History Of American Muscle Cars

What is an American Muscle Car? Before we go full in-depth everything about the American muscle cars, let’s first define what is an American Muscle Car. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, muscle car refers to “any of a group of American-made 2-door sports cars with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.” To be more precise, it is a 2-door mid-size to the full-size family-style car with at least a large V8 engine, a rear wheel drive, and could carry 4 or more people.

They are very different from the 2-seater sports cars or the 2+2 GTs that were designed for road racing and high-speed touring. The muscle cars are a lot cheaper than other high-performance cars which is why they are the popular choice for street racers and drag racers.

Ford Mustang Boss 429
WE COULDN’T COVER EVERY SINGLE MUSCLE CAR- THERE ARE TOO MANY! WE’LL CERTAINLY DO A FOLLOW UP ARTICLE. APOLOGIES IF YOUR FAVORITE IS NOT HERE.

1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

Although not everyone is in agreement to the true origin of the American muscle, the most accepted first muscle car is the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. During the late 1940s, the economy was starting to recover and everyone was demanding for more stylish and powerful cars. In response, Oldsmobile built the Rocket 88.
1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was a lightweight 2-door car that is powered by high-compression overhead valve V8 engine. This became the definition of an American muscle, a car that had a lightweight body and a powerful V8 engine in the front. The Rocket 88 was able to outclass every other car during the 1950 NASCAR, its success inspired to people’s desire for speed.

According to Jack Nerad in Driving Today:

“The Rocket V-8 set the standard for every American V-8 engine that would follow it for at least three decades. With a displacement of 303 cubic inches and topped by a two-barrel carburetor, the first Rocket V-8 churned out 135 horsepower (101 kW; 137 PS) at 3,600 rpm and 263 pound force-feet (357 N·m) of torque at a lazy 1800 rpm and no mid-range car in the world, save the Hudson Hornet, came close to the Rocket Olds performance potential”

“The Rocket 88 was the hit of NASCAR’s 1950 season, winning eight of the 10 races. Given its lightning-like success, one could clearly make the case that the Olds 88 with its 135 horsepower (101 kW) V-8 was the first ‘muscle car’.”

The success of the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 pushed other companies to create their own muscle car, and thus the muscle car industry was born. Oldsmobile’s greatest rivals at that time were Chevrolet and Chrysler.

1955 Chrysler C-300
1955 Chrysler C-300
In 1951, Chrysler created the famous Hemi engines which are V8 engines that have a hemispherical combustion chamber, hence the name ‘Hemi’. The combustion chamber of the Hemi simply had cylinder valves facing each other which greatly improved the airflow capacity of the engine and generated more power. Chrysler patented the Hemi engine but other companies still created similar ones. The Hemi engine made its debut when it was mounted on the 1955 Chrysler C-300 which produced 300 horsepower. It was able to go from 0 to 60 mph in just 9.8 seconds with a top speed of 130 mph. The C-300 was also known for its great handling is was considered to have the best handling of its time. The outstanding power and performance of the C-300 earned the title as “America’s Most Powerful Car.”

1955 Chevrolet Corvette

In 1955, Chevrolet created the small-block V8 engine, which became the cornerstone of Chevy’s light bodied muscle cars. It was so successful that the small-block V8 became a standard engine for GM and was mounted in different models for more than 50 years.
1955 Chevrolet Corvette
The 265 cid small-block V8 engine was an engine option for the 1955 Chevrolet Corvette. With the V8, the lightweight Corvette was able to go from 0 to 60mph in an average of 8.5 seconds. Technically, the Corvette is a sports car but its success paved the way for Chevy’s muscle cars in the years after. The big and powerful V8 engine mounted on the front made these light bodied cars have very bad handling but with the incredible speed, they became a perfect choice for drag racing.

1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe
1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe
1958 Chevrolet Biscayne
1958 Chevrolet Biscayne
1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk
1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk
In 1956, Studebaker joined the muscle car industry when it released the Golden Hawk with the 352 cid 5.8L Packard V8 engine under its hood. But Studebaker Golden Hawk did not leave long due to its high price and was canceled after 1958.

1957 Rambler Rebel Hardtop
1957 Rambler Rebel Hardtop
In 1957, American Motors Corporation also entered the fray with their Rambler Rebel. It was built between 1957 and 1960 and was revived in 1966 until 1967. The Rambler Rebel was a mid-size high-performance car which became known as AMC’s muscle car. It was also one of the earliest cars in production that came with an electronic fuel injection system. According to Motor Trend, the 1957 Rambler Rebel was the most powerful American sedan in stock condition during its time. With its 327 cid 5.4L V8 engine, it was able to produce 255 horsepower. Some may think that is not a lot of power but when you put that engine in a compact and lightweight body, the Rambler Rebel was able to accelerate from 0 to 60mph in just 7.5 seconds and with a top speed of more than 110 mph. That is quite an achievement during its time. Although the Rambler Rebel is actually a 4-door car, many still consider it as a muscle car. This is where the Muscle car community starts to branch out. Due to its power and compact design, there are some that even say that the Rambler Rebel is the first muscle car that paved the way for the muscle car era.

Just as everything was going well for the muscle car industry, everything went south after the Automobile Manufacturers Association imposed a ban on all company-sponsored racing events in 1957. Members of the association were no longer allowed to participate in all forms of auto racing in any way such as advertising high-performance parts for their passenger cars, display racing results, and associate their cars to racing. This self-imposed ban was due to the 24 Hours of Le Mans tragedy in 1955 when Pierre Levegh in his Mercedes-Benz hit another car and went off-course at 150 mph into the audience stands. His car’s fuel tank was punctured and the car burst into flame. The explosion caused car fragments flying and resulted in a total of 84 death including Pierre Levegh. This is considered as the most tragic accident in the history of motorsports. After the tragedy, Mercedes-Benz pulled away from the racing scene and returned 32 years after. Switzerland completely banned auto racing and was just lifted in 2007.

Harlow Curtice who was the president of GM at that time suggested the self-imposed ban to the Automobile Manufacturers Association. The automobile industry predicted that this ban would prevent the government from implementing regulations for the racing community. However, automakers who were not members of the association continued their racing activities and the association members being left behind. The Automobile Manufacturers Association lifted the ban in 1963.

Pontiac GTO
Pontiac GTO
The development of the muscle cars started to gain momentum again. During the early 1960s, the drag racing was gaining popularity and the popular choice was the muscle cars. The body size and weight did not change but the engines under the hood grew larger. The racing community also enjoyed the muscle cars so high-performance models were created.

1962 Dodge Dart
1962 Dodge Dart
The 1962 Dodge Dart became the front runner for the muscle cars of the early 1960s. The 1962 Dodge Dart was able to speed through the quarter-mile drag strip in just 13 seconds. People wanted faster drag times so the automakers put all their resources into building faster cars.

Plymouth and Dodge neglected their full-sized cars and focused on their smaller cars. Pontiac designed the 1963 Pontiac Super Duty that had a frame that was covered in lightening-hole and became known as the “swiss cheese” frame. This was done by drilling grapefruit sized holes into the railings of the chassis which significantly reduced the weight of the car. A very simple way of increasing the power-to-weight ratio of the car.

More in part 2

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