I get pushed out of shape and it’s hard to steer when I get rubber in all four gears – The Beach Boys, 1963
When these lyrics were written in the spring of ‘63 such accelerative prowess would indeed require, as the song expressed, a homebuilt hot rod. Or a daunting expenditure on the likes of the storied 409 Impala or 406 Galaxie. Or an even taller stack of bones for a Corvette, Cobra or E-Type. The thought of anything even more costly would blow a young man’s mind. But in the fall of that year a new player appeared to rewrite the rules …
Gonna save all my money and buy a GTO – Ronnie and the Daytonas, 1964
Pontiac’s new bomb didn’t come out of nowhere, the stage first had to be set. Unlike Europe, where manufacturers offered a full spectrum of models and sizes, the American automobile market was very homogenous, right though the 1950s. With the exception of the Thunderbird and Corvette, there was only one type of car offered: big.
As sales of more modestly-scaled imports began increasing exponentially in the latter half of the decade, U.S. manufacturers set about designing a series of smaller cars. The term small in America has always carried a bit of a stigma, so the industry dubbed their new reduced-size offerings Compacts. Though the new Compacts sold well, the product planners at Ford realized almost immediately that many consumers, in addition to finding what were now referred to as Full-Size Cars too big, found the new Compacts too diminutive. Like Goldilocks, they wanted something that was not too big and not too small, but just right.
The answer to their invocations was the 1962 Ford Fairlane. Bigger than the Falcon Compact and smaller than the Full-Size Galaxie, the Fairlane even offered a new engine, the Ford Challenger V8, offered in two sizes; 221 or 260 cubic inches (3.6-4.3 litre). In comparison, the Full-Size Fords at the time offered V8s ranging in size from 292 through 406 cubic inches (4.8-6.7).
The new Fairlane was a runaway success, and Ford’s competitors rushed to enter this market with cars that were logically described by both industry and automotive media as Intermediate Size. At mid-decade every segment of the American market had a somewhat agreed-upon name. As the Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Riviera emerged to compete with the Ford Thunderbird, they were jointly referred to as Personal, Personal Luxury or Specialty cars. The Mustang was simply a Mustang until its competitors began arriving, upon which they were deemed to be (in homage to the original) Pony Cars.
Not content to play between the lines, the Pontiac division of General Motors decided to shake up the troops in 1964 with a new model they named after a storied Ferrari; the GTO. Pontiac’s new machine was based on their existing Tempest, a model that began life as a Compact but had since grown sufficiently in size to attain Intermediate status.
Prior to the GTO, Intermediate Size cars were powered by a range of intermediate-size engines. The Fairlane’s largest had grown to a 289 (4.7), the Chevelle’s a 283 (4.6). To create the GTO, Pontiac took an existing 389 cubic inch (6.4) V8 from their Full-Size range, boosted the compression, gave it a few tweaks and dropped it into the Tempest, which had heretofore offered at most a 326 cubic inch (5.3) motor. This was actually easier than getting chills in a haunted house as the 326 and 389 engines shared the same block. Unlike many competitors, Pontiac did not have distinct large and small V8s; they simply varied bore and stroke dimensions inside their only V8.
In addition to the highly-tuned 389 Trophy mill, the GTO package included firmer suspension, high-speed U.S. Royal SS-800 Red Streak nylon-ply tyres, bucket seats, chrome engine bits and a pair of faux hood scoops. A single four-throat carburettor was standard issue, but if you wanted more you simply paid the man, stepped up to the craps table, rolled the dice a few times and ended up with three deuces and 20-odd more horsepower.
The GTO was a new ballgame. It wasn’t a big boat like pop’s car; nor was it tiny and low to the ground like those sports jobs Joe College drove accompanied by girlfriends in flowing tresses and black tights. This was a proper-size sports rig tall enough for a guy’s gal to sidle into for a trip to the bowl-o-rama without mussing her beehive.
Sales doubled even Pontiac’s optimistic forecast and competitors soon entered the fray with an alphabet soup of similar offerings; 442, SS 396, GTX and more. The enthusiast press began referring to vehicles in this new market category as Supercars or Muscle Cars. By the end of the decade, Muscle Car became ascendant as Supercar increasingly described low-production, multi-cylinder, preferably mid-engine exotics costing as much as a Tahitian beach bungalow. Thus by July of ’69, Hot Rod, a magazine originally proffering the Supercar moniker, dubbed the new 442-based Hurst/Olds 455 (7.5) as a Muscle Car with Luxury.
Nonetheless, with a constant onslaught of new cars in all types and sizes, and magazine editors increasingly struggling with writers seeking higher mind-expanding consciousness, even buff books got confused. Car Life placed the 1969 Corvette in the Pony Car category in their October ’68 issue. Gone, man, gone!
