HOW MUSCLE CARS WERE BORN
First of all, what is a muscle car? Although the definition of a muscle car is still subjective even nowadays, one can be called as such if they have the following characteristics: One, it should definitely be manufactured in the United States of America. Two, it should be a high-performance rear-wheel drive as it’s powered by the high-displacement V8 engine at its highest configuration. Third, it should have a relatively lightweight body as it’s designed for straight-line drag racing and speed in general but can still be driven on the streets. And last but not the least, it should be affordable. Although, the price line between muscle cars, pony cars and sports cars has been thinning over the years. An essential part of the car industry, muscle cars were born through a high demand for faster cars.
But, how did muscle cars originate? Moonshine is any liquor, particularly whiskey, that is distilled without tax and therefore, illegal. When the US federal government imposed the liquor tax in 1791, many distilleries were against it and found means to avoid paying until the prohibition was repealed in 1901. During these times, bootleggers smuggled the illegal booze and fast cars were necessary in order to outrun the police. So, they started modifying their cars in order to cater the need for speed, handling and heavy cargo capacity. By the 1940s, when the prohibition came to an end, these cars became very efficient but the moonshining business had dwindled. So, bootleggers used their remodeled cars for racing in order to earn money. They dominated the circuit races and soon, the first official muscle car was born.
So, what was the first legitimate muscle car? Inspired by the dominance of the remodeled cars on the racing track, Oldsmobile introduced the Rocket 88, the first full-sized American muscle car. It created the definition of a true muscle car with its high performance engine. The powerful high-compression overhead valve V8 of the big Oldsmobile 98 was fitted into the smaller and lighter six-cylinder Oldsmobile 76. This combination produced 135 horsepower which helped it rule and won eight to ten competitions during the 1950 NASCAR season. The craze for speed escalated and competition rose along the sidelines that in the same year, the Cadillac 331 engine was also introduced. Together with the Rocket 88, they ushered the “modern era of high-performance V8.”
Muscle cars began to take over the car industry during the 1950s and in 1955, Chrysler debuted the C-300 which produced 300hp and was named, “America’s Most Powerful Car” as well as the best-handling car of its era. The second most powerful engine was the compact-sized Studebaker Golden Hawk which was powered by the Packard V8 and produced 275 hp. In 1957, American Motors Corporation released the Rambler Rebel, the first midsize car with a big-block V8 engine and produced 255 hp.
Another significant contribution came from Chevrolet’s small-block V8, which was crucial for developing lightweight muscle cars. General Motors used the engine in their cars as a standard for 50 years. Chevrolet also introduced mechanical fuel injection with the Corvette which was also a groundbreaking addition to the growth of muscle cars.
After the most catastrophic accident in motorsports history happened in 1955 - when Pierre Levegh, driving a Mercedes-Benz, crashed on the stands and killed 84 people including himself during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race - the American Manufacturer’s Association banned factory-sponsored racing in 1957. Muscle car manufacturers would then disassociate themselves with anything related to auto-racing and even avoid advertising performance-related components of their products. The association carmakers assumed that the government would forgo imposing racing regulations due to the ban, however, non-association carmakers would give them a tough competition, so the ban was lifted in 1963.
With the ban lifted, drag racing also began its notoriety. Speed mattered most and engines became more powerful while the body remained the same. Manufacturers focused their resources in making faster cars and in 1962, the Dodge Dart made a milestone with its 13 second quarter-mile drag-strip run. The next year, the Pontiac Super Duty came with its “swiss cheese frame” chassis which made the car significantly lighter. These marked the dawn of the “golden age” of muscle cars.
Pontiac’s Gran Turismo Omologato, or more popularly known as the Pontiac GTO, heralded the muscle car era into its glorious peak. Introduced in 1964, its name is derived from its validation for races and being the benchmark throughout the muscle car history. It was an optional package for the intermediate-sized Pontiac Tempest and produced 325 hp. The GTO was so successful that other car manufacturers released their own versions of intermediate-sized muscle cars. Some of them are the 1964 Oldsmobile 442, 1964 Chevrolet Chevelle SS and 1965 Buick Gran Sport. Ford also released the Thunderbolt in the same year.
