The Complete Book of American Muscle Supercars
All cars are certainly not created equal: including Muscle Cars.
In fact, the Muscle Cars we celebrate today — editions like SS, GT, GTO, and 442 — weren't even the cars that created the Muscle Car legend. The legend was built upon the frames of sometimes famous and sometimes forgotten, extremely limited run beasts produced by small shops and rogue factions within the automakers themselves.
The truth is that the average V8-powered Muscle Car wasn't much to write home about. Even cars packing 383s, 390s, and 396s were just peppy by comparison to their more ubiquitous brethren, not capable of the halcyon levels of performance attributed to the Muscle Car. No, the level of performance attributed to the Muscle Car through popular culture was created by specific models who's image bled down to the rest of the model line. That image was created by careful marketing and PR.
The real heroes behind the Muscle Car Era wore names like Royal Bobcat, Shelby, Baldwin-Motion, Yenko, Nickey, and COPO. These names produced the nastiest performance cars the world has ever known.
The Complete Book of American Muscle Supercars is the story of those infamous cars and their reach that has stretched across decades to produce modern cars even more capable than they were. Written by author Tom Glatch and beautifully illustrated throughout, this book is both packed with information and a wonderful addition to any enthusiast's library. Read on for a chapter by chapter review.
Chapter 1: Royal Pontiac: Superstar Pioneer
The story goes that the Pontiac GTO created the Muscle Car Era. Although that is mighty debatable, it was the first car to wear the name. That said, the car that spawned the rowdiest time in performance history wasn't the GTO you could go down and buy from a dealership. It was a GTO specially — and secretly — modified with a hopped-up 421 in place of the factory 389. That car was put together by a Royal Oak, Michigan dealership, Royal Pontiac, especially for an article in Car and Driver. Chapter 1 covers that story and more, which is at ground zero of the Muscle Car Era.
Chapter 2: Yenko Chevrolet: Pure Genius
In the Golden Age of the Muscle Car, there aren't many bigger names than Yenko. Don Yenko was the person responsible for bringing about two of the most impressive beasts to come from the Muscle Car Era: the Yenko Super Cars and the COPOs. Since Chevrolet had a ban on putting anything big and nasty in its less-than-full-sized cars — or the Corvette — Yenko did it himself, then got Vince Piggins to help him out through the COPO program. It would be Yenko and the COPO cars that actually had the performance that was attributed to Chevrolets of the '60s — not the SS's. This chapter gets into the fascinating details behind Chevrolet's most fearsome rides, along with many other interesting pieces of history.
Chapter 3: Mr. Norm's Grand Spaulding Dodge: The High-Performance King
As important a role as Don Yenko played in Chevrolet performance, Norm Krauss, aka Mr. Norm, played an equally as important role in Dodge's. The first Hemis in production cars? Mr. Norm. Stuffing big blocks into Darts? Mr. Norm. 383 just not enough for you? Fine, Mr. Norm planted a 440 in it's place. Just like with Yenko, these performance upgrades started with Grand Spaulding Dodge and ended up becoming options down the assembly line. These yarns and more await you in Chapter 3.
Chapter 4: Baldwin-Motion: New York Minute Muscle
There were few cars built that could catch a Motion. Although not as big a name in the '60s as Yenko, Baldwin-Motion produced the nastiest dealer-built cars of the era. Often constructed around a modified L-72 or L-88 427, you could get a kill-you-fast SS-427, or an oh my god I haven't shit my pants enough Phase III. All street cars. All modified, and all capable of absolutely dominating on a drag strip. In fact, five of the Chevrolet models were available with Motion-magic to propel them: the Corvette, Nova, Camaro, Chevelle, and Biscayne. Motion Performance and the Baldwin-Motion partnership is one of the most interesting stories to come from the Muscle Car Era. If Royal Pontiac started it, it was Motion's absurd performance cars that killed it. Check out Chapter 4 for the details, and if that isn't enough to feed your fancy, check out Motion Performance by Martyn L. Schorr — another Motorbooks title, I've read, reviewed it, and it's excellent.
