Mom, apple pie, the flag and American muscle cars. All of these things bring about a certain shared, very American feeling. Why do American muscle cars bring about such feelings? Perhaps it harkens back to a time in our collective consci-entiousness when we, as Americans, saw the future as undeniably bright and when anything was possible.
The American muscle car era ran, for the most part, from the mid ’60s through the early to mid ‘70s. This era, not surprisingly, coincides with American superiority in the Space Race (Apollo 11 landed Americans on the moon on July 20,1969), and is also widely considered to be the heyday of rock and roll, with artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin providing the soundtrack. As with these iconic images, one only has to hear the deep rumble from the dual exhaust of a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 to be immediately transported to a time when we felt that not only was anything possible for the good old USA, but that anything was possible for us as well.
In 1966, the “Big Three” American automakers (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) dominated the domestic market with 89.6 percent of the automobile market. All three were located in metro Detroit, and there was very little interest at the time in “foreign” cars. Competition for the “baddest muscle car on the planet” was fierce, with each manufacturer vying for the honor of producing the fastest, coolest muscle car on the market.
The 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 known as “Eleanor,” from the movie Gone in 60 Seconds, received star billing.
Originally conceived as drag racers, muscle cars are typically characterized as being American-made, having big, torque-rich V8 engines, mid-sized 2+2 bodies (two front seats and two rear seats), two doors and rear-wheel drive. There is enthusiastic debate about whether to include cars which don’t quite adhere to this definition such as the Shelby Cobra, which did have the prerequisite big, powerful American V8, but had a two-seat British sports car body, and the Chevrolet Corvette, also a two seater, which is more often considered to be “America’s Sports Car.”
Interestingly, this fierce competition was not limited to competition between the “Big Three,” but was even evident within the same company. A perfect example can be found in General Motors, which produced several competing brands. Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick and Pontiac offered models which were very similar. At first glance, it is difficult for the non-aficionado to tell the Chevrolet Chevelle, the Oldsmobile Cutlass, the Buick Skylark and the Pontiac LeMans apart.
While there are dozens of excellent examples of American muscle cars, and emotions run high as to which to include in an all-star list, let’s stick to descriptions of some of the most famous models, examples of which can still be seen cruising our streets and featured in local car shows.
American muscle in the countryside.
In the early days of the muscle car era, Ford produced some of the better all-around performance machines, but these early models were typically heavier than their competition andsomewhat underpowered compared to the best from GM and Chrysler. In spite of this, the Ford Mustang was outselling every other sporty American car by a wide margin. But it soon became apparent that a reputation in stoplight drag racing would translate directly into showroom sales.
When Ford finally nailed down the muscle car formula, they made up for lost time. In 1968, they began fitting increasingly larger and more powerful engines into the Mustang and really hit their stride in 1969, loosing upon the American public a veritable stampede of performance Mustangs: the Boss 302, Boss 429, Mach 1 and Shelby versions GT350 and GT500.
-- The 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 became one of the most valuable muscle cars ever, usually selling for more than $200,000 at auction.
-- The 1968 Mustang Shelby GT500 is one of the most famous Mustangs of all time, best known for its role in Steve McQueen’s 1968 movie Bullitt.
-- Perhaps equally famous is the 1967 Mustang Shelby GT500, known as “Eleanor” from the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. “Eleanor” is the only Ford Mustang in history to receive star title credit in a movie.
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS.
Many people attribute GM with launching the muscle car era, largely due to the production of the 1964 Pontiac GTO, for which the timing proved perfect. GM had banned its brands from official racing, so Pontiac’s engineers got the idea to do what the hot rod community had been doing for years. The basic idea was to take the biggest engine you could get and put it into the lightest body you could build. GM’s Engineering Policy Committee, which approved all new models, would not approve a new model as light as the LeMans with a motor as large and powerful as the 325 horsepower 389 V8. The engineers, in true muscle car-era fashion, got around this by offering this motor in the LeMans as a GTO option package, which did not have to be approved by the Engineering Policy Committee. The rest is history.
