How Muscle Cars Work


"Muscle car" describes an American automobile with lots of power, modest weight, and blazing acceleration. The term was coined in 1964 for midsize Pontiacs equipped with a new performance option featuring a potent 389-cubic-inch V-8. The option turned a tame Tempest into a snarling GTO. Right off the showroom floor, a properly equipped "Goat" could run 0-60 mph in under 7.0 seconds -- awesome performance in 1964.

Muscle Car Image Gallery

Baby Boomers and muscle cars
©Barrett-Jackson
Nostalgic Baby Boomers are driving up prices of classic muscle cars. This 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS Baldwin-Motion SuperCoupe fetched $486,000 at the 2006 Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. See more pictures of muscle cars.

America had produced fast, powerful cars since well before World War II. So had various European automakers. But most of these were expensive rarities, purchased by monied upper-crust types with a need for speed. The muscle car was a mass-market child of 1960s America, when youth was king and Detroit ruled the automotive world.

That world was changing radically by 1970, and muscle cars nearly vanished. But they came back in the early '80s to begin an exciting new high-performance era that's still going strong, thanks to huge technical progress since the 1964-70 "golden age." Indeed, many modern muscle cars outgun their revered 1960s ancestors yet are thriftier with fuel, pollute much less, and are far superior for handling and safety.

This article tells the muscle car story, from the inception of the breed to its near disappearance to its revival in the form of today's road rockets. The article also places the muscle car in the context of American culture and examines how Baby Boomer nostalgia for these factory hot rods is driving the price of some restored versions into six figures, and sometimes above. Here's a sneak peek at the various sections:

  • Early Muscle Cars
    Follow the escalation of the performance wars into the early 1960s, as automakers vied for supremacy on racetracks, drag strips -- and sales charts. Muscle cars broke into pop culture as the Beach Boys celebrated Chevy's "real fine" 409, and there was no stopping the phenomenon.
  • The Golden Age of Muscle Cars: 1964, 1965
    Gas was cheap, the economy strong, and change was in the air. Young hotbloods turned on to the fast, good-looking Pontiac GTO; competitors took note, and muscle cars soon rumbled out of most every showroom. This period delivered to the automotive world such hallowed names as the Mustang, 4-4-2, Barracuda, and Chevelle Super Sport. Read all about muscle cars in 1964 and 1965.
  • The Golden Age of Muscle Cars: 1966, 1967, 1968
    Find out how big V-8s in midsize bodies became the defining muscle car formula. The mighty Street Hemi in intermediate Dodges and Plymouths was the recipe at its most potent. Pony cars also rose to the task, with the likes of the Shelby Mustang, Camaro Z-28, and even the AMX from American Motors. And the muscle car scene was shaken up with the arrival of the budget-priced Plymouth Road Runner.
  • The Golden Age of Muscle Cars: 1969, 1970
    Revel in the peak period for classic muscle cars, with horsepower, speed, and flamboyance hitting unprecedented heights. Hood scoops, spoilers, and stripes flourished, and new cars like the Hemi 'Cuda, LS6 Chevelle, and Boss 429 Mustang, all introduced in this white-hot period, became destined for the collector's market.
  • Muscle Cars and American Culture
    The muscle car aura was one of rebellion, excitement, and youth. Discover how it both reflected and influenced American society in the 1960s and early '70s. Automakers, aftermarket parts manufacturers, Hollywood, and Top 40 music all sought their piece of the pie and, in turn, created lasting cultural icons.
  • The Death of Muscle Cars
    In many ways and for many reasons, America lost its innocence in the 1960s. Learn why no-holds-barred performance cars were just one casualty of wrenching social changes. Muscle cars began fading away in the 1970s, and most were gone by mid-decade, victims of a changing market and increasingly strict government regulations.
  • The Rebirth of Muscle Cars
    Reports of the death of muscle cars were greatly exaggerated. Explore why muscle cars never really were absent from America's automotive consciousness and how, by the late 1970s, Detroit had found a way to make high performance compatible with new safety and emissions regulations. Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird Trans Am led the way back.
  • Midsize Muscle Cars in the 1980s and 1990s
    Check out the ballistic Buick GNX of 1987 and the midsize muscle car resurgence it symbolized. The Hurst/Olds, Monte Carlo SS, and Ford Thunderbird were among the beloved badges that helped revive classic-style intermediate-size performance.
  • Modern Muscle Cars
    Buckle up for a ride as wild as anything available in the heyday of original muscle cars. Modern technology has combined with good-old speed-hungry engineering and wily marketing to create a new golden age of high performance. Now, 400 horsepower engines are common, as are quarter-mile times under 13 seconds. Hemi, Cobra, GTO, even Challenger and Camaro are on the docket once again.
  • Baby Boomers and Muscle Cars
    A 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible that originally listed for around $6,000 sold at auction in 2006 for $2.1 million. Men and women who coveted great muscle machines when they and the cars were both younger are paying big bucks to recapture that excitement. Find out how Baby Boomers have kept classic muscle cars at the forefront.
The Quickest Muscle Cars
For profiles, photos, and specifications of four of the quickest classic-era muscle cars, check out:

Muscle cars have a rich, exciting history -- so let's get moving and learn more about them!

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

  • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 classic muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
  • Buick, GM's "gentleman's car" division, was an unlikely source of some of the finest muscle cars. See profiles, photos, and specifications of Buick muscle cars.
  • Dodge muscle cars were among the fastest and wildest.
­

The Birth of Muscle Cars

Someone once said auto racing began when the second car was built. For more than 100 years now, competition has driven both technology and sales in the car business -- hence the old industry maxim, "race on Sunday, sell on Monday." And it's true. That, in a nutshell, explains how muscle cars came to be.

The Hard-Charging
Muscle Car Rosters
Certain muscle car rosters had a special luster. Among these were:
  • The muscle car formula of maximum performance for minimal money played to Chevrolet's strength. Chevy muscle cars represented the most extensive and most popular lineup of any manufacturer throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
  • Dodge muscle cars were all stars throughout the classic age of muscle cars, a leadership reasserted with today's revived Hemi V-8 and plans to resurrect the Challenger.
  • Plymouth muscle cars spanned the spectrum from fanciful to
    fearsome -- and sometimes displayed both qualities in a single model.
  • Pontiac's lasting claim to muscle car fame stems from a stroke of marketing genius that earned Pontiac credit for igniting the classic muscle car era. But there was more to Pontiac muscle cars than just the GTO.

Two types of motorsport play especially large roles in muscle car history. One is stock-car racing, which began coming together once some "good ol' boys" formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 1947.

Inspired by the souped-up cars of Southern moonshine runners and their skill at escaping the law, NASCAR began staging races on dirt tracks and beach courses. These events drew crowds and soon developed into a thriving business. Other organizations, such as the U.S. Automobile Club, began sanctioning their own stock-car races.

Drag racing, meanwhile, was attracting its own fans. These organized contests of quarter-mile acceleration originated with the informal (and illegal) street racing associated with hot rodders, the shade-tree mechanics who turned old Model T and Model A Fords into fast, eye-catching street cars. Drag racing gained momentum in 1951 when the National Hot Rod Association was formed in -- where else? -- car-crazy Southern California.

At about the same time, NHRA chief Wally Parks started Hot Rod magazine to promote the sport and performance-tuned street cars. The early '50s also saw the debut of Motor Trend and other car-enthusiast magazines, the first of many.

The growing public interest in speed and power gave birth to what many regard as the first muscle machine, the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It was a car any hot-rodder could understand: a powerful new engine in the lighter Olds body. And the engine was a breakthrough: America's first high-compression overhead-valve V-8, the result of research begun at General Motors well before the war.

Though GM's Cadillac Division introduced a similar V-8 for '49, it was the smaller, fleeter Olds 88s that grabbed public attention, especially when they started to dominate stock-car racing.

Because success in Detroit never goes unchallenged for long, the Rocket 88s soon had showroom competition and a horsepower race was on. By 1955, most every U.S. nameplate offered light, efficient V-8s. Two of the best remain performance legends to this day.

One was Chrysler Corporation's Hemi, first offered for 1951 and named for the half-sphere or hemispherical shape of its combustion chambers. No less significant was the 1955 Chevrolet small-block V-8, a design so right that its basic engineering concepts are still in production.

But the horsepower race wasn't always about sheer speed. Detroit would soon learn the importance of giving its hot cars names and marketing directions that matched their tire-smoking excitement.

1955 Chevy ad
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Here's an early ad promoting the new speed and power
Chevy was offering its customers in 1955.

