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What, exactly, IS a Muscle Car, anyway?

Well, that it certainly one of the most subjective automotive categories, and sometimes the most debated. Ask 10 different people what a muscle car is and you'll likely get 10 different answers. A Muscle Car, per se, is a 2-door intermediate coupe with a big-inch V8 engine and rear wheel drive built between 1964 and, at the latest, 1974 - something I think all gearheads more or less agree on. The line, however, is anything but clear. Here are a few examples:

Is a 1967 Pontiac GTO a muscle car?


Is a 1968 Dodge Coronet Super Bee a muscle car?


Is a 1970 Ford Torino Cobra a muscle car?



Is a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 a muscle car?

Hmmmmm.... could be.

How about a 1964 Ford Galaxie XL 390?

Well it does have a big block...

Could a 1967 Buick Wildcat 430 be considered a muscle car?

I suppose it could be considered one in some circles...

See what we mean? This is where the "blurred" line comes in. The popular belief when it comes to muscle cars is that while there are a few exceptions, they basically started coming of age in 1964. The most subscribed-to notion is that GM led the way with the 1964 Pontiac GTO, along with the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, Buick Skylark GS and Oldsmobile 4-4-2 that also debuted that same year (and were all based on the same platform).

Ford and Mercury, on the other hand, didn't really have anything in 1964 by way of a "true" muscle car in the same vein of, for example, the GTO. The pedestrian Fairlane and Comet weren't much of a threat at that time (yes, they did have a very limited-edition Thunderbolt Fairlane, but that car was hardly mainstream). Chrysler didn't have much either until 1966, when it redesigned the Coronet and Belvedere/Satellite. So one can conclude that while GM got the lead on introducing mainstream muscle cars to the general public, it wasn't until 1966-67 when Ford and Chrysler officially got in the game as well as true competition.

Most will also agree that the best years of the "muscle car" era would probably be 1968-1970, with 1970 being the zenith. GM started lowering compression ratios in 1971 with resulted in a subsequent drop in horsepower ratings, and Ford and Chrysler followed suit in 1972. Plus, in 1972, lower net horsepower ratings became into play, replacing the much-higher gross ratings - which was another nail in the muscle-car coffin. By 1975, there were a few muscle car nameplates left - Oldsmobile, for example, still had a 4-4-2... but by this time it was largely a stripe-and-decal package, and even though it did offer a 455, it was basically the same 455 you got in your grandfather's Delta 88. It was pretty much the same bleak story across the board at Ford and Chrysler.

The party, as they say, was over.

Pony Cars

Ford brought the Mustang to the market in 1964, and that was the start of the "pony car" market. Pony cars were cars that were based on compact cars instead of intermediate models like the muscle cars were - so by definition, a pony car is, as a rule, smaller than a muscle car. Pony cars all shared the same design of the "long-hood, short deck" (the 1964-1969 Plymouth Barracuda being the lone exception) that wasn't nearly as pronounced on the larger muscle cars.

Many pony cars, however, did share the same drivetrains as their larger muscle car counterparts. The 1969 Pontiac Firebird, for example, could be had with the same Ram Air 400 V8 that came in the GTO (although they were sometimes detuned in the pony cars, at least on their spec sheets... but not always). The 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T could be had with the same 375 hp 440 Magnum V8 that was in the 1970 Charger R/T, to use another example.

Now, an interesting thing about pony cars is that while they got their start at the same time as the traditional muscle car, pony cars would outlast the traditional muscle cars by a huge margin. Sure, some pony cars went on to bigger and better things after their tenure as a pony car (the Mercury Cougar XR-7 being a prime example), but long after the muscle car market bit the dust, Ford and GM still kept their pony car entries (even though the Mustang nearly died in the mid-1970s when it became the Pinto-based the Mustang II, but it managed to come back and redeem itself in the early 1980s as a true pony car). GM canned the Camaro and Firebird after 2002, which left the Mustang as the "last pony car standing", so to speak. At this writing, the Mustang is still the lone pony car available, but GM is slated to bring back the Camaro in 2009, and Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler) is bringing back an all-new Challenger in 2008... so it looks like a much-anticipated pony car shootout between GM, Ford and Chrysler will finally come to fruition in 2009, for the first time in nearly 40 years (sometimes, patience really is a virtue!).

The Compacts

Now that we've discussed the loose definition of a "pony car", what about the compact cars that they were based on, such as a Chevrolet Nova SS or a Dodge Dart Swinger 340? That's a good question. Is a Plymouth Duster 340 or a Ford Maverick Grabber a muscle car? Well, with a few exceptions such as the limited edition Yenko Nova or the outrageous 1969 440 Dodge Dart, most "compact muscle" cars were equipped with small-block V8s. Plus, the very fact that they were compacts and not intermediates pretty much disqualifies them as a true muscle car, although they certainly shouldn't be overlooked as valuable members of what some have affectionately called "budget muscle" cars.

But What About...

The 1960s Impala SS? The R-code Ford Galaxie 500? Or the Pontiac Catalina 2+2? Don't forget the Mercury Marauder...

Those are of course full-size cars. In some cases they could easily hang with their smaller muscle and pony car brethren (and in rare cases even the beat them) in the almighty 1/4 mile... but "muscle cars"? No, they aren't considered as such, at least in the traditional sense.

BUT... one could perhaps rightfully argue that such cars are "grown up" muscle cars if one were so inclined.

OK... Then What About...

The Chevrolet Corvette? The AC Cobra? Or the Dodge Viper?

Well, they certainly packed the right muscle car gear such as big-block V8s, multi-carburetor setups, etc (except of course the Viper and current Corvette), but those are 2-seat roadsters, and while they certainly deserve respect as icons and have garnered fanatical and faithful followings, they aren't muscle cars in the traditional sense, or even pony cars for that matter. These cars didn't share their chassis or bodystyles with lesser cars like the muscles and ponies did. Is this a "slam" against them? Absolutely not.

Instead, these roadsters are the cars that the pony and muscle cars aspired to be like. Could there be anything more flattering?

Modern Day Muscle

The 1994-1996 Chevrolet Impala SS, the 2003-2004 Mercury Marauder, and the 2006-present Charger R/T

Well, they do (or, in the Impala's and Marauder's case - did) have a V8/rear drive platform, and while they certainly have very respectable performance, I think all us motorheads agree that a true muscle car in no way has more than 2 doors, no matter how nice or fast they are.


As we said at the beginning, the definition of "muscle car" is a very subjective one. We've layed out many examples of what is and isn't a "muscle car". The muscle car, in the truest sense, has been non-existent since 1974 (some would say even earlier than that). To some, however, any rear-drive American car with sporty pretensions, such as a 2001 Chevrolet Camaro SS, a 2003 Ford Mustang Cobra - or even a 1987 Buick Grand National, is a muscle car. If that's your definition, that's fine - we certainly won't try to correct you.

Most of us with high-octane gasoline running through their veins will agree, however, that regardless of what "class" it may belong to - if it looks cool, is American made, drives the rear wheels as God intended and has 8 jumping pistons in a really big motor, who cares if it's a muscle car, pony car, or a roadster... we like it!

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