Warning: This post is very technical. I promise in my next posts to decode the geeky stuff.
Just so you know, I am not misspelling musclecar and ponycar! That is how they are spelled. So no funny comments, please!
There are debates about which car was the first true musclecar. This is like the chicken and the egg theory. Which came first? Some say the Chevrolet Corvette was the first, as it debuted in 1953. Others say the Ford Thunderbird, which debuted in 1957. Others say that it was the Pontiac GT0 which debuted in 1964. I believe that it was the Ford Mustang, as the Corvette and T-Bird didn’t sell in large numbers. The GT0 started going off the dealership lots when the 69’ Judge edition came out. (Am I innocent, your honor??) The Ford Mustang was the first of those to truly disappear off the dealership lots. The proof is that more than 3 MILLION have been sold since 1965.
What makes a musclecar a musclecar? Well, let me tell you. A msuclecar is expected to have big, powerful engines and lots of power to do big, smoky burnouts without trying hard. A musclecar is a two-door coupe with plenty of room under the hood for exhaust systems and a big, rumblin’ v8.
From my point of view, the musclecar started out with the Ford Mustang’s launch in 1965. The Mustang appealed to an audience that was primarily young people in their late teens to their early twenties. Mostly male. They all had disposable income. The Mustang originally came with your choice of a 200 cubic inch (4.0 liter) in-line six cylinder, a 289 cubic inch v8 (4.6 liter) with either a 3-speed automatic, a 3-speed manual (available with the 6 cylinder only) or a 4-speed manual (only with the v8) since the 3-speed automatic was available across the board. There was also a convertible option and a “normal” coupe style or a fastback style. For three years, Ford’s hugely popular Mustang had no competition.
In 1969 the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro came out and were the first true competitors to the Mustang. Also, the Dodge Challenger and Charger came out and were very popular, but not as popular as the Mustang. Around the same time, Chevy came out with the Impala, which left the dealerships in herds.
In 1970, Ford introduced its first big engine in the Mustang; the legendary 302 cubic inch v8. The funny thing was that the 302 was really 301 cubic inches and was therefore not the 5.0 liter v8 Ford promoted it as. It was 4.9 liters. Try saying “five point oh” and then say “four point nine”. Which sounds more appealing? Five point oh, right?
Let’s drive over to the Chevrolet dealer and check out the Camaro. The Camaro had the anemic Stovebelt in-line 6 as the base engine, but that dated back to the 1930’s, so Chevy put in the stuff of legends: the small-block v8. That engine had become a popular drag/ hotrodding engine. It also powered the Corvette, the awesome sports car. The small-block engines had cubic inch sizes from 350 cubic inches (5.7 liters) to 427 cubic inches (7.0 liters). Trivia moment! Did you know that the Stovebelt in-line 6 was called the Stovebelt after an engineer found out that the belts were the same belts that early gas stoves used? Probably not.
Dodge, not to be outdone by the Chevy and Ford engines, had the 426 Hemi engine (7.0 liters). All Chrysler/Dodge products with that engine came with a 4-speed manual transmission with an overdrive. As on could expect, those cars were very FAST and won a lot of drag races.
Unfortunately, the 1970’s oil crisis meant that the EPA and the government tightened emissions standards and soon the previously anemic six cylinder engines were leaving the dealerships in large numbers. After the oil crisis, the automakers never really recovered, the engines gave out less and less horsepower and torque. Dodge’s Challenger became a front-wheel drive fuel efficient car that almost nobody bought. Legendary car tuner, Carrol Shelby, slapped a turbocharger on it and soon it grew in sales numbers.
In the 1990’s the automakers started getting back their old fame for their musclecars/ponycars and soon, with the exception of Dodge and Chrysler, started increasing their sales numbers, especially Ford with the Mustang. The Mustang became so popular that Ford made what some, including me, think was a bad idea. Ford put a 289 v8 back under the hood of the Mustang. The 289 was less powerful than the 302.
When the turn of the century happened, pretty much everything stayed the same until 2003. In 2003 Chevy shocked fans by discontinuing the Camaro. For seven years the Mustang had no competition whatsoever. In 2005, the Mustang was redesigned and had a totally retro design that made it the most popular Ford ever.
In 2010, Chevy and Dodge brought back the Camaro, the Challenger and the Charger. The Chrysler 300 was Chrysler’s answer to a musclecar and has been a good comeback car for Chrysler. It had been around since 2005. The Camaro was much more popular than the Challenger. Dodge recently put a new 392 cubic inch v8 (6.4 liters) which is 0.3 liters larger than the 6.1 v8 that was previously the top engine in the Challenger. Ford recently brought back the 5.0, except THIS time it is truly a 302 v8!
Today’s musclecar/ponycar offers speed, driving fun, all the modern comforts one expects in a modern car, powerful engines, and last of all, great looks.
Having sat in a Mustang GT500, I can report that it was an awesome experience. You can tell how much power is in it by how big the speedometer is (175 mph) and the need for a boost gauge. The interior is nice looking and comfortable, but a few too many hard plastics for my taste. The exterior is smoking hot looking, especially in red with white stripes.
The musclecar wars are just beginning with the Camaro Z28 coming out next year and all of the tuned Challengers. They are also expected to look good in racecar form and win a lot. The Challenger and Mustang both compete in NASCAR and win a lot.
This is my brief history of the musclecar. Plenty of books have been written about the history of the musclecar only. The musclecar is one of my favorite styles of cars, and besides, I’m male. I think I’ll just go out and buy a Mustang GT500. That is, if my mom lets me…
4 thoughts on “The American Musclecar; the history and techno-speak of a great style of cars.”
Wow, you do such a good job of explaining it all! It makes me wantt o driuve fast!
It was the Dodge Charger that was the eco-weenies friend!
I like your writing. Just two corrections the T-Bird came out in 1955, and the Camero in ’67. I think that that these modern ponycars will have a hard time recreating the asphalt-scorchers of old.
You are a wealth of knowledge! My first boyfriend drove an old candy apple red Camero. It had 2 wide white stripes running down the hood. It was soooooo noisy! I could hear him coming from a block away. Ha Ha!!!