What put the muscle in a muscle car?

Announcer: Go behind the wheel, under the hood and beyond with Car Stuff from howstuffworks.com.

Ben Bowlin: Scott, Scott, Scott, welcome back.

Scott Benjamin: Thank you.

Ben Bowlin: Good to see you again.

Scott Benjamin: Good to see you as well.

Ben Bowlin: Yep, and for everyone who hasn't caught earlier episodes, let's introduce ourselves.

Scott Benjamin: Why not.

Ben Bowlin: All right.

Scott Benjamin: I am Scott Benjamin. I'm the auto editor here at howstuffworks and you are?

Ben Bowlin: My name is Ben and I'm kind of the sidekick who asks you questions.

Scott Benjamin: Fantastic.

Ben Bowlin: About cars.

Scott Benjamin: That's the way it works.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and let's go ahead and maybe - let's try this out. We talk about a lot of different types of cars, you know, we've gone through - I mean, we've just gone nuts on some stuff, you know, flying cars is still always gonna be a little bit of a disagreement between us but I understand where you're coming from. So, I was thinking maybe we could build a bridge back. We can maybe talk about something that we're both pretty big fans of, muscle cars.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, yeah.

Ben Bowlin: You remember muscle cars?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, I do. I'm from Michigan, Detroit so muscle cars are all over the place up there. You know, up until - well, I just went back a couple weeks ago and I was shocked by how many I saw just because I'd been here for a while, forgot kind of what it was like up there because that's the weekend car for everybody up there. So, I was there on a weekend and Friday evening, sure enough, the roads were, not packed with them but pretty close.

Ben Bowlin: What kinds were you seeing up there?

Scott Benjamin: Oh, everything. I mean, anything you could imagine that came from the big three in that time frame, you saw.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: And I'd love to list them but there's so many, and honestly, they park in groups, you know, it's kind of like cruise night - you've been to cruise nights or you've seen cruise nights?

Ben Bowlin: Sure, yeah, definitely.

Scott Benjamin: It's like that at - I happen to live right near the Woodward Area in Detroit and that road, of course the Woodward dream cruise and it's really an all-year event now. It's crazy. I mean, there are people sitting in lawn chairs on the side of the road just to watch traffic every Friday and Saturday night, even now, and I don't think the dream cruise happens until August or something like that.

Ben Bowlin: Maybe they're just trying to get a good seat.

Scott Benjamin: Maybe. You know, as funny as it sounds, people get excited about this early and it's intense up there. It's intensified I should say.

Ben Bowlin: Well, what - okay. When I - I guess I had an ulterior motive when I asked which muscle cars you were seeing because, you know, what I was really trying to get at, what exactly are muscle cars, Scott, because I'm hearing some different things.

Scott Benjamin: Well, okay. Well, there's probably a good reason you're hearing different things but we'll talk about that in a minute but really, generally accepted, muscle cars are really big, powerful, fast cars with the big engines, they're usually loud. These are from - exactly what you think of - they're the Detroit muscle cars, a lot of steel, you know, two-doors, four-doors, they hold more than two people but just big engines, fast cars. You know, you can pretty much pick them out of the crowd.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, that's -

Scott Benjamin: I mean, I would think that just your general knowledge of what a muscle car is, you'd probably be able to spot one here or there.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. But these are all - these are not being built anymore, right?

Scott Benjamin: No, that's right.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. When were they built?

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Here's -

Ben Bowlin: Oh, is this where we go to the plot twist?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, this is the plot twist, and you know what, before we get into that, and I'm sorry to cut you off here, but we're going to go back just for one second because there's a strict definition of muscle car and this strict definition comes from muscle car - what is it, musclecarclub.com. So, I'm reading this directly from the musclecar.com page. Let's see. A muscle car, by the strictest definition is an intermediate size, performance-oriented model powered by a large V8 at an affordable price. Now, remember that, affordable price, okay.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: Most of these models were based on regular production vehicles and the vehicles are generally not considered muscle cars even when equipped with large V8s. If there's a high performance version available, it gets the credit and not the vehicle that it was based on.

Ben Bowlin: Oh.

Scott Benjamin: So, that's confusing to hear all that at one time. They also, on, you know, the musclecarclub.com site have a list of cars and this is a pretty interesting list really of vehicles that most people associate with being muscle cars. Several of the cars on the list, it turns out, according to that strict definition; do not fit the muscle car definition I guess.

Ben Bowlin: What, because they're too expensive maybe?

