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?