Muscle Memory, Part II

Nov 19, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at the impact of muscle cars on the performance aftermarket. Part I, which focused on the original muscle car movement, appeared in the October 2012 issue of Performance Business. This installment looks at the modern muscle category, and how it is building on the reputation of those machines from the 1960s and ’70s.

Read Part I

When you look at today’s modern muscle cars, it’s apparent that designers have taken a page from the original high-horsepower machines of the 1960s and ’70s.Like their predecessors, today’s muscle cars are fast and exciting.

During the 25-year span or so between the original muscle cars and the new generation, a few models kept the muscle car flame burning. Among the examples are the Buick Grand National and GNX turbo cars, fourth-generation Z28 and 1LE Camaros (along with same-era Pontiac Firehawk and WS6 Firebirds), the mid-’90s Impala SS, and, of course, the longest-lasting of them all, the high-performance Ford Mustangs (H.O. 5.0-liter, SVT, Cobra R and re-introduction of the Shelby Mustangs).

But it was definitely a slow period for high-horsepower vehicles in the muscle car mold. In fact, if not for the success of the Ford pony car, there likely would never have been a reentry by Dodge (the original Challenger died in 1974) or Chevrolet (the Camaro was discontinued in 2002) into the new muscle car segment.

Thankfully, both the Challenger and the Camaro came back to battle the Mustang (2008 model year for the Mopar, 2010 model year for the Camaro) and the old saying “competition is good” applies here, especially for modern muscle car buyers looking for options, (not to mention a back seat!)

A Modern Challenger

When the 2008 Dodge Challenger came onto the scene, there was big applause for the obvious styling cues taken directly from the original. The stylists had managed to chisel out a modern interpretation of the legendary 1970 Dodge Challenger body shape, wrapped around modernized architecture.

The Mopar guys didn’t mess around that first year under the hood with some politically correct, fuel-efficient V-6 either. It came only as an SRT8 high-performance model that included a 425-hp, 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 engine mated to a five-speed auto-stick transmission. (A six-speed Tremec came the following year.)

With a five-link independent design rear suspension (IRS) and coil springs on all four corners, the Challenger offered contemporary handling and the big Brembo four-piston ABS braking system gave braking power clearly up to the task. How quick was the new Hemi Challenger? Motor Trend rung a 13.1 ET with the car at the drag strip (108.3 mph through the traps) and recorded a 4.7-second 0-60 time.

Top speed was reportedly 170 mph, enough to give Mustang owners something to contend with.

By this time, the Mustang GT had the 4.6-liter V-8 3V base engine, five-speed manual or automatic transmission and a live axle rear. All in all, it was a somewhat refined car, but with a “dated” body shape, and could be considered pretty tame up against the SRT8.

A more fair comparison was the Shelby GT-C, enhanced with a larger 90mm cold air intake, better exhaust system and revised engine management computer calibration listed at 315 hp. Add in the big Baer brakes (six-piston fronts), Pirelli rubber, plus styling enhancements and it looked much more like a competitor to the new Challenger, and delivered a 13.8-second quarter-mile performance at 102.5 mph, with 0-60 mph runs in 5.1 seconds.

Serious Blue Oval enthusiasts could then step up to the GT500 Shelby for 2008. It had a 5.4-liter DOHC V-8 with an estimated 500 hp and standard six-speed Tremec TR6060 gearbox.

Car and Drivermagazine managed a 12.9-second ET in a preproduction car, with 0-60 mph blasts timed in 4.5 seconds.

Even faster was the 2008 Shelby GT500KR (King of the Road) supercharged model. With a sticker price around $80,000, the introduction of forced induction made all the difference in the world performance-wise, with a 550-hp rating for the top Shelby for 2008. It ran 0-60 mph in 4 seconds flat and a 12.1 ET on the 1,320-foot track at over 115 mph.

Camaro Power

Chevrolet’s new fifth-generation Camaro was launched into production for the 2010 model year. The top performance model was the SS, and the resurrected Camaro has a flashy body shape with a slight hint of retro-”specifically the C-post and rear quarter panel areas.

A majority of enthusiasts instantly loved the slightly cartoonish front end and the balance of the car, which featured IRS. The car’s basic platform was based on the Australian Commodore, which offered GM a great foundation for the new Camaro, plus helped on the overall budget in shaving research and development costs.

The car’s shape had long been previewed to the public with its appearance in the movie “Transformers.”

The SS Camaro for 2010 had a six-speed manual transmission and 426-hp LS3 engine (from the 2008 Corvette) available at extra cost. Big Brembo brakes were also standard, and acceleration was impressive.

Using the slightly milder automatic transmission power plant (listed at 400 hp), the SS ran 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds with a 13-second flat quarter-mile run at 111 mph. The quickest track times came in the non-manual transmission car-”perhaps a reflection of driver talent that day or a glitch in the mechanicals where the automatic was actually smoother and more efficient during WOT.

The brightest shining feature of the 2010 Camaro SS had to be the price: $35,300 for the manual, $36,500 for the automatic. A lot of car for the money.

(While listing the various spec differences between the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang, it should be pointed out that a certain segment of modern muscle car buyers remains fanatically brand-loyal and would never even consider purchasing either of their competitors, regardless of numbers-”yet another throwback to the original muscle car days!)

