A muscle car is a type of high-performance, mid or full-size automobile popular in the United States between 1964 and 1976, typically large with a powerful engine that made some noise. The peak in muscle cars was around 1970. Muscle cars were an important motivator for young men to succeed, afford to purchase and maintain one of these cars, and then take young women out on dates in it. The immensely popular movie Grease is one of many films featuring muscle cars and their positive influence.
Designed by John DeLorean, the Pontiac GTO popularized the muscle car. Other examples are the Firebird Trans Am, Chevrolet Chevelle or Nova, Plymouth Roadrunner, Dodge Challenger or Charger, Plymouth Road Runner, Ford Torino, and Oldsmobile 4-4-2. They had large gas tanks, powerful engines (V8), typically two doors rather than four, low miles-per-gallon, a layout of a front engine and rear wheel drive, and open rather than pop-up headlights. Smaller high-performance cars of the time were typically referred to as "pony cars," having better power-to-weight ratio than their larger cousins and exemplified by the Ford Mustang. A common opinion amongst car enthusiasts and collectors in the United States is that the American muscle cars of the 1960s and early 1970s represent the height of automotive design and style.
Their primary appeal was to young men, who would be motivated to work hard in order to buy a muscle car and attract women. Federal regulations interfered with the success of muscle cars and ultimately drove them out of business (pun intended).
Some car enthusiasts cite the '57 Rambler Rebel or even the '49 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and '55 Chrysler C300 as very early muscle cars, but the Rambler had four rather than two doors and lacked a sleek or "cool" design.
Muscle cars were regulated out of business as part of the emasculation of American society, and the oil and gas shortages of the 1970s put additional pressure against fuel inefficiency. Environmentalists castrated muscle cars and led the way to a series of limp-wristed imitations that paled in comparison with their competitors, and led to a takeover of the American market by Japanese and European vehicles. This illustrated that government should stay out of automobile design.
These European and Japanese (rice rockets) vehicles were never as good as the muscle cars they replaced, using turbochargers to get more horsepower and looking ugly. The Ford Mustang, having had an unbroken line of production since its introduction in 1964, was redesigned with classic muscle car styling and enhanced performance for the 2005 model year. Since then, Chevrolet has reintroduced the Camaro and Dodge has resurrected the Charger and Challenger, all of which are high-performance vehicles with classic muscle car styling. Modern muscle cars, however, differ from their classic counterparts in some significant ways. Most of the modern cars are much lighter, thus enhancing the power-to-weight ratio of the vehicle, but this has come at the cost of building these cars on unibody platforms rather than body-on-frame, thus dramatically altering the handling, driving experience, and durability of the modern cars. Relative to the classic cars, modern muscle cares have few, if any, chrome elements.
Most modern muscle cars are narrower than the classic cars and have severely reduced trunk space and interior cabin room. Modern muscle cars are much more fuel efficient than the classic muscle cars, but this is only made possible by dramatically reducing the weight of the automobile (see above) and the employment of more computer systems and other complex engine designs (e.g. fuel injection). Thus, modern muscle cars are difficult to repair and far less durable; they come with a much larger price tag and higher cost of ownership.
Today replicas of muscle cars are among the top-selling toys in the world. Well-preserved, rare muscle cars can also be extremely valuable, as in the case of the Plymouth Hemi Cuda muscle car which sold for nearly $2 million at a Mecum Auction in Indianapolis in 2019.