Camaro, Challenger and Mustang: Great Cars – But Not Muscle Cars…

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The Dodge Challenger, Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang are great performance cars, but they aren’t muscle cars. That species is extinct – and there’s no bringing them back. 

Muscle cars were born at a unique moment in American history when technology had developed to the point that enormously powerful engines were becoming available but the government hadn’t caught up with them yet.  When it was possible to build a machine with a six or seven liter engine with no concern whatever for how loud it was, how much pollution it belched or how much gas it drank. Before government regulators made it legally impossible to offer such unchained wildness to the general public. When there were no requirements that new cars be fitted with electronic safety nets ranging from air bags to ABS. When it was still possible for a person just out of their teens (not well into middle age, as now) to buy a V-8 powered tire-fryer, brand-new – right off the showroom floor. 

Those days are decades gone and will never return. Accordingly, neither will the muscle car.

Challenger and Mustang and Camaro look the part. They are macho and big-tired and powered by large V-8 engines. But it is not the same.

Their V-8s are as docile as they are powerful. They idle like Camrys and pull plenty of vacuum to run power brakes and other accessories. They all have AC… climate control AC. They are happy with automatic transmissions behind them. They can be driven by… anyone.

If you’re old enough to remember, that was most definitely not the case with something like a ’70  SS 454 Chevelle or RA III GTO. Cars like these were marginally house-trained and could be very scary. They did not do well in traffic; heavy clutches and a tendency to overheat kept you working- and sweating. They were loud, poorly built and evil-handling things. Most rode on 15-inch steel wheels. Some – including a Plymouth GTX 440 Magnum owned by a high school friend of mine – had 14s. Imagine: a 4,000 pound car with a huge V-8, no traction control – with a contact patch about the same size as a current Toyota Corolla.

Muscle cars were dangerous. It was easy to get in over your head. My high school friend ended up being killed in that GTX.  It almost got me, too. This car had over-boosted power steering as vague as a politician’s promise – and drum brakes, all around. At 125 mph – which it would do, easily, the front end of the car began to rotate like a C-130 on its take-off roll. But you didn’t have wings and once those skinny 14 inch Hurst mags up front got some air under them, your life was in the hands of the Motor Gods. Almost all the muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s were ass-light and nose heavy, which resulted in violent, often uncontrollable oversteer when you gave it too much gas, too soon. This was part of the fun, of course. But it’s also part of the reason why muscle cars  died off. Once the insurance companies began to tabulate their losses – and predict future ones – they began to jack up the premiums to compensate. Which quickly made muscle cars unaffordable to the 18-25 set that lusted after them the most. Then gas prices went up – and soon, it was all over. 

By 1975 – the first year of catalytic converters – there were no muscle cars. A few nameplates – such as Camaro and Trans-Am – persisted. But the Z28 was history and the Trans-Am had been steered; underneath the still-menacing bodywork with its flares and scoops and angry-looking eagle on the hood, the biggest and baddest you could get was a 200 hp 455 and mid 15 second quarters.

A 2011 Camry V-6 is quicker. 

So, what we have in cars like the revived Camaro Z28, Mustang GT and Challenger R/T are performance cars, certainly  – but not muscle cars.

A muscle car, by definition, is dangerous and wild. It is rude, crude – and obnoxious, too. The closest thing to it that’s remotely new is a Yamaha V-Max with straight pipes. Muscle cars were about sideways skittering burnouts and hard tire chirps on the 1-2 and 2-3 upshifts down the quarter mile, tail out powerslides barely under control  and the strutting presence of an obstreperous rooster when rolling slowly through the local drive-thru joint on Saturday nights with your buddies.

Only a handful of real muscle cars even made a pretense of handling or braking ability; only one – the  Pontiac Trans-Am – even offered disc brakes all around.

Not a single real muscle car ever came with traction control, stability control – or air bags and ABS. “Safety” and muscle cars go together like mustard and ice cream. Hell, being unsafe was the whole point. It was a way of thumbing your nose at The Man and showing everyone you had a pulse and something between your legs, too. 

Modern performance cars like the Challenger R/T, Mustang GT and Camaro have all the safety stuff – like it or not. They also handle and brake as well as they go in a straight line. They don’t make your eyes water if you stand near the tailpipe, actually manage not-bad gas mileage and your grandmother could drive one. 