One of the most important appeals of muscle cars was that they offered the American car culture relatively affordable and powerful street-performing race cars. But as size, optional equipment and luxury appointments increased, the engines had to keep up with its power in order to maintain its performance level. So, the cars became more expensive but as muscle cars were born out of innovation, some "budget" muscle cars began to appear and a new market emerged. Pony cars have the same characteristics of a muscle car except that they are a little lacking in power. Among the most popular pony cars are the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Plymouth Barracuda.
In 1967, Ford upgraded the Mustang from a small-block engine to a big-block engine, while Pontiac released Firebird. Plymouth released the Road Runner and American Motors released the fastest muscle car ever produced, “The Machine”. Just a little bit sooner, the market became saturated. But it didn’t stop the industry from reaching its pinnacle.
The 1970s saw the slow demise of the muscle car industry. Several reasons were attributed to its decline including the Clean Air Act, the fuel crisis and the increasing insurance cost. Following the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, manufacturers were forced to decrease the compression ratio of engines. Lead content of high-octane-fueled engines were removed resulting in downgraded performance. Manufacturers were also keen on adhering to the government’s emission control as well as the new federal motor vehicle safety standards. These certainly brought a pivotal change in the muscle car industry, albeit negatively.
The first oil crisis happened in the United States in 1973 when OPEC cut oil exports to the country. This results in the rationing of fuel and a surprising hike in prices. At this time, it’s deemed impractical for people to own a muscle car. Moreover, insurance companies cracked down high-performance cars to collect fees aside from seeing muscle cars unsafe to drive.
The short demand for muscle cars ensured the discontinuance of big-block cars. Even the pony cars left the market, although the Camaro and Firebird remained by 1974. By the mid-70s, the Firebird hit sales due to improved handling and lack of competition. Inspired by Firebird’s sales, Chevrolet reinstated the Camaro Z-28 in 1977. In 1979, Mustang came back with an improved look and a low-torque option. As manufacturers got used to federal regulations and were now focusing more on style rather than performance, another oil crisis hit America that same year.
When the oil crisis was over in 1982, a resurgence of the muscle car with its early reputation was on its way. But this time, safer and more efficient new and advanced technologies were applied which include solid-state electronics and computer integration of spark timing, air intake, and fuel injection. Compliant to federal regulations, high output V8 engines were introduced for the Ford Mustang GT, Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and Pontiac Firebird Formula. These cars redefined muscle car performance as their engines became more powerful while their bodies remained relatively small throughout the mid-1990s. But in 2002, the Camaro and Firebird were discontinued while the Mustang continued production.
By the mid-2000s, the classic muscle cars were brought back. The Pontiac GTO was relaunched and although the 60s GTO had a dedicated following, the 2004 version did not see much success because it did not look American. Mercedes-Benz, having acquired Chrysler in 1998, resurrected the Chrysler C300 which was powered by the legendary Hemi with 340 hp in 2004, along with the Dodge Charger. In 2005, Ford released its fifth-generation Mustang which is a resemblance of the first-generation Mustang. In 2006, GM re-launched the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and in 2008, Chrysler re-introduced the Dodge Challenger with an original styling from the first-generation Challenger. In 2009, Chevrolet released the new Camaro with a resemblance to, yet again, it’s first-generation predecessor. All these re-imagining brought about the authenticity and reputation back to the industry, notwithstanding the higher price but with more robust engines.
By 2012, a new addition to the muscle car family surprised enthusiasts. Cadillac was not known to be a muscle car manufacturer in the 60s and 70s but its CTS-V is currently the fastest muscle car in the market at 560 hp, while the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger are still top of the line at 580 hp.