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… ”