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How Muscle Cars Work

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.