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How Muscle Cars Work

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.