MUSCLECARS ARE BACK!
By Steve Parker
Factory-built high-performance cars first appeared, officially,
in late 1963 with the introduction of the 1964 Pontiac GTO.
No longer did a speed freak need to buy a small-ish, lightweight,
four-seat Detroit coupe and then pay big money to shove a
giant engine into it to get some performance. Pontiac's
then-Chief Engineer, John Z. DeLorean, had done it for them.
In this case, it was a massive 389 cubic inch V8 shoehorned
into a LeMans body shell, sort of like mating a tiger with
The result was the musclecar.
Musclecars reigned supreme until the fuel crises of the early
70s, along with massive hikes in insurance prices, spelled
their demise. The GTO itself was killed-off in 1974, then
merely a caricature of its former powerful self. But almost
1 million had been sold during its ten year run.
Then in 1979, BMW came out with the M1 (M for "Motorsport"),
a street version of one of their successful factory-built
race cars. In years to come a slew of "M" versions
of various BMW models became available.
Mercedes-Benz followed suit. They purchased AMG, an aftermarket
Teutonic "tuning house" which took stock M-B models
and turned them into screamers. Audi started a line of musclecars
with an "S" designation. Jaguar has begun making
cars and equipment with the "R" nomenclature, that
single letter representing both that company's most muscular
factory-made autos and a new commitment to performance based
on their recent entry into Formula 1 racing.
Let's face it, though --- a true musclecar is first and foremost
a thoroughly American plaything. No matter how you feel about
speed, performance, safety and fuel mileage, the following
and thoroughly New American Musclecars are driving our way
in the next few years.
First off, the Hemi is coming!
Coming back, that is.
In just another year or so, we'll find the Chrysler 300N,
the latest iteration of that company's infamous "letter"
cars. This one will be a rear-wheel drive model powered by
an over-300 horsepower V8 with the legendary "hemispherical"
The Hemi was so powerful and became so popular when first
introduced in the 1960s, that today's professional drag racers
still use Hemi-style engines in their 320 mile per hour Funny
Cars and Top Fuel Dragsters. Dodge already is using that Hemi
engine in some of their large trucks. Chrysler has gone this
route before. The V10 engine in the outrageous Dodge Viper
sports car began life as a truck engine.
Ford reached into their past for the name of their new Mercury,
Marauder, another rear-drive V8. The Marauder is an upgraded
version of the Ford Crown Victoria police car. Most buyers
are men in their 50s who remember the name from Mercury's
glory days in the 1960s, when Parnelli Jones raced Marauders.
Lincoln's LS models, available as rear-drive models with
either V6 or V8 engines (the V6 model can be had with a stick
shift), are going to be greatly upgraded with performance
for 2004 or 2005. It's expected that the V8 model may get
a turbo or supercharger, and its own six-speed stick shift.
Lincoln wants LS to become a true "BMW fighter".
From downtown Detroit, at their headquarters building known
as "The Tubes", General Motors appears to have good
news for horsepower addicts.
It started two years ago with the addition of Bob Lutz to
the GM executive team. Lutz, when a top dog at Chrysler, had
given the go-ahead for the Viper, PT Cruiser and Prowler programs.
GM has hired him, at 72, to create some of that same magic
Lutz visited Australia to check out the local GM division,
Holden. He took a liking to a car called Monaro, a family-sized
coupe equipped with the same 5.7 liter V8, rear-drive and
six-speed stick shift found in the Corvette.
Lutz likes the car so much, he's bringing it to America.
Starting in model year 2004, the Holden Monaro will be available
in the US as the resurrection of the Pontiac GTO --- just
in time for the 40th anniversary of that car.
Pricing will be under $30,000, horsepower will be above 325,
and owners will pay a Federal gas guzzler tax.
Pontiac has a long, illustrious history when it comes to
high-performance. In the late '50s and early '60s, Pontiac
dominated NASCAR with race cars equipped with their "Super
Duty" package. NHRA drag racing saw Pontiac first win
a national event in 1960.
A new line of performance-oriented Pontiacs will be called
GXP. Bonneville GXP, on sale in 2004, will have a 4.4 liter
V8 making 300 or more horses. Grand Prix, Grand Am, Vibe and
Sunfire GXP models will follow.
Chevrolet, which had a hit with their Impala SS musclecar
in the 90s (it was a civilian version of the Impala police
car, and was killed when the factory which made it converted
to truck production), is bringing back the SS moniker, first
for a series of high-performance trucks and SUVs. Suspensions
will be lowered as much as four inches on these Tahoe, Trailblazer
and Silverado models. Engines will be 6 liter V8's pumping
out between 345 and 395 horsepower. SS cars will surely follow.
Cadillac will be very much in the running with the rest of
the GM performance race.
Their new factory-built, street-legal, near-racers will be
called "V-series". First will be a V-version of
the new, popular CTS. Criticized for being underpowered, CTS
will get a 400 (!) horsepower V8, and the rear-drive car will
be available with a six-speed manual transmission and 18 inch
wheels. CTS-v hits the road the first half of 2004. Eventually,
Cadillac model may have a V version.
Why all the emphasis on performance? Because computers have
made powerful V8 engines fairly clean, relatively efficient,
and dependable. And these cars bring a lot of people into
showrooms, whether or not they buy the musclecars (they're
also called "halo cars", for shining a spotlight
on the entire line).
Since the first cars appeared, there have been "aftermarket"
companies making performance upgrade parts. The aftermarket
business in America in 2001 was a $26 billion (with a "B")
Every year, the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association
has a to-the-trade-only convention in Las Vegas. In 2002,
the three-day SEMA Show drew over 1,500 exhibitors and 80,000
buyers, executives, engineers, stylists, journalists and gearheads
from around the planet.
It had begun as the Speed Equipment Manufacturing Association
in southern California in the 1970s. Founders included land
speed-record setting legend Mickey Thompson, publisher Robert
Petersen (HOT ROD, MOTOR TREND and CAR CRAFT magazines), Wally
Parks (creator of the National Hot Rod Association), racer/engineer/journalist
Dean Batchelor and Alex Xydias, the two masterminds of the
now-iconic So Cal Speed Shop, which started many of the most
popular performance and design trends.
SEMA helped turn hot rodding into a serious, respected worldwide
Car-makers took note of SEMA's success and influence. Detroit
executives decided they wanted a piece of that action. At
the most recent SEMA extravaganza (with over 13 miles of aisles!),
DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Kia, Mazda, Suzuki
and Volkswagen/Audi were all on hand with huge exhibits.
This adds up to a new horsepower war between the manufacturers,
something not seen since the 1960s. Then, car-makers eventually
agreed on a horsepower-to-vehicle weight formula which restricted
musclecar power and, it was hoped, illegal and dangerous street
But with somewhat stable fuel prices and electronic wizardry
allowing massive amounts of power to be exploited from lightweight
powerplants, those wars, like our Hemi engine, are back with
For those with particularly heavy right feet, choices for
fun are no longer limited to tiny two-seat sports cars. Now
the entire family can get involved.
About the Author
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist living
in Palm Springs, CA, where he produces and hosts automotive-related
radio and TV shows) Steve Parker THE CAR NUT / THE CAR DUDE.
Over 30 Years of Emmy-Award Winning Automotive Journalism on
TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines.