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Top 10: Muscle cars
Recently Detroit has decided to visit the class of cars that, although shortlived, have become famous the world over from countless films like Vanishing Point and Bullitt and for their amazing performance, at least in a straight line.
So now we have the reinvented Dodge Charger, a new Pontiac GTO and the stunning Chevrolet Camaro concept. The muscle car era lasted just eight years between 1964 and 1972 but it ushered in a horsepower war which saw humble Chevrolets producing upwards of 450bhp from a 7.4-litre V8. As the Americans say, "there ain’t no substitute for cubic inches" so MSN Cars brings you the greatest muscle cars of all time.
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Like the GTO, the Gran Sport was originally an option on one of Buick’s mid-sized cars, the Skylark, created by squeezing a 6.5-litre engine into it in 1965. It sold 16,000 in the first year before gaining a brand new engine and becoming a stand alone model in coupe, sedan and convertible forms in 1967. The range was subject to continuous improvements and like all American cars, annually styling and performance revisions with output reaching a rumoured 390bhp in 1968 although to get round parent company GM’s power restrictions, Buick engineers claimed ‘just’ 345 horses. The ultimate GS came around in 1970 when GM dropped its engine size restrictions so the engineers promptly stuffed a 7.5-litre engine under the hood which produced a monstrous 501lb/ft of torque and an alleged 400bhp. When teamed up with the GSX body kit (available only in yellow or white) and beefed up suspension the GS was a formidable player from a firm not known for performance.
Having watched the runaway success of the Ford Mustang, still the fastest selling sports car in history, GM entered the pony car market with the Camaro in 1967. Chevrolet said the car was named after a slang French word for 'friend' but Ford promptly responded with claims that the word was actually the name of a type of shrimp. When asked, Chevrolet sales executives claimed a Camaro was a: "a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs". Base models were powered by feeble straight six engines but like the Mustang, the Camaro had a lengthy options list. The most interesting of these was the Z28 package, strictly for those in the know as it wasn’t mentioned in any of the sales brochures. Ticking it got the buyer a 4.9-litre engine, front disc brakes, power steering and four speed manual transmission. Although smaller than the 6.5-litre engine offered in the Camaro SS, the Z28 motor had been developed for racing and offered up to 400bhp. In 1969 GM banned Chevrolet from putting engines larger than 6.6-litres in the Camaro but realising there was a market for ultra-high performance variants, Chevy quietly produced the L-72 variant with a 425bhp, 7.0-litre engine and the extremely rare ZL-1 car with a tyre-shredding
By 1968, muscle cars were moving away from the original ideal of cheap performance for the masses and becoming bigger, heavier and more expensive. Plymouth paid $50,000 to Warner Brothers to be allowed to use the name and likeness of the famous cartoon bird on a new car which would run a quarter mile in under 14 seconds and cost less than $4,000. The car was a stripped out machine, it didn’t even have carpets but the suspension, brakes and steering were all beefed up and the base engine was 6.3-litre and 335bhp. For an extra $714, Plymouth would slot in a 7.0-litre hemi producing 425bhp and 490lb/ft of torque. The Roadrunner soldiered on until 1975 but the oil crisis and emissions regulations had ripped the heart out of the muscle car market and the top rated engine offered just 330bhp.
Famous for its starring role in classic road movie flick, 'Vanishing Point' the Challenger took anti-hero Kowalski across the desert in a narcotic fuelled flight ending in a firey blaze of glory. A latecomer to the muscle car party, the Challenger wasn’t launched until 1970 but it was an instant hit, selling over 80,000 in that year alone. It was offered with a range of engines starting with a weedy straight-six but topped out with the R/T (Road and Track) version packing a mighty 7.0-litre Hemi with 425bhp or a 7.2-litre, 390bhp offering. Sadly these only existed for the first year or so of the car’s life, by 1972, maximum power was down to a pathetic 240bhp and performance nosedived. The car lasted into 1975 by which time the muscle car ideal was dead in the water. DaimlerChrysler recently unveiled a Challenger concept at this year’s Detroit Motor Show so the legendary name could be back on a traditional, rear-wheel drive bruiser by 2008.
The Fairlane was introduced in 1962 as Ford’s entry to the intermediate sized car sector and used an innovative, lightweight V8 of 3.6-litres. With an eye on the burgeoning muscle car scene, Ford redesigned the Fairlane in 1966 to accept its big block 6.4-litre engine that pushed out 335bhp in base spec in the Fairlane GT. Deciding it needed more still they then dropped in a detuned 7.0-litre NASCAR lump that was good for 435bhp. Fitted with a fibreglass bonnet, stiffened suspension, front disc brakes and a handling package these cars could hit 60mph in around six seconds. The car went through a coupe of restyles in 1968 and 1970, gaining size and weight on every occasion and losing performance despite engines producing up to 450lb/ft of torque.
Following its GM sister Pontiac’s lead, Oldsmobile was the second manufacturer to offer a mid-sized car with a monstrous engine, in this case 5.4-litres. Offered in the Cutlass model, the engine was a police-spec motor putting out 310bhp. The model was known as the 4-4-2 to designate the four-barrel carburettor, the four-speed manual transmission and the twin exhausts. The package included uprated springs, shocks and an anti-roll bar giving the 442 a reputation for actually being able to go round corners unlike most of its straight line specialist brethren. The car became its own model in 1968 and got a redesign, becoming a shapely coupe. It also gained a whopping 7.5-litre, 390bhp engine as the top option. Sadly in 1970 GM declared that all its engines had to drink unleaded which led to a drastic drop in performance with that massive motor outputting just 270bhp. The writing was on the wall for the muscle car.
Actually launched a couple of weeks before the Ford Mustang in 1964, the Barracuda was the first pony car but got largely overlooked by buyers in their stampede to buy the Ford. They just thought the Barracuda was, well, a bit boring, not helped buy a weedy range of engines. In fact it wasn’t until 1970 that Plymouth put some serious firepower under the hood along with a sexy restyle. The performance models were known as ‘Cudas and the two top models were the 7.2-litre, 390bhp model or the thunderous 7.0-litre Hemi, which, despite its smaller capacity produced a stonking 425bhp. These received high performance suspension to try and get that power onto the tarmac but the cars gained a reputation for being difficult to manage. Sadly these only lasted a couple of years before being dropped and the rest of the engines in the range were detuned to the extent where the biggest, a 5.6-litre V8 produced just 240bhp and the Barracuda name died in 1974.
The GTO caught Chevrolet napping in 1964 since the Chevelle’s top engine offered a mere 300bhp but that was quickly rectified the following year with a 375bhp, 6.5-litre engine in the SS model. Unfortunately with all that weight over the front wheels the handling and braking were atrocious. Things improved over the next couple of years with suspension changes and front disk brakes. The range was restyled in 1968 and the top engine option became available in all Chevelle models in 1969, including the El Camino pick-up. 1970 saw the ultimate Chevelle SS and the most powerful muscle car of all hit the road with a enormous 7.4-litre V8 producing a road-ripping 450bhp and 500lb/ft to punt the car to 60mpg in six seconds. Unfortunately the following year saw the engine dropped and the entire range detuned for unleaded petrol, meaning the top model now produced just 385bhp.
One of the most recognisable screen cars, particularly in bright orange with a confederate flag on the roof, the Charger was the wheels of choice for Bo and Duke in their weekly battle to evade the authorities of Hazzard County. Launched in 1966, the Charger aped the fastback style pioneered by the Mustang and was an instant success, selling over 37,000 in the first year. It also packed a serious punch from the outset offering the legendary, at least in street racing circles, 7.0-litre Hemi, which although officially rated at 425bhp actually produced nearer 500 horses and could crack the sprint to 60 in five and a half seconds. The car got a sleek redesign in 1968 and was also available with a 7.2-litre engine in the R/T version which in fact produced less power than the Hemi but was more reliable and came with a five year warranty in contrast to the Hemi’s one. Unlike other manufacturers, Chrysler held on to the performance ideal as long as it could and didn’t detune its engines until the 1972 model year and dropped the Hemi entirely rather than emasculate it.
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