MUSCLE CARS AND AMERICAN CULTURE
Speed and power are compelling qualities, so it's no surprise that muscle cars were such a happening back in the 1960s and continue to hold an allure that transcends decades and generations. Indeed, generating a buzz that struck a chord with something uniquely American was a prime reason for creating these fast-and-furious machines in the first place.
It was all about marketing and the bottom line. Most people didn't need, say, a GTO, but the GTO's wild image would compel more than a few to buy a mild-mannered Tempest LeMans with much the same style. That's how muscle cars had such a big market impact even though they didn't sell in big numbers. The GTO, remember, was a marketing man's idea designed to get people talking about Pontiac and to lure them into showrooms. But muscle cars had to keep faith with performance fans, whose opinions often persuade non-enthusiast friends what car to buy. That required credibility in competition. Enthusiasts are demanding, and they won't talk your talk until you walk their walk.
That's why automakers worked hard to make sure their muscle cars not only looked cool but also had a winning reputation. Sometimes, the work was a bit shady. For example, despite Detroit's admonishments to leave demonstrations of speed to the organized confines of NHRA and NASCAR, young hotbloods still raced the public streets and roads in the 1960s. They were
defying the law, but rebellion was hip in those days.
The action was intense, emotions ran high. Fittingly, Detroit's Woodward Avenue was one of the most popular spots for outlaw street racing. And because of that, it became unofficial proving grounds for new manifolds, carburetors, and other speed parts devised by the automakers themselves. Many executives tacitly encouraged such "research" and even participated. After all, everyone else was there, so why not see what you were up against? As for manufacturers who didn't make the street scene...well, that news got around, too.
Such underground support is part of muscle-car lore. So, too, the highly visible new-car dealers that set up "speed shops" to improve on what their factories were doing. Because of their high sales volume, these dealerships were typically the first to sell the latest factory parts, but many also developed their own speed equipment, then built and sponsored race cars to show it off, usually in drag racing. It was just good business to sell performance where performance fans gathered.
"Muscle mania" was also good for the performance "aftermarket" companies that began appearing in the 1940s. Names like Hurst (shifters), Edelbrock (manifolds), Iskenderian (camshafts), and others were well known to gearheads from car magazines and prominent race-car logos. In the '60s, these parts-makers boomed as never before, which prompted even more companies to weigh in.
By the end of the decade, the industry had grown so large that it formed its own trade group, first called the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association, later the Speed Equipment Market Association (SEMA). But there was another side to the muscle car scene--and man, was it groovy. For all their raw power and rumbling machismo, muscle cars had a playful side reflecting the trendy irreverence of the youthful '60s counterculture. It was the era of do-your-own-thing and pop art, of "mod" fashions and Beatle haircuts, folk songs, acid rock and the British invasion. Automakers found creative ways to relate to this market.
Wild colors were in vogue, so American Motors offered bright "Big Bad" hues for 1969-70. Dodge and Plymouth had a "High Impact" palette with wacky names like Tor-Red, Plum Crazy, and Go-Man-Go. Plymouth's Road Runner touched off a minor craze for cartoony model names and logos.
The 1968 Super Bee, for example, inspired the "Scat Pack" line of hot Dodges with available bumblebee tail stripes bearing a helmeted character bee speeding along on dragster-size wheels. Ford borrowed Carroll Shelby's raring-snake mascot for the Torino Cobra and other purposes. The '69 GTO Judge was a knowing nod to "Here Come da Judge," a popular phrase from the hit TV show "Laugh-In."
Commercials and print ads also played to youth culture. Dodge portrayed "White Hat Guys" and a "Dodge Rebellion." British pop singer Petula Clark crooned that you should "Look What Plymouth's Up to Now." Ford pitched some sportier models as "The Lively Ones," and sponsored a like-named TV show to boot. Even Buick wanted to "Light Your Fire."
Chevrolet's Camaro launched as "The Hugger." Pontiac said all its cars "take the fun of driving seriously." A fictitious "Dr. Oldsmobile," white smock and all, was frequently seen working in his lab on hot new numbers for that GM brand. AMC promoted a muscular 1970 hardtop by giving away stickers with the phrase "Up with the Rebel Machine."
Hollywood, never slow to spot a trend, only added to a growing muscle car mystique. Three films in particular still rate high among performance fans for high-powered thrills: "Vanishing Point," "Two-Lane Blacktop," and "Bullitt."
And let's not forget all the hit '60s songs celebrating fast cars and good times. The Beach Boys alone cranked out "409," "Shut Down," and "Fun, Fun, Fun" (when daddy takes the T-Bird away), plus lesser ditties like "Car Crazy Cutie," "Our Car Club," and "No-Go Showboat." Jan and Dean sung about the "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" with a Super/Stock Dodge, plus the dangers of "Dead Man's Curve." Ronnie and the Daytonas had kids boogalooing to little "GTO," with lyrics credited to Pontiac promotions man Jim Wangers himself. Wilson Pickett idolized "Mustang Sally," and we idolized the Mustang that he sang about. By the way, a little-known fact is that the Mustang wasn't named after a wild horse. It was actually name after the P-51 Mustang fighter plane. In an interesting twist, the P-51 was known to the aviators who flew them as "Cadillacs of the Skies!"