Okay, I admit it. Rather than a muscle car, I drove a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle when I was in college and through the first several years of my working career. But I did have buddies who were fully wrapped up in the “muscle car” craze that swept America in the 1960s and 1970s. And, yes, I was jealous when they revved their high-powered GTOs and Mustangs at a stop sign to attract the girls, while all I could do was putt-putt along, albeit using far less gas (which wasn’t as precious back then) than my friends.
But who among us doesn’t long for those halcyon days when American muscle car behemoths ruled the road like a T-Rex before the onset of oil crises and gasoline shortages brought us kicking and screaming into a new age and led Detroit, the origin of such muscle cars, to abandon its muscle car line for “fuel efficient” models. The latter saved us money but certainly lacked in sexy curb and driving appeal.
It has been said that America’s “love affair” with the automobile dates back to an evening in October of 1961 when NBC aired a program Merrily We Roll Along, which was billed as the story of our romance with the car. None other than Groucho Marx uttered the words “love affair” and said that cars were “the new girl in town,” to be admired and fawned over. While some have debunked the myth of our love affair with the shapely automobiles of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no doubt that the car completely altered the way America evolved, leading to the growth of the suburbs and giving us the freedom to roam wherever the heck we wanted. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System gave Americans the ability to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast without ever leaving two-lane, separated highways, except, of course for gasoline, a burger and, ahem, pit stops.
While the realities of high gasoline prices and concerns for the environment led to the demise of the muscle cars, as Americans, we still love them. Indeed, in hundreds of American cities and towns during the summer, the proud owners of muscle cars of a bygone era line up along Main Street, in parking lots at McDonald’s, or at fairgrounds to show off their prized possessions. We walk by, images of innocent youth dancing about in our heads as we look under the hoods of a ‘Cuda or a jacked up Dodge Charger.
“From what I can tell, there is a very strong love of cars in general, especially for those of us 40 and over,” says Jay Quail, Executive Director of the Classic Car Club of America. “The automobile was as big a part of our upbringing as our home and our experiences. Like the childhood home, everyone remembers the memories in and around the family car. From road trips, to learning to drive, to that new car smell. The automobile is part of the fabric of who we are, like it or not.”
He continues, “A strong automobile era is the 1970s, because many Baby Boomers are now economically in the position to dabble in the muscle car collecting hobby and these are the cars they remember from high school. Also, with the acceleration of the reality TV world, with auctions and build shows, it seems the focus is in this era as well. Muscle car projects are aplenty and the entry prices are not overwhelming.”
There are literally dozens of muscle car organizations where car owners come together and share their love of the classic automobiles, whether it be chatting online or meeting for rallies, as they vow to keep the passion burning for these American-made classics in the face of overwhelming pressure from foreign intruders. This is a fact of life that began with (yes, I was a culprit) the mass invasion of the little Volkswagen Beetles in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Get this. An indication of the depth of the fascination with the muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s is the fact that the phenomenon has spread worldwide. The American Muscle Car Club, based in, of all places Melbourne, Australia, is dedicated to the preservation and use of two-door American Muscle Cars manufactured between 1955 and 1974. The club holds a variety of muscle car events throughout the year, including day cruises, social days or evenings and monthly meetings.
“Mustangs, Camaros, GTOs, ‘Cudas, Chevelles, Road Runners, you name it, they show up at our car shows,” says Mark William Paul, who stages a car display each year. “The unique thing about our car show, which is held every spring, is that we allow anybody who has a love of the American and foreign automobile to show their pride and joy to the public. Obviously, muscle cars trump all others. Trophies are awarded to best in show and the sought-after Student’s Choice.”
He adds, “In years past, we had a mint ‘68 Plymouth Road Runner with a 425 V8 Hemi take home the Student’s Choice trophy. The owner of that beauty couldn’t have been more proud. Another year, a stock ‘69 Chevelle SS, packing a 454 big block, took home top honors. My personal all-time favorite was a tricked out ‘66 Pontiac GTO painted in a sweet cherry red. That was a real head turner.”
How about we take a stroll down memory lane and consider some of the most revered of American muscle cars?
The Ford Mustang, a hands down muscle car favorite, is renowned for its style and power, with the company still churning out new models that have transitioned from the muscle car age into the modern era of fuel efficient autos. The 1968 Mustang 428 Cobra is perhaps the best of the bunch of this popular muscle car brand, and was a more powerful version of the make and model. The Cobra Jet had a powerful 428 cubic inch V8 engine and a functional, cool-looking hood scoop that elicits whistles at car shows.
