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Nailing down the first 'muscle car'

‘First muscle car’ depends on your point of view
Chrysler 300 C-300BW

Some say the ’49 Olds 88 was the first muscle car. Others give that honor to the ’55 Chrysler C-300 or the 1957 Rambler Rebel. Purists of the bucket-seat, four-speed and “fat tire sect” insist that a ’64 Pontiac GTO was the original muscle car. Still there are others who say the 1936 Buick Century was the granddaddy of them all. Those who know cars will see a pattern here.

All of these cars were American-made. They were production vehicles, and most were competitively raced. The ’49 Olds ran in the La Carrera Pan Americana, aka Mexican Road Race. The ’55 Chrysler C-300 tore up stock car racing circuits and also ran at Road America. After one cleaned up at Speed Week in Daytona Beach, Rambler Rebels became local stop light and drag strip bullies. The ’64 GTO also did most of its racing on the drag strip.

But what defines a muscle car? Most people argue that, at the least, a muscle car has a “big car” engine in a lighter mid-size or compact car body and was specifically marketed for performance. Further muddying the definition is the fact that the term “muscle car” wasn’t definitively used until after the cars’ heyday (“super car” was just as commonly used).

Using that formula, here are the contenders for “first muscle car” honors:

1936 Buick Century

1936 Buick Century

1936 Buick Century

Those who argue the original Buick Century’s place as the first muscle car point to Buick putting its big Roadmaster engine in a relatively short 122-in. wheelbase chassis — much shorter than the 131-in. wheelbase of the Roadmaster from which the engine came. The result of this combination produced a car that Buick promoted as being capable of 95 mph, making it faster than Buick’s top-end Limited and high-end Roadmaster and thus giving the Century its name (even if Buick rounded up). Few cars of the time could come close to 95 mph and most of those that could were very expensive and very rarely seen full-size luxury cars, such as Duesenbergs.

Although the Century’s name was an early form of performance marketing, the Century wasn’t used in organized racing. However, there were few venues for performance competitions so perhaps the Century was simply ahead of its time.

1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 pace car edition

1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 pace car edition

1949 Oldsmobile 88

The first domestically produced high-performance car after World War II was the ’49 Oldsmobile 88. This hot-running “small” Oldsmobile came about as the result of an afterthought rather than a master plan.

Oldsmobile developed its 303-cid overhead-valve “Rocket” V-8 for its top-of-the-line Series 98 models. The powerful engine was intended to cap off the new “Futuramic” B-body styling that was first seen on the 1948 Oldsmobile 98 models.

For the 1949 models, the decision was made to also put the new Rocket V-8 engine in Oldsmobile’s smaller A-body car. A trusty but slow flathead six usually powered Oldsmobile’s version of the A body, which was also used by General Motors’ Chevrolet and Pontiac divisions. Oldsmobiles that used the A body formed the division’s Series 76 offerings.

When the 135-hp Olds V-8 went into the 119-1/2-in.-wheelbase A body, the Futuramic Series 88 was born. It shared the same six body styles of the 76, which put it on a wheelbase that was 5-1/2 in. shorter than the 98, thus making it weigh 250 lbs. less than the 98. Hydra-Matic Drive was standard, although a three-speed manual transmission as available.

“The Series 88 combines Oldsmobile’s new high compression (7:25:1) Rocket engine with a new medium-weight body . . . the result is a highly favorable power-to-weight ratio,” stated a news release dated Feb. 6, 1949.

The high-performance implications of such a favorable power-to-weight ratio weren’t lost on members of the new breed of race car driver — those who piloted late-model stock cars in NASCAR events where the ’49 Olds Rocket 88 was an instant success. Neighborhood gear heads also quickly enjoyed the performance potential of Dad’s Olds 88.

There was no factory backing of stock car racing at the time. If a driver wanted to race, he went and bought his own car, put masking tape over the chrome and headlamps, took off the wheel covers and raced. The Rocket 88 proved to be a Rocket and five of the first eight NASCAR Grand National races held in the initial 1949 season went to Oldsmobile 88s with the new V-8. Series champion Red Byron was an Oldsmobile driver.

An Oldsmobile 88 convertible also served as the Official Pace Car at the Indianapolis 500 that year and garnered additional attention. The pace car was dressed up with large rocket ships on the fenders and had a see-through hood panel to show off the hot V-8 engine, though technically neither of which were available in an 88 off the show floor.

Production cars and stock car racing would undergo many changes in coming years, but beating the Oldsmobile 88 became the target for both.

1955 Chrysler 300 C-300 “Letter Car”

1955 Chrysler 300 C-300 “Letter Car”

1955 Chrysler C-300

Chrysler brought revolutionary “Forward Look” styling to the automotive world in 1955. The results paid off in sales success for Chrysler Corp. and fame for its chief designer, Virgil Exner, who crafted the new body styling. Also known as “The 100-Million-Dollar Look” (after the amount of money reportedly spent on getting it to market), this cosmetic initiative transformed Chrysler’s boxy image to one of a fighter jet on wheels. Lower, more rakish profiles and tailfins imparted a sensation of speed.

