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Nationwide Vehicle Contracts has put together a short blog explaining the evolution & history of the muscle car

The muscle car is one of American vehicle manufacturers' most significant innovations ever created. Muscle cars have firmly established themselves as an essential piece of American culture Throughout their over 70-year history, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing into today.

Although most car enthusiasts consider the 1960s and 1970s to be the heyday of muscle cars, these vehicles pioneered through difficulties, and manufacturers created some excellent models from the 1980s to the present day. To learn more about muscle cars, read our short blog below about the history of the muscle car and how it evolved over the decades.

Origins of the Muscle Car

The first American muscle car was introduced in 1949, with Oldsmobile offering the Rocket 88. This muscle car featured a high-compression overhead valve V8 303 ci -135 hp engine and a lightweight body from Oldsmobile 76. Thanks to its powerful engine and light body, it was widely considered the first muscle car ever manufactured.

After the Rocket 88 was introduced, other automakers were inspired to create vehicles that could compete on the racetrack. The muscle industry began to take off in the 1950s, and the Rocket 88 had several competitors.

How Did Muscle Cars Get Their Name?

It wasn't until the 1960s that the phrase "muscle car" originated. The term "muscle car" was first used by Pontiac to describe their 1964 GTO. It became popular as a term for numerous tuned-up vehicles after this use.

What Does "Muscle Car" Mean?

Although there is considerable disagreement over the exact definition of a muscle car, they often meet a few general requirements. To be classified as a muscle car, it must be American-made, mid-sized and feature a coupe body. Powerful V8 engines are also often found in muscle cars. Their design provides high performance at a reasonable cost.

Muscle Cars Through the Years 

Muscle cars have a rich history spanning many decades, providing drivers with incredible power and speed. Although the mid-1960s through the early 1970s was considered the "golden age" of muscle cars, many more models were still produced before and after these times.

Muscle Cars of the Late 1940s and throughout the 1950s

The 1950s saw the rise of muscle cars as competitors tried to imitate the Rocket 88's success. Chrysler, Studebaker, and the American Motors Company produced several prominent muscle cars from this era. Below are the top two muscle cars of this era:

Rocket 88: In 1949, the first muscle car, the Rocket 88, was introduced and had a 303-cubic-inch, 5.0-litre V8 engine. It wasn't all that powerful compared to future muscle cars, as it only hit 135 horsepower and 263 pound-foot of torque. However, winning 10 out of 19 races during the 1950 NASCAR season was incredibly successful. Modern muscle vehicles still maintain their features of having a light body and a strong engine.

Chrysler C-300: In 1955, Chrysler released their C-300, which was bigger than the Rocket 88 and had a more potent engine. This muscle car had a 5.4-litre, 331-cubic-inch V8 engine with 300 hp output and needed just 9.8 seconds to reach 60 mph. The vehicle had superb handling and a top speed of 120 mph.

Muscle Cars of the 1960s

The 1960s would usher in what auto historians consider the "golden age" of muscle cars after the public's interest in them peaked in the 1950s and the vehicles had achieved some measure of success up to this point. This era, which produced some amazing muscle vehicles, generally spanned from 1964 to 1974. Below are the top two muscle cars of this era:

1964 Pontiac GTO: The Pontiac GTO is credited with starting the heyday of muscle cars. This vehicle has a 325 horsepower, 6.4-liter V8 engine. The name of the car was taken from the 250 GTO by Ferrari. Gran Turismo Omologato roughly translates as "grand tourer homologated,". Even though the name caused some debate, the car became one of the most iconic and well-known muscle cars ever.

1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake: Despite looking like a sports car, the 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake was really a muscle vehicle. This Shelby automobile is one of the rarest muscle cars ever made because it was only manufactured in small quantities. The top-of-the-line Cobra 427-cubic-inch V8 engine powered the car. With the addition of a few Paxton superchargers, this vehicle's horsepower increased to 800, and its top speed approached 200 mph. Although its 0-to-60 mph pace of about 3.0 seconds and 800 horsepower set an absurd bar for later muscle cars to surpass, this power made it less than ideal for the road.

