The vehicles that defined the muscle car era vary considerably when it pertains to individual tastes, perceptions and definitions. Generally, the trend began in roughly 1964 and lasted until 1972. These years mark the fiercest competition among the manufactures to see who could produce the most powerful, high-performance vehicles in the marketplace.
Oldsmobile Rocket 88 (1949)
The Patriarch of all muscle cars is believed to have stemmed from the 1949 Olds Rocket 88. Oldsmobile mated a large 303-cubic inch V-8 engine to a light weight chassis. It only produced 135 horsepower, but at the time, no other major automaker had ever installed a high-compression, dual overhead cam engine in a vehicle. The result was staggering, leading to a copycat trend that coincided with the popularity of a just emerging NASCAR racing circuit. The Rocket 88 was the kindling that would later ignite the flames of the true muscle car era.
Pontiac GTO (1964/1965)
If the Rocket 88 was the kindling, then the Pontiac GTO was the flame that started it all. The Pontiac GTO arrived on the scene in 1964 as the brainchild of Ralph DeLorean, Bill Collin and Russ Gee. They simply modified the Pontiac Tempest, installing a 389-cubic inch V-8 engine in a prototype “Super Tempest” body. It delivered 325 horsepower and was fed by a four-barrel carburetor. Affectionately known as the “Goat”, its popularity took off.
Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 (1970)
Chevrolet hit a peak in raw horsepower and performance with the Chevelle SS 454. This big-block stroker put out a reported 450 horsepower, although other estimates have claimed it was closer to 500 horsepower. The Chevelle’s popularity actually began in 1965 with its indomitable 396, regarded today to be one of the finest American production engines ever made.
Dodge Charger (1969)
The ’69 Dodge Charger, immortalized in the hit TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, started a love affair with the car’s wind-swept curves and no-nonsense performance. The R/T model came with a standard 440 Magnum that whipped up 375 horsepower. Its top-of-the-line engine option was the 426 Hemi that cranked out an astonishing 425 horsepower.
Ford Shelby GT500/Cobra (1967)
While it can be said that the first Mustang was the original pony car, the Ford Shelby GT500 took Mustang horsepower and performance to the wall. Originating from the designs of Carroll Shelby, the GT500 was fitted with a 425 horsepower V-8 that needed 428 cubic inches to breathe. It was capable of 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, tearing up the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds.
Olds 442 (1970)
The Olds 442 is considered a heavy-duty muscle car in the traditional sense, but with a few added amenities like a functional hood scoop, wider air intake and fiberglass hood. The 442’s standard 455-cubic inch V-8 delivered over 370 horsepower and a staggering 500-foot pounds of torque.
Chevy Nova SS 396 (1969)
The Chevy Nova is famous for having one of the largest, most powerful engines ever crammed into one of the smallest cars. The Nova’s engine compartment accommodated a 396-cubic inch V-8 that shoved 375 horsepower to the rear wheels. This car was a sleeper in that it did not look all that intimidating, except when the driver punched the pedal and left a cloud of burnt rubber in the wake.
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