The Golden Era of American Muscle is Now

Some say, “they just don’t make cars like they used to.” That’s true. Others say, “the golden era of American Muscle is gone.” But is it really? If you ask classic muscle car fans what they love most about domestic cars from 1964-1974, they might mention things like horsepower output and torque figures, they may comment on the exhaust notes, aggressive hood scoops, bright colors and cool graphics, and “burnout” will also be mentioned — because that’s what muscle cars do.

What made the original muscle car era so special was a combination of demographics, technology, a lack of government regulation, and fantastic street performance combined with genuine track capability, depending on which model and trim you ordered. When it all came crashing down in the early 1970s, performance fans thought they’d never see the likes of Hemi Challengers and Shelby Mustangs again.

Challenger Hellcat and Mustang GT350 | KBB Images

Fifty years later, both models are still available at your local Dodge and Ford dealerships. Not only are today’s muscle cars better than the originals regarding sheer performance numbers, but they are also actually better muscle cars for all the same reasons the originals were so endearing.

More Power? No problem. With well over 700 horsepower, the Challenger Hellcat challenges most exotics with its 6.2-liter V8 engine. It is a marvel it’s mass-produced, starts and idles relatively smoothly, and it makes all the right sounds with the added bonus of getting over 20 mpg if you stay out of the supercharger boost.

The Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 trades pure power for controlled finesse and reminds us of its track-oriented roots.  The 5.2-liter flat-plane crank V8 makes “only” 526 horsepower, but it delivers that power in a vastly different manner. Instead of the neck-straining lump of torque provided by the Hellcat right off idle, the GT350 needs to be spun for fun. The engine redlines above 8,000, and it wants to be up there – screaming its way into your heart with a unique Euro-American wail, unlike anything you have heard before.

The diametrically-opposed approach to horsepower carries through to each car’s suspension design and dynamic behavior. By comparison, the Challenger feels like an oversized, two-door SUV to the GT350. Given its weight and straightforward approach, it manages the weight as best it can. And it kind of succeeds – you sit higher and have limited outward visibility with noticeable body roll at each corner. Meanwhile, the GT350 delivers a more nimble, controlled performance around corners.

Both Dodge and Ford have applied modern technology to make muscle cars in this era safer and more fuel efficient than their 50-year-old counterparts. They also provide cool features like launch control and line-lock, which you know, makes burnouts even easier.

Exterior styling cues have also been incorporated into functional performance enhancements with some striking results. Bright colors? Screaming exhaust? Killer exterior design features? Burning rubber? Its still available at your local dealer, though now you can build and order the car online. Yeah, we’re long past the days of giant Superbird wings or active-cowl-induction Chevelle hoods, but today’s muscle cars offer vastly superior performance while retaining all of the ingredients that made the original era such a unique moment in time.

Some said, “big, badass Hemi-powered stoplight racers and track-oriented GT350s? Nah, we’ll never see those again.” Thank you, Detroit, for proving them wrong.

About the author

Nicole Ellan James

As an automotive journalist and avid car enthusiast, Nicole Ellan James has a passion for automotive that is reflected in every aspect of her lifestyle. Follow Nicole on Instagram and Facebook - @nicoleeellan
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