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History and Understanding the Term:

Muscle Car

Some History on the term "muscle car"

A muscle car is a high-performance automobile. The term principally refers to American, Australian and South African models with large-capacity engines produced between 1964 and 1973 for American cars and between 1968 and 1976 for Australian cars.

The term muscle car generally describes a rear wheel drive mid-size car with a large, powerful engine (typically, although not universally, a V8 engine) and special trim, intended for maximum torque on the street or in drag racing competition. It is distinguished from sports cars, which were customarily and coincidentally considered smaller, two-seat cars, or GTs, two-seat or 2+2 cars intended for high-speed touring and possibly road racing. High-performance full-size or compact cars are arguably excluded from this category, as are the breed of compact sports coupes inspired by the Ford Mustang, the "pony car". Another factor used in defining a classic muscle cars is age and country of origin. A classic muscle car is usually but not necessarily made in the US or Australia between 1964 and 1975.

An alternate definition is based on power-to-weight ratio, defining a muscle car as an automobile with (for example) fewer than 12 pounds per rated hp. Such definitions are inexact, thanks to a wide variation in curb weight depending on options and to the questionable nature of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) gross hp ratings in use before 1972, which were often deliberately overstated or underrated for various reasons.

The idea of installing a powerful engine in a post WWII mid-size car was introduced in 1957. The American Motors (AMC) Rebel showcased AMC’s new 327 in³ V8 255 hp with a 4 barrel carburetor (fuel injection was to be optional), thus making it the first American factory hot-rod hardtop sedan. The Rambler Rebel came with a manual or automatic transmission, and dual exhaust. The Rebel was promoted as the fastest four-door car in America from 0-60 mph and ran the quarter mile in 17.0 seconds. It was one of the quickest production automobiles at that time.

The popularity of the muscle car grew in the 1960s. Among these was the Pontiac Tempest. For 1964 and 1965, the GTO was an option package that included Pontiac's 389 in³ (6.5 L) V8 engine, floor-shifted transmission with Hurst shift linkage, and special trim. In 1966, the Pontiac GTO was no longer an option, and became its own model. The project, spearheaded by Pontiac division president John De Lorean, was technically a violation of General Motors policy limiting its smaller cars to 330 in³ (5.4 L) displacement, but it proved far more popular than expected, and inspired a host of imitations, both at GM and its competitors.

The Dodge Charger, known for its appearance as the villain's vehicle in the movie BullittThis marked a general trend towards factory performance, which reflected the importance of the youth market. A key appeal of the muscle cars was that they offered the burgeoning American car culture an array of relatively affordable vehicles with strong street performance that could also be used for racing. The affordability aspect was quickly compromised by increases in size, optional equipment, and plushness, forcing the addition of more and more powerful engines just to keep pace with performance. A backlash against this cost and weight growth led in 1967 and 1968 to a secondary trend of "budget muscle" in the form of the Plymouth Road Runner, Dodge Super Bee, and other stripped, lower-cost variants.

Although the sales of true muscle cars were relatively modest by total Detroit production standards, they had considerable value in publicity and bragging rights. They also served to bring young customers (or their parents) into showrooms who would then buy the standard editions of these mid-size cars. Automakers saw these as halo models and some, such as the AMC Rebel Machine, the COPO (Central Office Production Order) Chevrolet Chevelle, and the Super Cobra Jet Ford Torino were factory upgraded to be turn-key drag racers. The 1970 Machine even came with a standard flamboyant and patriotic red, white, and blue reflective body graphics and paint for maximum street and racetrack visibility.

The AMC Rebel Machine, a factory built drag racer in its standard RWB stripe and paint schemeThe fierce competition led to an escalation in power that peaked in 1970, with some models offering as much as 450 hp (and others likely producing as much actual power, whatever their rating).

Another related type of car is the car-based pickup. Examples of these are the Ford Ranchero, GMC Sprint, GMC Caballero, and one of the most famous examples, the Chevrolet El Camino.

Politics of the muscle car
The muscle cars' performance soon became a liability during this period. The automotive safety lobby, which had been spearheaded by Ralph Nader, decried the irresponsibility of offering such powerful cars for public sale, particularly targeted to young buyers. The high power of the muscle cars also underlined the marginal handling and braking capacity of many contemporary cars, as well as the severe limitations of their tires. In response, the automobile insurance industry began levying punitive surcharges on all high-powered models, soon pushing many muscle cars out of the price range of their intended buyers. Simultaneously, efforts to combat air pollution led to a shift in Detroit's attention from power to emissions control, a problem that grew more complicated in 1973 when the OPEC oil embargo led to price controls and gasoline rationing.