Completely new body styling wasn’t the only change for 1955. Chrysler also introduced the limited-edition Chrysler C-300 on Feb. 10. The Chrysler C-300 was the brainchild of Bob Rodgers, a Chrysler engineer and auto enthusiast who watched earlier Hemi-powered Chryslers struggle through the Mexican Road Races. Rodgers convinced management that a Chrysler image car was needed to compete with the Corvette and Thunderbird. Rodgers felt he could make such a car at very low cost by basing it on the New Yorker hardtop and incorporating mostly pre-existing heavy-duty parts that Chrysler had made available to Mexican Road Race contenders. The C-300 was additionally given an Imperial grille, leather upholstery and a version of the Hemi V-8 fitted with dual four-barrel carburetors. The body was stripped of extraneous chrome trim for a cleaner appearance.

Special “300” badges and chrome lettering (noting the advertised horsepower rating) were applied to the body. The 300 was nicknamed “The Beautiful Beast” and it was both. By the end of the year, the model had taken the NASCAR Grand National Stock Car Racing Championship and the AAA Stock Car Racing Championship. Only 1725 Chrysler 300s were built this year, but they brought many people into Chrysler showrooms.

1957 Rambler Rebel

1957 Rambler Rebel

1957 Rambler Rebel

Due to its low production of just 1500 cars and its surprising source —American Motors, of compact car fame — the Rambler Rebel is often overlooked in muscle car conversations. Yet here was a car with the 327-cid V-8 from the big Ambassador plugged into the smaller Rambler four-door hardtop body. AMC painted its performance car silver like a bullet, gave it a racing stripe of anodized trim down the side and christened it with a name befitting its place among the company’s conservative lineup. Then AMC took it to the beach.

In March 1957, a Rambler Rebel appeared at Daytona Beach Speed Week where it accelerated from a stop to 60 mph faster than every other car present, save a fuel-injected Corvette. The four-door’s performance raised eyebrows and the car caught the attention of car magazine editors, who gave the Rebel pages of ink. Gear heads looking for something different found much to love about the 255-hp Rebel between stop lights and at the drag strip.

While nearly all Rebels featured a four-barrel carburetor, the Bendix Electrojector System of fuel injection was optional and is believed to have been originally fitted to a handful of Rebels. However, these problematic units were replaced with four-barrels early in the cars’ lives.

Another option available on the Rebel was a continental kit — a decidedly unmuscle car-like feature. However, as an independent, AMC could always use ways to make another buck on a sale and options were a quick and easy way to do that. For that, we won’t hold the “connie kit” against the Rebel — perhaps the first true muscle car.

1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans with GTO option

1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans with GTO option

1964 Pontiac GTO

Often regarded by automotive enthusiasts as the first true muscle car in the sense of being a mid-size car with a big-block V-8 and bucket seats, the original GTO was not really a model at all. Due to GM’s fall 1963 ban on divisional participation in high-performance marketing, Pontiac was prevented from putting an engine with more than 300 cubic inches into a mid-size car.

Pontiac’s “Young Turk” executives joined with an ad man named Jim Wangers to sneak the GTO into existence as an extra-cost package for the Tempest LeMans. Late in October of 1963, the Grand Turismo Omologato package was announced for the LeMans coupe, hardtop and convertible as a $295 option. It was truly a performance package marketed as such, right down to the name.

GTO equipment included a 325-hp 389-cid V-8 with a special camshaft, special hydraulic lifters and 421-style cylinder heads. It had a single Carter four-barrel carburetor. Also included in the option were specially valved shock absorbers, a seven-blade 18-inch cooling fan with a cut-off clutch, a dual exhaust system, red-stripe nylon low-profile tires, twin-simulated hood scoops, an engine-turned dash insert, bucket seats, special high-rate springs and longer rear stabilizers.

Desirable GTO options included a center console, Hurst-Campbell four-speed manual shift linkage, custom exhaust splitters, special wheel covers and a Tri-Power engine option with three two-barrel carburetors. The Tri-Power version of the 389-cid V-8 produced 348 hp at 4900 rpm.

In January 1964, Motor Trend magazine found a four-speed GTO convertible capable of doing the quarter mile in 15.8 sec. at 93 mph. The same car’s 0-to-60-mph performance was 7.7 seconds and it had a 115-mph top speed.

By year’s end, the GTO was considered a huge sales success. Pontiac records showed production of 7384 GTO coupes, 18,422 two-door hardtops and 6644 convertibles. Those 32,450 cars helped keep Pontiac in the industry’s No. 3 sales rank.

So take your pick for America’s first muscle car. A certain percentage of GM fans will point to the ’49 Olds Rocket 88. AMC fans will argue for the Rebel. MoPar buffs will respond with a push to recognize the Chrysler C-300. Other GM loyalists will argue that the ’64 GTO was the first muscle machine. What car gets your vote? Regardless of your choice, you can drive fast with a smile on your face in any one of these cars.

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