Muscle car

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Oldsmobile 442

Muscle car (English muscle car ) is a later introduced name for a certain class of American passenger car . At the time, such vehicles were often, but not exclusively, referred to as “super cars”.

The term "muscle car" in its least controversial definition describes a (relatively) inexpensive, American mid-size or intermediate coupé with a large-volume V8 engine , which is based on a model built in large numbers and produced in the model years 1964 to 1971 has been. Today the term is often used with a very vague delimitation, but if the above definition is used as a benchmark, the following are fundamentally excluded from the category:

This definition is based, among other things, on the fact that the muscle car era was preceded by another performance boom, which is commonly referred to as the “Horsepower Wars” and which took place between 1955 and 1963. At that time, there was no formal “midsize” class on the American market - it was only created with General Motors' corporate platform “A” in 1964. Until around 1960, vehicle size was mostly brand-specific and therefore price-class-specific: more expensive brands sold larger cars, but each brand only had a single vehicle size in its portfolio. The protagonists of the Horsepower Wars were regularly the only vehicle size of the respective brand, often called "Regular Size" at the time, later called "Full Size". The appearance of the muscle cars is inextricably linked to the GM-A body and the emergence of the midsize class. At the end of the era, the 1970 model year represented the peak of engine performance - there was no further increase, and after 1971 none of the important names of the muscle car era was available with unreduced performance.

The close connection of the genre to both organized and illegal racing also excludes vehicles without a roof structure from the definition, as they were burdened with additional weight and their torsional stability was impaired, underlined by the availability of the Pontiac GTO as a two-door sedan , or the original binding of the Dodge Super Bee package to a two-door sedan body.

Sports cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette and sports coupés, on the other hand, are mostly only associated with organized racing, and beyond that with circuit racing, which is why both classes lack the “road” aspect of the muscle car idea, as well as the body related to mass-produced models which the definition requires. This leads to considerable delimitation problems with regard to “ pony cars ” such as the GM-F-Body, which was sold as the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird , and the Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar . The Chrysler E-Bodies Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda are also mostly assigned to the muscle cars , as these, unlike the Camaro, Firebird, Mustang and Cougar, are based on midsize platforms. According to the above definition, the mid-size personal luxury coupé Dodge Charger is not a muscle car either, because it does not share its body with any other model or version.


There are different views on the presumed beginnings of the muscle car era. Chrysler's "Letter Cars" and the Hemi engine from 1951 with 5.5 liters (331 cui) displacement and 180 hp (132 kW) power are frequently cited in Europe starting point for the performance period. In 1955, the Hemi in the Chrysler C68-300 may have already produced 300 hp (220 kW) - in fact, the series was only produced in negligible numbers for a small, non-influential buyers and has no measurable "processing" in the hands of racing car enthusiasts Experienced. The same applies to other niche products, such as the Rambler Rebel , manufactured under the care of American Motors Corporation , the surviving independent automobile manufacturers in the USA that have merged to form a “rescue company”. The Rebel may have been equipped with the Bendix Electrojector, an electronic fuel injection (EFI) - due to a lack of AMC market power and therefore a lack of sold units, it left no traces in US automotive history and exercised no influence, and is only used in Europe, where the Small-scale production is traditionally paid attention to, perceived as a muscle car forerunner.

In this respect, it would probably be more correct to credit the Ford Flathead V8 from 1932 with the honor of the first American sports car, especially since Ford and Flathead-based contractions dominated "bourgeois" racing until the 1950s, today often summarized under the generic term hot rodding . Inexpensive technology with relatively high performance and the associated high distribution of the models made them much more important for future developments than niche adventures such as General Motors vehicles with injection technology. In the logical continuation of the idea, the next one encounters the 55 Chevrolet , or the Tri-Chevy models from 1955, 1956 and 1957, which were available with the brand new Small Block Chevrolet (SBC) - and ex works with “Power Pack "And" Super Power Pack "options could be ordered. At this point, for the first time in automotive history, performance meets quantity and affordability.

