Muscle Cars – Before we go full in-depth everything about the American muscle cars, let’s first define what is an American Muscle Car. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, muscle car refers to “any of a group of American-made 2-door sports cars with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.” To be more precise, it is a 2-door mid-size to the full-size family-style car with at least a large V8 engine, a rear wheel drive, and could carry 4 or more people.
They are very different from the 2-seater sports cars or the 2+2 GTs that were designed for road racing and high-speed touring. The muscle cars are a lot cheaper than other high-performance cars which is why they are the popular choice for street racers and drag racers.
**WE COULDN’T COVER EVERY SINGLE MUSCLE CAR- THERE ARE TOO MANY!!** WE’LL CERTAINLY DO A FOLLOW UP ARTICLE. APOLOGIES IF YOUR FAVORITE IS NOT HERE.
History of the Muscle Car
1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
Although not everyone is in agreement to the true origin of the American muscle, the most accepted first muscle car is the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. During the late 1940s, the economy was starting to recover and everyone was demanding for more stylish and powerful cars. In response, Oldsmobile built the Rocket 88.
The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was a lightweight 2-door car that is powered by high-compression overhead valve V8 engine. This became the definition of an American muscle, a car that had a lightweight body and a powerful V8 engine in the front. The Rocket 88 was able to outclass every other car during the 1950 NASCAR, its success inspired to people’s desire for speed.
According to Jack Nerad in Driving Today:
“The Rocket V-8 set the standard for every American V-8 engine that would follow it for at least three decades. With a displacement of 303 cubic inches and topped by a two-barrel carburetor, the first Rocket V-8 churned out 135 horsepower (101 kW; 137 PS) at 3,600 rpm and 263 pound force-feet (357 N·m) of torque at a lazy 1800 rpm and no mid-range car in the world, save the Hudson Hornet, came close to the Rocket Olds performance potential”
“The Rocket 88 was the hit of NASCAR’s 1950 season, winning eight of the 10 races. Given its lightning-like success, one could clearly make the case that the Olds 88 with its 135 horsepower (101 kW) V-8 was the first ‘muscle car’.”
The success of the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 pushed other companies to create their own muscle car, and thus the muscle car industry was born. Oldsmobile’s greatest rivals at that time were Chevrolet and Chrysler.
1955 Chrysler C-300
In 1951, Chrysler created the famous Hemi engines which are V8 engines that have a hemispherical combustion chamber, hence the name ‘Hemi’. The combustion chamber of the Hemi simply had cylinder valves facing each other which greatly improved the airflow capacity of the engine and generated more power. Chrysler patented the Hemi engine but other companies still created similar ones. The Hemi engine made its debut when it was mounted on the 1955 Chrysler C-300 which produced 300 horsepower. It was able to go from 0 to 60 mph in just 9.8 seconds with a top speed of 130 mph. The C-300 was also known for its great handling is was considered to have the best handling of its time. The outstanding power and performance of the C-300 earned the title as “America’s Most Powerful Car.”
1955 Chevrolet Corvette
In 1955, Chevrolet created the small-block V8 engine, which became the cornerstone of Chevy’s light bodied muscle cars. It was so successful that the small-block V8 became a standard engine for GM and was mounted in different models for more than 50 years.
The 265 cid small-block V8 engine was an engine option for the 1955 Chevrolet Corvette. With the V8, the lightweight Corvette was able to go from 0 to 60mph in an average of 8.5 seconds. Technically, the Corvette is a sports car but its success paved the way for Chevy’s muscle cars in the years after. The big and powerful V8 engine mounted on the front made these light bodied cars have very bad handling but with the incredible speed, they became a perfect choice for drag racing.
1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe
1958 Chevrolet Biscayne
1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk
In 1956, Studebaker joined the muscle car industry when it released the Golden Hawk with the 352 cid 5.8L Packard V8 engine under its hood. But Studebaker Golden Hawk did not leave long due to its high price and was canceled after 1958.
