It was 1964 and America was poised for change. As Beatlemania swept the nation and NASA trained astronauts to walk on the moon, an automotive movement was afoot that would forge an unmistakably American genre: The muscle car.
The idea of brash, fast vehicles was nothing new—witness the hot rod movement which developed several decades earlier, in which mundane people movers were transformed into big-engined beasts. But a third of a century later, a flailing manufacturer’s attempt to jump start sales would trigger a phenomenon that would take the country—and eventually, the world—by storm, capturing the imagination of enthusiasts with speed, style, and the lure of the open road.
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A Muscle Car is Born
It started as a simple “A ha!” moment at General Motors’ proving grounds in Milford, Michigan. While brainstorming with his team on a spring weekend in 1963, Pontiac Lead Engineer John Z. DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean... though it's not like there are lots of other DeLoreans) realized that the midsize Tempest’s 326 cubic-inch V8 could be easily swapped with a torquey 389 from one of the marque’s larger cars. To distinguish the Frankenstein’d coupe, DeLorean christened the creation a “GTO,” which borrowed nomenclature from Ferrari’s limited production model. The acronym stood for Gran Turismo Omologato (or Grand Touring Homologated), a term which was owned by the FIA (Federation Internationale Automobile) governing body. Regardless, the naming convention not only jabbed at the Italian brand, it made a ballsy statement about this fire-breathing two door.
Marketing guru Jim Wangers, who later became referred to as the “Godfather of the GTO” for his involvement with the car’s launch, says “The idea of sticking a big engine into a lightweight car was not a very difficult or creative one, it was simply a matter of being first.” And while the GTO is widely considered the original and seminal muscle car, the concept was less famously executed in the late 1950s by the Rambler Rebel, which took a similar approach by combining a lightweight body with the biggest engine produced by the American Motors Corporation.
The GTO (which colloquially became referred to as the Goat) was marketed with menacing taglines like “GTO: A Device for Shrinking Time and Distance,” and “I wouldn’t stand in the middle of the page… That’s a Pontiac GTO coming at you.” When Car and Driver magazine pitted the American creation against the Ferrari GTO, it ran the headline, “Tempest GTO: 0-to-100 in 11.8 sec,” which teased the car’s impressive acceleration. The Pontiac GTO’s eventual sales success inspired other manufacturers to follow suit by cramming big V8s into midsize packages, spawning an industrywide trend that thrust performance into the limelight.
A Supercar By Any Other Name
“Back then, we didn’t call them muscle cars,” automotive journalist and noted authority on the subject Joe Oldham recalls. “The term ‘muscle car’ wasn’t even invented until 1981 or 1982; we called them supercars, which were intermediates (or midsized cars) with big engines.” A phrase more readily associated with exotics like Lamborghinis was perfectly comprehensible for the mid-1960s, an era when a hopped up, factory-built domestic car disrupted the status quo.
While the GTO inspired other manufacturers to emulate the big engine / lightweight formula, a breed of so-called pony cars joined the fray when the Ford Mustang was introduced in 1964. Boasting sleek silhouettes but capable of seating four, the Mustang paved the way for competitors like the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, and the AMX Javelin. The genre further evolved in the late 1960s with the introduction of the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda, which offered more luxurious, larger footprints, meaner styling, and massive Hemi powerplants.
As muscle cars evolved, so did the visual lexicon associated with the genre. “A big part of the muscle car fun was the image,” says automotive journalist Matt Stone. “The image, graphics, and colors went along with it. Mopar had the high impact colors [like Hemi Orange and Top Banana Yellow].” Adding to the whimsy were performance packages with names like “Scat Pack” and a partnership with Warner Brothers, which yielded the Plymouth Road Runner, complete with a cartoon-like “beep-beep” horn. The ultimate expression of the Road Runner was a homologation special dubbed the Superbird, which boasted a pointed nosecone for aerodynamics and a massive rear wing for downforce. Its sister car, the the Dodge Charger Daytona, also battled the superspeedways of NASCAR but wasn’t fully appreciated until years later, when it began commanding six figure prices in the second hand market.
The Trans-Am Series of racing pitted race-prepped versions of V8-powered pony cars against each other in raucous battle royales. “Trans-Am races always caught my eye,” recalls collector Bruce Meyer, whose stable includes a Shelby Cobra 289 and a Shelby GT 350. “Camaros, Mustangs, Firebirds, and AMXs battling it out—that was just the best.”
