Muscle car is a term used to refer to a variety of high performance automobiles. The term principally refers to American, Australian and to a lesser extent South African models. It generally describes a 2-door rear wheel drive mid-size car with a large, powerful V8 engine, and at an affordable price. Although opinions vary, it is generally accepted that classic muscle cars were produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Muscle cars were built for street use and in some cases racing. They are distinct from sports cars and also from GTs, which are two-seat or 2+2 cars intended for high-speed touring/road racing. These are not generally considered muscle cars owing to their small size, relatively high cost and specialty nature. (The two-seater AMC AMX may or may not be an exception: one source queries whether it qualifies as a true muscle car or pony car, but also lists it among vehicles that fit the general interpretation of both categories. AMC was "never shy" about describing the car as "a genuine sports car as it was relatively inexpensive).
For a definition from the muscle car era, Peter Henshaw's 2004 book Muscle Cars refers the reader to an extract from Road Test magazine’s June 1967 issue: "Just what is a Muscle Car? Exactly what the name implies. It is a product of the American car industry adhering to the hot rodder's philosophy of taking a small car and putting a BIG engine in it [...] The Muscle Car is Charles Atlas kicking sand in the face of the weakling." Henshaw adds that the muscle car was designed for straight-line speed, and did not have the "sophisticated chassis", "engineering integrity" or "lithe appearance" of European high-performance cars
Classic muscle cars are also defined by age and country of origin. The term "muscle car" did not enter common usage until after production of the vehicles had essentially ended, and American print media of the era commonly referred to them as "supercars".
Opinions on the origin of the muscle car vary, but the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, created in response to growing public interest in speed and power, is often cited as the first of the breed. It featured an innovative and powerful new engine—America's first high- compression overhead valve V-8—in the lighter Oldsmobile body.
Musclecars magazine wrote: "[t]he idea of putting a full-size V8 under the hood of an intermediate body and making it run like Jesse Owens in Berlin belongs to none other than Oldsmobile... [The] all-new ohv V8...Rocket engine quickly found its way into the lighter 76 series body, and in February 1949, the new 88 series was born." The article continued: "Walt Woron of Motor Trend enjoyed the 'quick-flowing power...that pins you to your seat and keeps you there until you release your foot from the throttle [...] Olds dominated the performance landscape in 1950, including wins in the NASCAR Grand National division, Daytona Speed Weeks, and the 2100-plus-mile Carrera Panamericana. In France, an 88 won a production car race at Spa-Francorchamps... A husky V8 in a cleanly styled, lightweight coupe body, the original musclecar truly was the '49 Olds 88."
Jack Nerad wrote in Driving Today: "the Rocket V-8 set the standard for every American V-8 engine that would follow it for at least three decades [...] With a displacement of 303 cubic inches and topped by a two-barrel carburetor, the first Rocket V-8 churned out at 3,600 rpm and 263 pound-feet of torque at a lazy 1800 rpm [and] no mid-range car in the world, save the Hudson Hornet, came close to the Rocket Olds performance potential..."
Nerad added that the Rocket 88 was "the hit of NASCAR’s 1950 season, winning eight of the 10 races. Given its lightning-like success, one could clearly make the case that the Olds 88 with its V-8 was the first 'musclecar'...
Steve Dulcich, writing in Popular Hot Rodding, also cites Oldsmobile, concurrently with Cadillac, as having "launched the modern era of the high-performance V-8 with the introduction of the "Rocket 88" overhead-valve V-8 in 1949.
Other manufacturers "showcased performance hardware in flashy limited-edition models. Chrysler led the way with its 1955 C-300, an inspired blend of Hemi power and luxury-car trappings that fast became the new star of NASCAR. With , it was rightly advertised as 'America's Most Powerful Car.'"
