When the film The Fast and the Furious debuted in cinemas in 2001, it caught a lot of attention. In fact, so much attention that it grossed more than $207 million at the box office worldwide against an estimated budget of $38 million. What’s even more significant is that it launched a money-making franchise for Universal Studios, with seven sequels and two short films, making it the movie company’s biggest film series with a combined gross of more than $5 billion.
If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen any one of the movies in the franchise, you may be wondering what made it such a hit. Well, it’s basically an action film, which historically is great with audiences. And it features an American-made and much-beloved cultural icon: the muscle car. In The Fast and the Furious, it’s a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T driven by the main character, Dom Toretto (played by Vin Diesel), along with 25 others that in action, were able to outshine their human co-stars.
Throughout the years, the Charger has appeared in several films including Wesley Snipes’s Blade and Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, as well as on TV in the series Dukes of Hazzard where it got the nickname “General Lee.” When the series was made into a movie in 2005, a 1969 Charger took the role.
The Dodge Charger is not the only muscle car that has become a movie star, often being remembered more than the film they starred in. In 1958’s Thunder Road (considered to be the very first muscle car film), a powerful 1957 Ford Fairlane was in the middle of an illegal trade in untaxed liquor during the Prohibition Era. The Ford Mustang also appeared in 1968’s Bullitt, while the Chevy Impala was driven by Ron Howard in George Lucas’s his pre-Star Wars 1973 movie, American Graffiti. A yellow Chevrolet Camaro turned into a sentient robot in 2007’s Transformers. Then in 2008, Clint Eastwood gave much love to his Gran Torino Sport in the movie Gran Torino, and actually bought the car after filming.
But what exactly is a muscle car? Surprisingly, the jury is still out as to its exact definition. The term, which was only used starting in the late ‘70s, loosely refers to a variety of high-performance automobiles, while the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined it as “any of a group of American-made 2-door sports cars with powerful engines designed for high-performing driving.” A V8 engine is usually under its hood, and the car is designed for straight speed, rather than handling. What made them popular when they first came out was their affordable price, back when fuel was also cheap.
Muscle Cars: The Early Years
It can be said that without the Prohibition Era, muscle cars might not have come into existence. Moonshiners and bootleggers in the 1920s needed rides that were faster than police vehicles, so they started modifying their cars. By the 1940s, the cars were not only faster and more agile, but was more efficient too. And with the moonshining business on a wane after prohibition was lifted, owners of modified cars turned to racing.
In 1949, demand for faster cars was fever pitch. In response, Oldsmobile came up with the Rocket 88, a lightweight car based on the Oldsmobile 76 platform but boasted a high-compression overhead valve V8. It dominated the NASCAR circuit in 1950, fueling the need-for-speed craze of the times.
The 1950s saw further developments in the muscle car’s power plant. Chrysler came up with the Hemi, a series of V8 engines with a hemispherical combustion chamber that improved the engine’s airflow capacity and yielded a higher power output. Boasting this type of engine that gave it 300hp, the 1955 Chrysler C-300 became “America’s Most Powerful Car.” Chevrolet’s small-block V8, on the other hand, made it possible to build lightweight muscle cars, while the company’s mechanical fuel injection system further improved performance cars, making them even faster that drag racing became popular.
Factory-sponsored racing also grew in popularity until one fateful day in 1955 during the 24 Hours Le Mans race when a horrific accident happened. Pierre Levegh was driving his Mercedes-Benz at 150mph when it brushed another car, sending him crashing into the stands. The car burst into flames and sent deadly fragments in all directions, killing him and 83 other people. When the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) met two years later, they decided to ban auto racing, putting a pause on the momentum of the muscle car industry. The ban was lifted in 1963.
While factory-sponsored racing ground to a halt due to the AMA’s self-imposed ban, drag racing continued to reign until the early ‘60s. In response, engines were developed further and made bigger even as the size of the car remained the same. Performance models of cars were produced, and even Dodge and Plymouth stopped producing big cars to focus on lighter, faster models.
The Golden Age of Muscle Cars
The year 1964 saw the release of some of the most iconic muscle cars in history, ushering in the segment’s Golden Age. Pontiac’s Tempest GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato), as its name suggested, was approved for races. Deceptively simple, it had an engine that was greater than 330 CID (cubic inch displacement), and a price of $3,200 that was affordable to even younger people. Ford, for its part, had the Thunderbolt with a mind-blowing 427 CID engine that it was deemed dangerous to drive that only 127 were made. The company also released the Mustang the same year. It was pretty, low-priced, and had underwhelming power, which became such a hit that it created a new market: the pony car.
Three years later, Ford decided to give the Mustang more power, changing its small-block engine to 390 CID big-block engine. Other automakers followed suit, with Chevrolet coming up with the Camaro and Pontiac its Firebird. Plymouth had its budget muscle car, the Road Runner. The market soon became saturated as a result that profit margins were affected.
The end of the decade proved to be the peak period for muscle cars despite federal safety and emission rules. Spectacular upgrades were done to the Camaro, Mustang, and Firebird, while the GTO slashed its price even as it got a new look. Getting their share of the limelight were the Dodge Charger and the Daytona model with its famous wing. Other muscle cars that thrilled the public were the 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2, the 1968 AMC AMX that was popular even to sports-car enthusiasts, and the 1968 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet.
Decline of Muscle Cars
With the government setting up new emission limits in the early ‘70s, carmakers had no choice but to detune their muscle cars’ powerful engines and use instead those that ran on low-lead fuel. Even the cars’ body had to undergo changes for safety’s sake, giving them sturdier metals and more weight, and making the bumpers heavier. This affected the muscle car’s performance. Then in 1973, the oil crisis happened when OPEC cut oil exports to America, resulting in the prices of gas to skyrocket. Suddenly, owning a muscle car was too expensive, and so people went for the small compact cars that by 1975, just a few big-block cars were still in production like the Plymouth Road Runner, but was modified to stress its appearance more than its performance.
