In 1964, Ford fired the opening salvo of the modern muscle car war with the unveiling of the new Mustang, a sporty two door that finally found that middle ground between sport coupe and sedan, with a hefty jolt of V-8 power to push it from 0-60 in just under six seconds.
General Motors found itself in the unenviable position of having to play catch up, which they did in a big way with the introduction of the all new Camaro in 1967. The Camaro’s place in history would be forever linked to the Mustang since it was created as a direct competitor, and as a result of the Mustang’s staggering success (over 200,000 Mustangs sold in the first model year alone). It would be 11 years before the Camaro would finally overtake the Mustang in annual sales figures, but the Camaro was generally regarded by most automotive critics as the better car of the two, usually faster, better handling, and always more stylish.
Of course, Ford and GM weren’t the only players in the muscle car arena. Dodge chimed in with its Challenger, AMC with the Javelin, Pontiac with its own version of the Camaro, the Firebird, and Mercury with its Mustang clone, the Cougar.
Of course the Arab oil embargoes of the 70’s went a long way towards killing off the muscle car, and by 1975 almost all were gone from showroom floors. GM was mulling the possibility that 1975 would be the last year for the Camaro, and Ford had devalued the Mustang into the economy minded Mustang II, a critical and commercial failure.
Only the Mustang and GM F-bodies (Camaro and Firebird) would survive to the present day, at times mere shadows of their former selves, but roaring back in a big way in the 90’s with improved technology and fuel efficiency which were able to wring 60’s era quarter mile times out of modern V-8 small block power plants.
In 2002, the Camaro and Firebird also rode off into the sunset, leaving the Mustang the undisputed top of the heap, having begun and ended the muscle car era. However, things were about to get even more interesting.
In 2005, the Mustang went through a rather radical redesign, shifting away from the clunky design of the previous decade and reappearing with a styling that was strikingly reminiscent of the first generation cars. The new Mustang was a smashing success at sales floors across the country, and such success did not go unnoticed by the powers that be at General Motors, who were having second thoughts about putting the Camaro out to pasture. Clearly there was still a market for performance cars, and Chevrolet saw once again the need to create a car that would be defined by how well it out performed the Mustang. It took five years, but in 2010 the fifth generation Camaro was launched, and was an incredible success, with more interesting styling, better performance, and critical reviews that were off the chart in their praise. Nearly every magazine comparison had the Camaro beating the Mustang on pretty much every front, and for the first time since 1984, the Camaro outsold the Mustang in 2010.
Also in 2010, Dodge reintroduced the Challenger, their contribution to the retro styling bug that seems to have caught the attention of the automotive world. From a styling standpoint, the Challenger was probably the most successful, looking almost identical to its early 70’s counterpart. Unfortunately, the Challenger suffered in performance when compared to the Mustang and Camaro, its biggest disadvantage being its size. It was simply too heavy to be as nimble and quick as its competition. But it’s a looker nonetheless, and its performance is nothing to sneeze at.
All in all, it’s the most exciting time for muscle car enthusiasts since the early 70s, although forthcoming government restrictions may mean the party is over prematurely. And while the retro idea is a novel one, you can’t help but wonder what is next. Dodge has no late 70’s Challenger to base a new retro generation upon, and does Ford really think anybody is going to line up to buy a retro Mustang II? Chevrolet has more promising prospects, as the radically redesigned second generation Camaros are still regarded by many as one of the most successful designs in history.
One thing is for sure, as long as there are pulse pounding V-8s laying down clouds of tire smoke, there will be those of us standing in line with our wallets out. Long live the muscle car!