice and aggressive. Two factors killed off the Spirit AMX: it was perceived as outdated (it was), and the Fox Mustang appeared, offering a similar overall setup in a more modern package.
7. 1976 Ford “Stallion” package cars
Ford might have started gathering themselves up off of the floor in 1978 with the Fox cars, but in 1976 a boardroom meeting must have sounded like engineers and stylists throwing out whatever they thought would sell. Case in point: the “Stallion” package, which was a 1976-only appearance package for Pinto, Mustang II and Maverick. Appearances only packages automatically earn a spot on this list, especially ones that fail on their first year!
6. 1978-87 GMC Caballero “Diablo”
When the 1971 Dodge Demon appeared on the scene, it almost immediately earned the ire of religious folk, who criticized Chrysler for the name and the “devil with pitchfork” logo. General Motors, in a move that showed either indifference or contempt, decided instead to use the “Diablo” name for their punched up
El Camino Caballero. The appearance package included an air dam below the front bumper, a hood graphic that had the face of a demon, callout stripes on the lower doors and tailgate, and a dash insert that is now unobtanium. Somehow this controversy magnet managed to last all of the Caballero’s run. The Chevrolet El Camino “Royal Knight” earns an honorable mention for it’s similar setup, but at least Chevy ended that in 1984.
5. 1980-81 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am
I can hear the cries of “heresy!” now, so let’s be frank: yes, the Turbo Trans Am was a reaction to the times and yes, it was a solid effort from Pontiac. What it didn’t do was live up to the expectations: after the Pontiac 400 and Oldsmobile 403 were sent to the junkyard in the sky, Pontiac made a desperate play and went with a carbureted and turbocharged 301ci V8. On paper, it looked damn promising: the block was 100 or so pounds lighter than the outgoing engine, and only gave up 10 horsepower. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘early turbo teething issues’ comes into play…bad oiling, detonation issues, and buyers who didn’t understand warmup and cool down needs of a turbocharger all gave the Turbo Trans Am a bad reputation. It didn’t help that the 400 and 403 were, without question, running underrated power figures.
4. 1977-79 Ford LTD II
Here’s a recipe for disaster: take the Ford Gran Torino, a porker of a mid-size. Ditch it’s rounded, Coke bottle shape for sharp edges raided from the Lincoln Mark V, a front battering ram that had enough of a body filler gap to qualify as a step, one of the biggest C-pillars to ever grace a car, and have the audacity to call this eighteen-foot long, two-ton tank a “midsize coupe”. Then ape the last successful Gran Torino marketing pitch, a strange fender and roof stripe pattern and put the whole contraption on 14″ Magnum 500 wheels.
3. 1977 AMC Hornet AMX
It didn’t have the performance punch and it did have a hood graphic a’la Pontiac’s “Screamin’ Chicken”, but the AMC Hornet AMX was an honest attempt at bringing something performance-ish back to American Motors. A joint effort between AMC and Jim Wangers’ Motortown Corporation, the Hornet received flares, an air dam, four colors that brought back memories of the Big Bad color palette, “bullseye” trim pieces not seen since the Javelin (on some cars) and the best suspension pieces in the Hornet catalog. Under the hood was a disappointment (either the 258 six or the 120 horsepower 304 V8) but at least it was an attempt.
2. 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Indy Pace Car
Here’s where I’m going to catch all sorts of hell: the 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 was a better 442 option than the G-body was, and the Indy Pace Car versions were why. Pictured is one of the actual targa-roofed Pace Cars, but if you scrubbed off the pace car lettering of one of the street versions, kept the silver and black paint, and went with a T-top setup and the Oldsmobile 403 under the hood, you had a very underrated winner on your hands. The B-body chassis…really, the 1973 A-body chassis…is one of GM’s best efforts and with the right set of pipes, it would even sound like it meant business. Tell me I’m wrong.
1. 1978 Ford Mustang II King Cobra
No matter your hate for the Mustang II, this should have worked better than it did. By 1978 Ford had started to shake the funk that they had been steeping in for the last few years and had gotten into gear. The Mustang II had V8 power, had a manual transmission, had one of the most lauded front suspension designs out there, had ample enough room, and was neither too small, nor oversized. Had Ford given the 302 more than 140 horsepower, or had bothered to gear it to actually perform with said horsepower, the King Cobra wouldn’t have had to rely on one of the wildest Mustang graphics packages ever designed: the whole car was pinstriped just about everywhere you looked, the trim was blacked out, and on the hood was Ford’s answer to Pontiac in the form of a hooded Cobra. The snake didn’t have teeth, and really didn’t have a bite worth mentioning until SVT brought the name back for 1993.