It’s easy to start – and have, a discussion about what makes a car a muscle car. Get any two car guys together, and the discussion could eventually even lead up to an argument. But, how could two car guys argue about what constitutes a musclecar? They’re car guys; they know what a muscle car is, right? Well, opinions vary, so maybe not.
A muscle car is loosely defined as a car built by an American car company that fits into the hot rodding belief of taking a small car and fitting a not-quite-ever-available-from-the-factory bigger engine, and stuffing it under the hood of said small car. Okay, so where’s the confusion come about?
The confusion occurs when opinions vary — especially about what is considered a “small” car, or a “big” engine. Let’s face it, even Chevrolet has added to the confusion over the years, by calling an Impala with a 427ci under the hood an upscale “musclecar”. Is the Impala considered a small car? If you’re looking to get technical, the dictionary actually defines a muscle car as; any American-made two-door sport coupe with a powerful engine designed for high-performance driving. [Or] A two-door, rear-wheel-drive, family-style mid-size or full-size car with a large V8 engine fitted under the hood that is designed for four or more passengers.
What it all boils down to, is that opinions will always vary as to whether cars like a full-size, a compact, or pony car qualify as muscle. But, whatever the opinion, why did people flock to the dealers to buy muscle cars when they were new?
Trying to honestly figure out why someone bought something is a particularly hard thing to narrow down. Over the years, different generations did different things for different reasons, so what we need to do, is to actually focus on a certain period of time to try and realize why muscle cars were so popular. The general consensus is that musclecars were primarily produced in the ’60s, and early ’70s. Yes, there were “muscle cars” before and after that time frame, but I digress — for now.
The early ’60s were considered the dawn of the golden age. The Happy Days and Leave It to Beaver glorified-lifestyle is what everyone seems to remember. But for car guys, American Graffiti seems to be the mindset. Back then, it was all about outrunning the guy in the other lane when leaving the red light downtown. Up until this time, the family car was just that, a support mechanism for the family; a means of getting dad to work and mom to the grocery store. But, when the 60s really started to get rolling, muscle cars (Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, but they were just known as cars back then), were purchased by young men and women that were tired of dear-ol-dad’s 348-powered Biscayne wagon. They were ready to get behind the wheel of something that not only had style, but an attitude to match.
In the eyes of this younger crowd, the car was no longer just a mode of transportation; it was developing its own culture. Detroit auto manufacturers were quick to notice this culture developing, and supported it anyway they could. Soon, you could find just about any brand of automobile at the race track vying for a win.
By the early 1970s, many of the most well-known musclecars of the day were becoming too expensive for the average buyer. Sure, the guy that bought a Yenko Camaro in 1969 had one bad ride, but that car cost him roughly four-to-six-month’s salary. As engine sizes grew and technologies were added, these cars started pushing the $5,000-plus price point.
In the early ’70s, that was well beyond what most could afford. Many agree that the musclecar era met its demise around 1971 or 1972. Gas was on its way to reaching the status of unobtainium, and the insurance companies had no plan to make insurance coverage affordable to someone with “any American-made two-door sport coupe with a powerful engine designed for high-performance driving.”
Detroit succumbed to the pressure of declining sales, and the automakers began offering more budget-minded “musclecars”, with performance ratings that were less-than-stellar. Take for instance, a 1973 Chevelle SS with a 454ci. In 1973, the big-block had been choked down to 245 horsepower. It was official; the muscle car era was over—or was it?
Fast forward to 2010, and once again, all three American automotive manufacturers are building a two-door, rear wheel drive, family-style mid-size or full-size car with a large V8 engine fitted under the hood that is designed for four or more passengers is once again being built.
The Camaro—and those other two “muscle cars” had made a return. While the ’60s and ’70s saw many body styles earn the title musclecar—Impala, Camaro, Chevelle, and even Monte Carlo, this time around, that moniker is being delivered in limited supply. This time, Ford once again has the Mustang, Dodge has the Challenger, and the Chevy guys are once again, blessed with the Camaro. But, this time around, things seem to be a little different. Those baby boomers from the ’60s and ’70s that liked big compression, a manually-shifted transmission, and no air conditioning, now want—and get, all of the available power of a musclecar with the luxuries they remember their dad’s cars having.
Many enthusiasts were concerned that the introduction of unleaded gasoline was going to be the downfall to performance. It was hard to speculate about the impact that unleaded fuel would actually have when it was introduced, as the only “muscle” cars on the market being delivered at the time were—I can’t believe I am about to say this, but, the Vega, Mustang II, and the Omni.
Regardless of what cars were being built, leaded fuel was going away. Fast forward to 2010, and since leaded, 100-octane fuel is no longer available on every street corner; there was no way a muscle car could survive. Fortunately for us, that was completely wrong. Today’s muscle car has adapted. The computer that controls all of its functions has done something that no gear head was ever able to do—finely, minutely, tune a car. Sure, there are guys out there that can tune a carburetor or a distributor, but now, by simply connecting a laptop to your car, you can fine tune timing to within ½ degree. You can fluctuate the timing to either be advanced or retarded at any given millisecond to suit your engine’s needs. Heck, you can even regulate the car’s fuel consumption with a keystroke.
Never before has a “standard” production car been delivered from the factory that is so infinitely and easily tunable and which possesses the ability to run a low 12-second quarter mile time. I keep hearing about the good ole days like they’re a thing of the past. Really, are those people living under a rock?
The 21st century “muscle car” runs a low 12-second to high 11-second quarter-mile, all while the driver is able to listen — and actually hear, his or her favorite song on the radio, enjoy power steering, and have the air conditioning turned on! But, what’s in store for the future of the muscle car? Are things like Ethanol-blended gasoline and alternative fuels going to cause its demise? Since my grandson was playing with my crystal ball and I can no longer find it, I’ll have to speculate.
Way back when unleaded fuels first became the only fuel you could get for use in your street car, it was the consensus then, that the musclecar hobby had met the end. There would be no way that a car could safely produce 450 – 500 horsepower while burning that swill. At the time, many thought that it was impossible to build a high-performance engine that could run on that “low” octane, diluted fuel. Even the OEs threw in the towel for a while; again, remember the Omni, the Mustang II, and even Chevy’s anemic rendition of the Camaro in the late ’80s? Although it took a couple of decades for manufacturers to overcome the “junk” fuel obstacle, they finally did. But, what does that mean for us in the future?
In the near future, I don’t see much—if anything, changing, except for maybe a cap on deliverable horsepower. I am afraid that someone somewhere will feel the need to be my safety spokesperson and an eventual regulation on horsepower will be enacted.
But, for the near future, 500, 600, and even 700 horsepower cars will still be available from the OE. They have overcome the problem of “cheap” fuel and engine management, and are continually delivering exceptional cars for the masses. But, it’s hard to say what might happen in the distant future—right about now, I really wish I could find that crystal sphere. I am afraid that eventually, the gas we currently use will either be in short supply, or so diluted that it can no longer support any type of performance.
Eventually, I think that there will be another fuel source that will become available at the pumps. Take for instance, how many public, electric-car charging stations are in your area. Maybe not very many at present, but do you also remember when a pump with unleaded fuel was a rarity?
What might happen is much like when unleaded gasoline was first mandated, there could be a short time when a true “muscle car” will be hard to find, and sadly, the Camaro might even get choked-down a bit—again. And, just like overcoming the initial unleaded introduction, I am quite certain that someone in a clean laboratory somewhere is designing and implementing a way to power a 22nd or 23rd century “muscle car” that my great grandson will be able to buy at a dealership. By then, he’ll probably just hover away at a high rate of acceleration.