TodayApril 17, 2022

The Return of the Muscle Car; The Return of a Dream

The Muscle Car – A symbol of freedom and independence

Muscle Car Songs:

“Little GTO, you’re really lookin fine

Three deuces and a four-speed and 389

Listen to her tackin up now,

Listen to her why – ee – eye- ine

Cmon and turn it, wind it up, blow it out, GTO

Ronnie and the Daytonas

Automobiles have always been the ultimate symbol of freedom and independence. According to Ken Gross, author of “Hot Rod Milestones”, “The name hot rod is thought to be a contraction of “hot roadster.” Most early hot rods were lightweight open, pre-war, two-seater cars with modified engines.”

“Hot Rods were built in the 1920s and 1930s, but the movement really got underway in the immediate postwar period. Many young veterans returned from WWII with newfound mechanical skills. Unable to buy new model cars, because they were in short supply, the hot rodders stripped-down and souped-up prewar models, removing excess weight, even fenders, to lighten their rides, and increased engine displacement, adding hotter camshafts and multiple carburetors, etc., to achieve the desired results. The most popular engine was Ford’s easily hopped-up flathead.”

“When the newer, larger displacement overhead valve engines arrived from Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Chrysler, hot rodders quickly shoe-horned these big powerful engines into lighter Fords and Chevys. The domestic automotive industry largely produced warmed-over pre-war models until 1949, because there was a delay while they had to change over from wartime production to new model autos ” and car-starved Americans would buy anything on wheels.”

“In that period, and through the mid-1950s, hot rodders were generally able to build faster cars than the Detroit engineers. When Chrysler dropped its biggest Hemi into the C300 in 1955, and Chevrolet introduced its high-winding small-block V-8, the handwriting was on the wall for homebuilts. Within a few years, Pontiac was offering the 421-CID V-8 in its full-sized cars and Dodge countered with the 413; the horsepower race was underway.”

1964; the year Kennedy was assassinated, everyone knows where they were. Beatlemania was hitting the U.S. shores and 67 million people watched them perform on the Ed Sullivan show. It was also the year of the muscle car

“Accelerated by the Pontiac Tempest GTO in 1964, “muscle cars,” that is, large displacement engines in mid-sized models were the equivalent of factory hot rods. Many of them could out-accelerate and out-run home-built cars.”

Two cars that came out in 1964 that epitomized the muscle car were the Pontiac GTO and the Ford Mustang. Both cars were factory-built, American-made, mid-sized two-door models with large displacement engines that could out-accelerate most home-built cars.

According to the muscle car club, “there is no substitute for cubic inches and no replacement for displacement. Welcome to a celebration of an era when the number of cubic inches was more important than the number of cupholders, and quarter-mile times meant more than inches of ground clearance.” John Delorean, a Pontiac designer at the time, is credited with designing the GTO, nicknamed the Goat. The GTO, named for Ferraris Gran Turismo Omologato was designed by dropping a V-8 into the light Tempest body.

The Pontiac Tempest with the GTO option package is generally considered the first true muscle car. Drag racing was made popular by mag wheels, 327s, 389s, and 409s. The kids didn’t care that they only got 4 miles per gallon, they loved their triple deuces, twin four-barrel carbs, four on the floor, fuel injection, and tuned dual exhaust.

Ford Mustang was introduced on April 17th and still holds a record of 1 million sales in its first year. Affordable and sporty the Mustang was a Comet underneath the stylish sheet metal. The movie, “American Graffiti” was a couple of years before the muscle car era, but it portrayed teenagers who lived with, and in, their cars, something every generation has done since that movie. Even though these sporty and stylish-looking cars were gas-guzzlers they lasted ten years before the energy crisis, rising insurance rates, and federal anti-pollution regulations (1971) sent them to extinct status. The muscle car has been taken off the extinct status list. They are back and it couldn’t be sweeter music to Detroit’s ears.

The Ford Mustang is a class of muscle car known as a pony car. A pony car is a high-performance American car built on a compact passenger car chassis. Some of the well-known pony cars were Plymouth Barracuda, Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Mercury Cougar, AMC Javelin and Dodge Challenger. Thanks to Director, Advanced Product Creation and Special Vehicle Team (SVT), Hau Thai Tang, the Ford Mustang is back and outselling it’s projected numbers.

During the Vietnam war, some of the lucky (high-ranking)soldiers were allowed to bring their cars with them, courtesy of the military. The car of choice was the car that most exemplified the American muscle, the Ford Mustang. It was during a trip with his Grandfather to a military base that Thai-Tang caught his first glimpse of the white Mach 1. “This car embodied America and what it stood for; wide open spaces, access, inclusiveness,” says Thai-Tang. Years later Thai-Tang would create the Mustang that is enjoying its success today. The Mustang is made to look like a 60s Mustang on the outside, but inside, it has better seats, safety throughout and it gets better gas mileage.

