Why Muscle Cars – The Old Ones – Still Rule

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

A new V-6 Mustang or Camaro gives you about 100 more hp than the V-8 in my Trans-Am put out when it left the Norwood, Ohio line back in the spring of ’76. Either of these new cars could walk away from my old car in a heads-up drag race. The V-6 Mustang, especially. It can do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. That is quicker than most V-8 muscle cars ever were… in stock trim.

And that’s the catch.

The new stuff is quick and fast — as delivered. But the old stuff could be made quick and fast — easily and inexpensively. For example, my ’76 Trans-Am. That year, the 455 V-8 produced a pretty pathetic 200 hp — about the same as a current-year four-cylinder engine. But a simple cam swap, exhaust upgrade and power tune could just about double the 455’s output in a weekend — and for about $1,000 in parts (today’s money equivalent). The same applied to the earlier — and much more potent in as-delivered form — muscle cars of the early 70s and mid-late ’60s.

It was possible to go really fast on not much money.

The old stuff had — and still has — other advantages, too. Generally, they’re much lighter than their modern equivalents. For example, a ’69 SS Chevelle. It’s a big car by modern standards — but it only weighed about 3,335 lbs. (see here). A 2013 Camaro SS weighs almost 3,900 lbs. This is the reason the new Camaro SS is relatively slow — 5 seconds to 60 — given an engine that puts of 426 net hp.

Back in the late ’60s — when horsepower was measured (and advertised) using the old SAE gross standard, the current Camaro’s 426 hp would have been adjusted upward by at least 75 and perhaps as much as 100 hp. In other words, the current Camaro’s power would have to be compared — to be compared fairly — with the power made by purpose-built bracket racers in the 500-plus hp (SAE gross) category. Those cars were running 11 second quarters — and more. Yet the new Camaro is slower — as delivered — than a still street-drivable ’69 Yenko Super Camaro with an advertised 425 (SAE gross) hp — which measured by today’s more honest measurement methods would likely come out to around 375 SAE net hp.

Reason? The new Camaro is a porker.

The old stuff was (generally) hundreds of pounds lighter — and lighter always equals quicker, all else being equal. It’s also easier to make a lighter car quicker. The early pony cars — like the first generation Mustang, for example — weighed less than 3,000 lbs. A ’72 Nova only weighed about 3,200 lbs. Put an even mildly strong small-block V-8 (like a 289 Hi-Po) in a car that light and it’s not hard to go fast.

Put another way, imagine how much faster a new Camaro SS would be if it weighed 600 pounds less.

The other thing old muscle cars had in their favor — and still do — is bigger engines. More displacement equals more torque — the oft-neglected red-headed stepbrother of horsepower. Torque — rotational energy — is what gets mass moving. This is especially important in a massive (i.e., heavy) car. And big-inch engines make lots of torque. Even the comparatively weak — by hp standards — 455 V-8 in my ’76 Trans-Am makes a startlingly high amount of torque: 330 lbs.-ft at just 2,000 RPM. The new Camaro’s 3.6 liter V-6 may make 123 more hp than my 455 put out in stock trim (200 hp) but the little V-6 only produces 278 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4,800 RPM. (Which is why, even in stock trim, my car does a much better burnout than a V-6 Camaro.)

Even the new Camaro SS’s brawny V-8 — which makes more than twice the power (426 hp) my TA’s 455 did — only makes 420 lbs.-ft of torque. And to get it, you have to spin the engine much faster — to 4,600 RPM.

Reason? Cubic inches.

455 cubes equals 7.4 liters.

The SS Camaro’s V-8 displaces a mere 6.2 liters — under 400 cubes. And it’s one of the “bigger” modern muscle car engines. The plain truth is no one builds a really big V-8 anymore. (Even the Dodge Viper’s ten-cylinder engine only just barely crests 8 liters — about the same size as a mid-70s 500-cube Cadillac V-8.)

The current crop of V-8s are all medium-sized, equivalent (in displacement) to run-of-the mill 350-ish small block V-8s back in the day. And back in the day, big blocks were routinely putting out close to 500 lbs.-ft. of torque — in mild-street tune. To match that with a modern downsized V-8 inevitably requires turbo or supercharging — which increases the effective displacement of the engine by increasing its capacity to huff air and fuel. Supercharging gooses the torque output of the new Camaro’s 6.2 V-8 to 556 lbs.-ft of torque at 4,200 RPM — or just slightly more than something like a 1970 Buick GSX Stage 1 455 — without the blower — was making.

Which was 510 lbs.-ft at 2,800 RPM!

But turbos and superchargers don’t come cheap. The supercharged 2013 ZL1 Camaro starts at $54,350. For that sum, you could have bought two Buick GSXs back in 1970.

No, seriously.

