If there is one car that exemplifies the progression of the automobile in the United States, it is the high-performance vehicle known as the Muscle Car. During the post-War period, the drive for performance cars swept the world. European carmakers turned out legions of high-speed hot rods. In the US, car makers and car enthusiasts alike began to develop cars meant for street and drag racing. Almost as if to affirm the freedom of the Baby Boomer generation. Today, muscle cars may seem like the antithesis of current trends. In a world of hybrids, electric cars, and emissions scandals, the last thing anyone wants is a gas-guzzling speed machine as impractical as it is uproarious. However, like apple pie and baseball, there will always be a place for vintage muscle cars.
Ford Mustang Shelby
Carroll Shelby was a car designer and racing driver who worked on a number of wondrous projects that changed the face of the automotive industry. None were as iconic as the Mustang, which turned the hot rod market on its head and signaled a new direction in performance vehicles. Shelby stuffed a 427 inch V-8 under the hood of the Mustang, where it had no business being, and he brought it to race at Le Mans, where it was jeered at for its sheer mass and unwieldiness. But he and the Mustang had the last laugh, and the rest was history.
Is the Corvette a muscle car, or is it an exotic car? That question is perhaps one way that you can tell people apart and depending on your answer you may end up with friends or enemies. To be fair, the Corvette is probably somewhere in between, with an exotic skin covering a muscle-bound engine. Whatever the case, the Corvette looks, feels and sounds like nothing else and whether it was on the drag strip or the race track, it turned heads and busted eardrums.
If the Corvette is subject to debate, the GTO is the archetype of muscle cars across the board. Indeed, if there is any car that captures the imagination of what a muscle car is, the Pontiac is it, and not only for its looks. Pontiac took a risk developing a muscle car with a more compact body at a time when everyone else was making their muscle cars bigger and louder. Thanks to Chief Engineer John Delorean (who would become famous in his own right), a 6555cc engine and steering and suspension that was a clear nod to its inspiration, the Ferrari GTO. As American as the muscle car is, those little touches from across the pond helped to cement it as a pivotal era in US automotive history.
Some guys have all the luck, and others slip through the annals of history with nary a whisper. While the GTO and the Mustang have gotten much of the print, the Olds was around at the beginning of the muscle car craze and debuted in 1964, the same year as the GTO. The 442 was all in the name: 4-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission, and dual exhausts, and it delivered on performance in spades. Sadly for Oldsmobile, the advent of the muscle car coincided with the advent of the Mad Men, and it never could compete. But for classic car collectors in the know, this is an unsung hero.
AMC Rebel Machine
Some muscle cars tried to bridge the gap between street legal and road warrior, and the AMC was one such example. Packed with a 390 cubic inch V-8 engine that kicked out 340 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque, it came with special heads, valve train, and a redesigned exhaust and intake system and promised a 10.74:1 horsepower to weight ratio. While the Rebel Machine was well hyped and sold respectably, internal problems at AMC meant that its production life cycle was limited. Bad for AMC, great for car collectors.
If you ask anyone who has never seen a muscle car up close to describe what a muscle car is, chances are they'll describe a Dodge Charger to you. Alternatively, if you have the patience to sit through a screening of Bullitt, you'll see one of the most iconic chase scenes in movie history, which also happens to involve the Charger. Its menacing grille and low growl feel sinister with either a 318 ci V-8 or 426ci 425bhp "Street Hemi" engine inside, and its steering and suspension make it clear that straight lines are the only viable option. With braking that's more symbolic than preventive, there's no mistaking the classic nature of this classic car. But then again, that's the whole point, isn't it?
Touted as the 'gentleman's muscle car,' the GTX signaled a shift from muscle cars that targeted a lower budget to performance cars that would both sell to wealthier buyers and stand up to the European muscle cars that were cornering the luxury market. The GTX came standard with a 440 cubic inch V-8 called the "Super Commando 440" that produced 375 hp, and trims went up from there. The introduction in 1968 of the Plymouth Road Runner as a budget alternative to the GTX may have caused confusion among car buyers, but for classic car collectors, it just means more to choose from and drool over.
Don Yenko was one of the most famous names in muscle cars, cutting his teeth on Camaros and then expanding his repertoire to include the Chevy Nova and the Chevelle. It's this last one that he seemed to hit his stride: outfitted with a supersport blackout grille, a 12 bolt differential, and L72 425 hp 427 engine with either a four-speed manual or a TH400 automatic, the Chevelle was a screamer on the highway. They were a limited edition series and only about 100 were built, making the Yenko Chevelle one of the rarest, and most powerful, muscle cars on the road.