Scott Benjamin: That's - well, they're too expensive or maybe they were a little too plush. They had too many features. Their more of a luxury vehicle; they cost too much because, you know, we said that they have to be affordable. In other cases, maybe it was that they just didn't offer the right engine. It wasn't -

Ben Bowlin: The V8.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right, that's one. Just, again, expensive, luxurious cars didn't often count as muscle cars. Now, looking back, what do we consider expensive and luxurious wasn't what they considered expensive and luxurious back then but - maybe it was proportional, I'm not sure exactly but there's this real tricky definition that they have to fit and so this list is pretty completing of what it does include and does not include and I think you'd be surprised by a few of them that were taken off of the list that don't fit like the Oldsmobile Cutlass is not considered a muscle car.

Ben Bowlin: Why not?

Scott Benjamin: Because only the 442 models were considered a muscle car.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, okay.

Scott Benjamin: Now, the Plymouth Barracuda, not a muscle car.

Ben Bowlin: You serious?

Scott Benjamin: No, it's not a muscle car.

Ben Bowlin: Plymouth is just striking out here.

Scott Benjamin: Because on the Cuda models were considered the muscle cars. There's a separate Cuda model. The Pontiac Grand Prix, not a muscle car because it's too expensive!

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: So, I mean, even though it fit every other parameter, it was too expensive. There's just a long list of these things and I think people should check that out maybe -

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, that sounds -

Scott Benjamin: Interesting because that'll give you, again, a strict definition of what it is. Now, a lot of people will argue with everything that we have to say today because that's just the way this works. So, I know that there's going to be a lot of different viewpoints and we're even saying that right up front that even the - you got into the question where you asked about what - when were they built.

Ben Bowlin: Time period, yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, the time period. Here's how, you know, widely disputed the time period it is. It ranges from, get this, 1949 all the way to 1978. Depends on who you talk to and everything in between. I've seen 1960 to 1971; I've seen 1964 to 1972; 1960 to 1978; 1949 to 1971 and everything in between. It really depends on who you talk to and no one can seem to agree on what the first muscle car was and what the last muscle car was either but there are a few opinions about it but the - again, these range from the late 40s up to the early 60s for the first muscle car so that's a pretty wide spanse of time and the last one it can go as late as 1974 but some people disagree with that because they say that the era was over in 1971.

Ben Bowlin: That's really interesting so it sounds like what we've got going on here is a disclaimer - do any of our listeners who have a particular convictions about the muscle cars, we're presenting some general opinions that may differ from source to source.

Scott Benjamin: Um-hum. That's right. Yeah, and we're just trying to - again, just generalize just to get the idea of the muscle car out there and let people know what they are basically.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and what are some examples of just something that's a classic muscle car?

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Well, there are a few different classes of muscle car and I've got a few examples of those if you like.

Ben Bowlin: That's awesome. Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Well, there's a full-size muscle car and, again, these are coming from that last that I had, the muscle car -

Ben Bowlin: Oh, yeah, musclecarclub.com.

Scott Benjamin: But I've heard of these classes before. There's a full-size muscle car and one example that they use is the Chevy Impala SS. That's a big car, huge engine; Intermediate muscle car, Chevelle Social Security number; there's a compact muscle car, which is the Chevy Nova. If you know the Chevy Nova -

Ben Bowlin: The Chevy Nova is a muscle car?

Scott Benjamin: It was considered a - yeah, and it was considered a compact car. Can you believe that? I mean, looking back now - I mean, you know what a compact car is now?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Compact car now is really small. We have micro cars now. It's not a little hatchback, this is the Chevy Nova, that was a compact and another one was the Dodge Dart and my family had a Dodge Dart actually. That was our first brand new vehicle.

Ben Bowlin: You mentioned that before. Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Did I?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, was it a good car?

Scott Benjamin: It was a good car. Yeah. We had - it was the first car that we bought brand new, of course, I was real little.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, I was about to say, you weren't driving it.

Scott Benjamin: It was like a 1974 - I think it was - it wasn't the big engine. It wasn't a muscle car. We had the smaller six cylinder engine.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: And it was blue. We took it on a family trip to Minnesota for a fishing trip, you know, just camping, fishing, that type of thing. And we got involved in this hail storm that the hail was, like, golf ball size or bigger and -

Ben Bowlin: I gotta stop you real quick.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: I love that you say that we got involved with the hail storm like you had - it was a drug deal gone bad or something.

