What is a muscle car and where did the term come from? The idea of having a car for more than basic transportation has been with us for a long time. Since the first car was produced, someone was trying to think of a way to make it more powerful and faster. That art was fine tuned in the late 60's by the major car companies themselves. Lead by the 64 1/2 Mustang GT, the balance of that period saw some truly awesome American cars. As the car companies one upped the competition, the cars became more powerful. Thus was born the era of the American Muscle Cars.
Pure American in so many ways, the 60's Muscle cars defined more than just a period in car history. Those cars are so unique, they are still sought after 30+ years later. The term Muscle Car brings to mind the big block cars like the 426 Hemi Cuda, the Boss 429 Mustang, the Shelby 427 Cobra, or the 440 Roadrunner. And it should, but the term also includes other performance cars of the time with smaller motors like the 351 Mustang Mach 1, the 302 Z28 Camaro, the Corvettes, the Boss 302 Mustang, and the 340 Duster, to name a few.
So how can you tell if a car is a Muscle Car? If you were around those years, you already know. But if you missed watching the American car companies try to out do each other with a bigger, better, faster version, there are some common characteristics. First the particular car would likely be a limited production version of a street car, like the Boss 302 Mustang and the Mach 1/GT's. It had some kind of performance suspension designed for going from 0 to 100 as quickly as possible or to handle well on a track and often to do both, like the Cuda AAR. And it will have some kind of high output motor or the biggest motor that could be stuffed under the hood, like the Boss 429 Mustang or the Z28 Camaro.
So why where these cars built? Bottom line for any car is that people will buy it. But in some cases like the Boss 429, Ford lost money on each car. They were sold to give Ford a better performance image and to meet NASCAR requirements for a minimum number of the motors be sold in cars so it could also be used on the track. What better model to put the 429 engine in then the ever popular Mustang. The Pony Cars of the mid to late 60's had a great influence on starting the Muscle Car craze. Ford and Lee Iococca called it right when surveys taken told them the US car buying public wanted more individualized cars. They wanted more options and sportier cars. The youthful baby boomer public wanted to order a car like them wanted. Shortly after the introduction of the Mustang, Chevrolet introduced the Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird, Chrysler had the Barracuda/Cuda and Plymouth the Duster. In fact, all the American Car companies offered a Muscle car or two. Series II racing started in the mid-60's featuring the new pony cars. It became known as Trans American Racing (Trans Am). Even American Motors jumped into Trans Am races with the Javelin AMX. Ford developed a more aerodynamic Mustang in 1969 with a better 302 motor to compete. Win races on Sunday, Sell cars on Monday. And so the Muscle car wars continued until car insurance costs and an oil crisis killed off demand for the cars.
The demand for high performance cars has never gone away. At worse it was stifled by the higher cost of fuel and insurance. When the oil crisis of the early 70's settled down, special cars were offered that could be called Muscle cars. Cars like the Mustang GT/Cobra, the Mitsubishi 3000 GT, the Viper, the Camaros and Trans Am Firebirds. The newer performance cars in many ways are better and faster cars than the classic Muscle Cars. The later suspensions are much better, and the motors more exotic. Even the tires far superior to what was offered then. As far as car history goes though, the true Muscle cars came out of the 60's and early 70's.