The Return Of The Muscle Car

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The Return Of The Muscle Car

Words by Mr Henry Alexander

12 March 2015

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to horsepower.

Eleven years after playing a land baron’s son in the 1958 Western From Hell to Texas, Mr Dennis Hopper was playing the role of Billy the Kid in Easy Rider. Two outlaws, one big difference – in the latter role he swapped his horse for a Harley-Davidson chopper. In the 1960s, patrolling the range had been supplanted by the urge to stretch out across the entire country, a romantic notion that crumbled when Mr Hopper and Mr Henry Fonda’s idealistic hippies are targeted by a pair of rednecks. But the point was made: speeding had replaced roaming. Against this backdrop, the muscle car was born. It was loud, fast, affordable and occasionally antisocial. What could be better? And right now it seems to be all happening again – this year Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford each have production line offerings that serve up some heavy-metal thunder.

First, a bit of background: in the post-war era, as European car companies were experimenting with increasingly exotic technologies, the US car industry slotted a big V8 engine into an otherwise innocuous vehicle and marvelled at the resulting fireworks. Oldsmobile’s 1949 Rocket 88 is widely credited as the first muscle car, packing a then-mighty 135hp into the frame of its sleek Oldsmobile 76/ Chevy body. A public increasingly interested in speed and power, were blown away by the idea and this street success was soon translated onto the booming NASCAR racing scene, whose most successful exponents had already honed their skills as moonshine runners.

But the cultural crossover really took off when rock’n’roll and the arrival of the teenager as a socio-economic force elided with an expanding catalogue of high-performance cars. The kids started drag racing, lighting a fire under one of the greatest subcultures of all. Pop music, movies, sex and cars all became thrillingly and inextricably linked.

Pontiac’s GTO (dreamt up by Mr John DeLorean, who would enjoy later notoriety as the creator of his own gullwing sports car), the Dodge Challenger and Charger, and Ford Thunderbolt and Mustang would all define the muscle car’s 1960s apogee. It helped, of course, that Mr Steve McQueen personally piloted a Mustang GT Fastback in 1968’s densely plotted police procedural Bullitt, featuring the car chase to end all car chases.

A few years later came Vanishing Point starring Mr Barry Newman as Kowalski, a former racing driver, heroic Vietnam vet and ex-cop who loads up on Benzedrine before driving a Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. His increasingly erratic driving style mirrors his frazzled existential state, inviting viewers to make their own judgments about the film’s allegorical intent. Primal Scream used it as a thematic launchpad for an entire album, 1997’s wonderfully unhinged dub-fest Vanishing Point.

Now, nearly two decades after the Primal Scream record, here are some of the latest offerings in the muscle car category.

Corvette Z07

“Is the Corvette a muscle car, or isn’t it? It is the sort of quandary that could start a brawl in one of those swampy bars in True Blood. The original dates back to the early 1950s for one thing, so it prefigures the quintessential blue-collar muscle car by a good decade. It also had a distinctive aesthetic purity that later steroidal muscle cars wouldn’t have been seen dead next to.

But the Corvette quickly changed. The 1960s Stingray was pure swaggering rock’n’roll, a curled lip, quiff and razor blade on wheels. The 1970s car had a waisted, Coke-bottle shape, and was the perfect chariot for tearing through those cocaine nights in louche disco-era LA. Now the Corvette has appeared in its most unapologetically powerful form yet, the 650bhp Z06/ 7, laying to rest once and for all accusations that this isn’t a proper muscle car.

The cabin feels like a cockpit, and that’s a good thing as the Z07 – which “levels up’’ thanks to extra wings and spoilers – can rocket to 62mph in 2.9 seconds. It’s a car designed for the post-PlayStation YouTube generation, so not only can the driver choose from a long menu of chassis, engine, suspension and gearbox options, he or she can record whatever happens next onto an SD card and post it online.

Dodge Challenger Hellcat

The name is familiar, and the shape tautly references the hard-charging 1971 original without the body shape collapsing into pastiche. But with an almost unbelievable 707bhp it’s also more powerful than the Lamborghini Aventador. The Hellcat isn’t just aptly named, then, it’s also the most muscular muscle car ever made. Yes, it will do a drag strip quarter-mile run in less than 12 seconds, and will still conflagrate its tyres if you have money to burn and an unquenchable urge to show off. A future classic, if you want an investment tip.

Renovo Coupe

Mr Carroll Shelby is one of the late, great heroes of the American muscle car story. We’re not sure what he’d make of Renovo’s reimagining of his company’s legendary 1960s Daytona endurance racer, and for one good reason: it’s an electric vehicle.

Renovo hopes to slake Silicon Valley’s thirst for a post-modern iteration of the US muscle car, and with three 30kWh battery pack modules sitting in three locations around the car, it produces easily as much motive force as a conventionally powered car, with none of the emissions. Motorsport king Dallara is working on the Coupe’s chassis, and it has hugely powerful bespoke carbon ceramic brakes. The hot rod exterior contrasts with the artful sci-fi of the Coupe’s interior, which uses super-fast next-generation microprocessors and a TFT (thin-film transistor) instrument screen. The Coupe costs $529,000, and will arrive later this year. No fossil fuels will be burned, but we are assured it will still burn rubber.

Ford GT

The GT40 was Ford’s giant-slaying 1960s endurance racer, which scored a dramatic victory in the 1966 running of the brutal Le Mans 24 hours race. Original examples change hands now for enormous sums of money. As appreciating assets go, this is a car that’s better than gold.

Which is why Ford couldn’t resist another homage, as the GT40’s 50th anniversary slides into view. The GT “concept’’ is even simpler of name than its famous forbear, and was conceived in a secret basement in the bowels of Ford’s North American HQ. Rather than a huge V8, it is powered by a 3.5-litre turbocharged V6, and sits in the middle of a chassis made of motorsport-grade carbon fibre. The GT’s intersecting body panels demonstrate enough adherence to the art of aerodynamics – which governs the flow of air over a car – to suggest that Ford is planning a romantically symbolic return to Le Mans next year. It will be a moment to savour.

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Illustrations by Mr Ben Lamb