Muscle car is a term used to refer to a variety of high performance automobiles. The term principally refers to American, Australian and to a lesser extent South African models from the late 1960s and early 1970s and generally describes a 2-door rear wheel drive mid-size car with a large, powerful 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 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. Other factors used in defining classic muscle cars are their age and country of origin. The term "muscle car" did not enter common usage until after production of the cars had essentially ended. It is generally accepted that popular, widespread usage of the term took hold by the early to mid-1980s. During their heyday, print media usually referred to this class of vehicle as "supercars".
Focus on performance among the major American automakers after World War II was rekindled by the Chrysler 300 letter series in 1955. They can be considered the muscle car's ancestors, though much more luxurious, expensive, exclusive, and larger in size. Other makes soon offered high-performance engines in their "standard"-sized models.
The idea of installing a powerful engine in a post-World War II mid-size car was introduced in 1957. The American Motors (AMC) Rebel showcased AMC’s new V8 producing with a 4-barrel carburetor (fuel injection was to be optional), thus making it the first American budget-priced and intermediate-sized, 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 to 60 mph (0–96.6 km/h) 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 early 1960s. Among these was the 1962 Dodge Dart Max Wedge, with mid-13-second 1/4-mile performance at over 100 mph. Both Mopar (Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler) and Ford battled in the early 1960s for drag racing supremacy; these were the true muscle cars that ruled the road and the strip. For 1964 and 1965, Ford had its Thunderbolts, and Mopar unveiled the Hemi engine. The Pontiac GTO was an option package that included Pontiac's 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 displacement, but it proved far more popular than expected and inspired a host of imitations, both at GM and its competitors. The influential GTO was a response to the Dodge Polara 500 and the Plymouth Sport Fury. These had been shrunk to intermediates in 1962, which was an infamous blunder in terms of general marketing strategy at a time when bigger was considered better. Since the muscle car in the U.S. is generally considered an intermediate two door with a large engine, however, the blunder arguably resulted in the 1962 Dodge Dart Max Wedge, beating the GTO to the title of "first true muscle car." Both were very influential in the market at the time.
This 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 powerful engines 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 standard flamboyant and patriotic red, white, and blue reflective body graphics and paint for maximum street and racetrack visibility. Running solid mid-14s in stock trim, the most stunning feature for a car with this level of performance and standard equipment was The Machine's sticker of just US$3,475.
The fierce competition led to an escalation in power that peaked in 1970, with some models offering as much as (with this and others likely producing as much or more actual power, whatever their rating).
Another related type of car is the car-based pickup (known colloquially in Australia as a "ute" (short for "utility"). Holden makes such a vehicle under the model name "Ute""). Examples of these are the Ford Ranchero, GMC Sprint, GMC Caballero, and one of the most famous examples, the Chevrolet El Camino.
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, was restrained.
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.
Australia developed its own muscle car tradition around the same period, with the big three manufacturers Ford Australia, Holden or Holden Dealer Team (by then part of General Motors), and Chrysler Australia. The cars were specifically developed to run in the the Armstrong 500 (miles) race and later the Hardie Ferodo 500 (the race's current 1,000 kilometre format was adopted in 1973). The demise of these cars was brought about by a change in racing rules requiring that 200 examples had to be sold to the general public before the car could qualify (homologation). In 1972, the government stepped in to ban supercars from the streets after two notable cases. The first instance was a Wheels magazine journalist driving at 150 mph in a 1971 Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III XY 351. Whilst the car was getting exposure in the press, the second incident occurred in George Street, Sydney, when a young male was caught driving at an estimated 150 mph through the busy street, in a 1971 Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III, drag racing a Holden Monaro GTS 350. This was known in Australia as "The Supercar Scare".
Ford produced what is considered to be the first Australian muscle car in 1967, the Windsor–powered XR Falcon. Ford continued to release faster models, culminating in the Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III of 1971, which was powered by a factory modified 351 Cleveland. Along with its GT and GTHO models, Ford, staring with the XW model in 1969, introduced a 'sporty' GS model, available across the Falcon range. The basic GS only came with a six cylinder engine, but the and Windsor (replaced by the Cleveland engines for the XY), were optional. Ford's larger, more luxurious Fairlane was also available with these engines and could also be optioned with the "Cleveland" engine.
