For those who were actually alive, and truly remember the musclecar era of the ’60s and ’70s, it is an unforgettable time in history surrounding the automobile. It is impossible to attend a classic car show or cruise night and not hear someone mention the words ‘back in the day.’
Memories are selective, classic musclecars will always be revered, and when it comes to collectability, they seem to have an appeal that never wanes. Many agree that the term musclecar refers to cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and are a part of history and memories. But, here it is, the year 2016, and “muscle” under the hood is once again in high demand.
The Camaro, Challenger, and Mustang are in a constant battle for power supremacy, so it stands to reason that this new musclecar era is here to stay. It is this need for more power that once again has fostered brand competition and development of cars that far surpass their forefathers of the ‘60s.
To start our list, Chevrolet has its 640 horsepower, supercharged ZL1. Next, the Hellcat Challenger boasts 707 horsepower. And, not to be forgotten, Ford is delivering the 526 horsepower GT 350 Mustang to thousands of enthusiasts (editor’s note: we didn’t include the Shelby Mustang, as it is not a direct product from Ford). But don’t let the horsepower numbers make you think there is no comparison between these cars, the entire package is what makes a musclecar, not just power output.
A few of us were having a discussion the other day about the longevity of 21st -century musclecars, and whether they have a shelf life that could soon be ending, or if they can sustain themselves as viable options to consumers. To gain some insight, we first need to travel back to a time when leaded fuel was available, and safety sensors that control cars were not.
What Was the First Musclecar?
Tracing the history of the musclecar will lead you to some universal truths. That being said, those truths are often open for interpretation. The Merriam-Webster dictionary actually defines a musclecar as such, “any of a group of American-made two-door sports coupes with a powerful engine, and designed for high-performance driving.”
Interpretation is injected just by the very definition. Let’s take for instance one claim that the ’66 GTO was the first musclecar. Someone else could argue that a ’63 Plymouth with a 426 cubic-inch Max Wedge engine could be the first musclecar. Even Chevrolet had a big 409 cubic-inch engine in 1963, so you see where perceptions vary, even by accepted definition.
It Ended Too Soon
By the time the ’60s were coming to an end, the government decided they needed to get more involved in the world of automotive manufacturing, and stronger regulations started to creep into everyday transportation. Many conclude the downhill swing of popularity began when the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted in 1966. This legislative oversight created the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). While creating a safer vehicle was definitely not a bad thing, some regulations definitely put a damper on performance.
In 1968 new regulations regarding the mandatory installation of seat belts was initiated. Soon after came head restraints and energy absorbing steering columns. Although these initial regulations did nothing to dampen horsepower, they did help reduced injuries and fatalities. When 1970 rolled around, the regulations were not so generous when it came to the engines placed in our cars. The Clean Air Act was actually initiated in 1963 and established a federally-monitored program as part of the U.S. Public Health Service. This act authorized research into techniques for monitoring and controlling air pollution.
Amendments in 1970 expanded the federal mandate, requiring comprehensive federal and state regulations for both stationary (industrial), and mobile sources of pollution. It also significantly expanded federal enforcement. This amendment now required automotive manufacturers to reduce the emissions expelled by all cars, which resulted in the addition of pollution-controlling devices aimed at reducing the emissions coming out of the tailpipes.
One way manufacturers met emission standards was to begin installing catalytic converters in the exhaust system to change harmful compounds like carbon monoxide and other harmful hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water. The tetraethyl lead in leaded fuel will clog converters, making them unusable, meaning that unleaded gasoline would become the fuel used in any car with a catalytic converter. As detrimental as many feel the emissions-reducing devices were on musclecars, the greatest threat to the “original” musclecar was the elimination of leaded fuels.
Since the early 1920s, tetraethyl lead was blended with gasoline to boost octane levels, and help protect valve seats from excessive wear. In 1974, the environmental hazards were becoming overwhelmingly apparent, and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) announced a plan to phase out the use of lead in gasoline. On January 1, 1996, the Clean Air Act completely banned the use of leaded fuel for any on-road vehicle. Since lead raised octane levels, the removal of this additive forced engine designers to lower compression ratios in their engines, effectively reducing horsepower. Add into the mix an oil crisis in 1976, and the coffin was nailed shut.
The Good Ol’ Days Make A Comeback
Some would say that the premise of a musclecar never actually went away, even after the gas crunch of the early ‘70s … you could still get a Camaro until 2002, and the Mustang was still a … well … sort of a Mustang, if you want to count the Mustang II – we don’t. But it was in 2005 that something miraculous happened for car enthusiasts. Someone decided to fan the coals of the musclecar wars and get the flame hotter than ever. This was the year that Ford released a new Mustang that was, once again, powered by a V8.
This same year, Dodge introduced its rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered Charger. Sure, people complained that it was a four-door, but it was also a glimmer of things to come. Just in case you don’t consider a four-door vehicle to be a musclecar, let’s bring the 2008 Challenger into the mix. And although Chevrolet fans had to sit back and wait for their new musclecar to hit dealers as a 2010 model, once it did, the “Big Three” once again got ready for battle. But, will it reach a pinnacle and come to an end once again?
