What killed the muscle car era?
Shifting interests and changing times.
1964 Advertisement for the new Pontiac GTO.. From the Custom & Hot Rod Life vast historical archive.
THE DAWNING OF A NEW ERA:
There's an old saying in the car business that goes something like this: "You can sell an old man a young man's car, but you'll never sell a young man an old mans car." In 1962, when baby boomers started getting their driver's licenses, U.S. auto makers began making plans to produce a "young man's" car. The first to get their car to market was Pontiac. The 1964 introduction of the GTO, changed the way cars were made in the U.S. Pontiac got the early jump on everyone, but the other manufactures would soon release their own versions. By 1967 the Muscle car wars would hit their peak. Horsepower and torque numbers would skyrocket, but by 1970 the story would start to change.
1970's Auto insurance advertisement. From the Custom & Hot Rod Life vast historical library.
Everyone has heard the story about how muscle car manufactures would give cars HP ratings that were lower than actual measurements, in order to gain lower rates for consumers. The only problem with that story is insurance companies weren't really that stupid. They knew, probably better than the average person, what the car companies were doing. Since insurers knew it would be bad press to raise rates based on what "they knew to probably be true" and they couldn't afford to spend large amounts of money proving each individual car had incorrect HP numbers, insurers would bring up a different reason for raising rates. This would be a lot easier than you might think. You see, the cars that were being made in the United States were horribly unsafe, by bring that fact up, insurers could justify raising their rates. Proof was not difficult to find. While it was not the first time the safety of U.S. cars had been brought up, Ralph Nader's 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed" was the most widely read. When the book came out U.S. auto manufactures were embarrassed by the bad press. Unfortunately, they weren't embarrassed enough to change the way they built cars. As a result of Detroit ignoring safety problems, insurers began to raise premiums and consumers could do nothing to stop it. The only option consumers had was to buy safer cars which, at this time, ment less powerful cars.
Smog in Los Angeles, early 1970's. Photo Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.
On 2 December 1970 President Richard M. Nixon, signed a Executive Order that created the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA. The Federal Government began targeting the automotive industry on a triple front. From one side they used the EPA to start issuing regulations that required individual cars to meet specific emission levels. Levels that were way less than what cars were producing at the time. The second attack, also environmental, set up overall emissions caps for individual auto makers. Lastly, the Feds began requiring auto manufacturers to achieve certain safety standards. The triple attack required auto makers to not only detune engines, by lowering compression ratios, but to add ever increasing weight to their cars, in the form of ever increasing bumper sizes. Lower compression and more weight is the enemy of high performance cars.
The differences in the two above cars demonstrates what was beginning to happen to car culture in the U.S. From the Custom & Hot Rod Life vast historical archive.
On 6 October 1973 a joint coalition of the Egyptian and Syrian militaries crossed the Suez Canal and started the Yom Kippur War. This combat would end up leading to OPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) placing an oil embargo on countries it felt were in line with Israel. The effects of this embargo would be great and long lasting. Before the embargo a barrel of oil sold for $3.00, after the embargo prices would never be lower than $12.00 a barrell. In addition to the increase in prices, the embargo lead to runs on fuel all over the world. It became increasingly obvious to the motoring public they could not continue to rely on gas guzzling muscle cars. People had to change what they considered acceptable transportation. After all, if you had purchased the Opel in the advertisement above, you wouldn't be waiting in nearly as many fuel lines.
The Pinto was an all new car in 1971. Note the MPG boasting that specifically references the new EPA. From the Custom & Hot Rod Life vast historical archive.
THE PUBLIC DIDN'T WANT THEM:
The same thing that brought the Muscle car into existence, would lead to its demise. Young adults wanted fast cars with new designs in the mid 1960's. Auto manufactures obliged and gave them the Muscle car. By the early 1970's young adults wanted smaller, cheaper to own and operate cars. Enter the term "Sub Compact" into the American vocabulary. A 350+ horsepower car didn't mean much if you couldn't afford to pay your insurance bill and couldn't buy any fuel for it. The market invented the Muscle car and the market killed it.
The king of the Muscle car era: The 1970 Buick GSX 455 Stage 1. Buick fired the final shot of the Muscle car era & it was the loudest! From the Custom & Hot Rod Life vast historical archive.
THE END OF AN ERA:
The first era of factory horsepower started coming to an end in 1970. Insurance company's (rightful) attacks on automobile safety were the first signal of that end. Even though Ralph Nader's book embarrassed U.S. automakers about the safety of their product, those automakers did nothing to change what they produced. Nixon's executive order, bringing about the EPA, would signal a major change in the way U.S. Automakers not only built individual cars, but determined their entire vehicle line up. For the first time auto manufacturers primary concern wasn't what the customer wanted, but rather what they had to make to fit inside government regulations. Regulations that came from a government organization, that had no elected members and was therefore unaccountable to any voter. Finally, the fuel crisis showed the U.S. that they were very dependent on the whims of Princes at the other side of the world. Those whims could really ruin a motorists day. It is no wonder that public opinion was at odds with the muscle car.
Keep on Cruisin'!
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Art by: Chris Breeden
About the Author:
"Chris Breeden is a Social Media content creator for Custom & Hot Rod Life on DRIVETRIBE, YouTube and Facebook. After spending 5 years in Southern California, a.k.a. Hot Rod Heaven, while serving as a jet engine mechanic in the United States Marine Corps, he moved back home to Tennessee with an even greater love for Hot Rodded Vintage Tin. Since then he has worked in retail sales and the transportation and logistics industry. In 2018, seeing a gap in Hot Rod and Custom Car coverage on DRIVETRIBE, Chris began advocating for their inclusion on the platform. During the summer months, he can be found all over the Tennessee region covering car shows, meets, and cruise-ins. During the winter months, he can be found in the garage working on his custom 1949 Ford two-door sedan and 1954 F100 truck."