Pontiac’s chief engineer at the time, John DeLorean, took inspiration from the Ferrari 250 GTO for the nameplate, and the Pontiac GTO was born. It was initially a marketing exercise and Pontiac looked to sell just 5000 examples of the GTO, but ended up shifting over 32,000 by the end of 1964.
That same year, Ford unleashed the Thunderbolt, a Fairlane-bodied two-door coupé that was a factory experimental car aimed at drag racing. Utilising lightweight fibreglass body panels, a stripped interior and a colossal 7.0-litre V8 engine that was (conservatively) said to pump out over 500bhp, it could blitz the quarter mile in 11.6sec at 125mph. But the Ford Thunderbolt was described by press at the time as “too raucous for public roads”.
Ford also spotted a gap in the market for a more compact sports car with ‘long hood, short rear deck’ proportions to entice the decade’s baby-boomers. The 1965 (also referred to as 1964 ½) Ford Mustang provided the template that was to be the ‘Pony car’ class, inspiring a host of imitators.
Along with other flagship V8 Pony cars such as the Rambler Marlin, Chevrolet Camaro SS and Z28, Plymouth Barracuda and AMC Javelin SST, Ford’s Mustang GT and Boss versions with their halo engines and top-of-the-range options are the only Pony cars that have a legitimate argument for belonging in the company of true muscle cars.
The muscle car craze continued at maximum attack from 1966 to 1969, with a brawny mid-size fastback – the Dodge Charger - and later in 1968, the limited production Dodge Superbee. The former having a starring role as the ‘baddie’ chasing a 1968 Ford Mustang in the Hollywood hit Bullitt, starring the king of cool Steve McQueen.
Chrysler spearheaded their mid-size Dodge models with the infamous ‘440 Magnum’ 375bhp 7.2-litre V8 engine and the Charger gained the R/T (Road/Track) high performance pack in 1968.
By this point muscle car prices were climbing, so Plymouth’s 1968 Road Runner proved a breath of fresh air. Priced from $2,986 the Road Runner as standard was powered by a 6.3-litre V8 churning out 335bhp and later was available with the mighty 425bhp 7.0-litre V8 ‘426 Street Hemi’, as a $700 optional extra.
As the market saturated, car makers began to see fewer yearly sales towards 1970, while costs continued to spiral upwards and eat into profits. Despite this, dealerships were bursting with more outrageous and increasingly powerful machines. Muscle cars had reached their prime – 1970 proved to be the storm before the calm.
The Ford Torino Cobra took the fight to Mercury Cyclone and the lower-priced Pontiac GTO - now in its second generation. And Buick debuted its lethal GSX – essentially a high-performance GS455, boasting 370bhp in ‘stage 1’ guise.
Chevrolet responded with the Chevelle SS 454 Big-Block, endowed with the optional 7.4-litre LS6 V8 rated at 450bhp, making the Chevelle SS good for a standing quarter mile in 12.1sec.
Oldsmobile fired back with a production 7.5-litre V8 ‘455’ unit kicking out 365bhp, making the Oldsmobile 442 “a wild ride” according to the press at the time, despite not seeing which way a GSX or Chevelle SS 454 went.
Meanwhile, Chrysler finally began to take the Pony car class seriously and launched the Dodge Challenger; the highlights being the Challenger R/T ‘440’ 7.2-litre Magnum and T/A (Trans/Am homologation special) with ‘just’ a 5.6-litre V8 320bhp super-tuned small-block, respectively.