It’s Arizona auction week and I’m already dreading the thought of hearing people talk about Mustangs and Camaros and Shelbys and even Chevy 409s as “muscle cars.” Because they are not.
Being old may have its disadvantages — though being old at least means you’re not dead. And being old also means that you were there when what is now history was current events and you still may remember how things were. Really were.
So if Mustangs and Camaros and Shelbys and even Chevy 409s were not — and are not — “muscle cars,” what were and still are? And what should we call Mustangs and Camaros and Shelbys and even Chevy 409s?
We’ll start with muscle cars…
Once upon a time, John DeLorean and his crew at Pontiac found a way to violate General Motors’ marching orders and to stuff the big V8 engine from the full-size Bonneville into the Tempest, which was Pontiac’s “intermediate,” though today we’d call it a mid-sized, sedan.
Pretty much from the start, American sedans were full-size cars, roomy enough to carry the entire family. Then came the imports, primarily the Volkswagen Beetle, and the gas crisis and people wanted small and less fuelish cars, so we got the Rambler American and the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvair and the Plymouth Valiant, so-called compact cars.
But like Goldilocks, for some people compact was too small and full-size was too big, so the automakers created “intermediates” that were just right.
And then they became much better as DeLorean and his team discovered two things: (1) they discovered that their 389-cubic-inch V8 engine would fit into the engine bay of the intermediate-size Tempest and (2) they found the loophole in the corporate laws that allowed them not only to install those engines in that car, but to sell them to law-abiding customers. Well, they were law-abiding until they got their hands on this new GTO model and started racing them away from stoplights.
And it didn’t take long for those buyers to have people and cars to race because suddenly we had a whole series of “muscle cars” – the Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, Oldsmobile Cutlass 442, Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda, Dodge Charger, Ford Torino, Mercury Cyclone, even the Rambler Rebel SST.
But intermediates weren’t the only new-sized cars coming into a diversifying automotive marketplace. With baby boomers coming of age, automakers saw an opportunity to sell a personal-size car, a vehicle built on a compact-car chassis, basically with two buckets seats up front and a small rear bench in back, but with very sporty styling. Ford was first to market with the Mustang, which was an immediate sales hit. Chevy followed with Camaro, Pontiac with Firebird, Dodge with Challenger, Plymouth with a new Barracuda, AMC with Javelin, etc.
But because Ford was first, its Mustang enjoying a huge head start — by more than one million sales — this entire new car category was labeled “pony cars.” They even had their own racing series, the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American Sedan Series, or Trans-Am as it was popularly known. Pontiac liked the Trans Am name so much that it was willing to pay the SCCA a licensing fee so it could label the raciest version of its Pontiac Firebird as the Trans Am.
While muscle cars carried the largest engines available, the pony cars that raced in the Trans-Am series were limited to engines with 305-cubic-inch displacement. But as with the original GTO and other muscle cars, larger engines could be wedged beneath pony car hoods, and so we had the Mustang Boss 351, the Shelby Mustang with a 428-cid Cobra Jet V8, various big-block Camaros, and the lines between pony car and muscle car were starting to blur.
Speaking of Carroll Shelby, the chicken-farming, race-car driving Texan really wanted to beat established competitors such as the Chevrolet Corvette or Enzo’s Ferraris, so he figured a way to stuff a powerful American V8 in a small and lightweight European sports car chassis. The result was the Shelby Cobra, and like various Ferraris, the Corvette, Jaguar XKs and others, the Cobra was a pure sports car — two seats and ready to show its competence on the road or on the race track.
They were sports cars, not “muscle cars.”
Which brings us to the Chevy 409 and its ilk. For the 1961 model year, which was before the Cobra, the Mustang or the GTO, Chevrolet offered a Turbo-Fire 409-cubic-inch V8 engine option and produced 142 Impalas with that engine and an SS (Super Sport) option package. The 409 became not only the car to have on the drag strip, but the subject of song — “She’s real fine, my 409,” sang the Beach Boys.
Ford soon followed with a 427 and Chrysler upped the ante to 440 and GM to 454 and…
And somewhere between then and now people started describing all of the cars — the true muscle cars and the pony cars and the sports cars and the big blocks — as muscle cars, and the nomenclature got even further confused when the Camaro and Challenger were resurrected and along with the Mustang were termed “modern muscle cars.” Which they are, even if their historic namesakes never were called muscle cars by those who owned, drove or wrote about them.