For a lot of people, American muscle cars are the only real deal. That’s because it was America that invented the muscle car and, for those people, that’s enough.
If, however, you take a broader view, there’s a good argument to be made for Australia being the home of a good many muscle cars, too. In fact, Australian muscle cars have their own incredibly strong following that, just like American muscle, goes back to the 1960s. Oh, and in more recent times, let’s not forget German bruisers like AMGs and BMW M cars.
Of course, it’s the American muscle cars that have been immortalised in print, music and movies over the years, and it is a fact that the US was the first market to arrive at the concept of a huge engine, loud stripes and big wheels and tyres on a garden-variety car. And, boom, the muscle car was born.
But is the muscle car formula as simple as that? Yes, actually. The muscle car rules generally stipulate that a contender must be based on a fairly blue-collar car to begin with and needed to be affordable back in the day. It’s generally acknowledged that the first ever muscle car was the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 of 1949, but the genre really hit its straps in the 1960s with cars such as the Plymouth Barracuda, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro breaking into the youth market and popularising drag racing and the concept of a big engine in a mid-sized car.
From there, it was all uphill in terms of performance, engine capacity and outrageous presentation. And any brand that didn’t have a muscle car in showrooms was destined to lose the younger buyers who, in the 60s and 70s, were a consumer-group not to be ignored.
To the purists out there, the real muscle cars died in about 1971 or 72 when tougher emissions standards began to stifle engine performance. But there are plenty of others who believe the muscle car survived that, even if the mechanical ferocity was dialled back a bit. And when you look today at factory hot-rods like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat, there’s an argument that muscle cars haven’t gone anywhere.
So, let’s look at classic US muscle cars by brand.
Ford muscle cars
You simply can’t go past the Mustang here and even though the very first Mustangs weren’t strictly muscle cars, the concept soon morphed into just that in versions such as the Boss 302 and the big-block-powered hardtop Mustangs. Throw in the Shelby Mustangs and you have a very proud muscle car dynasty. The Ford Mustang 1969 Mach 1 remains an all-time favourite, too, with its butch looks and `shaker’ bonnet scoop.
The Torino coupe was also a muscle car, particularly when it was specified with a 427 cubic-inch big-block V8. Like many muscle cars, Ford also offered some pretty pedestrian Torinos, but the muscled-up ones are legitimate contenders. Even the full-sized Fords such as the Galaxie were available as big-block powered muscle machines.
Ford also produced the Mercury range of cars, and within that was a few choice muscle cars, too, including the Cougar, Marauder, Comet and Cyclone, all offering a muscle-car experience with a Ford heartbeat.
General Motors muscle cars
Across town in Detroit, GM was also producing muscle cars for every budget. The original Camaro was effectively the Ford Mustang’s opposite number and, like the Mustang, could be had with a large engine option to go with the classic coupe styling. In fact, after models like the Z28 and ZL1, both based on the Camaro, car design would never be the same when it came to making a two-door mass-market vehicle something special.
The Chevrolet Chevelle SS is another GM muscle favourite. Also a relatively compact car (by US standards) the Chevelle was a popular car for drag racers who could order huge big-block powerplants and even racing touches like specific tyres and air intake systems.
Of course, GM is known for having more than Chevrolet as a brand, and other badges such as Buick with the Wildcat and Oldsmobile with the Grand National and 442 (to name just two) gave those brands plenty of street cred, too. And we have to mention the other GM brand, Pontiac, for its contribution, too.
The Pontiac GTO was a stylish two door which, when fitted with the biggest available engine and some racy stripes, became known as The Judge for its ability to lay down the law to any other car on the street.
Chrysler muscle cars
There’s an argument that it was the Chrysler family that invested most heavily in the muscle car ethos. The Plymouth and Dodge brands led the way with models like the Barracuda, Roadrunner, Duster and GTX from the former, and legends like the Dart, Challenger, Polara, and Charger bearing the Dodge badge. Chrysler also milked each model for all it was worth, too, offering a large range of engines including the mighty Hemi 426 and 440 Magnum, along with multiple carburettor set-ups that introduced the world to the famous Six-Pack induction system (three twin-barrel carburettors).
It was the Chrysler muscle cars that seemed to make it to the big and small screen, too. A Dodge Challenger 1970 was the star of Vanishing point, and who could forget the Dodge Charger that became the star of the 1970s TV show Dukes of Hazzard? A Charger was also the hero car for the original Fast and Furious flick. Mind you, the Ford Mustang GT 390 driven by Steve McQueen in Bullitt deserves a spot in that list, too.
Chrysler was also the car-maker that took the whole muscle car thing to the limit, even licensing pop culture icons and sounds to make the point. The horn on the Plymouth Roadrunner, for instance, was designed to mimic the signature sound effect of the cartoon roadrunner, constantly on the run from Wile E. Coyote. Then there were the wild colours with wild names: Plum Crazy, Lemon Twist, Go Mango and Sassy Grass.
In Australia, the muscle car scene was pretty vivid in the 1960s and 70s, also. Classic muscle cars from this part of the world include the Valiant Charger, GTS Monaro from Holden and the GT Falcon dynasty that set Ford up as a major player and ultimately gave us the most collectible Aussie muscle cars of all time, including the legendary GTHO Phase 3 based on the 1971 XY Falcon.
Although the local scene resembled what was going on in the USA, the local muscle car industry was never as broad or as outright crazy as the Stateside products. A large part of that was the fact that our best muscle cars emerged as racing homologation cars that had to work as race-cars, while the US scene was centred more around drag racing which was more tolerant of crazy engineering.
Shopping for an Australian muscle car requires deep pockets these days as the prices of anything local with a performance bent have gone stratospheric. Specialist muscle car dealers have sprung up, too, making companies like Australian Muscle Car Warehouse a one-stop shop. Such businesses don’t limit themselves by brand, and they’re a fair chance to have both local and US muscle cars for sale in the one spot. Ironically, you might find that the local car is more expensive to buy than the roughly equivalent American cars.
If you’re in the market, there are a few things to bear in mind. Old muscle cars are still old cars, so even if they have storming straight-line performance, they’ll still have 1960s levels of brakes, handling and inbuilt safety. That’s just old school cars for you. Also, classic muscle cars will have an horrendous thirst and you may find they will be difficult to insure without good security and a good driving history on your part. None of this is a criticism per se, but like the purchase of any car, facts are facts.
Like any classic cars, the best muscle cars are the ones that appeal to you personally and take you back to a time and place. The main difference is that while some classic cars represent huge value, when it comes to US (or Aussie) high-performance, cheap muscle cars are a thing of the past.