Carini: Modern muscle cars are an irresistible thrill

Wayne’s GT350R might just be his favorite throwback to the muscle days of yore. Ford

This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

Back when I was a kid, I was fascinated with new muscle cars, but they were much more expensive than I could possibly afford. A lot of guys I knew lusted after the Ferraris, MGs, and Austin-Healeys that I would discover later. At the time, I had much more interest in hot rods and muscle.

My interest in powerful Detroit iron intensified after I saw a television commercial for Sunoco with Trans-Am champion Mark Donohue driving a Camaro Z/28 and shifting it at 8000 rpm. More than ever, I wanted a street version of the Trans-Am Camaro with its high-revving V-8, and every week, I’d make a visit to the Chevy dealer. I specifically recall a green Z/28 with a houndstooth interior and dog-dish hubcaps.

My first personal experience with a pony car came when I bought a near-new but stripped Pontiac Firebird that had been repossessed by a local bank. It was sitting in the parking lot without its six-cylinder engine, and Dad and I got it for $500. We found a transmission, a 400-hp V-8, and the rear end from a totaled GTO for it. In prepping it to be a formidable street machine, I added traction bars, along with narrow front tires and big rears. I mounted one seat and went street racing. Insurance wasn’t too bad, because I had registered it as a six-cylinder. I did all right with it, though a guy with a Hemi-powered Dart sometimes showed up and cleaned my clock.

That was the total of my period muscle-car experience. Just before I left for college, I sold the Firebird to my brother-in-law, and my focus changed to VWs and Minis. I never did get a Z/28, although many years later, I had a Boss 302 for a short time.

When the new generation of Mustangs, Challengers, and Camaros arrived starting in 2005, my interest in muscle was rekindled. All three cars were great-looking but cramped. With the right engine, however, they just got better and better. A 500-hp Mustang was unbelievable. Then the Hemi Challenger graduated to almost 500 horsepower by 2011. The wild thing was that you could fill it with pump gas and run the air and the stereo and power windows.

My eyes went wide when Chrysler came out with 707 horsepower in the mildest Hellcat. You could even get the Widebody Jailbreak version with 807 horsepower, which was tame enough for everyday driving but rowdy enough to scare you if you put your foot in it, too. Then, right from the factory, you could get up to 840 horsepower and 770 lb-ft of torque from the Dodge Demon version of the Challenger.

2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon front three-quarter

Although I’d never been a new-car guy, I bought a Demon. I keep telling people that my primary reason was to show my grandson how to pop wheelies. These new cars are intriguing because they make huge power, but the eight-speed automatic transmission minimizes gas usage. In the old days, muscle cars were all about how much horsepower could be stuffed into a car for straight-line speed. But this new generation of muscle cars really handles well, with their precisely tuned suspensions and big tires. They are superior to their predecessors in every department, except for nostalgia.

They are also bringing in a new class of buyers without cutting into sales or interest in classic muscle. Instead, these recent models are exposing new people to the allure of muscle cars—and many of those people end up turning into fresh enthusiasts who find themselves collecting original muscle from the 1960s and 1970s.

2020 Mustang Shelby GT500 Rear Three-Quarter

Finding the attraction to modern muscle irresistible, in 2020, I bought a Mustang GT500 with 760 horsepower, and a year later, I dived in again with a 526-hp GT350R, which has a flat-plane crank and revs to 8500 rpm. Equipped with a six-speed manual transmission and a competition-tuned suspension, it is a great track-day car. One of the reasons I bought it is that Ford said it will be one of the last with a manual transmission.

The fact that I like so many different kinds of cars helped get me where I am today. And that has put me in a position to buy the modern muscle cars that come complete with all the amenities—and a warranty. Nowadays, given the option of restoring yet another car or buying a new one, that warranty looks awfully attractive.


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    I generally enjoy reading Carini’s columns, but he plays just a bit outside my sandbox, I’m afraid, so I have some trouble relating to his situations. 😐

    I have said this is really the golden era of ICE performance. We have engines today that are putting out more power than most race cars of the past. Heck most standard non performance vehicles today even on six cylinders are faster than most muscle cars in the past.

