More than 35 years after the death of the original muscle cars, Detroit is once again poised to produce modern muscle cars by the thousands. This time around, they will come with all of the required safety and emissions equipment in place, not to mention sophisticated suspensions, stickier, longer-lasting radial tires that are much better for cornering and wear, ABS disc brakes, traction control, stability control, electronic fuel injection instead of carburetors, and six-speed manual and automatic transmissions for highway fuel economy. Add to that serious stereo equipment instead of 8-tracks and cassette players, iPod ports, and clean, green V-8 engines that make more real power than the old monster engines. Let's take a look at some.
It's going to be difficult for the newcomers to make a dent in the new muscle car market because, for one thing, the Ford Mustang never went away, and the high-performance Shelby versions are already available, in lots of variants.
The $26,000 Mustang GT comes with a 300-horsepower 4.6-liter V-8. The Shelby GT has the same nasty look of the GT 500, but comes with a slightly less awesome 325-horsepower 4.6-liter engine for about $37,000. The $42,000 GT 500 ($47,000 for the convertible) comes with a supercharged 5.4-liter double-overhead-cam, 32-valve V-8 that makes 500 horsepower, more than any '60s Mustang ever had.
Shelby Automobiles builds a GT 500 KR "King of the Road" version with 540 horsepower and a host of upgrades for $50,000 and up. And if you're really serious, Shelby will be happy to take your new GT 500 and build a Super Snake out of it, with engines of either 600 or 750 horsepower, 20-inch wheels and tires, Baer brakes, suspension and exhaust upgrades and carbon fiber body parts -- a $28,000 package on top of whatever you paid for your GT 500.
At Chrysler, the Plymouth Barracuda won't be back, but they've decided the Dodge Challenger certainly will, likely sporting a 6.1-liter, 425-hp version of the old Hemi engine and a 6-speed manual transmission. Looking a bit more mature and a bit chunkier than the last Challenger of 1974, but very similar in style, the Challenger is scheduled to hit the showrooms next year as a 2009 model.
Oldsmobile is gone for good, and Buick won't be making the trip back to the '60s, but GM is still in the game. The first of their modern muscle cars to appear was the revived Pontiac GTO that was built in Australia and sent to America. It was introduced in 2004, packing a 350-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 engine, in a slick but bland body shell. The exterior was tarted up a bit in 2006, and the engine was upgraded to a 400-horspower 6.0-liter, but it still didn't catch on with the traditionalists or the youth market, so it's on hiatus.
The Chevrolet Camaro, which is scheduled to be revived as a 2009 model in both coupe and convertible versions, is probably the most aggressive-looking of the new muscle machines, and it will most likely come with a 400-hp V-8 engine, a six-speed manual, and all the performance accoutrements. It's expected that Pontiac will follow in 2010 with either a revived GTO or a Firebird, based on the same GM engines and rear-drive chassis as the new Camaro.
There's no question that these muscle cars will be cleaner, safer, more agile and more responsible than the versions of four decades ago. But there are a number of factors that may influence their market success in spite of an aging, wealthy group of potential buyers and 35 years of "pent-up demand." The prices of these cars are going to be significantly higher than their muscle-car ancestors.
And the Big Three face greater challenges today, starting with very high fuel prices, the government push for much better fuel economy, tailpipe emissions that are cleaner still than present-day regulations, and ongoing pressure from the safety lobby and the insurance industry, which have traditionally been dead-set against people having fun with quick, fast, flashy muscle cars.
When the original American muscle cars appeared in the early 1960s with their big, powerful V-8 engines, four-speed manual transmissions, sexy bodies and even sexier advertising, gasoline was selling for about 30 cents a gallon and there was plenty of it.
Every GM division but Cadillac produced a muscle car. In 1964, the General started with the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, carrying a 327 cubic-inch V-8. Then came the legendary Pontiac Tempest GTO, with a much bigger, more powerful 389 cubic inch V-8 and an option for three two-barrel carburetors and 348 horsepower.
On April 17, 1964, the world first saw Ford's Mustang, a small, lightweight sporty car built on the Ford Falcon economy car platform with an optional 260 cubic-inch V-8 engine. Ford sold 417,000 of them in the first year. To keep pace with the competition, the Mustang's engines quickly spiraled through the '60s up to 289, 302, 351, 390 and finally 428 cubic inches, and horsepower grew to 360 on the rare 428 Cobra Jet.
The Buick Special Gran Sport, or GS, followed quickly in 1965, and the Oldsmobile 4-4-2, which souped-up the Cutlass, also broke out in 1965. In the heat of crosstown competition from Ford and Chrysler, engine sizes grew and grew, to 454 cubic inches for the Chevrolet, 455 cubic inches for the Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile. At one stage, Buick advertised more than 500 foot-pounds of torque.
The smaller, lighter Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird coupes came along in 1967 to carry the muscle car load, and although both are currently out of production, revivals are in the works.
At Chrysler, it was no different. The Plymouth Valiant Barracuda was introduced in the spring of 1964, two weeks before the Mustang, but it wasn't a model unto itself until the following year, and it didn't have a 4-barrel carburetor V-8 engine until 1965. Before the escalation had subsided, Barracuda engines had grown to 440 cubic inches and as much as 425 hp. At Dodge, the similar Challenger carried the same 425-hp 426 Hemi and 375-hp 440 wedge engines.
Even tiny, economy-oriented American Motors Corporation got into the act, with the AMC Rambler SC/Rambler, the Javelin, and the tiny AMX, all sporting bold designs and V-8 engines up to 401 cubic inches.
On the stock-car racing circuit, NASCAR at the time maintained an international engine size limit of 7.0 liters or 427 cubic inches, so Ford, Chevy, Plymouth and Dodge duked it out on the ovals with their 426s and 427s and a single four-barrel carburetor. But there were no such limits in drag racing or on the streets. Hence the use of the huge Chrysler 440, GM 454 and 455, and Ford 428, 429 and 460 cubic-inch engines in some of the later muscle machines.
None of this power and speed escalation escaped the notice of the car insurance companies, the safety lobby, or the environmental movement. A combination of very high insurance rates, the increasingly stringent mandates of the Federal Highway Safety Act of 1966 and the Clean Air Act of 1970 put so much pressure on Detroit's Big Three that the American muscle car was all but gone by 1972. The first Arab oil embargo in 1973, and the federal requirement for unleaded fuel and catalytic converters on all cars in that same year, finished them off.
Detroit had no choice but to abandon the profligate, gas-guzzling muscle cars and concentrate its efforts on lighter, smaller, safer, cleaner and more economical cars for the remainder of the '70s and '80s, pushed along by ever more powerful lobbies and the second Arab oil embargo of 1979.
Will history repeat itself? Will the revival succeed? Time, and the market, will tell.