Scott Benjamin: I didn't know it sounded that funny but, yeah, I guess - yeah, so we were struck with a hail storm while we were at the cabin so, you know, we're parked there at the cabin at the lake and everything. It was picturesque beautiful. This hail storm comes up. Every single top surface of our brand new car was dented and dinged and our windows did not break, which was amazing because we've got photos of us holding this hail that looks golf balls, it's huge. And, I mean, it would've hurt somebody if you were out in it. It was that big but every single surface of that car was pock-marked with hail marks - hail storm marks.

Ben Bowlin: That stinks.

Scott Benjamin: Terrible. Anyway, way off topic. There were specialty muscle cars; Dodge Daytona was a good example of that. You know the one with the - well, the actually had the super bird which was the kind with the big wing in the back, the pointed front end.

Ben Bowlin: That's the one I was thinking about.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's it. And there was also a pony car.

Ben Bowlin: You mentioned these but I'm still not clear on what pony cars are.

Scott Benjamin: Strange name, isn't it?

Ben Bowlin: It's a weird name.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Pony car is just a small-bodied car with a large engine so an example of a pony car - now, again, small body, you wouldn't think of the old Chevy Camaro as being a small body but the old Chevy Camaro was a small body for the time.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: I know. And another one would be the Dodge Challenger - the original Dodge Challenger. Not the one that's out now. The original Dodge Challenger was also considered a pony car.

Ben Bowlin: Which is bigger than the current Dodge Challenger, is it? No. I thought it -

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it might be. Yeah, I believe it is.

Ben Bowlin: I thought it was.

Scott Benjamin: I believe it is. I believe it is.

Ben Bowlin: So, okay -

Scott Benjamin: So, I mean, that's the different classes of muscle cars and I don't know, there's examples of all of these. I mean, again, there were cars that were just stripped down to nothing, you know, they're lightweight, was great - that's what they wanted. They wanted them light weight, affordable so cars that were stripped of options; cars that were not as plush inside as other vehicles, those were the ones that were coveted at the time as being the fast - simply just go fast cars really.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. So -

Scott Benjamin: Go ahead.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, okay. Well, what I was going to ask with these different types we've named again, you know, from the intermediate and the compact and the specialty and so on, and pony cars, all of these types are accepted types of muscle cars, right? There's no controversy that says a pony car is not a muscle car?

Scott Benjamin: Yes, there is. There's controversy about all of us, everything. There are pony cars on this list that I've got here that are not muscle cars. Let me see, I'm not going to find one. Okay. Here's one right here. The AMC Javelin is not - is a pony car but it's not considered a muscle car because only the AMX variation or big-block V8s are considered muscle cars. Now, the AMC AMX was a muscle car. That's the difference. I mean, it's - the list - oh and again, here's another one. The Plymouth Barracuda we talked about before but only the Cuda models were considered the muscle cars so in every division of muscle car, there's going to be this controversy, was it or wasn't it and some people say yes, some people will say no. I guess one of the more dramatic examples would be - and I don't know whether this is really a controversy or not but the 1970s Chevrolet Chevelle. It was a mid-size family car. The base model had a four cylinder engine in it which kind, I don't know, small for that size vehicle of course, but you could get the Chevelle with a 454 which was - again, 454 - 454 cubic inches, big engine, that was considered a muscle car because that's a version of a vehicle that has a much larger V8 stuffed into it that normally would have a smaller power plant. Now, GTO played on this. They - GTO had a huge engine in it and, you know what, I don't have the information in front of me. I apologize but the GTO is one of these that a lot of people consider the first muscle car and Pontiac actually only thought they were going to sell - I think I saw a number of 5,000. Pontiac said they were only going to sell 5,000 GTOs that first year. Guess how many they sold because of this whole muscle car excitement.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. Okay. I will take a guess. I know it's more than 5,000. I don't think I have a lifeline.

Scott Benjamin: No peeking in my notes.

Ben Bowlin: I - okay. I will stop looking at your notes.

Scott Benjamin: You're trying. I see you.

Ben Bowlin: I was trying. I was trying through the microphone screen. No, I don't know, man, 8,0 - 10,000, 8,000?

Scott Benjamin: 32,450 was the number I saw.

Ben Bowlin: 32,000.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, as - from an estimated 5,000 that they had anticipated selling so you're talking about just this craze that was happening. People had to have these cars. I mean, and it's - you see a lot of them around still. They're all over the place.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Not as many here as there are in Michigan but I guess there's good reason for that.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, I imagine that.

Scott Benjamin: People that built them wanted to buy them as well.

Ben Bowlin: Well, also employee discounts.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. I don't think employee discounts had anything to do with it. That's - well, maybe. I don't know. I shouldn't say for sure. But then I guess the 70s came around and they went away.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, man, which, we have to ask, why did the muscle car disappear?

