A Brief History of the Birth of the Muscle Car

Everyone has a slightly different image in their head when they hear the word "muscle car," but each image shares the common denominator of being an American-made two-door car with a heavy-duty engine, sold with the (unofficial) intent of being used for street or drag racing, and generally for an affordable price that could easily be discovered before going to a dealer by using an auto loan calculator. At that point, the images diverge, because everyone has their own opinion about what constituted the first or most iconic muscle car.

One of the cars most frequently cited as the first muscle car is the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, which was originally built in response to consumers who wanted speed and power, and one of its most innovative features was the very powerful  - and brand new at the time – overhead valve V8 engine.

Oldsmobile might have set the standard, but within six years, the concept of a muscle car had expanded beyond one maker. In 1955 Chrysler introduced the C-300 which blended Hemi power with luxurious trappings, and became the new star of NASCAR. With the capability to accelerate from zero to 60mph in 9.8 seconds, and a top speed of 130 mph, it's no wonder that this machine was advertised as "America's Most Powerful Car." What is surprising, considering the muscle car tendency to only excel in essentially straight lines, is that the Chrysler C-300 was also recognized as being of its era's best-handling vehicles.

The next year, the 300B achieved the engineering ideal of one horsepower per cubic inch of engine displacement, and in 1957, Chevrolet offered fuel injection to its buyers, while Ford and Studebaker pitched supercharging, and Pontiac, going for broke, offered both fuel injection and "tri-power," a combination of three two-barrel carburetors, and even Hudson fought through financial troubles to come up the NASCAR-winning "twin-H power" dual carburetors and manifolds, and a "7-X" racing mill.

It should have been just the first stage of a massive trend, but everything stopped in 1957, when the carmakers of Detroit, via the Automobile Manufacturers Association, agreed to cease factory-sponsored racing and performance-oriented advertising, bowing (at least publically) to an extremely forceful and vocal safety lobby.

Of course, the engineers worked on in secret, creating even hotter engines and other pro-racing technologies, hoping they would once more be asked to provide them to the public. In the 1960's a resurgence in muscle cars hit, including Chrysler's "fleet" of V-8 cars, each with wedge-shaped combustion chambers, as much as a 413-cubic inch displacement over 400 bhp. (Of course, Plymouth and Dodge had wedge-shaped engines, as well.)

By the early 1970s, the muscle car trend had reached its peak, thanks to a horsepower battle that saw numbers as high as 450 in official documents, and many cars achieving even more power on the road or track.

Whether the era was actually over would be seen later, but there was no doubt that muscle cars were here to stay, going on to become icons in American culture and automotive history.