Capable of accelerating from Rambler Rebel was the fastest stock American sedan, according to Motor Trend. The popularity and performance of muscle cars grew in the early 1960s, while Mopar (Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler) and Ford battled for supremacy in drag racing—the 1962 Dodge Dart Max Wedge, for example, could run a 13-second 1/4-mile dragstrip at over . By 1964, there were Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, and Pontiac muscle cars in GM's lineup, and Buick joined them a year later. For 1964 and 1965, Ford had its Thunderbolts, and Mopar unveiled the Hemi engine. The Pontiac GTO was an option package that included Pontiac's V8 engine, floor-shifted transmission with Hurst shift linkage, and special trim. In 1966 the GTO became a model in its own right. The project, spearheaded by Pontiac division president John DeLorean, technically violated GM's policy limiting its smaller cars to displacement, but the new model proved more popular than expected and inspired GM and its competitors to produce numerous imitators. The GTO itself was a response to the Dodge Polara 500 and the Plymouth Sport Fury, which in 1962 had been shrunk to intermediates—at a time when bigger was considered better.
AMC, though late entering the muscle car market, produced "an impressive array of performance cars in a relatively short time," said Motor Trend. "The first stirrings of AMC performance came in 1965, when the dramatic if ungainly Rambler Marlin fastback was introduced to battle the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda." Although the Marlin was a flop in terms of sales and initial performance, AMC gained some muscle-car credibility in 1967, when it made both the Marlin and the "more pedestrian" Rebel available with its new , "Typhoon" V8. And in 1968 the company offered two legitimate muscle car contenders: the Javelin and its truncated variant, the AMX.
Although the sales of true muscle cars were relatively modest by total Detroit production standards, they had value in publicity and bragging rights. Competition between manufacturers meant that buyers had the choice of ever-more powerful engines—a horsepower war that peaked in 1970, with some models offering as much as (with this and others likely producing as much or more actual power, whatever their rating).
For example, Ford built 200 lightweight Ford Galaxies for drag racing in 1963. All non-essential equipment was omitted. Modifications included fiberglass panels, aluminum bumpers, traction bars, and a competition-specification engine factory-rated at a conservative . This full-size car could run the quarter mile in a little over 12 seconds. Also built in 1963 were 5,000 road-legal versions that could be used every day. (Ford claimed 0-60 in less than 6 seconds for the similarly-powered 1966 Galaxie 500XL 427.)
Another Ford lightweight was the 1964 Ford Thunderbolt that utilized the mid-size Fairlane body. A stock Thunderbolt could run a quarter-mile (402 m) at a drag strip in 11.76 seconds at , and Gas Ronda dominated the NHRA World Championship with a best time of 11.6 seconds at . The Thunderbolt included competition-specification engine and special exhausts (though technically legal for street use, the car was too raucous for the public roads—"not suitable", according to a Hot Rod magazine quote, "for driving to and from the strip, let alone on the street in everyday use"; also massive traction bars, asymmetrical rear springs, and a trunk-mounted bus battery to maximize traction from what was realistically . Sun visors, exterior mirror, sound-deadener, armrests, jack, and lug wrench were omitted to save weight. The car was given lightweight Plexiglass windows, and early versions had fiberglass front body panels and bumpers, later changed to aluminum to meet NHRA regulations. Base price was US$3,780. 111 Thunderbolts were built, and Ford contracted Dearborn Steel Tubing to help with assembly. Factory records show that the first 11 cars were maroon and the subsequent 100 were white.
The 1964 Dodge 426 Hemi Lightweight produced over . This "top drag racer" had an aluminium hood, lightweight front bumpers, fenders, doors and lower valance, magnesium front wheels, lightweight Dodge van seat, Lexan side windows, one windshield wiper and no sun visors or sound deadening. Like other lightweights of the era it came with a factory disclaimer: Designed for supervised acceleration trials. Not recommended for general everyday driving because of the compromises in the all-round characteristics which must be made for this type of vehicle.
