7 muscle cars before the GTO
Many say Pontiac invented the muscle car in 1964 when it introduced the Pontiac GTO. Jim Wangers disagrees.
Many consider Wangers the “the father of the GTO.” In 1964, he was a Senior Account Executive at Pontiac’s ad agency and an avid drag racer, both on the street and the track. Wangers used his automotive passion and marketing genius to make GTO a household name. He created the Pontiac’s legendary magazine ads, hired Ronny and the Daytonas to sing the pop hit Little GTO, and it was Wangers who sent Car and Driver a GTO powered by a larger-than-stock 421-cubic-inch engine for a road test cover story. He knew the car’s 0–60 mph time of 4.6 seconds was hogwash, but it put the car on the map.
Wangers, however, credits the Chrysler Corporation with the invention of the muscle car years earlier. “They were named the Plymouth Fury, the Dodge D-500, and the Desoto Adventurer,” he writes in his memoir, Glory Days: When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit, published in 1998. “The most interesting thing about each of these cars was that, taking horsepower and weight into consideration, Chrysler was actually marketing the first true musclecars, almost 10 years ahead of their time.”
And Chrysler wasn’t alone. Between the introduction of these mid-1950s Mopars and the 1964 GTO there were other muscle cars trolling the boulevard—from Chevy, Ford, and others, even Pontiac. Here’s our list of top seven muscle cars that came before the GTO defined the segment:
1961 Chevy Impala SS
Why Chevy’s engineers did not put their big W-motor in their smaller 1964 model, the Chevelle, is still a mystery. Chevy was at the cutting edge of street performance at the time and was enjoying the success of the Impala SS 409 since 1961. It was packing 360 horsepower (and 409 lb-ft of torque), which got bumped to 380 hp the following year with a single four-barrel, and 409 hp with two four-barrel carbs. By 1963, the dual-quad 409 was juiced with up to 425 hp and dressed with chrome valve covers and air cleaner (also the Z11 427, a special package for drag racers, was available).
Chevy actually offered the 409 engine without the SS package, but the Impala SS was sexy. It wasn’t just fast, it had image, wore cool badges, and it was one the first Chevys to offer bucket seats and a console. It was such a sensation the Beach Boys sang about the dual-quad 409 long before Ronnie and the Daytonas were taking a GTO out to Pomona to let ‘em know, yeah yeah.
Before Wangers was promoting Pontiac’s performance image, he was working his marketing magic hyping Mopar’s first muscle cars, first creating provocative ads for the 260-hp 1956 Dodge D-500 and then the even hotter 1957 Plymouth Fury V-800. These cars were not Hemi powered. The 318-cu-in engine used what Chrysler called a polyspherical cylinder head, and the V-800 model was packing a dual-quad 290 hp version of the V-8. Wanger’s magazine ad depicted the big-finned Fury outrunning a small-block powered 1957 Chevy at the dragstrip.
Wangers wrote in his memoir, “The ad was designed to promote the Fury as a performance car on both the street and the drag strip.” The ad went on to describe the Fury’s new “racing type” torsion-bar front suspension, which helped the 1957 Fury win Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. The V-800 engine had over 9:1 compression and cost an additional $245. It was available in any body style, but the two-door Fury hardtop was by far the sexiest with its signature gold spear that ran down its flanks.
By 1961, high performance was driving the industry and Pontiac’s resurgence from the brink of demise was in full swing. It started with the fuel-injected 1957 Bonneville and picked up steam with the all-new Bonneville and wide-track marketing that hit in 1959. In 1961 you could walk into a Pontiac dealer and buy a bubbletop Catalina on sexy eight-lug aluminum wheels, the industry’s first, and a 348-hp 389-cu-in V-8 with 10.75:1 compression, three two-barrel carburetors, a four-speed stick and factory installed tachometer.