The often cited influence of US soldiers returning home at the end of the Second World War on the use of automobiles as a risk sports equipment should be viewed critically at this point. Even if the exact number cannot be proven, it can be assumed that only 4% of the US population served as military personnel overseas, or participated in combat operations at all.

The Tri-Chevy SBCs, advertised as “The Hot One”, also brought racing enthusiasts unprecedented opportunities to increase performance, far beyond the usual flat-head spectrum - and drew the attention of other automakers to “performance” as a selling point. Factory support for organized racing boomed at the end of the 1950s, also for the drag racing scene, which had been quite unregulated until then and which, conversely, gained considerably in popularity. This is due, among other things, to the fact that the classic drag racing track, the quarter mile race track (¼ mile = 402.34 m) is relatively space-saving and low-maintenance compared to circular courses , which is why "drag strips" could be set up almost anywhere.

In 1961, Chevrolet offered the "409" W-Block V8 with a capacity of 6.7 (409 cui) liters, an engine with 360 hp that reached 409 hp in the following year - and without any further hurdles, special skills or special powers in every Chevrolet -Fullsize could be ordered. The arms race that followed, especially between Chevrolet, Pontiac, Ford, Plymouth and Dodge is now known as the “Horsepower Wars” and is considered a pure full-size phenomenon, even if a number of the participating platforms within their own groups are classified as “medium-sized” would be.

The 1964 Pontiac GTO , which is technically a Pontiac LeMans with an option package called "GTO", is now considered the first "real" muscle car. The background to the GTO package was the introduction of the first real “intermediate” group platform, the A-Body, for four of the five GM divisions at the beginning of the 1964 model year. The A-Body replaced the very differently designed and strongly “ European ”-oriented Y-bodies, also in all participating divisions. In order to upgrade the “boring” traditionally American A-Body, Pontiac engineers devised the “GTO” package, which was subject to a surcharge and which essentially consisted of the 6.5 (389 cui) liter V8, which was explicitly not intended for intermediate cars was, and until the appearance of the 6.9 (421 cui) -Liter V8 had been the performance engine of the full-size class from Pontiac.

Thanks to its lower weight, the resulting GTO offered the same performance as 421 cui fullsizes with noticeably lower acquisition costs. 30,000 GTOs were sold in the first year alone. Around 500,000 V8 GTOs rolled off the assembly line throughout the muscle car era . As a reaction to the GTO success, Chevrolet upgraded its own A-Body (the Chevelle ) with an "SS" package, Oldsmobile also introduced a performance version of the Oldsmobile A-Body under the designation "442", and Buick created the GS / GSX. The Ford Motor Company largely stayed out of the muscle car era, apart from the Ford Torino , no other FoMoCo product really meets the definition of a muscle car. In 1968 the Chrysler Corporation reacted to the market trend and undercut the GTO concept with the so-called Econo-Racers Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Super Bee, which, unlike the GTO, also brought the "inexpensive" feature into the recipe.

Unparalleled model offensives by the Chrysler Corporation have immortalized the Econo models in particular. The GM divisions, on the other hand, were strictly forbidden to “display speed” for advertising purposes by an internal corporate decree. Two notable vehicles in the class were also homologation models for the popular American NASCAR racing series, the Chrysler Corporation intermediates Dodge Charger Daytona (1969) and Plymouth Superbird (1970), and the FoMoCo intermediates Ford Torino Talladega (1969) and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler ( 1969).

The end of the muscle car boom was at least legally foreseeable as early as 1965: An air pollution law of the US legislature (the Clean Air Act of 1965, 1966, 1969) set emission limit values ​​for the 1975 model year that could not be met with the state of the art in 1965 waiting. As early as the 1970 model year, the divisions of the market leader General Motors began reducing the compression of their performance engines. The best-known example of this practice is the 7.0 (427 cui) -Liter Mark IV V8, which was replaced in 1970 by the lower-density 7.4 (454 cui) -Liter Mark IV V8. Displacement instead of compression was intended to prepare the engines for the lead-free obligation expected for 1975 under the Clean Air Act. As early as 1970, the muscle car segment was no longer of economic interest to General Motors, as steadily increasing engine performance - the distinguishing feature and main selling point of the class - could no longer be expected until 1975 and beyond. Chrysler Corporation essentially followed GM decisions a model year later.

