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American Musclecars: Power to the People

The 1967 Corvette was one of the most formidable cars of the day when equipped with Chevrolet’s ground-pounding big block engine. The L-71 version of the 427 engine in this example was factory-equipped with three two-barrel carburetors, enabling it to achieve a remarkable 435 horsepower. (Photo credit: Richard Rowlands)

Musclecars are American vehicles built from the mid -1950s to the early 1970s that were equipped with large, powerful engines that provid ing ed exceptional straight-line acceleration. Although such engines had powered luxury cars since the early 1950s, they had been a necessity brought about by the need to propel heavy vehicles with power-draining refinements such as air conditioning, air suspension compressors, power steering pumps and other options. Though potent, they did not offer the same kind of raw, visceral driving experience or race-winning potential that musclecars did. Nor did they distinguish their owners as youthful, progressive and rebellious. Musclecars were as much about image as they were about performance.

Most historians consider the 1955 Chrysler C300 to be the first musclecar. Unlike cars that came before it, the 300 appealed to buyers seeking outright performance, not luxury, economy or roominess. The name even proclaimed its horsepower rating, reminding both the driver and other motorists of its capabilities. Keeping with Chrysler’s tradition of advanced engineering, their C300 was powered by a 331-cubic inch Hemi engine that debuted in Saratogas and New Yorkers in 1951. Designed to employ a highly efficient hemispherical combustion chamber shape, hence the “Hemi” designation, the engine was both compact and powerful for its size. These traits were appreciated by racing aficionados , and the Chrysler C300 took both the NASCAR and AAA stock car championships during its first year of production. By 1959, the H hemi had grown to 392 cubic inches before being replaced by the 400-horsepower , 413 Wedge in the 1959 300-F. In its ultimate form, the Wedge had a 426-cubic inch displacement and produced a ground-pounding 425 horsepower. It was last offered in the final Chrysler Letter Car, the 1965 300-L.

One of only 55 built to qualify for NHRA “B” Super-Stock competition, this factory-modified Coronet is powered by a 426 cubic-inch hemi-head engine that produces 425 horsepower. Virtually identical in appearance to an otherwise standard Coronet hardtop, the Dragcar was delivered without a radio, heater, hubcaps or windshield wipers in order to reduce weight. No optional equipment was available, even on special order. (Photo credit: Richard Rowlands)

Ford, Chevrolet and AMC were quick to take notice of the attention that the Chrysler 300 series was receiving. Desiring to keep pace with Chrysler— both literally and figuratively— with Chrysler, these automakers soon followed with performance versions of their own large cars. Though Ford offered a supercharged engine in 1957 rated at a healthy 300 horsepower, it was expensive, too exotic for the average buyer, and drew few orders. Chevrolet debuted a fuel-injected engine that same year, which, though potent, met with the same customer resistance. AMC planned to offer fuel injection on its 1957 Rambler Rebel, but the system could not be made reliable and was never listed. By the early -1960s, all manufacturers came to realize that traditionally engineered motors, which were easier and cheaper to build, buy and service, could all be made potent by effecting one simple change: increasing their displacement.

Reasoning that the awesome power of engines like the Chrysler Hemi, Ford 402, Chevrolet 409 and AMC 390 was misapplied in large cars like those of the Chrysler 300 series, engineers eventually began to install their most potent big-block engines in smaller, lighter mid -size cars to the delight of enthusiasts. This change in approach first came about when engineer John Z. De Lorean circumvented a General Motors corporate edict not to put big-block engines in mid -size cars. Though frowned upon by management, his decision to do so led to the 1964 Pontiac GTO, the first high-powered car available to buyers of average means. The GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato, or Grand Touring Homologated) package was popular with young and youthful-thinking buyers seeking distinctive transportation at a moderate price. It marked the beginning of the performance era and inspired Ford, Chrysler, AMC, and all other GM divisions except Cadillac to follow.

