Q: I enjoy your column in Auto Round-Up
here in Coldwater, Michigan. My question is, “What is the definition of a muscle car?”
Auto writers frequently mention muscle cars originating in the 1960s. What about cars of the 1950s? I lived in the Toledo, Ohio, area and in May of 1956, I purchased a brand new 1956 Chevrolet 210. The dealer’s salesman showed me an index card that listed the cars identification and options. The first thing I saw on the card was an option "8-barrel carburetor.”
Well, that was enough to make any car lover's heart beat fast, and I bought it as quick as I could. Of course that “8-barrel carburetor” was really two four-barrels, and that was only the start. I also remember an aluminum intake manifold, 9.25 to 1 compression ratio .....
pistons, oversize intake valves, dual springs on all valves, solid lifters, exhaust collectors, dual point distributor, heavy duty clutch, coil springs, close ratio transmission and dual exhaust.
The Chevy's speedometer only went to 110, which I could put the needle at in second gear and I did not use third gear at the drag races. I guess the only thing keeping this car from being a muscle car was its 265 cubic inch displacement. Also, my Chevy 210 wasn’t the only beefed up car of the period as in 1957 I remember a Plymouth Fury was available with two four-barrels and a reworked engine that was very fast. Best Regards, Jack Collins, Michigan.
A: Jack thanks for your interesting question. First off, to me the term muscle car is any American-produced vehicle with a high horsepower engine built specifically for performance. The muscle cars from the 1960s were usually intermediates and pony cars, but we can't forget examples like the larger 409 Chevy Impala, 427 Ford Galaxie, and 426 Plymouth Belvedere.
Your 1956 Chevy 210 was without a doubt a true muscle car, and the smaller displacement engine doesn’t have anything to do with the definition, in my opinion. I feel a good example was the Camaro Z28 that arrived in 1968 with a 302 small block under the hood. Other "smaller V8" cars from the “muscle car” period include the Boss 302 Mustang, all those great 340 MOPARS, and on and on. Of course, the popular muscle cars like the 426 Hemi Roadrunner, 454 Chevelle, 428 Cobra Jet, 440 Six-Pack Challenger, 455 Buick, 455 GTO, and even the 401 AMC Javelin receive most of the ink from that era.
Back to your question. The years 1956-1957 were loaded with fine examples of Detroit muscle. Chrysler had the Plymouth Fury 318 dual quad version you mention and Ford served up a special “E code” Ford Sedan with a 312 V8 and two four-barrels. And there was also a hot one from Rambler, as the Rebel 327 with a single four-barrel could out accelerate many of the hotter cars from the era.
If we look back further just a bit further, Oldsmobile and Cadillac both offered the first overhead valve V8 engines as the 1949 Olds Rocket 88 is considered by many of us “baby boomer” auto writers as the first true “muscle car” ever produced (although not intentionally).
Thanks for your question.