What Was The First Muscle Car?
Article by Mark Trotta
Before we establish what the first muscle car was, we need to define what a muscle car is. The classic American muscle car was a regular production vehicle marketed to be a factory high-performance car. Primarily designed for straight-line speed, these cars were durable, affordable, and fast, but lacked sophisticated chassis, brakes, and suspension.
The most agreed upon definition, is that muscle cars were based on intermediate-sized cars, no larger than a 120" wheelbase, and powered by a V8 engine displacing 300 cubic-inches or more. If the above definition is valid, it rules out the 1955 Chrysler 300, which weighed over 4,000 pounds, the 1957 Chevy which was a full-size car, and the 1962 Chevy 409 (also a full-size car).
Oldsmobile Rocket V8
In 1949, Oldsmobile debuted their "Rocket V8" engine. The 303ci overhead-valve motor featured a forged steel crankshaft, aluminum pistons with floating wrist-pins, and a dual-plane intake manifold, producing 135 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. The over-square design had a bore of 3.75" and stroke of 3.438".
Once the Rocket V8 engine was placed inside Oldsmobile's lighter-bodied 76-series cars, the Rocket 88 series began, marking the first time a larger-than 300ci engine was installed in a mid-size car.
Rocket 88 In Competition
The Rocket 88 won at Daytona Speed Weeks, the 2,100-plus mile Carrera Panamericana, and dominated NASCAR's Grand National series for several years. Produced from 1949 until 1953, the engine got larger and more powerful through the years.
Read: Top Five Muscle Car Engines
Following the timeline of post-WW2 America, the late fifties and early sixties brought about new outlets for car performance, such as NASCAR oval tracks, Speed Trials at Florida's Daytona Beach,and straight-line acceleration runs at NHRA drag strips.
1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk
Produced from 1956-1958, the Studebaker Golden Hawk was a stylish two-door coupe weighing 3360 pounds. First-year models were powered by a 352ci Packard V8 with a bore and stroke of 4.00 x 3.50. Engine output was 275 horsepower, which at the time, was second only to the Chrysler 300.
The July 1956 edition of Speed Age Magazine ran a comparison test between the fastest production cars of the day. Their reports showed the Packard-powered Hawk was faster than the Chevy Corvette, Ford Thunderbird, and the Chrysler 300.
For 1957-1958, the Packard motor was no longer available, so the Golden Hawk was fitted with Studebaker's 289ci V8. With the addition of a McCulloch supercharger, 275 horsepower was still achieved, but with less torque than the Packard V8.
1957 Rambler Rebel
The Rebel debuted as a special model showcasing Rambler's new V8 engine. Not to be confused with the small-block Chevy V8 produced from 1962 to 1968, Rambler's 327ci engine featured 9.5:1 compression ratio, a four-barrel carburetor, and produced 255 horsepower. Placed in the mid-size Rebel body, it gave a power-to-weight ratio of 13:1.
At Daytona Speed Week in February 1957, a Rambler Rebel ran 0-60 in 7.2 seconds. The only car faster was a fuel-injected Corvette, at 7.0 seconds.
Factory Race Cars
Starting in the early sixties, both Ford and Dodge were building cars specifically to compete at the drag strip. These include special versions of the Ford Fairlane, Mercury Comet, and Dodge Dart. Often described as a street legal race car, they were not widely advertised, and production numbers were very low.
413 Ramcharger Dart
Dodge and Plymouth revamped their model lines for 1962, including the (then) full-size Dodge Dart. In the spring of 1962, a special "Ramcharger 413" model was offered. The race-ready 413ci Max Wedge engine featured aluminum pistons, magnafluxed connecting rods, dual 650-cfm Carter four-barrels, and a solid-lifter camshaft. Also included were factory headers with three-inch diameter pipes.
The Ramcharger 413 Dodge Dart dominated drag strips, with 13-second ETs at over 100 mph. With a horsepower rating of 410 and a curb weight of just 3,350 pounds, it had the highest power-to-weight rating of any passenger car built that year. A total of just 212 Ramcharger 413 models were built.
1964 Ford Thunderbolt
The 1964 Ford Thunderbolt was based on the mid-size Fairlane body, with all comfort features removed. There were no sun visors, outside mirror, sound-deadener, armrests, or jack and lug wrench. All of these were omitted to save weight. Side glass windows were substituted with lightweight plexiglass. A fiberglass front bumper was used on the front and a steel bumper remained on the rear. Total weight for the Thunderbolt was 3203 pounds, which was about 20 pounds heavier than the minimum weight for NHRA super stock racing in 1964.
Under the hood, a 427ci engine with 12.7:1 compression,featured two four-barrel carburetors and a special intake manifold and camshaft. Air was fed into the engine through two hoses connected to unused headlamp entrances in the grille.
Straight off the dealer lot, the Thunderbolt could run the quarter-mile in under 12 seconds at over 120 mph. Factory records indicate the first 11 cars were maroon, and the next 100 were white, making a grand total of 111 Thunderbolts built. About half of these specially-built models were equipped with a 4-speed-transmission.
A similarly-equipped Mercury Comet also featured the 427 Ford FE motor. Fiberglass front end components were used to further lighten the already-light car. The cars were classed as A/Factory Experimental.
Late in the 1964 NHRA season, Don Nicholson turned a 10.75 second run at Cecil County Drag Strip in his 427-powered Comet. Mercury built 21 of these special lightweight Comets.
First Street Hemi
When the 426 Hemi was first seen in 1964, it was strictly a racing engine. After Hemi-powered Mopars dominated the that year's Daytona 500 (finishing 1-2-3-4) they were quickly banned unless the motors were offered to the general public. This meant installing them in "ordinary" production vehicles. The first street Hemi appeared in 1966 B-body Dodges and Plymouths, including the new Dodge Charger.
Huge by any standards, the 426 Street Hemi was nicknamed "Elephant Engine" not only for its cubic capacity and power, but for its 800-plus pound weight. With a 4.25 inch bore and 3.75 stroke, the seven-litre OHV V-8 was based on an iron block with four-bolt-main, cross-bolted caps. The crankshaft was made of forged-steel, as were the connecting rods. Compression ratio for the street Hemi was 10.25:1.
For induction, the street hemi had an aluminum dual-plane dual-carb manifold with dual Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors mounted in-line. With a solid-lifter camshaft, 425 horsepower was advertised, but actual output was closer to 500. Torque was listed at 490 lb/ft at 4000 rpm.
Since NHRA outlawed aluminum body panels after 1963, the new Super-Stock Dodge bodies were steel but with numerous weight reduction features. The cars had no sound deadener, insulation or undercoating. A modified grill eliminated two of the headlights, and only one wiper arm was installed. The Hemi engine itself had aluminum heads, bringing the cars weight down to less than 3,200 pounds. With dual four-barrels carburetors, engine output was over 500 horsepower.
First Regular Production Muscle Car
Although the GTO is most often cited as the first muscle car, history clearly shows that Pontiac wasn't the first car company to drop a big motor in a mid-sized car, but they were the first to market a mid-sized car with a big motor.
Rivaling anything on the road in straight-line acceleration, the 1964 Tempest-based GTO was wildly successful, prompting other car companies to use the same formula. Every U.S. car manufacturer began packaging a factory hot rod with youth-oriented advertising, bringing about the muscle car phenomenon of the sixties.