Let’s go back several years.
Consider the spring of 1955. If you’re an American kid who wants to go fast, you’re devouring Hot Rod magazines and staying up late to work on your early Ford hot rod. It most likely has a Ford flathead engine topped with the latest and greatest from the expanding business of speed parts. It features a 3×2 intake, high-compression heads with fins, a dual-point distributor, and tubular headers. Perhaps you even purchased some from “Speedy” Bill Smith. Regardless, you’ve done the best you could with your money as a teenager to make it the fastest vehicle on the block. As soon as the weather improves, you proudly drive it out of the garage for the first time. Man, it moves fast! Your friends are impressed, and for several months you reign supreme on the street.
What was the First Muscle Car?
Then, one night while cruising the strip, you pull up alongside one of those new 1955 Chevrolets. Even though it is only a few months old, it already has dual exhaust, and the factory wheel covers have been removed. As you take everything in, the Chevrolet’s driver revs the engine. It sounds decent, but you’re not afraid. You have beaten every other fast vehicle in town, and you will do so again. The light changes, the tires spin, and as you shift into second gear, the taillight of the Chevrolet is right next to you. By the time you’re prepared to shift gears again, he’s a car length ahead and has already begun to brake for the next red light.
You have just witnessed the introduction of muscle cars.
Yes, the 1955 Chevrolet lacked scoops and artwork designed to appeal to youthful shoppers, but it did have performance. It was at this time that the major three automakers upped the ante, producing a vehicle that could leave the showroom and outrun many homemade hot rods. Remember that, as stated in the song “Little GTO,” it “beat the gassers and the rail jobs.” The purpose of the muscle car was to provide a showroom stock package that was robust enough to beat your friend at the next stoplight or on the drag strip.
In addition, the 1955 Chevrolet responded well to the bolt-ons with which hot rodders were already familiar. With a 3-carb intake, performance cam, and headers, a 265 could breathe better, creating a remarkably robust combination in an already light car. Put the modified engine from the Chevrolet into that old Ford hot rod, a dragster, or an Anglia, and you’d have a genuine competitor. Over a few years, the performance aftermarket shifted its focus from the Ford flathead to the small block Chevy and other factory overheads such as Olds, Cad, and Chrysler.
It also helped that the 1955 Chevrolet was a lovely automobile. Compared to the chubby silhouettes of the ’54s, the sleek silhouettes of the ’60s were huge. The 1955 Chevrolet, like the 1932 Ford before it, featured a revolutionary powertrain that would come to dominate the performance aftermarket in a handsome, easy-to-customize package.
Am I, therefore, stating that the 1955 Chevrolet was the first muscle car? Actually, yes. However, one could build an argument for several others. What about the Chrysler 300 from 1955? And when we progress through the years preceding the GTO, we find that the 409 Impalas, Super Duty Catalinas, and 406 Fords were, at their essence, muscle cars. All of which delivered a turn-key performance that did not necessitate spending all night in the garage and busting your knuckles attempting to engineer your hot rod.
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