The Second Golden Age of Muscle Is Over, and It Was Better Than the First


The Hemi is dead. The Challenger and the Camaro as we know them are gone for good. Only the seemingly eternal Mustang remains. I think we can call the second golden age of American performance as being officially over, and what comes next is uncertain. It’s time to take stock of an automotive epoch that lasted over three times as long as the original, and produced cars that were arguably much better. In the future, the best of these twenty-first century muscle cars may even be more collectible. Does that sound like heresy? Maybe, but hear me out on this.

The original golden age of American muscle lasted just a decade or so, give or take, depending on what you believe was the first muscle car.  It came to a crashing halt around 1974 with the multipronged assault of rising insurance rates, soaring gas prices, fuel shortages, and ever-tightening emission regulations. What followed the muscle car years has been dubbed “The Malaise Era” by journalists. It too lasted about a decade, and it took yet another generation before the next golden age of American performance cars arrived. But this one greater than the first, not just in acceleration and handling numbers but in the diversity and quality of the cars. Here are a few to try on for size:

The last manual V-8 performance sedans

As is so often the case, the apex of an epoch comes just before the end. Just as the T-Rex was around for the explosive end of the dinosaurs, the Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing is here to see out the second golden age of American automotive performance as the industry moves towards electrification and away from driver-focused fun like manual transmissions and high-displacement V-8s. The Cadillac is perhaps the greatest American sedan of the modern era, and given the endangered status of sedans in general, it’s likely to go down as the greatest of all time. With a 668 hp supercharged V-8, polished handling, and an available 6-speed manual (the take-rate for which has been around 50 percent). Not even out of production, the CT5-V Blackwing is already being viewed as semi-collectible. If the history of its GM super sedan predecessors is any indicator, these cars aren’t likely to get any cheaper in the future.

Its predecessors in super sedandom were of course the Chevrolet SS and the Pontiac G8 GXP. Yes, technically these were products of GM Australia’s Holden division, but in execution, powertrain and conception, they were thoroughly American-inspired. For years, American brands had tried and failed to build a credible sport sedan to tackle the Europeans, but with this pair GM finally succeeded in building what was essentially an American take on BMW’s beloved E39 M5, minus the crippling costs of ownership, and also with an available manual transmission. They never seemed to depreciate significantly once they became used cars, and today it takes around $50,000 to secure a manual transmission version of either one. After cars like the CT5-V Blackwing inevitably go extinct, it’s unlikely they’ll get any cheaper.

The most powerful muscle car, ever

2023 challenger demon 170 hellcat

This second golden age of American muscle gave birth to something muscle car fans of the 1960s couldn’t conceive of even in their wildest nitromethane fume-fueled fever dreams—The 2023 Dodge Challenger Demon 170.

Superbird, Schmooperbird, this 1025-hp rolling affront to mundanity had what Dodge billed as “Holy $#!&” level performance: 0-60 in 1.66 seconds (which incidentally subjected the driver to 2.004G) and history’s first production 8-second muscle car in the quarter-mile (8.91 seconds ET at 151.17 mph). Holy $#!&”, indeed. And it is likely destined to be the fastest road-going muscle car with the classic big front-engine V-8 and rear-wheel drive formula. Because they’re likely to be among the most sought after muscle cars of the current golden age, even the eye-popping $150,000 to $200,000 asking prices of today may seem like an incredible buy in the future.

The best handling (and braking) muscle cars

2018 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE
Jessica Lynn Walker/Chevrolet

Muscle cars from the 1960s gained a reputation as being one-trick ponies. Straight-line acceleration is where they excelled, and they didn’t do much else. There were exceptions, of course—the 1969 SS and Z/28 Camaros with four-wheel discs both handled and stopped well, for example. But the latest crop of muscle cars presents an embarrassment of riches from a braking and handling standpoint. The Mustang Shelby GT350R and Camaro SS 1LE were among the best. The headline to Car and Driver’s 2017 test of the latter said it all—”Born to run. And turn. And stop.” The myth of the one-dimensional muscle car was shattered. Brembo 6-piston calipers and GM’s FE4 suspension with Magnetic Ride Control gave it about 1.11G of grip, matching that of a Ferrari 488 GTB. It really was a supercar for everyman. Both the Shelby and the Chevy are phenomenal cars. It really comes down to whether your allegiance lies with the blue oval or the bowtie.

