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A Brief History Of Muscle Cars From 1949 – 1973

What are muscle cars?  Originally, muscle cars were defined as two door coupes that had a high performance engine, modified suspension and transmission and were considerably faster than their “stock” or factory versions.  Essentially, muscle cars are high horsepower lightweight automobiles.

The unofficial beginning of the muscle car era was in the late forties and fifties coinciding with the return of GIs after World War II.  There was a pent up demand for fast cars and, in 1949, GM introduced the Oldsmobile Rocket 88.  The Rocket 88 had a high compression overhead valve V-8 engine in a relatively light body.  GM used the same platform as the Oldsmobile 76 that had a smaller displacement V-6 motor.  This combination of light weight body married to a high performance engine defined the beginning of the Muscle Car Era.


The muscle cars were a by-product of the moonshiners and bootleggers of the 1920s, whose cars were modified to outrun the police.  Their cars were designed for speed, handling and cargo capacity.  By the 1940s, the moon shining business declined due to the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933.  Moon shiners began to use their cars for racing and were the dominant force in street racing throughout the forties.  Their influence and the demand for faster cars directly influenced the development of the Oldsmobile Rocket 88.


So, the Muscle Car Era blossomed in the 1950s to fill a marketing niche for inexpensive fast cars.  In addition to the Rocket 88, Chrysler brought to market the Hemi V-8 and Chevrolet countered with their small block V-8.  The Hemi design produced more power than ever before, and the Chrysler 300 C, introduced in 1955, was the first Chrysler product with the Hemi engine.  It had 300 HP and was the most powerful car on the road.  GM introduced the small block V-8 in 1955, and employed the engine for the next fifty years.  The small block V-8 was an important factor in the evolution of muscle cars.

Lightweight cars with big, powerful engines were very fast in a straight line but had poor handling, and as a result, drag racing developed into a popular sport in the 1950s.  In 1954, Ford designed a new overhead valve V-8 engine, called the Y-block, that powered high end Ford and Mercury cars for the next ten years.

During the 1950s, the most popular cars for drag racing were Fords, Chevys, Pontiacs, Dodge and Chryslers.  It was during this period that “gassers” were introduced – it was a style of drag racing in the late 50s and 60s that used gasoline as fuel.  Drag racing accelerated in popularity in the 1960s and cars became more powerful each year.

Because manufacturers were pitted against each other in the quest to build faster cars, GM, Ford and Chrysler dropped all larger cars for drag racing and concentrated on building smaller, lighter weight vehicles.  The 1963 Pontiac Super Duty had a “swiss cheese” type frame with large, “stampel out” holes in its chassis rails, resulting in a much lighter car.

In 1964, Pontiac introduced the Pontiac Tempest GTO.  The GTO looked like a plain Tempest but had a large displacement, 389 cubic inch V-8 under the hood.  The GTO was fast and affordable at around $3200.  In its first year the company sold six times as many GTOs as projected for that year.  Ford introduced the 427 cubic inch V-8 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt that was made in limited quantity and was so fast that it was considered dangerous to drive.

In 1964, the Ford Mustang arrived and technically it was not considered a muscle car because it did not have a big displacement engine.  It wasn’t until 1967, when Ford upsized the Mustang V-8 to a big block 390 cubic inch V-8, that the Mustang was considered a true muscle car.  During this time period, GM introduced the Camaro and Pontiac Firebird and, in 1966, Plymouth introduced the Roadrunner and GTX with 426 Hemi engines.  Dodge came out  with the Dodge Charger 426 Hemi in 1966.  Also, in 1964, Chevrolet introduced the Chevelle SS 2 door coupe.  The Chevelle was very popular   in the 1960s and 1970s for street and drag racing.

The year 1968 brought stringent federal safety and emissions rules and standards.  Around this time, there was a new safety lobby led by Ralph Nader.  The new rules and standards didn’t affect the muscle car market as the Camaro, Firebird and Mustang were significantly upgraded.  GM cut the price of the Pontiac GTO and it was completely restyled.  The GTO came with floor shifting manual transmission and special GTO trim and tires.  Many people consider the GTO as the first true muscle car.

The “Golden Age” of muscle cars was the 1960s and early 1970s.  During this time, the “big three” auto manufacturers were in competition to produce fast and mean looking cars.  Muscle cars were affordable and were intended for street use and drag racing.  There was no concern for gas prices as premium gas was thirty five cents a gallon.  Muscle cars flourished and they were at their peak from 1964 – 1973.  Some of the other “hot” muscle cars were the:

1) 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake

2) 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

3) 1969 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet with RAM air induction and functional hood scoops

4) 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS 454 cubic inch V8

5) 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda

6) 1970 and 1971 Dodge Challenger

7) 1968 to 1971 Chevrolet Nova SS coupe

Being a baby boomer, I owned an original 1971 Dodge Challenger with a 383 cubic inch, 300 HP engine, 4-speed close ratio transmission with “pistol grip” shifter and dual exhausts.  I have always loved cars and the Challenger was a once in a lifetime automobile!


In conclusion, muscle cars flourished during their Golden Era.  Cheap gas and affordable horsepower and a tremendous demand for faster and faster cars fueled an “explosion” of different muscle cars marketed by Chevy, Ford and Chrysler.  By 1974, the Golden Age of muscle cars was over because of the gas shortage in 1973 leading to much higher gas prices, rigid safety and emissions regulations and high insurance rates.  Consumers purchased small, gas efficient cars, and the high horsepower cars became a product of high priced sports cars, top of the line Camaros, Mustangs and Challengers and luxury cars.  Gone are the days with the $3000 and $4000 muscle cars.  But they were a blast to drive and they have left their legacy on car enthusiasts!

Happy Motoring!

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