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The Joy of the American Muscle Car
The classic American dream is the big, bad “muscle car” – the term for mid-size vehicles with a large, powerful engines, designed for maximum acceleration. Bigger, louder and heavier than sports cars, most muscle cars were manufactured by U.S. auto makers between 1964 and 1975. For those with a more mathematical bent, muscle cars can be defined by their power-to-weight ratio, usually having fewer than 12 pounds per rated hp – but that’s an unreliable definition, with various options and accessories and modifications changing the weight of individual cars.
What makes a muscle car
Muscle cars are factory produced automobiles, but ones with larger engines than the designers originally planned. There are models of American, Japanese, and European cars with this distinction, including some that aren’t actually classified as muscle cars – like the Nissan Sentra SE-R and the Dodge Viper.
One of the very first muscle cars was the Pontiac Tempest – specifically, the Tempest with the GTO option package, produced in 1964 and ‘65. The GTO had a 389 (6.5 L) V8 engine, floor-shifted transmission with Hurst shift linkage, and special trim. In 1966, the Pontiac GTO became its own model – produced under the supervision of Pontiac division president John De Lorean, The GTO actually violated a General Motors design policy that limited smaller cars to 330 (5.4 L) engine, but it was so popular that it spawned a number of copycats at GM and elsewhere.
The 60's were the perfect time for muscle cars to take hold, appealing to the youth market and offering affordable vehicles with strong street performance 0– and they could be used for racing, too. They didn’t stay affordable for very long, though, with the cars rapidly increasing in size, options and the luxury of the interiors, and then offering more powerful engines, as well. In response, stripped-down, less expensive versions of the muscle car started appearing in 1967 and ‘68, such as the Plymouth Road Runner, Dodge Super Bee.
A short, sweet lifespan
Compared to the sales of other vehicles, muscle cars didn’t sell in big numbers. But their manufacture gave a certain market image to the Big Three auto makers, with Dodge seeing a surge in sales of all their lines after the Dodge Charger played a prominent role in the Steve McQueen film, “Bullitt.” Competition between auto makers to build the biggest, baddest muscle car peaked around 1970, with some vehicles featuring a staggering 450 hp engine.
Thanks to a number of unfortunate accidents involving American cars like the Corvair and, later, the Ford Pinto, a powerful lobby concerned with automobile safety, spearheaded by Ralph Nader, influenced Congress in the early 1970's. Nader blasted the auto makers for marketing such powerful, potentially dangerous cars to younger buyers, and reported safety problems with a number of American vehicles – most notably, their handling and braking capacity, and limitations of their tires. The car makers began adding surcharges to the bigger, more powerful, essentially pricing younger buyers out of the market. Then, as emissions standards were enforced by the EPA and gas prices rose due to unrest in the Middle East, muscle cars died in the American market.
Today, you need to buy an older car and restore it to get the muscle car experience – unless you live in Europe or Australia, where high performance vehicles are still being manufactured, although they come with a hefty price tag. They may not be politically correct – or efficient and cheap to drive – but the muscle car remains the classic American Dream car for many auto enthusiasts.