Which nicely proves the point that whatever these things are trying to be, they’ll never be the real deal. It can’t be done. That era – and those cars – are history, like the wild west and carrying kids unbuckled and rolling around like cordwood in the back of an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser.

A lot of us pine for those days, which explains the attempted resurrection of muscle cars. But like the old Eddie Money song says: “I wanna go back and do it all over but I can’t go back, I know… ” 


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21 COMMENTS

  1. I drive (Daily) a 2005 Corvette now. Grew up driving a 1957 Corvette (Dontov) ….2 4 barrels and cam, balanced, headers etc etc. REALLY wish I still had it but Vietnam got in the way. Current Vette is supercharged, ARH, three inch X with Corsa Sports, etc etc …..about 745 at crank…..600 at wheels. I miss the 57 but have to say this corvette would eat it for lunch. There is just something about pre 70 muscle cars that has been lost to the super cars today. I occasionally run into 1000 hp beasts on the street but 600-800 is pretty normal now. Had to learn how to drive all over again. In any case once you’ve smelled the smoke your never free again!!!!!

    • Amen, Rick!

      My 455 Trans Am is slow by modern standards, but I get a particular thrill out of driving it… or just hearing it run!

  2. Don’t forget the road conditions now. Technology has improved curves, blind spots, highway markings etc. it’s MUCH better to drive now than it was then.

  3. Maybe it is because I was 18 – 28 then and am 54 now, but I don’t see much difference when going all out. I could make those old cars do some amazing stuff, stuff that I am not yet sure this new car can do, like 100mph u-turns in 7-11 parking lots, etc. lol

    • I too have some great memories of the old stuff. Part of the fun was the extreme nature of those old beasts. The best analogy I can give you is to compare an old two-stroke Kawasaki triple to a new sport bike. It was much more of a challenge – and much more dangerous – to ride an H2 750 at any kind of speed than it is to ride a new sport bike at a much faster pace.

      The difference, then vs. now, is that the old stuff was literally dangerous. The new stuff is only dangerous insofar as its driver pushing himself beyond his limits. The car’s limits are usually much higher.

    • I still have my 455 Trans-Am (I’ve owned it for 20 years). RA III cam, 3.90 gears. It’s much more of a handful to drive than the CTS-V I reviewed last week. The CTS-V is much quicker – yet far easier to drive. Especially if the road is anything but straight. The Caddy can take a curve at speeds that would put my TA (and the ’70s TA handled better than almost any other muscle car of the era) in the ditch without the Caddy even working hard.

      And if you need to stop . . .

  4. Have you ever REALLY driven a new 5.0 mustang? I own one and can tell you that with the traction control turned off, it is every bit as exciting and dangerous as driving a 69 428 CJ mustang. 🙂

    With the traction control on, pounding the pedal to the metal will still make the average Joe crap his draws, but without TC, you had better know how to drive ancient muscle, or you’re going to get seriously hurt.

    I think it is an engineering marvel. I’ve taken it on 1200 mile road trips and gotten 24 MPG, and then hit the drag strip on Sunday and ran 12.07 at 117 mph.

    As far as I am concerned, it is a muscle car by every definition, with the added benefit of being economical to run as a daily driver.

    • Hi Jim,

      Yes, I have. I’ve pretty much driven every new car there is for the past 20-something years. I’ve also driven (and owned/own) classic-era muscle cars.

      Yes, you can turn off the TCS in a new Mustang (or whatever) and fishtail it. But the car is still far more controllable than the old stuff. Have you ever driven a big block muscle car with 500 lbs.ft of torque hitting the pavement through 14 or 15 inch wheels? With a leaf-sprung rear suspension held in check by nothing more (literally, nothing more) than a pair of shitty 1960s-era technology shocks? Ever try a panic stop from 100 MPH in a classic-era muscle car?

      A new Mustang GT has 18 (and 19 inch wheels) with high-performance tires that are orders of magnitude superior to the factory tires a classic-era muscle car was shod with. You’ve got excellent steering; a body that doesn’t heave and pitch – superlative brakes.

      The old stuff had none of that. Most of them had suspensions/brakes and so on inferior to a current-year economy sedan. They were dangerous at 80 MPH. A new Mustang V-6 is not dangerous at 100. A new GT is a pussycat with a hydraulic-assist clutch and a smooth idle that can be driven by almost anyone. A Boss 429?