-- The 1964 Pontiac GTO is considered the pioneer of the muscle car era and is, in actuality, a Pontiac LeMans with added muscle.
-- The Chevrolet Camaro Z28, launched in 1967, was designed for Trans Am racing and won the Trans Am Championship in both 1968 and 1969.
-- The Pontiac Firebird was a very close cousin to the Camaro and ironically offered a top tier Trans Am model, even though the Pontiac Trans Am never won a Trans Am series championship, while the Camaro Z28 won the championship two years in a row.
-- The 1970 Chevelle SS454 is perhaps the most iconic of the muscle cars and certainly denotes the high-water mark for American muscle cars. Soon after, gas prices, emissions regulations and insurance requirements conspired to make American muscle cars mere shadows of their former selves, with bloated weight and seriously curtailed horsepower.
-- The 1970 Oldsmobile 442, which gets its name from its four-barrel carburetor, four-speed manual transmission and dual exhaust, was based on the Cutlass and became the hot machine for Oldsmobile, sharing its platform with Chevrolet’s Chevelle SS and Pontiac’s GTO.
Chrysler historically produced a long line of performance-oriented cars going back to the early 1950s. Many considered Chrysler to be the most engineering-focused of the Big Three, and they have always been a leader in horsepower innovations. But, when it came to youth-oriented styling (a must to drive showroom sales), Chrysler’s products didn’t stand a chance against competition such as Ford’s Mustang or GM’s Camaros and Firebirds. This all changed in 1968 with the production of two new models aimed squarely at the youth market — the Plymouth Roadrunner and the Dodge Super Bee. With bumblebee stripes, shaker hoods, wild spoilers and colors like Top Banana, Plum Crazy, Sublime and Go-Mango, sales improved dramatically. Chrysler had found the magic formula — flashy, fast, youth-oriented cars which almost anyone could afford. Then, in 1970, Chrysler offered two of the most iconic cars of the muscle car era, a new generation of the Plymouth Barracuda and the new Dodge Challenger. These still rank among the most popular American muscle cars ever produced.
-- The 1968 Dodge Charger R/T is one of the muscle cars which has definitely withstood the test of time and is still highly popular more than 50 years after it first made waves. One of the most memorable car chases in movie history was in the 1968 movie Bullitt, which featured a 1968 Dodge Charger in pursuit of Steve McQueen’s Mustang. This model was then re-popularized when a 1970 Charger appeared being driven by Vin Diesel in the 2001 movie, The Fast and the Furious. Often characterized as a true “man’s car,” it could be had with an engine option in the form of the 426 Hemi with 425 horsepower.
--The 1968 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi was all business, offering an optional 426 Hemi engine with 425 horsepower in a “back to basics” package for people desiring a top performing muscle car without the frills attached.
-- The Plymouth Barracuda, which was Plymouth’s answer to established names of the time like Camaro and Mustang,was one of the most popular muscle cars, and the 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda was the crown jewel of the Barracudas. It came with a 425 cubic-inch motor producing 425 horsepower. It was limited to a run of only 11 units and remains one of the rarest and most sought-after muscle cars.
-- The 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T became famous overnight with the release of the movie Vanishing Point, in which the main star, Kowalski, eludes the police from Colorado to California, where he is destined to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum with 425 horsepower.
We Americans are a nostalgic lot, especially when that nostalgia leads us back to a time of clear American superiority in something as personal to us as our cars. How many of our fondest memories revolve around our cars? And, how often do you wish that (if you were lucky enough to have owned one of these gems) you had never sold it?
Then it’s no surprise that American auto manufacturers are trying to tap into that nostalgia with new models based as closely as possible on those iconic cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ford offers a wide selection of Mustangs, Chrysler offers high performance Chargers and Challengers, and GM offers the sporty and powerful Camaro. Sound familiar? It should. If these new muscle cars can make a new generation of buyers feel that anything is possible for them ... that’s a good thing