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What Makes a Muscle Car a Muscle Car Anyway?

The muscle car  is a concept that still commands a powerful presence in the popular imagination. However, there is no single agreed-upon definition for the concept, which makes it worthwhile to examine it at length. Here are some of the most common characteristics of muscle cars:

Two-Door Body

Generally speaking, a muscle car is supposed to have a two-door body that is neither too light nor too heavy. The latter is important because there is some disagreement over what kinds of weights can and can't count. There are some who insist that muscle cars must be mid-sized cars, meaning bigger than compact cars but smaller than full-sized cars. However, there are plenty of people out there who are willing to consider both compact cars and full-sized cars to be muscle cars. Suffice to say that this issue isn't going to get settled anytime soon, meaning that interested individuals are free to go with whichever interpretation suits them the most.

Rear Wheel Drive

Muscle cars are supposed to be rear-wheel drive, meaning that the vehicle is laid out so that the engine drives the rear wheels rather than the front wheels. However, there are those who allow for exceptions in this regard as well. In any case, rear-wheel drive is one of the places where the concept of the muscle car shows its age. For those who are curious, rear-wheel drive used to be much more common. Said trend lasted until the combination of the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 oil crisis, which convinced car manufacturers to switch over to front-wheel drive. There are still plenty of cars that use rear-wheel drive out there, but there can be no doubt about the fact that their popularity has faded from their peak.

Large V8 Engine

Perhaps unsurprisingly, muscle cars are supposed to have large V8 engines. In fact, there are those who argue that muscle cars should have large V8 engines that are in the most powerful configurations that were made available for their particular make and model. After all, muscle cars have a very strong connection with the concept of drag racing, meaning that they need to have fast acceleration for short, straight courses. It is this factor that disqualifies both sports cars and sports sedans from being considered to be muscle cars, seeing as how those tend to be connected with circuit racing rather than drag racing.


Speaking of which, muscle cars are supposed to be affordable as well. As such, personal luxury cars are disqualified from being considered to be muscle cars because they tend to be too expensive to fall within what is supposed to be the price range for such vehicles. Of course, considering some of other criteria for what is and isn't a muscle car, this is one factor that has become very flexible for a lot of interested individuals. Simply put, time has a funny way of making what was once affordable into something much less affordable thanks to sheer attrition.

U.S. Made

Muscle cars are a very American concept. As a result, there are a lot of people who believe that muscle cars have to be of American make. Moreover, they believe that muscle cars have to be of American make from a particular period of time rather than any period of time. Generally speaking, this means the 1960s plus some of the 1970s. However, there are those who choose to be even stricter by specifying the period from 1964 to 1973, which makes sense because of the significance of those dates.

How Did the Muscle Car Come Into Existence?

Like most trends, the muscle car didn't come into existence all at once. Instead, there were forerunners that hinted at what was to come. Sometimes, this happened in a very subtle manner. Other times, this was less true. Unfortunately, the vagueness on what is and isn't a muscle car makes it rather difficult to tell when the first examples came into existence.

For instance, one can make the argument that the first muscle car came into existence in 1949. This is because that was the year that saw the 1949 Oldsmobile 88, which is notable because said vehicle was the first time that a powerful V8 engine was available on a smaller, lighter body. Having said that, there are other contenders for the position of the first muscle car in existence, with an excellent example being the 1957 Rambler Rebel. In that case, said vehicle was the first mid-sized car that could have a big-block V8 engine. On top of that, it was both fast and cheap, which are regarded as critical elements that make muscle cars into muscle cars.

Still, the peak of the muscle car is believed to have started up in 1964. In those times, a lot of American consumers became enamored with such vehicles, which convinced a number of car manufacturers to launch their own interpretations of the basic concept. Thanks to that, cars such as the Pontiac GTO, the AMC AMX, and the Plymouth Road Runner came into existence. For a time, this competition meant that there was even a horsepower competition that hit its height in 1970.

Does the Muscle Car Still Exist?

Eventually, muscle cars became less popular in the 1970s. As stated earlier, the two oil crises of that decade had a huge impact on what people wanted from their vehicles, thus rendering muscle cars out of touch. However, there were other contributing factors that ranged from the Clean Air Act to rising insurance costs for high-performance models. Due to this, the initial era of the muscle car came to a conclusion in the 1970s, though the concept would live on.

For instance, there was a revival in high-performance cars that happened in the 1980s, which managed to build up enough momentum that it continued into the 1990s for a time as well. Similarly, the current millennium has seen smaller revivals of the concept from time to time as well. One example happened in 2004, which was when the Pontiac GTO was relaunched based on the Holden Monaro. Another example happened in 2008, which was when a reinterpretation of the Dodge Challenger showed up on U.S. markets. One can argue over whether these vehicles are true muscle cars or not, but so long as the concept retains its appeal, it seems safe to say that the automobile industry will continue making callbacks to it.

Benjamin Smith

Written by Benjamin Smith

Benjamin Smith is one of the managing editors of Moneyinc. Ben's been focusing on the auto and motorcycle sector since 2005. He's written over 1000 articles in the space and continues to learn about it each day. His favorite car is "any Bugatti" and he's a die hard Harley Davidson fan.

Read more posts by Benjamin Smith

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