2017 Ford Shelby GT350 &GT350R in new colors
Ford/David Freers

Do the muscle cars of this current, second golden age have the same charm and sense of nostalgia as those of the 1960s? No, of course not. But give them time. Production numbers also tended to be higher, and as the second golden age cars get older, their thoroughly digital nature will likely present greater serviceability issues. But in terms of build quality, performance, and handling, they’re light years removed from their predecessors. Automotive nostalgia also grows with time. And since it’s a virtual certainty that there won’t be another V8/ICE-powered muscle car revival, their end-of-an-era status makes a powerful case for collectability in the not-very-distant future.


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    The first round was not as good as we thought it was but it was the best to that point.

    Even now most 4 and v6 cars have more power and performance than many stock 60’s muscle cars.

    But on the other hand we could modify the old ones yo be as fast as today’s cars. Also yoday we can add brakes and suspensions that are equal to today’s.

    It is a matter of perspective.

    The one sad fact is today the sound of a V8 is becoming more and more rare. Few 6 and no 4 can match the sound. Electric can be very fast but just no noise, vibration and feel to it.

    EV cars are like music with no soul.

    I read something awhile back that driving a V8 muscle car hard was like a musician jamming on his saxophone while doing the same in an EV was like that same musician just playing and holding a single note.

    Decent analogy, but the first “muscle” era wasn’t just about sound. Don’t get me wrong – the sound was terrific and a VERY large part of the visceral feeling one got, but it wasn’t all of it. If you lived in the “before times”, then through that first era and now this so-called second one, you felt multiple-sense experiences that impacted you in many ways [and, frankly, differently from one era to the next, so we’re really trying to compare apples and cumquats here]. As hyperv6 said, there’s a lot of perspective involved here. Someone who had been riding around in his mom’s ’49 Nash and suddenly experienced a ’69 Road Runner obviously views this comparison differently than someone who wasn’t around for that first transition.

    When Granatelli (sp) brought the STP turbine cars to Indy, one major complaint was they didn’t make the sound of the other engines! EVs sound like what you hear when you turn off your TV. Being a servo system design engineer for over 40 years, I understand why and how EVs are fast, just don’t forget sound is part of the sense of speed.

    I don’t know if it actually happened but I had once read Ford was putting a button on the mustang-e (intentionally did not capitalize) with the recorded sound of a real Mustang which changed as you adjusted for speed and road conditions. What will the tofu crowd think of next?

    The predecessors to the Blackwing sedans were NOT the Holden products. These were kissing cousins. The predecessors were 3 generations of CTS-V models including the V3 which rode on an earlier Alpha platform and the single generation ATS-V. The Holdens were great for what they were but they weren’t the predecessors of the Blackwing.

    One thing the second age of the Muscle car lacked was the sheer variety of vehicles to choose from. Not saying that is a bad thing but there are so many candidates to choose from back in the day. It’s a bit easier to catalog what the second age had.

    Your rose colored glasses are showing… The depth and breadth of today’s performance cars is amazing. There was nothing like a CTS-V wagon back in the day.

    Unless you are talking about price, then… yeah.

    I think what Gary’s contemplating is that there are no more Firebirds, Barracudas, Olds 442s. AMC Javelins, etc.
    Not as many engine choices either, and certainly not many color choices.

    You both have valid points, but it’s apples and oranges.

    Yes, somebody got the point. Also in some segments we got one vehicle in a class versus multiple choices. I’m not talking raw numbers, if that were the case then not a shocker today destroys the past.

    Also my glasses have transitions so they go dark not rose-colored.

    Yes, but it was diverse. It wasn’t til the very end that we saw just one or two cars from each brand. In the early 80’s when it started, there were plenty performance cars to choose from.

    Acutally there were a number of Wagons back then you could buy with the big engine and 4 speed. Pontiac had a Superduty Tempist 421 with an independent rear suspension.

    Re Tempest Wagon, It wasn’t something the public could buy for the street, It was a race only package and only 6 were produced. Not something you would drive every day.
    Catalina wagons, Yes

    I’m sure you saw Barn Find Hunter, Tom Cotter found then purchased a 1967 Ford Country Squire with a 428 and 4 speed. Not quite a muscle car but faster than the average grocery getter wagon of the time.

