In the part 1 of this ramble down memory lane I told the story of the great American performance car from automotive pre-history up to 1964 and the first Mustangs and GTOs, and then I ran out of gas. While the muscle car era lasted less than a single decade, a lot of things happened in that time that would shape the future of both the automobile and American culture. With the background out of the way, lets set the Way-Back machine to the summer of 1962 and take another look.
In the early 60s NASCAR was the most visible sort of racing in the US. There were lots of races, including a few outside of the core south-eastern states (Heidelberg Raceway near Pittsburgh would host several NASCAR races - the last in 1960 - sadly the historic track was replaced by a strip mall in the 1970s).
Automakers saw NASCAR as prime advertising. At the time the cars were still largely "stock" - aside from the sponsor names painted on the fenders the race cars looked just like the ones you could buy down at the local dealership and had to be powered by the same basic engine as the street cars. The top drivers were often colorful, bigger-than-life guys who didn't worry about saying something that might offend their sponsors when they talked to the press - they were the rock-stars of the gear-head demographic. A car buyer deciding between a new Ford or Chevy might well be swayed by who won the most races or what car their favorite driver was driving.
Believing in the theory of "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday", the auto makers would support the top racing teams with special parts and outright sponsorship - even during the years of the unofficial ban on racing (although during those dark days the support was largely of the backdoor variety).
Because back then NASCAR required race cars to actually be based on stock production vehicles the automakers would build street cars just to meet the demands of racing. The Big 3 had played a long running game trying to one-up each other with ever more powerful engines for NASCAR duty. In 1957 the hot engines in NASCAR were the small block 283 Chevy with fuel injection, the 312 Ford Y-block with a super-charger and the 392 Chrysler Hemi with two 4 barrel carbs. Bill France, founder and CEO of NASCAR wanted to avoid a technological arms race that would make racing too expensive for the teams filling up the grid at NASCAR races, so in 1958 he would issue a ban on fuel-injection, forced induction and multiple carburetors, leaving the manufacturers no where to go but bigger.
In the late 1950s the Big 3 had all developed new, larger and more modern V8 engines to haul around their ever growing full-size cars. These engines started out around 350 cubic inches - Ford had a 352, Chevy a 348 and Chrysler a 361) - but the basic engine designs had plenty of room to grow. By 1962 they would be pushed to 406, 409 and 413 cubic inches respectively. Pontiac would also get back into NASCAR in a big way, developing a 421 cubic inch version of their V8 to power their big Catalina. These "big" big-block engines were really overkill on the street but they were necessary to be competitive as NASCAR began pushing the 150mph mark. At those speeds aerodynamics would become important, and suddenly lower rooflines and fastback rear windows would come into style.
1962 would also mark the start of something new from Detroit: the introduction of the Ford Fairlane, their first mid-size car. The Fairlane (a name previously used on the full size Ford) looked like a 3/4 scale Ford Galaxie (the new name for the full size Fords, and yes, that is how it was spelled), but it was more similar in construction to Ford's Falcon compact car introduced a few years earlier. The car used unit-body construction (opposed to the more traditional body-on-frame design) so that the Fairlane had nearly as much interior space as a Galaxie, while being lighter, cheaper and generally making more sense as basic family transportation. Initially Ford didn't see the mid-size cars as performance vehicles; they would introduce a modern but small and somewhat pedestrian V8 displacing just 221 or 260 cubic inches (officially named the Challenger V8, but eventually to be known as the Windsor engine family) to power the new mid-size - although that would soon to change.
At the same time Chrysler had decided (based on some misunderstood rumors out of Chevrolet) to downsize their full-size cars: the 1962 Plymouths and Dodges were roughly the same size and used the same unit-body construction as Ford's new Fairlane. But Chrysler had no small V8 available, so the new Belvederes and Polaras would be offered with 361, 383 and even the 413 engine. While the downsized Plymouths and Dodges were not exactly pretty (the re-design had been rushed and their styling suffered for it) or popular with buyers, the combination of a smaller lighter body with a big engine gave them an edge in NASCAR.
1963 was the year that Ford gave up all pretense of following the racing ban; they would adopt a marketing strategy known as Total Performance that would create performance oriented versions of every car model they produced and support practically every sort of racing. While Ford had a strong performance heritage in the U.S., they were a global company and in Europe their cars were considered rather dull. This lead to Henry Ford II attempting to buy Ferrari; when Enzo backed out of the deal Henry would launch Ford into European endurance racing to take revenge. In 1963 no one knew how far this new focus would go to actually putting hairy-chested almost-race-cars on the street.