Muscle Cars were not just fast or powerful, they were a specific genre: Intermediate-Size cars with high-output Full-Size propulsion. This simple recipe produced advantageous power-to-weight ratios and made no-substitute-for-cubic-inch torque affordable. This was the key to attracting young buyers to which the cars were aimed. Muscle cars generally sold for nearly a third less than comparably equipped Full-Size cars with the same engine.
Once U.S. manufactures realized people were willing to pay extra money for a big motor they began offering large-displacement engines in just about anything on four wheels. The Corvette was issued a 396 (6.5), then a 427 (7.0); the Mustang offered a 390 (6.4), while the Camaro reciprocated with Chevrolet’s 396. Even the Compact Chevrolet Nova was eventually granted it’s own 396 Rat Motor.
These were not usually considered Muscle Cars, however. A Camaro was typically thought of as a Pony Car, whether it had a Turbo-Thrift 230, or a Turbo-Jet 396, despite the fact that equipped with the latter, it could out-muscle plenty of Muscle Cars in the quarter-mile, the one measure that mattered to the Muscle Car enthusiast.
The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, Cadillac Series 61 and mid-fifties Chrysler 300 are sometimes cited as early muscle cars. Close; but no Cohiba. One might as well go back in the mists of time and bestow the Muscle Car imprimatur on the pre-war Mercedes-Benz 540K, Bentley Speed Six and Stutz Bearcat.
The Olds 88 was slightly smaller than the 98, with which it shared a 304 cubic inch (5.0) engine; but only 350 pounds (160 kg) trimmer than the senior model. In comparison, the 1964 GTO was a full 700 pounds (320 kg) lighter than a similarly equipped Full Size Poncho.
Closer to the mark, others have put forth the ‘58 Mercury Monterey equipped with the optional 430 cubic inch (7.0) 400 hp tri-carb Super Marauder Bulldozer V8. The Big M certainly had the requisite straight-line punch, but it still wasn’t quite on the money. It was too expensive, too big, too soft, and offered little in the way of sporting adjuncts such as a coveted four on the floor.
The Olds 88 and GTO did share a commonality; they had sufficient impact on popular culture as to be immortalized on vinyl in Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951) and G.T.O. by the aforementioned Ronnie and the Daytonas (1964).
Thus the Pontiac GTO was the first bona fide 1960s Muscle Car. While there were even wilder sedans of similar size in ’64 including the Ford Fairlane 427 Thunderbolt and 426 Max Wedge powered Dodges and Plymouths, these were hand fabricated special-order machines and in the case of the Thunderbolt, generally available only to established drag racing teams.
And drag racing was what it was all about. Automotive competition in the U.S. focused on three arenas: oval track (Indianapolis and NASCAR), top speed (Bonneville Salt Flats) and most popular in the 1960s; sanctioned and unsanctioned (back road) drag racing.
Throughout the most of the U.S., high cruising speeds were frowned upon. You’re in a heap of trouble, boy. There was little interest in cornering with alacrity. What did excite American enthusiasts was accelerating as strongly as possible from a standing start to around 100 mph or so, then cruising to the local hamburger purveyor for fries and a Coke; repeating as necessary. Drag racing, Daddy-O.
It was no coincidence that the 1968 Road Runner was marketed with the tagline acceleratii rapidus maximus. Many young Americans just wanted to drop the clutch and accelerate into the distant horizon trailing clouds of acrid tyre smoke, chasing dreams and rushing headlong toward sunset at the magic hour after riding waves at Pacific Palisades or Redondo Beach.
It was in the air.
The Beach Boys were singing about the strip where the road is wide, and comin’ off the line when the light turns green. The December 1967 issue of Car Craft described a true GTO owner as someone who could appreciate the car for what it can do in that thrashing, churning, demanding 1320 feet of whirling dervish known officially as drag racing …
Many a young man lived to emulate colourful kings of the quarter mile like the Three Dons: Don The Snake Prudhomme, Big Daddy Don Garlits and Dyno Don Nicholson. If they couldn’t do it at Pomona, the U.S. 30 Dragstrip, or Madison County Raceway, they could practice their holeshot technique at traffic lights on Van Nuys Boulevard, Woodward Avenue or any road heading somewhere West of Laramie.
Jan and Dean were singing of Drag City and the bragging rights of owning the track record in the quarter mile. Muscle Cars were ideal for travelling back and forth to school or work and to the strip where the road was wide. For the first time, one could experience acceleration of a magnitude heretofore reserved for Those With Big Bucks or Shadetree Wrench-Twirlers like John Milner and Bob Falfa.
