By Kathy Wolfe
Gentlemen, start your engines! It’s time to rev up some facts on some of our favorite muscle cars.
• These hot cars weren’t originally called “muscle cars.” They were initially referred to as “Supercars.” The classic muscle car era was from 1964 to 1974, although some would argue that it ended in 1971, when manufacture of high compression engines with high horsepower torque ceased.
• The term “muscle car” usually applies to two-door cars with rear-wheel drive, with high performance V-8 engines, dual exhaust, aimed at young buyers with an affordable cost in the $3,000 to $4,000 range.
• There’s some debate as to which was the first muscle car, but many enthusiasts agree that it was the 1964 Pontiac GTO. With its 389-ci (6.3 L) V8 engine, it could go from 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds. Its namesake was the Ferrari 250 GTO, which stood for Gran Turismo Omologato, although some claim it stood for “Grand Tempest Option,” as the GTO option could be added to the Pontiac Tempest hardtop, coupe, or convertible for $295. Other nicknames included The Goat, The Tiger, and The Great One. While GM expected sales of 5,000 the first year, GTO sales went beyond their wildest imagination with 32,450 cars. In 1966, the GTO was made a model of its own, setting a highest-ever sales record for a muscle car.
• Oldsmobile’s response to the success of the GTO was the 442, an option package added to the Olds F-85 coupe for $285 or to the better-equipped Cutlass for $136. The 442 derived its name from its 4-barrel carburetor, 4-speed manual transmission, and dual exhausts. With its 310-horsepower engine, the 442 reached 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. Although the car handled better than the GTO, the sales were nowhere near the Pontiac numbers. Oldsmobile failed to market the 442 properly to young buyers as a fast hot rod as Pontiac had done, and sales were a dismal 2,999 units.
• The first Chevelle rolled off the assembly line in 1964 and was produced for 13 years in 10 different plants, 8 in the U.S. and 2 in Canada. 1969 was the best year for sales numbers of the Chevelle. In the 1960s, the base model price was $1,500, but with added options, such as trim, the price could inch up to around $2,500. In the late ‘60s, Chevy manufactured a Canadian version known as the Acadian Beaumont, with a different grille and trim.
• The 1970 Chevelle was the one to have! It had the most powerful engine available, with the 454-ci engine at 450 HP. The SS396 was 1970’s highest-produced muscle car, at 53,599 units. The SS454 LS6 model had 560 HP, 100 HP more than the other options, but could only come in as the second-fastest of the year, behind the Cuda, which weighed 500 lbs. less.
• Buick released the GS in 1965 as an option on its existing Skylark. The “Gran Sport” was a luxurious, comfortable, high-performance vehicle that used the full-size 401-ci V8 engine. About 16,000 were sold the first year. In 1968, Buick dramatically changed the look, with a reduction in wheelbase of 3 inches and 4.4 inches of overall length.
• The 1970 Buick GSX had a 455-ci engine, one of the most powerful muscle cars, and a special package that added front and rear spoilers, body stripes, upgraded tires, and heavy-duty suspension. The GSX was only available in Saturn Yellow or Apollo White. Only 678 were built, making them a rare collectible.
• The 1968 first generation of the Plymouth Road Runner was based on one of Plymouth’s success stories, the Belvedere. Richard Petty had won 27 NASCAR Grand National races in a 1967 Belvedere. Plymouth scaled back the amenities on the Road Runner to keep it under $3,000. There was no carpeting, air conditioning, trim, radio, cruise control, or bucket seats. Those options were available at a premium. It was the cheapest and the fastest! While Plymouth had sales expectations of 20,000 in the first year, the company was pleasantly surprised when sales reached 45,000 units, third behind the GTO and the Chevelle in overall national sales.
• The Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon was in fact the inspiration for the car’s name, and Plymouth paid dearly for the privilege of using the name and likeness — $50,000. What would a Road Runner be without a horn that made a “meep-meep” sound? Plymouth paid an additional $10,000 for that license.
• Under the hood, the Road Runner had a 383-ci V8, but offered the option of a 426-ci Hemi V8 for an additional $714. Out of the 45,000 cars sold, 840 buyers opted for the Hemi to leave Wiley Coyote in the dust!
• One year after its debut, the 1969 Road Runner was “Motor Trend’s Car of the Year.” One of the rarest muscle cars in the world is the 1969 Plymouth Road Runner convertible. There were only 10 made!
• The Dodge Charger was introduced in 1966, with production of just 37,300 units. With the roof sloping into the trunk’s tail, it was the largest fastback model available, and was nearly two feet longer than the Mustang. Production decreased in 1967, with total production at 15,788. The price of the 1969 Charger was between $3,000 and $4,000, depending on options. Customers could add the solid-state AM/FM Radio for $134.95, with $15.15 added for a rear speaker. The addition of the 426 Hemi engine boosted the price by $648.20. Production soared to 104,978 for 1969.
• Dodge was all about fancy colors on cars produced from 1969 to 1973. Their “High-Performance Colors” included Hemi Orange, Plum Crazy, Bright Green, Go Mango, Butterscotch, Green Go, Panther Pink, Citron Yellow, and the vibrant lime green color known as Sublime. Plymouth’s “High Impact Colors” for the same time period included Bahama Yellow, Rallye Green, Sassy Grass, In Violet, LimeLight, and the shocking pink color they called Moulin Rouge.
• As the popularity of muscle cars soared in the early 1970s, insurance companies responded with a soar of their own. They boosted premium prices on any vehicle fitting the requirements of the term “muscle car.” Although a car retailed for $3,500 to $4,000, insurance might cost up to an additional $1,500 a year. Stricter government emission standards, unleaded gasoline that produced a drop in power ratings, a fuel shortage that resulted in skyrocketing gas prices, a lower speed limit, and increased safety regulations that required larger, heftier bumpers all contributed to the decline of the muscle car era.