Holden produced the famous Holden Monaro with , , and Chevrolet smallblocks or and Holden V8s, followed by the release of four 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 triple carbureted 6-cylinder engine, later increased to , as opposed to the single quad-barrel carbureted V8 in the SL/R 5000, L34, and A9X.
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 Hemi engines featuring triple Weber carburetors. Chrysler apparently considered a high-performance V8 program importing 338 V8 engines from the U.S.
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 lessened. All Chrysler performance Chargers were discontinued in 1974 with the exhausting of high performance 265ci Hemi and 340 V8s.
The Australian muscle car era is considered to have ended with the release of the Australian Design Rule regarding emissions in ADR27a in 1976. An exception to this rule was the small number of factory built Bathurst 1000 homologation specials that were built after 1976 which are considered to be musclecars. Examples of these homologation specials include the Torana A9X and the Bathurst Cobras.
Later homologation cars were built outside of the factory, many by the Holden Dealer Team (HDT) for track and road use. Although not regarded as true muscle cars, they quickly gained an enthusiastic following. The HDT program was under Peter Brock's direction and had approval from Holden. Several highly modified high-performance road-going Commodores were produced through the early and mid 1980s. These "homologation specials" were produced to meet the Group A racing regulations. Models included the VC Group C, the VH SS Group III with a 0-100 km/h of 6.7 seconds, the Blue VK SS Group A and the burgundy VL SS Group A. These vehicles are all individually numbered with only 4246 Brock HDT's made and are considered to be collectors' items. The HDT Commodores are highly collectible muscle cars. Holden Dealer Team vehicles' became more collectible than ever in the wake of Brock's 2006 death. Showroom-condition cars are generating prices as high as $200,000 AU.
United Kingdom Rectify
In the United Kingdom, the muscle car 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, but with some notable exceptions. The more European influenced hot hatch has largely occupied this segment of the market since the early 1980s.
South Africa Rectify
In South Africa, Chevrolet placed the Z28 302 Chevrolet smallblock into a Vauxhall Viva coupe bodyshell and called it the Firenza CanAm. Basil Green produced the 302 Windsor–powered Capri Perana. In addition Australian HT and HG GTS Monaros (1969-71) were exported in CKD form and were given a new fascia and rebadged as a Chevrolet SS, which were sold until about 1973. Falcon GTs were also exported to South Africa and rebadged as Fairmont GTs. The Australian XW Falcon GT was called the 1970 Fairmont GT, and the XY Falcon GT was called the Fairmont GT. The Falcons were re-badged as Fairmonts because of to the bad reputation of the American Falcons at the time. The Fairmonts were almost the same as their Australian cousins apart from a few cosmetic differences.
Modern muscle cars Rectify
In the U.S., the full-size, 4-door Chevrolet Impala SS had a short but popular production run from 1994–1996 as a high-performance limited-edition version of the Caprice equipped with a Corvette-derived 5.7 L V8 LT1 engine and other specific performance features and body styling. The Impala SS nameplate was resurrected again in 2003 as a high-performance version of the standard Impala with larger and/or supercharged engines (whether the 21st century Impalas, which are front-wheel drive and have had variously V6s and V8s, can be considered muscle cars in the same vein as their earlier namesakes is debatable). General Motors discontinued its F-body pony-car models, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird after 2002 but brought back the GTO in 2004 as a rebadged Holden Monaro imported from Australia. The new GTO only lasted three years, making 2006 the last model year for the current GTO. GM is hoping to capture some of the magic of the 1994 Impala SS with the launch of the Pontiac G8, a captive import made in Australia and a rebadged as the Pontiac G8 when imported and in Australia know as the Holden Commodore, which will also form the basis of the next-generation GM Zeta platform that will form the 2009 Chevrolet Camaro and 2010 Chevrolet Impala, built in Canada.