More Power to Come

Today there’s a full-on battle raging among the top optioned-out muscle machines from Detroit. Currently, the fiercest is between the Camaro ZL1 and the Shelby GT500-”the Chevrolet listed as a 2012 model and the more-recently released top Mustang listed as a 2013.

The start of the battle actually happened back in October of 2011, when GM released a video of its new muscular model, the ZL1, running a lap at the famed Nürburgring-Nordschleife in Germany, posting a fantastic run of 7 minutes, 41.27 seconds. This was a top time on that track for any production car, and actually was in the “supercar” category range of much more expensive, exotic automobiles.

By running the ZL1 on the road race track, it sent a message to all other modern-day muscle car competitors: it’s not just about straight-line times, it’s not just about brake systems, it’s not just about wheel and tire selection-”it’s about the entire package and how it performs on a measured race track of international significance.

The details of the ZL1 are that the engineers equipped the (pushrod) engine, a 6.2-liter V-8, with an intercooled Eaton supercharger that brings the horsepower up to 580. Either a Tremec six-speed manual or a Hydra-Matic 6L90 automatic can be fitted, and Magnetic Ride Technology (the shocks employ magnetorheological fluid for race car-type damper control) plus 20-inch rolling stock with the jumbo Brembo brakes on all four corners.

Weight distribution is reportedly 52-percent front, 48-percent rear, and for extra high-speed stability it features a carbon-fiber “Mohawk” air extractor, plus lower front splitter fitted to the front. The car reached a video-verified 172 mph on the straightaway, and Chevy has priced it at $54,995. It’s basically a four-seat supercar with a full 100,000 mile, 5-year powertrain warranty.

Not to be forgotten, Ford Motor Co. has responded with its latest Shelby GT500, also with an announced price of $54,995.

Ford bumped the output to 650 hp from its 5.8-liter DOHC engine with the use of a new and highly efficient TVS supercharger (Series 2300, 15 pounds of boost). A carbon fiber driveshaft was added and big brakes by Brembo are standard.

(One side note on the price: Ford is offering an optional package with a super-strong Torsen limited-slip differential, Bilstein electronically adjustable shock absorbers, and auxiliary coolers for the engine, transmission and differential. The added cost for the Track Package is $3,495. Ford claims you can join the 200-mph club with this car, and independent magazine tests have already shown it can reach 202 mph on an open stretch. The question now is will Ford bring this new 2013 GT500 to Germany and run it through the twists and turns of the ‘Ring and see if it can outrun Chevy?

Currently the Dodge Boys are not offering a supercharged-enhanced Challenger-”however, the rumor mill indicates one is coming down the pike, to be released as either a 2013 or 2014 model depending on the timeframe. There are and have been hopped-up aftermarket Hemi Challengers available (SMS Steve Saleen, Hennessey Performance and Hurst), however the focus of this article is based on production cars that roll out of the factories of the Big Three.

To the Track & Beyond

In addition to the street-legal offerings, the individual factories have also marketed and sold “for competition use only” non-street-legal factory drag car versions of the Challenger, Camaro and Mustang for use in the National Hot Rod Association Stock and Super Stock classes.

Dodge was first out of the gate with its Drag Pak Challenger, complete with race-modified chassis that could run in the very-low 10-second range, and later debuted a Viper V-10 version that has recorded runs in the 9.4-second range at 144 mph.

Chevrolet came to the table with the “COPO” drag Camaro, named after the legendary 1969 Camaro aluminum-block 427 cars that were built under a special “Central Office Production Order #9560.” In early testing they have run 9.69 seconds at 140 mph.

Meanwhile, Ford’s Cobra Jet Drag Mustang have so far proven to the be the quickest of the lot, as Carl Tasca took one of them to the shop for further modifications and ran an eye-popping 7.961 ET at 173 mph in a test at Florida’s Bradenton drag strip.

Of course, one-upmanship is a staple of the muscle car wars, and it’s great to see the Big Three again pushing the envelope of performance and design. After all, better and badder cars can only mean good things for the performance aftermarket.


Who Coined the Term ‘Muscle Car?’

Historians love to argue not only about what constitutes a muscle car and when they first arrived on the scene, but also who came up with their descriptive moniker first.

The term “muscle car” really wasn’t widely used on the streets or in the magazines in the early years of the era. They were just considered “fast cars” and/or factory super cars, not to be confused with later-known European supercars like Ferraris, Lamborghinis and such.

The term “bomb” was also used from time to time about fast cars that came out of Detroit, but didn’t stick.

In a copy of the September 1965 issue of Popular Science magazine on page 172, writer Jan P. Norbye (PS automotive editor) came up with a “muscle for the intermediates” wording for his review of the new-for-1966 line of high-performance mid-sized cars.

He stated the following when describing the Dodge/Plymouth entries: “You can get a Hemi-head in the intermediate-sized cars, which gives Chrysler some formidable entries against the ‘muscle cars’ from General Motors (Tempest GTO, Olds 4-4-2, Skylark Gran Sport, Chevelle Malibu SS).”

This seems to be the earliest confirmed mention of what a muscle car is. Mr. Norbye wrote for a number of car buff magazines and authored books on automotive subjects.