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
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!

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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.