American Muscle Cars a Brief History

Few things in the history of the automotive industry stand out as a true American icon, American Muscle Cars. No other car is as beloved as the American Muscle Car. With roots dating back to 1949, these cars are known around the world. Not many places on this earth could you mention muscle car and the person you’re speaking to nods their head “oh yeah”…

Who would have thought that during the ’60s & 70’s that names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Camaro, would be as American as apple pie? From the first Rocket 88 engine in the 1940s to a Hudson Hornet, that dawned the age of NASCAR. Ask anyone if they know the word Hemi or SS unless you have been living at the South Pole all your life chances are you know these names.

So, what is an American Muscle Car? As the name suggests, it’s a car with a lot of engine muscle, horsepower that is! Beefy engines, loud exhausts, fast shifting, tire burning, light your hair on fire muscle. These cars are not for the faint of heart. Guys in the earlier years racing pink slip for pink slip (winner take all, that means your car is lost if you lose), trusting that their engine prowess vs. the other guys was superior that their baby could make a quarter mile in the blink of an eye. Guys wanted as big an engine as they could put in the smallest car of the day. That in its simplest of terms is what Muscle cars were built for, the American hotrod enthusiast.

Ford Mustang, Mustang, Car

Another distinct feature from other fast cars is muscle cars are designed for straight line power. This is not a car you will see on an F1 track.

It’s mind-blowing when you think about how these cars have impacted so many people’s lives. Fathers and sons who spent countless hours under the hood, creating lifelong memories. Conventions that host these dream cars and draw thousands of people over a weekend.

The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 is cited by some as the first real muscle car. In 1949 Oldsmobile introduced this car, and the Rocket 88 engine would be the benchmark for V8 engines to follow. This V8 of the day produced 135 hp with a two-barrel carburetor. In the 1950 NASCAR season, this beast was the bee’s knee’s as they would say in the day. Taking the checkered flag 8 out of 10 times that season, the Rocket 88 was hands down blazing a trail for others to follow.

Follow they did, enter the Chrysler 300 with a 300 hp Hemi engine. Touted as America’s most powerful car! She was a beast! Shortly after that Studebaker hits the market with the Golden Hawk, with a 352 CI Packard V8 with 275 hp.engine.

It was the 1960’s where the popularity of the muscle car really found its second wind. All the major Detroit automakers began a river of loud muscle cars. Every young man in America was touting their quarter mile time. Drag racing became as American as baseball.

In 1961 Chevrolet introduced the SS package available on the Impala, for money staggering $53.80 that included a 409 cu in V8 with 425 hp. That power was the dawn of making your brother in the back seat scream like a girl.

As you can see we have only touched the surface of what is now one of the hottest segments of the car industry. When you think of the thousands of muscle car shows from Sonic Drive In’s® to Metro Convention centers it’s staggering the dollars spent on these classic beauties and the shows that showcase them.

Throughout the 1960s American bread muscle cars flew off showroom floors. The infamous John DeLorean President of the Pontiac division of GM went against GM policy of limiting smaller vehicles to the 330 car engine, while the Pontiac GTO ran a 389-6.4L V8.

Let’s take a little time to showcase some of the big names in Muscle Car history, like Hurst Performance.

Founded in 1958 Hurst performance is best known for manual transmission shifters both replacement and OEM products. You will see these legendary shifters in such cars like the Pontiac GTO, Boss 429, Dodge Charger and Oldsmobile 442 just to name a few.

George Hurst in 1958 along with inventor Lawrence Greenwald who financially backed the Hurst-Campbell venture and off they went making bumpers for the VW bus. As time went on, they ventured out into piston driven gear shifts, engine mounts, and the ever-iconic Hurst Shift Knob!

GTO, Pontiac

A funny side note to the Hurst story, Lawrence Greenwald is credited for inventing stretch nylon hosiery. How do you get from women’s pantyhose to Hurst performance? Obviously, a pioneering entrepreneur.

Hurst would make its way to the drag strips of America. These legendary shift kits allowed drivers of performance vehicles a stronger shift and control. Factory shifters tended to be flimsy and generic. More than just about anything else, if you had a performance car that did not have a Hurst shifter, well the word pansy does leap to mind.

Gearheads of the day insisted on Hurst shifters. Car manufacturers were not without smarts. Big automakers jumped on the Hurst bandwagon during the ’60s and began installing Hurst shifters into production cars. Just the name Hurst was a huge marketing win. Hurst went on to acquire Schiefer Manufacturing who made clutches, a natural fit for the shifter company. They would continue during the 1960s to buy businesses that complemented their own. In 1968 Hurst would become a public company.

Something that has drifted into legend, Sunbeam bought Hurst Performance in 1970. The story goes Hurst and Greenwald were promised executive positions that Sunbeam reneged and fired the two men from the company. Both Mr. Hurst and Mr. Greenwald passed away in 1986.

