Anyone attempting a review of muscle cars immediately faces three problems which in combination make the job seem hardly worth the effort. First, manufacturers did not at any point say to themselves, “Hey, let’s start building muscle cars!” They simply emerged gradually in response to customer demand, and in some cases to motorsport requirements which would lead to valuable publicity.
Second, they were not generally known as muscle cars in their heyday. The more common term was supercars, which now means something completely different. The term ‘muscle cars’ was not widely used until the classic models had gone out of production.
Third, there is not much agreement about what counts as a muscle car and what doesn’t. A reasonable definition is that they were American, they were medium-sized, they had four seats, they were fitted with large V8 engines and nobody has built one since the 1970s, but some models which do not meet all these criteria have been referred to as muscle cars.
Muscle cars were also partly defined by North American road conditions. There are a lot of very straight roads over there, so cornering was not considered a priority, whereas the ability to accelerate hard was. The situation was almost exactly the opposite in the UK, and indeed most of Europe, so muscle cars were never popular here, but their speed and the fabulous sounds they made mean they are still objects of fascination on this side of the Atlantic.
Several models have been suggested as predecessors to the actual muscle cars. One is the Hudson Hornet manufactured from 1951 to 1954. The fact that it didn’t have a V8 engine disqualifies it almost automatically, but its five-litre six-cylinder unit was very strong and helped the car to be notably successful in NASCAR racing.
For a car which went out of production 65 years ago, the Hornet is surprisingly familiar to younger people. It was the basis of the Doc Hudson character in the first film of Pixar’s Cars series.
Produced only in the year after the Hudson Hornet was discontinued, the first of many Chrysler 300 models also did well in motorsport.
It was closer to what would later be known as muscle cars in that it had a V8 engine, in this case the Chrysler Hemi unit which over three generations became known as one of the greatest American motors.
Despite this, the C-300 is not considered a muscle car by some critics, who feel that it was too expensive and luxurious to qualify.
Despite being far too big to be considered medium-sized even in the US, the Galaxie is often accepted as a muscle car, though only if fitted with an engine of 6.4 litres or larger. In some cases V8s of seven litres or more were used.
Alhough it wasn’t sold in the UK, the Galaxie is a not uncommon sight in British classic saloon racing, where its extraordinary straight-line speed makes up for its lack of agility through corners.
With a couple of breaks, Chevrolet has been building Imapalas across ten generations since 1958. Current models are definitely not muscle cars, but earlier ones badged as SS are generally accepted even though, like the Ford Galaxie, they were not medium-sized.
SS models had V8 engines which in some cases reached a capacity of 7.4 litres.
There are claims that the Pontiac GTO was either the first true muscle car or at least the one that got the trend properly going. Introduced in 1964 (thanks partly to John DeLorean, whose personal attempt to manufacture a sports car didn’t go at all well), it followed the important criteria, being a mid-sized American car with a large and powerful V8 under the bonnet.
It was so successful that Pontiac’s parent company General Motors quickly launched similar models through its other brands, namely the Buick Gran Sport, the Chevrolet Chevelle SS and the Oldsmobile 442.
Also launched in 1964, the Barracuda is regarded not only as a muscle car (in the case of those fitted with a suitably large and powerful engine) but also as the first pony car to go into production. Pony cars had to be small – full-sized cars definitely didn’t qualify – and were always coupes or convertibles, never saloons.
Originally based on the Plymouth Valiant, the Barracuda went through three generations in the course of a decade. A fourth was planned, but abandoned in response to the global energy crisis of 1973.
The Mustang, another pony car, went on sale only a couple of weeks after the Barracuda in April 1964 and quickly became extremely popular.
Unlike the Barracuda, it survived the energy crisis, and in fact is still in production in sixth-generation form. Ford achieved this unbroken run partly by retreating from the original concept when concerns about poor fuel economy became dominant, producing many examples which could not remotely described as muscle cars.
Chevrolet was late to the pony car party, introducing the first Camaro in 1967, but the model quickly became an important rival to the Mustang. SS and Z28 models are regarded as the true muscle cars of the earlier generations.
Regardless of the energy crisis, Chevrolet continued building V8 Camaros right through until 2002.
The Aero Warriors were muscle cars built specifically for NASCAR racing in 1969 and 1970, and available to the general public only because NASCAR rules demanded that 500 road-going examples should be built.
Ford kicked things off with the Torino Tallegeda and followed it with the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II. Both had relatively subtle aerodynamic styling intended to improve their performance on American oval circuits.
Chrysler went much further. Both the Dodge Charger Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird (pictured) looked extremely dramatic with their pointed noses and huge rear wings. They form a subset of the Aero Warriors known as the Winged Warriors.
NASCAR revised its regulations in 1971, and from then on there were no more Aero Warriors.
The Big Three car manufacturers of the US (Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) occupied the same position in Australia, where muscle cars, or supercars as they are known there, have always been popular. Speeds of relatively cheap but very powerful cars became so high that they led to what is known as the ‘supercar scare’ of 1972.
GM’s Australian brand, Holden, built cars called Monaro from 1968 to 1977 and brought back the name in 2001. The later model was exported widely, being sold in the Middle East as the Chevrolet Lumina Coupe, in the UK as the Vauxhall Monaro (pictured) and in the US as the Pontiac GTO, recalling the great muscle car of the 1960s.
As well as the Monaro, Vauxhall also sold two other rebranded Holden muscle cars in the UK. Both were called VXR8, though the first was based on the Holden HSV Clubsport and the second as the HSV GTS.
Later models were powered by a supercharged 6.2-litre V8 engine producing over 570bhp.
Even more exotic was the Vauxhall Maloo, a rebadged version of the Holden Maloo pickup. Vauxhall was easily able to claim that this was the fastest commercial vehicle on sale in the UK.
Return of the Camaro
After a gap of eight years, Chevrolet created another Camaro – its fifth to date – in 2010. Although completely new and not styled as a copy of any previous version, it did have some of the character of the 1967 original. It won the Design category of the World Car of the Year awards in the it was launched.
Today’s Camaro has some of the same styling cues but looks far more like a 21st-century model.
The Mustang lives on
Ford’s Mustang is the only pony car to have remained in continuous production since it was launched, and along with the Camaro one of the very few muscle cars on sale in the UK today.
The sensible option is the one with the 2.3-litre turbo petrol Ecoboost engine, similar to the one used in the most recent Focus RS. There’s a lot to be said for it, but describing anything with a four-cylinder engine as a muscle car may be a step too far for many enthusiasts. For them, only the more expensive, more powerful and less economical five-litre V8 version really counts.
Here's more you might like