Chapter 5: Nickey Chevrolet: Quick (with a Backward "K")
Before Yenko, there was Nickey. Nickey Chevrolet started the craze of dumping 427s into Camaros. Having made a splash, the Camaro offered the ideal platform for performance. Inexpensive and smaller than the mid-sized Muscle Cars like the Chevelles, it was able to accept a huge engine easily. It was the obvious choice and with Chevrolet performance legends Dick Harrell and Bill Thomas, the Nickey Camaro was born. Chapter 5 uncovers the history behind Nickey and the 427 Camaro.
Chapter 6: Shelby American: The Legend, the Legacy
Who doesn't know this story? Shelby, the biggest heavyweight of the 60s performance giants, created the Cobra, the GT-350 and GT-500 Mustangs, and the nastiest production car ever to grace pavement: the 427 S/C Cobra. Before 427 Camaros and Hemi-powered Chryslers, there was a tiny car with a 260-cubic inch V8 that ate everything alive. Because, when you weigh 2300 pounds, a hopped-up, dual quad small block can propel you like a rocket ship capable of munching big blocks. When that isn't enough, you stuff a 289 in it, and when that isn't enough, you put a 485-horse 427 between its aluminum fenders. Then, nothing catches you. Or you ram into a telephone pole because the damn thing would do burnouts at 100 miles per hour in fourth gear. But, really, as amazing as the Cobra was, it was the Mustang that fed the Shelby legend, and the original '65 GT-350 was practically unbeatable in SCCA road racing. Of course, Shelby went on to consult on the Dodge Viper and a 662-horsepower GT-500 Mustang — amongst many other things — before his passing. The Shelby legend is huge. So huge that there's no way to cover it in a chapter, but Tom Glatch gives it a go in Chapter 6. For more on the legend of the Cobra, I highly recommend another Motorbooks title, Shelby Cobra Fifty Years and for the Shelby Mustangs, check out another excellent title, Shelby Mustang Fifty Years, both by Colin Comer.
Chapter 7: Hurst Performance: Detroit's Image Maker
A sign of the times: when a shifter was so culturally popular, it had the ability to make a car a success. Living in today's world, it's almost hard to imagine that cars were once so popular, they created mainstream culture. Sure, today, there are still people who like cars, and we use them more now than ever, but there was a time when the entire country went gaga over the Mustang, and having a Hurst shifter was really a status symbol. When your transmission lever is so popular, it only makes sense that car companies start asking you to build cars for them. Enter the high-performance Hurst cars, beginning with the legendary '68 Hurst Olds. When GM wouldn't allow Oldsmobile to put anything larger than a 400 in their mid-sized Chevelle-fighter, they turned to Hurst who stuffed a 455 and a Hurst shifter in it and created the Hurst Olds 442. The rest, of course, isn't just history, but legend. For the rest of the legend, check out Chapter 7.
Chapter 8: Saleen Automotive: The Mustang Reborn
Fast forward. Way forward. Twenty years forward. The Muscle Car Era has come and gone, and the last of the rutting breed, the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, has lost all of its teeth. The Mustang, well, it was just a shell of its former self. No longer the glorious cultural icon, it couldn't hold a candle to its raucous '60s predecessors. What it needed was a boost to its image, like Shelby gave it in '65 with the GT-350. Ford had already unveiled its third generation Mustang with sadly tepid performance, even trying to borrow on the near-god-like name of the Cobra. That, of course, didn't work. Someone by the name of Steve Saleen, however, recognized the car's good bones and went about rectifying that problem, creating the Saleen Mustang in the process. Not long after the first Saleens, Ford gave him a hand, by providing an even better beast to build from, the now-legendary 5.0. From there, the tale of the Saleen and his Mustangs grew, and as they grew, a modern Muscle Car legend was born. Chapter 8 tells that tale.
Chapter 9: Callaway Cars: Automotive Artistry
I can still remember as a teenager, the name Callaway Corvette, spoken to me in awed, hushed tones. The limited edition Callaway 'Vettes did for the Corvette what Shelby and Saleen did for the Mustang. By stuffing twin turbos on the car's 350 cubic inch engine, it introduced the world to what turbos could do to large displacement engines: make a lot of power. And they did it as regular Corvette options. There weren't many made, but those that were, were really fast. The story of those 'Vettes, and the Callaway Cars that followed, is told in Chapter 9.
