Muscle Cars Were Slow – Part II

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I wrote a column a couple years ago (see here) that mentioned an unspeakable truth: Relative to now — classic muscle cars were slow. Back in the day, when the typical passenger car took 10 seconds (or more) to get to 60 MPH, a car that could get there in seven was faster-than-light.

Today, it’s Camry Speed.

Today, the performance (0-60, quarter mile, top speed, etc.) delivered by most factory-stock ’60s and ’70s-era V-8 muscle cars has been equaled — or bettered — by family cars with V-6 engines. Today’s V-8 performance cars completely outclass the V-8 “performance” cars of the classic era . . . stock vs. stock.

Ah, but there’s the out. The catch.

Stock — vs. stock.

What about modified vs. stock?

One of the many things that was — and still is — appealing about the classic stuff is how easy it was (and still is) to amp up their performance.

And, how inexpensive they were, relatively speaking.

Let’s compare some apples and oranges.

My muscle car — a 1976 Trans-Am — doesn’t rate much when compared with even the base/V-6 powered versions of today’s muscle cars. Though it came with an engine packing more cubic inches (liters, in today-speak) than any of the new stuff (excepting the Viper, but that’s not fair because it’s got a V-10 and my Pontiac’s only got a V-8) the power output and performance — delivered in stock trim — was feeble. Or rather, is feeble — relative to the performance of today’s stuff: Zero to 60 in about 7.2 seconds, a low 15 second quarter mile — top speed (mechanically limited, due to the axle ratio and non-overdrive transmission) about 118 MPH.

But, Pontiac gave me a lot to work with. And — when the car was new — for about the cost of a current-day base V-6 powered sporty coupe. This opens some doors that are shut when you buy a new muscle car. If you can afford to buy a new muscle car.

My car’s sticker price, back in ’76, was about $5,800. Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to about $24,000 in today’s dollars (see here), which is almost to the dollar what Chevy asks for a brand-new (base trim/V-6 powered) Camaro: $23,555.

A V-8 powered Camaro SS stickers for $33,335 — about ten grand more, in real dollars, than my ’76 TA cost when new.

Stock vs. stock — and apples vs. oranges — the new Camaro V-6 is stronger/quicker — and much faster — than my old Pontiac was when it was new.

The V-8 Camaro SS even more so. It is literally no contest.

The 455 in my Trans-Am only managed 200 hp — out of 7.4 liters! . . . in stock trim. The new Camaro’s 3.6 liter V-6 (half the size of my TA’s V-8) makes 323 hp and the car can get to 60 in the sixxes. The Camaro SS’s 6.2 liter V-8 makes 426 hp and gets the car to 60 in 4.8 seconds.

Very impressive.

Even more so when you factor in that the new car is wife-drivable (none of the really quick classic stuff was) has air conditioning, and you probably won’t need to touch much (other than oil/filter changes) for the next decade.

But, here’s the difference — Now vs. Then:

My Trans-Am, when it was new, was much more accessible. In the same way that a new V-6 Camaro is accessible. But when my TA was new, you got a V-8 Trans-Am, not a base trim V-6 Camaro. And that V-8 had tremendous performance potential locked up inside all those cubic inches, easily — and inexpensively (compared with today) accessed.

A new V-6 Camaro is — effectively — hyper-tuned. The as-delivered engine is optimized, or not far from it. The 455 that came in my TA was de-tuned. Deliberately crippled, in order to slide by the government’s emissions rigmarole, which was making it hard for GM to sell a V-8 at all, however gimped.

“Fixing” this — de-gimping the big V-8 — was the first thing most of us did, once we got our hands on something like the Trans-Am. We usually started by hacksawing off the factory exhaust system — which in those days garroted the output of the engine by 20 percent or more, due to the restrictive plumbing. Simply replacing the factory system (cast iron manifolds, narrow diameter — and often crimped — pipes, primitive catalytic converter) with headers and a good set of duals — sans the catalytic converters — freed up serious hp. And gained serious performance. For very little money. Even today, a set of headers for an old muscle car’s engine, a pair of free-flow mufflers and — if you must — a couple of modern high-flow catalytic converters (stand-alone units, they don’t need 02 sensors, because the car has no computer) will cost you about $1,000 or so.

