9 muscle cars we'd miss
As Detroit downsizes with a mandate to make greener cars, Motown's hot rods may not be around much longer. A fond tribute to an endangered species.
By Kevin Conley
In 1964, Pontiac offered the first true muscle car as a racy options package on its unremarkable Tempest. For a couple hundred dollars extra, you could get a full-size V-8 engine and a European nickname that engineer John DeLorean borrowed from Ferrari: GTO, short for gran turismo omologato. The car that inspired "Little GTO" by Ronny and the Daytonas had signature hood scoops and a high-performance engine.
The GTO was revived in 2004, manufactured in Australia, but had disappointing sales and production was halted in 2006. Another high-powered, Australian-made Pontiac, the G8, has been well-reviewed -- but with GM scrapping the Pontiac nameplate, the original home of the muscle car will produce no more.
Based on the compact Falcon, the Mustang was the first "pony car" and inspired many imitations. Most versions of the instantly popular Mustang were V-6 powered, but when powered up with a 427 cubic-inch V-8 engine, it was muscular enough to be the pace car in the 1964 Indianapolis 500. A few months later, the Mustang showcased its style in Goldfinger. Ford sold more than 1 million units in its first 18 months, and turned Ford division chief Lee Iacocca into an industry star.
But the 1970s oil crisis gelded the Mustang, which sacrificed power and style in pursuit of lower gas mileage. The so-called Fifth Generation of Mustangs introduced for the 2005 model year was a hit all over again, and while the basic engine is still a V-6, the GT version comes with a 4.6-liter V-8.
The original "win-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday" car, the Olds 88 was a late 1940's precursor of American muscle cars: lightweight, big V-8 engine, distinctive styling. The Rocket 88, so named for the chrome nose-cone in the center of its grille, took the majority of the early NASCAR grand national races and attracted a following among bootleggers and G-men alike. The song "Rocket 88" is often cited as the first rock 'n' roll song.
But after the initial burst, the Olds couldn't keep up with the younger competition, and since the '70s, an aging customer base has steered late-model Delta 88s exclusively into the slow lanes. GM ended production of Oldsmobiles in 2004.
Before its current incarnation, the Chrysler 300 was an improbably successful race car in the 1950s, a family sedan with a high-powered hemi engine that took so many checkered flags that NASCAR decided the owner had to be cheating.
From 1955 to 1962, the 300 was a company showpiece, refined with nearly half an alphabet's worth of annual upgrades and reinventions courtesy of designer Virgil Exner, who outdid himself annually with new chrome bumpers and rakish tail fins. The Chrysler 300 returned to much acclaim in 2005 as a powerful luxury car, with a Bentley-style grille and rear-wheel drive.
The Chevy Corvette was named for a speedy Navy frigate and marketed to veterans with a taste for European roadsters like the MG or Austin Healy. (Technically it was a sports car, not a muscle car, since it had only two seats.)
But the Corvette didn't attract a fanatical following until it powered up in the mid 1960s, losing the open grille and boat-tail rear in favor of low-slung Coke-bottle curves and a throaty idle that demanded attention at every red light. And the 'Vette included a distinctive feature as it whip-lashed off the mark: four high-riding tail lights winking goodnight. The Corvette has been in continuous production since 1953; the ZR-1, the high-performance version of the current incarnation, has the most powerful 'Vette engine ever made -- 638 hp.
Plymouth Barracuda Fastback
In the 1960s, Detroit sent out sleek and predatory two-door coupes whose styling was refined in wind tunnels and tested on racetracks. The most baroque of these inventions came from Plymouth and Dodge, which added ungainly stabilizer wings to make the pterodactyl-like Superbird and Daytona. (The rear spoiler provided no real aerodynamic advantage until you hit about 180 mph, but they became valuable collector's items, in both their full-size and Matchbox versions.)
But the prettiest was the Plymouth Barracuda Fastback, with an enormous curved back window -- courtesy of Pittsburgh Plate Glass -- set into a teardrop trunk. The Plymouth division was discontinued in 2001 and Chrysler has quashed persistent rumors of a Barracuda revival.
The car market is national, but that didn't stop certain cars from becoming regional favorites. The South in particular was strongly partisan when it came to fast cars. In the '70s, the Pontiac Trans Am led the way, thanks to Burt Reynolds, who outran and outwitted the law in a black Trans Am with hood scoops in Smokey and the Bandit.
In the '80s, the muscle car of choice was the Dodge Charger, thanks to the Dukes of Hazzard, which gave it a starring role as the "General Lee," updating a 1969 model with an orange paint job, a Confederate flag, and a horn that played "Dixie." In 2006, Dodge reintroduced a rear-wheel-drive Charger brand, sharing the 300 platform. The Super Bee version has hood scoops and a 425 hp hemi engine.
More recently, the muscle car returned, with Detroit sending out a fleet of midlife-crisis cars with just two seats geared to the former youth market. But several marques entered the market for the first time. The Cadillac, that most clubbable of sedans, sent out the sleek XLR, modeled on the Stealth Bomber and meant to rival the acceleration of the pricy Italian sports cars.
And Dodge produced the Viper, with its unusual 10-cylinder engine. Talk about torque. Current versions designed by the McLaren racing team have 600 horsepower and hit 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
The Camaro debuted in 1967 as GM's attempt to catch up to the Mustang in the pony car market. The powerful Z-28, a longer, low-slung version of the original, debuted in 1970 and was discontinued, despite its popularity, in the aftermath of the 1970s oil crises.
A new generation of the Camaro debuted this spring in a number of versions including an SS model that packs 426 hp in a 6.2 liter V-8, topping the relaunched Ford Mustang GT and the Dodge Challenger. Upping the ante even more, Chevy tentatively plans to bring out its revived Z-28, with big haunches and a ridiculously overqualified 550-hp engine. The Camaro has one credit that its competitors lack: a recurring role in the Transformers franchise as Shia LaBeouf's automotive sidekick, Bumblebee.