While a powerful automobile of any vintage can by described as a muscular car, only the following were generally considered proper bona fide standard-production 1960s Muscle Cars:
- AMC Rebel SST 390 (6.4)
- Buick Skylark Gran Sport/GSX 400, 401, 455 (6.6-7.5)
- Chevrolet Chevelle 396 L-34, L-35, L-37, L-78, 427, 454 (6.5-7.4)
- Dodge Coronet/Charger 383 Magnum, 426, 440 (6.3-7.2)
- Ford Fairlane/Torino 390 4V, 427, 428, 429 (6.4-7.0)
- Mercury Comet/Cyclone/Montego 390 4V, 427, 428, 429 (6.4-7.0)
- Oldsmobile 442 and Hurst/Olds 400 4V, 455 (6.6-7.5)
- Plymouth Belvedere/Satellite/GTX/Road Runner 383 Super Commando, 426, 440 (6.3-7.2)
- Pontiac GTO 389, 400, 455 (6.4-7.5)
Honourable laurels must be bestowed upon the 1964 Oldsmobile 442 330 (5.4) and 1965 Chevelle SS L79 327 (5.4). These rare species had most of, and sometimes equal the performance of the average Muscle Car, lacking only the immense torque that is the defining driving experience of the genre. Straying a bit further from the canon are ’62-64 Dodges and Plymouths equipped with a 383, 413 or 426 (6.3-7.0). Although dimensionally close to the GTO, these were marketed as Full Size family cars and priced accordingly.
So there you have it. There are many muscular cars, but only about a dozen bona fide Muscle Cars. Not that everyone was enamoured with these ferocious new fire-breathing dragons. Thomas Jay “Tom” McCahill III, esteemed road tester for Mechanix Illustrated and the first person to focus on 0-60 time as the penultimate quantitative measure of performance was no acolyte.
After driving the GTO, 442 and Buick Skylark GS in 1965, John R. Bond, publisher of Road & Track, wrote they were entertaining; but he would rather have his fun in a Lotus Elan or Porsche 1600 SC. The latter two were about half again as expensive as a typically-optioned Muscle Car; cool cars for a deep-pocketed Cool Cat, but mucho moolah for Average Joe.
The same year, Car and Driver described the demeanour of Muscle Cars as explosive and spine-jarring.
Focused primarily on straight line performance, they were not very agile, with many having a tendency toward strong understeer, and often incorporating primitive leaf-sprung rear suspensions with little provision for preventing axle windup when called upon to deliver the massive power on tap. Only GM models had four-link coil spring suspension at the rear. Nevertheless, even they occasionally had trouble putting their generous torque to the ground due to flexing of the open U-profile rear suspension arms on most models.
Matching neither their weight nor their prodigious power output were generally undersized brakes and tyres. In a test of the original GTO, Car Life pointed out that its brake swept area/weight ratio was one of the worst ever calculated. Optional (when offered) metallic linings and/or finned aluminium front brake drums (or available front disc brakes from 1967 onwards) were a must for any spirited driving. Limited traction from commonly fitted 7.50 or 7.75-14, and later lower-profile Wide Oval F70-14 (equivalent to today’s 215/70-14) tyres required a deft foot on the loud pedal.
Steering quality was an issue as buyers had to choose from painfully sluggish (as slow as 29:1; about six turns lock-to-lock) unassisted steering or rather lifeless power-assisted systems. The lackluster steering was exacerbated by the front suspension on American cars of this period having near zero degrees of castor, which meant that without constant steering input they wandered around like a prom queen in heels after her third go at the spiked punch.
At first novel, entertaining and fairly inexpensive, by decade end the bloom started to fade. As power and weight increased, mileage dropped to as low as 8 miles per gallon (29 litres per 100 km); and because more than a few musclehead-driven Muscle Cars ended up in crashville, insurance rates skyrocketed.
Another blow was the increasing performance envelope of Pony Cars. Spurred on by factory-backed competition in the Trans-Am road-racing championship, by the end of the decade the Mustang and Camaro were available with lightweight high-output 302-350 (5.0-5.7) engines with handling and braking to match.
The Camaro offered four-wheel disc brakes while the Mustang retained rear drums but was available with large 12” (305 mm) discs up front with four-piston calipers. Both utilized staggered rear shock absorbers to reduce spring windup and axle hop. Unless one could love only massive oh my god torque, or preferred a large rear compartment for back seat bongo with that smoldery brunette from the pizzeria, it was increasingly difficult for a cat to choose a Muscle Car over one of these crazy new Pony Cars.
Concurrently, the cars were fast becoming caricatures of themselves as they increasingly sported boy-racer graphics, garish raised-white-letter tyres and whimsical vacuum-operated air-intake flaps occasionally embellished with depictions of menacing sharks. A few suffered the indignity of bearing names and appliqués referencing arthropodan, cartoon and television comedy-skit characters.
