I gotta admit, I totally don’t get “muscle cars.” Even back in the 1960s, when they ruled the known world and the Big Three got into a major horsepower race, I was one thrill-crazed kid who didn’t see the appeal — and that was before I knew the environment even existed.
You would think we would have left muscle cars back in the Woodstock era with 30-cents-a-gallon gasoline, but that’s not the case. The Wall Street Journal points out that Dodge, Ford and Chevrolet are now fielding big V-8-powered, rear-drive cars, including a 444-horsepower Mustang Boss 302, a 550-horsepower Camaro ZL1 with supercharger, and a 470-horsepower Hemi SRT8 Dodge Challenger (see photo below).
I know why carmakers build these things — because people buy them, and they add luster to the brands. They’re wrapped up in the flag, right along with apple pie and motherhood. Does Car and Driver or Road & Track put Ford Fiestas on the cover, or Boss 302 Mustangs? Incidentally, that model first appeared in 1969 and 1970, which is when muscle car fever was in full bloom. All the names here reek of nostalgia for aging baby boomers (like me).
But let’s be practical here. The 1970 Boss 301 got 11 miles per gallon! The new one, of course, does better, with 17 mpg in the city and a credible 26 on the highway. The Challenger is pretty dismal — 14 mpg city and 22 highway — and it requires premium unleaded. I couldn’t get figures on the Camaro ZL1, but you don’t supercharge a big V-8 without expecting to pay for it at the pump.
When gas was cheap, carmakers didn’t even bother to list fuel economy figures. The really extreme muscle cars of the late '60s and early '70s are now, wouldn’t you know it, the most sought-after collector vehicles, some of them worth many hundreds of thousands. To their buyers, it doesn’t matter that their high-compression engines, built for leaded fuel, won’t even run properly on today’s gas. They’re going to be looking at them more than they’ll be driving them.
No early muscle car had anything but a V-8 under the hood, and it’s kind of sacrilegious that they’re talking now about them hosting V-6s or even turbocharged fours. But automakers are very conscious that President Obama is looking at a 56.2 mpg standard for 2025. Even big boosters like GM’s recently retired Bob Lutz acknowledges that the reborn muscle car era is likely to be a firefly in the night — good for only a few more years before it flames out.
The Journal is right to point out that today’s muscle cars are going to be better cars than their predecessors because those early ones were terrible in lots of ways. They were fine in a straight line, but they didn’t go around corners worth a damn and had terrible brakes. Just the ride for the drug-crazed youth of the period. One of the reasons the survivors are valuable now is that so many of them perished in crashes. Did I mention that they didn’t have emission controls, either?
This is one auto trend I ain’t celebrating. To recall the golden era, here's the trailer from the 1967 movie "Hot Rods to Hell." (And, yes, I know the difference between hot rods and muscle cars.)