Muscle Cars of the 1980s

Manufacturers of muscle cars made little progress during most of the 1970s. These new muscle vehicles weren't as powerful as their forerunners since automakers had to adjust to the new regulations and pricing differences. However, since manufacturers had a decade to adapt to the new laws, muscle cars started to come back in the 1980s. Below are the top two muscle cars of this era:

1980 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo: One of the first muscle cars of the 1980s, it included a turbocharger to increase its power. With the turbocharger installed, the 301-cubic-inch V8 engine produced 210 horsepower and 345 pound-feet of torque. The vehicle was visually appealing and appeared in Smokey and the Bandit 2.

1987 Buick Grand National GNX: This menacing-looking car was only available in jet black and was ideal for drivers who wanted their muscle car to intimidate. The vehicle also has some power with a 231-cubic-inch V6 engine that produced 245 horsepower and 355 pound-feet of torque. The performance, which took 6.1 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, was particularly outstanding.

Muscle Cars of the 1990s

Manufacturers of muscle cars were upping their performance in the 1990s, creating quicker, meaner iterations of both new and vintage models. This generation was characterised by improved technology and more safety measures, among other things. Many muscle vehicles also had more streamlined designs and aesthetics in the 1990s. Below are the top two muscle cars of this era:

1992 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA: This was the final version of the third-generation Pontiac Firebird, and it had a stylish, modern exterior. Along with its fashionable appearance, the car had a powerful engine. The Trans Am had a 5.7-litre V8 engine that produced 240 horsepower and 340 pound-feet of torque when equipped with the high-end GTA package.

1996 Ford Mustang GT: Although it might not have as much power as some of the other muscle cars, the Ford Mustang GT came in a gorgeous package. It was one of the most iconic cars of the time because of its resemblance to previous Mustang GTs. It had a V8 engine with a 285 pound-foot of torque and 215 horsepower achieving a 0-to-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds during speed tests.

Muscle Cars of the 2000s to the Present

Though there were some muscle cars in the 1980s and 1990s, the best-known muscle cars from the classic automobile era were revived in the 2000s modern muscle cars. The Pontiac GTO and the Ford Shelby Mustang were two cars that underwent revitalisation. Modern technology has allowed muscle car makers to finally equip their vehicles with performance that equals or even exceeds that of the past. Below are the top two muscle cars of this era:

2004 Cadillac CTS-V: The 2004 Cadillac CTS-V featured four doors, yet its menacing appearance made it blend in with other muscle vehicles. A 400 horsepower and 395 pound-foot V8 engine powered the CTS-V. The muscle vehicle also achieved 13.7 seconds for the quarter-mile and 5.3 seconds from 0 to 60 mph.

2008 Ford Shelby Mustang: The 2008 Ford Shelby Mustang had its work cut out for it because the Shelby Mustang of the 1960s was known as one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced. With a look similar to the original muscle car and even better performance, this car lived up to its moniker. The Shelby Mustang came with a V8 engine with 500 horsepower and 480 pound-foot of torque.

The Decline of the Muscle Car

The muscle car market suffered after 1973. Manufacturers of muscle cars faced challenges from the oil crisis, rising insurance rates, and the Clean Air Act, among others. Due to their higher price tags, muscle cars were costly and unfeasible for many buyers.

Manufacturers found it particularly difficult to create the same high-compression engines of the past that provided the power that muscle car buyers were accustomed to after the Clean Air Act of 1970. Manufacturers had to lower the compression ratio of their engines due to the oil embargo, which caused gasoline octane ratings to drop from the usual 100-octane fuel to 91-octane fuel. The performance of muscle cars consequently suffered. To reduce pollution, manufacturers had to tighten their emission controls, which reduced the power of vehicles.

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