The Ford Mustang could be the first factory-made “resto-mod.” Resto-mod usually refers to an old muscle car restored to perfection on the outside with a modified engine on the inside. For example, Jay Leno has an Olds Toronado that is restored to perfection on the outside but has a modified Chevy engine inside that makes 1067 horsepower.

Dwayne Fish, from Fishs autobody in Atwater, CA, was in the Air Force in the 60s as a mechanic. “The Youth of America was over in Vietnam. You could order the car through the BX and they would be delivered when you got home. Guys would have pictures of their cars in their helmet; they were buying a dream.” According to the Mobile Riverine Force Association, Fish was right; 9,087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the Vietnam Era (5 August 1965-7 May 1975). Muscle Cars were all the rage when Fish got home, “Back in the 60s in Fremont, CA, the Fremont drags were really popular. Dealers used to sponsor drag races.” Dealers subscribed to the theory, win on Sunday, buy on Monday.

Today Manufacturers sponsor the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Manufacturers spend over $125 million a year on NASCAR, but they don’t have the exclusivity for advertising that the dealers did back in the 60s. Look at one of the celebrity drivers and it will be hard to find a bare patch on either them or their muscle car.

According to Todd Goyer, Sr. Mgr. Motorsports Communication Daimler Chrysler Corporation, “Just like the dealers of years gone by, dealers today advertise with NASCAR. We have a very loyal fan base that we can reach on a regular basis. The market is changing and growing and we don’t take those fans for granted.”

People are buying their dream cars that they couldn’t afford when they were young. Ford and Daimler Chrysler are living this dream with them. Ford must have wished upon their star first because they are reaping the benefits. Unless Ford cleared another plant for production, they cant make more Mustangs and they are selling as many as they can make, selling almost 15,000 in June. The car is so hot that it is not on the employee discount list.

According to Robert Genat, author of many books about muscle cars, the original Dodge Charger was a two-door sports car with a Coronet body. Even the Hemi couldn’t help sell the Charger till it changed its looks. Genat says that this Charger, as well the new Hemi are better than years gone by, “The Hemi is a great engine, the Charger is distinctive, safe, gets better mpg and still makes noise. Men my age are finally able to buy the dream cars we couldn’t afford when we were young.” Sixty percent of Chargers purchased will be the Charger RT with the 5.7-liter 340 horsepower V-8 Hemi at $29,995.

Genat explains why the Pontiac GTO isn’t doing well, “In 2004 the Pontiac GTO returned to the market as a rebadged Holden Monaro imported from Australia. The styling is not distinct enough to stand out. To be a true muscle car, 2-door or 4-door you must have high-performance and distinctive styling.” According to Paul Taylor, Chief Economist, National Automobile Dealer Association (NADA), in 2005 Pontiac did a redesign, upping the horsepower by 50, adding two hood scopes, giving it a distinctive look and increasing sales 132 percent June 04 over June 05 and 87.3 percent YTD.

Muscle cars of yesteryear are not the same as what people are calling muscle cars of today. To say that there is a return of the muscle car is to say that there will be a return of rock and roll, but we all know that Elvis has left the room. The muscle cars of yesterday were completely distinct from each other and from anything in their brand.

One could go into a garage and tell what car was in there by the smell. Going down the road, at any curve in the car, you could tell which car it was. There are very few cars today that meet those requirements, but the Mustang and the Chrysler 300 are two that do. When people buy those cars, they are buying what muscle cars symbolized; freedom and independence, the desire to be bold and stand out.

Maybe, what people are buying is not the return of the muscle car, but an image. Maybe people are tired of hiding in their tract homes and commuting to non-descript jobs in non-descript cars. One has to wonder what would happen to the Big Threes marketshare if they made truly distinctive cars. Even Toyota, known as the Maytag of the industry, has gotten the message about distinctive styling. Maybe it’s not a dream.

Here is a list of cars that are thought of as muscle cars;


AMC Special Vehicles

Buick Grand National

Buick GSX

Buick Riviera (Gran Sport)

Buick Skylark (Gran Sport)

Buick Wildcat

Chevrolet Camaro

Chevrolet Chevelle SS (Malibu)

Chevrolet Corvette

Chevrolet El Camino SS

Chevrolet Impala SS

Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Chevrolet Nova SS

Chrysler 300

Dodge Challenger

Dodge Charger

Dodge Coronet

Dodge Dart

Dodge Daytona

Dodge Super Bee

Ford Fairlane (GT & Cobra)

Ford Galaxie

Ford Mustang

Ford Torino (GT & Cobra)

Ford Thunderbird

Mercury Comet/ Cyclone

Mercury Cougar

Oldsmobile 442

Oldsmobile Cutlass 442

Oldsmobile Toronado

Plymouth Belvedere 426-S

Plymouth Cuda

Plymouth Duster

Plymouth GTX

Plymouth Road Runner

Plymouth Superbird

Pontiac Catalina 2+2

Pontiac Firebird

Pontiac Grand Prix

Pontiac GTO

Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO

Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.