      Not so much.

      I just spent a week playing with a CTS-V. 556 hp. But as easy to drive as a Camry.

      The new performance cars are engineering marvels. But they’re not the same thing as classic-era muscle cars, which were fundamentally different kinds of cars – wild, unbalanced and dangerous cars that have been effectively outlawed since the mid-late 1970s.

      • I drove a super stock 69 428 cobra jet mustang on the street way back when. I also took the entire 4th precinct of the Suffolk County PD on a 45 minute chase at speeds over 130 MPH with a 1969 Ford Cobra (Torino), and have owned and driven all sorts of muscle cars over the ages. All in all, I was 3 for 3 gainst the SCPD and the newest car I beat them with was a 1971 Mustand convertible, 351c ram air, 4 sp. I know how they drove, and a new 5.0 with TC off, is as close as you will get to one of those 60s era cars.

        And if you say the 5.0 is not a dangerous car on the street, even with all its bell and whistles, then you were driving it like a granny. lol

        Oh yeah, I did shed some weight on the 5.0 by losing the sway bars…but even before that, it was a wild ride.

        • Jim,

          C’mon.

          A ’69 428 CJ takes a lot more skill – and balls – to drive moderately fast than a current GT takes to drive very fast. Are you really going to debate that?

          The new car is vastly more capable, and much better balanced. Anyone who can drive a Corolla with a manual transmission can drive a new GT. Anyone. My wife. My mother-in-law. Perhaps not as well as a driver with some skills, but they can drive it from A to B, down the road.

          You know as well as I that’s just not true for a serious classic muscle car – one with a big cam, erratic idle (and not much vacuum to operate power brakes) a non-hydraulic-assist clutch, crap brakes, crap suspension… all the rest of it. Much more demanding just to get it moving – let alone drive it hard. And that’s a big part of what made a classic muscle car a different species than the modern performance coupe – which is what a car like the new Mustang is.

        • Removing the sway bars sounds… well silly It’s like trying to run faster by lopping off some toes.

          Anyway memory changes perceptions… I don’t have that problem when it comes to compact fords because I own one of each of three generations. An early 70s maverick (same suspension etc as classic mustangs), A SN95 Mustang, and a 5.0L S197 Mustang. Simply put, the S197 is probably the tamest drive of all of them. Sure the power is there and it gets up and goes. The rear end can get loose, but it’s nothing like the old suspension. The old suspension can be dangerous (by comparison) with less than 100hp.

  5. I stumbled across a 1969 Chrysler Newport Coupe for sale by the side of the road. Body pretty close to perfect, rear seat needing re-upholstering, landau top perfect (and original!); just need to find out if it’s a 383 or a 440. $5500.

    Yeah, it’s sprung softly, even by 1969 standards, but we’re talking about cars meant to paint fat black stripes in a straight line, and even with the 727 Torqueflite, I know she would!

    Now I just gotta generate enough business to produce the extra cash…

    • Thankfully, Speculator Fever hasn’t yet gotten hold of cars like the Newport, so they’re still affordable. $5k is doable… $60k (for a 440 Charger – if you’re lucky) isn’t!

  6. Mercury Cyclone Spoiler handles pretty well for a 4000 lbs car. I’ve spent considerable effort getting the CJ 429 drivable in traffic but must say it is a hand full because of the nature of the beast. Operating the clutch is like working out on a weight lifting machine. The car is like a fish out of water in traffic but pulls like a freight train out on the open road, huge low end power/torque. Stupid car to own and operate but damn its fun to drive. Good article. Thanks.

  7. I think that new Challenger is pretty sick. Unfortunately for me if I got my hands on one in about 25K miles it would be a pile of rubble. But boy would that be fun. I’m not sure I could afford the gas for that 6 liter Hemi either. But then again, these cars are for people who don’t care. They just want to “Break tha Law”!

    • It’s a good-looking car on the outside but the interior needs work and so does the quality control. The main issue I have with it, though – and it’s the same issue I have with Camaro and Mustang – is that they’re too expensive. For about the price of a new Challenger R/T I could buy a restored ’70 Challenger 340 Six Pak. Which would you rather have? And, which will be worth every cent you paid for it five years from now? Yes, the new car is more reliable, could be driven every day, etc. I won’t deny it’s a better machine in that respect. But I’d still much rather have the real-deal than today’s modern stuff!

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