A 1970 GSX Stage 1 may be a six-figure collectible now. But in 1970, it stickered for $4,479 (look here if you dinna believe me). Adjusted for inflation, that works out to $26,702 in today’s Fed Funny Money. About what you’d shell out to buy a new V-6 Camaro or Mustang — and far less than you’d have to shell out to buy a V-8 Mustang GT or Camaro SS.

And that’s the rare (and expensive when new, by 1970 standards) Stage 1 GSX. The beauty of the good ol’ days was that anyone who could turn a wrench could make similar power with almost any big-inch V-8, including the low-performance versions used in nothing-special (and so, dirt cheap) mass-market family sedans and station wagons.

It was a common thing to do, for instance, to hunt down a big sedan or station wagon in the boneyard and pull its 455 or 454 or 440 -put a performance cam in it — and put that puppy into the car of your choice. It could be done cheaply — and easily — two things that anything associated with a new ZL1 Camaro (or Shelby GT500 Mustang) will never be.

And that’s why the old stuff still rules.



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5 Responses to “Why Muscle Cars – The Old Ones – Still Rule”

  1. Spike Roberson says:

    Eric, they looked great and were a lot of fun — but handling and braking were pathetic by today's standards and they were a LOT less comfortable! Most who own the few remaining storied relics of our past trailer them to club events and shows, and otherwise grant them garage-queen status. Until recently, I had a 12-year-old Corvette with minor upgrades that I drove year 'round in Michigan — even in the snow with the OEM winter tires. It was my daily driver, and was STILL in great shape when I gave it to a woman who fell out of love with me four days after she got it — but that's a longer story that requires alcohol. Anyway, my point is that even though they're more expensive, todays cars are the REAL keepers! They take a long time to rust, run on the crappy fuel available without additives, are far more comfortable and have many more luxuries, get better fuel economy and pollute far less, brake and handle leagues better and will handily outrun anything from the old days. In my garage right now is a 2009 Cadillac CTS-V with 556-hp. Anybody wanna race a stock Cobra from the '60's against it for pink slips?

  2. lonnie pfeifer says:

    I totally agreed with you up until 2005. Until then I had never owned anything newer than 1973, for all the reasons you just stated. "There's a Mustang on every corner, why would I want one of THOSE?" I had a classic Montego, built to the nuts 351, very fast, very rare. Exceptionally nice car! After getting the first one totaled in an accident on the way to work, and spending the next several months finding a replacement, (a one way flight from my home state of Idaho to pick up replacement, finally found in southern Cal.) and several weeks of swapping "good parts" from wreck to new chassis I was back in business and scared to drive the car due to that experience. I suffered anxiety every time I took the car on the interstate. "what if it happens again?!" Having to have nothing less than a V-8 powerhouse to drive, I purchased a "lightly used" 2002 Mustang GT to drive in order to save the beloved Merc. It is still hard to believe that this is ME saying this, but, the Merc has now been handed off to my niece. I can tell you there are MANY VALID reasons why there are so many of "THOSE" Mustangs on every corner. On a straight line trajectory, the Merc would "almost" keep up with the GT, but beyond that….. forget it. I'll never own another "classic" as a daily driver. I put the 'Stang in cruise at 90mph (radar detector on of course) turn on the A/C and fly to Vegas, or Seattle, or anywhere else and don't think twice. -10 degrees outside? So what start it and go. EFI, OVERDRIVE, Realizable A/C (with no overheating EVER, imagine that) And a VASTLY improved suspension (Merc was polygraphite throughout, Rancho gas-charged shocks, new springs, 1 1-4 anti-sway front, 7/8 rear and still was like driving a dump truck compared to the little pony) I still love looking at the old Detroit artwork, but I am a convert to modern muscle cars. ENGINEERING is now a must for me to go along with that kick in the ass when you put it to the floor!!

  3. Bob O'Connor says:

    All that being said, I prefer driving a BMW E39 M5. The old saying that "they don't build like they use to" is correct — they build them a $hit load better today.

  4. metoo says:

    Late 60s to early 70s Muscle cars were cheap in the mid to late 70s, easy and pretty cheap to pull power out. But as was stated they had lousy brakes and suspensions, one hard acceleration with the expectation of stopping on demand lead to many surprises. Or taking a corner a bit too fast could and did many time end you up off the road. For the life of me I could never understand why it was so hard to put real brakes or a suspension on these things from the factory…. I spent my young years building these engines then dropping them into what we had in the driveway at the time. Fun to play with, and get into trouble with……

  5. Laura Mitchel says:

    A great article. Muscle cars are part of the American culture. Their big engines and masculine body make them look awesome. I am a huge fan of muscle cars. My favorite is the Chevrolet Camaro. I’ve been living in the UAE and have seen Muscle cars for sale in many dealerships. Selling a car is relatively easier in the UAE, all thanks to services like sellyourcar24.