And installation is DIY-doable, with hand tools.

This mod — along with some tuning work (adjusting the carburetor, ignition timing) which is free (or nearly free; replacement jets for the carburetor might cost you $20 or so) will make the TA perform better than a new V-6 Camaro. The horsepower number might not be as high — yet — but the big V-8 already produced a great deal more torque than the small V-6 in the new car. And the old car is much lighter than the new car. With 240-260 or so hp (and 450-plus ft.-lbs. of torque vs. the new Camaro V-6’s puny 278 ft.-lbs.) the otherwise stock 455 Trans-Am will be quicker than the new V-6 Camaro.

But wait, there’s more.

Spend another $300 or so — today’s dollars, much less back in the day — for a high-performance camshaft, also easily installed with hand tools — and without having to remove the engine, as you would in the new Camaro.

Now you’re in the 300-plus hp ballpark.

Maybe go ahead and pull the engine — very easy to do — and build the bottom end to complement the new camshaft. High-compression pistons, for instance. You could give the 455 — any classic muscle car V-8 — a mechanical makeover for a couple thousand dollars in parts and machine shop work.

And now, you’d be able to go toe-to-toe with a new Camaro SS.

For not much more than you’d have spent to buy a new Camaro V-6.

The new stuff comes ready to rock out of the box — provided you’ve got the wherewithal to afford the box. The old stuff was maybe a little tepid as it came, especially the mid-late ’70s stuff like my car, which bore the full brunt of Washington’s frontal assault against classic muscle cars. But one could buy them without breaking the bank — and have money left over to massage the potential Pontiac, et al, managed to smuggle past the gate.

And that’s the big difference, Then vs. Now.


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21 Responses to “Muscle Cars Were Slow – Part II”

  1. Spike says:

    Very true that the old muscle cars are way outclassed by modern performance cars by every metric excepting price. Upgrades are easy and relatively cheap to the engine but you are still left with a car that will not handle or brake with modern metal. Spend thousands more and you can upgrade wheels, tires, brakes and suspension only to have a rough-riding, flexing & creaking old muscle car that can finally run with a modern car. Let's face it: The only thing those old muscle cars really bring to the party are style and memories.

  2. Brother John says:

    OK, so maybe the old muscle cars suck — but there's *still* something very wrong about the Duke boys (one of whom is now over 60) ridding themselves of the Charger and taking a Viper instead. That, and wearing seat belts. Ugh!!

  3. Floyd Pink says:

    Today, all it takes is someone who knows how to tweak the computer(s) to achieve a better performance profile. Once done, that Camaro comes alive in a similar way that adding headers, high-rise, and so on did back in the day. In 1972, I owned a 1970 Challenger with the 440/375 Magnum motor and 4.10 Dana gears. The usual modifications made it come alive as you state, but it ran on skinny bias-ply tires, had a primitive suspension, and no one even had an inkling of traction/launch control. I certainly believe though that nothing on the road today will equal those cars for their obvious appeal.

