THE HISTORY OF MUSCLE CARS
THEHISTORY OF MUSCLE CARS
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TheHistory of Muscle Cars
Whenone considers the history of cars, especially American cars, the“muscle car” deserves to be on top of the list. In the post warworld, the automobile industry was at a rebirth as the end of the warhad left a gap in the production and sale of new engines, body parts,and spares. Because of the new change in landscape, automobileproducers turned their focus back on home consumers as they sought tomake the industry commercially viable again. This meant that theautomobile companies needed to find a niche in the market at thetime, especially under the immense pressure from European highperformance cars. This paper traces this unique history of the musclecar as defined in America with critical focus on the early productionmodels, marketing wars, their decline, and ultimate transformation.
TheOrigin of the Muscle Car
The“Muscle car” is a term that is used to refer to a collection ofAmerican made sports and high-performance automobiles. According tothe Merriam Dictionary, a muscle car is any “American made 2-doorsports car that has a powerful engine that is purposed forhigh-performance driving”1.Essentially, muscle cars were intended for street use and in mostinstances, racing. The story behind muscle cars can be traced back tothe 1920’s when the need for faster cars arose with moonshiners andbootleggers who needed all the speed they could get, as they got awayfrom the police. According to Neal Thompson, who quoted JuniorJohnson, former whiskey runner and NASCAR legend, “moonshiners putmore time, thought and energy into their cars that any racers do,since if they lost a race, they would go to jail”2.The statement captures the entire motivation behind muscle cars, asthey drew inspiration from the modifications by moonshiners whoensured that their cars were able to handle load, were easier tohandle and also faster in speed. Consequently, as moonshining becameless profitable in the 1940’s the cars that were used for theillegal business were turned into racing cars and this trend ushereda new age in the American automobile industry.
TheRise of the Muscle Car
Whilethe history of muscle cars is conflicting, the first example of amuscle car can be seen in the 1949 “OldsmobileRocket 88,”whose introduction gave rise to public interest in automobile powerand speed. The OldsmobileRocketfeatured the first version of an “American high-compressionoverhead valve V8,” that was placed in a smaller and lighter bodythat essentially made the car faster and meaner on the track. Thisnew invention became a major obsession for American racers and carenthusiasts as the V8 engine on the Olds88became a symbol for speed and power. The status of the Oldsmobilewas further affirmed during the 1950’s NASCARs when it won eightout of ten races. Consequently, the success paved way for newcompetitors that planned to secure a share of the new industry’sripeness3.
Soonafter the OldsmobileRocket 88,other companies such as Chryslerand Chevroletintroduced new models to rival the first muscle car, as the formerintroduced their Hemiand the latter revealing the small-blockV8.The Hemi (Chevrolet), which was released in 1951, was made with aseries of V8 engines with a hemispherical combustion chamber thatimproved the vehicle’s airflow and power output. Later, in 1955,Chrystler’s Hemi introduced the Chrystler C-300, which had amagnificent 300hp that made it the “most powerful car in America”.On the other hand, the small-block V8, released in 1955, changed theplatform by introducing lightweight muscle cars. The small-block V8would later come to define General Motors as the industry standardthat remained dominant for at least 50 years. Generally the 1950’swas an age where automotive makers made great advancements thatchanged performance cars for decades to come such as Chevrolet’ smechanical system for fuel injection. Ultimately, the ripple effectwas an increasing popularity for drag racing.
TheBan on Auto Racing and its Impacts on Muscle Cars
In1955, during the 24Hours of Le Mansrace, a 300 SLR Mercedes Benz, driven by Pierre Levegh, flew into thecrowd after brushing another car at a speed of 150mph. The fatalaccident, which resulted in the deaths of 83 people and the injury ofcountless others is considered one of the deadliest accidents inracing history and it paved way for a new era in the automobileindustry4.The accident led to diverse effects such as the AutomobileManufacturers Associationban on races sponsored by factories in 1957. During this time,manufacturers were prohibited from advertising the performanceaspects of their passenger vehicles, publish performance results, oreven to be associated with auto races. While the move was intended atself-banning to ensure that governments did not restrict auto racingentirely, it was later undermined by non-association carmakerscompetition which led to the lifting of the ban in 1963.
