Origin of Muscle Cars by Jack Stoughton
To understand muscle cars, you need to
understand the mentality and attitudes of the buying public, and that of the
major car companies at the time.
Flash back to the late fifties to find the root of the famed Muscle Car Era. Hot rodders were fixing up old coupes and roadsters and grafting larger, more powerful V-8s in them. The old Flathead Ford was being replaced with OHV V-8 Chevy's, Chrysler 352 and 392 Hemi's, Cadillac's, and even the bigger Olds and Pontiac engines. America was on the move and faster was better.
The factories countered this by offering some of their Police Special or Interceptor engines in passenger cars. These cars were faster than anything else in the showroom at the time, but the Muscle Cars were still full-sized sedans sporting Chevy's famed 409, or Fords 406, or the Mo-par Max Wedge motors. While bigger, more powerful V-8s were dominating the racing seen from NASCAR to the N.H.R.A. with high powered Impala's, Galaxie's, Fury's and Polara's, those big engines had not yet migrated to the smaller cars. Every one had a 427 or a 426 and these cars were fast, very fast. Ford introduced the 1963 1/2 Galaxie Factory Lightweight, with an awesome 427, 4-speed, dual quad V-8. Chevy answered with the stripped down Biscayne with the 409 likewise equipped. Mo-par (and the Ramcharger guys) were busy with the Max-Wedge 426. Consider these to be the father of the Muscle Cars, fast, but still big enough to bring a family of six to the races with room to spare!
But that was about to change.
The car companies began to listen to some of
their younger engineers who echoed the feelings of the younger buyers who didn't
want their Father's Oldsmobile. In the early sixties
the marketing guys figured out that there really was something to this Win of
Sunday, sell on Monday attitude, and the jockeying was on to position their cars
at the front. It all had to do with bragging rights and who was the fastest.
At the same time that the horsepower wars were beginning, all of the
manufacturers had been working on smaller, mid-sized car lines. The marketing
guys were working on names like Dart, Fairlane and Chevelle. A whole new class
of cars was being born. In 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang and
yet another new class was born, the Pony car, offering
personal luxury and performance. These cars would forever change the face of
cars on the market in America.
Now, as fate would have it, someone from the
Racing Development Department got transferred over to the fledging Mid-size Car
Department. They found (in every manufacturers line) that these new Mid-sized
cars were extremely boring. Like something out of a Frankenstein movie, Mr. Max
Wedge was about to meet Mr. Boring Dart, ala Jeckle and Hyde. Ms. Fuddy Fairlane
was about to put on her Go-Go Boots.
In 1964, Ford grafted it's NASCAR 427 to the boring little Fairlane and poof, one of the most awesome Muscle Cars of all time was built. The Ford Thunderbolt -- 427, dual quads, 4-speed, ram air through the inboard headlight pods -- but Ford sourced out the completion of the car to Dearborn Tubing and Steel. It wasnıt really a factory car. But oh, what a concept. All of the manufacturers were poised at the gate with their entry into this latest craze.
Each of the manufacturers scrambled to find that magic combination of weight to horsepower. Pontiac introduced the GTO with the 326, 4-speed sporting Tri-Power Carbs, Chevy entered in 1966 with the Chevelle with the big block 396, Ford countered with the new Fairlane with the 390 and the 427, the venerable 383's, 440's and even the 426 Hemi even found itıs way into the little Dodge Dart GTS. Muscle Car mania was truly here.
The other manufacturers quickly followed. Olds with the 4-4-2 (4-speed, 4 barrel, dual exhaust). American Motors even pulled out all the stops with the Rambler American -- the Rambler Scrambler and The Machine. V-8 power was everywhere. Second generation Muscle Cars then appeared, much more refined, but much more powerful too.
The Pony cars joined in the fray likewise, Barracuda's (who could ever forget the Hemi (Cuda), Challenger's, Camaro's (SS-396 and Z/28), AMX's, Firebird's, and of course, the darling of that class, the Mustang with the Mach 1's and those incredible BOSS Mustang's, all the way to the BOSS 429. All sporting the true mark of the Muscle Car -- a big block whatever, crammed into the smaller car platform. A recipe for speed.
At the N.H.R.A. events these Muscle Cars flourished in the A/FX (A/Factory Experimental) classes, finally giving birth to the Funny Cars of today. NASCAR got their own taste of the Muscle Cars too, with the biggest of the big blocks making their ways into the Stock Car classes that eventually led to engine restrictions being imposed because the cars were just too damned fast for the rest of the technology (specifically tires and crash walls).
Famed cars like the Plymouth Roadrunner and GTX; Dodge Super-Bee's, Coronet's and Charger's; Mercury Comet Cyclone's; and the Pontiac GTO Judge appeared, AMC brought in the Matador and the Javelin. The envelope pushed further with Hurst W-30 Oldsmobiles; Plymouth Superbird's and Dodge Daytona's; Ford Talladega's; Chevelle SS-396 and SS-427 cars. It was an all out, winner takes all, beat you to the finish line assault on the American car buying public. Every model year promised new engine and trans combinations, multiple carbs, gears, spoilers, wider tires, rallye wheels, special shifters.
New words and phases were introduced into our popular American Culture, Posi-Traction, Detroit Locker, Ram-Air hoods, Cowl-Induction hoods, Shaker hoods, every youngster who ever smelled that distinctive odor of burning rubber could define these new terms for you, hell, he could identify the car coming up the street by the sound of it alone!
Bands of the sixties pumped out hit records about their "Little GTO" or their "409" or "Move out Little Mustang", which were blasting out of radios from the Boardwalk all the way to "Dead Manıs curve". These purpose built factory race cars had the style and attitude representative of the time where the sky was the limit, and the cars were truly built to fly. Horsepower was king.
Alas, as quickly as these monsters of the midway appeared from the showroom to Main Street, they were to disappear. Insurance issues, safety issues and the oil embargo was to kill what was a glorious assault on speed. The names lived on a few more years, but by 1971, the era was over. The mine had gone bust. Pure horsepower was gone, and gone for good.
So sit back, enjoy the sights and the sounds of Muscle Car Mania, when horsepower was truly king. Long live the king.