  4. AmericanGraffiti says:

    You're so in experienced about cars it's not even funny. First off when we are talking about muscle cars we are talking about 1971 and back, before the oil crisis. Not a ugly 1976 car that has no chrome and can't compare to the early 70's and back. The real muscle car era, the late 60's and early 70's cars were faster than today's muscle cars stock. I'll pick the best engines from each big three first GM the 454 Ls6 for the '70 Chevelle SS had 450 horsepower. But that was conservative for insurance purposes and really got 500 + horsepower. The 426 hemi for the Charger and Challenger, and Roadrunner had well over 500 horsepower. the 428 Cobra Jet had well over 500 horsepower and all muscle cars recieved a rating of no less than 325 hp. So you're 200 horsepower bull shit made me lmao. I know horsepower went down in '73 and really dropped by ghe mid 70's for gas, but not that damn low. You need to pick the best cars. That would be like comparing today's Challenger to the '77 Challenger which was a piece of shit. the '70-'74 Challenger was the best. Family cars had an average of 350 horsepower in the 50's. Today the average is 150 hp. Sports cars were insane, look at the '65 Corvette it had 600 horsepower. The '70 Chevelle SS 454 Ls6 hit 0-60 in the 3's with good radial tires, like BF Goodrich radial t/a tires. You're using stats from the onds that had bias and poly glas tires. Most people when they bought a new muscle car in the 60's would get rid of the stock tires and put good tires on, if they had the money. Now as far as hot rods go, you can't hot rod new family cars. Shit the movie The Hollywood Knights had a '57 Chevy with a blower on it, the car had 1,500 horsepower, it was a chrome yellow., with the hood taken off, it lifted off the ground when it takes off. and a 1925 rail job with over 2,000 horsepower. That movie was set at the tail end of the 50's hot rodding era. American Graffiti, the best car movie of all time had a '55 Chevy with 500 horsepower, and a '32 Ford Coupe with 500 horsepower. Movie like Christine, Bullitt, and Dazed and Confused are great car movies. The '68 Ford Mustang GT is still the fastest Mustang for all GT fastback models. The '05 GT only had 300 horsepower, the '14 only has 420 horsepower the '68 had over 500 horsepower and a rating of 390 for insurance. Not to mention the old cars were so much louder. electronics in cars took over in the late 70's. Shit the new smart car only has 70 horsepower. They don't even make very many muscle cars anymore. The older muscle cars use to bounce and looked faster, did better burnouts. Their now making a 4 cylinder Mustang how pathetic. and what the hell is it with 4 door muscle cars how stupid. The dodge charger wtf? and their making muscle cars wigh 6 cylinders even though a 6 cylinder is not a muscle car. The newer muscle cars are also heavier than the old. The camaro isn't a muscle car anymore. Traction contol is stupid. So muscle cars were faster back then, sports cars were faster, family cars were faster.

    • Chris Desertdog says:

      Sorry buddy, the new cars are MUCH faster than the 60s-70s cars. Sorry to slay your sacred cow, just a fact. Traction control makes cars even faster and better handling on the street and can be turned off with the simple press of a button for the drag strip, of course you knew that, right?

      • Baily says:

        I grew up in the 50’s and sixties and cars were not slow! My dad’s rambler would literally zoom right off in first gear and shifted so smooth it’s not even funny,and that was an economy car with an aluminum six cylinder ohv. That rambler had a 120 mph speedometer and dad drove that car on highways to go to work everyday at 55-60 mph with no trouble at all. And the car went way faster then that. My dad got road rage ALOT and tended to speed, and that rambler accommodated his lead foot let me tell ya. I had a 1964 Chevrolet when I started driving and it took off like a bat outta hell and that had its original engine. Are you sure you’re not a salesman for Chevy?

      • Nicholas Rieckhoff says:

        For the same price of a 6 cylinder camaro, i drive my Cuda every week and will easily beat Zo6 corvettes and many other sports cars. Muscle cars are fast. Parts are cheap, and labor is too. Getting 500 horsepower out of a 383 mopar is chump change, and 600 will still be driveable. But the truth is, muscle cars being fast, they are not efficient or plush. 3 miles per gallon on e85 and the whole chassis shivers with the firing order. Its a religious experience.

    • Shaun says:

      I don’t know if anyone has said this or not but one of the reasons the actual ” number” of horsepower rating dropped is this. Around 1968 to 1970 the big three changed their horsepower rating/ ratio. They went from listing the amount of horse power produced at the crankshaft of an engine on a Dyno machine to wash at is used today and called brake horsepower. Which will show the amount of horsepower actually at the tire to pavement. For the muscles cars with old transmissions and torque converters this measurement dropped numbers in some cases over 100hsp. According to the stack of old Hot Rod Magazines that I cut my teeth on in Auto Mech class where I transformed a 454 out of a 1976 Caprice into a 460hp 522torque beast. It was the car I , ” learned” to drive in. I built it to the specs of a 460 horsepower 427 corvette engine. Chevrolet garage helped me order the parts from factory so the clearances would match. I MISS THAT CAR! I sold it to pay a degree in Bible. I tracked the car down last years and it sits in a basement dissemble.