TheMuscle Car Golden era
Inthe sixties, muscle car production became more focused on speed asdrag racing as a culture had become more prominent and this led tothe development of engines rather than bodies parts. In 1962, theDodgeDartbecame a major contender, as its 13-second quarter-mile run on thedrag strip was revolutionary. The competition thus realized that themarket demand was in speed and all production moved to facilitatethis need. For instance, the 1963Pontiac Super Dutyhad a ‘swiss cheese’ (holes drilled into its chassis rails) thatmade the car significantly lighter. Nevertheless, these advances areminimal compared to the entry of the 1964 Tempest GTO (GrandTurismo Homologation-‘fitfor racing’) that ushered in the golden age in muscle car history5.With both the muscle and the appeal, the GTO, which was also approvedfor racing, gained appeal as its engine was greater than 330 CID (5.4liters). At an affordable cost of $3,200, the GTO gained popularityamong young buyers and the units sold exceeded expectations.
Inresponse, competitors such as Ford released the Thunderbolt,which had a striking 427 (CID) and even though it was later termed asunsafe for driving, it was one of the greatest muscles cars evermade. The FordMustangwas also released in 1964 but while it mirrored muscle cars in looks,it was deficient in power and introduced a new market that was latercalled the ‘ponycar’.Soon the market was flooded by other versions as Chevrolet introducedthe Camaro,Pontiactheir Firebirdand Plymouth released the low budget RoadRunner.The sixties thus became the golden decade in muscle cars as newinventions and upgrades could hardly meet the demand in the market.As newer and cheaper versions were introduced, earlier version suchas the GTO dropped in prices and designs that were unique/ridiculouswere released, such as the Daytona with its magnificent wing.
TheFall of the Muscle Car
Inthe seventies, new policies on emissions called for auto make toshift towards heavier bumpers and stronger metal to meet newstandards and this made cars heavier and lesser powerful, a majorfeature of muscle cars. Furthermore, the 1973-74, OPEC embargo cut inoil exports to the US created a fuel crisis as prices became higherand availability became scarcer6.This reality, coupled by inflation, made muscle cars lesser appealingas they could neither be cheaply fueled, nor purchased for theirperformance. Most ‘muscle’ and ‘pony cars’ thus began togradually exit the seventies market and only the Camaro,Firebirdand the PlymouthRoad Runnerremained even though they had reduced performance. However, after thesuccess of Pontiac’sFirebird,other makers like ChevroletandFordreentered the market and in 1979, a new Mustangwith a low-torque was released.
TheNineties to Present Day Muscle
Throughoutthe nineties, manufacturers became more conversant with newspecifications as they developed engines that met these requirements.For instance, Ford and GM tuned out their pony cars and releasednewer versions of the Mustang and Firebird respectively. After theturn of the century, classics came back as the 2004 GTOwas reintroduced with a powerful engine and simple rear-wheel drivebut with the difference, that it looked ‘foreign’/European. Thepoor reaction to the market led to the discontinuation of the GTO in2006, as sales dwindled as Americans preferred the classic (American)look that was lacking. Nevertheless, modern successes in muscle carshave been the 2005 Chrysler300C,the 2005 Mustang,the 2012 DodgeChargerand Challenger,and the ChevroletCamaro7.Conclusively, while it is too early to say, muscle cars appear to bemaking a comeback and probably, the future has more surprises forspeed junkies and racers all over the world.
Carand Drive. 1964Pontiac Tempest GTO.Car and Drive, Jan 1964.http://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/1964-pontiac-tempest-gto-road-test-review
Maugeri,Leonardo.TheAge of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World`s MostControversial Resource.GreenwoodPublishing Group, 2006. pp. 112–116.ISBN 978-0-275-99008-4.
Nerad,Jack. OldsmobileRocket `88’.Driving Today,2017. http://www.drivingtoday.com/kpix/greatest_cars/olds_rocket88/#.WN4cLdzVC00
OfficialDodge. DodgeChallenger. http://www.dodge.com/
Spurgeonjune,Brad. OnAuto Racing’s Deadliest Day.New York Times, June 11, 2015.https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/12/sports/autoracing/on-auto-racings-deadliest-day.html?_r=1
Thompson,Neal. Drivingwith the devil: Southern moonshine, Detroit wheels, and the birth ofNASCAR.Broadway Books, 2009.
1 Merriam-Webster Online. "muscle car".
2 Thompson, Neal. Driving with the devil: Southern moonshine, Detroit wheels, and the birth of NASCAR. Broadway Books, 2009.
3 Nerad, Jack. Oldsmobile Rocket `88’. Driving Today, 2017.
4 Spurgeonjune, Brad. On Auto Racing’s Deadliest Day. New York Times, June 11, 2015
5 Car and Drive. 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO. Car and Drive, Jan 1964.
6 Maugeri, Leonardo. The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World`s Most Controversial Resource. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006). pp. 112–116.
7 Official Dodge. Dodge Challenger. 2017.
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