Because bigger meant better in the Fabulous '50s, Detroit cars put on pounds and inches most every year, requiring ever-larger engines just to maintain existing levels of acceleration. But many buyers were still willing to spend on extra speed, and automakers responded with all kinds of performance-enhancing heavy-duty parts and power-boosting options. Most of these were developed just to satisfy racing rules -- and car company pride. Seldom ordered by mainstream buyers, these "speed parts" nonetheless promoted a sales-boosting performance image.

Thus Dodge, for example, offered powered-up "D-500" engines for every model in its 1956 line, including the lightest low-line two-door sedan -- which, of course, was the racers' choice.

Other makes showcased performance hardware in flashy limited-edition models. Chrysler led the way with its 1955 C-300, an inspired blend of Hemi power and luxury-car trappings that fast became the new star of NASCAR. With 300 horsepower, it was rightly advertised as "America's Most Powerful Car."

1955 Chrysler C-300
©2007 David Temple
The 1955 Chrysler C-300 was touted as "America's Most Powerful Car."

The following year's 300B achieved the long-sought engineering ideal of one horsepower per cubic inch of engine displacement. For 1957, Chevrolet wooed leadfoot buyers with available fuel injection, Ford and Studebaker with supercharging. Pontiac offered both fuel injection and "Tri-Power" (three two-barrel carburetors). Even troubled Hudson, limited to large 6-cylinder engines through 1954, managed NASCAR-winning "Twin-H Power" dual carbs and manifolds, plus a hot "7-X" racing mill.

All this muscle flexing screeched to a halt in early 1957. Detroit's carmakers, through their Automobile Manufacturers Association, agreed to a self-imposed "ban" on factory-sponsored racing and performance-oriented advertising. Publicly, the industry was bowing to pressure from an increasingly vocal safety lobby. Privately, it was business as usual.

Engineers kept working on even hotter engines and other under-the-table racing support, expecting that high performance would soon be politically correct again. They were right, as you'll see on the next page.

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

  • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
  • Even American Motors, the champion of the economy car, caught muscle car fever. See profiles, photos, and specifications of AMC muscle cars.
  • The phrase Mercury muscle cars was no contradiction in terms; even this staid marque had a quick-car lineup.

Early Muscle Cars

Automotive high performance came out of hiding in 1960, signaling the dawn of the classic age of muscle cars. V-8s had been bulking up, so "big-blocks" were a must on and off the track. Chrysler Corporation had a fleet of V-8s with wedge-shaped combustion chambers with up to 413 cubic inch displacement and over 400 bhp via "Cross Ram Induction." Hemis were in limbo as expensive to build, but wedge-powered Chryslers, Plymouths, and Dodges were usually in the hunt among stockers and dragsters.

1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Peformance cars such as the 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409
began to fill the marketplace in the early 1960s.

Ford took its sturdy FE-Series V-8 to 390 cid for 1961, then to 406. Chevrolet, meanwhile, turned its 348 into a brawny 409, soon immortalized by the singing Beach Boys. Pontiac, having gone from staid to sassy in the late '50s, kept spinning out variations of its 389-cid V-8 and then issued a "Super Duty" 421 for favored drag racers. And all over Detroit, parts catalogs bulged anew with go-fast components.

The Best of Early
Muscle Cars
In the early days of muscle cars, an automaker's full-size models were also its high-performance machines. Check out some of the best of these early muscle cars:

Performance models also multiplied. Chevrolet, for example, added Super Sport Impalas with bucket seats, floor shift, tachometer, beefed-up suspension, and special trim. The 409 V-8 was sold separately. The '61 Chevys introduced a svelte new rear roofline. Ford's new-for-1960 Galaxie Starliner hardtop was the same idea.

Though neither was designed particularly for racing, "aero" styling like this proved crucial on NASCAR's new high-speed ovals, where a few extra mph could mean the difference between first and second place. And the fun had only just begun.

The American car landscape itself had expanded in 1960, when Detroit introduced small economy compacts to supplement traditional full-size "standard" models. Many buyers preferred something in between, however, so the midsize car was a logical next step.

Ford had a popular "Better Idea" with its new-for-'62 Fairlane and Mercury Meteor intermediates. Arriving with them was a lively, high-tech small-block V-8 (in 221- and 260-cid sizes) that would soon become a bona fide performance mill. Dodge and Plymouth also offered intermediates for 1962, but unlike Ford and Chevrolet, dropped their big cars.

The result for Dodge and Plymouth was a sales disaster but an exciting new kind of performance car: much trimmer and lighter, and available with big-car power. Quicker than you can say elapsed time, these smaller Dodges and Plymouths were the cars to beat in NHRA's new Super/Stock class.

They remained so in 1963, when the Dodge Ramcharger/Plymouth Super Stock wedges went to 426 cid, good for up to an advertised 425 bhp, and much more in the hands of expert tuners. Wedge 426s set eight NHRA records right out of the box, and Hot Rod clocked a scorching 12.69-second quarter-mile in a Super Stock Plymouth with automatic and a tight axle ratio.

1962 Ford Galaxie 406
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Despite its high horsepower, the 1962 Ford Galaxie 406
was a bit too heavy to beat its rivals on the track.

Of course, rockets like this were rare on Main Street, but they added high-powered sales luster in showrooms and made a huge impression on the public. The classic age of muscle cars was at hand.

The next page dives into the classic period of muscle cars, as hot machines with big engines became the darlings of Detroit and changed America's automotive landscape.

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

  • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
  • Some of the best all-around performance machines of the day were Ford muscle cars.
  • No muscle cars were more stylish, sophisticated, or brawnier than those from Oldsmobile. Check out profiles, photos, and specifications of Oldsmobile muscle cars.

The Golden Age of Muscle Cars: 1964, 1965

Few cars have been better timed than the Pontiac GTO. Though not a brand-new idea, it tapped into the spirit of mid-'60s America and would be the standard for every muscle car imitator that followed. From the get-go, there was little doubt the GTO would be imitated.

1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO was the ultimate muscle car trendsetter.

Pontiac thought it might sell 5,000 the first year and ended up moving over 32,000. General Motors' "Wide-Track" division was well known for performance, but it was clearly on to something new here. It's as if most every performance trend of the preceding 15 years had been leading to this one car.

Great Muscle Cars From 1964 and 1965
These are some of the muscle cars that helped define the classic years of 1964 and 1965:

The GTO is generally credited to Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers, but it was engineers Bill Collins and John Z. DeLorean who put it on the road. They made it an option package to get around a GM rule prohibiting midsize cars with standard engines over 330 cid, which only fostered a "bad boy" image that was part of the car's appeal.

Stealth was another attraction. Save a black-finish grille, discreet emblems, and a hood with two small dummy air scoops, a GTO looked like any midsize Tempest coupe, hardtop coupe, or convertible. Likewise, the interior was basically bucket-seat Tempest LeMans. So unless you gunned that potent 389 V-8, John Law probably wouldn't notice. Leadfoots loved that.

In truth, the GTO was a marketing exercise, a hot blend of cherry-picked components already on the shelf. Yet it was somehow more than the sum of its parts, a celebration of tire-spinning torque and head-spinning style -- a hero car. And with prices as low as $3,200, it was a tremendous value. Needless to say, it soon had company.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the GTO's first challenger came from Oldsmobile, home of the Rocket, which announced its 4-4-2 package at almost the same time. This was available for any non-wagon Cutlass, which shared a basic design with the Tempest/GTO, Buick Skylarks, and Chevrolet's new midsize Chevelles.

The designation meant 4-barrel carb, 4-speed manual transmission, and 2 exhausts. The V-8 was a 330 pumped up to 310 bhp. Though that was shy of the Pontiac's 325 or 348 bhp, critics thought the 4-4-2 handled a bit better, and it proved nearly as fast in the benchmark 0-60 and quarter-mile tests. Olds sold just 2,999 of the '64s, mainly due to poor promotion, but that mistake would not to be repeated.

There was plenty more excitement in 1964. Dearborn made headlines with "Total Performance," an all-out assault on most every form of motor sports, a campaign designed to boost sales of racy new Fords and Mercurys for the street. Ford spared no expense, whipping up rally-winning Falcon compacts, a sleek maddening Ford GT40 for international endurance racing, and big Ford Galaxies that claimed the 1964 NASCAR Grand National championship.

Ford also unleashed the Thunderbolt, a meek Fairlane two-door turned drag strip terror. It used almost every trick in the speed-shop book: stripped interior, lightweight fiberglass body panels, and a dual-carb version of the year-old "Thunderbird 427 Super High Performance" V-8, a big-block that shoehorned in only with considerable bending of front-chassis metal.

