History of the American Muscle Car

What is a muscle car? The term was originally used in the early 60s to describe American cars with high horsepower engines. These cars were designed to go fast, and fast they did. As the American car manufacturers started competing in the horsepower race, there soon became many muscle cars from the big three American manufacturers. If this muscle car era had never happened, it would be interesting to see what our car culture would look like today. In this week’s blog, Farm Boy Garage will take you back in time to look at some of the history of these high horse machines.

The Beginning

There is much controversy over what was the original muscle car. Many claim the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was the first. The Olds Rocket was the first time America saw a large V8 in a smaller bodied car. Oldsmobile took the engine from the larger Oldsmobile 98 and mated it with the smaller Oldsmobile 76 making the Rocket 88. This bad boy made a whopping 135 horsepower and dominated the 1950 Nascar season. In 1955 Chrysler introduced the 300-C. The 300 make 300 horsepower and was dubbed “America’s Most Powerful Car.” This was the start of something amazing!

Drag Racing

The popularity of high horsepower cars grew drastically in the early 1960s. American car manufacturers were planting big engines into smaller lightweight cars and muscle cars became part of the culture. It was the culture! You could buy factory-built cars that were specifically designed for quarter-mile drag racing straight from your local dealership. Every town across America was crawling with guys in these street machines and you if you asked around, you would soon find who had the baddest car in town.

The Peak

From the mid-1960s to 1970 the American muscle cars where king. The cars were getting bigger engines, making more power, and turning some very impressive quarter-mile times right from the dealership. Even though these muscle cars sold in relatively low production numbers, the American car manufacturers were seeing the publicity they were getting from these bad boy cars. The competition between the big three led to the horsepower war that peaked in the early 1970s. You had cars like the Chevrolet Chevelle with the 427 cubic inch V8 making 425 horsepower and running the quarter-mile in a little over 13 seconds.

The Oil Crisis

In the 1970s the muscle car segment took some nasty blows. The Clean Air Act and the 1973 oil crisis would bring the horsepower war to an unfortunate end. The Clean Air Act brought on the removal of lead from gasoline and octane rating were lowered to 91. Prior to that 100-octane fuel was common and that high-octane fuel is what most of these high compression V8’s needed to run properly. The 1973 oil crisis resulted in gasoline rationing and higher fuel prices. The high horsepower cars quickly became impractical and unaffordable for most folks to own. The American car manufactures quickly switched from making hot rods and were forced to focus on efforts to eliminate air pollution and emission control.

The Comeback

In the early 1980s, we started to see signs of a resurgence of high-performance cars by the big three American car manufactures. Cars like the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro were rolling out with some decent horsepower numbers, and by the mid-1980s performance took another jump with the addition of electronic fuel injection. It wasn’t back to the good old days just yet, but these cars were definitely a step in the right direction. From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s we didn’t see too many muscle cars break the 300-horsepower mark. In 2004 Pontiac reintroduced the GTO and reignited some competition between Ford and Dodge. The GTO, though not a super hit, made 350 horsepower. This seemed to be the start of another trend in the right direction for the muscle car.

Today’s Muscle Cars

Technology has brought us a long way and the cars of today are making some big numbers all while being economical. The big three all have cars on the market making some silly horsepower numbers. For example, the base SS Chevrolet Camaro makes well over 400 horsepower, and then we have cars like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat making over 700 horses right out of the box. While we prefer the raw muscle from the original muscle cars, we have definitely seen a comeback of the American muscle car!


We sure hope you enjoyed our overview of the history of the American muscle car. As you can see it has come full circle and we couldn’t be happier. Here at Farm Boy Garage, we eat and breath muscle cars. We are the premier restoration shop in the Midwest. If you have a classic muscle car that you are ready to get back on the road, we would love to help. We build custom classics for car enthusiast from around the world and your satisfaction is our number one goal. Check our website to see builds we have completed and to see all of our car restoration services.

Muscle Car & Classic Truck Restoration



Farm Boy Garage
10660 E. County Line Rd.
Des Moines, Iowa 50320
Phone: 515-528-8904
Cell: 515-333-1238
farmboygarage@icloud.com

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