Chapter 10: PAS, Inc: Performance DNA
Wait, who? I know, I said that too. You know, they were guys that built the '89 Turbo Trans Am. The what? Yeah, I know, it didn't ring a bell for me either. But I bet you remember the GMC Syclone and Typhoon. Although sold as factory cars, they weren't wholly built within the walls of GM. Which makes sense, since they seemed to come out of nowhere and weren't like anything built by GM before. Chapter 10 shares the story of how the two GMC bad asses — and that other Pontiac they made — came to be.
Chapter 11: Street-Legal Performance: Power Play
The last of the factory hot rodders, but certainly not the least. Street-Legal Performance, better known as SLP, not only made hot rod parts for mid-90s GM cars, but they made a little car you may or may not recognize: the Pontiac Firebird Firehawk, which later bread the return of a long dead name of the past, the Camaro SS. That's right, the fourth gen Camaro SS wasn't even built by Chevrolet — it was built for them. That's okay, the important part is that it was built and Chapter 11 explains how all that came about.
Chapter 12: SVO/SVT: Unconventional Wisdom
If you don't know Ford SVT, well, that's weird. They are responsible for some of the hottest performance cars ever made. Names like Mustang Cobra, Lightning, GT-500, GT-350, and Ford GT have all come from the SVT department in Ford. In fact, if it was hot and had a Ford name on it from the mid-'80s on, it was probably an SVO/SVT product. Everything from the '84 SVO turbo-4 to the current sublime GT-350R have come out of SVT. Even that 662-horse monster GT-500 that was the last car Shelby worked with. Chapter 12 covers the contribution that Ford SVT has made to the ongoing Muscle Car Wars.
Chapter 13: Chevrolet: Conquering the Green Hell
For a long time Chevrolet was sucking hind tit to Ford in the Muscle Car Wars. The Mustang was a beast. Then, long about the early '90s, they pulled their heads out of their collective keisters and started building performance cars again, even going so far as to develop Le Mans winning Corvettes — a first. From then on Chevrolet has been developing dominant performance cars. Today they are churning out some of the fastest cars ever made to go, stop, and rip corners, cars like the Camaro, Corvette, and SS. Chapter 13 delves into the details of these renaissance Chevys and their track dominating performances.
Chapter 14: SRT: Right-Brain Thinking
As we all know, Chrysler spent years in financial trouble. And, it's difficult to develop halo performance cars when your coffers are bare. Consequently, the Pentastar brands had nothing to show the world for a long, long time. At least until the Viper hit the seen in the early '90s. Another project involving Shelby, the Viper single handedly revitalized Dodge's performance image and within 10 years, Chrysler began turning out fast cars across their product line — including the return of the Hemi. Not only did the Hemi return, but in 2015 SRT dropped a bomb on the world — the first production 700 horsepower Muscle Car. That engine took the title of the most powerful Muscle Car ever from the 2013-2014 Shelby GT-500 Mustang. With the resurgence of Dodge and Chrysler the Muscle Car Wars are back in full swing with the big three putting American performance cars back into the echelon of the world's best. If Chrysler performance makes your heart go pitter patter, you don't want to miss Chapter 14, which covers Mopar performance from 1992 onward.
The back cover of the book says it all: "all cars are not created equal."
The Muscle Car legend never came from the cars rolling off the assembly lines in cookie cutter fashion. It came from the special cars built in small runs with asinine performance.
Always was and likely always will be.
The average Joe or Josephine has never wanted to live with an L-88, a Hemi, or a blown twin cam V8 pumping out astronomical, tire-melting power. That doesn't mean they haven't wanted a car that looks like those cars or even ones with a little something extra — just not that much extra. However, that much extra — that thing that makes the idea, the image of the American Muscle Car legendary — is what every Muscle Car is all about.
Even the ones the rest of us drive.
Although not without a few production photo errors, I really enjoyed this book and I do highly recommend the Complete Book of American Muscle Supercars. It's well written, insightful, and provides an excellent look at the most significant parts of Muscle Car history, while providing context that many books focused on specific parts of that history, leave out.
• • •