Just 127 were built, and only in '64, but the T-bolt was unforgettable. Hot Rod warned it was "not suitable for driving to and from the strip, let alone on the street." But that was the point. Ford was serious about high performance on and off the track. So was everyone else.

And then there was Ford's Mustang, the smash sales success of the '60s. Arriving midway through model-year '64, this sporty compact took the country by storm with its low price, jaunty looks, and long options list. And though not marketed on muscle at first, Mustangs could be pretty hot with an available small-block V-8, including a new 289-cid version with up to 271 bhp. Ford sold nearly 681,000 in just the first 12 months, establishing another new market category, the pony car.

Over at Chrysler, the famed Hemi V-8 returned during 1964 as a 426-cid monster built strictly for racing. Rated at 425 bhp but easily race tuned for well over 550, it cleaned up in various NHRA classes during the '65 season.

Things were tougher in NASCAR. Though Richard Petty and his midsize Hemi Plymouth easily won the 1964 Daytona 500, Ford was still season champ. Moreover, NASCAR thought the Hemi gave Mopar teams an unfair advantage, so it banned the Hemi for the first half of the '65 season, then let it back in after protests from all over.

But the trend was clear. On speedway, strip, and street, the performance action was fast shifting from big cars to muscular midsizers and even high-powered pony cars. Buyers were thinking young and craving four-wheel excitement. Detroit wooed them year after year with sporty new models packing ever-more power. Even the first federal safety and emissions regulations didn't spoil the party.

It was all about winning hearts, minds, and dollars, which meant having the best stats in car-buff magazine tests, winning races, and wowing buyers. That's always been the game, of course, but seldom have so many automakers, along with hundreds of independent speed-equipment companies that sprang up to supply soup-up parts, played for such high stakes.

1964 Ford Thunderbolt
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Although only 127 were built, the 1964 Ford Thunderbolt
made its mark on muscle car culture.

For performance fans, there was something for almost every taste and budget. In 1965 alone came the posh Buick Skylark Gran Sport; a big-block 396 Chevelle Super Sport; and a track-ready Mustang, Carroll Shelby's GT-350, which fast ruled its class in Sports Car Club of America road racing.

The muscle car was quickly moving from a low-volume specialty item to a high-profile image-maker, its aura of performance and panache casting a halo over an automaker's mainstream models. Suddenly, every manufacturer had to have one, and each supercar needed more power and more personality than the next.

Evolution was too slow. Revolution was in, as you'll see on the following page.

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

  • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
  • Chevrolet muscle cars beat at the heart of big-cube high performance.
  • Plymouth muscle cars spanned the spectrum from fanciful to fearsome -- and sometimes displayed both qualities in a single model.

The Golden Age of Muscle Cars: 1966, 1967, 1968

The muscle car craze continued in 1966, 1967, and 1968. Model-year 1966 ushered in rapid, redesigned midsize Fords and Mercurys; a burly midsize Dodge fastback, the Coronet-based Charger; a quartet of smoothly restyled GM intermediates; and even a "rent-a-racer" Mustang, the Hertz-vended Shelby GT-350H.

1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Muscle pony cars hit the scene in 1967, and the
Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 was one of the year's hottest.

Compacts continued to juice up, too. Ever more popular were the lively small-block options for the Chevy II, Dodge Dart, Ford Falcon, Mercury Comet, and Plymouth's "glassback" Barracuda. Full-size flyers were falling from favor, as the large-car segment was turning hard toward luxury, but there was still plenty of choice: Chevy SS Impalas, Ford Galaxie 500 XLs, Plymouth Sport Furys, the Olds Starfire, and Pontiac Catalina 2+2s.

Great Muscle Cars From 1966,
1967, and 1968
To learn more about some of the most thrilling muscle cars of 1966, 1967, and 1968, see:
  • The 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2 with the W-30 induction setup hid its air intakes in the headlamp surrounds. Way cool!
  • The 1968 AMC AMX was a high-performance machine that appealed to more than just the muscle car crowd -- sports-car enthusiasts also loved it.
  • The 1968 Plymouth Road Runner created the budget-muscle market and was among the most influential cars of the 1960s.
  • At last, the original pony car could show its tail to the competition thanks to the 1968 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet.

Engines kept growing in 1966. Chevy replaced its 409 V-8 with a potent 427 born of NASCAR experiments. Ford bowed a hulking 428 with massive low-end torque. Chrysler's wedgehead became a 440-cid powerhouse available in midsize Dodges under the "Magnum" label.

But even that paled next to the 426 Street Hemi, a barely tamed version of the all-conquering race engine and as laughably underrated at 425 bhp. As an option costing around $1,000, it wasn't cheap. But in a Dodge Coronet, Charger, or Plymouth Belvedere, it delivered acceleration Motor Trend called "absolutely shattering."

Something new arrived for '67: the muscle pony car. That year's Mustang was redesigned with room for a 390-cid big-block option. Carroll Shelby went one better by stuffing in a 428 for his new GT-500. Mercury debuted the Cougar, a luxury Mustang that also offered big-inch testosterone.

Chevy belatedly answered Mustang with the Camaro, available with sporty RS and SS packages and potent V-8s up to a 375-bhp 396. Pontiac's similar Firebird bowed a few months later with its own hot-engine menu, topped by a 400-cid mill.

Modified pony cars put on quite a show in quarter-mile contests. Others provided road-racing excitement in the SCCA's new Trans-Am series for "production compact sedans." Camaro promptly dominated the '67 season, thanks to a track-oriented Z-28 package featuring a special 302-cid V-8 humorously listed at 290 bhp, plus a tight "handling" suspension. It hugged the corners, but was muscle-car quick on the straights; Car and Driver cracked the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 97 mph.

All this seemed too good to be true, but true it was. Muscle cars were better than ever for 1968. GM, Ford, and Chrysler all issued redesigned intermediates with sleeker looks, including windcheater rooflines for most hardtops. Dodge transformed its Charger into the year's styling stunner, but Dearborn had handsome new Ford Torinos and Mercury Cyclones, while GM made two-doors like the GTO a bit smaller and lighter for more speed and agility.

Tiny American Motors surprised with its first pony car, the Javelin, and a cleverly shortened two-seat version, the AMX. Neither was in the muscle major league, but an available 390-cid V-8 provided satisfying scoot, and a few AMXs claimed trophies at the strip.

Chrysler bowed a potent 340-cid small-block for a new Dodge Dart GTS and hotter Formula S Plymouth Barracuda. The Mopar compacts also got a first-time big-block option, a 300-bhp 383. Power-boosting cold-air induction was a new trend, available at Pontiac as "Ram Air" and for Fords and Mercurys ordered with a beefy new Cobra Jet 428.

Muscle car prices had been creeping beyond the reach of many enthusiasts, so Plymouth's 1968 Road Runner was welcome news. Starting at just $2,986, this pillared coupe or hardtop coupe delivered a 335-bhp 383, heavy-duty chassis and running gear, and few frills to detract from performance. The only option, in fact, was the mighty 426 Street Hemi.

With a smile-inducing "beep-beep" horn and matching cartoon logo, the Road Runner drew a smashing 45,000 sales in its first year to create another new category, the budget muscle car. Dodge joined in at midyear with a stripper Coronet coupe, the Super Bee, priced from $3,037 as part of the brand's "Scat Pack" performance line.

1968 Plymouth Road Runner
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Beep, beep! The 1968 Plymouth Road Runner zoomed past
the competition, selling 45,000 cars in its first year.

But troubles were brewing. Federal safety and emissions rules came in for 1968, a possible threat to the muscle car's future. So was a new safety lobby, led by crusading attorney Ralph Nader.

No less worrisome was fallout from the fierce competition in the muscle market. In 1966, the GTO set a one-year muscle car sales record of 96,946. As the market saturated, most muscle cars were drawing far fewer yearly sales; some were barely in the hundreds. And though Detroit bean counters knew performance helped move the mom-and-pop models, racing programs and muscle car development costs were spiraling upward, eating into profits.

Nevertheless, market demands and corporate pride were about to take the muscle car to its very peak, as you'll see on the next page.

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

  • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
  • Even American Motors, the champion of the economy car, caught muscle car fever. See profiles, photos, and specifications of AMC muscle cars.
  • Some of the best all-around performance machines of the day were Ford muscle cars.