With all these forces against it, the market for muscle cars rapidly evaporated. Power began to drop in 1971 as engine compression ratios were reduced, high-performance engines like Chrysler's 426 Hemi were discontinued, and all but a handful of performance models were discontinued or transformed into soft personal luxury cars. One of the last hold-outs, which Car and Driver dubbed "The Last of the Fast Ones," was Pontiac's Trans Am SD455 model of 1973-1974, which had performance to rival most any other muscle car of the era. The Trans Am remained in production through 2002, but after 1974 its performance, like those of its predecessors and rivals, entered the doldrums.

While performance cars began to make a return in the 1980s, spiraling costs and complexity seem to have made the low-cost traditional muscle car a thing of the past. Surviving models are now prized collectibles, some carrying prices to rival exotic European sports cars.

Outside the US
Australia developed its own muscle car tradition around the same period, with the big three manufacturers Ford Australia, Holden (by then part of General Motors) and Chrysler Australia. The cars were specifically developed to run in the Bathurst 500 - then known as the Armstrong 500 (miles) race and later the Hardie Ferodo 500. These cars were supercars in every sense of the word and were brimming with powerful engines and other racing options. The demise of these cars were brought about by the racing rules of the time being that 200 examples had to be sold to the general public before the car could qualify. In 1972 this rule came to a head and the Government stepped in to ban supercars from the streets.

Ford produced what is considered to be the first Australian muscle car in 1968, being the 289 Windsor powered XR Falcon. Ford continued to release faster and faster models culminating in what is considered to be Australia's most desirable musclecar; the Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III of 1971 which was powered by a 351 Cleveland. Ford Performance Vehicles, turns out similarly uprated special versions of the Ford Falcon Sedan. The major difference being Ford offer a 350+ hp Turbocharged 4.0 litre I6 as well as their V8's.

Holden produced the famous Holden Monaro with a 307, 327 & 350 Chevrolet smallblocks or 253 & 308 Holden v8s, followed by the release of three high performance Toranas, the GTR-XU1 (1970-1973), SL/R 5000 (1974-1977), L34 (1974) and the A9X (1977). The XU-1 was originally fitted with a 186ci (3 Litre) triple carburetored 6 cylinder engine, later increased to 202ci (3.3 litre), as opposed to the 308ci (5.0 Litre) single quad barrel carburetored V8 in the SL/R 5000, L34 and A9X.

Holden Special Vehicles currently produces high-performance versions of various rear-drive Holden Utes, Commodore sedans and Monaro coupes including one model with AWD, fitted with high performance (400hp+) V8 engines, and are perhaps one of the closest contemporary equivalents to the classic American muscle car (excluding the AWD of course) - fast, exciting, but relatively crude automobiles (though with far more attention to handling, suspension, safety and exceptional brakes compared with the stock models).

Chrysler produced the R/T Valiant Charger from 1971 to 1973 when the R/Ts were discontinued, the dominant R/T models were the E38 and E49 with high performance 265 CI Hemi engines featuring triple Weber carburetors. Chrysler apparently considered a high performance V8 program importing approximately 340 - 340 V8 engines from the USA.

The 1972 SE E55 340 V8 Valiant ChargerUnfortunately this project never went ahead and the engines were subsequently fitted to the upmarket 770 model Charger. Initially this model was designated "SE" E55 340 (V8) and only available with automatic transmission, with a model change to the VJ in 1973 the engine became an option and the performance was watered down. All Chrysler performance Chargers were discontinued in 1974 with the exhausting of high performance 265 CI hemi and 340 V8s.

The Australian musclecar era is generally considered to have ended with the release of the Australian Design Rule regarding emmisions in ADR27a in 1976. There were a small number of Bathurst 1000 homologation specials that were built after 1976 which are considered to be musclecars.

Currently in Australia Ford and Holden are producing performance vehicles for example Holden has the 2-door Monaro, the 4-door Club Sport and SS & SSZ Commodore. Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) are producing the GT 4-door Falcons both Boss V8 and turbocharged sixes. The premier Fords are currently the BOSS V8 and Typhoon Turbo charged inline 6.

In the UK, the muscle car itself never gained a significant market, but it certainly influenced British manufacturers, with models such as the Ford Capri and Vauxhall Firenza directly inspired by American designs. Later, both Ford and Vauxhall continued the tradition of producing high performance variants of its family cars, though often these had more subtle styling than the traditional muscle car, though with some notable exceptions. The more European influenced hot hatch has largely occupied this segment of the market since the early 1980s. Vauxhall imported the Holden Monaro from Australia in 2004 and this could possibly be considered a muscle car as it is identical to the Pontiac GTO (which is a rebadged Monaro).

In South Africa, Chevrolet shoe horned the Z28 302 Chevrolet smallblock into a car the size of a LC Torana and called it the Firenza CanAm. Basil Green produced the 302 Windsor powered Capri Perana. In addition Australian Ford Gts were exported to South Africa and rebadged as Fairmonts. Holden Monaros where also exported to South Africa and badged as Chevrolets.