1957 Rambler Rebel Hardtop
In 1957, American Motors Corporation also entered the fray with their Rambler Rebel. It was built between 1957 and 1960 and was revived in 1966 until 1967. The Rambler Rebel was a mid-size high-performance car which became known as AMC’s muscle car. It was also one of the earliest cars in production that came with an electronic fuel injection system. According to Motor Trend, the 1957 Rambler Rebel was the most powerful American sedan in stock condition during its time. With its 327 cid 5.4L V8 engine, it was able to produce 255 horsepower. Some may think that is not a lot of power but when you put that engine in a compact and lightweight body, the Rambler Rebel was able to accelerate from 0 to 60mph in just 7.5 seconds and with a top speed of more than 110 mph. That is quite an achievement during its time. Although the Rambler Rebel is actually a 4-door car, many still consider it as a muscle car. This is where the Muscle car community starts to branch out. Due to its power and compact design, there are some that even say that the Rambler Rebel is the first muscle car that paved the way for the muscle car era.
Just as everything was going well for the muscle car industry, everything went south after the Automobile Manufacturers Association imposed a ban on all company-sponsored racing events in 1957. Members of the association were no longer allowed to participate in all forms of auto racing in any way such as advertising high-performance parts for their passenger cars, display racing results, and associate their cars to racing. This self-imposed ban was due to the 24 Hours of Le Mans tragedy in 1955 when Pierre Levegh in his Mercedes-Benz hit another car and went off-course at 150 mph into the audience stands. His car’s fuel tank was punctured and the car burst into flame. The explosion caused car fragments flying and resulted in a total of 84 death including Pierre Levegh. This is considered as the most tragic accident in the history of motorsports. After the tragedy, Mercedes-Benz pulled away from the racing scene and returned 32 years after. Switzerland completely banned auto racing and was just lifted in 2007.
Harlow Curtice who was the president of GM at that time suggested the self-imposed ban to the Automobile Manufacturers Association. The automobile industry predicted that this ban would prevent the government from implementing regulations for the racing community. However, automakers who were not members of the association continued their racing activities and the association members being left behind. The Automobile Manufacturers Association lifted the ban in 1963.
The development of the muscle cars started to gain momentum again. During the early 1960s, the drag racing was gaining popularity and the popular choice was the muscle cars. The body size and weight did not change but the engines under the hood grew larger. The racing community also enjoyed the muscle cars so high-performance models were created.
1962 Dodge Dart
The 1962 Dodge Dart became the front runner for the muscle cars of the early 1960s. The 1962 Dodge Dart was able to speed through the quarter-mile drag strip in just 13 seconds. People wanted faster drag times so the automakers put all their resources into building faster cars.
Plymouth and Dodge neglected their full-sized cars and focused on their smaller cars. Pontiac designed the 1963 Pontiac Super Duty that had a frame that was covered in lightening-hole and became known as the “swiss cheese” frame. This was done by drilling grapefruit sized holes into the railings of the chassis which significantly reduced the weight of the car. A very simple way of increasing the power-to-weight ratio of the car.
1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO
The release of the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO signaled the start of the Golden Age for the American muscles. The name GTO stands for Gran Turismo Omologato which means Grand Tourer Homologation, this means that the GTO cars were passed the racing standards. The Pontiac GTO had both the beauty and power which made a big mark in the muscle car history. The Tempest GTO looks like your standard Tempest but it had engine options that broke a GM rule of building mid-size cars that had an engine size not greater than 330 cid. Even though it had outstanding beauty and power, the GTO was fairly affordable with a price of $3,200, this allowed the younger generation to afford them. In its debut year, the Pontiac was able to sell 6 times more than they anticipated. During the same year, Ford released the Thunderbolt that was powered by the gigantic 427 CID engine. It was believed to be too dangerous to drive and only 127 cars were built but they are still revered as a great muscle car.