The Golden Age of Muscle Cars: 1969, 1970

If there were signs in 1969 and 1970 that the classic age of muscle cars was nearing an end, you couldn't tell by perusing American automobile showrooms. Dealerships were bursting with ever-more-powerful and outrageous high-performance machines -- muscle cars were at their pinnacle.

The 1969 field featured a slew of limited-edition street machines built to qualify for racing. The Mustang Boss 302 and Firebird Trans Am answered the Camaro Z-28 in SCCA. NASCAR needs prompted an aero-styled Dodge Charger 500 and a heroically winged Charger Daytona, plus a "droop-snoot" fastback Ford Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II.

1970 Buick GSX
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Motor Trend called the 1970 Buick GSX "the quickest
American production car we have ever tested."

The budget-muscle ranks expanded with the Torino Cobra and a lower-priced GTO, The Judge. Oldsmobile reprised a Cutlass-based Hurst/Olds package with "Forced Air" induction on a colossal 455-cid V-8, plus flashy gold striping and, of course, a Hurst shifter.

Great Muscle Cars From 1969 and 1970
For profiles, photos, and specifications of cars that marked the pinnacle of muscle car madness see:
  • ­The 1969 Yenko Camaro 427 got its name from Chevy dealer Don Yenko and its muscle from a sneaky engine transplant.
  • Muscle got no meaner than the 1969 Dodge Super Bee Six Pack, named for the three Holley two-barrels on its 440-cid V-8.
  • Few classic muscle cars looked wilder, and none had more torque, than the thrilling 1970 Buick GSX.
  • Big size, big power, big fun -- the 1970 Ford Torino Cobra uncoiled up to 375 bhp from its ram-air 429-cid V-8.
  • Hood scoops sprouted like weeds. A new Mustang Mach 1 had a "shaker hood," an air intake attached to the engine that stuck up through a hole and throbbed along with the V-8. Top-power Road Runners offered a pop-up "Air Grabber" scoop. Plymouth also added brash 'Cuda packages for its sporty compact, including a formidable few with big 440s squeezed in.

    For pure, unadulterated Detroit performance, 1970 was the storm before the calm. And what a perfect storm it was. Start with General Motors, where a 400-cube limited was lifted and acceleration took off. Buick's midsize muscle was now a racy-looking GS455 with 350 or 360 bhp.

    There was also a new velvet-gloved iron fist called GSX packing 370 bhp in "Stage 1" guise. Motor Trend clocked one at 13.38 seconds/105.5 mph in the quarter-mile, "the quickest American production car we have ever tested."

    Chevrolet replied with SS Chevelles listing big-block 396s (actually displacing 402 cubes now) and new 454s. Tops among the latter was the rare 450-bhp LS-6 version that rocketed Hot Rod through the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 108.7 mph. "The future may never see a car like this," the editors said. And for a long time, they were right.

    Oldsmobile shot back with a regular-production 455 option for the 4-4-2 with 365 bhp stock, 370 with the W-30 performance group. It was a wild ride, though not quite as quick as the GSX or SS 454.

    Pontiac's original muscle car also added an optional 455, though rated horsepower topped out at 360. The hot "Goat" setup still was Pontiac's Ram Air 400 with automatic and a tight axle ratio, though Car Life managed a best ET of only 14.6 seconds/99.5 mph. Whatever their performance or nameplate, all of GM's 1970 muscle cars got nice updates of 1968-69 styling. And arguably, GTOs still looked the best, highlighted by a simple bumper/grille combo covered in body-color Endura plastic.

    GM also heated up the 1970 pony car scene with a redesigned Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Their convertibles were dropped, but the new coupes had shapely lines that some thought quite European. SS Camaros offered Chevelle's new 402/396-cid V-8, but the racy Z-28 moved to a 360-bhp solid-lifter 350 borrowed from the Corvette. Pontiac's pony car again offered four flavors, with the hottest Firebird 400s and Trans Ams listing up to 370 bhp with new Ram Air shaker hood.

    Chrysler, meantime, finally got serious about pony cars, trotting out a burly new 1970 Barracuda and an even huskier Dodge Challenger. Both listed Hemi and 440 V-8 options, though only a relative few were ordered that way; most buyers were quite happy with the strong 340- and 383-cid V-8s, both of which comfortably delivered more than 300 bhp.

    Also rare among Mopar's 1970 ponys were the Challenger T/A and AAR 'Cuda featuring super-tuned 340 small-blocks and built to qualify the cars for Trans Am racing. Qualify they did, joining Camaros, Firebirds, Mustangs, Cougars, and upstart AMC Javelins to make for the most competitive and exciting Trans Am season ever. In fact, 1970 stands as the series' high-point. Mustang claimed the championship.

    1970 Dodge Challenger T/A
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    The 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A was patterned after a Trans Am race car.

    Plymouth was the year's winningest name in NASCAR, thanks to Richard "The King" Petty and his high-wing, bullet-nose Road Runner Superbird. The Bird was much like 1969's Dodge Charger Daytona but saw 1,920 assemblies versus 503 for the Daytona.

    Dearborn made muscle news with restyled Ford Torinos and Mercury Cyclones offering new high-performance Cobra Jet 429s with 360-375 bhp. The same basic mill also powered a drag-worthy Boss 429 Mustang, carried over from '69, and the Mercury Cougar Eliminator. Otherwise, 1970 was a quiet year for Ford performance -- ominously so, after the company abruptly ended its memorable "Total Performance" program.

    It was a sign of changing times. From here on, muscle cars would never be the same. But their influence on American culture was broad, deep, and lasting. Read about that impact in the next section.

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

    ­

    Muscle Cars and American Culture

    Speed and power are compelling qualities, so it's no surprise that muscle cars were such a happening back in the 1960s and continue to hold an allure that transcends decades and generations. Indeed, generating a buzz that struck a chord with something uniquely American was a prime reason for creating these fast-and-furious machines in the first place.

    It was all about marketing and the bottom line. Most people didn't need, say, a GTO, but the GTO's wild image would compel more than a few to buy a mild-mannered Tempest LeMans with much the same style. That's how muscle cars had such a big market impact even though they didn't sell in big numbers.

    Muscle Cars
    That Reflected
    American Culture
    For the inside scoop on some muscle cars that reflected 1960s and 1970s American culture, see:

    The GTO, remember, was a marketing man's idea designed to get people talking about Pontiac and to lure them into showrooms. But muscle cars had to keep faith with performance fans, whose opinions often persuade non-enthusiast friends what car to buy. That required credibility in competition. Enthusiasts are demanding, and they won't talk your talk until you walk their walk.

    That's why automakers worked hard to make sure their muscle cars not only looked cool but also had a winning reputation. Sometimes, the work was a bit shady. For example, despite Detroit's admonishments to leave demonstrations of speed to the organized confines of NHRA and NASCAR, young hotbloods still raced the public streets and roads in the 1960s. They were
    defying the law, but rebellion was hip in those days.

    The action was intense, emotions ran high. Fittingly, Detroit's Woodward Avenue was one of the most popular spots for outlaw street racing. And because of that, it became unofficial proving grounds for new manifolds, carburetors, and other speed parts devised by the automakers themselves. Many executives tacitly encouraged such "research" and even participated. After all, everyone else was there, so why not see what you were up against? As for manufacturers who didn't make the street scene...well, that news got around, too.

    Such underground support is part of muscle-car lore. So, too, the highly visible new-car dealers that set up "speed shops" to improve on what their factories were doing. Because of their high sales volume, these dealerships were typically the first to sell the latest factory parts, but many also developed their own speed equipment, then built and sponsored race cars to show it off, usually in drag racing. It was just good business to sell performance where performance fans gathered.

    Among the best-known of these dealers were Nickey Chevrolet and "Mr. Norm's" Grand Spaulding Dodge, both in Chicago; Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania; Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan; and Ford-affiliated Holman-Moody in North Carolina.

    Royal Pontaic
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan -- whose name is displayed on this
    race car -- was among the best-known "speed shops."

    "Muscle mania" was also good for the performance "aftermarket" companies that began appearing in the 1940s. Names like Hurst (shifters), Edelbrock (manifolds), Iskenderian (camshafts), and others were well known to gearheads from car magazines and prominent race-car logos. In the '60s, these parts-makers boomed as never before, which prompted even more companies to weigh in.

    By the end of the decade, the industry had grown so large that it formed its own trade group, first called the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association, later the Speed Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

    But there was another side to the muscle car scene -- and man, was it groovy. For all their raw power and rumbling machismo, muscle cars had a playful side reflecting the trendy irreverence of the youthful '60s counterculture. It was the era of do-your-own-thing and pop art, of "mod" fashions and Beatle haircuts, folk songs, acid rock and the British invasion. Automakers found creative ways to relate to this market.