    I beg to differ about the wagons.. Many a tow vehicle was a special ordered wagon with the right stuff. I just saw one of my favoroite examples yesterday: a ’64 Catalina wagon with a tri-power 421 and a 4 spd.. Rare too, but I remember lots of BB Ford and Chevy wagons.. Many more than the ultra-rare CTSV manual shift wagon – not that I don’t lust for the modern Caddy wagon.

    My father special ordered a family car; Mom picked the color(Maze, yellow). 68. Impala wagon 327/275HP,THM 400 tranny;336 posi rear. it stood up to my brother and I beat the You know what out of it, was in the family for 250,000 miles! a Top end job and two rear ends & the transmission was never out of the car…

    Second gen was missing originality as they pandered too much retro styling.

    At least the Cadillac had a fresh start.

    Retro is ok to a point but we all gave grow up sometime.

    Once again we lament another Golden Age of Motoring as it passes. It certainly was fun while it lasted!
    Wonder if, in the future, the EV Age will warrant such attention by enthusiasts? Perhaps not. We are sadly sinking into an Appliance Age.

    I play the contrarian viz a viz end of the ICE engine as the prime motive force for personal vehicles, at least in the lives of most sensible Americans. Firstly, too many people want them. Secondly, my understanding is that GM are still working with and improving the Chevy small block, albeit quietly. Others are much more up front about the matter such as Toyota which have already said NO to the madness of dumping a proven, reliable and efficient power-plant format. While I have no direct knowledge, I am sure there are more mfgs doing same.
    Item three is actually my prediction based upon being alive a long time and observing all the changes over many years; after the EV craze has run it’s course (and according to a friend who is a forty year rocket scientist for a well known aerospace company where he opines electric vehicles are dead end technology anyway), you will see a reconsideration of unintended consequences to our electrical grid already on the brink by overloading it with too many EV’s. The end of the internal combustion engine is a fantasy for many more practical reasons. Not that EV’s will go away completely but when sense finally prevails and the dust settles, it will simply become another option for those that do want them rather than a fiat, ram it down our throat choice for all.
    Golden age number three anyone?

    This age of muscle car though did not touch as many lives simply due to the sales numbers. People used to buy coupes in much larger numbers in the first age. So more people owned them or had a formative experience seeing them. And media made them iconic. Bandit Trans Am and Duke boys’ General Lee. Dom’s Charger in The Fast and Furious series is one of the few modern examples.

    “Only the Mustang remains”? You totally left out the Corvette in this article. The ZR-1 is coming with 800+ HP.
    Also, are there any good stylists anymore? The new Cadillac may have big HP but the looks are dull and duller.

    You won’t get agreement on this site around a muscle car definition. The media side of it got lax in the magazines 10-20 years ago and started lumping Mustangs, Camaros, Impalas and Vettes into the mix.

    When Car & Driver coined the term it was very specific: mass market mid-size model with top displacement engine. Brawny, boulevard bruisers in a straight line. This was with the 64 GTO, a youth-marketed model. That was the formula that fueled the era.

    Mustangs (and other “Pony cars”) were compact and sporty. By 69 Mustang was more muscular in physique and performance, but not a muscle car.

    Big Muscle (409 Impalas) predated the muscle car term being invented. Impressive cars in a variety of ways, but sized-out of the muscle car definition originally.

    Corvettes and early Thunderbirds were originally sports cars as per the 1950s mindset of that. Corvette evolved into a grand tourer by the muscle car era whereas the Thunderbird became a personal luxury.

    The Shelby Cobra is your muscle car era sports car.

    The mass-market thing is key to the definition to me. Ordering the Avanti engine with a supercharger on your Studebaker is cool, but almost nobody was exposed to that in the day. The 300 letter cars… great performers and amazing, but such an elite thing.

    Speaking of styling….whether you consider it a sports car or a muscle car, many agree that the current version of the Corvette borders on ridiculous! It should come with a decal that shouts “look at me, I’m a Corvette and I want to make sure you know it!”. How many sharp angles and points can be applied to one little car? It’s a miracle we can walk near one without getting stabbed. There is a bit of irony in that GM designed a body that looks very much like the top of the Chrysler building…..