Many products were spawned from muscle car fever. From performance auto parts, lubricants and of course Hurst shifters, an industry within the industry was born.

HEMI prefix for Hemispherical Combustion Chamber.  A domed cylinder head for an internal combustion engine first engineered in 1901 in Belgian and used by such car companies as Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Daimler in the early years in Grand Prix cars.

It would again be in the 1960’s era that the name HEMI would become synonymous with American Muscle. Chrysler became identified by trademarking the word HEMI and using it in the ad campaigns.

As a legend, the 426 HEMI was developed by Chrysler for NASCAR in 1964 and ran this engine through the 1970s. HEMI heads can be found on some of the world’s most legendary performance cars such as Aston Martin, Porsche, Ford Performance, and Lotus. From its muscle car heritage, this hemispherical system would light the fires of many a high-performance engine. HEMI is a staple on the American Muscle Car landscape.

One car that stands out in muscle car legend is the iconic Plymouth Barracuda. Her reign for a decade in the mid-’60s to mid-’70s is a legend. In the early years, the car came in a fastback coupe as a variant of the Plymouth Valiant. Wraparound back glass, some distinct lines and this lasted up until the early ’70s.

In 1970 that is when the Barracuda found a whole new life. New distinctive design and moves out of the economy car segment and into the fire. The sports model “Cuda” with a HEMI under the hood. You could also get some pretty cool colors and decal packages. With colors like Moulin Rouge, Sassy Grass, Vitamin C, Lemon Twist, you must miss the days when cars had really distinct looks.

One of the sad things for the time was an ever-increasing pressure from the government aimed at Detroit to build smaller engines that got better fuel economy. With oil embargos, shortages and world events of the day, this took a toll on the beefy big block engines of the day.

So the Barracuda faded into history in April of 1974.

You can’t write an automotive Muscle Car article and not pay homage to the Pontiac GTO. For this writer, this is the Grand Daddy of American Muscle. When one thinks of American muscle, you need to look no further than the 1969 Pontiac GTO “Judge.”

For those of you that have not been living under a salvage yard for years, will remember the name, John DeLorean. Indeed, any car enthusiast will have heard of his car the DeLorean and the misfortune he suffered while trying to fund his company with a failed Cocaine deal that sent him to prison.

Pontiac Firebird, Firebird

On a much brighter note, however, John DeLorean was arguably one of GM’s most celebrated engineer’s ever. He alongside Russell Gee and Bill Collins came up with one of the coolest cars ever built. They had some significant obstacles to overcome at GM; one GM had pulled all racing sponsorship. So how do you get customers to love a car that is built around racing and performance, you get guys hooked on street performance.

John DeLorean came up with the GTO name which was inspired by the Ferrari 250 GTO, Ferrari’s successful race car. Grand Turismo Omologato, means Grand Tourer Homologated, certified for racing in the grand tourer class. DeLorean called it the Grand Tempest Option. The GTO option was a distinction for the Pontiac Tempest.

The GTO option cost $295 and included, 389-V8 rated at 325 hp, single Carter four-barrel carburetor, dual exhaust, chromed valve covers, air cleaner, floor shifted three-speed, with Hurst shifter. You also got a stiffer suspension, wider wheels, front sway bar, hood scoop and of course GTO badging.

If you really wanted to step it up, how about the four-speed manual shift with three two-barrel Rochester 2G Carburetors (6 Pack) limited slip rear differential and power convenience accessories. All together you could expect to pay $4500 at the dealership. Today a mint condition Pontiac GTO will fetch an average of $50K to upwards of $250K depending on situation and model. Where was my crystal ball in 1964?

To add more mystique to the GTO was Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac, who offered the Bobcat option, a tune-up performance package for the 389 engines. Kits varied a little by the customer but the modifications included:

  • Spark advance of the distributor.
  • Thinner Copper head gasket.
  • Special intake manifold gaskets to block heat.
  • Larger carburetor jets.

A correctly installed kit could add 30 to 50 more horsepower. You could even get a reaching of the engine “blueprint” to make sure the car met GM factory blueprint specifications.

As we have said many times in this article the Muscle car spawned so many aftermarket products. It could be argued more so than any other time in automotive history.

In 1966 the GTO would finally become not just an option, but it became model 242, the Pontiac GTO. The convertible of the year was one of the coolest cars built. The lines with the top down gave this car a distinct look.

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the GTO was redesigned with a sleeker body. The automatic transmission option was at this point making its way into car fleets of all kinds.

Mid-year of the 1967 model saw the introduction of the Ram Air induction system. This system would later find its wings with the Pontiac Firebird Ram Air.

We could write a book a thousand pages and still not do justice to the muscle car era. You cannot discuss American Muscle without paying tribute to Carroll Shelby. His designs, engineering prowess, is unequaled.

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