    Wild colors were in vogue, so American Motors offered bright "Big Bad" hues for 1969-70. Dodge and Plymouth had a "High Impact" palette with wacky names like Tor-Red, Plum Crazy, and Go-Man-Go. Plymouth's Road Runner touched off a minor craze for cartoony model names and logos.

    The 1968 Super Bee, for example, inspired the "Scat Pack" line of hot Dodges with available bumblebee tail stripes bearing a helmeted character bee speeding along on dragster-size wheels. Ford borrowed Carroll Shelby's raring-snake mascot for the Torino Cobra and other purposes. The '69 GTO Judge was a knowing nod to "Here Come da Judge," a popular phrase from the hit TV show "Laugh-In."

    Dr. Oldsmobile
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    The doctor was in at Oldsmobile. The automaker used a fictitious
    "Dr. Oldsmobile" in advertisements to introduce its hot new muscle cars.

    Commercials and print ads also played to youth culture. Dodge portrayed "White Hat Guys" and a "Dodge Rebellion." British pop singer Petula Clark crooned that you should "Look What Plymouth's Up to Now." Ford pitched some sportier models as "The Lively Ones," and sponsored a like-named TV show to boot. Even Buick wanted to "Light Your Fire."

    Chevrolet's Camaro launched as "The Hugger." Pontiac said all its cars "take the fun of driving seriously." A fictitious "Dr. Oldsmobile," white smock and all, was frequently seen working in his lab on hot new numbers for that GM brand. AMC promoted a muscular 1970 hardtop by giving away stickers with the phrase "Up with the Rebel Machine."

    Hollywood, never slow to spot a trend, only added to a growing muscle car mystique. Three films in particular still rate high among performance fans for high-powered thrills: "Vanishing Point," "Two-Lane Blacktop," and "Bullitt."

    The 1968 Ford Mustang was featured in the Steve McQueen movie 'Bullitt.'
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    Muscle cars made their mark on Hollywood. The 1968 Ford Mustang,
    for instance, had a starring turn in the Steve McQueen classic "Bullitt."

    And let's not forget all the hit '60s songs celebrating fast cars and good times. The Beach Boys alone cranked out "409," "Shut Down," and "Fun, Fun, Fun" (when daddy takes the T-Bird away), plus lesser ditties like "Car Crazy Cutie," "Our Car Club," and "No-Go Showboat." Jan and Dean sung about the "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" with a Super/Stock Dodge, plus the dangers of "Dead Man's Curve." Ronnie and the Daytonas had kids boogalooing to little "GTO," with lyrics credited to Pontiac promotions man Jim Wangers himself. Wilson Pickett idolized "Mustang Sally."

    The songs, the slang, the street scene, and all the rest that made up muscle car mania were great fun. Over time, muscle cars would be rediscovered and even resurrected, but only after a trying decade in which the breed seemed doomed to extinction. That dim period is chronicled on the next page.

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For related car information, see these articles:

    • The engine is what gives a muscle car its flamboyant personality. To learn everything you need to know about car engines, see ­How Car Engines Work.
    • Muscle cars wouldn't have much muscle without horsepower -- but what exactly is horsepower? How Horsepower Works answers that question.
    • NASCAR race cars embody the muscle car philosophy of power. Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out what makes these charged-up racers go.
    • Are you thinking of buying a 2007 muscle car, or any other car? See Consumer Guide Automotive's New-Car Reviews, Prices, and Information.

    The Death of Muscle Cars

    In many ways and for many reasons, America lost its innocence in the 1960s, and no-holds-barred performance cars were just one casualty of wrenching social changes. Muscle cars began fading away in the 1970s. Most were gone by mid-decade, victims of a changing market and increasingly strict government regulations. A precious few managed to hang on longer, but only as meek reminders of their '60s selves.

    The decline was perhaps inevitable. Demand for big, fast, thirsty cars dried up as rising gas prices and hefty insurance premiums had many buyers looking at thriftier, more affordable Detroit compacts and imported minicars. At the same time, progressively tighter limits on tailpipe emissions forced automakers to detune engines via lowered compression ratios, fewer carburetors, more restrictive intakes, and other power-sapping measures. New Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards called for adding crash-protection features such as bigger, sturdier bumpers that added performance-sapping weight.

    While these harsh realities compromised all cars to some degree, muscle machines fared the worst by far. They did, after all, have the most to lose.

    The Last Great
    Muscle Cars
    For profiles, photos, and specifications of some of the last great muscle cars of the classic period, see:

    Signs of loss appeared as early as 1971, when General Motors' engines and some Chrysler Corporation mills were recalibrated to run on regular-grade gas instead of premium. That same year, GM switched its advertised engine ratings from gross figures to more-realistic net numbers, which made the power and torque losses look even worse on paper. American Motors, Chrysler, and Ford followed suit for 1972, when many engines were further detuned for newly required low-lead fuel.

    Then, in October 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) drastically curtailed oil exports to the United States, touching off a national energy crisis marked by widespread fuel shortages, record gas prices, and long lines at the pumps, among other discomforts.

    Though the crisis lasted but a few months, it exposed America's growing dependence on foreign energy sources that might not be so predictable. It also rattled Congress into enacting a Corporate Average Fuel Economy law (CAFE), starting with 1978 models that required automakers to meet progressively higher minimum-mpg targets against the threat of hefty fines.

    With all this, plus inflation-fueled "sticker shock" price increases, demand for muscle cars decelerated fast. By 1975, the casualty count included most big-block engines and such icon performers as the Buick GS, Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport, Dodge Charger R/T and Super Bee, Ford Torino Cobra, Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, and Plymouth GTX. Even the hallowed GTO wasn't spared, reduced for 1974 to a largely dress-up option for Pontiac's Ventura compact before the name was belatedly retired. Other heavy-hitters, such as Plymouth's Road Runner, shifted steadily from go to show.

    1978 Plymouth Road Runner
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    This 1978 Plymouth Road Runner was a mere shadow
    of the
    classic Road Runners from the late 1960s.

    Pony cars all but disappeared, with only the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird left to carry the torch after '74. Ford's Mustang, the original pony, was super-sized for 1971-73, then re-imagined as a high-class economy compact. This Mustang II was fortuitously timed and very popular, but made Mustangers wince even after an optional 302 V-8 returned after a year's absence. Mercury's Cougar? Morphed into obscurity a luxury intermediate.

    But it wasn't all bad news. Despite the increasingly hostile climate, a few '70s cars did offer performance kicks, if not the tire-shredding thrills of old.

    Heading the list of performance survivors were the "mini-muscle" compacts that began appearing in the early '70s. Sometimes called "insurance beaters," they offered satisfying go from torquey small-block V-8s yet cost far less to buy and operate than '60s-style midsizers.

    For example, the 1971-73 Plymouth Duster 340 and Dodge Demon/Dart Sport 340 offered up to 240 net bhp, plus nifty fastback coupe styling, eye-grabbing colors, and enough tape stripes and black accent paint for a Trans-Am race car. A 360 V-8 came in for '74, but for easier emissions tuning, not extra power. American Motors, Ford, and GM offered their own sporty compact confections, and though none sold that well, they brightened up an increasingly gloomy market.

    So, too, the top-performing Pontiac Firebirds. Though strangled no less than other hot cars, the Firebird Trans Am and 400 bucked the market by posting higher year-to-year sales for 1973 and '74 -- just as the gas crisis was raging. Of course, it helped they had little competition by then. Still, such surprisingly strong sales convinced product planners all over Detroit that people still craved performance, especially if straight-line speed was balanced by genuine roadability, something mostly unknown in classic muscle cars.

    In any case, Chevy took the hint and reinstated the Camaro Z-28 for 1977 after a two-year furlough -- and with a new emphasis on handling. GM also kept its pony cars going with remarkably adept updates to their basic "19701/2" design, meeting federal safety standards with savvy style, not short-cut clumsiness.

    Meantime, the economy fast pulled out from its gas-crisis doldrums, and the 1980s approached with signs that Detroit had learned to live with "Fed regs," thus promising a return to real style and performance at last.

    Perhaps the most encouraging marker was a clean-sheet 1979 Mustang and companion Mercury Capri: roadable, slick-looking new-think pony cars that admirably reconciled many conflicting demands of the day. The base engine was an economy-minded four with just 88 net bhp, but you could order 140 horses with either a turbocharged four or that old standby, Dearborn's 302 V-8. The latter returned 0-60 mph in about 8.7 seconds. That was a bit adrift of the lighter Mustangs with turbocharged four-cylinder engines, but buyers showed a marked preference for good old low-rpm V-8 torque, another fact not lost on product planners. Could a new performance era be ahead? It certainly seemed so.

