From the mid 1960s until the early 1970s, the big three American car manufacturers put their own unique stamp on the performance car market. Rather than the traditional sports car, which was usually very small and featured a big engine, America’s contribution was a car with plenty of horses under the hood that was also big, relatively speaking.
While Australia and South Africa manufactured their own muscle cars, this article is about the American versions. These are high performance cars, midsize 2-door models with rear wheel drive and a great big engine under the hood. Muscle cars were mass produced, and were affordable for middle class car buyers.
The first, most successful American muscle car was the Ford Mustang. Making its debut in 1964, the smallish, very attractive model with the big V6 (or optional V8) captured the attention of every American car enthusiast. While the Mustang has been through many design changes over the decades, the original look remains the most popular. That is why the new “retro” Mustang, which came out in 2005 has appealed so heavily to young buyers who never rode in an old Mustang, and also the older generation who remembers them well.
Plymouth loyalists will point out that the Barracuda, Plymouth’s muscle car, beat the Mustang to the market. But only just. And sales of the Mustang took off faster than a V8 model at a stoplight next to a Camaro. In its first two years, two million Mustangs were sold, and the fact that buyers could customize them was a big selling point. The Mustang convertible, which debuted in 1964 has been turning heads for over 40 years now.
While Ford Mustangs underwent changes during the 1970s and 1980s – some good, some not so good – it is still the classic 1960s Mustang that most people over 35 think of when they hear the word “Mustang.”
General Motors didn’t produce an answer to the Ford Mustang until Sept. 29, 1966, when the 1967 Camaro appeared on the market. The Camaro had remained nameless right up until the time it was introduced. Though Ford had some fun speculating what the word “Camaro” stood for, any controversy over the name was forgotten as soon as people got a look at the 1967 Camaro. To keep costs competitive with the Mustang, GM introduced only two types of Camaro: a coupe and a convertible.
Engine choices included a 230 cubic inch 6-cylinder and a 327 cubic inch V8, and a Camaro-only 350 cubic inch V8 that boasted 295 horsepower. This type of Camaro remained available through 1969. The second generation Camaro was made throughout the 1970s and was a fixture on American roads and in parking lots of American high schools throughout that decade. This was a larger, wider, and heavier car than the late 60s model.
In 1981, the third generation Camaro was born for the 1982 model year. These were available with automatic transmissions for the first time, as well as fuel injection, and 15 or 16 inch wheels. It was during the 1980s that the IROC-Z Camaro was introduced, featuring a performance suspension and 16-inch tires.
The fourth generation Camaro was produced from 1993 until 2004, when the brand took a break. The new fifth generation Camaro is scheduled to go on sale in spring 2009 as a 2010 model year version.
While the Barracuda beat the first Ford Mustang to market by two weeks, it never sold as well. In 1970, Dodge introduced the Challenger. These used new architecture from the older Barracudas and were made to compete with the Camaro and the Mustang. The Challenger had the option of a big 440 cubic inch engine or a 426 cubic inch Hemi powered V8. This was during peak of muscle car mania. In terms of styling, the Challenger was similar to the first generation Chevy Camaro and was available as a coupe or convertible. By the early 1970s, the muscle car fever was starting to break, and new car emissions laws plus the oil embargo looming on the horizon seriously dampened demand for cars like the Challenger. The brand died out in 1974.
But in 1978, Dodge paired with Japanese carmaker Mitsubishi to make the Challenger once again. While it wasn’t close to being a substitute for the classic 1970 Challenger, it was nonetheless competitive with cars like the Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica. This version disappeared in 1983.
But 25 years later, the 2008 Dodge Challenger appeared, with retro styling that gives it a profile similar to the 1970 Challenger. It even has similar headlights! It is, however, a bigger car, and has been outfitted with stability control, airbags, and other safety features. Similar to the 2008 Dodge Charger, the Challenger is a rear-wheel drive car just like the muscle cars of old.
With the Dodge Challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, and the Ford Mustang all on the road again with new models by the end of 2009, some wonder if America is experiencing a revival of muscle car mania, or if these hot new cars are more of a quiet tribute to a time that has been gone for over 30 years. It probably doesn’t matter. Muscle car enthusiasts will appreciate these new retro designs, particularly if they remember driving their own Mustang, Camaro, or Challenger back in 1970.