Ford would respond to the threat posed by the smaller Plymouths by punching their big-block V8 out to 427 cubic inches, developing new heads with bigger valves and reinforcing the block for racing duty. Chevy was in a tighter corner: their top-dog 409 V8 was originally developed as a truck engine and it had been pushed about as far as it could go performance wise. Chevy would develop a radical new canted-valve cylinder head and design an all new block to produce the 427 cubic inch "mystery motor" that bore no resemblance to the then production 409 big block. The new engine was allowed to run in NASCAR with Chevy's promise that it would become a production engine later in the year, but before that happened GM's upper management would decide that their backdoor support for racing was getting out of hand (at the same time Zora Duntov was building Grand Sport Corvettes for road racing and Ralph Nader had started poking around in accident reports for the Corvair). GM would clamp down their no-racing ban and completely pull all support from NASCAR. The "mystery motor" would eventually morph into Chevy's MkIV big-block, the so called "rat motor", but that was still a few years into the future - 1963 and 1964 would be hard times for Chevy and Pontiac based NASCAR teams.
Back in 1960 GM had launched a grand experiment in the form of a family of compact cars that included the Chevy Corvair, Pontiac Tempest, Olds F85 and the Buick Special. Much like Ford's Falcon, these were small low-priced cars meant to compete with the growing numbers of cheap small cars being imported from Europe, especially the VW Beetle. Unlike the Falcon, GM's entries were all somewhat unconventional: the Corvair was rear-engined with an air-cooled flat-6, the Tempest was front-engine/rear-drive but used a 4 cylinder engine that was essentially half of Pontiac's big 389 V8, and the Olds and Buick were powered by a tiny all aluminum 215 inch V8 with an optional turbocharger (eventually GM sold the design and tooling for the little V8 to British Leyland who used it to power the performance versions of various Little British Cars like the TR8 and MGB GT).
With gas hovering around 25 cents a gallon, the technology in the GM compacts was a little too unconventional; buyers stayed away in droves. So in 1964 GM would revamp the Pontiac, Olds and Buick versions into much more conventional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive mid-size cars with traditional body-on-frame construction to compete with the new Fairlane. The Corvair soldiered on as a rear-engined sporty compact (to give the new Mustang a little competition), but Chevy would receive their own version of the mid-size platform in the form of the new Chevelle.
A small (300 inch) V8 would have been more than adequate in these cars, and in keeping with their good-boy image, GM would impose a 330 cubic inch displacement limit. But unlike Chevy with its small-block and big-block, Pontiac, Olds and Buick had only one engine family to draw from, and their engines were all on the large side. That meant the mid-size cars were designed with plenty of room under the hood - which made it easy for Pontiac to develop the GTO package for the Tempest on the sly, replacing their small 326 inch V8 with the 389 inch version of the same engine family. The muscle car had been born!
Back in the world of NASCAR, Chevy's "mystery motor" would have far reaching consequences. Much of NASCAR's success came down to Bill France making rules to keep the cars based on relatively cheap production vehicles and components. Since 1958 the manufacturers had developed a simple strategy for NASCAR: every year they would push up displacement a bit and tweak the heads and manifolds for a bit more power. The changes were incremental, which meant that the factory backed cars were only slightly faster than the privateers pushing year old hardware around the track. By contrast the "mystery motor" was an all out racing motor that made no sense in a street car; if not for the racing clamp-down Chevy would have most likely produced a few 100 of these engines that would have ended up in a very few special "production" cars that only well connected racers could buy. We can guess that, because that is exactly what Chrysler would do the following year when they developed the new 426 Hemi (the so called elephant motor) and dominated NASCAR in 1964.
Ford responded to the Hemi by developing an overhead cam semi-hemi head for their 427 (the SOHC or cammer motor), at which point Bill France put his foot down and said "no more", banning both the Hemi and Ford's cammer. As a result Chrysler would boycott NASCAR in 1965. Ford wasn't exactly happy with their SOHC motor being banned, but with Chrysler out of the running Ford looked to clean up. Chevy was still officially out of racing, but they would finally put a slightly modified version of the "mystery motor" into production as the "Mark IV" big-block displacing 396 cubic inches; this was enough to give the privately backed Chevy teams a chance to be competitive, especially when the new big-block was fitted to the mid-size Chevelle.
In the automotive world, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. With GTOs flying out of the showrooms, everyone else quickly stuffed the biggest engine that would fit into their mid-size model and added bucket seats and tape stripes. Chevy would put their potent 327 "big" small-block into the Chevelle, followed by the 396 big-block when it arrived a year later. Plymouth and Dodge would go back to making truly full-size cars in 1965, but would keep the downsized models on as mid-sizes, known as the Belevedere and Coronet, with the full range of Chrysler big-block engines available. Ford's Fairlane wasn't designed to hold a big-block so it would have to make do with a hi-performance version of the 289 small-block until 1966 when a redesign allowed the big-block to be shoehorned between the shock towers.
