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A muscle car is a high-performance automobile. The term principally refers to American, Australian and South African models 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 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. Other factors used in defining classic muscle cars are their age and country of origin. A classic muscle car is usually made in the US or Australia between 1964 and 1975. Notably, the term "muscle car" did not enter common usage until after production of the cars had essentially ended. During their heyday, print media usually referred to this class of vehicle as "supercars".
An alternate definition is based on power-to-weight ratio, defining a muscle car as an automobile with (for example) fewer than 12 lb (5.4 kg) per rated 1 horsepower (0.7 kW). Such definitions are inexact, thanks to a wide variation in curb weight depending on options and to the questionable of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) gross hp ratings in use before 1972, which were often deliberately overstated or underrated for various reasons.
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 WWII mid-size car was introduced in 1957. The American Motors (AMC) Rebel showcased AMC’s new 327 cu in (5.4 L) V8 producing 255 horsepower (190.2 kW) 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 0–60 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 413 cu in (6.8 L) 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 427 cu in (7 L) Thunderbolts and Mopar unveiled the mighty 426 cu in (7 L) Hemi engine. The Pontiac GTO was an option package that included Pontiac's 389 cu in (6.4 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 cu in (5.4 L) displacement, but it proved far more popular than expected, and inspired a host of imitations, both at GM and its competitors. That said, the influential GTO itself 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. As 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 (and very capable) 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 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. With this "budget-friendly" trend, cars like the 1970 Road Runner by Plymouth had less chrome on the body, along with fewer options. In fact, those that intended their Road Runner for the drag strip sometimes ordered the Runner with the small hub-cap-style wheel covers and even deleted the radio.
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.
The fierce competition led to an escalation in power that peaked in 1970, with some models offering as much as 450 horsepower (336 kW) (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.
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 or Holden Dealer Team (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 1967, being the 287 cu in (4.7 L) 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 cu in (5.8 L) 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 250 cu in (4.1 L) six, but the 302 cu in (4.9 L) and 351ci 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 300 bhp (224 kW) 351 Cleveland engine.
Holden produced the famous Holden Monaro with 307 cu in (5 L), 327 cu in (5.4 L), and 350 cu in (5.7 L) Chevrolet smallblocks or 253 cu in (4.1 L) and 308 cu in (5 L) 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 186 cu in (3 L) triple carburetored 6-cylinder engine, later increased to 202 cu in (3.3 L), as opposed to the 308 cu in (5 L) single quad-barrel carburetored 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 256 cu in (4.2 L) Hemi engines featuring triple Weber carburetors. Chrysler apparently considered a high-performance V8 program importing 350 340 cu in (5.6 L) 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 watered down. 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 generally 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 Bathurst 1000 homologation specials that were built after 1976 which are considered to be musclecars. These cars were built by the Holden Dealer Team for track and road use and quickly gained an enthusiastic following. The 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 (quickest HDT according to Modern Motor Magazine - Jan 1983), 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 due to their rarity. The HDT Commodores have a substantial place in Australian motoring enthusiast history, and thus they are highly collectible muscle cars. It is not uncommon to see these vehicles selling for over $60,000 for a clean genuine example or even between $80-150,000 for an extremely low km example. After the death of Peter Brock, Holden Dealer Team vehicles became more collectible than ever. According to the Australian 5/2007 Wheels Magazine showroom-condition cars are generating prices as high as $200,000 AU.
Currently in Australia Ford and Holden are producing performance vehicles—-for example Holden has its SS and SSV Commodores and Utilities, and their even more powerful HSV 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 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).
In the United Kingdom, 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, but 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 shoehorned 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. In South African the Australian XW Falcon GT was called the 1970 Fairmont GT and the XY Falcon GTs were called the 1971/72/73 Fairmont GT. The Falcons were re-badged as Fairmonts due 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
In the US, 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 2000 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). GM discontinued its F-body pony-car models, the Chevrolet Camaro and 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.
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" version of the Ford Mustang went on sale—this new model resembled a 1967/68 model year Mustang.
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 now 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 (see the Transportation section of the Energy conservation article). The lighter weight of modern muscle cars compared to most SUVs (4200 lb (1905 kg) 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.