1964 Pontiac GTO
1964 Ford Thunderbolt
Still, the same year was the release of the Ford Mustang. It featured a striking design, multiple options available, and a very affordable price, but lacked in power. This created a brand new class, the pony cars. It’s very common for people to think pony cars and muscle cars are the same. Although the do appear to be similar and some actually have a bit of power, they are completely different. The pony cars lack the necessary power to claim the title of muscle cars. Some of the popular pony cars include the Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda, and the Dodge Challenger. And although some may think otherwise, the 1960s Corvettes are not muscle cars or pony cars.
1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
By 1967, Ford improved the Mustang from its small-block to the bigger 390 cid big-block engine. Carroll Shelby’s 428 cid engine was also made available by Ford. The other companies did also stepped up and released their own muscle cars: Chevrolet released the Camaro and Pontiac with their Firebird. Plymouth designs a more affordable muscle car – the Plymouth Road Runner. With more than a handful of automakers focusing on the muscle car market, it became over saturated and the companies started to lose money.
The End of Legends
In the early 1970s, a lot of things changed for the automobile industry. The government implemented new emission regulations and the automakers were forced to create engines that used low-lead fuel. The automakers were also forced to reduce the power of all their engine to meet the standards set by the government. This resulted in the decline in power of all muscle cars.
By 1973, America experienced its 1st oil crisis when OPEC stopped exporting oils to the country. Fuel was in short supply which caused the gas prices to skyrocket. Insurance companies gave up on high-performance cars because all of the muscle cars from the late 1960s were believed to be unsafe. Topped with inflation rates, the cost of owning a muscle car became too expensive for the general public. It was more economical to buy smaller and compact cars, either from Detroit or imported cars. And for those that can actually afford a muscle car, they lost interest as the muscle cars no longer had the power they boasted. The demands for muscle cars plummeted and by 1975, almost all of the big-block cars disappeared.
To keep the muscle cars alive, some models such as the Plymouth Road Runner were heavily restyled and no longer focused on power. The pony cars were also heavily battered – by 1974, on the Firebird and the Camaro survived. The Ford Mustang was no longer a pony car and changed into a high-end compact car.
During the mid-1970s, the Firebird was able to dominate the dwindling market due to its improved handling and absence of competition. In 1977, Chevrolet noticed Pontiac’s success with the Firebird and revived the Camaro Z-28 after is disappeared from the market for 2 years. Some pony cars also made a comeback and also focused on style. During the late 70s, the automakers have adapted to the government regulations. And in 1979, the 3rd generation Mustangs were introduced that had a restyle and a V8 engine option. The new Mustang with the low-torque V8 engine was received well and it gave hope for the muscle car market to bring back some power but this was short lived when America experienced another gas crisis. It lasted until 1982 and the market for performance cars started to grow again.
The following years were more forgiving for the muscle cars and this paved way to their evolution. Slowly, more modern technology was incorporated into these classics. They were also safer and engines were getting bigger without exceeding the regulations.
We’ve talked a lot about muscle cars, so now will give you some ideas as to why they are so popular. Here are some of the most popular muscle cars in history:
For those who do not consider the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 as the first muscle car, the 1964 Pontiac GTO is their choice. The Pontiac GTO was built from 1964 until 1974. What made the Pontiac GTO amazing was its 389 cubic inch V8 engine which should not have been allowed. General Motors had a rule against mounting engine larger than 330 cubic inches into small-size cars but because of its huge success, GM executives allowed it later on. This also inspired other brands such as Oldsmobile, Buick, and Chevrolet to design muscle cars based on the GTO. This is why the Pontiac GTO is considered by some as the first muscle car. Its most popular model year is the 1967 Pontiac GTO.
Plymouth Road Runner Hemi
The Plymouth Road Runner Hemi built was from 1968 to1980 that created 3 generations of muscle cars. The Road Runner Hemi kept it simple, it did not care about style or beauty and only focused on what’s important – raw power. It is among the greatest high-performance cars of all time. It’s proud and glory is the 426 cubic inch Hemi V8 engine that is capable of producing 425 horsepower. The roar of the Road Runner is music to the ears of any hot blooded dragster.
