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How Muscle Cars Work

The Rebirth of Muscle Cars

­After several years in the wilderness of a vastly changed automotive landscape, muscle cars began working their way back to the fast lane. The return to old-time power, passion, and prominence took time but proved well-nigh unstoppable once a second energy crisis passed (1979-82). With gas plentiful again and relatively cheap; many buyers eagerly embraced performance anew, even if it might be less fiery and flashy than they remembered.

The thing is, the new-age muscle cars soon matured to the point of outperforming their 1960s grandfathers: faster yet more fuel-efficient, smaller outside but no less spacious inside, and far more capable when the road turned curvy.

The Hottest
Pony Cars Ever
The rebirth of muscle cars depended heavily on revived pony cars. Rewind to some of the hottest muscle pony cars ever by checking out:

Several factors drove this rebirth. First, the necessities of downsizing in the 1970s forced Detroit to do more with less, especially in getting more bang out of a given size engine. Second, advancing technology was making that possible. Increased use of solid-state electronics proved key to reconciling performance with fuel-economy targets and clean-air mandates.

Increasingly sophisticated engine computers greatly improved efficiency by integrating control of fuel injection, spark timing, air intake, exhaust emissions, and other functions; later on, engineers would roll in transmission behavior, valve timing, even valve lift. Electronics also benefited roadability in giving rise to antilock brakes, traction, and stability controls, and "active" suspensions that could be adjusted -- or adjusted themselves -- to suit road conditions and driving needs.

The result was a level of dynamic safety unknown in the 1960s -- important at a time when engines were muscling up again. And though all the new gizmos did add complexity, overall vehicle reliability generally improved.

Another factor in the muscle car's rebirth was the development of new manufacturing methods that allowed specialized "niche" models to make a profit on much lower sales than required in the '60s and early '70s. In other words, automakers could literally afford to indulge in performance cars, great news for leadfoots.

A final aspect was image. Muscle cars were as American as Old Glory, and even the new high-tech rides were unlike anything available from increasingly popular import brands. That was crucial. After years of blandness, Detroit needed an exciting "difference to sell," cars that would keep customers flocking in to help grow bottom-line sales and earnings. Though Big Three brands still cranked out "import fighters" with varying degrees of success, the muscle machines did far more to enhance their public reputations.

The muscle-car renaissance was mainly owed to Ford and General Motors. Chrysler Corporation staked its future after 1980 mainly on smaller vehicles with front-wheel drive and four-cylinder engines, a formula that helped fend off bankruptcy but limited its cars' performance potential. Though Dodge produced a number of quick, raucous turbo-four front-drivers -- including a few vetted by the famed Carroll Shelby -- none were true muscle cars either in DNA or by the clock. Still, they were impressive for what they were and helped spice up the scene through the '80s and '90s.

Meanwhile, Ford and GM locked horns in a new performance battle royal. It was as if the '70s had never happened. Pony cars were the natural weapons of choice. Ford rolled in a new Mustang GT for 1982 with a revived H.O. (high-output) 302 "5.0." V-8. Horses numbered 157, which seemed muscular only by comparison with late-'70s Mustangs. GM fired back that same season with a sleeker, trimmer third-generation Camaro and Firebird sporting an available 165-bhp 305 V-8.

1983 Mustang GT
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Ford's introduction of the 302-cid "5.0" V-8 in the 1982 Mustang
was an important development in the rebirth of muscle cars.
Pictured here is the 1983 Ford Mustang GT, which had a 175-bhp 5.0.

The 'Stang proved slightly quicker in the quarter-mile at around 16.3 seconds versus 17.5, but this slugfest had only just begun. By 1992, V-8 Mustangs were up to 225 bhp and down to high-14 ETs, while the GM duo claimed similar times with a 245-bhp 350.

It was the same story every year as the three old rivals traded points in magazine road tests -- and verbal "bench racing" among their fans. Sales were another matter. Despite the GM ponies' fresher styling and newer engineering, buyers increasingly favored the Mustang, perhaps because it looked and felt more like a traditional pony car (or just more old-fashioned, as some critics said).

This trend continued even after a stunning 1993 redesign for Camaro/Firebird versus a less-extensive '94 makeover of Mustang's basic 1979 platform. Indeed, the Ford soon outsold its two rivals combined, prompting GM to call it quits after 2002. That was a shame, because the Camaro and Firebird became genuinely torrid at the end, available from 1999 with a new aluminum-block "350" V-8 borrowed from the Chevy Corvette sports car, good for an ultimate 325 bhp with ram-air induction.

Mustang, meantime, exchanged its veteran pushrod 302 for a smaller but clean-sheet overhead-cam 281-cid V-8. This so-called modular engine arrived for 1996 with 215 bhp for GTs and, via twincam heads, 305 for Cobras (the top-line model since '93). By 1999 the GT was up to 260 bhp, the Cobra to 320.

But that still didn't match GM's best, so Ford decided to go all out for 2003 by supercharging the Cobra to 390 wild-and-wooly horsepower. The result was the closest thing to a '60-style muscle car since the go-go years. Motor Trend clocked 0-60 in just 4.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.3 at 109.58 mph. As if that weren't enough, Ford issued three progressively hotter Cobra R models, all strictly for "off-road" use -- as in racing. The ultimate 2000 version, packing a 385-bhp 5.4-liter "mod," could demolish the quarter in 12.9 seconds at 110.8 mph, according to Motor Trend.

Of course, some people are never satisfied, but the renewed factory-performance wars provided a big boost to the tuner business, specialty shops with the wiles for wringing considerably more out of a Camaro, Firebird, or Mustang. GM collaborated closely with SLP Engineering, while Ford gave its seal of approval to the work of Jack Roush, Steve Saleen, and other wizards. It was another glorious throwback to the good old days.

But before we get further ahead of ourselves, let's turn to the next page and look at other muscle car machinations in the 1980s and 1990s.

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.