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How Muscle Cars Work

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.