Also too "high-strung" for the street was Chrysler’s small-volume-production 1965 drag racer, the Plymouth Satellite 426 Hemi. Although the detuned 1966 version (the factory rating underestimated it at ) has been criticized for poor brakes and cornering, Car and Driver described it as "the best combination of brute performance and tractable street manners we've ever driven." The car's understated appearance belied its "ultra-supercar" performance: it could run a 13.8-second quarter mile at . Base price was $3,850.
Chevrolet likewise eschewed flamboyant stripes and badges for their 1969 Chevelle COPO 427 and kept its appearance low-key. The car could run a 13.3 sec. quarter-mile at . Chevrolet rated the engine at , but the NHRA claimed a truer . It has been said that the 1969 COPO Chevelles were "among the most feared muscle cars of any day. And they didn't need any badges." Base price was US$3,800.
For 1970 Chevrolet offered the Chevelle SS 454, also at a base price of US$3,800. The "muscle car summit", its engine was rated at , the highest-ever factory rating at that time. Car Life magazine wrote: "It's fair to say that the Supercar as we know it may have gone as far as it's going.
In response to rising cost and weight, a secondary trend towards more basic "budget" muscle cars emerged in 1967 and 1968—e.g. the "original budget Supercar" Plymouth Road Runner; also the Plymouth GTX, which offered "as much performance-per-dollar as anything on the market, and more than most", the Dodge Super Bee and other variants. Manufacturers also offered bigger engines in their compact models, sometimes making them lighter, roomier, and faster than their own pony-car lines.
The -powered 1970 Plymouth Duster was one of these smaller, more affordable cars. Based on the compact-sized Plymouth Valiant and priced at US$2,547, the 340 Duster posted a 6.0-second 0- time and ran the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds at . This "reasonably fast" compact muscle car had a stiff, slightly lowered suspension which, in the view of Hot Rod magazine at the time, let the car "ride in an acceptable fashion". However an anonymous 2007 article on the Consumer Guide website refers to "a punishing ride" and trim that was "obviously low-budget." The 1970 model came with front disc brakes and without hood scoops. The only high-performance cues were dual exhausts and modest decals. Tom Gale, former Chrysler vice president of design, describes the car as "a phenomenal success. It had a bulletproof chassis, was relatively lightweight, and had a good power train. These were cars. Hot Rod rated the Duster "one of the best, if not the best, dollar buy in a performance car" in 1970.
American Motors' mid-sized 1970 Rebel Machine, developed in consultation with Hurst Performance, was also built for normal street use. It had a engine developing — a "moderate performer that gave a 0- time of 6.8 seconds and a quarter mile in 14.4 seconds at . Early examples came in "patriotic" red, white and blue. Jack Nerad wrote in Driving Today that it was "a straight-up competitor to the GTO, et al. ... [T]he engine was upgraded to [with] a four-barrel Motorcraft carburetor and other hot rod trickery. The torque figure was equally prodigious—430 pound-feet at a lazy 3600 rpm. In this car the engine was practically the entire story." With four-speed manual transmission, the car "could spring from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 6.4 seconds..." In Nerad's view the car "somehow, someway deserves to be considered among the Greatest Cars of All Time.
A post-2005 Mopar Muscle magazine article said, "But by far the most stunning thing for a car with this level of performance and standard equipment was the sticker of just US$3,475. In 1970, Hot Rod magazine wrote: "Here's a car that lists for $3500 at the starting point, but lacks an appealing interior, feels way too big (and is) to be a handler, and is marked with more identity than Peter Fonda's two wheeler, with about the same taste. Not many of the folks we talked with while we had the car could think of any reason they'd want this car, with 36 months to pay and all the bright paint." The author said, "[I]f there is an attempt here to chase down the well-known middle-class supercar market nobody but American Motors need worry.
For comparison, the "plain wrapper 1969 Plymouth Road Runner, Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year, ran a 14.7 quarter at with the standard engine after the addition of a high-performance factory camshaft plus non-standard, high-performance induction and exhaust manifolds, carburetor and slick tires. In this form the car cost US$3,893. In 1968 Dodge's US$3,027 Super Bee ran a 15-second quarter at on street tires with the same engine, only stock.
