A Historic Look at the Muscle Car Era

January 27, 2012

The muscle car era is an intriguing piece of the history of automobiles. For many car collectors the most attractive vehicles were built in the 1960’s and 1970’s—the muscle car era. Of course, since all the vintage muscle cars are at least thirty years old, they are part of the classic car era. Muscle car history is a story of a passion for speed and the automobile in general.

What Was the First Muscle Car?

The history of the muscle car has some universal facts. Many, though, are open to interpretation. Different auto historians will give you different answers. Which vehicle was the first muscle car is one of those gray areas. Still, one car will probably make more lists than any other—the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Even the name denotes power and speed. What made this car really stand out is the fact that it was the first time a high performance engine was married to a light weight, smaller car chassis. In automotive design theory to that point the engine would have been thought too large for the car. Even so, compared to the muscle cars of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, this probably wouldn’t have qualified. Its engine was a meager 303 cubic inch V-8 that was only capable of producing 135 horsepower. Still, the fact that it was the first high compression, dual overhead cam engine to be placed in a vehicle by a major American automaker, says a lot.

Everyone Gets into the Game

The Rocket 88 got a lot of attention and a lots of sales, too. When it comes to business, that translates into the inspiration for others jumping on the bandwagon. With all the other automakers doing their best to pair their bigger engines with smaller cars, the muscle car wars were officially getting under way. The first Hemi engines were released early on in this hyper power escalation. It’s no coincidence that this was the time when NASCAR was starting to garner attention and fans, too. Americans had a new love for speed and American automakers were out to fill that craving.

The Classic Era

The 1960’s is regarded by most to be the start of the classic era of muscle cars (1964 to be exact). Engines had grown by leaps and bounds in terms of compression and size (400 cubic inches and beyond was not uncommon). The Corvette had been introduced in the 1950’s and was considered by many to be the ultimate American muscle car. Four barrel carburetors were first being used on mainstream vehicles. The pony car was launched with the introduction of the Ford Mustang.

The End

The first part of the 1970’s signaled the end of the muscle car era. Federal regulations required cars burn unleaded fuel. That meant lower compression engines and less power. That brought the start of the end and an oil crisis in 1976 put the nails into the coffin.

The muscle car era was one of the most exciting times in automotive history. It is one that still resonates with auto enthusiasts and collectors. It may not have lasted long, but it made a lasting impression.