    Agree on the Corvette styling! I bought a C8 and never warmed up to it; just felt the “look at me” factor was too strong for a 70 year old grandfather. I also couldn’t get past the inability to push in a third pedal. Sold it after 1,900 miles and purchased what, IMHO, is the LAST true Corvette…a C7/GS/7M convertible. Now, that’s a Corvette!!

    I was thinking the same thing; however, I think the focus was muscle cars and not true sports cars. The death of the Viper was a major loss, but technically not a muscle car.
    This said, I think the focus is American muscle cars, which boils down to Camaro, Mustang, Caddy V cars, Challenger, and Charger. If not limiting ourselves to American muscle, there are 3 Lexus muscle cars being sold now…it will be interesting to see how they fit into collectible muscle as the years pass…

    From the article”road-going muscle car with the classic big front-engine V-8 and rear-wheel drive formula”…the new corvette especially is not a muscle car in the classic shade, me and my husband have a c8 z06. But I wouldn’t compare it to our ’24 ZL1 or my old ’95 z28.

    From the article”road-going muscle car with the classic big front-engine V-8 and rear-wheel drive formula”…the new corvette especially is not a muscle car in the classic shade, me and my husband have a c8 z06. But I wouldn’t compare it to our ’24 ZL1 or my old ’95 z28.

    This time around, things were the same but different ……. very few could buy the high-hp supercharged Killers, but most could afford the 500-hp N/A stuff. It was a great time to be a buyer. No matter what you got, it qualified as a piece of the pie. That makes us all Winners.

    There may have been more than one muscle car era, but I was only 20 once, and the cars that were out there (in the 1st one) excited me way more then than anything that came in the 2nd one. To go along a bit with what Gary Bechtold and hyperv6 have said, the variety of makes, models, power combos, and yes, even colors made the first era’s cars “grab” me, whereas the “retro” looks of Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers, along with less-than-“wow” designing like modern Chargers and most GM and FoMoCo offerings just didn’t elicit the same reactions. Call it age, call it dulling of the senses, call it what you will, but the first era of muscle got my blood pumping way faster and harder than anything in the so-called second “golden age”.

    2nd age of “muscle marketing” sure, to a degree. Still not as widespread in the pop culture. I suspect sales figures would tell a similar tale (even taking all the non-V8 64 1/2 to 73 Mustangs out of the numbers). The 49 Olds 88 with Rocket V8 was muscle marketed –but it was the pioneer/anomaly. Earlier performance marketing was about “Henry Ford wins a race” and “Let’s name the company after a famous-ish racer [Chevrolet], with high-end examples like Stutz highlighting performance.

    1st Muscle Car era it was about the performance and a lifestyle. Very youth-aimed too, just look at the ads from the era. 50’s car ads were aimed at family car audiences and country club elites depending on the aspirations of the brand. Though there was that little sports car blip (Thunderbird, Corvette…)

    Brougham age marketing gave way to Euro-look then smoothy. SUV/Trucks rise has been long-running with the hyrbrid then EV piece alongside it the last decade (for actual presence that matters). Modern muscle era is among that, significant to those that appreciate performance, actual cars, retro looks (for the most part) but it isn’t a dominant mindset. We don’t have “brawny” models across every significant make –in 1969 you pretty much did.

    Some of those 60’s muscle cars needed a lot of muscles to steer and brake, but they did go fast, and there were a lot of choices. I do like the way many of the newer Mustangs drive and sound. They are the hot rods of today.

    I have owned Mustangs starting in 1970. I would love to love the last two reincarnations, but I consider the exterior styling to be butt ugly. Reminds me of a flathead catfish with it mouth open and its tail twisted 90 degrees. The Challenger wins hands down on styling.

    “Reminds me of a flathead catfish with it mouth open” …….. Like a 1958 Packard Hawk by Studebaker!!

    We need to agree on the definition of “ muscle car” The 1969 Z-28 was most assuredly not a muscle car. It was most assuredly a Trans Am racing series car, along with Mustang, Firebird, Challenger, Barracuda and Javelin. Somehow a Pontiac GTO made the lineup for a few seaons. The Olds 4-4-2 and the GTO were the original “ muscle cars”

    Yes, Thank you for making this point I couldn’t agree more! And lets stop thinking that these were sports cars.

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