    Then, in spring 1979, came a second gas crunch that had buyers scurrying back to smaller cars again. Though Detroit had been "downsizing" its fleet to meet fuel-economy targets, it was tough to know how this new crisis would play out. Engineers were fast developing technology for doing more with less, but did performance have a place in this brave new world? Or would a new generation of car buyers, many weaned on economy imports, be looking for something else entirely?

    On the next page, you'll see that the answer to both questions was yes. People still wanted hot cars, but not the kind their fathers knew. Times had changed. But Detroit had changed, too, and was ready to spring some surprises. The muscle car was about to be reborn.

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For related car information, see these articles:

    • The engine is what gives a muscle car its flamboyant personality. To learn everything you need to know about car engines, see ­How Car Engines Work.
    • Muscle cars wouldn't have much muscle without horsepower -- but what exactly is horsepower? How Horsepower Works answers that question.
    • NASCAR race cars embody the muscle car philosophy of power. Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out what makes these charged-up racers go.
    • Are you thinking of buying a 2007 muscle car, or any other car? See Consumer Guide Automotive's New-Car Reviews, Prices, and Information.

    The Rebirth of Muscle Cars

    ­After several years in the wilderness of a vastly changed automotive landscape, muscle cars began working their way back to the fast lane. The return to old-time power, passion, and prominence took time but proved well-nigh unstoppable once a second energy crisis passed (1979-82). With gas plentiful again and relatively cheap; many buyers eagerly embraced performance anew, even if it might be less fiery and flashy than they remembered.

    The thing is, the new-age muscle cars soon matured to the point of outperforming their 1960s grandfathers: faster yet more fuel-efficient, smaller outside but no less spacious inside, and far more capable when the road turned curvy.

    The Hottest
    Pony Cars Ever
    The rebirth of muscle cars depended heavily on revived pony cars. Rewind to some of the hottest muscle pony cars ever by checking out:

    Several factors drove this rebirth. First, the necessities of downsizing in the 1970s forced Detroit to do more with less, especially in getting more bang out of a given size engine. Second, advancing technology was making that possible. Increased use of solid-state electronics proved key to reconciling performance with fuel-economy targets and clean-air mandates.

    Increasingly sophisticated engine computers greatly improved efficiency by integrating control of fuel injection, spark timing, air intake, exhaust emissions, and other functions; later on, engineers would roll in transmission behavior, valve timing, even valve lift. Electronics also benefited roadability in giving rise to antilock brakes, traction, and stability controls, and "active" suspensions that could be adjusted -- or adjusted themselves -- to suit road conditions and driving needs.

    The result was a level of dynamic safety unknown in the 1960s -- important at a time when engines were muscling up again. And though all the new gizmos did add complexity, overall vehicle reliability generally improved.

    Another factor in the muscle car's rebirth was the development of new manufacturing methods that allowed specialized "niche" models to make a profit on much lower sales than required in the '60s and early '70s. In other words, automakers could literally afford to indulge in performance cars, great news for leadfoots.

    A final aspect was image. Muscle cars were as American as Old Glory, and even the new high-tech rides were unlike anything available from increasingly popular import brands. That was crucial. After years of blandness, Detroit needed an exciting "difference to sell," cars that would keep customers flocking in to help grow bottom-line sales and earnings. Though Big Three brands still cranked out "import fighters" with varying degrees of success, the muscle machines did far more to enhance their public reputations.

    The muscle-car renaissance was mainly owed to Ford and General Motors. Chrysler Corporation staked its future after 1980 mainly on smaller vehicles with front-wheel drive and four-cylinder engines, a formula that helped fend off bankruptcy but limited its cars' performance potential. Though Dodge produced a number of quick, raucous turbo-four front-drivers -- including a few vetted by the famed Carroll Shelby -- none were true muscle cars either in DNA or by the clock. Still, they were impressive for what they were and helped spice up the scene through the '80s and '90s.

    Meanwhile, Ford and GM locked horns in a new performance battle royal. It was as if the '70s had never happened. Pony cars were the natural weapons of choice. Ford rolled in a new Mustang GT for 1982 with a revived H.O. (high-output) 302 "5.0." V-8. Horses numbered 157, which seemed muscular only by comparison with late-'70s Mustangs. GM fired back that same season with a sleeker, trimmer third-generation Camaro and Firebird sporting an available 165-bhp 305 V-8.

    1983 Mustang GT
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    Ford's introduction of the 302-cid "5.0" V-8 in the 1982 Mustang
    was an important development in the rebirth of muscle cars.
    Pictured here is the 1983 Ford Mustang GT, which had a 175-bhp 5.0.

    The 'Stang proved slightly quicker in the quarter-mile at around 16.3 seconds versus 17.5, but this slugfest had only just begun. By 1992, V-8 Mustangs were up to 225 bhp and down to high-14 ETs, while the GM duo claimed similar times with a 245-bhp 350.

    It was the same story every year as the three old rivals traded points in magazine road tests -- and verbal "bench racing" among their fans. Sales were another matter. Despite the GM ponies' fresher styling and newer engineering, buyers increasingly favored the Mustang, perhaps because it looked and felt more like a traditional pony car (or just more old-fashioned, as some critics said).

    This trend continued even after a stunning 1993 redesign for Camaro/Firebird versus a less-extensive '94 makeover of Mustang's basic 1979 platform. Indeed, the Ford soon outsold its two rivals combined, prompting GM to call it quits after 2002. That was a shame, because the Camaro and Firebird became genuinely torrid at the end, available from 1999 with a new aluminum-block "350" V-8 borrowed from the Chevy Corvette sports car, good for an ultimate 325 bhp with ram-air induction.

    Mustang, meantime, exchanged its veteran pushrod 302 for a smaller but clean-sheet overhead-cam 281-cid V-8. This so-called modular engine arrived for 1996 with 215 bhp for GTs and, via twincam heads, 305 for Cobras (the top-line model since '93). By 1999 the GT was up to 260 bhp, the Cobra to 320.

    But that still didn't match GM's best, so Ford decided to go all out for 2003 by supercharging the Cobra to 390 wild-and-wooly horsepower. The result was the closest thing to a '60-style muscle car since the go-go years. Motor Trend clocked 0-60 in just 4.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.3 at 109.58 mph. As if that weren't enough, Ford issued three progressively hotter Cobra R models, all strictly for "off-road" use -- as in racing. The ultimate 2000 version, packing a 385-bhp 5.4-liter "mod," could demolish the quarter in 12.9 seconds at 110.8 mph, according to Motor Trend.

    Of course, some people are never satisfied, but the renewed factory-performance wars provided a big boost to the tuner business, specialty shops with the wiles for wringing considerably more out of a Camaro, Firebird, or Mustang. GM collaborated closely with SLP Engineering, while Ford gave its seal of approval to the work of Jack Roush, Steve Saleen, and other wizards. It was another glorious throwback to the good old days.

    But before we get further ahead of ourselves, let's turn to the next page and look at other muscle car machinations in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For related car information, see these articles:

    • The engine is what gives a muscle car its flamboyant personality. To learn everything you need to know about car engines, see How Car Engines Work.
    • Muscle cars wouldn't have much muscle without horsepower -- but what exactly is horsepower? How Horsepower Works answers that question.
    • NASCAR race cars embody the muscle car philosophy of power. Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out what makes these charged-up racers go.
    • Are you thinking of buying a 2007 muscle car, or any other car? See Consumer Guide Automotive's New-Car Reviews, Prices, and Information.

    Midsize Muscle Cars in the 1980s and 1990s

    The renaissance of modern muscle cars in the 1980s and 1990s relied mostly on the pony car, but the classic midsize body type hosted its share of reborn stormers.

    The hottest of these came from Buick, of all places, part of the brand's early-'80s effort to liven up its traditionally staid image. All were contemporary rear-drive Regal coupes using turbocharged versions of Buick's mainstay 3.8-liter V-6. First up was the 1982 T-Type, sporting fat tires, beefed-up chassis, and a jazzed-up exterior.

    1983 Hurst/Olds
    ©2007 Auto Imagery, Inc.
    The Hurst/Olds was back in 1983 after several years on the sideline. It wasn't
    as powerful as its predecessors, but it looked tough and handled well.

    Horsepower was 175-180, then 200 for 1984. There was also a fancy 1982 limited edition called Grand National, after the Chevy-powered Buicks then starting to clean up in NASCAR. The GN took the next year off and then returned with a mean all-black exterior and other unique touches.