One of the most distinctive musclecars ever built, the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona featured a sloped nose and high rear wing to enhance stability and reduce drag at high speeds. Developed in a wind tunnel, the modifications enabled the cars to outperform virtually all others on the track, especially when they were equipped with the awesome 426 Hemi engine. (Photo credit: Richard Rowlands)

In 1964 Ford installed a 427-cubic inch engine into a Fairlane to create the legendary Thunderbolt, but few were made. To better compete in the market that came to be defined by the Pontiac GTO, they devised a way to install the hefty 390-cubic inch V-8 in the 1966 Fairlane and, one year later, the Mustang. Building upon the initial positive public reaction, derivatives of the 390-, 427-, 428- and 429-cubic inch engines were installed in Fords and Mercurys with intimidating names like Super Cobra Jet, Mach I, Cyclone, and Eliminator. Suspensions were enhanced to better cope with the added stresses of the ever more powerful engines. Spoilers, hood- and side-scoops, and modified front sheet metal were available to those serious about achieving top performance on oval tracks and at the drag strip. Like other manufacturers, Ford offered most of the equipment that made them competitive to the general public.

Having started the musclecar phenomenon with their understated Hemi-powered C300 in 1955, Chrysler maintained a high profile during the musclecar era by building some of the wildest, most attention-getting vehicles of the day. At first restrained in appearance, many early Max Wedge-equipped Plymouths and Dodges could easily be mistaken for bottom-of-the-line sedans bought by humble librarians and economy-minded traveling salesmen. But by the late 1960s, their mostly bland colors and stripped-down appearance gave way to vibrant paint schemes accented by flashy graphics, gaping hood scoops and radical aerodynamic enhancements like the special nosepieces and soaring spoilers found on Plymouth Superbirds and Dodge Daytonas. Yet But the most memorable component of the Chrysler Corporation musclecar arsenal was the extraordinary Hemi engine, which enjoyed a brief, but spectacular revival between 1966 and 1971.

Although American Motors began the 1960s with a stodgy image, the firm was quick to recognize the need to offer cars that could hold their own against competing makes in the musclecar market segment. To bolster their image, they engaged Roger Penske to campaign Javelins in the Trans Am series and won a championship. Driver Mark Donohue even lent his name to a special Javelin model. Other offerings included the unexpectedly stylish AMX, the first only mass-produced, domestic two-seater to share the market with Chevrolet’s Corvette since the 1957 Ford Thunderbird. Available in colors with menacing names like Big Bad Orange, Big Bad Blue and Big Bad Green, the nimble cars could be equipped with engines ranging in size up to 390 cubic inches. They were in production from 1968 through 1970. During the run of the AMX, two graphics-laden, one-year-only models debuted: the 1969 Hurst SC/Rambler and the 1970 Rebel Machine. Both specials featured patriotic red, white and blue paint schemes that seemed entirely appropriate for a firm with “American” in its name.

The understated 1970 Boss 429 Mustang was powered by Ford’s massive Blue Crescent engine. Designed for NASCAR competition, the engine featured an efficient hemispherical combustion chamber shape and was so wide that Boss 429 Mustangs required extensive chassis and suspension modifications for it to fit. (Photo credit: Richard Rowlands)

By the early 1970s, demand for fast cars began to dwindle because of escalating insurance rates, increasingly strict emissions controls and rising gasoline prices. Consumer tastes shifted rapidly and the cars that once captured the public imagination and helped build showroom traffic came to be regarded as socially irresponsible. Many were scrapped after only a few years or were allowed to deteriorate in overgrown fields or storage yards open to the elements. But the loss of interest was only temporary. About 20 twenty years after the last musclecars rolled of f the line in the early 1970s, a new appreciation for their place in motoring history brought about a renewed interest in musclecars. Since few musclecars have known histories or survive in good original condition, collectors and enthusiasts have since organized clubs and registries to help them with restorations or establish a vehicle’s authenticity. The record prices realized for the most highly prized examples like Hemi ‘Cuda Convertibles, COPO Camaros, and 428 Super Cobra Jet Shelby Mustangs, make establishing a car’s provenance essential.

Although the last musclecars were built more than three decades ago, they continue to captivate enthusiasts and can still outperform many highly esteemed modern cars. Their bold engineering, unbridled power, flashy graphics, and inventive body modifications set them apart and call to mind an era when Detroit first came to realize that the power-enhancing modifications employed for years by backyard hot rodders could unlock the potential of their otherwise ordinary engines. The Petersen Automotive Museum Musclecars: Power to the People exhibition will present a variety of musclecars, both street and racing, built by all four major manufacturers: Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and American Motors. Together, they exemplify the carefree spirit of an optimistic age and today are among the best- remembered and most coveted cars on the road.

- Leslie Kendall, Curator


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