There has been great debate about the exact ingredients needed to make a muscle car.
Some claim the Duesenberg J-models, offered from 1928 through the early ’30s, were muscle cars because they were built for speed. Others say that the 1949 Oldsmobile with the all-new Kettering V-8 engine was the first muscle car because of its advanced overhead valve engines.
The 1954 Buick Century featured the Roadmaster V-8 engine in a new, smaller body shape. Others point to the 1955 Chrysler 300 Letter Cars with FirePower Hemi engines as the first true muscle cars.
For the sake of clarity for this story, the term muscle car applies to an American passenger car that was built by the factory as a packaged performance car, meaning that not only the engine is high-performance in nature, but there has also been some additional attention given to other aspects of vehicle, such as the suspension and brakes, providing more capabilities as compared to the standard production cars that were marketed to the general driving public.
Muscle cars were targeted to young buyers (and young at heart) who didn’t have a huge budget, and they were adorned with special body identification (emblems, stripes, scoops, blackout paint, etc.) so that nobody would mistake them for their regular counterparts.
The muscle car was marketed as a hot, fast, exciting car that was widely available, and you didn’t have to know somebody at the factory to get one.
Which Came First
Automotive expert and author Jim Wangers was on the Detroit scene in the mid-1950s during thegood old days of muscle cars, when product was king and the marketers knew how to sell them.
He points out that the 1957 Plymouth Fury, DeSoto Avenger and Dodge D500 were cars from Chrysler Corp. that, in his words, “literally invented the first muscle cars.”
None of those models had a whole lot of staying power, however. The original Fury that Wangers referred to was a special high-performance model car, not what came to be basically a trim upgrade in the years to follow.
And there was also the Rambler Rebel from 1957, a four-door hardtop equipped with the AMC 327-ci V-8 engine that cranked out 255 hp with a Carter WCBF 4-barrel carburetor and available Bendix electronic fuel injection. This was a light high-performance car, which also had handling improvements (equipped with Gabriel adjustable tube shocks on all four corners) and albeit having four doors, the Rambler Rebel was a unique entry in the marketplace.
It could easily be stated that there were certain cars in the mid- to late-1950s that were precursors to the muscle car.
Detroit automakers did become involved with producing high-horsepower, full-sized cars in the early 1960s, offering special engines that could be fitted to the normal passenger cars (often in the lightest versions), and for the more serious drag racing participants, factory-built Super Stock cars that were sometimes not advertised through the normal channels, and were often only available to known racers.
Chevrolet had its 409-hp, 409-ci W-Block V-8 with inline dual four barrels that could be had in a lightweight Bel Air; Pontiac had a Catalina Super Duty 421-ci, 410-hp V-8, plus there were the 413- and 426-ci Max-Wedge Dodge and Plymouths with huge cross-ram intakes and 12.5:1 compression that developed 425 hp.
Ford had hot 406- and 427-ci V-8s (also with a listing of 425 hp) Galaxies that were big but also fast. Aluminum hoods, fenders and bumpers, deleted back seats, batteries relocated inside the trunk for better weight transfer on the track, and other enhancements (including Pontiac drilling holes in the frame for less weight) were all clever tricks that Super Stocks featured as the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) went all-out in the pursuit of creating factory drag race cars for straight-line performance.
And Corvettes and Cobras were out there, too, but are technically classified as sports cars because they are two-seaters. Yes, they were fast, but were more for the road racer set (although some did see action on the drag strips).
Get Your Goat
Even with all that excitement rolling out of Detroit, for all practical purposes it was the release of the 1964 Pontiac GTO that actually spawned the launch of the muscle car era.
The GTO offered a 389-ci V-8 engine with 325 hp (348-hp Tri-Power optional), available 4-speed with Hurst shifter and beefed suspension. The car featured GTO emblems (including 6.5-liter markings) and special styling on the hood (faux hood scoops) and optional chrome exhaust splitters behind each rear wheel.
The factory wasn’t trying to hide the car’s intent, and more than 15,000 customer orders came through in just the first six months. A big push came for the GTO when it was featured in Car and Driver (March 1964 edition) and the magazine’s staff went head-over-heels with compliments (and almost unbelievable time slips where they claimed the car went 0-100 in just 11.8 seconds).