For 2003, Mercury revived its old Marauder nameplate, as a modified Mercury Grand Marquis. The "Terminator" SVT Cobra was produced by Ford for 2003-2004 and is generally regarded as a muscle car despite its pony car platform. In 2005, a "retro-inspired" version of the Ford Mustang went on sale, which drew various design cues from Mustangs of the mid to late 1960's and early 70's and has such been given the term muscle car by some critics and followers. In 2007 Ford and Shelby also re-released a new and modern version of the G.T. 500, with Super Snake and King of the Road editions following closely behind in 2008. Saleen has introduced a special edition based on the classic BOSS Mustangs of 1970 called the "PJ" after a famous Trans-Am series driver from the 1960s and 1970s, Parnelli Jones. Jones also had a hand in developing the car.
In 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 Dodge 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 revived two "classic" model names with the Charger: Daytona and Super Bee. The first was featured in 2006 as a Dodge Charger Daytona R/T and the Super Bee joined in 2007 as the Dodge Charger Super Bee. In addition, Dodge has 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. Chevrolet has recently unveiled their Camaro concept car as well, with plans to sell new Camaros beginning with the 2009 model year.
This recent revival in popularity of the muscle car has been reflected in their price. The rarest vintage 1965–1972 muscle cars can cost as much as US$500,000 (for certain original models and options) and possibly more depending on availability, demand, and condition of the vehicle. Still, in recent years criticisms commonly brought against SUVs with large engine displacement have also been brought against modern muscle cars, as well. Ironically, the original muscle cars of the 1960s were subject to the same arguments that criticize the SUV today. The point in question is the fuel consumption of passenger cars during a time of rising petroleum prices. The lighter weight of modern muscle cars compared to most SUVs ( or less vs. 4,000-7,200 lbs), as well as innovations such as variable displacement in some models, may moderate some of these critiques and allow the muscle cars to gain a following as the market for SUVs continues to recede because of George W. Bush.
Australian Ford and Holden are currently producing high performance vehicles. For instance, Holden has its SS and SSV Commodores and Utilities, and HSV has more powerful Holden based versions, which will soon be joined by an as-yet unnamed 7.0 litre Commodore. Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) 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 V8s. FPV are producing the GT 4-door Falcons—both Boss V8 and turbocharged sixes; the premier Fords are currently the BOSS V8 and Typhoon turbocharged inline 6.
Holden Special Vehicles currently produces high-performance versions of various rear-drive Holden Utes, Commodore sedans and, ceasing production in 2006, the Monaro coupes including one model with all-wheel drive, fitted with high performance (400 hp) 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).
Motor Trend identified the following models as "musclecars" in 1965:
- 1962–1965 Dodge Dart 413/426 Max Wedge/426 Hemi/Plymouth Fury 413/426 Max Wedge/426 Hemi
- 1964–1965 Ford Thunderbird 427
- 1965–1969 Buick Skylark Gran Sport
- 1965–1970 Dodge Coronet/Plymouth Belvedere 426-S
- 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS
- 1965–1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442
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 442|Oldsmobile Cutlass 442]
Car and Driver also created a list of the 10 Best muscle cars for its January 1990 issue. The magazine 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 Torino Cobra 428
