Editor’s note: This is part five of a five-part series looking at the history and future of the muscle car. Read the whole series during July, when the ClassicCars.com Journal celebrates all things muscle.
Say what you will about carburetors, manually set ignition points and even the joys of the three-pedal driving experience, the truth is that advances in computerized powertrain controls, including electronic automatic transmissions, have ushered in the era of the Modern Muscle Car, and to extremes never achievable back in those bygone good ol’ days.
No way was a just-shy-of-800-horsepower but fully street-legal Hellcat possible back then, nor a 650-horsepower ZL1 Camaro, not even a Bullitt Mustang that offered both 475 horsepower and 32 miles per gallon fuel economy on the highway, and better than 20 mph in stop-and-go city traffic.
Isn’t it ironic that, in working so hard to reach government-imposed standards for reducing emissions and increasing fuel economy, automotive engineers also found a way to give us seemingly unlimited horsepower? And not only that, but that the software and hardware they created helps us to keep that power under at least a reasonable semblance of control?
Those of a certain age look back fondly at the Detroit muscle car era. But isn’t the real pinnacle of the automobile age the one we’re in right now? Not only are cars cleaner and safer, but faster and more nimble in every way.
It turns out that instead of turning our cars into glorified golf carts, electric motors make our cars even faster.
And all this is happening while we, the drivers, are still in control, albeit with technologies such as anti-lock brakes and electric stability control giving ordinary motorists car-control capabilities previously available only to skilled, professional racing car drivers.
Traditionalists will argue that to be called a muscle car, a vehicle has to be a mid-size (nee intermediate) sedan or coupe (or even station wagon) into which an automaker has found a way to implant a humongous V8 engine. And it’s true that that was the definition back in the previous century.
But now we have the modern muscle car, based more on sheer power than on the number of cylinders, and based more on overall vehicle performance than on wheelbase or other physical dimensions.
By the way, these modern muscle cars not only are cleaner when it comes to emissions, but also when it comes to not leaking fluids on your driveway or garage floor. Or are you too young to remember the days when you had to add a quart of oil every thousand miles you’d driven?
Once upon a time, Detroit muscle cars were fast in the stoplight sprint race, but they were more than lacking in turning or stopping. That’s no longer the case.
Now, muscle includes braking power and cornering grip, and while we emphasize advances in vehicle systems, we shouldn’t overlook the advances in tire technology. After all, vehicle dynamics still rely on four contact patches, each of them not that much larger than the palm of your hand.
There’s another aspect to these modern muscle cars that we shouldn’t overlook: They are appreciated by a whole new generation of car enthusiasts, who not only want to own them, but who want to drive them — at track days, on car club road tours, to local car shows.
Read the other parts of the series:
- • Part I: The road to the muscle car was paved after World War II
- • Part II: Better late than never: How Chevrolet changed V8 engines
- • Part III: How the Pontiac GTO initiated the heyday of muscle cars in America
- • Part IV: Buick led a short-lived muscle car renaissance in the ’70s and ’80s
- • Part V: Will the muscle car go extinct or flourish in a changing world?
All of this is true and I will admit that today’s performance cars are far and away much better machines than their predecessors were in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Being a member of Generation X I’m too young to remember the "glory days" of the 60’s and early -’70’s. I do however, fondly recall the "second great awakening" of the performance era in the 1980’s when the 5.0 Mustang and Buick Grand National were already legends in their own time! That would not have been possible without EFI and early computerization of these automobiles. Now my V6-powered F-150 with 305hp at the wheel could embarrass some of those older V8’s. And it still gives me close to 20 mpg with the AC on in mixed driving!
But are the newer performance cars more fun? With all of the electronic gizmo’s and other safety related electro-nannies, I would argue that they’ve lost something along the way too. They’ve lost their heart and soul which cannot be replaced by computers. While I admit a bias against the complicated electronics (I still haven’t figured out all of the stereo functions of my truck in the 2+ years I’ve owned it!); and somewhat of an old man’s longing for a simpler era of personal transportation. A downside of the fancy safety-related electronics is that they allow the under-skilled driver to get into these cars and think he/she can pay more attention to their phone than the car and expect to come out ok because the car will do all the work. There is no incentive for this person to become a better driver! At least with the 5.0 Mustang’s, IROC Camaro’s, and Grand National’s of 30+ years ago the driver still had to pay full attention at all times lest he find himself in a heap of trouble. The average driver could drive some of these cars, but they also inspired him to become a better driver.