If you liked big and busty muscle cars, the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS was your car. The model was introduced in 1964, but it wasn’t until Chevy came out with a 454 cubic inch, big block V8 engine that produced a magnificent 450 horsepower and ripped zero to 62 miles an hour in only six seconds, did we take notice.
Chevy also boasted another of the classic muscle cars, the Camaro, which again has survived to some degree into the modern, post muscle car, era. The 1969 Camaro ZL1 was one of the fastest and most powerful muscle cars of its time, with a 427 cubic inch, big block V8 engine that boasted 500 horsepower and could make it from start to 62 miles an hour in 6.3 seconds. Incredibly, only 69 of these muscle car classics were ever built, which makes it one of the rarest and most significant of American muscle cars.
This famous muscle car carries the name of a Looney Tunes cartoon character, but the Plymouth Road Runner wasn’t funny, and may be one of the most recognizable of all American muscle cars. Here’s an interesting fact: Plymouth paid Warner Brothers $50,000 for the rights to the name and likeness of the Road Runner and another ten grand to develop the unique “beep, beep” horn. The baddest of the Road Runners boasted a 426 cubic inch Hemi engine that could churn out 425 horsepower.
The 1968 Dodge Charger R/T just plain looks tough, with its wide grill running across the length of the car’s front and serving as an imposing image on the roadways. The neatest aspect of this muscle car is that it has a hidden headlight grill. A curvaceous body and refined rear end didn’t hurt sales. Because of the heavy use of chrome on the car, it was one of the most beautiful of all the muscle cars. It could also move, with a 440 cubic inch, four barrel V8 engine that produced 375 horsepower, and an option of a 426 Hemi engine that cranked out 425 horsepower. As they say, the Charger R/T had the whole package.
Any review of the leading muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s would not be complete with mentioning two of the most impressive American automobiles, let alone muscle cars, of all time, the 1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda Convertible and the incredible 1967 Shelby/Cobra 427 Super Snake, the latter designed by Carroll Shelby, who said he wanted the fastest and “meanest” car on the road.
The Hemi ‘Cuda came with a 425 cubic inch V8 engine that produced 425 horsepower. The direct descendent of the Plymouth Barracuda (great name), the 1971 Hemi ‘Cuda convertible was in limited production, which makes it very rare and one of the most expensive muscle cars ever.
As for the Shelby Cobra, the carmaker added a pair of Paxton superchargers to the engine for more pop to a 426 cubic inch V8 Shelby engine that amazingly doubled the output of the 427 Cobra to a stunning 800 horsepower. Indeed, the Super Snake would never be caught no matter who or what was chasing it.
Wait a minute. Did I forget that “Little GTO?” Man, she sure looked fine. The 1964 Pontiac GTO is considered one of the first muscle cars and looks as good today as it did then in my buddy’s driveway. It had a powerful 369 cubic inch V8 engine and a horsepower of a seemingly modest 328. But it could move, hitting 60 miles an hour from a standing start in 6.6 seconds. The iconic and at times misguided John DeLorean was the guy who gave the beauty its name, taking it from the Ferrari 250 GTO, a classic race car. The GTO stands for an Italian abbreviation of “Gran Turismo Omologato (Gran Turismo Approved).” Cool.
These are just of a few of the great muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m sure you have your favorite that may not have been mentioned. Beyond horsepower and good looks, these cars represent a time when gas was cheap, dating was still in vogue and a drive-in movie was the thing to do with your girlfriend. More than metal and chrome, these cars were a major component in a way of life we will likely never see again.
by John Torsiello
“Ah, yes, I remember it well.” Maurice Chevalier sang those words in the film Gigi. He was recalling a romantic liaison. But do you remember these fond car moments?
◆ Styrofoam dice hanging from the rearview mirror
◆ Car hops in short skirts on roller skates bringing the food you ordered to your car and attaching the tray to your window
◆ Attaching the speaker to your window at the drive-in movie theater
◆ Not watching the movie at the drive-in movie theater!
◆ Going for a “drive” with no destination with your parents and siblings on hot summer days to cool off before homes were air conditioned
◆ Going for a “drive” when the “drive” itself was the destination
◆ Getting your dad’s car for the big date
◆ Showing off by revving up your engine at red lights
If you remember at least five of these, then you’re as old as I am!
By John Torsiello