    Muscle Cars
    That Inspired
    the New Breed
    The resurrected midsize muscle cars took inspiration from the last of the classic muscle breed. To learn about out these classics, see:
    • Healthy torque, ram air, and a stout suspension meant muscle was still alive in the 1971 Buick GS 455.
    • Muscle cars were in retreat, but the 1971 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 W-30 fought back with a functional-scoop fiberglass hood and 350 bhp.
    • The 1971 Plymouth 440+6 held out against the anti-muscle tide with 385 bhp of good-old tri-carb, big-block bravado.

    For 1986, both T-Type and Grand National added a turbo intercooler that swelled horsepower to 235. Another 10 horses made the '87s among the fastest cars around, with 0-60 scoot of about 6 seconds.

    But the best of these Buick muscle cars was the 1987 Buick GNX, a $30,000 end-of-the-series screamer with a bigger turbo and even meaner looks. Horsepower was 300 advertised, 276 actual, matched by prodigious torque. Performance was sensational even by today's standards. Car and Driver magazine timed just 4.7 seconds 0-60 and 13.5 at 102 mph in the quarter-mile.

    Exciting stuff, but completely irrelevant to Buick's business: No more than 5,000 T-Types sold for 1982-87, just 547 GNXs. These rapid Regals got plenty of enthusiast attention -- especially the GNX, which is now a pricey collector's item -- but mainstream Buick buyers just scratched their heads.

    Meanwhile, the Hurst/Olds returned for 1983 after several years away. It was much like the Regal T-Type, being based on the related Cutlass Supreme, but used a mild 180-bhp 307 Olds-built V-8. A special feature was a mandatory automatic transmission with Hurst's "Lightning Rod" shifter that provided a main control stick and separate levers for manual shifting of first and second. Though lacking the brash brawn of the old big-blocks, this new H/O looked purposeful, handled well, and was decently quick at around 8 seconds 0-60, 16 in the quarter.

    Production -- by Olds, not Hurst -- stopped after '84 and 6,501 total units. A new 4-4-2 then came in, basically the H/O with more sedate looks and a normal single-stick shifter. It lasted through 1987 and about 4,210 sales.

    Chevrolet followed a similar low-calorie formula for a 1983 revival of an SS option for its midsize Monte Carlo coupe. An "aero" nose was the most notable thing about it.

    For 1986 came the Monte SS Aerocoupe and a sister Pontiac Grand Prix, the 2+2. Each was built to qualify for NASCAR, evident in the special down sloped rear window designed for better "aero" and more top speed. The 2+2 also sported its own wind-cheater nose but was dropped after one year and 1,118 units (only 200 in street-legal trim). The Aerocoupe saw 200 first-year copies and 6,052 for '87.

    Those ballistic Buicks excepted, '80s midsize muscle cars were pale imitations of the best of their '60s forebears. Still, they conjured up some of their spirit. It fell to a full-size muscle car to recapture both the style and the substance of its ancestors.

    The 1994-1996 Chevrolet Impala SS was based on an auto-show concept that had people waving checkbooks. Its formula was time-honored. Stuff a mass-market Caprice four-door sedan with a 260-bhp 350 V-8 pulled from the Corvette sports car. Give it tighter gearing, quick steering, firm suspension, and performance tires to make it surprisingly agile for a two-ton full-size Detroiter. And lay on a monochrome exterior, subtle rear spoiler, handsome five-spoke wheels, and a rumbling baritone exhaust to leave no doubt about its purpose.

    Though not quite a fire-breather, the resurrected Impala SS could stop the quarter-mile clock in a creditable 15 seconds or so. And with prices in the low $20,000s, it was a great buy in modern performance with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Demand strained Chevy's ability to supply 6,300-plus for '94, more than 21,000 for '95, and nearly 42,000 for '96, after which GM bailed on full-size rear-drive cars.

    1989 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    Despite an attractive price tag, the 1989 Ford Thunderbird
    Super Coupe failed to capture the imagination of the public.

    There was one other "near" muscle car in this period, the Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe. Appearing with the new T-Bird generation of 1989, it intrigued enthusiasts with handsome European-influenced styling and a supercharged 232-cid V-6 making 210 bhp through 1993, then 230, good for 0-60s in the mid-7s or less. Like the Impala, the S/C moved like a star halfback, thanks to a standard firm suspension and performance tires, and was also attractively priced in the low $20,000s. But somehow, it never really caught on, and demand plunged once the Bird regained an optional V-8, which most buyers found far easier to live with. Ford pulled the plug after 1995.

    The S/C was a noble effort, but it lacked the classic excitement of true high performance. Not so with the new hot wheels that roared in after 2002, as you'll see on the next page.

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For related car information, see these articles:

    • The engine is what gives a muscle car its flamboyant personality. To learn everything ­you need to know about car engines, see How Car Engines Work.
    • Muscle cars wouldn't have much muscle without horsepower -- but what exactly is horsepower? How Horsepower Works answers that question.
    • NASCAR race cars embody the muscle car philosophy of power. Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out what makes these charged-up racers go.
    • Are you thinking of buying a 2007 muscle car, or any other car? See Consumer Guide Automotive's New-Car Reviews, Prices, and Information.

    Modern Muscle Cars

    Another golden age of American high performance has been ushered in with a range of remarkable modern muscle cars. These machines combine the speed and power of their hallowed ancestors but add new elements of safety, handling, reliability, and even fuel economy.

    Of course, the world of modern muscle cars wouldn't be complete without a Pontiac GTO. It seemed impossible, yet there it was: a brand-new GTO for 2004. GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz, a canny car guy with a long memory, wanted to give ailing Pontiac a hot showroom draw to replace the departed Firebird. He knew GM Australia had a slick Corvette-powered rear-drive coupe that would surely fill that bill. The deed was done after a twin-port grille, GTO badges, and other relatively minor changes were made.

    The Aussie Goat could certainly go like a classic GTO, arriving with 350 bhp from a 350-cid V-8. Motor Trend got 5.3 seconds 0-60 and a 13.62-second quarter-mile, so no problem there.

    2005 Pontiac GTO
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    The 2005 Pontiac GTO was a step up from the 2004 model -- but it
    still wasn't good enough for GTO aficionados. The car was canned after 2006.

    Handling, braking, and workmanship were all light-years improved, as one would expect after three decades, and the ride was actually comfortable. But muscleheads took issue with the styling: not American enough, not tough enough. And how could a GTO not have hood scoops?

    Future Muscle Cars
    Classic muscle car names are being revived for the 21st century. Read about a couple that are on the drawing board:
    • Packing a hot small-block Chevy V-8, the reborn Chevrolet Camaro, due as a 2009 model, will be a true millennial muscle car. Check out the 2009 Chevrolet Camaro concept car.
    • Retro styling and high-tech Hemi power make the rejuvenated Dodge Challenger the very model of a modern muscle car. Learn about the 2008 Dodge Challenger.

    With this carping and resultant publicity, sales came in below expectations. Pontiac did what it could for 2005: standard twin-scoop hood, more exhaust rumble, and a bigger 364-cid Corvette small-block with a burly 400 bhp. But even this didn't satisfy GTO die-hards, so the car was cancelled after 2006 and an estimated total sales of around 32,000. It was a major disappointment for Mr. Lutz, but GM seems ready to try again. We hear another new GTO is coming around 2009, and you can bet the stylists won't fool around.

    Bold styling helped Chrysler survive another brush with death in the early '90s, a turnaround that prompted a 1998 takeover by Mercedes-Benz. But few were prepared for the 2005 Chrysler 300 sedan, Dodge Magnum wagon, and 2006 Dodge Charger sedan.

    A sharp departure from the curvy cab forward look, these new full-size LX cars were unabashedly blunt and blocky, with chopped rooflines and tightly drawn contours lending a muscular, almost menacing air.

    Rear-wheel drive was back at Chrysler after a long absence. So, too, the legendary Hemi V-8. There were two of them, both brand-new: a 340-bhp 345 for the 300C, Magnum RT and Charger RT, and a deep-throated 425-bhp 370 for limited-edition SRT8 versions developed by Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology performance group. The smaller Hemi gestured to fuel economy with a Multi Displacement System that would shut down four cylinders under light throttle conditions like gentle cruising. But confirmed leadfoots found it hard to be gentle with a Hemi up front, and who could blame them?

    2005 Chrysler 300C SRT8
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    The fabled Hemi V-8 returned in the 2005 Chrysler 300C SRT8.

