1962 Muscle: Memories Of A Pivotal Year In Muscle Car History

Greg Zyla
Q: Greg, I’m a big fan of the muscle car era and especially the year of 1962. My dad owned a 1962 Chrysler Newport, but it wasn’t anything compared to the Dodge and Plymouths of that year, especially those 413 super stocks.
Knowing you grew up during this era, can you tell us about your memories of this great high performance year? Chevy and Ford also has some really nice muscle cars that year, too. Thanks for the work you put into these columns as I really look forward to them every week online and in the Daytona Beach News Journal. Rick L., Daytona, FL.
A: Rick, I fully agree that the year 1962 was the year that muscle car performance kicked off in high gear.
Quickly I recall sitting with my friends in the grandstand at my hometown Vineland Speedway drag strip watching the new 1962 models race. In my circle, it was a given we would spend every Saturday during the season at the drag strip and we got there when it opened and left after the final run of the night. At just 13 years old in ’62, it was a spectacular time to experience the all-new performance cars.
I’m going to discuss four brands, IE: the 413 Dodges/Plymouths, the 409 Chevys, the 406 Fords and the 421 Pontiacs. These were the muscle cars that broke out in full force and started a craze that to this day has many collectors willing to pay big money to park one in their garage.
Although 1962 is the pivotal factory performance year, many of these cars were developed in 1961 and some, like the 409 Chevy, were available late year at the dealership. Those 409 Chevys were already match racing in 1961 thanks to Dyno Don Nicholson and Dave Strickler, both going on to become drag racing legends. But it wasn’t until 1962 that mass production took over and it was the only year a Chevy fan could have a 409 and choose between three distinct hard roof styles, ala the Impala, bubble-top BelAir (most popular 409) or Biscayne. In ’62, the 409 developed 409 horses with two four barrels and was the most popular of the muscle car bunch thanks to the Beach Boys “She’s real fine my 409” hit single and winning performances at the national drag races.
Over at Chrysler Corporation, the 413 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Savoy were immediate winners at the track and popular choices, especially for those who weren’t that good at speed shifting a four-speed manual. Thanks initially to the group called The Ramchargers (who had several drivers), these 413 and then 426 Super Stock Dodge models were big winners, especially with the 727 three speed automatic.
As for Pontiacs, they were already formidable with a 389 Tri-Power under the hood, but later in ’61, Pontiac released a powerful Super Duty 421 that was a dealer installed option only. Rated at 405 horsepower with two four barrels, the engine easily put out 450 ponies and these Pontiacs were terrors on the drag strip, especially in 1962 and 1963 when they became more readily available. One of the stars at our track was Harold Ramsey, who made a big name for himself racing the 421 Super Duty Pontiacs out of the Union Park Pontiac in nearby Wilmington Delaware. In addition to Ramsey, other Pontiac teams I remember were Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick’s numerous Pontiacs and Jim Wangers in his Royal Oak, Michigan, Royal Bobcats.
Pontiac’s Super Duty421s were very powerful, but its higher price and heavier curb weight found them in the minority at the Chevy-Ford-MOPAR crowded super stock classes. However, to offset this lack of representation at the drags, the 421 Pontiacs were unbeatable in NASCAR as Fireball Roberts took Smokey Yunick’s black and gold ’62 Pontiac to a clean sweep of Speedweeks in 1962, winning the pole, the qualifier race and then dominating the Daytona 500.
Ford was also in the game as in 1962 you could order a 406 inch, 405 horse tri-power in your full size Ford and take on everyone at the drags. Although the slowest of the bunch, the 406 Ford quickly received an engine upgrade to a 427 two four barrel design and things improved dramatically at the match races. Drivers I remember include Dick Brannan, Gas Rhonda and Les Ritchey in very competitive Fords.
By today’s standards, all of these 1962 muscle cars were built on larger car platforms and as much as I loved the 409 inch/409 horsepower ’62 Chevys, I will admit that the lighter weight 1962 Dodge and Plymouth with the 413 wedge 410 horsepower engines were really the hot ones right off the showroom floor. They came with factory exhaust cutouts to quickly uncap and bypass the mufflers and the Ramchargers figured out that with proper high stall converters, these automatic 413s could launch just as good as the four speeds of the day. Consumers really could “buy today and race tonight” even if they couldn’t work a clutch and shift well. Notable is that from 1961 through 1965, everyone still desired four-speeds over automatics until those 1962 413s arrived. (If you could speed-shift with the best of them and launch well, the 413 and 426 automatics were equalized).
The popularity of the heavier full-size muscle from 1961 through 1963 quickly faded as in 1964 it was mid-size “full-speed-ahead.” Led by the ‘64 Pontiac GTO, the Chevy Chevelle and Ford Fairlane quickly followed, although it took several more years for MOPAR to join the mid-size popularity. Specifically, the 426 Hemi and 440 wedge Dodges and Plymouths were still utilizing near full-size bodies (Roadrunners, Super Bees) that were so powerful they easily put away many a SS396 Chevelle and Pontiac GTO midsize competitors.
In ending, the year 1962 sticks out like no other as the year you could walk into your dealer, plunk down the cash and drive out with a 13-second super stocker you could race that evening.
If you were sharp, knew how to shift (if it was a four-speed), understood rear end gearing, added a set of headers, identified ignition and timing importance, kept at it regarding setting valves and replacing worn valve springs, well then you were probably running 12-second quarter miles at near 115 MPH.
And back in ‘62, 12-second quarter miles in a factory super stocker meant you became an instant in-demand match racer (if you wanted). That’s how things were in 1962, the best year of high performance I can remember.

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