1964 Pontiac GTO convertible
1964 Pontiac GTO convertible. Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

In the early days of the automobile, generally the more you paid, the faster your car would go. Stutzes, Packards and Cadillacs were faster than Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths, although the Ford V-8s and Terraplanes of the 1930s were pretty quick.

The cost/speed ratio generally held through to the 1950s. Two of the fastest early ’50s cars being the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and Chrysler Hemi. Then the new 1955 Chevy overhead valve V-8 changed things. Here was a lightweight, short stroke V-8 that would rev like crazy and produce power way beyond what it should have. While the 5.4 litre (331 cu in.) 180 horsepower, 1951 Chrysler V-8 had been sensational, just four years later the smaller, lighter Chevy V-8 (with “Power Pack”) produced the same power.

Road & Track magazine (2/55), tested a Chevrolet with the Power Pack engine and overdrive, which had a low rear-axle ratio. They recorded a blistering (for that time) zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 9.7 seconds. R & T opined that a stick shift Buick Century or Olds 88 might equal this, but the performance tide was definitely turning in favour of low priced cars. By 1962, Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth all offered 6.5 litre-plus (400-plus cu in.) engines with more than 400 horsepower.

American cars had become so big, powerful and thirsty that GM, Ford and Chrysler had to bring out their 1960 compacts (Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon, Chrysler Valiant) to counter the increasingly popular, small imported cars.

In 1961, GM followed with “senior compacts” such as the Pontiac Tempest and Buick Special. Therein lies the genesis of what became known as the “Muscle Car.” Pontiac had a stodgy image until performance enthusiast Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen became general manager in 1956. He and chief engineer Elliot “Pete” Estes, and assistant chief engineer John DeLorean, turned Pontiac into a winner on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuits. When this resulted in better sales, Knudsen and his crew knew they were really onto something.

When General Motors placed a corporate ban on stock car racing in 1963, Pontiac wanted to keep its performance image alive. They experimented with bigger engines in their light Tempest, culminating in the GTO option for the 1964 Tempest. The GTO was fitted with the division’s Catalina/Bonneville 6.4 litre (389 cu in.) V-8, backed up by heavy duty suspension, better brakes, and optional four-speed manual transmission.

In spite of some hostility by GM’s senior staff when they finally found out about it, GTO sales took off; by the end of the model year, 32,450 had been sold. This rose to 75,000 in the second year, and 97,000 during the third.

1969 Chevelle SS 396
1969 Chevelle SS 396

1966 Mercury Cyclone
1966 Mercury Cyclone

1967 Dodge Coronet 426 Hemi
1967 Dodge Coronet 426 Hemi
Click image to enlarge

By combining off-the-shelf components in an imaginative way to create the GTO, Pontiac had conceived the Muscle Car, a whole new genre of American machine. Performance democracy had come; the common man could now afford a car that was as fast or faster than his rich neighbour’s.

Straight-line performance was phenomenal. Car Life magazine tested a 1965 GTO with the optional 360 horsepower Tri-Power (triple carburetor) engine and recorded 0 to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 5.8 seconds. With a 4.11:1 rear axle the GTO was geared for acceleration, not top speed, with the result that by 184 km/h (114 mph) it was all done.

The GTO’s sales and performance success attracted imitators. Chevrolet responded with its Chevelle SS-396 model with 6.5 litres (396 cu in.) and 325 horsepower. Chrysler tamed the legendary “Hemi” V-8 that it had resurrected for racing, and created the Street Hemi, fitting it to such cars as the intermediate Plymouth Belvedere Satellite. And Ford Motor Co. introduced the Ford Fairlane GT and Mercury Cyclone GT with 6.4 litre (390 cu in.) 335 horsepower engines.

The dance of the muscle cars continued for a few years, reaching its pinnacle with the aero-nosed, high-tailed, NASCAR-inspired 1970 Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird.

Toward the end of the 1960s muscle cars went into decline for several reasons. The youth market’s affection moved to the “Pony Car,” launched by the Ford Mustang. There were also brutal insurance rates and power-sapping emission controls. These trends, and the first oil crisis, finished the Muscle Car.

It was a chapter in automotive history that could only have been written in North America, with its cheap gasoline, wide open spaces, and the pursuit of high performance through brute force rather than finesse.

It had, however, demonstrated that good performance could be had in the low-priced field, and that just because buyers couldn’t afford expensive cars, they didn’t have to drive slugs.

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