Muscle Cars

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Muscle Cars

Muscle cars were a special breed of automobile that were born in the 1950s, grew throughout the 1960s, and for the most part died in the early 1970s. They remain a cultural symbol of style, mild rebellion, and a personal statement of independence. The concept was based upon the simple engineering idea of placing the largest possible engine into the lightest possible chassis. Using this measurement, the muscle cars initially emerged from the factories of a small handful of car manufacturers. Chevrolet was among the first of these, bringing out a modern-design 265-cubic-inch V-8 configuration engine in their lighter, sportier 1955 Bel Air range, while Chrysler offered their awesome hemi-head engine in the guise of their 300 series vehicles. Moving into the 1960s, the formula began to take root. The Chevy 409 was out, followed by the first Pontiac GTO, which featured a 389-cubic-inch displaced motor in a light Tempest body. Other American manufacturers followed suit: Ford with the Fairlane and Galaxie 500, and Chrysler with the Dodge Polara and Plymouth Belvedere.

As with most cultural phenomena, muscle cars began as unique specialist models hidden within the mainstream. In appearance, they were little different from their sedate mass-produced assembly-line cousins, but, as their popularity spread, they became a visible entity and replaced the much older personal automotive expression, the hot rod.

By the end of the 1960s the muscle car was commonplace across manufacturers' ranges. Virtually all models of car had a "hot" version that was affordable, powerful, and, above all, fast. Engine sizes climbed into the over 400-cubic inch displacement class with GM muscle cars having their largest performance engines in the 450-cubic inch range. Ford's performance engines were the 427, 428, and 429-cubic inch engines, and Chrysler developed 426 and 440 cubic inch engines as their standard bearers. Many of these engines came equipped with large four-barrel carburetors, or combinations of three two-barrel, or two four-barrel carburetors. Horsepower ratings climbed to over 400, while gas mileage often fell into the low 'teens or less. Hood-scoops, stripes, and spoilers helped to define the breed, as did the model names—Charger, Cobra, Cyclone, Grand Prix, 442, Road Runner, Machine, and any Chevy "SS" conveyed the intended image of the new, aggressive vehicles.

Muscle cars didn't corner well by later standards, but they did go fast. The standard of performance was judged by how fast a car could cover a quarter mile from a standing start. The 14-second bracket seemed to define the breed, but a few exceptional models could go even faster. Drag racing, and the much more dangerous street racing, were very much part of the muscle car phenomenon. The obvious racing tie to muscle cars was usually drag racing, but both Chrysler and Ford also were heavily involved in stock car racing.

A subset of the muscle car was the "Pony" car, a genre started with the 1964 Mustang. The Mustang's early successful combination of style and performance led to the creation of the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Barracuda, and American Motors' Javelin that came to populate the Sports Car Club of America's popular Trans-Am racing series. Pony cars were even lighter than their muscle car cousins, but were frequently available with the same larger engines.

Muscle cars were aimed at young people. The design styles, colors, advertising, and price were all aimed at the first-time new car buyer. Chrysler marketed their performance cars under advertising campaigns that identified their cars as the Dodge Rebellion, and the Plymouth Rapid Transit System; Pontiac connected its popular GTO with TV's Laugh-In with a model called the Judge; and Ford openly tied its performance cars to its racing programs and its association with Carroll Shelby. The successful mass marketing and consequent popularity of the cars were reflected by their appearances in high-profile television series and movies. The eponymous hero of Mannix drove Barracudas and, later, a Z-28. The Mod Squad started out with a hot rod Woody, but moved to Challengers and Chargers. Even Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files had a Firebird, while muscle cars were prominently featured in films such as Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point (both 1971), that focused on anti-social or rebellious heroism expressed through driving cars. Popular music of the 1960s, too, was laced with muscle car-oriented tunes such as "Little GTO" and "409."

While not exactly representing the counter-culture, muscle cars were certainly a visible accessory of the 1960s youth movement. Muscle cars represented the kind of car parents did not drive and would likely be offended by. How far did it all go? Dodge sold a virtual Grand National Stock Car in 1969 called the Daytona for the street, Chevrolet had the 454-cubic inch Chevelle SS in 1971, Ford had the 428-cubic inch Mach 1 Mustang in 1970. Even relatively sedate American Motors promoted its Javelin and its racing heritage. In 1972 it built and sold the Gremlin X, a sub-compact with a V-8.

Ultimately, high insurance costs and the gas crisis of the early 1970s doomed the muscle cars. Consumer taste shifted towards personal luxury cars, and economics dictated a shift towards fuel-efficient imports. By the 1990s, there were but a few survivors of the muscle car. Pontiac was still making the Firebird Trans-Am, as was Chevrolet the Camaro Z-28 and Ford its Mustang. Each of these models offers a better level of performance than its 1960s ancestors, while many standard cars of the 1990s were taking their styling clues from the old muscle cars. Spoilers, custom wheels, fat, raised, white-letter tires, and bulged or scooped hoods are all examples of the performance images that were first seen 30 years earlier.

By the end of the twentieth century, muscle cars had begun to experience a renaissance of sorts, with restorers and collectors seeking out selected models and reliving the heady days of the 1960s with cheap gas and lots of power. Muscle cars represent an era when an automobile could make a bold, personal statement in sharp contrast to most automobiles built since. They might seem primitive, but their purpose was pure.

—Sean Evans

Further Reading:

Campisano, Jim. American Muscle Cars. New York, Metro Books, 1995.

Consumers Guide. The Great Book of Muscle Cars. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Publications International, 1990.

Frumkin, Mitch. Muscle Car Mania: An Advertising Collection 1964-1974. Osceola, Wisconsin, Motorbooks International, 1981.

——. Son of Muscle Car Mania: More Ads 1962-74. Osceola, Wisconsin, Motorbooks International, 1982.

Mueller, Mike. Fifties Muscle: The Dawn of High Performance. Osceola, Wisconsin, Motorbooks International Publishers, 1996.

Muscle Cars: American Thunder. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Publications International, 1997.

Newbery, J. G. Muscle Cars. San Diego, California, Thunder Bay Press, 1994.