In 1966 Chrysler did the unthinkable: they reworked the massive NASCAR 426 Hemi into a streetable engine and offered it to the public in the mid-size Plymouth and Dodge. NASCAR would un-ban the Hemi but not the SOHC motor, sending Ford into a snit of their own, resulting in Ford pulling support for much of the '66 NASCAR season. Making the loss of NASCAR coverage a little easier for Ford to take was that their GT40s - powered by NASCAR derived 427 engines - were cleaning up in road-racing: they would win 1-2-3 at LeMans that year.
The shock waves of the street Hemi were enormous: suddenly nothing was too extreme when it came to street engines, and even with hefty price tags the gear-heads were lining up to buy them. Chevy would bump their new Mk IV engine up to 427 cubic inches. Ford's 390 that had served for years as their flagship street motor was suddenly not nearly enough; they would bore and stroke it about as far as the block would go (428 cubic inches) and fit NASCAR developed heads to create the Cobra Jet.. Chrysler found itself in an odd position: while the Hemi was undeniably the top-dog, even in "street tune" it was totally impractical as a daily driver. Chrysler needed a cheaper alternative to keep up with Ford and Chevy's attempts to keep up with their Hemi; they would develop the 440 inch version of their big big-block engine - with 3 two-barrel carbs - until it was almost a match for the street Hemi (although too big to run in NASCAR).
Whew! For all of that, I've only made it up to 1966 and I've left out half the story... Let me catch my breath and take another pass through the first half of the 1960s.
1960 had seen all of the Big 3 auto makers launch compact cars. In addition to the innovative GM compacts, Ford and Chrysler would launch fairly conventional small cars: the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Lancer (soon to be renamed the Dart). All 3 would use unit-body construction and were initially powered by fairly tame inline 6 cylinder engines. But of course that wouldn't last...
In the early 1960s Ford was selling lots of Falcon's, but they were all fairly low end cars for the simple reason that there weren't many options available. When Lee Iaccoca took over as General Manager of Ford in late 1960 squeezing more profit from the Falcon was one of his top priorities. While that would eventually result in the new Mustang (a sporty body wrapped around Falcon mechanicals), in 1963 Ford would drop their new 260 inch small V8 into the Falcon. While the 260 was a big step up from the tiny inline 6 the Falcon had been born with, it was still far from a performance car - but the wheels were set in motion.
In 1962 Chevy had released the Chevy II, a fairly conventional compact car very similar to Ford's Falcon. Naturally soon after Ford offered their small V8 in the Falcon, Chevy would offer their 283 inch small block in the Chevy II. While Ford's 260 V8 was a fairly low performance engine that added just a bit of spice to the Falcon, the 283 Chevy small-block was a very capable engine with lots of performance parts available - in a Chevy II it was stiff competition for the early mid-size big-block muscle cars.
When the Mustang launched in the spring of 1964, Ford would offer a 289 inch high-performance version of their small-block in both the Mustang and the Falcon. Not to be left out, Chrysler had been developing their own small V8 (the LA engine family) and would offer the smallest 273 inch version in the '64 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda. A few months later Chevy would up the ante by dropping their 327 V8 into the Chevy II, giving it true GTO levels of performance. Just one year after the first GTO rolled off the assembly line, the junior muscle-car was born.
By 1967 muscle car engines had gotten about as big as was remotely practical (there would eventually be even bigger engines, but that would be later). NASCAR and other racing series had settled on 7 liters - 427 cubic inches - as the upper limit on displacement. GM had softened on their racing phobia enough to stretch the production version of the new Chevy big-block to 427 inches, joining the 7-liter club and restoring the competitive balance to NASCAR. But that didn't mean there was nothing new to come...
Along with the displacement limit, there were other big changes in NASCAR that would impact production vehicles. With everyone packing 7 liter engines, the simplest way to go faster was to wrap that big engine with a smaller car. The private Chevy racers had been doing well with the mid-size Chevelle and Plymouth with their Belvedere; Ford really wanted to race their Fairlane, but its unit-body front suspension made a big-block V8 and wide speedway tires a tight fit.