    What many forget is not every car was a Cobra or a LS7 big block. most were 16 and 15 second cars. Yes they were easy to make faster but today it is all turn key.

    What is even more amazing is how the new cars can be a Demon at the track yet you can drive it daily to work.

    I just bought a Corvette that not only is comfortable but fast and could easily serve as a daily driver less the deep snow..

    I have had the old and new and both have a place and both have good and bad points but today these new models are just crazy compared to the past. A Z06 doing tens all day and then could be driven cross country with no changes. That is just amazing, even if you are an old car fan you have to have an appreciation for that.

    My V6 crew cab Truck is faster than my old GMC Sprint SP Big Block and gets more than twice the MPG. I don’t know anyone that can’t appreciate that.

    I’ll take a white Hellcat, no wide body. And I’ll need one of those diamond credit cards that somebody else will make payments on. Then I can live out my modern day Vanishing Point fantasies and criss-cross the US to my heart’s content until I get locked up or ruin into a bulldozer.

    I was interested in the GT500 but the dealer markups often put them in used Porsche 911 Turbo money. So I decided to pass. Can you get any of these limited cars without getting your rear end taken for a ride?

    Gary, I have often wondered the same thing about some of my posts. I’ve had some that seemed to take a couple of days to “clear” the moderation phase. The mysteries of website, eh? Maybe it indicates the times when Sajeev leaves his desk for coffee and donuts, and then when he gets back he has to catch up on approving any comments that have stacked up in the system! 😏

    From what I have seen, both personally and from feedback from co workers, is this happens when you hit the “Post Comment” button before the system loads the new page. When that isn’t the case, yes, we are taking a donut break and the system catches stuff for us to release (or delete if you’re actually a spammer).

    The GT350 is a horrible car. Well not horrible if you fill the oil as often as the gas and you don’t mind it overheating on the track.

    The GT500 has no driver involvement and any car with an automatic transmission is a car with the owner one foot in a senior centre.

    Try a C5 Z06 or C6 Z06, even a 4th Gen F-Body if you are looking for modern convienences, power and long lasting reliability. Forget cars that have 7 different suspension modes, exhaust noise piped through a sound system and drive by wire brakes.

    Interesting article, but a bit awkward at times. In the paragraph stating that he purchased a Demon, he also comments about how good the handling is in the modern muscle cars. The Demon was not a handler. The suspension was set up to transfer weight to the rear, enhancing wheelies, and many commented at the time that the standard Hellcat had better handling than the Demon. But, I’m sure the Demon handles better than a 69 Road Runner.

    I’m not sure I understand why many people keep comparing “modern muscle cars” to “vintage muscle cars” – and I’m a Boomer (which everyone says just sits around yearning for things to be like they were in the Good Old Days)! I don’t remember my dad opining on how different his ’55 Chevy pick-up was from the draft horses he grew up with. I don’t look at my modern mobile phone and think, “I should have a race between this and an old rotary-dial phone with a curly cord fastened to the kitchen wall”. My old metal hunting camp coffee percolator will not hold a candle to my modern Mr. Coffee – but then again, it was made in and for a different time, using different technology (e.g. – fire).
    My point is that the old iron was what it was and should be enjoyed for what it now is. And if one wants something different, they should look into a modern vehicle – which is what it is, and (IMO) is NOT trying to be what it was. I think we can appreciate cool old stuff for being cool old stuff, and new stuff for being – well, you get what I’m saying… 😋

    I have to agree with DUB6. I’m a boomer also. I remember comparing my ’72 LT-1 vette to my ’90 ZR-1 and thinking that the ZR-1 was everything the LT-1 car wanted to be but couldn’t be due to technology. It’s just crazy cool that a friend’s C5 ZO6 with a maggie still gets 25 mpg hiway, but storms if you kick it. Yes, I’d like my LT-1 back, but I would never do NYC to BG in one shot like I did in my ZR-1. I’d be deaf from the side pipes. LOL

    Truth is the six cylinders are faster than the original muscle cars. The extra horsepower is exclusively for bragging. These cars are way too big to truly be fun to drive unlike Miatas Triumphs MG’s, all slower but more personality.

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