muscle car truth facts

engines_of_changeTrivial bits and pieces about cars, picked up from Engines of Change by Paul Ingrassia:

• 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 (1 cubic inch of displacement for 10 pounds of car) and horsepower. His early GTO demos had put a 389 ci engine into the 3400-pound body of the Pontiac Tempest, meaning the car wouldn’t meet GM specs.

Demonstrating the “iconoclastic” thinking that was his trademark, DeLorean found a loophole: rather than creating the GTO as a new model, he would sell it as an option package on the Tempest. Besides allowing him to sneak the car past GM’s displacement monitors, this approach had many ancillary effects. For example, early GTOs used standard Tempest parts, including the brakes, which proved “alarmingly inadequate” at high speeds. Insurance companies failed to realize that the GTO had 2.5x the horsepower of the Tempest, so early adopters were getting an insurance 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 the 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 really I think the world is larger than that.

By 1973 the muscle car craze was slowing and the GTO was abandoned, except for a brief reappearance in the mid-2000s. Despite its cultural cachet, fewer GTOs were sold in its 10 years of existence than just two years of mid-60s Mustang sales.


• 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.


• The Corvette debuted in 1953—just like Playboy. While the initial version looked sleek and stylish, that was merely a facade, behind which was nothing sporty at all: 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. Breathlessly, if you held your breath. Also, that’s slower than a 1991 Corolla. 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 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 the plodding first Vette, Duntov wrote a “manifesto” in which—watching the post-war glory days of American capitalism unfold before him—he recognized that the “economics of prosperity” would make glamorous, non-utilitarian sports cars a reality, which he tied to both the the rise of individualism and the hot-rodders who modified their cars for speed and style. Essentially, he foresaw cars marketed for youth and fun and speed and good looks, not just utilitarian transportation for parents of two (it’s possible 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

With his help, 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 (I’m guessing he managed to expense all of those trips). Facing increasing speed competition from the Ford Thunderbird, the 1967 Corvette was offered with the “L88” performance package, which turned the car into a fire-breathing 500+ HP hellbeast. Yet within 10 years, emissions standards and the clean air act had taken the starch out of the Vette’s sheets, and it was 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


• 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. He was also responsible for pushing Ford to battle Ferrari’s auto racing dominance at Le Mans. (Side note: Iacocca was mentored by Robert McNamara, who’d “modernized” and systematized Ford’s business practice. 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, almost 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.

The mania eventually died down and sales dried up—plunging to 159,000 in 1970, less than ⅓ that of four years previously. One reason was bloat: what started sleek had become bigger, bulkier, slower, and less fun to drive. Iacocca by this point called the Mustang a “fat pig” and it was being outgunned by heavy hitters like the aforementioned GTO. The Mustang went through various periods of redesign before re-flourishing following a 2004 redesign that aped the looks of 1965.


• 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. (Side note: 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

Final note: The interesting concept of Engines of Change—what cars tell us about American culture—is unfortunately only ever realized on a superficial level, making the book informative but not particularly insightful.


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