    • nitro says:

      You nailed it American Graffiti! After the oil crisis and mandatory anti-pollution systems the performance dropped down a lot.

      Before the horsepower to weight ratio was awesome, and it is hard to imagine those cars slow compared to today family cars.

  5. bigoly says:

    A few years back I read a Road and Track test of the Toyota Avalon. They reported a 13.8 quarter mile. This makes 60's supercars seem slow I agree. However boring 1960s transportation like a Pontiac Catalina might do the quarter in 16.9 on it's best day. An ordinary no options Roadrunner 4 speed could be coaxed to 14.80s stock with practice. Are today's basic muscle cars two seconds faster than the Toyota Avalon? I sure don't remember seeing any 11.8 quarter mile times. The fastest muscle cars, 454 Chevelles, street Hemis, 428 mustangs, could be thrashed into the high 12's by pro test drivers, 3.55 gears and lousy street tires and all. I am sure no modern muscle car runs 10.8, three seconds faster than an Avalon. The question ought to be, why is the gap between an Avalon and a today's super cars so small?

    • Chris Desertdog says:

      A stock Mustang GT500 or Corvette will run in the 11s all day. A standard Mustang GT (coyote engine) or Camaro ZL1 will run in the 11s with just a good tune. I also think your 13.8 number for the Camry is off in the real world. Every article I could find concerning actual tests with a stock V6 Camry has it running a 14.3-14.6 1/4 mile. The best verified time I could find for the new V6 Camry is 14.1. Still, you are right, modern engine design, car design, and materials have really closed the gap between displacement and performance. I test drove the new mustang with the little 4-banger eco-boost motor, and it is quicker than any 60s-70s muscle car that I ever owned.

      • Mike says:

        Chris, I recently purchased a 2012 Mustang V6 Premium w only 16,000 miles for 14 grand. A pretty good deal esp when you factor in a Roush exhaust system already on the car. The V8’s just weren’t in my budget, unfortunately. My question is what can I do to add horsepower on a $1000.00 budget ? Also how much more HP is attainable via your suggestions and can i expect a noticeable difference ?


    • John says:

      You say super cars? Take a look at at the pagani zonda or the Bugatti veyron.. 10.8 isn’t that fast, especially when a person(not me) could buy one out of the box that fast. A properly driven Zr-1 corvette, Ls-9 cts-v or zl-1 Camaro will approach these times at E-town not to mention fords GT or GT500 etc.

      I guess what I’m saying is your statement isn’t accurate, my fastest car runs low 12s@11X which if I could get it to hook would easily be a high 11s car.

  6. Chris Desertdog says:

    You are both correct and incorrect on several points.

    1) Your 76 was NOT a muscle car. The pre-emissions cars of the late 60s / early 70s were muscle cars at the pinnacle of their day.

    2) Reality is that even those classic 60-70 muscle cars that left the lot in the heyday were SLOW by today's standards. You put too much emphasis on horsepower and too little emphasis on actual performance of these cars. A boss 302 in 1970 was a 15-16 second car. The challenger was a 15 second car off the lot. A bunch of money and work would get you in the 13s at best. This is well documented, regardless of what the internet commandos and old-time fibbers who claim they ran 11s with their 60s cars claim. In the 60s / early 70s, manufactures printed HUGE lies about the actual performance of their vehicles. You couldn't drive down to your local dyno to test numbers. There was nobody posting your times on youtube in the 60s to back up your claimed track times, no GPS to verify actual speeds on the street – just inflated numbers from manufactures and tall-tales from guys BSing about how fast their ride was. Manufacturers stopped lying so much about performance by the mid-70s, and started making outrageous claims about fuel economy.

