Have We Seen The Last Of The Muscle Cars?
Craig Clough, Staff writer
POSTED: 4:32 pm EDT March 23, 2009
Somewhere in America on Feb. 17, a man with a mullet and wearing tank top, ripped jeans and driving a Trans
Am with mud flaps with a cutout of a woman on them shed a lone tear as he listened to “Radar Love” by
Golden Earring while speeding down the highway and shifting gears. That was the day that General Motors
announced it was all but eliminating the Pontiac brand by demoting it to a “focused niche brand” as part of
GM’s realignment plan.
While the end of Pontiac isn’t exactly a death blow to muscle cars in America, it does leave them
hanging by a fingernail and means that beloved models like the Firebird, Trans Am and GTO will likely never
come back. From the muscle car’s glory days of the 1960s and '70s, when it seemed every busy street in
America had some souped-up, loud car burning rubber and causing trouble, only the Ford Mustang, Chevy
Camaro, Dodge Challenger and a few others remain as 2009 models. Several forces have combined into a
perfect storm over the last 30 years to bring the muscle car to the brink of extinction. So what happened? How
did the muscle car go from something that was considered as American as apple pie to a “focused niche” more
likely to be seen in a museum than on a street corner?
History Of Muscle Cars
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a muscle car is “any of a group of American-made two-door sports
coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.” Missing from that definition is also a
level of affordability. “There’s this history of the Camaro and the Firebird -- it’s a poor man’s Corvette, you
could say,” said Charles Kenny, psychologist and president of the consumer psychology firm Kenny &
Associates, which has worked with many of the major auto makers by helping them understand the mind of the
The concept of making high-performance cars at an affordable price started in the 1940s, but the 1960s
are considered the birth of the muscle car. There was the Plymouth Duster, Plymouth Variant, Plymouth Road
Runner, Plymouth GTX, Dodge Super Bee, Ford Thunderbolt and many others. Muscle cars became a symbol
of working class America and, in a sense, of the power of the American economy -- that glamour, power and
sex appeal could be had even by working class people. Despite them being relatively cheap cars that could be
driven by the average American, Hollywood glamorized the muscle car in films like “Bullit” “Smokey and the
Bandit” and “Vanishing Point;” TV shows like “Charlie’s Angels;” and songs like the Beach Boys’ “409” and
“Fun, Fun, Fun.” “Smokey and the Bandit,” starred Burt Reynolds but costarred his 1977 black Trans Am and
helped make the film the second most popular of the year, right behind a little film called “Star Wars.”
In 1978, GM sold 260,000 Camaros and 175,000 Firebirds, according to the New York Times. As Burt
Reynolds and his Trans Am were jumping bridges on the silver screen and sales were as strong as ever, it
seemed that muscle cars were going to dominate the highways forever. But by 2001, sales had dropped to
42,000 for the Camaro and 31,000 for the Firebird. GM also announced the discontinuation of the two models –
although the Camaro was brought back for 2009.
The first blow to the muscle car was the 1970 Clean Air Act, which forced the automakers to make more
environmentally friendly cars, which brought about the catalytic converter and unleaded gasoline, which cut
down on muscle cars’ performance. Then there was the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which brought about major
gasoline shortages in America and had the automakers looking to make more fuel efficient cars. In 1965,
activist Ralph Nader published the book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which called on the automobile industry to
improve safety. The book in particular focused on the Chevy Corvair, a muscle car. Following the fame the
book brought him, Nader led a campaign through the 1970s to pressure the auto industry to stop marketing
muscle cars to young people. As a result, the auto insurance industry levied surcharges on high-performance
cars, making the muscle car suddenly unaffordable to the average American. “The insurance costs really put the
muscle car out of reach for a lot of people,” said John Gunnell, author of the Standard Catalog of American
Muscle Cars, 1960-1972. and many other books about classic cars.
In the late '80s and early '90s, electronic fuel injection helped the surviving models see an increase in
sales and a larger share of the market. But that was only until the late '90s and early part of the 2000s, when
SUV sales started to eat into muscle car sales. Consumers looking for power and performance started to buy
more SUVs, which caused GM to discontinue the Firebird and Camaro in 2002. And with the announcement
that Pontiac has been reduced to a novelty line, it means that only the Mustang, Camaro, Challenger -- which
was brought back in 2008 -- and a few others remain to carry on the muscle car tradition. But with the dramatic
rise in gas prices last summer, combined with the large bailout money the automakers have gotten from
Congress, could the muscle car soon be gone for good? “The death of the muscle car has been proclaimed
before,” said Gunnell. “But they are still around, and I think they will continue to be.”
1. Why were muscle cars popular with ‘average’ Americans?
2. What caused the demand for muscle cars to increase during from the 1960’s through the 1980’s?
3. If they were so popular, why are the automakers cutting back or stopping the production of the muscle cars?
4. What could be done to save the muscle car? (think pricing, creation, manufacture, demand)