At the same time as the Clean Air Act, the US legislature tried to influence technology and design decisions in the automotive industry, such as the 5-mile impact regulation, which imposed "safety bumpers" on manufacturers from 1973 onwards. Another result of these consumer protection efforts was the obligation of the manufacturers, from 1971 onwards, in their advertising, to make performance information in accordance with SAE standard 1349 in net horsepower, which in light of current events must be read as "no longer freely inventing". This regulation, together with the oil crisis of 1974 and the resulting fleet consumption regulations of the US legislature made performance cars economically uninteresting for manufacturers under the state of the art at the time. Another consumer protection law, the Federal Rollover Protection Standard, led to the preventive disappearance of all convertibles and the appearance of Targa and T-top models on the US market in 1976 , although the law itself was never passed.



The heart of every muscle car is the engine , which usually has eight cylinders arranged in a V-shape ( V8 engine ) in an engine block made of gray cast iron . The gas exchange usually takes place via overhead valves, which are operated via a camshaft below (see OHV valve control ). This design and a very simple muffler exhaust system give the engine its unmistakable sound.

Today it is almost universally assumed that American V8 engines are divided into small block and big block . In fact, “Small Block V8” is the project name for the development phase of the first Chevrolet V8 from 1955, “Big Block” describes the Chevrolet W-Block from 1958 and the later Mark IV engines that followed. Here the name clearly refers to two different block molds; in fact, the largest Chevrolet small block with a displacement of 6.6 (400 cui) liters is significantly larger than the smallest big block, which is by definition the 5.7 (348 cui) liter W-Block, in the popular perception it is the 6.5 (396 cui) liter Mark IV. Based on this, classification attempts are often made for all manufacturers, which actually fails because some of the US manufacturers have only used one of several blocks available in the respective group - Cadillac , Lincoln and Chrysler, for example - and because Some of the US manufacturers did not use different blocks for sometimes strongly varying displacements, for example Pontiac , whose V8 uses the same block design from 5.4 (326 cui) liters to 7.5 (455 cui) liters. Other engines, such as the Ford Y-blocks and both variants of the 351, would have to be called “medium blocks” according to the definition.

For the duration of the muscle car era, the generic use of “small block” / “big block” mainly means the small block / Mark IV (Chevrolet), Windsor / FE (Ford) and LA / RB & B (Plymouth and Dodge).

landing gear

The chassis technology of the time was in some places not able to keep up with the engine performance. Oil pressure shock absorbers and diagonal tires, in particular, are now considered to be two components that set clear limits to the handling of the mid-size vehicles of the era. Brake systems have almost always been taken over from heavy-duty packages such as the Police Packages; as early as 1967, most manufacturers were able to offer front disc brakes, at least as an option. Contrary to today's perception, these systems were usually hardly superior to contemporary drum brakes, as they had to fit under the common 14-inch rims of the era and were therefore relatively small. Suspension and suspension mostly came from heavy-duty packages, double wishbones at the front and three or four-link axles at the rear formed the norm. Rigid rear axles with semi-elliptical springs were used in the intermediate class exclusively by the Chrysler Group (together with torsion bar springs for the front axle), General Motors switched to coil springs in 1959 , the Ford Motor Company in 1965. The F-Bodies from GM are an exception with the Chevrolet Camaro and the sister model Pontiac Firebird as well as the Ford Mustang, which by definition do not belong to the intermediates. Steering gears of the era are exclusively recirculating ball systems , as they were used in automotive engineering all over the world until rack and pinion steering was introduced across the board. Compared with more modern technology, these steering gears are at most satisfactory, the Chrysler power steering gear of the era, which is dangerously imprecise from today's perspective, falls out of the frame. Coupled with the leaf spring and torsion bar combination of the Chrysler Corporation vehicles, this setup more or less single-handedly caused the bad reputation of American chassis technology in Europe. Amazingly, almost none of the successful muscle car models was equipped with a rear stabilizer , although this technology was offered by all manufacturers for police vehicles. An exception to this rule is e.g. B. the Trans Am homologation model of the 1970 Dodge Challenger, the Challenger T / A, which has a rear stabilizer.