I would tend to agree, but . . .
I am a baby boomer. At the end, but still that huge crush of baby making in the 50s and early 60s. I remember those cars. I drove those cars when they were just hand me downs from the ‘rents. Well, not mine, but my friends. We went to get a new car in 1970. A Plymouth. I had every ad sheet for every muscle car in my hand begging and pleading for one of these awesome vehicles in purple, yellow and shocking green. Nope. A brown station wagon. Drats.
In the seventies, we still were pretty OK until ’75 when the lights went out, or at least so low that a 150 hp V8 was the hot car. I moved to motorcycles. Cheap, fast, and you didn’t have to haul all your carless buddies around. Harley’s were doofy, AMF garbage. Japanese bikes ruled the streets. Light weight and easy to work on, they were a teenager’s dream!
Therein lies the rub. Those hot little bikes were looked down upon by the likes of the Harley rider. Not American or something like that. But the American bike was almost done. Old technology no longer viable for fun. The cruising couch on wheels couldn’t keep up with the Honda CB 650 to CB900. The Kawasaki Ninjas right around the corner. The Yamaha FJ and those that ruled off road. H-D didn’t do anything off road, except dirt track circles.
My point? Oh, you wanted one? OK.
The dinosaur found an era of nostalgia and played their cards well. But the product doesn’t appeal to those who thought Elvis was a dork either. They’re not happy campers today. I know, They’re local. Millennials don’t even look at H-D. There is no nostalgia. Only big, noisy outdated tech for the most part. How do I know? My kids are in that group. Their friends and friends of friends don’t look at cars and bikes as something to cherish. It’s just transportation.
Please, don’t get me wrong, there are young fans, but the numbers are dwindling. They watch racing as sport from their couch. They play racing games like GT Sport where they can basically drive any car they want in a pretty good simulator. It’s fun. It’s cheap. Like our motorcycles used to be in the 70s.
I hope I’m wrong, but the numbers of true enthusiasts is small in younger generations. Ownership and pride is much different. When I wind up in a box or an urn or buried under the fire pit, will my disinterested kids care about what made my heart pound with excitement? Or will they just want to see what they can get from my old car?
I owned several of the 50’s, 60s and 70’s muscle cars with the last being a 70 Chevelle SS 402. I think the fun in those days was that a person could work on their own cars, do simple things to make them a little faster and win street drags. The downside was that they were straight line cars where stopping, handling and safety was an afterthought. What seatbelts???? Bias ply tires?? Todays cars are technically light years over the old muscle cars, but they do not have any personality. Except for a Camaro, Corvette, Charger and Mustang I cannot tell the difference in any of the modern cars. I think there is way too much horsepower in the hands of to many poor drivers so wether highly technical or not they are only as good as the driver.
What I miss most on the cars of today is not being able to buy a 2 door hardtop. Every car that I purchased in the 50’s and 60’s was either a convert or a sporty 2 door hardtop. Why don’t the manufactures build a 2 door hardtop anymore?
You’re right. Most of today’s muscle cars 4 doors. My son and his feiwnds don’t really know a two door. Therefore they prefer the old 60’s 4 door Impalas, 4 door Chryslers, 4 door Ford Galaxies. Those 60’s cars along with station wagons are making a comeback. Today’s kids in their young 30’s actually call those muscle cars.
"Will the muscle car go extinct or flourish in a changing world"
Yes. Every effort that can be expended to make sure no one actually enjoys themself or has a good time has an active support group now. Why should "muscle cars" be left alone? If you can’t even have a lion or an elephant in a circus, why should some outlier in an American car (!) be allowed to enjoy her or himself?
Modern cars are better in every way but they lack the mechanical quality that muscle cars have innately. I’m sure the first horses put out to pasture were remembered fondly during the industrial revolution but nobody I know misses em. I can get under the hood of my 1970 350 Lemans Sport Conv. and make changes, repairs, and even dress it up a little, conversely I can only wonder at what is below the engine cover of my twin turbo S550, I don’t touch it because it would cost a fortune to fix if I screwed it up. Being born in the Detroit and all of the new car tv shows and auctions help keep me the gearhead I’d like to think I am. As long as NAPA is still around I think we will be alright.
Oooh-, ye olde can o’worms. As a teenager in the ’70’s, I got to experience the great dumping of muscle on the market, as adults wanted to mitigate the "oil shortages" manufactured in that time. We all owned cars that no one in their right mind would allow teens in this hyper-protective, helicopter parenting age- Jesus Christ in a Coupe DeVille, kids can’t even ride their bikes to the park without armed escorts, GPS trackers, and two, preferably three directly related adults to screen each movement.