Near the end of the 1966 season Ford (who was still boycotting NASCAR) had the Holman and Moody racing shop graft the front-half of a full-size Galaxie frame onto the Fairlane's unit-body and drop in their standard 427 NASCAR engine, and then convinced Bill France to make this hybrid legal. Bill wanted Ford back on the tracks and probably felt like he owed them a break after allowing Chrysler's Hemi back into the series, and moreover the half-frame car actually made sense for the other teams: they could develop a standard front frame and suspension and re-use the design and parts season after season. Racing shops like Holman and Moody and Banjo Mathews developed a standard NASCAR chassis around the Fairlane setup and sold it to everyone, a basic design that would last until roughly 2007.
In the early 60s the automotive styling pendulum had swung away from the wretched excess of fins and lots of chrome strips and taillights that looked like rocket exhausts towards boxy slab-sided cars, until by 1966 cars were looking kind of plain and boring. This was doubly true for the first generation of mid-size cars, which the manufacturers saw more as a "transportation appliance" for the bargain minded buyer than something "car guys" would lust over. But the mid-size cars were now running in NASCAR and aerodynamics were important, and after the Buck-Rogers period of the 1950s it finally was the space-age! Detroit styling was about to get swoopy again.
Ford would add a long steep fastback to the Fairlane to create the new Torino model that would quickly appear on NASCAR tracks; Chrysler would redesign the Coronet and Belvedere with subtly flared front and rear fenders and a heavily raked rear window. Dodge would go even further, taking a cue from Ford by lowering the roof and adding a fastback to the Coronet to create the new Charger model. And at GM, the 1968 mid-size A-body for the Chevelle, Tempest/GTO, Cutlass/442 and Skylark/GranSport was like something out of the Jetsons: the cars were all sweeping compound curves with a tail-high stance that gave the impression of a big cat about to pounce.
There was one more twist to the muscle car that would play a big part in cementing its place in automotive history. For the first few years when muscle cars had been new and in demand the dealerships typically slathered on options in the way of sport wheels, tape stripes, deluxe upholstery and AM/FM radios to add a little extra profit. But with everyone building muscle cars (even stuffy Buick would drop a 401 inch V8 into their mid-size Skylark to create the Gran Sport) competition would kick in. The gearhead crowd realized they could buy a slightly used, plain-jane mid-size with the every-day V8 and then bolt on performance parts or swap in a bigger engine and have a car just as mean and nasty as the factory was building. Something we tend to forget is that in the 1960s the reliable life of a car was about 5 years, so 3 year old cars could be had at a steep discount.
As the old saw goes, "if you can't beat them, join them". In 1968 Plymouth would raid their parts bins and put together a 383 inch "small" big-block engine with the big-valve heads and hotter camshaft of its 440 inch big-brother, an engine soon known on the street as the 383 Magnum (that was actually Dodge's name, the official Plymouth name was the Super Commando, but you have to admit the Magnum name was just so much catchier). Plymouth dropped this hot-rodded V8 into a stripped down version of their Belvedere/GTX (even carpet was optional), named it the Road Runner, added a horn with a beep-beep sound straight from Warner Brothers, and gave it a bargain-basement price.
The 383 Magnum was an engine that punched way above its weight: seat of the pants impressions and drag-strip times suggested it was just a tick slower than Chrysler's big 440 V8. With nothing more than headers and slicks (and an experienced driver) the Road Runner was capable of high 13 second quarter mile times.
The Road Runner sold like the proverbial hot-cakes, and quickly inspired other automakers to offer their own budget-muscle-cars. Dodge would create the Super Bee (basically a twin of the Road Runner), Oldsmobile would offer the Ralley 350 Cutlass to complement their top end 442, and Pontiac would offer the Judge version of the GTO. Ford and Chevy already had lower priced compact-based muscle cars available in the form of the Chevy II and Falcon, and they were selling Camaros and Mustangs as fast as the factories could stamp them out, so they made less of an effort; Ford would slap some left-over Cobra emblems on the Fairlane, and Chevy would simply offer their most powerful engines in base model Chevelles. The Baby Boomers were finally reaching new car buying age, and they snapped these budget cars up like free pizza. This would put enough of these cars into circulation to fuel several more generations of high school gearheads.
About those Mustangs and Camaros... The Mustang was originally conceived more as a sporty car than a sports car. To be sure, Ford wanted the pony car to compete with the Triumphs and MGs and Porsches that were becoming popular with college kids, but those low-end sports cars were relatively under-powered by American standards - in the lightweight Mustang a small V8 was more than enough to do battle with the Europeans. Ford's high-performance 289, somewhat optimistically rated at 271 horsepower, would carry the flag for the first 2 model years.