Furthermore, the -powered 1968 Plymouth Barracuda 4-seater, which Hot Rod magazine categorized as "a supercar, without any doubt attached...also a 'pony car', a compact and a workhorse" with enough rear seat leg and head room for "passengers to ride back there without distress" and "a flip-up door to the trunk area for ferrying some pretty sizeable loads of cargo", was a "sizeable threat on the drag strip": 13.33 seconds at . Base price was $2796.00. Price as tested by Hot Rod: $3652.
A majority of musclecars came optioned with high-compression powerplants - some as high as 11:1. Prior to the oil embargo, 100-octane fuel was common (e.g. Shell's Hi-Test) until the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 where octane ratings were lowered to 91 - due in part of the removal of tetraethyl lead as a valve lubricant. Unleaded gasoline was phased in.
With all these forces against it, the market for muscle cars rapidly evaporated. Horsepower began to drop in 1971 as engine compression ratios were reduced. High-performance engines like Chrysler's 426 Hemi were discontinued, and all but a handful of other performance models were discontinued or transformed into soft personal luxury cars. Some nameplates e.g. Chevrolet's SS or Oldsmobile's 442 would become sport appearance packages (known in the mid to late 1970s as the vinyl and decal option - Plymouth's Road Runner was an upscale decor package for their Volare coupes). One of the last to succumb, a car that Car and Driver dubbed "The Last of the Fast Ones", was Pontiac's Trans Am SD455 model of 1973–1974. In 1975 its performance was reduced, although it remained in production through 2002.
American performance cars began to make a return in the 1980s. Owing to increases in production costs and tighter regulations governing pollution and safety, these vehicles were not designed to the formula of the traditional low-cost muscle cars. The introduction of electronic fuel injection and overdrive transmission for the remaining 1960s muscle-car survivors—the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird—helped sustain a market share for them alongside personal luxury coupes with performance packages, i.e. the Buick Regal T-Type or Grand National, Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS circa 1983-88.
Australia developed its own muscle car tradition around the same period, with the big three manufacturers Ford Australia, Holden or Holden Dealer Team (by then part of General Motors), and Chrysler Australia. The cars were specifically developed to run in the Armstrong 500 (miles) race and later the Hardie Ferodo 500 (the race's current 1,000 kilometre format was adopted in 1973). The demise of these cars was brought about by a change in racing rules requiring that 200 examples had to be sold to the general public before the car could qualify (homologation). In 1972, the government stepped in to ban supercars from the streets after two notable cases. The first instance was a Wheels magazine journalist driving at in a 1971 Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III XY 351. Whilst the car was getting exposure in the press, the second incident occurred in George Street, Sydney, when a young male was caught driving at an estimated through the busy street, in a 1971 Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III, drag racing a Holden Monaro GTS 350. This was known in Australia as "The Supercar Scare".
Ford produced what is considered to be the first Australian muscle car in 1967, the Windsor–powered XR Falcon. Ford continued to release faster models, culminating in the Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III of 1971, which was powered by a factory modified 351 Cleveland. Along with its GT and GTHO models, Ford, staring with the XW model in 1969, introduced a 'sporty' GS model, available across the Falcon range. The basic GS only came with a six cylinder engine, but the and Windsor (replaced by the Cleveland engines for the XY), were optional. Ford's larger, more luxurious Fairlane was also available with these engines and could also be optioned with the "Cleveland" engine.
Holden produced the famous Holden Monaro with , , and Chevrolet smallblocks or and Holden V8s, followed by the release of four high-performance Toranas, the GTR-XU1 (1970–1973), SL/R 5000 (1974–1977), L34 (1974) and the A9X (1977).
The XU1 Torana was originally fitted with a triple carbureted 6-cylinder engine, later increased to , as opposed to the single quad-barrel carbureted V8 in the SL/R 5000, L34, and A9X.
