Whether they are creeping slowly down the town strip, fish tailing down country roads, or driving down the long stretches of desert highway, the American car rumbling under the power of a large engine just seems to fit. In fact, while the true origin of the modern automobile can be debated, the muscle car is something that's wholly American.
What is a muscle car?
The exact definition of what a muscle car is can be a bit fuzzy, but most typically revolve around a V8 engine reserved for a larger sedan or even a truck being placed into a medium sized sedan. These sedans were typically two door vehicles. These smaller, but by no means small, cars paired with progressively larger engines meant vehicles which could unleash a great deal of power in a relative short time.
A brief history Though this practice was fairly common amongst the bootleggers during Prohibition, the earliest credited muscle car to be produced by an automobile manufacturer is usually cited as the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. The Rocket 88 came with a new high-compression, overhead valve V-8 dropped into a light weight body, resulting in the speed and power combination which would become standard.
A few other manufacturers produced them throughout the 1950s, with many more producing the cars and engines separately, resulting in the hot rod trend. It wasn't until the 1960s when most American manufacturers started to make cars which rolled off the assembly line fitting the muscle car definition. By the end of the 1960s, it seemed that every American automobile maker was producing at least one, with competition pushing down prices and increasing demand.
Why did they decline?
Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the death of the muscle car came from a variety of sources. The automobile safety and emissions standards which Ralph Nader started crusading for in the 1960s started to become law - mandating standards, which better for people and the environment, limited the viability of the muscle car. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 saw large scale gasoline rationing, price controls, and gas station lines, helped to make them impractical and move the American buyer towards smaller cars. The muscle car was becoming more difficult to produce and more expensive to own, a two front approach that largely spelled doom for the breed.
When did they come back?
The trend towards smaller cars lasted through the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1980s. It was then when gas prices eased back towards historic lows, the Japanese economy found itself in hard times, and Americans rediscovered a love for larger cars. Granted, those larger cars were sport utility vehicles, but they started a horsepower love affair. This affair bled over into a re-ignition of the muscle car, perhaps first with the Dodge Magnum RT, a blend of sports car and a station wagon, and then drifting into the rebirth of the Dodge Charger and the Pontiac GTO.
Alas, the rebirth was short lived, ending because of similar issues as the first era - high gas prices, increasing emissions standards, and a move by consumers towards smaller and more efficient vehicles. Whether or not the muscle car will make a third resurgence has yet to be seen. One thing that is certain is that Americans seem to be drawn to powerful vehicles no matter what part of the country they call home.