By DAVID THOME
Special to ADAMM
Muscle cars: They don’t make ’em like they used to
are safer, have
plenty of power
Muscle cars have returned with a screaming vengeance after being more or less extinct since the oil crises of the early-1970s, and while some enthusiasts pine for the V8 rubber-burners of yore, reviewers say the classics have got nothing on the current generation.
Current rear-wheel-drive muscle cars look like their predecessors, but the similarity ends there. Says New York Daily News automotive reporter Nick Kurczewski, “Don’t wax too nostalgic, because while the selection is smaller, today’s muscle car field is faster and, in pretty much every tangible way, infinitely better to drive than the 1960s originals.”
That’s very much in tune with what customers say when checking out three of the more widely acknowledged current muscle cars: Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger.
“We hear countless stories from people about how they bought their first Mustang here 40 or 50 years ago,” said Carl Wallace, general sales manager for HILLER Ford in Franklin. “They have good memories, but one test drive and they see that, for the most part, the new ones are better. The fit and finish are better in all vehicles now compared to 40 years ago.”
Josh Schumacher, new car manager for UPTOWN Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Slinger, said the Challenger appeals “to everyone from 20-year-olds who don’t want to be part of the tuner crowd to empty-nesters who are looking to relive their glory days.”
LYNCH GM Superstore product specialist Dylan Strazzanti said he’s seen the same age spread—but what really pulls in buyers is that the current generation of muscle cars can be had for a very reasonable amount of coin.
Sticker prices for the Mustang, Camaro and Challenger start at less than $27,000. Even the most muscled of the muscle cars—the 707-hp Challenger SRT Hellcat—clocks in at $65,500. “If you want more power than that from a factory vehicle,” Emunds.com’s review says, “you’ll find yourself in really big-money Ferrari country.”
Some reviewers list other models as muscle cars—notably the Chevrolet Corvette—but there’s never been a hard-and-fast rule of what a muscle car is or is not. Bankrate.com writer Russ Heaps says that while some “enthusiasts” trace the history of muscle cars to the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, “the heyday of the genre ran from 1965 to 1970 before collapsing under the weight of higher gas prices, more stringent exhaust emissions regulations and soaring insurance costs.”
Most experts, he says, agree that back in the day, American manufacturers created the muscle car by putting the high-displacement full-size sedans engines into smaller two-doors to produce “straight-line speed, inspiring more than an occasional Saturday night drag race between traffic lights.”
By some definitions, he adds, today’s Mustang and Camaro are too small to qualify as muscle cars, but are more rightly referred to as “pony” cars.
The Worldwide Registered Muscle Car Club uses a complicated set of criteria to define muscles cars from the late ’60s and early ’70s. The club even regards some compacts, such as the Chevrolet Nova and Dodge Dart, to be true muscle cars if they came with big enough engines.
The AMC Javelin is deemed too meek, but the beefed up AMX version of the Javelin is on the club’s roster even though it generally excludes two-seaters.
The full-size Chevrolet Impala SS and SS and Z-28 Camaros make the list, but because of its two seats, fiberglass body and high price, the club calls the Corvette a sports car instead of a muscle car. Dodge Charger, Challenger and Coronet R/T trims from the ’60s and ’70s earn muscle car status, while more sedate versions of those models don’t. The Mustangs that pass muster are the GTs, Mach 1’s and Boss models.
More blasts from the past registered in the club’s hallowed halls include the Plymouth Roadrunner, Oldsmobile 442 and Pontiac GTO.
As storied as those vehicles were, reviewers point out that they didn’t come with today’s, infotainment systems, fuel injection, highly rust-resistant body paint or safety features such as air bags, whiplash-reducing head restraints, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, rearview cameras.
The latter is widely regarded as progress. For example, American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. says that while people equate rear-wheel drive and V8 power with muscle cars, what really defined the originals was that they were unbalanced and, without computers to “modulate outbursts of power,” difficult to control.
“Let’s not mince words,” he says, “muscle cars were dangerous.”
By contrast, today’s muscle cars earn top safety ratings in tests conducted by government agencies and private organizations.
Here’s a sampling of more of what current reviewers say about the new breed of muscle cars:
Kurczewski said the Camaro design is “a refreshing break from the ever-widening waistlines of other cars and trucks.” The ride is nimble, he said, and the overall quality of the cabin materials also impressed him.
Said Strazzanti, of Lynch, “With the 2.0 you get power and good mileage (25 combined city/highway miles per gallon of premium gas), and it’s still a lot of car. If you bump it up to the eight-cylinder (21 mpg using premium), you really bump up the price.”
“True to the design found on Ford’s pony cars from the late-1960s,” writes Kurczewski, “the new model is a head-turner…”
Wallace, of Hiller Ford, adds that the latest Mustang is quieter than its predecessors, “but still sounds pretty good when you rev it up.”
Kurczewski gave kudos to Dodge for making the top-of-the-line Challenger SRT Hellcat’s 707-hp Hemi V8 “the undisputed champ judging by the biggest numbers.”
Schumacher, of Uptown Chrysler Dodge Jeep, said the Challenger’s design is truly retro inspired because it retains a characteristically American “squared-off boxiness” shared by many of the originals.
“Seventy percent of the Challengers we sell are to men, 30% to women,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. People who are interested in this kind of car want that power, and that look.”
The 2016 Camaros have caught the eye of muscle car fans