muscle car truth facts

engines_of_changeTrivial bits and pieces I learned about cars, picked up from Engines of Change and some external reading:

1. The Pontiac GTO was one of the first automotive successes of playboy, time-machine purveyor, and possible cocaine-sale-middleman John DeLorean. The early 1960s being the embryonic days of muscle cars, DeLorean’s idea was simple enough: to put a big engine in a small car. Working for GM, though, he ran up against a corporate rule limiting engine size/horsepower: 1 cubic inch of displacement for 10 pounds of car; his demonstration car had a 389 cubic-inch engine in the 3400-pound body of the Pontiac Tempest.

Demonstrating the “iconoclastic” thinking that was his trademark, DeLorean found a loophole: rather than create the GTO as a new model, he would make it an option package on the Tempest. This allowed him to sneak the car past GM’s displacement hall monitors, but also had side effects. Early GTOs, for example, using standard Tempest parts—the brakes proved “alarmingly inadequate” at high speeds. Insurance companies did not realize the GTO had 2.5x the horsepower of the base model Tempest, so early adopters got a discount for choosing a safe compact car.

1970 GTO "Judge"
1970 GTO “Judge

Within two years of its 1964 inception, the GTO was popular enough to be featured in a Beach Boys song—lyrics suggested to them by a Pontiac adman—and its outsize engine was one of the initial salvos in the displacement wars: Dodge rolled out the Hemi engine in 1966 (426 ci), Chevy’s Chevelle SS in 1967 (396 ci), the Plymouth Road Runner in 1969 (440 ci), and the updated GTO in 1970 (455 ci). DeLorean said “it’s a 400 cubic inch world” but I looked it up and the world is, in fact, larger than that.

By 1973 the muscle car craze was slowing and the GTO was abandoned; despite its cultural cachet, fewer GTOs were sold in its 10 years of existence than just two years of mid-60s Mustang sales.

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2. In the mid-1950s, Chrysler was working on a model car called the Norseman. Built in Italy, the car was shipped to the US to be revealed at an auto show. Unfortunately, it was shipped on the Andrea Doria, which sank and sent the $100,000 car to the bottom of the ocean. If you thought Norseman was a bad idea, here are other names considered for the Edsel: Silver Sword, Varsity Stroke, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop. I did not make up a single one of those, and although I have no evidence for this, I have to assume that over-the-counter benzedrine was somehow involved in the idea to name a car “Utopian Turtletop.”

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3. The Corvette debuted in 1953—just like Playboy. While the initial version looked sleek and stylish, that was merely a facade: the initial Corvette had a comically weak six-cylinder engine, 2-gear automatic transmission, and standard parts and suspension. Stomping the gas would take you from 0-60 MPH in eleven seconds, slower than a 1991 Corolla and breathlessly, assuming you held your breath. Also, in what might have been some kind of portent, the car had no exterior door handles. I don’t know why.

The man responsible for turning that modest slowpoke into the enduring American symbol of conspicuous consumption and the existential trauma of middle age was a Russian named Zora Arkus-Duntov.


Duntov was a tinkerer and hot-rodder who was so disappointed by the mechanical specs of the first Vette that he wrote a letter to Chevy, who gave him a job. Seeing a glimpse of the future in that first version of the car and watching the post-war glory days of American capitalism unfold, Duntov wrote a “manifesto” arguing that the “economics of prosperity” would create a market for glamorous, non-utilitarian sports cars, tying this vision to the rise of individualism and the culture of hot-rodders who modified cars for speed and style. He foresaw cars marketed for youth, fun, speed, and looks, not just family transportation and commutes (perhaps he also saw that nascent interstate highways could make driving an act of leisure; see here for the story of American roads).

1953 Corvette
1953 Corvette

By 1957 the Corvette looked even better and drove more like something that could be called a sports car, with a 300 HP engine, manual transmission, and racing suspension. Around this time, automakers began to pull out of sponsored auto racing, owing to concerns about safety. Duntov, a race fanatic and driver, managed to circumvent this by creating a dummy corporation to which he sent experimental Corvettes for race/acid tests, often taking official Chevy “business trips” to watch or drive in non-Chevy-sanctioned races. As the 1960s unfolded, other manufacturers rolled out competing cars—especially the Ford Thunderbird—pushing the car to be ever faster and sleeker. The apex was 1967, when the Corvette’s L88 performance package turned the car into a 500+ HP fire-breathing hellbeast. And yet within a decade, emissions standards, the clean air act, and the gas crisis had taken the starch out of the Vette’s sheets, down to a mewling 165 horsepower. If sports cars and big engines were the defining symbol of American masculinity, the plodding late 70s Corvettes were the emasculation.

1967 Corvette Stingray
1967 Corvette Stingray


4. Ford took an entire market research team to see what Zora Duntov had seen: the coming youth movement. Their effort to leverage this was the 1964 Ford Mustang. Rolled out to much fanfare—Ford bought a half-hour block of TV time on all three major networks—the Mustang met with immediate success, building a million cars in just 18 months. One NYC diner’s ad said “Our hotcakes are selling like Mustangs.”

The Mustang was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca, who went on to work on the reviled Ford Pinto, saved Chrysler by pushing for the minivan, and revitalized GE by developing the rotating microwave tray. Iacocca, as an unrelated side note, was mentored by Robert McNamara, who’d “modernized” Ford’s business practice before becoming an architect of the Vietname war. Supposedly when McNamara started at Ford, they weighed stacks of invoices to figure out how much to pay. That can’t possibly be true.

1967 Shelby GT500 Mustang
1967 Shelby GT500 Mustang

Even for an era of straightforward Freudian appeals to masculinity, Mustang ad campaigns stand out. Consider: “Wolfgang used to give harpsichord recitals for a few close friends, then he bought a Mustang…being a mustanger brought out the wolf in Wolfgang” and “A car to make weak men strong and strong men invincible” …and invincible men fifty feet tall with laser eyes and the ability to fly! Despite their years and years of market research, Ford was surprised to discover that many Mustang buyers were middle-aged, making it perhaps the first midlife-crisis car.

Sales dried up: 159,000 Mustangs were sold in 1970, or less than 1/3 of the total just four years previously. Changing cultural norms might have been one cause, but another was bloat: what started sleek was now bigger, bulkier, slower, and less fun to drive. Iacocca was by this point calling the Mustang a “fat pig” and it wasn’t keeping up with Joneses (that is, the GTOs) anymore. The Mustang stuck around, going through various rebrandings, before re-flourishing following a 2004 redesign that aped the looks of the 1965 model.

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5. The VW Beetle made its mark by using a rear-mounted air-cooled engine producing 25 HP. The finely-tuned marvel of modern transportative technology would rocket you from 0 to 60 MPH in a stomach-churning, watch-checking 37 seconds. Oddly, the 1970s clean-air laws that spelled doom for muscle cars also doomed the Beetle, since air-cooled engines are emissions spewers. The Honda Civic was released in 1972 as a de facto front-engine, liquid-cooled nouveau Beetle replacement. A VW adman, possibly Roger Sterling, once lamented “we have to sell a nazi car in a jewish town.”

Wilt Chamberlain VW ad
Wilt Chamberlain VW ad

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