The Muscle Car Years: A Closer Look at the Historic Era

April 5, 2010

The muscle car years demand special attention for automotive historians. In many ways, few periods are as important. For many the golden era muscle car history started in 1964 and continued into 1970. Looking at it in terms of a muscle car year list (model year) is an intriguing way to better understand this history.


Considered by many to be the first muscle car, the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was underpowered by the standards of the 1960's (303 cubic inch V-8 at 135 horsepower), but it was the first high compression, dual overhead cam engine featured in a car from a major US automaker. It was also the first smaller car paired with a larger engine.


With the 1953 model the Chevrolet Corvette debuted. It had a six cylinder engine (235 cubic inch) that delivered only 150 horsepower. With the 1955 model they upgraded to the Corvette's first V-8. Although, still reasonably small at 265 cubic inches it produced 195 horsepower.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette


1964 is a biggie. First was another car that many point to as the first muscle car--the 1964 Pontiac GTO (technically not really a GTO, but an edition of the Pontiac Tempest LeMans). It combined a mid-sized body with a large engine (389 cubic inch, four barrel carburetor at 325 horsepower). There was an upgrade that used three two-barrel carburetors instead of the four barrel and ramped the horse power to nearly 350. Shortly after the debut of the GTO, Oldsmobile unleashed the Cutlass 4-4-2. The car was so named because it had a four barrel carburetor, four speed transmission and dual exhaust. All this was paired with a 330 cubic inch V-8.

1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans

1964 1/2

Ford unleashed the Mustang. This was to be one of Ford's most successful vehicles ever and it launched a whole "pony car" class.

1964-1/2  Mustang


Buick fired out with the 1965 Skylark Gran Sport (400 cubic inch, 325 horsepower). Chevrolet gave us the Chevelle Super Sport with a big block 396 cubic inch engine.


One debut for the 1966 model year was the Dodge Charger. While the Charger's stock engine was 318 cubic inch V-8, you could get a number of upgrades, including a 440 cubic inch Hemi with four barrel carburetor that could produce 365 horsepower.

1966 Dodge Charger - black - rvr


The Mustang got an optional big block V-8 and just in time. Chevrolet revealed its entry into the "pony car" market, the Camaro. Its sister, the Pontiac Firebird, also made its entrance.


American Motors entered the muscle car wars with the Javelin. Plymouth's Road Runner presented an affordable piece of street power.

1971 Plymouth Roadrunner


A number of new editions were released in 1969, Pontiac GTO's The Judge, a high performance machine. It remains the stuff of legend today--and fetches high prices from collectors.


Camaros and Firebirds were redesigned for the 1970 model year. Gone was the boxy look and the new versions had a more European styling.

By the time 1970 drew to a close the golden age, new legislation forcing a switch to unleaded fuel (and a consequent loss in engine compression) was leading the way to the end of days for the muscle car.

1970 Limited NASCAR Edition Camaro Z28
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