(Little did the C/D magazine staff know that Wangers, who had been part of the GTO’s initial concept and build-up, had made arrangements with Pontiac engineers to secretly install a 421-ci High Output engine in the car, masquerading as a stock 389 mill!)
Regardless, it didn’t take long for other GM divisions to want a muscle car of their own. Next out of the gate came the Oldsmobile 442, which meant, according to advertising in mid-1964, “4-barrel, 4-on-the-floor, and dual exhausts.” The car was an F-85 intermediate with a 310-hp Jetfire Rocket V-8 (330-ci) and police-duty suspension and brakes.
Buick launched its Skylark Gran Sport in 1965 (400-ci, 325 hp) and gave it a heavy-duty frame and suspension plus “oversized” 7.75 x 14 rubber.
Chevrolet was the sleeping giant of car divisions in this scenario, and after watching from the sidelines, in the middle of the 1965 model year it released a 396-cube Chevelle Z-16 Malibu Super Sport with an all-new “porcupine” big-block engine rated at 375 hp. The car had a heavy-duty chassis, heavy-duty suspension and special rear axle. It was a packaged car and featured a 160-mph speedometer and mandatory options included a tachometer and full seat belts.
(Only 201 of these Chevelles were produced, but in the following years Super Sport Chevelles became top-sellers in the muscle car field.)
With the release of the Ford Mustang (which in itself wasn’t a muscle car, it was rather the first of the “pony” cars-”see below) came a hopped-up version built by Carroll Shelby-”the G.T. 350-”and this is where the lines start to become blurred on the exact definition of a ’60s muscle car.
The Shelby-ized Mustang had a 306-hp free-breathing 289-ci small-block engine and numerous enhancements to the suspension to make it handle like a road racer out of the dealership, and with a fiberglass scoop hood, racing stripes and Goodyear “Blue Dot” performance tires how could one not call it a muscle car? Road tester Steve Smith said, affectionately, that the GT 350 was “a brand-new clamped out race car” and because Shelby America had removed the back seats of these early cars, this pony car was technically now in the sports car category.
In later years the Shelby Mustangs (GT500s) would receive big-block engines, which for certain should put them in the (revised through the years) muscle car category. Even muscle car purists would have to look back and agree the definition of the term was changing throughout this time period.
Dodge and Plymouth got into the muscle car market full swing by the time the 1967 models were released, with two entries both based on incorporating the large 440-ci V-8 engines as standard equipment (375 hp) plus offering the mighty Street Hemi (425 hp from 426 cubes) as an option.
The Dodge was the Coronet-based R/T which stood for Road & Track, and the Plymouth version was the GTX Belvedere. Both came with scoops and stripes and no shyness in their performance appearance.
The following year Plymouth hit a major home run with the release of the Road Runner, a lightweight two-door sedan version of the shapely, newly restyled intermediates for ’68. The company kept the price low (under $3,000) by using a hotted-up 383 V-8 wedge as the base power plant, (Hemi power was the only engine option).
These cars were a major sales success and stole the thunder from many of the other high-performance cars of the era (including the GTO), helping make muscle cars more affordable than ever.
The Ford Motor Co. had the Shelby versions of the Mustangs but not a whole lot else during this time for enthusiasts that desired something along the lines of a hot intermediate, although a few 427-ci Fairlanes slipped out the door. A fastback Torino with available 428 power was made available in ’68, however they never sold in big numbers.
Muscle car fever spread all the way to Kenosha, Wis., when American Motors got in on the action with a small compact-sized car version of the Rambler featuring a 343-ci 4-barrel V-8 engine, red, white and blue paint scheme and a snorkel hood scoop. Called the SC/Rambler, just 500 were manufactured, built in cooperation with Hurst and priced at $2,998. It was verified to run 14.3-seconds in the 1/4-mile.
To a lesser degree, the AMC Rebel Machine hit the scene in 1970. However, it was a heavier car that really didn’t have a whole lot of grunt as compared to the big-block offerings of the competition (although it was said to run 14.40s in the owner’s manual). The early AMX cars were considered sports cars, and the later AMX cars, even with the 401-ci V-8 engine, came in too late to the game to be considered contenders.
By the time the Camaro came out, the lines that separated muscle cars were starting to blur even more. Disc brakes were showing up on a regular basis, but things like ABS and decent tires were still a long ways off.