    3) I have owned 442s, a 400 Firebird, and numerous vintage mustangs. I currently own a 70 mustang with a fresh 302, heads, cam, pistons, headers, exhaust, ignition, intake, carb, rear 9" with gears, disc brakes, etc. I have rolled fenders to run 285 drag radials. I have many thousands of $$ invested in this car just in performance upgrades and hundreds of hours of work. It runs a solid 13.7 1/4 mile time. I also have a 2013 Mustang GT with a canned Steeda tune and a CAI that only cost me $500 and 1 hour of work installing. With the same drag radials on the back, it runs in the 11s. Many Pro-stock NHRA drag cars in the 60s couldn't beat that with 118 octane fuel. Your statement that the classic muscle cars were easier and cheaper to upgrade is complete nonsense. With modern (post 2011) cars, a simple tune will unlock gobs of untapped speed. Who cares about horsepower or cubic inches, actual performance and how easy it is to get it is what counts. Your tricked out "Smokey and the Bandit" ride would get embarrassed at the track by near-stock vehicles even if you dumped 3 grand and 60 hours of work into the engine.

    4) I love vintage muscle cars and will ALWAYS own at least one. They are just plain sexy, and the lope of that big cam and the roar of those engines when the carb gets a huge mouthful of fuel is intoxicating. But don't get so caught up in the moment as to believe that they can even compare to the performance of a modern car.

    • Marvin says:

      You must remember that “in the day” muscle cars were rated at gross horse power not net as in today. Hp at the engine with no trans or alternator etc. , the main thing they had was torque with the large engine sizes. Cars today, including muscle cars don’t have as much displacement, yes some have comparable displacement but technology has passed the old cars up. You can’t talk about what could be done with past or present, it’s stock vs stock or the sky’s the limit in either case. Today’s cars have help, launch control better tires etc., they are also saddled with all manner of safety equipment, pollution control and fuel economy compromises. You can make any car quick, but the arguement is today vs yesterday, which is faster- line em up and run em, when done accept the outcome.

  7. Cruiser says:

    Try finding a new car that looks like a 55-57 chevy or a 67-69 Camaro. Everything built today looks like crap in comparison.

  8. John says:

    Apparently you don’t know Pontiacs very well, you don’t want to get your CR from Pistons, you try and get it from heads.. It’s much more efficient with ponchos. Now.. I have a 1966 GTO and a 2006 GTO the 389 tri-power, M-21, 3.36s with a “big cam” modern tires, increased timing and custom built carb won’t touch my 06 in any way.

  9. Mr Magoo says:

    Lots of us nostalgic types simply can’t process how the cars of old felt sooooo much faster in our youth. But the modern cars are in almost every metric faster and better. However, there is one reason I think we remember the visceral speed and acceleration so much more in those heady days of muscle cars. Torque. It was common to have a big block pushing 400 ft lbs or more. And torque coupled with light weight equals vast acceleration off the line and it was available right off of idle. The kind of acceleration that pinned you back in your bucket seat and made every trip to the store a carnival ride. Sure, with limited gearing, top speed wasn’t much, and with relatively low HP numbers, you top out soon. Some modern cars can launch right of of idle like the cars of yore, but rather few and they are not, as the article says, that accessible ($$$$$$).

  10. ClassicalLiberal says:

    What the author doesn’t seem to get is that we drive cheaply made death machines that have such flimsy body paneling that you could bend an entire quarter panel with just your 2 arms alone without any tools. If speed were absolutely all that mattered why do you boast about the newer GT 500 mustangs? Why not just get a smart car and put a motorcycle engine in it?

    This argument classic muscle vs new muscle is very much like CD vs Vinyl. The truth is, vinyl has more audible information contained in the grooves and can get higher EQ highs than CD can. And to be honest, classic muscle cars were built with 1 purpose in mind. To go fast and to get attention doing it. The thing is car manufacturers back then also knew that safety matters more than speed. The manufacturers of today do not give a flying ass about you or your family’s safety. They are there to make money.

    But I ask you this, how is a muscle car a muscle car if it can’t even go SLOW safely without risk of pulverizing it’s occupants due to it’s weak body? You can say that no one will survive an 80mph head on crash into a barrier. Yeah sure, but they might survive a 35 mile head on crash into a barrier if they had better metal for the body. Even the airbags are injury prone. While they can save lives, they have also taken them too. And if i get into a slight crash and my car is pushed aside and the airbag blows up in my face i might crash again before I actually stopped because I can’t see anything. It’s not that I don’t think that the technology can improve, I just think overall it’s an annoyance as the airbags sometimes go off for no reason at all causing serious injury and risk of crashing. We are simply not there yet as far as safety is concerned.