- 1969 Plymouth Road Runner/Dodge Super Bee 440 Six Pack
- 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS454
- 1969 Pontiac GTO
Other muscle cars include the following:
Mid-size muscle models
- 1970–1971 AMC Rebel and Matador The Machine
- 1970–1974 Buick GSX
- 1965–1973 Chevrolet Chevelle SS
- 1966–1974 Dodge Charger
- 1968–1971 Dodge Super Bee
- 1969–1970 Dodge Charger Daytona with nose and goalpost wing
- 1966–1969 Ford Fairlane GT, GTA, and Cobra
- 1968–1974 Ford Torino (GT, Cobra, and Talladega)
- 1966-1972 Mercury Cyclone
- 1970-1971 Mercury Montego
- 1968–1971 Oldsmobile 442
- 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass "Ram-Rod" 350
- 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass W-31
- 1967–1971 Plymouth GTX
- 1968–1974 Plymouth Road Runner
- 1970 Plymouth Superbird with nose and goalpost wing
- 1964–1974 Pontiac GTO
Compact muscle models
- 1969 AMC SC/Rambler
- 1971 AMC Hornet SC 360
- 1963–1974 Chevrolet Nova SS
- 1968–1976 Dodge Dart GT, GTS, Swinger, and Demon
- 1970–1976 Plymouth Duster
Pony car muscle models
- 1968–1970 AMC AMX
- 1968-1974 AMC Javelin and AMX
- 1967-1974 Chevrolet Camaro SS, Z-28
- 1970–1974 Dodge Challenger
- 1964-1973 Ford Mustang
- 1964-1968 Shelby Mustang
- 1967-1968 Mustang Cobra Jet
- 1969-1973 Mustang Mach 1
- 1969-1970 Boss 302 Mustang
- 1971 Mustang Boss 351
- 1969-1970 Mustang Boss 429
- 1967–1973 Mercury Cougar
- 1969-1970 Mercury Cougar Eliminator
- 1964–1974 Plymouth Barracuda aka 'Cuda
- 1969-1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
- 1971-1972 Charger R/T E37 (101 built)
- 1971-1972 Charger R/T E38 - 280 BHP - 3 Speed Gearbox (Track pack and Big tank were options and a fully blueprinted engine) (316 built)
- 1972-1973 Charger R/T E48 (2 built)
- 1972-1973 Charger R/T E49 - 302 BHP - 4 Speed Gearbox (Track pack and Big tank were options and a fully blueprinted engine) (149 built)
- 1972-1973 Charger S/E E55 - 275 BHP - 727 Torqueflite Auto (340 cubic inch Chrysler LA engine) (124 built)
- 1969-1971 Valiant Hardtop (318 or 360ci V8s)
VJ model (R/T nomenclature dropped) were:
- 1973-1974 Charger E48 (169 built)
- 1973 Charger E49 (4 built)
- 1973-1974 Charger 770 E55 (212 built)
- 1967 XR Falcon GT (289)
- 1968 XT Falcon GT (302)
- 1969–1970 XW Falcon GT (351)
- 1969–1970 XW Falcon/Fairmont GS 302 and 351
- 1969 XW Falcon GTHO Phase I (351W)
- 1970 XW Falcon GTHO Phase II (351C)
- 1970-1971 XY Falcon/Fairmont GS 302 and 351
- 1970-1971 XY Falcon GT (351)
- 1971 XY Falcon Phase III GTHO (351)
- 1972 XA Falcon Phase IV GTHO 4 door (only four made: three prototypes, one production) (351)
- 1972–1973 XA Falcon GT hardtop coupe/4 Door Sedan (351)
- 1972–1973 XA Falcon GS Hardtop/Sedan/Ute (302, 351)
- 1973 XA Falcon Superbird (302)
- 1973–1976 XB Falcon GT hardtop coupe/4 Door Sedan (351)
- 1973–1976 XB Falcon/Fairmont GS Hardtop/Sedan/Ute (302, 351)
- 1974–1975 XB Falcon John Goss Special (302)
- 1978 XC Falcon Cobra 5.8, Bathurst Homologation
- 1968–1969 HK Monaro GTS (327)
- 1969–1970 HT Monaro GTS (350)
- 1970–1971 HG Monaro GTS (350)
- 1971–1974 HQ Monaro GTS (350)
- 1974–1976 HJ Monaro GTS (308)
- 1970–1971 LC Torana GTR XU-1 (186)
- 1972–1973 LJ Torana GTR XU-1 (202)
- 1974–1976 LH Torana SL/R 5000 (308)
- 1974 LH Torana SL/R 5000 L34 (308)
- 1976–1978 LX Torana SL/R 5000 (308)
- 1976–1978 LX Torana SS (308)
- 1977 LX Torana SL/R 5000 A9X (308)
- 1977 LX Torana SS A9X (308)
- P76 "Force Seven". This was a coupe version of the Leyland P76, and the company's answer to the Holden Monaro GTS, Ford Falcon GT and Chrysler Valiant Charger. The company ran into financial difficulties and ceased Australian production before the Force Seven could be released. The eight completed examples were sold at auction.