America’s Love Affair with the Muscle Car
Prior to and shortly after World War II, automobiles were designed for basic transportation. They were boxy in body and had small engines and lacked both style and power. However, that changed with the introduction of the 1955 Bel Air (Mueller 102). The square bodies of the 1940s and early 1950s were suddenly replaced by sleek chrome laden, head turning cars that could not be as easily ignored as the cars they replaced. “By 1956 the Bel Air had the formally optional Corvette V8 225 hp 265 ci (cubic inch) engine standard equipment.” By doing this, GM found an inexpensive way to open up the “need for speed” generation’s pocketbooks with a base price of only $2611 (Mueller 161).
For the next decade, the “Big 3s”, (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) muscle cars dominated the youth market. The ultimate winner of the power race was the Pontiac GTO lovingly referred to as the “goat” when its engine was bumped up from 389 ci to 400 ci in 1967 (Gunnel 15).
One of the factors in the decline of muscle cars was the Vietnam War. With more than 500,000 young men sent off to war, the market place could not sustain the decline in sales. Another factor was the emerging gasoline crisis, which reached its peak in the 1970s.
The Need for Speed-Then and Now
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the American fascination with speed as a display of freedom as the muscle car. The introduction of the first production line street racing capable car can be dated to 1955 when Chevrolet offered its Bel Air with optional four barrel carburetor and duel exhaust (Mueller 109) that could go from 0-60 in 9.7 seconds (Mueller 120). But the Bel Air was just the beginning. Over the next 12 years the engines were boosted in both size and horsepower.
The Korean and Vietnam Wars both influenced the need for fast cars. Unlike past wars, both these wars gave us returning veterans that craved the recapture of their former lives, and one of the places they got is was in their cars. It is no accident that the rage for speedy cars followed shortly after the end of the Korean War, or that its demise was during the time when America was embroiled in Vietnam. The wars spanned the same two generations that the muscle car spanned-the father in the 50s and 60s and the sons in the 60s and 70s. Perhaps “the need for speed” is best shown by the extreme increase in street racing. With the production of muscle cars Detroit eliminated the need for both special racing cars and souping up engines to reach the desired speeds for street racing. The new levels of speed ignited a resurgence of the race for horsepower (Gunnell, p 11).
The Down Side of High Performance Cars
This need to go faster and faster had its drawbacks. Not only were muscle cars “gas guzzlers, but the number of deaths from street racing rose dramatically.
Drag racing or street racing usually took place on a straight traffic light road at night. Owners of muscle cars and their friends would line up at the start line and the finish line. Lost in the darkness they watched as two competing cars ran the quarter mile. At the start line someone, usually female, waved a piece of cloth to start the race. Traveling at speeds of more than one hundred mile per hour it was not uncommon for drivers to loose control of their vehicles. A hit song of the day “Johnny Angel” was about such an accident. Since the location of the races was changed frequently, the police had a hard time keeping control of the situation as seen in the movie “American Graffiti.”
Another drawback of the muscle car was it appetite for gas. According to Gary Grim, a muscle car enthusiast, “Even at gas prices of thirty to forty cents a gallon, these cars ate up money.” Unlike today’s smaller, lighter cars which get twenty-five to thirty miles per hour muscle cars averaged ten to fifteen mile per hour on the highway as a result of to their heavy frames and engines.
The Muscle Car Era Fades Away
In addition to the above-mentioned drawbacks, other factors were introduced in the 1970s that rang the death knoll for the muscle car. Inflation, Japanese imports and the energy crisis all had a role to play in the decline of the muscle car (Duffy, interview). Because of the rise in production costs, the major auto manufacturers could no longer offer these cars at low prices. This combined with the introduction of the Japanese economy cars with high mileage and low cost had a great impact on the buying public. The nationalization of middle-eastern, American owned oil production was certainly a factor. A third factor was the energy crisis. With the formation of OPEC, the group instead of individual countries controlled gas prices. America could no longer negotiate lower prices on a country-by-country basis. These last two factors combined with the amount of gas the large American cars consumed culminated in long lines at the gas pumps in the mid-70s.
The Return of the Muscle Car
As we see the Baby Boomers and veterans of the 50s, 60s, and 70s freed from the ups and downs of the US economy, retiring and free of parental responsibilities we also see an upswing in the muscle car industry. Now well established financially with the freedom to indulge themselves by buying the car that was so much a part of their early adult life. Not only is it evident some of the newer model cars, (Cadillac’s new STS V has the sprinting capability of 0-60 in 5.3 seconds and a price tag that tops $75,000.) (V is for Visceral), but in the increasing purchases of the classic cars of the era. Classic car rallies can account for many of the purchases, but these cars are becoming more visible on the road as well. While the muscle car may never again “hold down the fort” for American car manufacturers, they have and continue to be an example of automobiles at their best.
The American made muscle car is a part of the American psyche that owes its very existence to the need for speed. Everything about it screamed American power. From engines to the size and styling of its body, the muscle car was every young man’s dream come true. At a time when American were looking for a change, the muscle car offered it to them in spades. Even the drawbacks of its low gas mileage, its high gas consumption, and its use as a street racer, cannot outweigh its appeal. It was sleek, fast and fed America’s appetite for both power and speed. America’s current appetite for big cars is evident in the number of SUVs and personal trucks on the roads. Like their predecessors these gas guzzling motor vehicles will probably pass into history, not because Americans don’t love them, but because with gas prices in the $2.50 – $3.00 range, they are simply too costly to drive. Taking that into consideration, I do not think they will match the muscle car for loyalty. After all, even today, fifty years after their introduction, and more than twenty years after they faded from glory, the muscle car is still the symbol of freedom for two generations.