The Real Origin of the American Muscle Car
The Muscle Car – where did it come from?
The trite answer is the 1964 Pontiac GTO, but is that really its origin?
I don't think so. In fact, I know it isn't.
In popular culture, the term Muscle Car is often described as being first created for and applied to the '64 GTO, however, I haven't actually found anything that backs up that idea. In fact, it appears the term wasn't even used in popular culture until 1965 – to refer to the GTO and cars like it. Not only have I not found any hard evidence of the GTO being the first car called a Muscle Car, it most definitely wasn't the first of its kind.
As I understand it from my varied research over the last couple of decades or so, originally, the most homogenous definition for the term "Muscle Car" was a mid-sized, two-door car with a V8, rear-wheel drive, and a 10:1 or better power-to-weight ratio – of which the GTO was a perfect fit. It has since been used to describe American V8 cars with rear-wheel drive in general and sometimes, even American performance cars that fit the spirit of the Muscle Car – if not the technical definition – such as the Buick Grand National and GMC Syclone and Typhoon. In fact, today, the word Muscle Car is used to describe Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers – which, during the time of the original Muscle Car Era, weren't considered Muscle Cars at all, but Pony Cars.
In more recent years, I've even found cars like the Corvette and Shelby Cobra referred to as Muscle Cars, both of which were considered sports cars at the time they were created.
With all of that in mind, I've found a more open perspective allows for further research into the greater history of American performance which takes us back quite a bit further than the GTO – and I think shows the true origin of the Muscle Car.
During its development, the GTO was influenced by the full-sized 1962 Pontiac Catalina 421 Super Duty – a barely street legal drag racer built to function with the performance and many characteristics of a "Muscle Car." In fact, the engine that was nestled between the front shocks of the Super Duty was nearly identical to the one sitting in the GTO – but not a GTO you could go buy off the showroom floor. Those GTOs were powered by four-barrel – or the much more famous – optional tri-power, 389 V8s. The specific car that was featured in the Car and Driver article that introduced the GTO and made the old goat infamous, was a ringer powered by the Super Duty's 421 – an engine some estimated put out upwards of 465 horsepower and 505 pound-feet of torque. Not the plebian 325 or 348 gross horsepower attributed to the engine that powered showroom stockers. That ringer engine allowed the GTO to spark off the '60s Muscle Car Era we know and love, by producing very un-production GTO-like 0-60 numbers in the four-second range and quarter mile times in the high 12s and low 13s.
Although the Super Duty influenced the GTO, it was itself directly influenced by Pontiac's successful stock car racing during the 1950s.
The 1962 Super Duty wasn't even the only car of its type in its heyday, it was a contemporary of and intended to go head-to-head with the full-sized 409 Chevrolet Impala, the mid-sized 413 Dodges and Plymouths, and the full-sized 406 Ford Galaxy.
All built to do the same thing – in fact, the Dodge Darts and Plymouth Furies of that generation fit the original criteria of "Muscle Cars" stated above, ideally, with or without the name.
These cars, of course, weren't the first of the breed, either. They were all influenced by '50s bad boys like fuelie Chevrolet Small Blocks, Pontiac wide-tracks, Ford FEs, Hemi Chryslers, Dodge and Plymouth wedges, and the car that prompted them all, the '49 Olds Rocket 88.
Many people think that it was the Olds that should or could hold the title of the first Muscle Car, and even though it may be the first car purposefully designed, built, and marketed to go after the hot performance car culture of its time, it wasn't anymore the first of its type then the cars it spawned.
The Oldsmobile 88 was a response to the original American performance icon, the Flat Head Ford V8.
By the time the Oldsmobile hit the scenes, the Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns had been around for nearly two decades, powered by the ubiquitous Flat Head hot rod staple that propelled the early aftermarket performance industry and the grassroots racing it fed.
The origins of the Ford Flat Head, of course, harken back to what could easily be called the first American Muscle Car, the 1932 Ford Model 18, from which comes one of the most well-known performance automobiles in history, colloquially referred to as the "Deuce Coupe."
However, do you know what the inspiration for the Deuce Coupe was?
The 1915 Cadillac Type 51 Landaulet – at least in part.
Give them a serious comparison. You can easily see the resemblance – both in looks and more importantly, mechanics.
The 314 L-Head (the official name for the flat head design) Cadillac V8 produced 70 horses in 1915, and it was the first, mass-produced American V8 – which is what inspired the original 1932 65-horsepower 221 Flat Head Ford V8.
Back when the Model T was being spit out in then-astronomical numbers and the average person was puttering around in a horseless carriage that packed a 20-horsepower, 177-cubic inch 4-banger, there was an American car prowling the roads with a V8 spitting out more than three times that amount.
That – in my opinion – is the real origin of the American Muscle Car.