The year 1970 is considered a high-water mark for many muscle car historians, and among the favorites are the Boss 302 and Boss 429 Mustangs, Chevrolet’s 450-hp LS6 SS454 Chevelles, the Hemis and 440 six-barrels from Dodge and Plymouth, Buick’s Stage I GS and GSX, the Hurst Oldsmobile and 442 W30, Pontiac’s 455-ci GTO and the addition of the new E-Body Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda-”pony cars that were built bigger and wider, done in the early development timeframe so that they could accept the mighty 426 Hemi power plants.
But the landscape was changing and it suddenly appeared the muscle car movement wasn’t going to have an endless future. Bad publicity was generated with the unfortunate deaths that occurred (mainly with inexperienced drivers), along with increased insurance costs because of the “high risk” of the increased horsepower under the hood.
Add in a growing concern over fuel consumption, and the winds were changing around dealerships. A new breed of small, economical cars (Gremlin, Pinto, Vega) became the next big thing. There were still some good times to be had, but the dark clouds of the future were creeping in for the muscle car world.
What Killed the Muscle Car?
High insurance rates, safety concerns and strict new lower emissions requirements all led to the demise of the muscle car, and it really starting taking place with the release of the 1972 models.
The Hemi was dead, and across the board whatever else survived saw a drastic loss in power, with lower compression and less radical camshafts.
Of course, the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s were fantastic years for car enthusiasts looking to purchase used muscle cars. For those that realized the historical importance of these high-performance machines, the ones in stock condition made for great investments.
By the time the mid-1990s came around, the muscle car had become romanticized in a widespread fashion and was looked at, all those years later, as a great part of the fabric of the American auto industry.
People like media tycoon Otis Chandler (of Los Angeles Times newspaper fame) had collected some of the “best of the best” rare muscle cars for a museum, and that brought a renewed interest in all things vintage high-performance. Later events such as the high-profile Barrett-Jackson auctions legitimized and even enhanced the perception and value of the American Muscle genre.
Here’s how veteran automotive scribe Brock Yates described the time period of 1965-’69 for the 40th anniversary of Car and Driver: “It was nuts. For the last half of the Sixties, the whole country was in full berserko mode. Everyone under 30 was zonked on everything from peyote to paint thinner, and every stretch of asphalt from sea to shining sea was smeared with fat, black patches of rubber. Luddites in surplus army shoes teamed up with a gang of blue-nose bureaucrats to throw the red flag. The party was nearly over, but we went out with the tach pegged and the throttle wide open.”
It’s no surprise that such imagery would spur a muscle car renaissance, and that’s exactly what’s happening today. Next time we’ll take a look at the new generation of muscle cars, and the similarities and differences from the first time these big, bad rides ruled the streets.
Some simplified definitions from the original muscle car era:
In its purest form, a mid-sized (intermediate) American car that was produced for regular production as a high-performance vehicle. Over time the term muscle car has also taken on high-performance versions of the pony car.
In April of 1964, the pony car was born with the release of the Ford Mustang. Later the Mustang was anointed by Carroll Shelby with the making of a high-performance GT350, which also saw the removal of the rear seat to satisfy the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) to classify it as a sports car. Also in 1964 came the Plymouth Valiant-based Barracuda, and later for the 1967 model year the Camaro, Firebird and Cougar. AMC launched its Javelin pony car for the 1968 model year and also a shortened version, the AMX, which had a 12-inch portion of the rear interior cabin eliminated, thereby making it a 2-seater “sports car” with a 97-inch wheelbase. The E-Body Barracuda and new Dodge Challenger for 1970 were also classified as pony cars.
A two-seater automobile: AC Cobra, Corvette, Viper, Ford GT, early AMX, etc.
A pre-muscle car era high-performance car spec’d out with the largest engine available and a minimum of added flash. A typical early ’60s sleeper had small hubcaps, black-wall tires and the least expensive trim/interior appointments.
PERSONAL LUXURY CAR
From the muscle car era a Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevrolet Monte Carlo or Chrysler Letter Car would be the most likely vehicle that (if equipped with the top engine) would be mistakenly called a muscle car. Personal luxury cars could be ordered with muscle car engines, however.
FACTORY DRAG CAR
This would include cars that came equipped with aluminum or fiberglass body parts from the factory, were not fitted with full exhausts and had the elimination of the rear seating. Some of these were pure competition cars never intended for street use, even though plenty ended up licensed and registered as passenger cars.