    Cars are supposed to protect it’s occupants. Not endanger them. If I only gave a shit about speed. Then why wouldn’t I just strap a rocket to a smart car? You miss the point entirely of owning a vehicle. Not to mention newer cars are freaking FUGLY. They look like they are trying so hard to build cars that look trendy and “hip and cool” to the hipsters who are brainwashed with a desire for this picasso-esque “modern art” curvy futuristic jet-fighter design that all cars seemingly have nowadays. And the reason they are brainwashed is because of hollywood movies about what the future will look like and how everything will just get more and more alien-spacecraft and infinitely GLOSSIER looking and desperate idiots who run the car industry willing to do anything to align themselves with said evil. It’s really just about dumping on the consumer and convincing him that he needs to constantly buy new stuff to stay relevant. But they have changed the designs so much that they are running out of ideas, and it shows. The first “jetsons curvy” cars came out in the 90s for the most part, and they have only gotten 10x uglier.

    Lastly, I get that aerodynamics are important. But curvy “the jetsons” modern-art deco garbage doesn’t make something more aerodynamic. Believe it or not, sharp lines and simplicity is the most aerodynamic. Some curves are necessary, of course. But the cars of today have useless side skirts and other crap on them that add so much to drag, despite the aerodynamic knowledge the manufactures obviously have access to. It’s so pathetic that you can clearly see resemblence between apple products and new cars. This… glossy curvy turd society we live in. A polished piece of #%@! is still a turd.

  11. Mark says:

    Back in the late 70’s I purchased a one owner, low mileage, ’70 Challenger 383 4 barrel for $800.00. It was an ugly orange color (I think called mango?) black vinyl top with an ugly brown orange interior. The car was all stock and was about the worst driving vehicle I’d ever driven aside from a 50’s GMC stake truck I used to help move a friend to an apartment. The Challenger rode horribly, handled horribly, the thin high back bucket seats were unbelievably uncomfortable, 4 wheel power drum brakes were terrifying at anything above 30, power steering so overboosted it was a major undertaking to keep the car in a lane. The Challenger’s hard plastic interior was awful looking and feeling even by 1970 standards. As for performance, the 383 4 barrel was merely adequate at best. It did manage to get a whopping 10 MPG driven casually though! My Challenger also had its share of mechanical problems and front end issues. The windshield leaked when it rained, the “ventilation” system consisted of two draw knobs (driver’s side cable broke in the open position) so I had to stuff an old Tshirt in the vent box in the winter time so I wouldn’t freeze to death on the highway! Not to mention red wasps in the summertime that would get into the cowl vent and enter the interior. Imagine driving a terrible driving car at 60 MPH and having red wasps making their appearance before you! I had to carry cans of Raid under my seat all through the the summer! I grew to really hate that Challenger especially after its transmission failed at 75,000 miles, then the radiator, then the power steering……. I sold the Challenger for $500.00 after I graduated college to a mechanic who was into those dumb old muscle cars. My first nice car was a brand new 1984 Toyota Supra. Man! What a nice ride that Supra was. My Supra could easily out accelerate my crappy old Challenger, out handle it and out stop it. And my Supra rode silky smooth with build quality that made my Challenger look like it was built by cavemen! I drove my Supra for six trouble free years amassing over 150,000 trouble free miles. I’ve been a Toyota man ever since.

  12. ken says:

    The old cars were nice to look at. Performance-wise, there is really no comparison.

    New cars are safer, handle and brake much better, and have better fuel mileage and acceleration. Plus, they are more reliable.

    As much as nostalgia is a factor, I would no longer drive a car from the muscle-car era. They are too slow and too dangerous. I currently own a 2010 Nissan Sentra Spec-V shod with Michelin Pilot-Sports. There is not one vehicle I owned in the 1960s that would have a hope of besting it off the line, in a corner or stopping. Forget the car and just consider the tires alone……no one made a racing tire in the 1960s, never mind a passenger tire, that would even come close to the modern Michelin tire.

    I love looking at old cars, and the sound of them is thrilling. But times have changed…….this is the real muscle car era.