Modern muscle cars
In the US, General Motors discontinued its Trans Am model in 2002 (along with the short-lived 1994-1996 Chevrolet Impala SS), much later than American Motors and Chrysler that discontinued their musclecars after 1974.

In 2004 the Pontiac GTO returned to the market as a rebadged Holden Monaro, imported from Australia. In the spring of 2004 Chrysler introduced their LX platform, which serves as the base for a new line of rear-wheel drive, V8-powered cars (using the new Hemi engine), including a four-door version of the Dodge Charger. While purists would not consider a station wagon (the Magnum) or a four-door sedan a muscle car, the performance of the new models is the equal of many of the vintage muscle cars of legend. Dodge has also been developing a new performance vehicle under the Challenger badge, which borrows styling cues from its older namesake, the prototype for which made its debut at the 2006 North American International Auto Show.

For 2003, Mercury revived its old Marauder nameplate, as a modified Ford Crown Victoria or Mercury Grand Marquis. Sales were poor, just like those of its 1970s predecessor, and it was discontinued after two years.

However, the last three years has seen an enormous increase of interest in The American Muscle Car. This has been greatly influenced by Hollywood. Movies like Gone In 60 Seconds (a remake of the original 1974 cult hit), Starsky & Hutch, and The Dukes of Hazzard have awoken the image of power when we think of Dodge, Ford, and Chevrolet.

This recent increase in popularity of the Muscle Car has been reflected in their price. A vintage '65 - '72 Muscle car can now cost as much as $500,000 and possibly more depending on availability, demand, and condition of the vehicle.

Detroit was quick enough to catch on to this phenonenon. In 2005, the 'New' Ford Mustang went on sale - this new model resembled a 1967/68 model year Mustang. The other big names weren't long about jumping on the band wagon: Dodge has already un-veiled its new Dodge Charger and also the Dodge Challenger Concept Car has been given the 'Green Light' for production. Similarly Chevrolet recently unveiled their Camaro Concept. All these vehicles have distinct resemblance to the 1960's design but have introduced 21st century technology to their platforms.

Still, in recent years criticisms commonly brought against SUV's with large engine displacements have also been brought against modern muscle cars, as well. Ironically, the original muscle cars of the 60's were subject to the same arguments that criticise the SUV today. The point in question is the fuel consumption of passenger cars during a time of rising petroleum prices (see the "Transportation section of the Energy conservation article).

American muscle cars
Road & Track identified the following models as "musclecars" in 1965:

1964-1965 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans/GTO
1965-1975 Buick Riviera Gran Sport
1965-1969 Buick Skylark Gran Sport
1965-1970 Dodge Coronet/Plymouth Belvedere 426-S
1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS
1965-1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442
Car and Driver also created a list of the 10 Best muscle cars for their January 1990 issue. They focused on the engines and included:

1966-1967 Plymouth/Dodge intermediates with 426 Hemi
1968-1969 Plymouth/Dodge intermediates with 426 Hemi
1970-1971 Plymouth/Dodge intermediates with 426 Hemi
1966-1967 Chevy II SS327
1966-1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS396
1968-1969 Chevy II Nova SS396
1969 Ford Cobra 428
1969 Plymouth Road Runner/Dodge Super Bee 440 Six Pack
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS454
1969 Pontiac GTO

Other later muscle cars include the following:
1968-1974 AMC AMX, AMC Javelin AMX
1969 AMC SC/Rambler
1970-1971 AMC Rebel AMC Matador The Machine
1970-1974 Buick GSX
1967-2002 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Camaro
1965-1973 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
1958-1985, 1994-1996, 2000-present Chevrolet Impala SS
1970-1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS454
1963-1974 Chevrolet Nova SS
1970-1971 Dodge Challenger
1966-1974 Dodge Charger
1968-1976 Dodge Dart GTS and Demon
1969-1970 Dodge Daytona nose cone, goalpost wing
1968-1971 Dodge Super Bee
1966-1969 Ford Fairlane GT, GTA, and Cobra
1964-1973 Ford Mustang Boss 302 Mustang
1968-1974 Ford Torino (GT & Cobra)
1967-1973 Mercury Cougar Cougar Eliminator
1968-1971 Oldsmobile 442
1964-1974 Plymouth Barracuda AAR 'Cuda
1970-1976 Plymouth Duster
1967-1971 Plymouth GTX
1968-1974 Plymouth Road Runner
1970 Plymouth Superbird with nose cone and goalpost wing
1966-1971 Pontiac GTO

Additonal Resources

Jada BIGTIME Muscle Cars
Diecast American Muscle Cars
Understanding Scale

1:18 Scale
Diecast Directory


This page was last modified 4 January 2007.
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