Tuners Go the Extra Mile
The muscle car movement wasn’t just a windfall for the mainstream manufacturers. Eager to capitalize on the country’s newfound appetite for speed were independent tuning shops that would have otherwise been modifying run-of-the-mill cars with go-fast parts. Among the most famous of this lot was Carroll Shelby, the former chicken farmer who raced for Aston Martin (and won at the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans) before convincing Lee Iacocca to supply mighty Ford V8s, which he crammed into the bodies of AC Aces roadsters, yielding the legendary Shelby Cobra. Shelby also went on to tweak Mustangs, building a long line of future collectibles. He later played a part in developing the Ford GT40 race car, and decades later, the Ford GT road car.
So-called dealer specials also became in vogue for offering souped-up spinoffs of which often stole the spotlight from off-the-shelf offerings. For instance, Oldham fondly remembers Royal Pontiac’s 1969 Firebird Ram-Air, which he recalls as “seeming almost undefeatable.” Former road racer Don Yenko’s Canonsburg, Pennsylvania dealership modified Chevrolet Corvairs and dubbed them Stingers. Yenko’s later Super Camaros are so desirable nowadays that well-preserved examples can command upwards of a quarter million dollars.
While dealers and individuals created their own one-off muscle cars, the aftermarket was also stimulated by names like Vic Edelbrock, who enhanced American muscle by selling high performance manifolds and various other parts.
The Horsepower Party Ends
Following the adrenaline rush of muscle cars which triggered a seemingly endless cavalcade of factory and aftermarket speed machines, the oil crisis of the early 1970s eventually marked the death knell of the genre known for its freewheeling indulgence. Wangers recalls the zeitgeist of the times, saying that “… the general feeling came about that people ought to take a serious look at themselves [and see] that they were overextending themselves to indulge their own tastes and pleasures.” Wangers explains that 1973’s oil scare forced consumers to “… look at the automobile as an instrument of transportation that was not necessarily fun, pleasurable, or high performance.”
Stone adds, “The choke point, literally and figuratively, for the first muscle car era was smaller engines with lower compression ratios, the advent of low octane unleaded gas, and the introduction of catalytic converters.” Though the dark years of the 1970s saw Corvettes downsizing their engines to only 305 cubic inches, Oldham recalls that Pontiac stayed the course by offering 400 cubic-inch engines for much of the era. Citing the inevitable silver lining of being the only kid in town, the Pontiac Trans Am’s year-to-year sales climbed between 1973 and 1981.
Muscle Car Revival
Though the Ford Mustang lived on in name through the oil crisis, it wasn’t until the debut of the so-called Fox-platform Mustang that the muscle car genre began its resurrection, a shift marked by the Mustang’s appearance as a pace car in the 1979 Indianapolis 500. The advent of the Mustang GT model in 1982 marked the return of sportier models, while the third generation of F-Body Camaros and Firebirds sprang back to life with significantly livelier performance. “They had learned to work with catalytic converters and brought the 350 [cubic-inch engines] and manual transmissions back,” says Stone, marking the resurgence of roadgoing muscle cars.
Though it seemed like the horsepower game would eventually wind down once again due to concerns over efficiency and safety, the most recent muscle car renaissance has made even more outrageous amounts of horsepower within reach for the car buying public. With Ford currently offering track-ready versions of its Shelby-branded Mustangs, Chevrolet building massively powerful Camaros and Corvettes, and Dodge producing stunningly grunty 707 horsepower Hellcat Challengers and Chargers under the SRT banner (the latter of which is the most powerful production sedan on the planet), there is no shortage of domestic offerings that prove the muscle car market is alive and kicking.
For proof that we’re living in a golden age of horsepower, consider Oldham’s vantage point on the hallowed cars of his youth. “Our memories are a lot faster than the cars actually were. Not to take anything away from those cars—I still love driving them and showing them, but we’ve built up their performance past what they actually were.” For perspective, he reminds us that the 1964 GTO ran the quarter mile in about 15 seconds. “The lowliest Hyundai Sonata could probably run that number today.” As for handling, he adds that, “A Kia Rio could probably run rings around those cars.”
Though nostalgia may paint a rosier picture of the classics than they deserve, stunningly capable modern muscle cars prove the power of reinvention. Charismatic and unapologetic, the current crop of American muscle cars stands as testimony that vehicles can transcend mere transportation and evolve to represent something greater than the sum of their parts.