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How Muscle Cars Work

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.

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