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How Muscle Cars Work

Muscle Cars and American Culture

Speed and power are compelling qualities, so it's no surprise that muscle cars were such a happening back in the 1960s and continue to hold an allure that transcends decades and generations. Indeed, generating a buzz that struck a chord with something uniquely American was a prime reason for creating these fast-and-furious machines in the first place.

It was all about marketing and the bottom line. Most people didn't need, say, a GTO, but the GTO's wild image would compel more than a few to buy a mild-mannered Tempest LeMans with much the same style. That's how muscle cars had such a big market impact even though they didn't sell in big numbers.

Muscle Cars
That Reflected
American Culture
For the inside scoop on some muscle cars that reflected 1960s and 1970s American culture, see:

The GTO, remember, was a marketing man's idea designed to get people talking about Pontiac and to lure them into showrooms. But muscle cars had to keep faith with performance fans, whose opinions often persuade non-enthusiast friends what car to buy. That required credibility in competition. Enthusiasts are demanding, and they won't talk your talk until you walk their walk.

That's why automakers worked hard to make sure their muscle cars not only looked cool but also had a winning reputation. Sometimes, the work was a bit shady. For example, despite Detroit's admonishments to leave demonstrations of speed to the organized confines of NHRA and NASCAR, young hotbloods still raced the public streets and roads in the 1960s. They were
defying the law, but rebellion was hip in those days.

The action was intense, emotions ran high. Fittingly, Detroit's Woodward Avenue was one of the most popular spots for outlaw street racing. And because of that, it became unofficial proving grounds for new manifolds, carburetors, and other speed parts devised by the automakers themselves. Many executives tacitly encouraged such "research" and even participated. After all, everyone else was there, so why not see what you were up against? As for manufacturers who didn't make the street scene...well, that news got around, too.

Such underground support is part of muscle-car lore. So, too, the highly visible new-car dealers that set up "speed shops" to improve on what their factories were doing. Because of their high sales volume, these dealerships were typically the first to sell the latest factory parts, but many also developed their own speed equipment, then built and sponsored race cars to show it off, usually in drag racing. It was just good business to sell performance where performance fans gathered.

Among the best-known of these dealers were Nickey Chevrolet and "Mr. Norm's" Grand Spaulding Dodge, both in Chicago; Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania; Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan; and Ford-affiliated Holman-Moody in North Carolina.

Royal Pontaic
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan -- whose name is displayed on this
race car -- was among the best-known "speed shops."

"Muscle mania" was also good for the performance "aftermarket" companies that began appearing in the 1940s. Names like Hurst (shifters), Edelbrock (manifolds), Iskenderian (camshafts), and others were well known to gearheads from car magazines and prominent race-car logos. In the '60s, these parts-makers boomed as never before, which prompted even more companies to weigh in.

By the end of the decade, the industry had grown so large that it formed its own trade group, first called the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association, later the Speed Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

But there was another side to the muscle car scene -- and man, was it groovy. For all their raw power and rumbling machismo, muscle cars had a playful side reflecting the trendy irreverence of the youthful '60s counterculture. It was the era of do-your-own-thing and pop art, of "mod" fashions and Beatle haircuts, folk songs, acid rock and the British invasion. Automakers found creative ways to relate to this market.

Wild colors were in vogue, so American Motors offered bright "Big Bad" hues for 1969-70. Dodge and Plymouth had a "High Impact" palette with wacky names like Tor-Red, Plum Crazy, and Go-Man-Go. Plymouth's Road Runner touched off a minor craze for cartoony model names and logos.

The 1968 Super Bee, for example, inspired the "Scat Pack" line of hot Dodges with available bumblebee tail stripes bearing a helmeted character bee speeding along on dragster-size wheels. Ford borrowed Carroll Shelby's raring-snake mascot for the Torino Cobra and other purposes. The '69 GTO Judge was a knowing nod to "Here Come da Judge," a popular phrase from the hit TV show "Laugh-In."

Dr. Oldsmobile
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The doctor was in at Oldsmobile. The automaker used a fictitious
"Dr. Oldsmobile" in advertisements to introduce its hot new muscle cars.

Commercials and print ads also played to youth culture. Dodge portrayed "White Hat Guys" and a "Dodge Rebellion." British pop singer Petula Clark crooned that you should "Look What Plymouth's Up to Now." Ford pitched some sportier models as "The Lively Ones," and sponsored a like-named TV show to boot. Even Buick wanted to "Light Your Fire."

Chevrolet's Camaro launched as "The Hugger." Pontiac said all its cars "take the fun of driving seriously." A fictitious "Dr. Oldsmobile," white smock and all, was frequently seen working in his lab on hot new numbers for that GM brand. AMC promoted a muscular 1970 hardtop by giving away stickers with the phrase "Up with the Rebel Machine."

Hollywood, never slow to spot a trend, only added to a growing muscle car mystique. Three films in particular still rate high among performance fans for high-powered thrills: "Vanishing Point," "Two-Lane Blacktop," and "Bullitt."

The 1968 Ford Mustang was featured in the Steve McQueen movie 'Bullitt.'
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Muscle cars made their mark on Hollywood. The 1968 Ford Mustang,
for instance, had a starring turn in the Steve McQueen classic "Bullitt."

And let's not forget all the hit '60s songs celebrating fast cars and good times. The Beach Boys alone cranked out "409," "Shut Down," and "Fun, Fun, Fun" (when daddy takes the T-Bird away), plus lesser ditties like "Car Crazy Cutie," "Our Car Club," and "No-Go Showboat." Jan and Dean sung about the "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" with a Super/Stock Dodge, plus the dangers of "Dead Man's Curve." Ronnie and the Daytonas had kids boogalooing to little "GTO," with lyrics credited to Pontiac promotions man Jim Wangers himself. Wilson Pickett idolized "Mustang Sally."

The songs, the slang, the street scene, and all the rest that made up muscle car mania were great fun. Over time, muscle cars would be rediscovered and even resurrected, but only after a trying decade in which the breed seemed doomed to extinction. That dim period is chronicled on the next page.

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For related car information, see these articles:

  • The engine is what gives a muscle car its flamboyant personality. To learn everything you need to know about car engines, see ­How Car Engines Work.
  • Muscle cars wouldn't have much muscle without horsepower -- but what exactly is horsepower? How Horsepower Works answers that question.
  • NASCAR race cars embody the muscle car philosophy of power. Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out what makes these charged-up racers go.
  • Are you thinking of buying a 2007 muscle car, or any other car? See Consumer Guide Automotive's New-Car Reviews, Prices, and Information.