It wasn’t the Super Duty 421-powered Catalina that Wangers was drag racing with the gang from Royal Pontiac, a performance oriented dealership in Royal, Michigan, in both the Super Stock manual and automatic classes. But it was close. And a 1961 tri-power Catalina became the first Royal Bobcat Pontiac, modified by the dealership for the street with thin head gaskets, progressive carburetor linkage, larger carb jets, recurved distributor, blocked intake manifold heat risers, and specific valve adjustment.
When most people think about Ford street performance in the early 1960s, they think of the Galaxie. But before the Galaxie there was the 1961 Starliner. It was two-door hardtop model and had a sexy fastback roofline with thin C-pillars, a large backlight, and slick aero for Ford’s NASCAR and USAC teams. It was also the only Ford that could be ordered with an optional performance package that created one of Ford’s first muscle cars.
For $109, the package added Ford’s FE 390 big-block with over 10.5:1 compression, a solid lifter camshaft, a special heavy duty block, and magnafluxed crank, pistons, and connecting rods. The engine was rated 375 hp at 6000 rpm, and Ford fitted special valve train components to handle the high-rpm. According to the book Ford Total Performance, written by Martyn L. Schorr, you could replace the 390’s four-barrel carburetor with a tri-power setup available at Ford dealers for $260 plus installation. It would drive the power up to 401 hp. These special Starliners were only available with manual transmissions.
For many, this is the first muscle car. The first of Chrysler’s letter series cars, the C-300 was so named because its Fireflite 331-cu-in Hemi V-8 produced 300 hp. That’s 120 hp more than you got in a 1955 Chevrolet with the new small-block V-8 with four-barrel carb. (It was rated 195 hp in the Corvette.) This was America’s most powerful car in 1955. Heck, it was America’s most powerful car up to that point, and the letter cars would only get more power over the next few years.
The C-300 dominated NASCAR in 1955, which was really the point, but these big beautiful cars were also king of the street. According to a test published in Mechanix Illustrated and written by legendary auto writer Uncle Tom McCahill, the man credited with popularizing 0–60 mph as a standardized measure of performance, the C-300 could sprint to that speed in just 9.8 seconds and could touch 130 mph.
The GTO was still two years away, but Pontiac was already selling some of America’s hottest machines. And the youth market was responding. Pontiac was now among America’s best-selling car brands, and in 1962 it cranked up the performance further, building 162 aluminum front-end 421 Super Duty Catalinas.
These were lightweight drag race specials, but many found their way to the street. And with 405 hp at 5600 rpm, they were hard to beat, even weighing in at 3800 pounds. The drag-spec SD-421 was packing 11:1 compression, dual quads, an aluminum intake manifold, and factory aluminum headers. The only transmission offered was a Borg-Warner T10 4-speed, and the standard rear axle ratio was 4.30:1. In street trim these cars were capable of low 13s at over 100 mph in the quarter mile. Prepped for the strip they could run mid-twelves.
1962 Dodge Dart 413 Max Wedge
Released on March 4, 1963, the Beach Boys legendary hit Shut Down depicts a street race between a new split-window fuel-injected Sting Ray and a Max Wedge 413-powered Dodge Dart. As the lyrics go, “Declining numbers at an even rate, at the count of one we both accelerate, my Sting Ray is light, its slicks are starting to spin, but the 413s really diggin’ in.”
Considering the 1963 Corvette is one of the most beautiful cars of all time and the 1962 Dodge Dart is absolutely not, the Beach Boys’ decision to pit the Mopar as the Vette’s adversary speaks of the 413’s significance on the performance scene at the time. There were two versions of the Ramcharger 413 engine (Plymouth called it the Super Stock 413), one with 13.5:1 compression rated at 420 hp and a more streetable combination with 11:1 compression that was rated at 410 hp—still much more than the 360-hp Corvette. Both used dual quads and unique cross-ram intake manifolds with long runners to increase mid-range horsepower. Unfortunately, Dodge only built a little over 200 in 1962.
In 1963 Mopar cranked up the cubic inches to 426, increasing horsepower by five (wink wink). These engines are referred to as Max Wedge and they dominated Super Stock racing for a spell, running low 12s.