The Comeback of Muscle Cars
With the oil crisis well past behind in the new millennium, it was time for the classics to make their triumphant return. And return they did. The Chrysler 300C made its comeback in 2005 seven years after Mercedes-Benz took over Chrysler. It came with the legendary Hemi engine with its 340hp. On the same year, the Dodge Charger and Challenger were offered with a Hemi option, while Mustang upgraded to an even bigger engine. Making its debut in muscle cars is Cadillac with its CTS-V. The company never entered the segment in the past, but is making up for it now, as its sedan is hailed as the fastest on the market with its 556hp.
Today, three muscle cars are jockeying for pole position in the American market, with the Chevrolet Camaro leading the pack as it outsold the Mustang by 674 units as of April 2017 while the Dodge Challenger posted almost similar numbers from last year.
Another Golden Age?
With advancements in science in technology, today’s muscle cars have plenty to crow about compared to their predecessors. They have more powerful engines, better handling, improved fuel economy, and a relatively lower price tag. In short, they are faster, more sophisticated, and more affordable.
Whereas before engines come with 300- to 325hp, now it’s 500 to 700hp, and that’s on a street car. In fact, the Dodge Challenger coupe and Charger sedan packs 707hp, while the Chevrolet Corvette ZO6 can go from 0 to 60mph in 2.95 seconds, thanks to its 650hp. Ford’s Shelby GT 350 Mustang comes with a radically designed V8 engine typically found in a Porsche or Ferrari that churns out 526hp.
Price-wise, it’s easier to get any one of Detroit’s most popular performance cars. The Shelby GT goes for a base price of just a shade under $50,000. The Challenger Hellcat is less than $60,000 while the Charger Hellcat is tagged at just below $63,000. The Corvette ZO6 is priced at $79,000.
No wonder muscle cars have been one of the most searched items in Autotrade, along with SUVS and subcompacts. There is indeed renewed interest in them that can further boost production as well as more innovation.
A New Challenge for American Muscle Cars
Muscle cars and the whole automotive industry, is facing a rocky future. While it is true that market performance remains strong, with sales of up to 88 million autos last year, and profit margins for suppliers and OEMs on a 10-year high, the average total shareholder among auto makers was only 5.5 percent. Additionally, invested capital in 2016 returned a measly 4 percent. What this means is that moving forward, we may see less and less investors into this industry.
The cost of capital is also not likely to become investor-friendly either, as more and more innovations mean higher cost of production. The main culprits that have emerged are electronics, digital services, and unique powertrains and connectivity systems that demand expensive new parts, components, and functions. OEMs will bear the brunt of this high cost of producing high-tech cars, as much as 20 percent greater than the cost of previous generation of cars that didn’t need to have touchscreen displays for navigation and entertainment among other things.
They Are Here To Stay
Despite the challenges that automotive manufacturers in general face in a somewhat uncertain future, demand for muscle cars will continue to drive its particular market. And not just for the new models, but even for the classic ones made in the ‘60s and ‘70s and those from the ‘80s and ‘90s. At this year’s high-profile Barrett-Jackson auction held in Scottsdale, Arizona, several records were broken by some very special Mustangs, like the 7-Up Limited Edition 1990 Mustang Convertible that sold for $85,000, a 1989 5.0 LX hatchback that fetched $71,500, and a 1985 SVO turbo 2.3L model that went for $63,800. “The market for American muscle cars remains incredibly resilient,” said Craig Jackson, Barrett-Jackson’s chairman and CEO in an interview with Hot Rod Network. “Interest in 1980s-era muscle cars is driven by members of the generation who grew up with them. Those fans now have the means to own one and, at some level, have an emotional connection.”
They Have a Lasting Appeal
For as long as speed and power remain compelling qualities, muscle cars will have its captured market. Self-driving cars may have started easing into our collective consciousness especially in this day and age of being environmentally aware, but there will always be that specific breed of car enthusiasts who would never tire of that thrilling, one-of-a-kind experience that being behind the wheel of a performance car brings. For them, it’s like being inside the celluloid world of The Fast and the Furious every time they drive.
It doesn’t hurt either that muscle cars have built up a reputation as “king of the road,” in their heyday, literally leaving other vehicles in the dust. Add in its broad frame and that thunderous roar beneath the hood, and you’ve got the perfect American icon. Even today, when those ‘60s and ‘70s muscle cars are restored to their former glory, no one would consider them geezers of the automotive world, but a work of art and an engineering marvel.
The Future of American Muscle Cars
With more and more powerful muscle cars hitting the assembly line, one question that keeps cropping up in everyone’s mind is, When will the government say ‘enough is enough’ and put a ceiling on engine power? Well, if recent history has shown, it may be an unfounded fear. Until today, the government has not taken upon itself to limit the hp of these tire-shredding machines. Remember that the decline of muscle cars when the Seventies hit was not some federal law, but a combination of factors that include higher insurance rates for these performance vehicles that were perceived as a high risk, early emission regulations that transformed powerful engines into weaklings, and of course, the OPEC oil crisis.
More likely, what would stifle further muscle car growth are future fuel-economy standards that, if not changed, will see the demise of a lot of models. Thankfully, Tesla has a great blueprint to make the muscle car future-proof, and that is to turn electric. After all, it doesn’t matter if its gas or electricity that powers a vehicle, as long as it satisfies man’s need for speed.