The first American muscle car appeared in 1955 in the form of the Chrysler 300. It was clearly identifiable with its much bigger grille than the other Chryslers, and it was powered by a 354 cubic-inch Hemi engine with two four-barrel carburetors on top, producing 300 horsepower. This was far and away the highest horsepower number advertised that year.
That was the beginning of a 15-year escalation of horsepower, torque and performance and the official backing of racing that eventually involved every manufacturer in Detroit. Multiple carburetion, lightweight bodies, and bigger and bigger engines, up to 460 cubic inches and 500 horsepower, were the order of the day.
By 1971, the combined forces of the National Highway Safety Act of 1966 and the Clean Air Act or 1970 had forced the Detroit manufacturers away from the muscle car business that had spawned such icons as the Shelby Mustang, the Chevy Camaro 427 and the Dodge and Plymouth Hemi-powered muscle cars. Those muscle cars, and the rest, quickly became collectors' items.
Now original versions of those 400-plus horsepower muscle cars bring hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, putting them out of reach of the guy or gal who wants something cool and retro to drive. But, as viewers of cable shows like Overhaulin, Chop Cut Rebuild, American Muscle Car know, you can make old muscle cars from the 1960's perform better than new with some expert help.
Take, for instance, Unique Performance of Farmers Branch, Texas. This company has built all kinds of cars over the years and now specializes in recreating the Shelby Mustangs that were so popular in the late 1960's. They're doing it with the blessing and cooperation of Carroll Shelby, the man who created them in the first place.
The Unique Performance Ford Mustang Shelby GT500E is a modernized, high-performance version of the 1967-68 Ford Mustang. Unique Performance buys used Mustangs and installs a modern version of the Shelby engine, a 325-horsepower, 302 cubic-inch V-8 with a new Tremec 5-speed manual instead of the old 4-speed.
That's just the beginning. Everything else in the car is changed over to modern equipment, including the brakes, suspension, steering, rear axle assembly, interior, seats, gauges and the entertainment system. Because these muscle cars are "continuations" of a Shelby Mustang first built 40 years ago and because Carroll Shelby is a partner in the enterprise, these cars all carry Shelby serial numbers and are considered "real" Shelby's by the Shelby American Automobile Club. Prices start at $119,000, with a Performance version starting at $139,000.
If you want one of the earlier Shelby Mustangs, Unique Performance will be happy to build you a Ford Mustang Shelby GT350SR, a continuation coupe based on the first Shelby Mustangs ever built for the same starting price of $119,000.
Unique Performance also has a creative alliance with Southern California car designer and customizer Chip Foose, and they have already built some "brand new" 1969 Ford Mustangs, as well as a batch of current Ford Mustangs called the Foose Stallion.
Another company with one foot planted in the 1960's and another in the 21st Century is Baldwin-Motion. Starting in 1967, drag racer and car builder Joel Rosen of Motion Performance in Baldwin, Long Island, New York, built high-performance Chevy Camaro, Nova, Chevelle and Corvette cars with engine, chassis and appearance modifications. He quickly built a following among drag racers and street machine fans.
Rosen and his partners resurrected the company a few years ago and moved it from Long Island to Bradenton, Florida. Now they specialize in rescuing 1969 Chevy Camaro body shells. They outfit them with huge, powerful engines built by the legendary Lingenfelter Performance Engineering company in Indiana. They provide new transmissions, upgraded chassis and brakes and upgraded interiors and upholstery. They are all painted in original-style Chevy Camaro single and two-tone paint jobs to preserve the look of the 1969 cars.
These 'brand new' old SS-427 Chevy Camaros start at $169,000 for versions with a 450-horsepower, 427 cubic-inch engine using a carburetor, and can go much higher for Phase III versions with 600 horsepower, 540 cubic-inch engines and fuel injection systems.
Expensive muscle cars, yes, but that's not as high a price as you would have to pay at auction for an original 1969 Chevy Camaro ZL-1 427 with an aluminum front end, says partner Marty Schorr.
Although Baldwin-Motion started out building only 1969 Chevy Camaro coupes, they recently branched out into convertible models as well. The company offers an extensive list of options on each model. On the Phase III version, you can opt for giant engines of 562, 572, 632 or even 732 cubic inches, or you can add twin turbochargers, which will get your 1969 Chevy Camaro up to more than 1000 horsepower. This is more than twice what was offered in 1969, along with the chassis, steering, suspension and brakes to go with all that power.
Still another example of reborn muscle cars from the 1960's and the most radical of them all is a recreation of the 1968 Dodge Dart. It's powered by a 426 cubic-inch, 500-horspower Hemi engine with two four-barrel carburetors. Chrysler Corporation built only 50 of them, along with 50 Plymouth Barracuda Hemis, to qualify for the National Hot Rod Association's Super Stock class. Many of the original 100 cars are still being raced today.
These muscle cars were never street legal. They were built for drag racing only with monster hood scoops, no mufflers, lightweight body panels, cheap, lightweight interiors with small bucket seats, no radio and no heater or air conditioning. Original versions of these muscle cars have been auctioned for prices as high as $650,000. If you want one that looks just like the original that's been updated with all the modern amenities, one phone call can do it.
Back in the day, Chicago dealer Norman "Mr. Norm" Kraus specialized in modifying all the factory Dodge muscle cars, Challengers, Darts and Chargers with modified engines, chassis and paint jobs. He sold them through his dealership, Grand Spaulding Dodge, as special Grand Spaulding Sport or "GSS" models.
Norm Kraus sold his dealership in 1977 and retired. Then last year he teamed up with the guys at Blue Moon Motorsports in Winter Spring, Florida to build brand new 1968 Dodge Dart GSS Hemi two-door hardtop coupes from donor cars found around the country.
Like Unique Performance and Baldwin-Motion, the experts at Blue Moon take the donor muscle car completely apart, remove all the paint and start over. They have tried hard to keep the original look and nasty flavor of the 426 Hemi Dart, meanwhile equipping it with an even larger 610-horspower, 472 cubic-inch Hemi engine, new steering, suspension, brakes, larger tires and wheels and reproduction interior parts.
Air conditioning, a killer sound system and CD player are offered as options on top of the base price of $149,900. If ordered, all of the climate and entertainment components are hidden, so the interior still looks like the 1968 race-only car. Blue Moon offers a choice of two manual and two automatic transmissions. Blue Moon also offers two additional engine choices, a 710-horsepower 528 cubic-inch Hemi or an 810-horsepower, 572 cubic-inch Hemi.
The good news is that these are only three of the dozens of American specialist car companies that can build you the American muscle car of your dreams. Just bring money, and lots of it!