Chrysler produced the R/T Valiant Charger from 1971 to 1973 when the R/Ts were discontinued; the dominant R/T models were the E38 and E49 with high performance Hemi engines featuring triple Weber carburetors.
Chrysler apparently considered a high-performance V8 program importing 338 V8 engines from the U.S.
That high-performance project never went ahead, and the engines were subsequently fitted to the upmarket 770 model Charger. Initially this model was designated "SE" E55 340 (V8) and only available with automatic transmission; with a model change to the VJ in 1973 the engine became an option, and the performance was lessened.
All Chrysler performance Chargers were discontinued in 1974 with the exhausting of high performance 265ci Hemi and 340 V8s.
The Australian muscle car era is considered to have ended with the release of the Australian Design Rule regarding emissions in ADR27a in 1976. An exception to this rule was the small number of factory-built Bathurst 1000 homologation specials that were constructed after 1976: they are considered to be musclecars. Examples of these homologation specials include the Torana A9X and the Bathurst Cobras.
Later homologation cars were built outside of the factory, many by the Holden Dealer Team (HDT) for track and road use. Although not regarded as true muscle cars, they quickly gained an enthusiastic following. The HDT program was under Peter Brock's direction and had approval from Holden.
Several highly modified high-performance road-going Commodores were produced through the early and mid 1980s. These "homologation specials" were produced to meet the Group A racing regulations. Models included the VC Group C, the VH SS Group III with a 0-100 km/h of 6.7 seconds, the Blue VK SS Group A and the burgundy VL SS Group A. These vehicles are all individually numbered with only 4246 Brock HDT's made and are considered to be collectors' items.
The HDT Commodores are highly collectible muscle cars. Holden Dealer Team vehicles' became more collectible than ever in the wake of Brock's 2006 death.
Showroom-condition HDT cars are generating prices as high as $200,000 AU.
In the United Kingdom, the muscle car never gained a significant market, but it certainly influenced British manufacturers, with models such as the Ford Capri and Vauxhall Firenza directly inspired by American designs. Later, both Ford and Vauxhall continued the tradition of producing high performance variants of its family cars, though often these had more subtle styling than the traditional muscle car, but with some notable exceptions. The more European influenced hot hatch has largely occupied this segment of the market since the early 1980s. Arguably the first true British muscle car was the MGB GT V8.
In the U.S., the full-size, 4-door Chevrolet Impala SS had a short but popular production run from 1994–1996 as a high-performance limited-edition version of the Caprice equipped with a Corvette-derived 5.7 L V8 LT1 engine and other specific performance features and body styling using the options found on the Caprice 9C1 police package. The revived Impala SS was no match for the rising sport utility market; some analysts would consider GM's phasing out rear-wheel drive luxury sedans as a fatal mistake.
The Impala SS nameplate was resurrected again in 2003 as a high-performance version of the standard Impala with larger and/or supercharged engines (whether the 21st century Impalas, which are front-wheel drive and have had variously V6s and V8s, can be considered muscle cars in the same vein as their earlier namesakes is debatable). General Motors discontinued its F-body pony-car models, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird after 2002 but brought back the GTO in 2004 as a rebadged Holden Monaro imported from Australia.
Sales were poor and the "new" GTO was discontinued after three years. In its first sales year it achieved only 14,000 of its 18,000 per-annum sales target. The styling was unpopular—Car and Driver described the GTO as "[l]usty performance disguised in a phone-company fleet car"—and the already sluggish sales fell to 11,600 in 2006, its last model year. However, according to an April 2008 article in Car and Driver, GM remained "undaunted" in its plan to "pull Pontiac’s performance bona fides out of mothballs using the next generation of Australian-engineered-and-built rear-drivers. The agenda includes the G8 sedan..." and also a Camaro, "to be built in Canada at the plant that builds the Buick LaCrosse and Pontiac Grand Prix.
