Q: Greg, I love the muscle car era and want to know what started the muscle car popularity? I was born in 1946, so my definition of a “muscle car” may be different from yours—although I believe we grew up in similar decades. In other words, what is the definition of muscle car?
How about the Olds Rocket 88 and Chevy 265-inch V8 with two four barrels? How about those Ford 312’s in 1957 and the many Chrysler engines, including the 331-inch Hemi in the 1953 Imperial?
I know many feel muscle cars began with the 1961 Chevy 409, Plymouth 413 or Ford 406, but there were many powerful muscle cars before that. R. Fortner, Camp Hill, PA.
A: Mr. Fortner, I agree that if you question car loving masses from all age groups, the muscle car era started in different decades. I recently responded to a letter from a reader in Coldwater, Michigan (for another publication) that mentioned the “8 barrel carburetor” option available on the 1956 Chevy. The engine came direct from Chevy with two four-barrels, an aluminum intake, 9.25 to 1 compression ratio, oversize intake valves, dual valve springs, solid lifters, exhaust collectors, dual point distributor, heavy duty clutch, close ratio transmission and dual exhaust.
This description from back in 1956 sure sounds familiar to muscle car fans, regardless of decade.
Thus, muscle cars have been around for a very long time, starting with the first ever muscle car that you mention in your letter, the 1949 Olds Rocket 88. This Olds featured General Motors’ first overhead valve V8 in a size of 303 cubic inches. Cadillac introduced a larger overhead valve V8 in 1949, a 331-incher, but it moved a much heavier car and didn’t run as quick as the lightweight 2-door coupe Oldsmobile.
As we moved through the years, Plymouth’s Fury in 1957 was available with a two-four barrel setup on the 318, and even Rambler had a fast car in the Rebel 327. How about those cross-ram 383 Chrysler 300’s? Ford served up a special “E code” option featuring a 312 V8 with two four-barrels in 1957, and there were also “hot ones” from Desoto, Dodge, Mercury and even Studebaker, the latter with a turbo 289-inch V8 Golden Hawk.
The 1960 decade, however, is still the era of the most impressive muscle cars ever built. Following the full size muscle cars like the Impala 427s, Galaxie 427s, and Plymouth and Dodge 426 wedge/426 Hemis, mid-size and pony cars became the performance norm. The nation’s boulevards were filled with all the “biggies,” including Camaro Z28, Boss 302 Mustang, 383, 440 and Hemi MOPARS, Hurst SC/Rambler 390, and so on.
It was common those days to cruise alongside a 426 Hemi Roadrunner, 396 Chevelle, 428 Cobra Jet, 440 Six-Pack Dodge Super Bee, or 390 AMC Javelin. As for originality, the first mid-sized muscle car ever award goes to the 1964 GTO 389 tri-power, while the 1964 Olds 442 generated a lot of interest, too, but way fewer sales. In my book, the muscle car “Sleeper” of them all regardless of decade was the Buick Gran Sport GSX in 1970, which could run with a Hemi any day of the week.
Today, the muscle cars are better than ever, with Ford, Chevy and Dodge all offering excellent examples of high technology, great fuel mileage and neck breaking performance that far outweighs what was available “back then.”
Regardless of era, however, it sure is great to be a fan of “muscle car madness.”