From bootleggers to Hellcats and everything in between.
Most muscle car enthusiasts will point to 1949 and the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 as the first muscle car. Opinions may vary, but the appearance of a V8 engine in a lightweight car designed to be fast was an American automotive turning point. Between the Oldsmobile 303 V8 engine from the Rocket 88 and Cadillac's 331 engine, the performance V8 was born, and the public was ready to embrace it.
The Rocket 88 was born of a demand for a factory performance car and inspired by moonshiners. When the bootleggers no longer needed to outrun the cops they started using their amped-up vehicles for racing and were soon dominating the street racing circuits.
Muscle cars in the 1950s weren't known as muscle cars yet, but the Chrysler Hemi design, known as the FirePower, came into existence in 1951 along with the Chevrolet small-block V8. The Hemi V8 went into the 1955 Chrysler C-300, its name derived from its 300 horsepower, and was also known as "America's Most Powerful Car."
GM's small-block V8 emerged in 1955 and became a blueprint for building lightweight muscle cars. Everything crashed, literally, to a halt in 1957 when the Automobile Manufacturers Association banned factory-sponsored racing in response to the massive crash at the 1955 Le Mans race that resulted in 84 deaths including drivers and spectators.
That didn't stop people from wanting to race, though. Drag racing remained incredibly popular, and the automakers kept making powerful and lightweight cars. As drag racing became even more popular through the 1960s, automakers built faster cars, and an arms race began. And that's where we'll start our list of some of the muscle cars that outline the evolution of America's homegrown automotive segment.
When we talk about muscle cars, the 1960s was when things started to get wild, and it was the Dodge Dart that acted as the cornerstone that everything else after was built upon. The 1962 model saw a whole new style for the "compact full-size" Dart and the introduction through the range of the 413 Max Wedge engine. The 413 Max Wedge was essentially a race engine that was precisely built by Chrysler's Marine and Industrial Division. Racers liked the lower trimmed models to keep the weight down, and at $374.40, the 410 horsepower 413 Max Wedge was as affordable as well as powerful. There was another version with different compression available and ten more horsepower, but the real headline is that the Dodge Dart could set a quarter-mile time of 13 seconds.
Another revolution started again in 1964, though, when Pontiac unleashed the Tempest GTO and kicked off the golden age of the muscle car. Pontiac slipped past GMs rule of producing midsize cars with engines larger than 330-cid (5.4-liter) by adding a $296 option.
Pontiac engineers took its 389-cid engine and went to town on it. The standard four-barrel equipped GTO made 325 horsepower but, with the optional Tri-Power setup, the GTO, or Goat as it was affectionately known, was rated at 348 horsepower with 428 lb-ft of torque.
It also absolutely smoked the quarter-mile and came with a thick front sway bar, heavy-duty shocks, stiffened springs, and high-speed 14-inch tires. A $75 option then added sintered metallic brake linings and a limited-slip diff. Cars had been described as having "plenty of muscle before," but Pontiac has the first known print use of the term "muscle car" in describing the 1964 GTO.
It was also 1964 that saw a car arrive that created a new branch of the muscle car in the form of the pony car. The Mustang looked sharp, wasn't expensive, and had a whole heap of options to choose from. It arrived in the vein of European sports coupes with a long hood and short rear deck. Even after the V8 option was upgraded from 4.3-liters to 4.7-liters, it wasn't among the fastest muscle cars available (Unless you count the Shelby GT350 models), but that wasn't the point.
It was small, light, affordable, and fast enough for people wanting a fun car, and highly tunable for those that wanted to make their Mustang something special. The Mustang also set up the market for Chevy's Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, and the Dodge Challenger. The Barracuda also debuted in 1964 and was based off the badly kept secret that was the Ford Mustang's development.
As the 1970s approached, muscle cars started to hit their peak as models were continually upgraded, and barely legal monsters roamed the roads of America. The Dodge Charger was first manufactured in 1966, but it was the redesign for 1968 that became an icon. Dodge initially planned only to build 35,000, but demand was so high that 96,100 were built in total. It became incredibly popular, and a large chunk of that popularity can be put down to the high-performance, limited-edition version produced in the summer of 1969 with the express aim of winning the biggest NASCAR races.
The Dodge Charger Daytona is remembered for its racing history as much as its crazy aerodynamics. The rear wing sat at 23-inches tall while the sheet-metal nose cone replaced the upright grill. It was built on the 1969 Charger R/T model and came with a 7.2-liter Magnum engine, although 70 of the 503 were built with an optional 7.0-liter Hemi V8 engine.
As the 1970s started, the first oil crisis the US had faced started along with fuel shortages and spikes in the price of gas. The muscle car started to die of thirst, but insurance companies heaped on the hurt as muscle cars were deemed unsafe. By the mid-1970s, Americans were buying small compact cars, and few muscle cars survived in the market. Performance was down, and the high cost for less performance made little sense to buyers. The Plymouth Road Runner held on by looking good, and the Mustang turned into a high-end compact car. All that was left was the Camaro and Firebird.
The Firebird hung on through improvements in handling and having little competition in the late 1970s. The Burt Reynolds movie Smokey and the Bandit helped the Firebird's cause and pushed it into the pantheon of pony car icons.
Pony cars limped on after Chevy brought back the Camaro in Z-28 form for 1977 based on the Firebird's success. Other pony cars followed, but just as automakers were starting to get a handle on building power again while adhering to emissions laws, another fuel crisis hit in 1979. The 1980s and 1990s saw performance cars coming back, and the 2000s have seen a return to form for the Mustang and Camaro, although they're now better classed as out-and-out sports cars.
The Dodge Challenger now holds the flame as the true embodiment of the muscle car in the modern age. Technology has outrun legislation through technology now, and the dark days of the end of the last century are over. We're now in a golden age of horsepower, and you can buy a Challenger with anywhere between 305 to 797 horsepower from the factory.
What's amazing about the new Challenger is in how its style still embodies the spirit of the original Charger and Challenger, despite safety legislation that's almost made an upright grill a thing of the past. It could be the last of the real muscle cars but, for now, it is the one true muscle car you can buy new.