When it comes to muscle car action, it doesn’t get much more iconic than Steve McQueen as Bullitt in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 CID Fastback chasing two hit-men in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum. From the guttural roar of the engines as experienced from inside the cars to the jaw-jarring seesaw of suspension up and over the hills of San Francisco, the chase encapsulates the muscle car experience – and it’s fast, mean and dirty.
To truly understand the appeal of the muscle car is to admire their unique combination of style and substance. Yes, it’s about red hot rides over comfort or practicality. Most importantly though, it’s about power and speed wrapped up in a die-hard body kit.
What is, and what is not, a ‘muscle car’ remains a matter of debate among enthusiasts. The June 1967 issue of Road Test magazine stated a “muscle car is exactly what the name implies. It is a product of the American car industry adhering to the hot rodder’s philosophy of taking a small car and putting a BIG engine in it.” Likewise, for me, the term will always refer to a stylised range of high performance, mid-size cars born of America’s drag racing ethos and which enjoyed their heyday in the late 1960s and 70s. No other period in US car history has seen such an emphasis on power, speed, affordability, and style. New breeds emerged in South Africa, the UK, and, most successfully, Australia. But the US was the originator, and set the standard for an industry based around the muscle behind the machine.
Ever since the automobile was invented in late 1800s, folk have wanted to know how fast their vehicles could really go. Henry Ford was the original speed demon. He developed the 999 (named after a New York Central Railway Train that set records in 1893). In 1902, Ford’s driver, Barney Oldfield, reached the previously unimaginable top speed of 60 mph (95km).
The race was on, quite literally as cars became larger, stronger and more powerful, advancing from 5 horsepower to the 150 horsepower in many modern cars.
In his book, Muscle Cars, Jeffrey Zuehlke cites the widespread opinion that the muscle car was invented in 1936, the year Buick put a huge 8-cylinder engine into a mid-sized Buick body. The new car was called the Century and it had a 320 cubic inch engine that produced 120 horsepower.
Alternatively, thirteen years later, a new contender for the title of ‘first muscle car’ came into being. As public interest in speed and power grew, Oldsmobile brought out the Rocket 88. It featured America’s first high-compression overhead valve V8 in a light coupe body. Writing in Driving Today, Jack Nerad stated, “The Rocket V-8 set the standard for every American V-8 engine that would follow it for at least three decades.” A 303 cubic inch engine produced 135 horsepower, and ensured the Rocket 88 came to dominate the racing circuit and the new group known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
The 40s and 50s saw a massive growth in popularity for NASCAR. Speed was the ultimate goal. One of the fastest on the track was the 1955 Chrysler C-300. It was big and expensive, a luxury car with tremendous power under the hood. Advertised as ‘America’s Most Powerful Car,’ it was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 9.8 seconds and reaching 130 miles per hour (209 km/h). It was also excellent at handling.
But the C-300 didn’t target the true muscle car market for precisely the reason that it was too high-end. The early 1960s saw a new generation of young people reaching driving age. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US baby boom resulted in the largest generation in history – kids who hung out at the dirt tracks of the hot rod races and who soaked up rebellion via movies, pin ups and rock ‘n’ roll. These teenagers were also solvent, the US economy having blossomed since the war. It didn’t take long for the automakers to realise there was a market for cool, fast cars.
1964 saw the development of a true muscle car icon, the Ford Mustang (named after a World War II fighter plane.) Lee Iacoccoa, general manager of Ford, was the driving force behind the car’s development. He recognised what this new generation of auto buying public wanted, namely cool, affordable good looking cars. But the mustang was missing speed.
Engineer John Delorean and his team at Pontiac responded with the Pontiac Tempest GTO, nicknamed the Goat and yet another contender in some folks’ eyes for the title of first true muscle car. Now buyers were being offered a 389 cubic inch V8 engine producing 350 horsepower alongside a sleek look and affordability.
Manufacturers were in stiff competition, great news for the buyers who found a greater choice of models and increasingly powerful engines. This horsepower tug-of-war peaked in 1970 when models were capable of 450 hp and more over their rating. Except, as size and luxury increased, so cars became more expensive. Hence the birth of the ‘budget’ muscle car.
The original budget muscle car was Plymouth Road Runner (1968). Plymouth already had a performance car in the GTX, but designers decided to reincarnate the original muscle car concept. Plymouth wanted a car able to run 14-second times in the quarter mile (402 m) and sell for less than US$3000.
Alongside the larger incarnations, the Ford Mustang had also inspired a new class of automobile – the pony car. The term originated from the equestrian sounding Ford Mustang and referred to a new breed of compact, affordable, highly styled cars. Rear wheel drive, these smaller, sportier versions were nonetheless driven by V8 engines and ridiculously powerful.
The 1970 Plymouth Duster was one of these smaller, more affordable cars. Based on the compact Plymouth Valiant and priced at US $2547, the 340 Duster achieved a 6 second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time. In patriotic red, white and blue, American Motors’ mid-sized 1970 Rebel Machine was marketed for everyday use and featured a 390 cubic inch engine and 340 hp. Jack Nerad of Driving Today even went so far as to state ‘somehow, someway (the Rebel Machine) deserves to be considered among the Greatest Cars of All Time.’
As is always the case when the youth are having way too much fun, it didn’t take long for the grown ups to step in and spoil the party. Led by Ralph Nader, the automotive safety lobby began to petition against powerful cars for public sale, particularly those targeted at young buyers. The lobby’s argument was partly valid, the power of many muscle cars contravening their weak braking, poor handling, and tire adhesion. The automobile insurance industry responded by levying surcharges on all high-powered vehicles, which effectively put many muscle cars out of the financial reach of their young buyers. At the same time, efforts to combat air pollution put a new focus on emissions control. The passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 meant octane ratings were lowered to 91 and unleaded gasoline was gradually introduced. Horsepower dropped as engine compression ratios were reduced.
The production of muscle cars tailed off, with many series discontinued or remodelled into personal luxury cars. Pontiac’s Trans Am SD455 scrabbled for survival and was dubbed ‘The Last of the Fast Ones’ by Car and Driver magazine.
Recently, there has been a spate of muscle car revival, the most successful models being those that embrace their retro appeal – the V6 Ford Mustang, Daimler-Chrysler’s Dodge Challenger complete with hood stripes, and Chevrolet’s Camaro Convertible. Although, while the original Mustang for example came in at a very affordable $2368, it now retails at around a far less comfortable $43200 base price.
Years on, and the surviving original muscle cars are collectors’ items. The AMC Machine, Buick Gran Sport, Dodge Charger R/T, Ford Mustang, Plymouth Roadrunner, etc, all attract high prices depending on condition and availability. Consequently, reproduction muscle-car sheet metal parts and even complete body shells are now available.
One thing’s for certain. Muscle cars may have become the domain of the wealthy or the enthusiast. But at heart, they’ll always be the rebels of the road – grazed-kneed, dirt-track tested, and fashioned in the image of the American teenage dream.
Cross posted at WordPunk