Scott Benjamin: I was hoping you would ask that, Ben. There are three very good reasons that the muscle cars went away. The first one, the Clean Air Act of 1970, EPA standards! That required pollution-control devices be applied to vehicles and that wasn't the case prior to this so horsepower went way down, the pollution-control devices were install by the factory of course on these cars and they just weren't putting out the power that they would've before. They were restricted.

Ben Bowlin: And these were not just catalytic converters or anything?

Scott Benjamin: Well, that's part of it but -

Ben Bowlin: That's part of it.

Scott Benjamin: - there's more.

Ben Bowlin: But it's more.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, and they were running leaner. There was a variety of things that - the Clean Air Act of 1970, check it out, there's a lot to it. That's one of the reasons. And then there was the oil embargo of 1973.

Ben Bowlin: Oh.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that was bad. There was a limited supply of gasoline. That's where you saw the people camped out, waiting for fuel. They had the odd/even system I think with their license plates. Same way we do water restrictions now. You know odd/even addresses. They did it with gasoline and odd/even license plates the day they could buy gasoline. And there was restrictions to the amount of gasoline you could buy on those days as well. And you know those cars were fuel-hungry cars. They weren't very efficient and this is part of - you know, all of this built up to the car going away. The muscle car going away. The last thing, kind of the nail in the coffin would be the - and this is touchy right now. This is the CAFE Standards but these were in 1978. The first time that manufacturers had to meet these standards was in 1978 and that really, really cut into the muscle car production.

Ben Bowlin: And breakdown real quick what the CAFE Standards are.

Scott Benjamin: Sure, that's Corporate Average Fuel Economy and that means that across the board all vehicles have to average a certain miles per gallon. It doesn't matter if it's a truck, car, whatever, bus, whatever you make. They all have to have an average of a certain number, a target number, and if you've got a car that's getting four miles per gallon but it's really fast, great, but that takes your average fuel economy way down so they wanted to make more fuel efficient vehicles that would have higher fuel economy and it would help them out on other vehicles that were maybe a little less so you're averaging this big pool of vehicles into one number and these muscle cars were - they were too much, you know, they were just gobbling up the gas too fast I guess.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and if they were in large productions then that would really bring the average down so -

Scott Benjamin: That's right and we're going to see a lot of that happening in the near future too with these latest fuel economy standards. We're going to see some of the cars that, you know, performance cars that we're accustomed to now - because, you know, we're kind of in this resurgence of cars like this.We've got the Challenger, we've got this whole SRT line of vehicles, we've got Mustangs that look like the Mustangs of the past, there's the new Camaro and all of these have big V8 engines that are really thirsty and, you know, but to be honest, they've got pretty good mileage, however, they do bring the corporate average fuel economy down if you look at the - if they could replace that vehicle with a much smaller - or that engine rather with a much smaller engine and get a little bit better fuel economy, it helps them on something like a truck where the trucks only get 14 miles per gallon.

Ben Bowlin: Or even if they replace the - an entire line with something that's a hybrid. Something like that.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, well, I hope not, Ben, but, you know, because I'd hate to see something like this go, I mean, because the new versions of the older cars that we're seeing now, you know, these pony cars, because we're seeing on the road - you might see a Challenger, a Camaro and a Mustang that look like they came from the 60s or 70s all together at the same time and they're brand new vehicles. To me, that's pretty exciting. I've seen them on, you know; magazine covers recently a lot like that. That's a pretty popular cover right now but I hope that they don't go away. I hope they scale back or do something that they can keep them around at least and kind of weather this.

Ben Bowlin: Now, you know, I can't let the show end without asking - I know it's a loaded question since we said there's so much controversy, the first muscle car could've been in 1949, the last one could've been in 1978 -

Scott Benjamin: '74.

Ben Bowlin: - '74?

Scott Benjamin: Oh, I guess, you know what, you're right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to step on you but -

Ben Bowlin: Oh, no, no.

Scott Benjamin: - I've seen one listed as 1974 but with the range somebody has said 1978 and I'll be honest with you, I don't know what vehicle they're talking about in 1978 but that could've been the last of them because of the CAFÉ standards.

Ben Bowlin: I see. Okay. And, so, our numbers match up -

Scott Benjamin: Sorry, I ruined your groove there.

Ben Bowlin: No, you didn't ruin my groove, man, you know, high-speed stuff is all groove all day. We're doing this. But, so, okay, what's the first win - what's the consensus?

Scott Benjamin: The consensus in the first one? Well, there is no consensus but that -

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, what are the majority factions?