A 16 year old with a ’64 Chevelle SS, running a 2×4 set of mechanical Holleys on a 12.5:1, solid lifter 327, 4spd VertiGate & 4.88 12 bolt? A 17 year old with a built 440/TorqFlite ’70 SuperBee (‘cuz yon built 383 was lacking)? Another 16 year old with a built 455/PowerGlide in a ’68 Firebird? A college freshman with a gear drive, 6-71 blown bigblock ’70 Nova? Or a highschool teacher with a built ’40 Ford coupe in real candy apple red that could get 3-4 inches of air under the fronts on any day under 85°F?
Growing up in Indy I saw all this and more. I’d like to think that learning on those twitchy, drum brake monsters made those of us who survived better drivers in our old age. The very best driver I ever knew (’70 SuperBee 440) had mad skills- one night just waxing a 30-something dude with a for real ’66 Hemi Belvedere on the Raymond Street Expressway on Indy’s Southside- column shift & G50-15 Kelly Superchargers bias plies & all. Outlaunched him, out shifted him, and used the 3.23 axle to win by a doghouse length, pulling away. After the SuperBee was sold, there was a built ’74 Charger SE 383, then he got a real ’70 Nova 375hp 396 TH400, with, of course, a bench and column shift. Gotta tell ya, that was the squirreliest, most flat awesome old car I ever rode in; needed another foot of wheelbase and about 200 pounds off the front, but Jay-sus, a 60mph kickdown got ya about 15 feet of double stripes when the slapper bars connected, and a noise like God’s own metal shredder.
I’m not as good, never have been, but I am perfectly happy with my ’04 Holden/Pontiac 6spd GTO. Gots a mildly built LS1 5.7, 4 wheel discs, defeatable traction control with a hilarious pictogram when ya do. The modern wheel sizes, full independent rear suspension, and Praise God modern tires make it a gratifying, fun daily driver- even in Fargo winter’s, with the Nokian snowshoes and using the Trac control. Any newer, my opinion is too much electronics. I love being able to whack the throttle to WFO at any time, in any gear, without hesitation or stumble. I hate the idea of my rear brake pads being worn out in an unnecessary attempt to compensate for my lack of throttle/clutch coordination. Nanny-tronics DON’T make one a better driver. Practice does.
New cars are awesome. But my ’04 GTO is as new is as good for me- and my onboard data center tells me I get 8.6 mpg in 6th at 140mph on cruise; I only show 11.8 in town, possibly a reflection of the mods (sigh). Don’t care. Didn’t buy it to save gas. Each to his own. My GTO was criticized for looking like a plus-sized Cavalier when first imported- guess who doesn’t get the eagle eye from Johnny Law in 2018? Bwahahaha! I see your vents/spoilers/ground effects/active exhaust, and raise you affordable insurance and no tickets for 2+ decades! Love your car, respect to others, ‘k?
Funny you mention Johnny Law. I have vintage muscle (GTO and Chevelle SS) and a ’15 Challenger SRT, turned right on red in front of a cop, I saw his low profile light bar and stuck it on 44 mph (love the digital speedo setting), he hung back for a good 5 minutes and 2 stop lights running my plates and waiting to see if I did something stupid. My hair is gray and my record clean. You could tell he was running it as additionally he pulled in behind me at the last light. Sat there, then cut into the right lane to turn right and depart when obviously everything came back clean.
The new generation of "muscle cars" are impressive in many ways but IMO they are lacking in distinctive styling appeal except for the Challenger. What is truly missing with this version of the muscle cars is the full driving experience. They are like sitting in a computer simulator of a fast car with very little tactile feedback. Original muscle cars assaulted (pleased) most senses – they were loud, rough riding, loped at idle, smelled like gas and oil, etc. I am not knocking the newer cars but they only compare with the older models by going fast.
I believe the "American" muscle car will not make it much longer as the older generations that appreciated them die out. Millennials don’t have an interest in, and don’t tend to like anything made in America. Or anything that’s not driven by a load of some type of faceless tech. I seriously think they don’t know what their missing but, that’s progress !. I just wish I would still be alive in 10-20 years when all these classic muscle cars hit the market at rock bottom prices cuz nobody wants ’em.
Oldsmobile "Starfires" with "slash" on side. Late 1950’s.