Interior / equipment

Traditionally, racing-oriented car buyers in the USA had usually ordered one of the cheaper trim levels of a model - for example a Bel Air or Biscayne instead of the Impala SS - since little equipment was usually equivalent to less weight, but also the largest available engine. This logic could be applied less clearly to the mid-size muscle cars that appeared from 1964 onwards, since these vehicles were mostly only a trim level of their respective basic model. The Plymouth Road Runner, for example, is the "Econo-Racer" version of the basic Plymouth Belvedere model , which was also sold in a higher trim level than the Plymouth Satellite , and in a luxury sports version that does not quite conform to the hierarchy as the Plymouth GTX . Econo racers like the Plymouth Road Runner served as a prefabricated summary of the popular order configuration “Low equipment level + large engine”, but should not be confused with the “Plain Jane” or “Power All / Power Nothing” configurations of bygone days. The same cannot be said in general about muscle cars such as the Pontiac GTO, the Oldsmobile 442 or the Buick GSX, since these vehicles were offered by the "higher quality" divisions of the GM group, and even in the basic equipment above the level of the products of the "Cheap three" manufacturers - Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth - were.

Beyond the Econo-Racer, it can more or less generally be assumed that racing-oriented buyers placed little value on weighty additional equipment, while fun-oriented buyers often fully exhausted the list of options that are subject to a surcharge. Front seat bench and automatic steering column selector lever are likely to have belonged to the most frequently “ordered away” equipment features of the cheap trim level, whereas vinyl roofs were a contemporary phenomenon that often appears on up to 75% of the vehicles of individual series. Manual transmissions were an option only chosen by serious high-speed drivers, which almost exclusively had a higher share of sales in the GTO than the available automatic transmissions - but only until the introduction of the ST400 / TH400 automatic transmission in model year 1967. In retrospect, the generally often quite sparse equipment of the vehicles may seem of the Chrysler Group, which is constantly threatened by financial crises, have contributed to the creation of legends about the zero-supplier muscle cars.

It is worth mentioning in this context the purple horn of the Plymouth Road Runner , which was called the "Voice of the Road Runner" and imitated the battle cry of the cartoon character Road Runner , usually reproduced as "Meep Meep!" Or "Beep Beep!" This horn had very low priority for motor racing-oriented drivers - however, the Econo-Racer Roadrunner was aimed at the “youth market”, the 16-24 year olds, and not primarily at racing drivers.


Third-party racing parts support dates back to the Ford Flathead in the US, and became mass-market with the Chevrolet Small Block (SBC). Modified intake manifolds, camshafts and exhaust manifolds are among the most common modifications. Another “standard conversion” of the era was shift linkages from third-party suppliers. Contrary to popular understanding today, this primarily meant the linkage between the gearshift lever and the gearbox, which in the aftermarket versions was mostly straight and stronger, and not the gearshift lever in the interior itself.

On the chassis side, traction aids in particular for the rear axle are among the most popular contemporary phenomena. Most of these systems have different names (including Slapper Bars, Traction Bars, CalTracs, Underrider), but are similar in their function. They prevent the construction-related unilateral relief of the rear wheels under hard acceleration and the associated “wheel hop” loss of traction. These constructions are intended for straight-ahead driving, i.e. for American quarter mile racing. For circuit vehicles of the era, there are further modifications, especially of the front axle suspension. However, these are more about modifications of the suspension than about “bolt on” components, such as the “Shelby Drop” or the “Guldstrand Mod”, both of which are essential relocations of the upper wishbone mount at the front.

Light alloy rims have been available in series on the US market since 1956, even if various series were plagued by considerable durability problems well into the sixties. Among other things, magnesium was used as a material, which is why modern light alloy wheels are often called "mag wheels" in English-speaking countries to this day.