But the Mustang was just too successful and too easily copied for Ford to have all the fun, and GM and Chrysler were coming loaded for bear with pony-cars of their own with engine bays designed to hold their biggest big-blocks. When the '67 Camaros and Firebirds and Barracudas debuted the Mustang was ready with a big-block option of its own, although its aging 390 V8 was somewhat out matched and would be quickly upgraded to its 428 inch sibling. While purists don't consider the pony cars true muscle cars (saving that term for mid-size performance cars), these second generation pony cars are at least first cousins.
Truth be told, a big-block pony car puts too much weight over the front axle and too much power to the lightly loaded rear tires (and in the 60s the tires were hard skinny things). Despite their shorter and unusably small backseats, the pony cars weren't all that much lighter than a mid-size, so the real drag racers stayed away, but when it came to smoky burnouts and sexy-looks, the big-block cars were The Bomb.
Of course as soon as there was more than one brand of pony car there would be a racing series designed just for them: the SCCA would create the Trans Am for the sporty little coupes - a professional racing series with a prestigious Manufacturers Championship. Trans Am had a displacement limit of 5 liters - 305 cubic inches - and a fairly strict rule requiring stock based engines that would lead to the closest thing to race cars to ever to leave a dealership: the Boss 302 Mustang, Z28 Camaro, and TA 'Cuda and Challenger, but that is another story...
1969 was basically a rewind of 1968, except for another NASCAR inspired wrinkle known as the aero-car. While NASCAR had already taken its first big steps away from racing truly stock cars, it still required stock body panels. With everyone limited to the same size engines and running the same size cars, Ford would look to gain an advantage in aerodynamics. Ford would take its fastback Torino, stretch the nose and rework the grille to reduce lift and drag, and then build a limited number of these cars to meet the NASCAR definition of a production vehicle. The Torino Talladega was named after the NASCAR super-speedway in Alabama, making its intentions clear: the new body work was for speed.
Dodge would answer with aero-modifications for its Charger, creating the Charger 500 (probably named for the 500 copies built to meet the NASCAR rules), and when that wasn't enough they would add a massive wing and nose-cone to create the swoopiest of the aero-cars, the Charger Daytona (the winged Plymouth Superbird was essentially a twin of the Charger). While it was amazing that the aero cars were sold to the public, they weren't any faster than the more mundane models they were based on and a lot of them sat around in dealer showrooms. NASCAR would quickly draft new rules effectively outlawing the aero-cars, and the experiment would end.
Which brings us to 1970, the last gasp for the muscle car era, but of course no one knew that then. Developing new cars and engines typically takes years, so the plans for 1970 had been set in 1966 at a time when cars were still getting bigger, Chrysler had just launched the ridiculous 426 Hemi and CanAm racing (with unlimited displacement) was challenging NASCAR in popularity.
Ford had been developing two completely new high-performance capable engine lines: the 351 "Cleveland" small-block and 429/460 inch big-block (the new engine lines had no sexy names, officially they were referred to as the 335 and 385 engine families). All of the GM divisions would stretch their existing big-blocks to 7.5 liters (454 or 455 inches). Chevy would tweak the heads and camshaft on their small-block, already up to 350 cubic inches, to produce the fabled LT1 engine to better compete with Ford's new Cleveland motor. Chrysler continued on with their massive 440 big-block and street Hemi, but they would release a high-performance version of their 340 small-block for use in their new Cuda and Challenger pony cars, an engine that was the equal of the new Ford and Chevy small-blocks.
Strangely, Ford would drop a high-performance version of its new 429 into a limited version of the Mustang to classify it as a production engine for NASCAR purposes, creating the 429 Boss Mustang. On paper the Boss big-block's special semi-hemi heads made it more than a match for the Chrysler Hemi and 427 Chevy, but from the factory the street version was in a fairly mild state of tune and with so few available it never got the development work needed to realize its horsepower potential.
Whew. For all of that, I've still left lots of stuff out. I've pretty much ignored drag racing and street racing. I haven't mentioned AMC or Mercury's forays with muscle cars and pony cars, and I've glossed over lots of niche subjects. It is amazing how much happened in those few years, but hopefully I've given you a taste for those times.
The rest of the story will have to wait for part 3...
Full disclosure: I was born in 1960, so I only remember the later half of the 1960s, and a lot of that revolved around the goings on at Third Ward Elementary school. My Dad was a mechanic at a Ford dealership, and I have fond memories of handing Dad wrenches and asking him non-stop questions about how engines worked when he was working on our car in the driveway. For practical purposes the 1970s weren't all that different than the 1960s - especially in the small town I grew up in - so I count myself lucky to have been there for at least part of the Muscle Car Era.
Again, if I've got something wrong, drop me a line.