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Well, some people say that it was the GTO, the Pontiac GTO.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: And that would've been the early 60s. What year? You're stumping me. Sorry, I didn't write it down.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, no, that's -

Scott Benjamin: The card doesn't say it, Bob. No, I forget. I don't have the GTO dates.

Ben Bowlin: We can ballpark it.

Scott Benjamin: I cannot believe it anyways. Let's move on. The first one, going back to the 40s and this is going to be a surprise really, an Oldsmobile. Something called the Rocket 88 which was where they just stuffed a big V8 into a relatively light-weight coupe and that was in 1949 and really, that does fit the definition of what a muscle car is because you're taking a giant engine, you're putting it in something that normally didn't have that and at a relatively low cost.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, but at a very early time.

Scott Benjamin: And it's factory. That's the other thing behind this whole thing is that you're talking factory performance because when muscle cars came around, this is again, we've got all these ranges but when muscle cars came around, there were hotrods. Hotrods had always been there. I mean, people had always been tinkering with their cars and were taking the customizers but you've got to imagine, that that's pretty expensive as it is now.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: It's costly to take your vehicle to someone and have them update it but this was factory-offered low dollar performance and that's really what a muscle car is all about.

Ben Bowlin: And I think it works because from the invention of high performance autos, the majority of car buyers cannot afford a Bugatti.

Scott Benjamin: No, no, you're talking super car performance and price and, yeah, that's just out of the reach of most people so this was something that, you know, kind of the everyman could have and enjoy.

Ben Bowlin: And we hope that this can continue with the modern resurgence so we might - I guess we might need to keep an eye on the way the fuel economy standards affect the modern muscle car. Well, the modern version of the muscle car.

Scott Benjamin: Please, somebody write in and tell me the date of the first GTO because I'm embarrassed but please do it and it would help me and I will read it on air.

Ben Bowlin: We would love to congratulate you on air. You guys -

Scott Benjamin: I've turned bright red here.

Ben Bowlin: Scott, yeah, - Scott is cherry red here. He knows a lot about autos and it gets -

Scott Benjamin: Not enough apparently.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, come on. You're way too hard on yourself.

Scott Benjamin: You know, my uncle had a GTO that he used to talk about - see, we're getting into - let's take one more minute and I'm going to tell you this. My uncle had a GTO and it had - I think it was called - he had three double barrel carbs on it and I guess it was just the fastest car around. He loved that car. Talked about it all the time. I had a Trans Am when I was - that was my first car.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, wow, cool.

Scott Benjamin: A Trans Am. Now, it wasn't really a muscle car because it was a 1978 Trans Am but it did have a 400 cubic engine and it had a four barrel carb and I'll tell you, the thing about that that was - it wasn't necessarily fast off the line, it was quick, you know, it was powerful but it was so fast between, let's say, like 60 and 100 or 120, w hatever it was, super fast. I mean, you couldn't keep up with me between those speeds. It was like with the second set of barrels would open up and man, it would go. I mean, it would press you back in the seat as long as you kept your foot on the pedal.

Ben Bowlin: That's crazy.

Scott Benjamin: It was fun, a lot of fun.

Ben Bowlin: Do you still have it? Do you want to sell it?

Scott Benjamin: I do not have it. No, it's long gone. I'm sure it's probably soup cans or something by now.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, man, come on.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Now, where should - maybe we can close on this. Where should people go if they want to learn more about muscle cars?

Scott Benjamin: Oh, well, they can come to our site. We've got a ton of material about muscle cars but, you know, just comb the web. You'll able to find information from the manufacturers - because a lot of them will have history sections where they'll talk about the muscle car history from their own perspective and that's pretty interesting but enthusiast sites are the place to go. Aside from the howstuffwork articles we've got and I think even Consumer Guide has some of the stuff on used vehicles, you know, they may want to read but really, go to some of these enthusiast sites and these clubs - car club sites. You'll find the best information. Just talk to some people, some older mechanics and see what they see.

Ben Bowlin: Awesome. That's probably - talking to the older mechanics is a great way to do it. So, to our listeners there, before you guys forget, just want to mention again that Scott officially, and this was your idea, we didn't talk about this, Scott officially has invited you to write an email to us with the date of the GTO, right?

Scott Benjamin: And you know what, I'll probably get several different responses the way this category is.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, the way things are shaping up.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, I know, the way that there's just controversy abounds in this category. So, we'll see.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and we'd love to hear from you. Thanks for tuning in. The email is highspeedstuff@howstuffworks.com.

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