North America’s love affair with fast and powerful cars began long before the market saw its first ‘muscle’ machines.
The attraction began during the era of Hollywood superstardom, when movie icons would be photographed beside their expensive and immensely powerful Duesenbergs, Packards, Cords and Cadillacs.
At the same time and on other side of the economic and social divide were the ‘moonshiners’. During the 1920s and beyond, these ‘good ole boys’ would modify Fords Buicks and other brands to outrun Government agents while carting loads of illegal whiskey to slake the thirst of a nation beset by alcohol Prohibition.
Cadillac emerged from World War 2 and the 1930s Depression with a radical new design: fins on the tail and a powerful overhead-valve engine under the hood. General Motors stablemate Oldsmobile was up there as well, releasing for 1949 its Rocket 88 and heading the pack in the booming new sport of NASCAR racing.
Independent manufacturer Hudson built some quick and competitive cars too, its highly developed six-cylinder engines making 220kW and the ‘stepdown’ body setting new standards in cornering speed. Following Hudson’s lead was Studebaker, which from 1955 installed a big Packard V8 into a lightweight coupe body.
For 1956 the power challenge was on in earnest, with Ford offering overhead-valve V8s across its range and Chevrolet ready to launch supercharged versions of its new V8 engine. Then Chrysler ended the argument with an amazing Hemi V8, which when fitted to the 300 Series Hardtop that could top 200km/h.
‘Game over’ thought the market, and for several years the advancement of US performance engines was halted by nervous car companies and tough economic times. Then came the GTO.
In 1963, newly-appointed Pontiac brand manager John DeLorean – yes Back To The Future fans, THAT DeLorean – was looking for ways to build market interest in his company’s struggling Tempest.
The Tempest had arrived in 1961, with a four-cylinder engine standard and aluminium V8 – later offloaded to Rover in the UK – optional. However, and due to General Motors’ company-wide decree, it was not allowed engines from Pontiac’s ‘full sized’ vehicle range including the 389 cubic inch V8.
Consulting with Divisional engineers, De Lorean was happy to discover that the bigger engine could feasibly be fitted to the mid-sized Tempest. Then, by offering it and other features as an optional GTO ‘pack’ he also avoided the need to seek approval from more conservative senior management.
In conjunction with Pontiac’s advertising agency rep, who rejoiced in the name Jim Wangers, DeLorean pitched his Tempest GTO into an otherwise subdued 1963 US market and achieved instant stardom.
Advertising for the breakthrough model was initially subdued and so was the GTO’s presentation. However, a discreet grille badge and vented bonnet were the only cues required by clued-up US enthusiasts needed when acknowledging the car that would come to be known as The Goat.
DeLorean set a target of 5000 GTO sales during its introductory year. But 32,000 were sold. By 1966 when the GTO had shaken off the Tempest tag and became a stand-alone model, annual sales were exceeding 96,000.
Other brands, within General Motors and amongst its competitors, seized the opportunity to respond and by 1968 only the upper luxury brands (Cadillac and Lincoln) had escaped having their model ranges infiltrated by low-cost performance cars.
In Australia, the route to muscle-car stardom was less obvious but quick to gain momentum. Chrysler was first to bring V8 power to our family car market with its 1965-issue AP6 V8. However, it was Ford with a special version of its XR Falcon that brought muscle car mayhem to this country.
Ford built its Falcon GT to win motor races and entice buyers into showrooms. For a year Ford had the local performance car market to itself but sold just 596 XR GTs before a more powerful XT model arrived. Meanwhile. Holden changed the game entirely with its two-door Monaro.
Accessibility was crucial to US muscle-car success and Australian brands were quick to recognise the need for product that was affordable by and relevant to a growing group of younger buyers.
Chrysler was again the first to move; in 1969 offering a Pacer version of its Valiant sedan at just slightly more than basic ‘family’ versions but including disc front brakes, sports seats, a three-speed floor shift and attention-grabbing stripes. Holden in 1970 went a step further with its ultra-sporty GTR Torana.
Up went the ante again in 1971 as Chrysler introduced its cheap and chunky Charger coupe; triple carburetted in potent E38 form but still quick and very affordable in XL form with a three-speed manual floor change and potent 4.3-litre Hemi engine.
US muscle cars by 1971 were falling victim to safety and environmental regulations and, by 1973, the cars that created a genre were gone. Attempts were made during the 1980s to revamp the US muscle movement using turbocharged V6 engines but it took until the 21st Century before US brands would again develop models with serious performance in their DNA.
Australia lost its way during the late 1970s as well, but the faith was kept by motor sporting icon Peter Brock and his HDT operation, followed some years later by Ford with its XR6 and XR8 Falcons.
After Brock’s split with General Motors there came Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) with its string of Clubsport models and a selection of exclusive ‘instant collectibles’ such as the W427 sedan and all-wheel drive Coupe 4 Monaro.
For many of Australia’s most dedicated muscle car owners, Enthusiast has become the insurer of choice when protecting their rarely used and pristine collectibles.
Enthusiast premiums recognise the minimal distances travelled each year by specialised vehicles. I you have cars that aren’t driven at all, there is also Laid Up cover to ensure complete protection for vehicles that don’t leave home under their own power.
To compare Enthusiast’s rates and coverage for your vehicle, or one you might be about to buy, log into https://www.enthusiast.com.au/ and select Quick Quote.