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Muscle cars are nothing without context. The sixties and early seventies were a time of revolution in America. Society and its luminaries reflected that. It was the age of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee...JFK and MLK. Fashions and societal norms also followed suit. With every part of the culture swinging however it chose, radical modes of transportation would've (and should've) been expected.
The humble beginnings of the muscle car recipe was straightforward. Simply, cram large (and high-output) engines between the fenders of as many models of sleek tin as possible. The more disproportionate the power-to-weight ratio; the better. Eventually, they even got all dolled up to match their lead-fueled machismo. The very crackle and pop of an exhaust note would quake down streets and rattle window frames. This, much like many realities of the era, was blanketed in an aura of rebellion. It was an explosive cocktail or nationality, pride, straight-line performance and irreverence. They were rolling manifestations of the boldest statements from the corporate giants of the time. It was a battle cry heard from street to strip...stoplight to stoplight.
As groundbreaking as the muscle car's impact was, it wasn't due to the prowess of the vehicles, but rather the pervasiveness of their reputations. Most cars were basic, straight rear axle, leaf-sprung, stamped and spot-welded mediocrity. The best of the bunch would be deemed unacceptable...compared to the worst built cars of the nineties. Their brutality would come at the cost of efficiency and virtually every measurable vehicle parameter critical to a functional vehicle. Yet, the legend of immortal Neanderthal persevered.
The parallels between the muscle car era and the SUV craze are impossible to ignore. Muscle cars were over-indulgent, primitive, dangerous-to-operate icons of masculinity that are sold to inadequately experienced drivers. While SUVs are over-indulgent, primitive, dangerous-to-operate icons of masculinity that are sold to inadequately experienced drivers. Of course, the pitches are similar as well...essentially all justified on an ideology that's based solely on hypothetical situations rarely encountered in legal, daily motoring.
With history as testament, both vehicle types would seemingly have their virtues. Muscle cars represent the freedom to purchase virtually any vehicle one chose. They also offered unprecedented performance to the masses at an affordable cost, right? Well, there's no clear evidence for either of these conclusions.
Yes, from the introduction of the 1966 Pontiac GTO to the fuel crisis of 1973 it was possible to purchase many high-performance cars right off the showroom floor. This was easier than the "built at home" method of hotrodding that existed post-World War II. However, it took twenty-three years (after 1973) for engine outputs to supersede the GTO's power (note: the GTO's gross horsepower was 325, but is argued to be underrated) with the 1996 Camaro SS's net 330HP. Debate aside, there's no denying the massive performance vacuum throughout the following decades.
Some will even argue that emissions killed the original muscle cars. However, that isn't the whole truth since insurance companies were raising rates making sales success illusive. Not to mention, the government-imposed safety standards which were adding weight to the already portly heavy-hitters. Of course, the cars could've been killed by the switch to unleaded fuels, but likely not before the lead eventually eradicated potential buyers. The bottom line is: that everything is born and everything dies. Frankly, the muscle car's time was up. So, seven years of freedom compared to over twenty of...performance prison. Was it worth it?
This one is subjective and highly depends on the value one associates with life and limb. Unfortunately, driver training wasn't on the option list for any muscle car available. This meant that unskilled motorists would operate high-powered, ill-equipped vehicles amongst a sea of lesser-powered, equally ill-equipped (pre-crash testing) iron. What could possibly go wrong? Again, muscle cars are nothing without context...Unfortunately, in this instance, the context isn't in the muscle car's favor. So, while it was possible to purchase a relatively ludicrous, high-performance machine for less than $3,000 USD...there were a number of items that weren't included in that sales price. These included such niceties as (obviously) anti-lock brakes (sometimes not even power brakes/front discs), traction or stability control or airbags. Additionally, some buyers would choose to forgo power steering to save weight and/or parasitic engine drag. As if matters couldn't get worse, the cars were shod with bias-ply tires. In summary, a low price is possible for a car that can accelerate quickly yet is inept at handling and braking. Paradoxically, this doesn't appear to be such a good value.
Now, the world has a bold, new generation of muscle car. This time, the price tag is heftier, but more inclusive. The power is fiercer, but more refined. The aesthetics are vaguely familiar, but fail to flatter the originals. These cars aren't their predecessors...they aren't even derivatives. What they represent is a Trick-or-Treat era of evocative amusement. A G-rated tribute band created within the midst of a society complacent with manufactured rebellion. Kind of "the one that got away", but came back as a caricatured fantasy. The nuance, flaws and danger are all gone. Every sharp edge is rounded and every rage...tamed. It's what happens when hotrodding becomes a lifestyle brand...So, what's there to learn?
The truth is, that there isn't much to learn from repeating the past. It's worth taking note that it's been twenty years since 1997 and this brand of fun isn't going to last forever. Every single enthusiast who craves the thrill of a performance car better prepare for a long ice-age. At this point, there's countless variables and miles of writing on the wall that will soon spell doom for this era of performance machines. In order to prevent the resurrection of the past, it'd be wise to evaluate and embrace new automotive ambitions...and do it now.
The only reason the first batch of muscle cars was possible was due to the achievements of our ancestors that were focused on creating a legacy for the following generations. They created the Hoover Dam, the Interstate Highway System...effective, country-wide distribution of energy (electricity, oil, fuel). After that, they reaped the benefits of their time and investment. Today, it may mean creating better, cleaner, sustainable electric infrastructure and public transportation. It's easy to see if there's an abundance of energy and public transportation; the enthusiasts' way of life won't be as easily threatened.
In addition, the cars themselves can be improved. At the core of every great muscle car there's the almighty principle of power-to-weight. Honda's 660cc S Dream Streamliner recently set a Bonneville land speed record of 261mph. Wouldn't it be possible, with contemporary materials, to rival and exceed the performance of any and EVERY factory muscle car ever created...with a fraction of the dead weight? These are goals worth achieving to avert a fate that's looming. The era of the muscle car was memorable and treasured because the people of the day tried to push their boundaries, in earnest, towards a future unknown. That's why, in spite of all the flaws, people still love the muscle car.
*Please note: The 1970 Chevrolet Camaro pictured was owned (for 15 years) and restored from the ground-up by the author.