OK, I know most of you are aware that high-performance US cars were available even before WW II, that the hot OHV V8 era started with the Olds 88 in 1949, and that the '55 Chevy V8 began the trend of putting performance on the average American's plate. But what most people believe, cut from the lore of the 60s, is that the '64 GTO started the "Muscle Car" era. NOT SO!
Actually, the Big Three were all going at it on the street and the strip by 1960, essentially in a spill-over from NASCAR and USAC stock car racing. Oh sure, if you knew someone in high places before that, you could get fixed up with a "factory special" – going all the way back to the Hudson Hornet and the Chrysler 300, but showroom super stocks really became a "where's your cash" mega-war truly beginning with the 1960 model run.
Why? Some of it was that the "win on Sunday" theme from roundy round racing was translated into "I want one of them babies", but much more of it was the new-found popularity of stock car drag racing. Pontiac jumped into the fray first, with their "Super Duty" 389 cars, followed quickly by Chevy and Ford. Chrysler was there initially surprisingly with their Chrysler 300 and Sonoramic Plymouths and Dodges.
In 1961, it started getting serious. Pontiac suddenly released a 421 cu in Super Duty block, Chevy replaced the 348 with their 409. Ford added 3-2bbls to the 390 and Dodge and Chrysler offered the ram-tuned 413 late in the year.
By '62, everyone was seriously in the game. A 421 HO Grand Prix was a low 14 second street car you could buy right off the showroom floor. Chevy's 409 was completely redesigned and offered 425 HP, Ford offered the 405 HP 406, and 413 equipped Chrysler 300s (yes, 300s) were kicking butt in Super Stock Automatic. (BTW, this popularity got the Ramchargers to cajole the Dodge Division to field purpose-built 413s).
Except for the new Dodge, all of these babies were running on 121-123 inch wheelbases and weighing in at just about 3900 lbs! All but the MOPARs offered 4-speeds as the preferred transmission, all sported decent heavy duty suspension and reasonably good brakes, and all could be had with a bucket seat interior (though serious racers opted for the lighter bench seat interior). Take a gander at our road tests of these babies, and you will note that they, for the most part, were FASTER than the muscle cars offered in 1964 and 1965!
In 1963, Big Car Bashes were basically out of control – dealer cars could be had with light weight front ends, acid dipped bodies, gear sets going as high as 5.10, thin window glass, it goes on and on. On the street, all the challengers were pretty much even. Ford now had a 427, Chevy's 409 made even more street HP, a Pontiac 421 HO was still awesome, and, yes, even the Chrysler 300 got a new hotter cam and other goodies!
But Dodge and Plymouth were the harbinger of things to come. Aside from their light weight factory racers, the 426 max wedge and 426S (street) engines were making serious HP and were located in a 116" wheelbase, mid-size car; weighing 300-400 lbs. less than the behemoths from their completion – and – here's the rub; they were thousands of dollars cheaper!
So when you slice it and dice it, the rise of what we call the muscle car was inevitable – not so much on the basis of performance, but on the basis of PRICE. The "youth market" of baby boomers was hitting the work force and they wanted exciting wheels. Pontiac's DeLorean and Wangers figured it out first, but everyone else was right behind.
Yes, you could still get big, bad, big boy from Chevy, Ford, Chrysler and even Buick, Pontiac and Olds through '66. But after that, they were rarer than hen's teeth, with really only Chevy and Ford continuing to offer the hi-po engines in their 120+ wheelbase sedans after that.
So remember, it was price more than performance that ushered in the mid-size muscle car; but back before 1965, when you wanted true muscle - you wanted big iron!
Road Tests and Other Features on Big Boy Muscle at Wild About Cars:
This article courtesy
of Wild About Cars.