The factory racing departments of the manufacturers have sometimes bought components from third-party manufacturers and given them their own part numbers to enable racing drivers to use them under the guise of series production in near-series racing series. The manufacturers' spare parts and accessories organizations also offered their own performance-enhancing components with manufacturer approval. The Chrysler group used the in-house spare parts sales organization called Motor Parts, represented as MOPAR , to sell its performance articles, which supplied all spare parts and accessories for all brands and models of the group, and in retrospectives it often becomes a muscle car factory department transfigured. The term itself is now synonymous with vehicles from the Chrysler concern.

In particular at the sanctioned drag racing events of the large umbrella organizations NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) and IHRA (International Hot Rod Association), the demarcation between factory and aftermarket is blurred, especially because of the high degree of popularity and the high amateur content of these racing series, the latter being one Direct consequence of the “Corporate Racing Ban” of 1963. This “racing ban” followed the example of an earlier “racing boycott” by various manufacturers as a reaction to the LeMans disaster in 1955 - only this time the GM divisions were primarily affected. Direct factory support gave way to indirect support for sport itself. These considerations do not extend to “factory racing” like the NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Racing) series, in which a manageable number of teams competed against each other on a manageable number of tracks. Nevertheless, NASCAR elements have also found their way into drag racing culture and the aftermarket and vice versa, Chevrolet's Mark IV V8 and the Chrysler Group's 426 HEMI both have circuit roots. It is worth mentioning at this point that NASCAR races in the sixties were still partly held on unpaved "dirt tracks", and that circular courses (in the European sense) clearly predominated among the track types - and are still part of the series today, even if NASCAR meanwhile is inseparable from the “ Super Speedway ” oval course image.


Price comparisons for historic vehicles, especially across a currency border, are usually not very meaningful because purchasing power and basic price situations over a period of more than 50 years on two continents are difficult to compare without a reference framework. As a makeshift comparison, the “value” of such vehicles can be compared if the market is staked up and down within its national borders: In 1968, the base model of the VW Beetle was offered on the US market starting at $ 1,699 - a four-door Mercedes The same year 280 SE (W108) started at $ 6,222. In between are, as examples, the following models:

Todays situation

Muscle cars are very popular these days and are in great demand by collectors. A rare 1971 Plymouth Hemi-Cuda convertible is on offer for over $ 4 million. They are also in great demand in Germany.

If they are in an above-average state of preservation, muscle cars in Germany - like all other motor vehicles over 30 years of age that are subject to registration - can be classified as "historical motor vehicle cultural property" and registered with an "H mark" . You will then benefit from a flat-rate reduced vehicle tax rate of currently 191 euros per year (as of 2020). Insurance premiums for historic vehicles are usually dependent on their specific value and cannot be used as a general characteristic for the “usual” maintenance costs of historic vehicles. Insurance companies therefore usually require an appraisal of the vehicle value z. B. According to the specifications of Classic Data , which is usually created by recognized experts .

American vehicles in Germany are still said to have enormous gasoline consumption per se, even current reports believe that average fuel consumption of 30 liters / 100 km is possible. In the much more complex reality, the high-compression vehicles of the 1960 to 1970 era are significantly more efficient per cubic inch than the low-compression engines of the pre-catalytic converter era. As a rule of thumb, an average consumption of 15–18 liters / 100 km applies to all models and engines available in larger quantities.

The spare parts situation, measured on European vehicles, is:

  • excellent for Chevrolet vehicles in general, Pontiac GTO and Firebird, Ford Mustang as well as Dodge and Plymouth B- / E-Body,
  • good for Cadillac,
  • sufficient for Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac in general, Mercury, Chrysler, Dodge & Plymouth A- and C-Body as well
  • difficult for Lincoln.

All other brands do not have a stable supply of parts beyond the private-to-private market, where mostly used parts or randomly stored new parts are traded. Almost 100% of the new spare parts available today are reproductions, some with licensing by the original manufacturers, whose quality almost universally cannot nearly keep up with the quality of original parts. The accuracy of fit is often wrong here.

Exemplary engine performance

see horsepower # American SAE horsepower

SAE performance data prior to 1972 should be treated with caution, as at that time the performance was still given in gross horsepower (bhp), which means that it was determined under the best conditions with a presentation engine, i.e. H. without a connected alternator, oil pump, water pump, etc. on the crankshaft. This hardly corresponds to a roadworthy vehicle condition with all necessary or desirable attachments. Exaggerated values ​​are therefore not uncommon, a real engine output of 15 to 20% below the stated value is realistic for some manufacturers.