As some of you may have guessed, it is named after the popular cartoon character – the Road Runner. And before it made its debut in 1968, Plymouth got the approval of Warner Brothers to use the name and image of the Road Runner into their car. To further capitalize on the popular cartoon character, Plymouth even developed a horn that resembled Road Runner’s “Beep-beep”.
Ford Mustang Boss 429
We know that the Ford Mustang was a pony car, well, this Mustang’s big brother. The Ford Mustang Boss 429. It is Ford’s answer to the NASCAR. Built from 1969 to 1970, the two-year run was only able to produce less than 1,400 Boss 429 which makes it a very rare muscle car. The Boss 429 name is taken from its 429 cubic inch V8 engine with an output of 375 horsepower. Although it produces a considerable amount of power, compared to the other popular muscle cars it’s on the low side.
What made the Boss 429 interesting is that fact that it is basically hand-made. The large 429 engine could not fit in a regular Mustang without heavy modifications to the hood. Ford asked Kar Kraft from Michigan to handcraft the body. You can identify a Boss 429 with its hood scoop and a spoiler mounted on the trunk lid.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 holds a legendary status and with great reasons. Chevrolet built less than 70 Camaro Zl1s in 1969 which makes it the rarest of all Chevy production cars. What made it a legend is its 427 V8 engine which was made entirely of aluminum, it was based on Chevy iron 427 V8 engine. It was the first mass-produced aluminum engine and due to its lighter weight, this increased the power-to-weight ratio of the ZL1. Officially, ZL1’s 427 engine was rated at 430 horsepower but independent testing measured a much high power output.
Buick GSX Stage 1
The Buick GSX Stage 1 was Buick’s ticket into the muscle car market. Buick was known luxurious cars that also had considerable power, and that clearly shows on the Buick GSX Stage 1.
The GSX is actually a package option that was available for the Gran Sport 455 in 1970. The GSX’s design was quite different from Buick’s previous designs. The GSX Stage 1 was available from 1970 until 1974. On its debut year, only 488 GSX Stage 1 were ordered. It was powered by a 455 cid V8 engine which could produce a strong 510 lbs.-ft. of torque and 360 horsepower. The Buick GSX Stage 1 may not be one of the fastest but it surely had its own unique beauty to cope.
Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda
The Plymouth Barracuda had a wide range of engine options from the 6-cylinder engines to the larger V8 engines. The top contender of all Barracudas was the Hemi ‘Cuda with its 426 cubic inch Hemi engine topped with dual-carburetor that could produce 425 horsepower. The Hemi ‘Cuda was able to go head to head with other top muscle cars of its time. Plymouth designed a special suspension that was built to handle hard accelerations which made it perfect for drag racing.
The ‘Cuda was a trim package for the Plymouth Barracuda and was available from 1969 until 1974. Plymouth only produced a limited number of Hemi ‘Cuda which makes them a valued classic. And even though only a handful of them exist, they still left a mark in the history of automobiles.
Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
A lot of people believe that 1970 was the peak of the muscle car age and the 1970 Chevelle SS 454 is the perfect evidence of that. 2 versions were available for the 454 cid V8 engine: the LS5 that produced 360 horsepower and the LS6 that could produce an incredible 450 horsepower. The LS6 version topped with the Holley 4-barrel carburetor made the Chevelle SS 454 a legendary muscle car. The 1970 Chevelle SS 454 out gunned all other muscle cars of its time and together with its striking appearance, you’ll know that the Chevelle SS 454 is something you should watch out for. Unfortunately, the following years was also the decline of the muscle car age.
These are just some of the most outstanding muscle cars in history. We need another article to mention the insane modified classic muscle cars that have popped out over the years.
Let us know which is your favorite?
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