    Despite automatic transmission and two-ton heft, the 340-bhp jobs could turn 0-60s in the mid-5s and quarter-miles in the low-14s at just over 100 mph. SRT8s were predictably faster still, doing 0-60 lunges in 5 seconds or less, sub-14 quarter miles, and 0-100 and back to 0 in no more than 17 seconds. Perhaps even more remarkable, these were mainline models with relatively mainstream $30,000-$40,000 prices, plus Mercedes engineering influence and all-American big-car room and comfort.

    A few enthusiasts objected to the Charger's rebirth as a sedan, but big two-doors were ancient history. The LXs were instant hits, especially the 300, and though most left showrooms with a tame V-6, strong Hemi sales surprised even Chrysler.

    Speaking of surprises, Cadillac was the last place one expected to find a muscle machine, yet the 2004 CTS-V was precisely that. Based on the division's year-old midsize sedan, it packed a 400-bhp version of the latest Chevrolet Corvette 350 V-8, which drove the rear wheels through a mandatory manual transmission, the first shift-it-yourself Caddy in over 50 years. Firm suspension, big brakes and boots, and a tastefully buffed exterior suggested superhero abilities, and the CTS-V didn't disappoint. Road & Track magazine timed 0-60 mph in a swift 5 seconds flat. Racing versions finished 1-2 in class at the famous Sebring 12-Hour road race against formidable foes, Corvettes included.

    Cadillac was reinventing itself for a new century and a new audience, so the CTS-V was no fluke. Proving that point was the 2006 STS-V, a slightly larger rear-drive sedan packing a supercharged version of Cadillac's own world-class "Northstar" V-8. A massive 469 bhp delivered 0-60 in less than 5 seconds, easily a match for European stormers like the BMW M5 and Mercedes CLS 55 that cost far more than the Caddy's $75,000.

    But the action wasn't confined to the high-price spread, not by a long shot. It was a very long time coming, but the redesigned 2005 Mustang was arguably the best Ford pony car ever and made '60s-style muscle affordable once again.

    2005 Ford Mustang
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    The 2005 Ford Mustang GT bridged the generation gap,
    which meant smoking-hot sales figures.

    For starters, this was the first Mustang with its own structure. Even the superstar 1964 original shared a good many bones with the humble Falcon compact. Moreover, the '05 was a real head-turner, an artful homage to '60s Mustangs, yet fresh and modern, too. Baby boomers thought it "boss," while younger enthusiasts judged it "way cool." If ever a car bridged the old generation gap, this was it. No wonder year-to-year Mustang sales more than doubled to the highest total in more a decade.

    The redesign increased overall size but added little weight, and that was more than offset by extra standard power. The base V-6 was now a torquey 245-cid job with 210 bhp, but enthusiasts gravitated to the ever-popular GT, which claimed 300 ponies from a muscled-up 281-cid V-8. Combined with the stiff new platform and a thoroughly reengineered chassis, the GT was a dream drive -- and an irresistible performance buy at around $25,000 for the fastback coupe and some $4,800 more for the convertible that arrived for 2006.

    With the standard 5-speed manual and going pedal-to-metal, a GT could romp 0-60 in just over 5 seconds and finish the quarter-mile in less than 14 seconds at around 103 mph. Think about that. Right out the box, a new GT would out drag all but the most exotic classic Mustangs yet cost far less in relative terms and offered fuel efficiency and safety features unimaginable in muscle's golden age.

    But wait. There was much more. After a long separation, Carroll Shelby renewed his association with Dearborn to oversee a high-power replacement for the Mustang Cobra. Debuting for 2007, the new Shelby GT500 coupe and convertible boasted a whopping 500 horses from a supercharged version of the twincam 330-cid "mod" V8, plus a heavy-duty 6-speed manual transmission, more-aggressive styling, and many special touches throughout. Performance was mind-boggling: 0-60 blasts of 4 seconds flat, quarter-mile runs of 12.5 at 116 mph. Top speed? A blazing 160 mph -- with a governor!

    Of course, this firepower carried a price, but no other car delivered 500 horses with low $40,000 stickers, not to mention trackworthy handling and braking. In all, the reborn Shelby GT500 was a modern marvel with thrilling '60s soul.

    What's next for Detroit muscle? Plenty, from what we can tell. Ford, GM, and Chrysler may be struggling for survival now, but they won't give up on all-American performance. Indeed, they view it as a powerful asset to help secure their futures. That's why Dodge has announced a revived Challenger pony car for 2008 -- with a Hemi, of course -- and why Chevrolet promises a new Camaro around for 2009. We also know Ford is working on another clean-sheet Mustang. A new GTO seems likely, as noted above, and we wouldn't be surprised to hear V-8s rumble in a hot new Chevy Impala and a burly new Ford (perhaps called Interceptor).

    So the muscle car saga goes roaring on, a happy prospect in our troubled world, especially for those who were there when it all started. Which brings us to a happy epilogue in the classic muscle car story, one with its own high-powered excitement. That would be the rediscovery of timeless muscle classics by a 1960s generation now grown up and newly affluent. See in the next section to learn how baby boomers have created Muscle Mania II, or 2.0 if you prefer.

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For more cool muscle car information, see:

    • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
    • The phrase Mercury muscle cars was no contradiction in terms; even this staid marquee had a quick-car lineup.
    • Chevrolet muscle cars beat at the heart of big-cube high performance.

    Muscle Cars and Baby Boomers

    Muscle cars have never gone away, but the seminal 1960s fire-breathers did go out of style for a time. By the late 1970s, they were viewed as just decaying "used cars," cheap to buy but rather impractical at time of record gas prices.

    The Rarest
    Muscle Cars
    Rarity is key to the value of classic muscle cars. To learn about some of the lowest-production muscle cars of all time, see:

    Since then, classic muscle has been rediscovered by the leading edge of the Baby-Boom generation, which was just starting high school when the first GTO hit the streets. Now these folks are 50-somethings in their peak earning years, and many are scrambling to possess what they could only dream of as teenagers. Call it Muscle Mania II.

    The growing prominence of classic muscle is the latest trend in a multifaceted collector-car hobby that began modestly in the late 1940s and is now big business. It engages millions of Americans from all walks of life who may own one or two favorites or enough cars to fill a warehouse.

    Whatever their interests and income, old-car lovers support a thriving industry of restoration specialists, parts locators and fabricators, enthusiast magazines and websites, memorabilia vendors, vehicle appraisers, and auction houses, plus businesses and organizations devoted to vintage-auto racing.

    People gather up and preserve old cars for many reasons. Some hope to buy low and sell high, perhaps with the proverbial long-lost gem accidentally found in some crumbling barn. For most folks, though, the motivation is emotional, a desire to recapture part of their youth.

    Classic muscle fans are no different. As Business Week magazine noted in its February 6, 2006, issue: "For many drivers who came of age when high-performance...engines ruled the road, potent powertrains trump the pedigree of traditional collector cars. A growing number of these buyers are paying top dollar for restorations of the coolest cars from their youth."

    Actually, restoration isn't always a plus. Many classic muscle fans prefer cars that are most "factory-original," paint flaws, misaligned trim, and all the rest. It's part of the charm, a reminder that Detroit workmanship wasn't so good way back when.

    As for "paying top dollar," keep in mind that prices for all collector cars vary widely depending on condition, available supply, and current market demand. That said, classic muscle machines are hot right now, thanks to boomer interest, so they routinely go for six-figure sums, and the rarest models often sell for much more.

    For example, at the February 2006 Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, a 1970 Plymouth Hemi-Cuda convertible -- one of just 14 built -- went for a princely $2.1 million. But that's the exception that proves a rule. As comedian and car collector Jay Leno puts it: "If you make money in this hobby, you're doing it wrong."

    1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda
    ©Barrett-Jackson
    The poster child for muscle car nostalgia among Baby Boomers might be this
    1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda, one of just 14 built. It went for $2.1 million
    at the 2006 Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    Of course, such wisdom won't deter those who just know they can beat the stock market by "flipping" a muscle machine or some other golden oldie. But if not the easiest way to make a fortune, old cars are a wonderful investment in nostalgic fun, not to mention one that preserves a part of automotive history. And when all is said and done, shouldn't that be enough?

    Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

    For more cool information on muscle cars, see:

    • Muscle cars came in many shapes and sizes. Here are features on more than 100 muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.
    • Dodge muscle cars were among the fastest and wildest.
    • Plymouth muscle cars spanned the spectrum from fanciful to fearsome -- and sometimes displayed both qualities in a single model.