The climax was reached in 1970:

  • Buick 455 Stage1 455 cui = 360 bhp @ 4600 / min, 510 lb-ft (691 Nm) @ 2800 / min.
  • Chevrolet 454 LS6 454 cui = 450 bhp @ 5600 / min, 500 lb-ft (678 Nm) @ 3600 / min.
  • Mopar 426 Hemi 426 cui = 425 bhp @ 5000 / min, 490 lb-ft (664 Nm) @ 4000 / min.

These are official figures in gross SAE bhp, but it is assumed that all of these engines will have an even higher output, because muscle cars were also given lower values ​​at that time due to the insurance classification. The Shelby Mustang GT 500 KR is a good example of this. With a capacity of 428 ci and well over 500 Nm of torque, conservative estimates put it in a gross output of between 295 and 370 kW (503 hp) instead of the 246 kW (335 hp) specified by the manufacturer. The 1970 LS6 Chevrolet engine was also specified with 331 kW, but test bench tests without add-on parts resulted in values ​​around 405 kW (551 hp). The net power - installed in the road vehicle - was below 294 kW (400 bhp) in each case. The performance of standard Street Hemi engines was also exceeded on the test bench by almost 30% in some cases.

The biggest difference between the official performance was the Race-Hemi V8, which was used in this version in the 1968 A-Bodies of Plymouth and Dodge, but also in other models (1964 in the small Dodge and Plymouth series, 1965 B -Bodies, code A-990). But in 1968 it was strongest. It was a pure racing engine (hardly suitable for normal use). The official power was 425 bhp and the maximum torque was 661 Nm. The same performance was already stated with the Street Hemi V8. In the Street Hemi the compression was 10.25: 1, but in the Race Hemi it was 12.5: 1. There was also a forged crankshaft, a cross-ram intake manifold with two Holley quadruple carburetors, a sharper camshaft and other differences that increased performance. The output of such an engine was 620–660 bhp. But the Chrysler group at the time did not want to attract a great deal of interest in this car, as it was feared that wealthy but inexperienced drivers would get their hands on such a car. Therefore, the performance was as high as the Street Hemi stated, very few of them were produced and no factory warranty was granted. Chrysler's goal was to make the car available to drag racers. And on the drag strip, these cars won practically everything there was to be won in their classes. There was another note in the glove compartment: This car was only built for racing. Do not use this car on the normal road!

Chevrolet offered a similar unit in 1967 with the engine with the code L-88 (actually also a pure racing engine). The power rating was 430 bhp at a cost of nearly $ 950. But another Chevrolet engine, which was also used in the '67 Corvette (code L-71), was listed at 435 bhp and only cost around $ 440. Many of the buyers at the time thought so. Chevrolet's intention worked with it. The L-88 engine was very similar to the Race Hemi unit. He had a performance rating that was around 120-150 bhp below the actual value. Chevrolet wanted to discourage inexperienced but well-heeled buyers from buying the L-88 with the power rating described above, but it should be available to the quarter mile aces. The engine was so extreme that it did not develop stable idling and only achieved performance at high revs, which was not suitable for normal road use. The vacuum in the intake spider was so low in the lower speed range that no servo-assisted braking system could be installed.


Compact muscle cars

AMC (American Motors Corporation)
General Motors
Ford (US)

Pony cars

AMC (American Motors Corporation)
General Motors
Ford (US)

Intermediate muscle cars

AMC (American Motors Corporation)
General Motors
Ford (US)

Full size muscle cars

AMC (American Motors Corporation)
General Motors
Ford (US)



  • Randy Leffingwell, Darwin Holmstrom: Muscle - America's Legendary Performance Cars.
  • Robert Genat: Muscle Cars - Fifty Years

Individual evidence

  1. John Gunnel: MUSCLE CARS FIELD GUIDE . Krause Publications, 2004, ISBN 978-0-87349-869-2 .

Web links

Commons : Muscle Cars  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files