The Muscle Car: The Early Years
We’ve talked about the early years of the American Muscle Car in the first article in this series. From the early start of moonshiners out running the law to the drag racing craze of the 60’s led by the Oldsmobile Rocket 88.
With interest running high, the popularity of fast cars started a race for automobile companies to create the fastest American muscle cars for eager consumers.
This race that would come to a climax in the 1970s, when style, exhaust, and excess speed finally came face-to-face with the cold hard reality of the times. While the 1970s did become the prime years for the muscle car era, boasting more muscle cars than ever before, it would also prove to bring an abrupt ending to this mania for several years.
The Pinnacle Year
1970 was a year widely considered to be the peak of the muscle car era. The number of models built, and the variety of engines available to them, exceeded any year since then. The early 1970s saw an intense contest among car manufacturers to churn out one vehicle engine variant after the next. This competition raised driving speed capabilities across the board, with companies like General Motors removing their engine size limit.
Chevelle, the first GM muscle car, had been idling around in the market since 1964, but with the unveiling in 1970 of the Chevelle SS with a 454-cubic-inch big-block V8 engine that could harness 450 hp and 500 lbs. of torque, the car finally managed to take off and win drivers’ hearts.
Pontiac, famed for igniting the classic muscle car era in 1964 with the release of the GTO, brought out the Pontiac Firebird second generation to critical acclaim, while Chrysler came out with some of its best-looking pony cars, the redesigned Plymouth Barracuda (now transformed into desirable coupe and convertible models) and the Dodge Challenger. Both vehicles came with options for practically any engine available in Chrysler’s catalog.
The Beginning of the End
Still, there were signs that not all was well. In 1970, the industry was beginning to recognize the necessity of building an economy car, leading to Chevrolet’s release of the Vega, AMC’s Gremlin, and Ford’s Pinto—all of which they designed to appeal to the emerging market. All three of these selections drew notoriety for their poor quality. Even worse was the fact that this notoriety would cast a shadow upon the entire American Automobile Manufacturing Industry concerning their handling of economy cars, a shadow that they would never truly shake.
That same year saw the passing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act, following closely in the footsteps of the UNESCO Earth Day event celebrated several months earlier. These events would mark the start of trouble for the automotive industry, particularly where muscle cars were concerned. Still, it would not be until several years later that the full effects would truly come into play.
Responding to the Times
The shifting climate in the automotive industry between the late 1960s and early 1970s is perhaps best embodied in the story of the 1971 AMC Hornet SC/360.
AMC began work on the Hornet SC/360 as a vehicle that would be cheap to develop yet irresistible to a particular target market of buyers. The company designed each engine bay to accommodate a V-8, more advantageous to a company with a ready inventory of 360s that were already in use with its other available vehicle types.
When it finally rolled out, AMC marketed the Hornet as “a sensible alternative to the money-squeezing, insurance-strangling muscle cars of America” in its first and last print advertisement. At $2,663 per car, the vehicle catered to the clientele displaced by the more expensive muscle car models in AMC’s and other companies’ inventory.
Ultimately, the Hornet’s release saw mixed results. Despite the acclaim it received in later years for its refined design, the car was on the market for only a brief period before AMC phased it out the following year.
In the meantime, related problems had started to pop up for the muscle-car generation. The insurance industry had begun to target muscle cars as being unsafe. In the meantime, the previously mentioned Clean Air Act had come into effect. This legislation necessitated the use of catalytic converters, which would cause problems for the fastest American muscle cars since they would now need considerably lower speeds to prevent lead clogging.
The 1973 Crisis and Aftermath
In October 1973, following the United States’ military interference in the Yom Kippur (Arab-Israeli) War, the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) initiated an oil embargo upon the U.S and the other perceived allies of Israel, resulting in a sudden spike in gas prices. Though the embargo would only last until March 1974, this event proved to be the last ingredient in the perfect storm that led to the demise of the muscle car.
The combination of environmental controls, inflation, rising gas prices, and other negative factors pushed the muscle car market to its breaking point. Its target demographic began to realize the untenability of buying and maintaining the gas-guzzling machines. Drivers instead began to turn towards smaller, compact vehicles that had originated either locally or abroad.
Despite having the means to purchase them, interested buyers frequently became discouraged about buying future or existing muscle car models, given the new EPA restrictions that pulled down muscle car performance speeds considerably.
Automobile companies attempted to make up for the loss in speed and power by focusing on future models’ exterior appearances, which led to beefing up muscle car sizes in certain areas. Models such as the Plymouth Road Runner were prime examples of this since they basically became a visual showcase on wheels.
By 1975, car manufacturers had phased out most big-block model lines and pony cars. Only a select few managed to stay afloat amidst the downturn of interest, two of them being the Firebird and the Camaro. The Mustang had been super-sized for a time before Ford remade it into a compact car in the wake of the crisis.
1977 saw the Camaro Z-28’s return, while 1979 brought the Mustang and Mercury Capri pony cars back.
The race to create the fastest American muscle cars had come to an end, with no clear winner. It wouldn’t be until after 1982, after the end of another oil crisis, that performance cars would see a resurgence in interest.