- Image credit: Chrysler

A really simple guide to: Muscle Cars

Getting your head around the different variants.

If ever there's an group of cars in which people just keep getting mistaken on: it has to be those that are very American, very fast, very simple, and very loud. We are of course, talking about the American Muscle genre.

You'd be amazed at how many people in the car community keep thinking that two cars from completely separate classes were built as competitors to one another. In reality, it was far more complicated than that and despite having the common theme of big, gurgling V8s and live rear axles, some were targeting different buyers than others.

This guide aims to help decipher the sub categories in the muscle car line-ups and above all, provides a general guide to spotting what belongs where.

Pony cars

Image credit: General Motors Chevrolet.

Image credit: General Motors Chevrolet.

These were more compact than the norm in America: it all kicked off with the Mustang and Barracuda in 1964 and were built to appeal to younger buyers looking for a bit of independence. They were seen as a breakaway from the large, floaty land yachts and offered buyers a more convenient and sporting experience to the American motor car. Once manufacturers started offering them with powerful engines, the pony car was born.

Barring a few of course, pony cars generally had smaller engines than mid-sized cars muscle cars and those that sat above. Though, when the largest engines (i.e the infamous 426 Hemi in a Cuda or Challenger) were shoe-horned into pony cars, it resulted in one crazily fast and desirable package.

Examples of pony cars include the Mustang 289 K-Code, Camaro SS, Firebird 400, Cougar Eliminator and the Hemi Challengers and Barracudas.

It must be stressed that pony cars were not classed as muscle cars - even at the time they were released. People get hugely mistaken on these.

Mid-sized muscle cars

Image credit: General Motors Pontiac.

Image credit: General Motors Pontiac.

This is probably the most cliché category in the muscle car genre. Mainly because this is where all the famous Chevelle SS', GTOs, Super Bees, 442s etc. fall into.

The muscle car itself was created in 1964 with the Tempest GTO; the idea being it had a full-size engine (GM's 389ci V8) dropped into a mid-sized body (the Tempest). This trend was shortly followed by Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Buick and others outside GM throughout the 60s and early 70s - otherwise known as the golden era for muscle cars.

Generally speaking, mid-sized muscle cars also tend to have started out as humble family sedans or station wagons, before being tuned up to blast the 1/4 mile as quick as Europe's finest sports cars.

Super Stock cars

Image credit: General Motors Chevrolet.

Image credit: General Motors Chevrolet.

These are the ultra-rare pre-cursors to what people started calling muscle cars; you can think of Super Stock cars as drag racers for the street as homologation specials. Most notably however, a lot of them were based off full-size cars of the early 60s such as Chevrolet Impalas, Pontiac Grand Prixs and the like.

Such examples include the Dodge Ramchargers, Plymouth Max Wedges, Pontiac Super Dutys and early 1961-63 Chevy Impala SS'.

These big, yet subtle-looking beasts could take on the 1/4 mile in some truly mind-bending times. The Plymouth Fury 426 Max Wedge could allegedly slip under the 13-second margin in the right state of tune. Bonkers!

Super Stock cars were short-lived though. They existed for around 4-years or so, before things started to relax a bit - which neatly leads onto the next category that effectively replaced them.

Full-size muscle cars

Image credit: General Motors Chevrolet.

Image credit: General Motors Chevrolet.

This is a bit more subjective, as the subtle transition point from the Super Stock class to the full-size muscle class was around 1964/65. About the time when the Impala SS became a little bit more conservative than its earlier Super Stock years.

This class consists of full size family cars, but with rather impressive performance figures. The said Impala SS is the most famous of the bunch, but others such as the Chrysler 300 Hurst, R-Code Fords and Buick Wildcat Gran Sport.

It should be stressed that these full-size performance cars were primarily built as cruisers, but depending on what the customer chose from factory, some rather insane combinations were built which could give even the most desirable mid-sized muscle car a run for its money.

Sadly though, such oddities were very rarely leaving the assembly line.

Personal luxury muscle cars

Image credit: General Motors Buick.

Image credit: General Motors Buick.

These were a real niche in the American car market; the personal luxury segment was increasingly popular throughout the 60s and manufacturers thought it would be ideal to add performance variants to give buyers that little bit of extra choice.

Such cars include the Buick Riviera GS, Pontiac Grand Prix SJ, Monte Carlo SS and Olds Toronado W-34. Essentially sleek 2-doors which weren't designed for family usage, but had a bit of punch with the right options ticked.

Some might say that these were simply too prestige and luxurious to be classed as true 'blue-collar' muscle cars, but the hefty performance and cool-factor of these things makes it rude to not acknowledge them in this guide.

Thanks for reading

Image credit: Chrysler.

Image credit: Chrysler.

So, there we have it: that's a little guide on how to decipher the different variants surrounding the muscle car genre. We hope you enjoyed reading it and learnt a few things that you might not have picked up before.

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Comments (24)

  • Finally someone that knows what he's talking about! Thanks 👍

      1 year ago
  • Thank you. Helpful article

      1 year ago
  • Excellent article! What would you consider the breakdown for AMC to be?

      1 year ago
    • Thanks, Chris! As for AMCs I at least know of, I'd class the AMX and Javelin as pony cars, the Rebel Machine as a mid-sized muscle car and the SC Rambler: not too sure. It was a super-quick compact, so I guess I'd class that as a late super stock car...

      Read more
        1 year ago
  • Preach! Preach! This guy knows his cars.

      1 year ago
  • Thanks, a good read

      1 year ago
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