In America, muscle cars were as popular as Coca-Cola in their heyday.
Fast cars with big, powerful V8 engines and affordable price tags made the 1960s one of the best times to be a car enthusiast.
Crippling oil embargoes and the ensuing emissions regulations caused the segment to shrivel up and nearly die in the 1970s but, closely following Detroit’s own evolution, it began undergoing a renaissance several years ago. Here’s how it all began, how great it got, and where it’s going:
The segment’s predecessors
American auto-makers began democratizing performance well before the term ‘muscle car’ joined the nation’s common vocabulary. Oldsmobile became one of the first companies to stuff a big engine in a relatively small car when it introduced the Rocket 88 in 1949 (pictured).
Chrysler honed the concept with the 300 hp C-300, which stood out as America’s most powerful car when it broke cover in 1955.
Blazing the muscle car’s path
By the early 1960s, it became evident that performance sold well. Horsepower gradually seeped into most companies’ product plans. Studebaker briefly offered its V8-powered cars (including the Lark and the Avanti) with an optional supercharger in the early 1960s.
Then, for the 1962 model year and much to Ralph Nader’s consternation, Chevrolet turbocharged the rear-engined Corvair (pictured). Meanwhile, Dodge built a Dart capable of posting a 13sec quarter-mile time right off the assembly line.
Pontiac GTO (1964)
The Pontiac GTO was, arguably, the first true muscle car in America. The firm wanted to build a faster, more powerful version of the Tempest but parent company General Motors imposed a 330-cubic-inch (5.4-litre) displacement limit on its A-body cars. Decision-makers astutely noticed the limit didn’t officially apply to options. They also found out the 389-cubic-inch (6.3-litre) V8 from bigger models fit in the Tempest’s engine bay without major modifications.
Pontiac launched the GTO nameplate as an option package on the Tempest Le Mans in 1964. The eight-cylinder made 325bhp when fitted with a single four-barrel carburetor or 348bhp when equipped with a trip of two-barrel carburetors. Pontiac sold over 32,000 examples of the GTO in 1964, a number that far exceeded even the most wildly optimistic expectations.
Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt (1964)
Ford built the Fairlane Thunderbolt purely for homologation reasons. It followed the proven ‘small car, big engine’ formula. The Fairlane, Ford’s mid-range model at the time, received a 427-cubic-inch (7.0-litre) V8 engine plucked from the bigger Galaxie and tuned to provide a conservative 425bhp. Plexiglas, aluminum and fiberglass parts reduced weight.
Ford put Detroit Steel and Tubing in charge of assembling the cars. Officials capped production at 100 examples. Many ended up raced into the ground by drag racers.
AMC AMX (1968)
AMC introduced the AMX in February of 1968 during a press event held at the Daytona International Speedway. It served two purposes. First, it was the brand’s entry into the booming muscle car segment. It slotted right above the Javelin, whose mission was to lock horns the with Mustang. Second, it was a rolling display of AMC’s newest approach to design and engineering, which the brand previewed with a series of AMX-badged concepts during the 1960s.
The AMX was a little bit shorter than the competition but it wasn’t down on power. Its top engine was a 390-cubic-inch (6.4-litre) V8 rated at 315bhp. AMC priced it competitively, too; the base model started at $3245 (about $23,000 in today’s money).
Dodge Charger (1968)
Dodge re-designed the Charger for the 1968 model year to further differentiate it from the less powerful Coronet. Stylists tweaked the roof line, moving away from the outgoing model’s fastback body style, and added round tail lights. The changes made the Charger one of the most contemporary-looking muscle cars of its era.
The base Charger cost $3014 (about $21,000 today). Buyers willing to spend an extra $466 (roughly $3300 today) could step up to the high-performance Charger R/T. It built on the base model with a 440-cubic-inch (7.2-litre) V8 rated at 375bhp, a three-speed automatic transmission plus upgraded brake and suspension components. The muscle car segment’s immense popularity helped Dodge sell 96,100 examples of the Charger in 1968, and of course the model is also famous today for being the major car-star of the hit CBS TV show TheDukes of Hazzard in the shape of the General Lee, a 1969 model.
Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 (1967)
The Ford Mustang was not, contrary to popular belief in some circles, a muscle car. It created the pony car segment, which later grew to include the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird and the AMC Javelin. They were normally smaller, more affordable and less powerful than muscle cars; at least most of the time.
Tuning king Carroll Shelby gave the Mustang the confidence it needed to march right into muscle car territory, and powerful versions are considered by many to be members of the club ever since. The GT350, the first Shelby-tuned Mustang launched, arrived in 1965 with 306hp under the hood. The GT500 introduced two years later benefited from a 427-cubic-inch (7.0-litre) V8 derived from the unit used by the Le Mans-winning GT40.
Plymouth Road Runner (1968)
In the late 1960s, rising power levels made muscle cars increasingly expensive. Plymouth saw an opportunity to build a medium-priced model named Road Runner positioned between the Belvedere and the Satellite, its two intermediate cars. It was an alternative to the GTX for buyers on a budget.
The Road Runner used a 383-cubic-inch (6.2-litre) V8 engine with 335bhp. Plymouth offered a bigger, 425bhp eight-cylinder for an extra $714 (about $5000 today), bumping the total price to $4114 (roughly $29,000 in 2018). All Road Runner models came with model-specific ‘beep-beep’ dual horns that mimicked the cartoon character relentlessly pursued by Wile E. Coyote.
Dodge Charger Daytona (1969)
Dodge lived by the motto ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday.’ It created the Charger Daytona to crush the competition in NASCAR racing. Engineers started by making the Charger more aerodynamic which, admittedly, wasn’t tough to do. They added a nose cone, a flush-mounted rear window and a massive, 23in tall wing over the trunk lid.
The investment paid off. The Charger Daytona became the first car to break the 200mph barrier during a NASCAR race. Sister company Plymouth followed a similar formula to turn the Road Runner into the Superbird. Race officials and changed the rules to ban the Charger Daytona and its Plymouth Superbird sibling – which were known as the Winged Warriors – from competing.
Ford Mustang Boss 429 (1969)
Ford shoe-horned its 429-cubic-inch (7.0-litre) V8 engine between the Mustang’s front fenders to meet NASCAR’s homologation rules. The firm needed to build 500 examples of the eight-cylinder to be eligible for a spot on the starting line. The V8 breathed through a large scoop cut into the hood.
The Boss 429 remained in the Ford catalog in 1969 and 1970. Production totaled 1358 examples.
Chevrolet Chevelle SS (1970)
Chevrolet gave the Chevelle a sharper design for the 1970 model year. As varied as ever, the line-up included a four-door saloon, a four-door hardtop, a station wagon, a convertible and a coupe. The latter piqued the interest of enthusiasts, especially when it wore an SS emblem on the grille.
Parent company General Motors lifted its engine displacement restriction in 1970, allowing its divisions to turn up the power dial through huge V8s in order to keep up with rivals in the horsepower war. The Chevelle benefited greatly from this decision. Sometimes called the king of muscle cars, the SS 454 model used a 360bhp, 454-cubic-inch (7.4-litre) V8 stuffed under a bulged hood.
Oldsmobile 4-4-2 (1970)
Oldsmobile gave a big cheer when General Motors lifted its restriction on engine displacements. Like Chevrolet, it wasted no time in going big. It decided to make the 455-cubic-inch (7.3-litre) V8 the standard engine on the 4-4-2, letting anyone with at least $3376 (about $21,500 today) to spend drive home in a 365bhp muscle car.
The list of upgrades over the Cutlass also included a low-restriction exhaust system and what Oldsmobile’s promotional material called a special handling package.
Dodge Charger Super Bee (1971)
Dodge introduced the Coronet Super Bee in 1968 as a budget-oriented performance car alternative to the Plymouth Road Runner. Chrysler owned the two automakers but it encouraged friendly internal competition. In 1971, its last year on the market, the Super Bee nameplate moved to the Charge line-up.
Super Bee still stood for a blend of performance and value. Charger Super Bee models got a powerful V8 engine, a so-called Rallye suspension, heavy-duty brakes and a 383-cubic-inch V8 backed up by a three-speed manual transmission. Dodge sold a little over 5000 examples of the Charger Super Bee in 1971.
Ford Torino Cobra 429 (1970)
Ford separated the Torino from the Fairlane in 1970. Models named GT and Cobra, respectively, occupied the top two spots in the newly-established hierarchy. The Cobra was the performance champ of the line-up thanks to a 360hp V8 engine, 7in wide wheels and a black hood with a functional scoop. Ford sold 7675 examples of the Torino Cobra in 1970 and 3054 the following year. PICTURE: Ford Torino 429 Cobra Jet
Plymouth Hemi’Cuda (1971)
Plymouth positioned the ‘Cuda at the top of the Barracuda line-up. Offered with a V8 engine only, it received a special performance hood with scoops, a heavy-duty suspension, standard whitewall tires and a 335 hp V8 engine. The firm charged ‘Cuda buyers $884 (about $5400) for the 425bhp Street Hemi engine. Only seven people ordered both the convertible body style and the Street Hemi engine.
Buick Regal GNX (1987)
In the late 1980s, the Buick Regal-based Grand National was hotter than Def Leppard’s Hysteria. The GNX model turned the performance dial up a notch thanks to a turbocharged, 3.8-litre V6 with 272bhp, according to the firm’s famously conservative estimate. Michigan’s McLarenEngines helped Buick fine-tune the engine. The GNX could out-accelerate the Chevrolet Camaro; imagine a Buick doing that today…
Buick built just 500 examples of the GNX as the Grand National’s swan song. Charging Corvette money for a Regal sounded berserk but collectors quickly snatched up the entire production run.
Ford Shelby Mustang GT350R (2015)
The Ford Shelby Mustang GT350R embodied a new trend in the muscle car segment. It could go fast in a straight line, like all of its predecessors, but it could also take a corner with aplomb. In addition to chassis tweaks, the GT350R boasts a long list of carbon fiber parts including various trim pieces, some of the body panels and even the wheels.
Power comes from the same ready-to-race 519bhp flat-plane crank V8 as the slightly tamer Shelby GT350, which does without most of the carbon fiber add-ons.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE (2017)
Chevrolet positioned the Camaro ZL1 1LE as the ultimate track-day model. Building on the standard Camaro, which handles better than ever before, it gains a lighter suspension, comprehensive aero upgrades, and a 641bhp supercharged V8 engine. Rear-wheel drive and a rev-matching six-speed manual transmission both come standard.
It’s not as basic and stripped-down as it sounds. Chevrolet notes the ZL1 1LE remains a street-legal model fitted with a heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and a Bose sound system.
Dodge Challenger Demon (2017)
Dodge developed the Challenger Demon for one specific mission: drag racing. It promises to deliver 829bhp and 770lb ft of torque when burning 100-octane fuel, figures that make it the most powerful eight-cylinder engine currently in production. Features normally found only on purpose-built dragsters, like a transbrake, help the Demon blast through the quarter-mile in 9.65sec at 140mph.
Fully (and barely) street-legal, the Demon pops a wheelie for 2.92ft, a Guinness-certified record for a production vehicle. Once its front wheels land on the ground it takes 2.3sec to reach 60mph.
Ford Shelby GT500 (2019, 2020)
Ford unveiled the GT500’s long-awaited return at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show. It used a further developed and supercharged version of the Mustang GT350’s 5.2-litre V8 engine. The 700bhp of power is delivered to the rear wheels through a carbonfiber driveshaft and a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which was developed with insight from the team that worked on the GT supercar.
Not enough power? The latest 2020 model (pictured) ships with 750bhp . It costs from $72,900, which sounds a lot for a Mustang, but not that much for a car with 40 more horses than a £203,000 Ferrari F8 Tributo.