At the dawn of the ‘70s, a fustian fat lady was donning her winged helmet for the final aria. Recovered from their initial excitement over unfettered acceleration, the public began losing interest in tyre-shredding. Burn rubber? Done that, Pilgrim.
The times were a-changin’. The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean were no longer singing about cars and hot rods, and Gary Usher, co-writer of 409 was driving a Coupe de Ville. There were further horizons to explore beyond the hamburger joint; more distant than the strip. The bright lights. The final frontier. Max Yasgur’s farm.
In a startlingly rapid collapse, Muscle Car sales fell by nearly half from 1969 to 1970 just as Jupiter was aligning with Mars at the dawn of The Age Of Aquarius. Instead of buying Super Bees, young men were off letting their freak flags fly at Be-Ins. The Chevelle SS 454 LS6, released in the fall of ‘69, was the swan song of the Muscle Car epoch. It was the final new model that remaining diehard enthusiasts could wholeheartedly embrace; over the next few years Muscle Car performance would began to wane as compression ratios were lowered in anticipation of a pending phase-out of leaded fuel.
… you’ll never hear surf music again – Jimi Hendrix
The party was over.
The intricate harmonies of The Beach Boy’s tales of surf and strip were but a distant memory, replaced on the radio by the plaintive whining of John Denver and James Taylor. Time to leave Modesto.
Pick of the pack? Three, plus one.
The 1965-1967 Chevelle Z16/SS 396. Their coil-spring rear suspension, svelte size and advantageous pricing gave them an advantage over many competitors; and their subtly handsome no-frills styling suited the Muscle Car meme better than later, more flamboyant renditions. Their understated (dare I say elegant?) lines make a current Mercedes-Benz look like something Liberace would drive to pick up a spare set of candelabras. This is a Muscle Car you wouldn’t have been embarrassed to park at the Country Club between a 230 SL and a Riviera GS.
With the exception of the faux hood vents, the unpretentious Chevelle was the real deal. The 396 Mark IV Porcupine Turbo-Jet V8 was easily the equal of any of its competitors and the trimmer, less unwieldy overall length, a full 10” (255 mm) shorter than most rivals, was icing on the cake.
The 1964-1965 Tri-Power GTO. Sure, they stretched a little hard for a touch of Continental Flair with the purloined GTO nomenclature and “6.5 litre” badging adorning the port and starboard flanks (rounded up from an actual 6.4) at a time when few Americans had a clue as to what a litre was, but the GTO was a well conceived, affordable package. It looked good and felt good. It was full of The Right Stuff. The ‘64 GTO was the first of its kind. This gave it a coolness factor that none of its competitors ever had or will have. It created excitement and will forever define the genre.
Tri-Power was a must. The triple carburettors, with a golden glow emanating from their dichromate conversion coating, never failed to impress service station jockeys and garnered begrudging respect from the likes of 409, Max Wedge, Super Wildcat, 356 and Giulia drivers accustomed to taking pride in their dual setups.
The ’65 unfortunately grew in length and gained 170 lbs (77 kg) in the process. But it still retained some of that cool.
The 1965-1967 Oldsmobile 442. The 442 had the most advanced suspension system of the bunch, with a rear anti-sway bar (which didn’t show up on competing cars until 1970) and rigid boxed rear control arms. GM’s 442 stablemates ran open U-section control arms that would flex under hard acceleration often resulting in speed-sapping wheel-hop. Leaf-sprung competitors from Chrysler and Ford fared even worse.
There is another model of note: the 1966-1967 Dodge Charger 383/426/440. This was more than a Muscle Car, it was a cross between a Muscle Car and an affordable American interpretation of a Gran Turismo in the manner of a Jensen Interceptor or Facel Vega II, both coincidentally powered by the Charger’s available 383 (6.3) Chrysler V8.
Conceived with a nod toward becoming a home for the sixth-generation Chrysler Turbine engine, the Charger included a four-bucket seat interior with full-length centre console and an instrument cluster illuminated by low-glare electroluminescent backlighting. Both had been features of the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car.
The instrument cluster also incorporated a large built-in tachometer when many competitors were still placing them in surface-mounted pods, or out of sight down in the console. Tell me when to shift, Joe.
The original Charger went largely unappreciated by the public and was quickly watered down. Out went the full-length console; then the rear buckets and electroluminescent panel. The tachometer disappeared, and beginning in 1968 the standard V8 was supplanted by a Slant-Six. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, it aimed too high to be a Dodge. As with the later Cordoba, it should have been marketed as a Chrysler.
With its dramatic 1960s fastback roofline and lavish interior the original Charger was in a Muscle Car league of its own, a real bang-tail gone cat.