Just like the musclecar era of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, what turned into a musclecar war didn’t actually start out being very muscular. When looking at all three manufacturers, by today’s current standards, the power these cars delivered now seems pedestrian. Let’s look back at the first Dodge Hemi cars introduced in 2005. With 340 horsepower, it seemed like a lot at the time. If you look at the progression of the Mustang, in 2005, the Modular V8 delivered 300 horsepower, and when the Camaro hit the road in 2010, a 425 horsepower LS engine was under the hood. Sure, each of these cars was available with lesser power options, but we’re talking muscle.
As of this writing, it’s 2016. The Big Three have thrown everything they can at this musclecar resurgence and have even developed race-only versions of their cars. But since we’re only talking about street cars, let’s take a look at the latest offerings, and what each currently brings to the table.
When looking back at the first Charger’s 340 horsepower rating, the current 707 horsepower rating means that serious development went into to the car, and now gives the Hellcat Charger a horsepower rating never seen by any musclecar, past or present. Although the Mustang started with slightly less than the Charger at 300 horsepower, that number has actually swelled to 536 horsepower. Fans of the Camaro first joined the party with a 425 horsepower LS engine.
Now, Camaro buyers can drive home with a car that smolders the tires with a supercharged 640 horsepower engine. Tell me the musclecar wars are not happening. But, can this fight to be king of the hill sustain itself?
Depending on who you ask, some feel that the market will be around as long as people can afford to buy these cars. Let’s face it, unlike the musclecars of yore, people are not looking at the Hellcat, G.T. 350, and ZL1 Camaro as daily drivers, and manufacturers are not basing their survival on the sales of these particular cars. The rear wheel drive platform, in general, is another story. With the ecosystem being as fragile as all of the media would have us believe, there is definitely an argument for the integration of alternative fuels to power automobiles.
This has already taken place with the introduction of hybrid and electric cars. In the ‘70s, the introduction of unleaded fuel forced drastic changes in the way that engines burned that fuel, but what if no fuel is available, or it becomes so hard to get that it’s $10, $15, $20, or more per gallon. What will that do to the latest musclecars – or even vintage cars for that matter? The last time fuel had an effect on automotive manufacturing, we were forced to settle for anemic four-cylinder engines that were woefully underpowered for anything more than a Chevette, Fiesta, or Colt. Fortunately, the non-V8 engines currently being built by automotive manufacturers have nothing in common with their predecessors.
The Next Generation Of Horsepower
We’re talking about musclecars folks, so we needed to make sure that we covered the past and present, but what will happen in the future? Trust me, if I could figure that one out, I would have a big collection of cars. It has always been common practice to associate the V8 engine with musclecars, but is that something that is set in stone? Years ago, when you ordered a car with a four- or six-cylinder engine, it was not very muscular. Most of the time, when you ordered anything less than a V8 engine, you knew that a lot of horsepower was not part of the plan. But, have things changed?
Will the latest technology in engine design and manufacturing allow horsepower numbers to reflect those of a true musclecar? Let’s take for instance Chevrolet’s little LTG 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It is available as a Chevrolet Performance crate engine, so if the performance division is selling it, it must be a performance engine. With the help of advanced technologies, like turbocharging and direct injection, the LTG is rated at 272 horsepower at a measly 5,500 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. To put that in perspective, a ’69 Camaro with a six-cylinder engine (no four-cylinder available), delivered only 140 horsepower, and with a base 327 cubic-inch V8, the buyer received 210 horsepower. Even the new 3.6-liter LFX V6 engine delivers 323 horsepower. If that horsepower rating denoted a musclecar engine in the ‘60s and ‘70s, shouldn’t we at least consider it today?
It’s not just Chevrolet that is making smaller engines deliver more horsepower, just take a look at the 3.7-liter Ford EcoBoost and Mopar’s Pentastar V6 engines. They deliver 300 and 292 horsepower, respectively. At one time, those numbers were unheard of in a six-cylinder engine. Let’s not even get into a discussion about fuel mileage and comparing then versus and now.
When we talk about the next generation of horsepower, we have to talk about electric vehicles. You don’t think an electric vehicle can be fast or “muscular?” Apparently, you haven’t driven a Tesla. Okay, we’re getting off track here, as the Tesla is not within the realm of the average enthusiast, but you get what we mean, right?
Electric vehicles have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years. It’s hard to argue their popularity, because according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, sales of electric vehicles increased 60 percent worldwide last year. As longer-range models are developed, and more charging stations are installed, it seems the electric age is here to stay.
When all is said and done, do we still have any idea about the presence of the musclecar in another 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years from now? Will the rear-wheel-drive platform survive? If it does, will the V8 engine be a part of it? If the V8 goes away, can a rear-wheel-drive car without a V8 be called a musclecar? If you don’t think so, what if the non-V8 variety delivers 300 or more horsepower? Personally, I really don’t think that an electric car could ever be called a musclecar, and although the Tesla is a fast, great-handling car, it is still not marketed as a musclecar.
The musclecars of today don’t seem to suffer from the same safety problems as their predecessors, and they even deliver great fuel mileage on unleaded fuel – both of which killed the cars of the ‘70s.
So what do you think? Will they surprise us and keep going this time? Is there an end in sight for the horsepower wars? Will history repeat itself, and will we see the Chevette, Fiesta, and Colt make a return?