For 2003 and 2004 Mercury revived its old Marauder nameplate, as a modified Mercury Grand Marquis (based on the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor). The Marauder failed to attract a market share unlike GM's Impala SS revival. In 2005 a "retro-inspired" version of the pony car Ford Mustang went on sale, which drew various design cues from Mustangs of the mid to late 1960s and early-1970s. In 2007 Ford and Shelby also re-released a new and modern version of the G.T. 500, with Super Snake and King of the Road editions following closely behind in 2008. Saleen has introduced a special edition based on the classic BOSS Mustangs of 1970 called the "PJ" after a famous Trans-Am series driver from the 1960s and 1970s, Parnelli Jones.
In 2004 Chrysler introduced their LX platform, which serves as the base for a new line of rear-wheel drive, V8-powered cars (using the new Hemi engine), including a four-door version of the Dodge Charger. While purists would not consider a station wagon (the Dodge Magnum) or a four-door sedan a muscle car, the performance of the new models is the equal of many of the vintage muscle cars of legend. Dodge has also revived two "classic" model names with the Charger: Daytona and Super Bee. The first was featured in 2006 as a Dodge Charger Daytona R/T and the Super Bee joined in 2007 as the Dodge Charger Super Bee. In addition, Dodge has been developing a new performance vehicle under the Challenger badge, which borrows styling cues from its older namesake, the prototype for which made its debut at the 2006 North American International Auto Show. Chevrolet has recently unveiled their Camaro concept car as well, with plans to sell new Camaros beginning with the 2009 model year.
GM's Cadillac division, which has marketed luxury cars for decades, introduced its XLR roadster in 2004 currently produced alongside the Chevrolet Corvette in its Bowling Green, Kentucky manufacturing plant. This led to the creation of the Cadillac V-series for their luxury CTS sedan, sold as the CTS-V.
As with SUVs that have large-displacement engines, modern muscle cars are criticised for poor fuel efficiency. (The original muscle cars met with the same criticism in the 1960s.) However the muscle car is lighter at about than the typical SUV, which weighs -.
According to a 2006 press release, fuel economy standards forced GM to delay the Zeta platform when the Oshawa production facility had already been retooled for its production. The 2010 Chevrolet Camaro is one of GM's Zeta platform vehicles.
Australian Ford and Holden are currently producing high performance vehicles. For instance, Holden has its SS and SSV Commodores and Utilities, and HSV has more powerful Holden based versions and currently producing a limited edition HSV W427 - a Commodore fitted with the 7 litre V8 from the C6 Corvette Z06. Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) turns out similarly uprated special versions of the Ford Falcon Sedan, the major difference being Ford offer a turbocharged 4.0 litre I6 as well as their V8s. FPV are producing the GT 4-door Falcons—both Boss V8 and turbocharged sixes; the premier Fords are currently the BOSS V8 and F6 turbocharged inline 6.
Holden Special Vehicles currently produces high-performance versions of various rear-drive Holden Commodore sedans and, fitted with high performance (400 hp) V8 engines, and are perhaps one of the closest contemporary equivalents to the classic American muscle car (excluding the AWD of course)—-fast, exciting, but relatively crude automobiles (though with far more attention to handling, suspension, safety and exceptional brakes compared with the stock models).
Surviving muscle models are now prized, and certain models carry prices to rival some of the more highly valued European sports cars. At auction the rarest vintage 1965–1972 muscle cars can be appraised at over US$500,000 depending on model, options, condition, demand and availability. Some rare models like the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro with the ZL1 option are considered the equivalent of real estate or museum relics.
Reproduction muscle-car sheet metal parts and even complete body shells are available.
Road & Track identified the following models as "musclecars" in 1965:
Car and Driver also created a list of the 10 Best muscle cars for its January 1990 issue. The magazine focused on the engines and included:
Other muscle cars include the following: Mid-size muscle models
Compact muscle models
Pony car muscle models
VJ model (R/T nomenclature dropped) were: