What Is a Muscle Car? Finding an Appreciation for These Iconic Autos

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Few automobiles have defined the American culture as thoroughly as muscle cars.

But what is a muscle car? Is there a set definition or does it just refer to any mean looking car with a big engine?  Well, we wanted to find out all the details behind this timeless mode of travel. So join us as we trace the lineage of muscle cars. We will track them from their earliest days to the marvels of modern innovation.
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What is a muscle car?

It might sound like a simple question -- until you begin to answer it. You might have a favorite muscle car in mind. Describing it might get you on your way to defining the term. But we'll dig a bit deeper to determine just what it is that makes these vehicles so special.

Defining 'Muscle Cars'

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As it turns out, there is no consensus on what the term means. But you'll probably get some consistent answers if you ask experts "What is a muscle car?" That's because most folks think it has a lot to do with an individual car. It is the attitude, an unidentifiable spirit of speed and performance.

You could drop the same amount of power into a more timid car. That wouldn't transform it into a muscle car, though. Since their earliest days, muscle cars have existed to provide a thrill. Flooring the gas provides immediate response as the car grips the pavement and you're off.

Today's muscle cars bear little resemblance in equipment and even power output. Technology has allowed cars to increase horsepower and torque while increasing fuel economy. And modern muscle cars have tons of creature comforts as well as luxury appointments. But at the heart of any muscle car is a uniquely American drive to be the biggest and best.

A Brief History of Muscle Cars

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sicnag

You've got to go back nearly 70 years to find the first examples of modern muscle cars. Back then, it was primarily North American drivers who were interested in souped up coupes and sedans. And hot rod auto tuners were more than happy to help.

Back in the 1950s, these cars were little more than everyday drivers with a major engine swap. This often meant unreliable performance, but true fans were not deterred. They continued tuning and toying with their cars until auto makers themselves took notice.

Cars like the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger began rolling off of assembly lines. Then the Ford Mustang entered the fray. Though initially less muscular than some of its rivals, this pony soon got more power. It then became the standard bearer for what is a muscle car for generations to come.

How Has the Definition Evolved Over Time?

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The attitude might still be the same, but driving a modern muscle car is much different. First of all, plenty of automotive regulations have made them much safer. A mix of air bags, safety restraints and more rigid frames allow for more driver confidence.

Then there are the technological improvements. These advancements make muscle cars a lot more practical to drive than they used to be. Increased performance, fuel mileage and reliability all play into this aspect of the evolution.

So then, what is a muscle car? As it turns out, it might have as much to do with the driver as the car. Because that is the one thing that has remained consistent through the years. Muscle cars are the type of vehicle that motorists who want unbridled power in a big, solid frame. And no matter what else has changed, those qualities still remain in today's crop of muscle cars.

What are the Differences Between Muscle Cars and Other Cars?

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You might have noticed that there are plenty of fast cars out there. So what is a muscle car that makes it different than the rest? Let's take a look at what experts see as the primary distinctions. We'll start with the primary rival among those who crave performance: sports cars.

There are a few pretty common differences between muscle cars and sports cars. First of all, you can usually tell the difference by looking under the hood. Muscle cars typically have more brute force than their highly tuned sports car brethren. This usually gives muscle cars the edge in torque but sports cars often have more horsepower. That makes them great for different types of racing and performance. There's also a common difference between their looks, too. As you might guess, muscle cars are probably going to be covered in bulges. But the sports car is usually sleeker and more aerodynamic. 

From there, those who want more performance have to start spending a lot. You can get a muscle car for a reasonable price, which is part of its appeal. Then sports cars are available for the same or slightly higher sticker prices. But for even more power and performance, you'll need super cars or exotic hyper cars. If you go there, prepare to spend six (or seven) figures. 


What Are the Best Muscle Cars of All Time?

It's hard to be objective when trying to pick the best muscle cars of all time. But we're going to take a shot at highlighting some of the most influential examples. We'll include some of America's favorite muscle cars to give you an idea of the progression. 

While you're admiring these beautiful machines, remember there are many more like them. No matter the manufacturer or generation, car makers have always attempted to give drivers what they want. And that has probably never been as obvious as in the giant engines and mean lines of muscle cars.

1. 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sicnag

If a mean look is a prerequisite, then this one certainly qualifies. But it takes a lot more to answer the question "What is a muscle car?" And we think the 1969 Dodge Charge Daytona meets all the qualifications. They were so successful on the NASCAR circuit that they were banned! And even today, examples of the stunning 426 Hemi engine in one of these cars is a sight. It is also incredibly expensive if you're thinking about adding one to your collection.

2. 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

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You might remember the late 1970s as a time of widespread fuel shortages. While most car makers responded by making smaller, less powerful options, Pontiac didn't. At least not when it came to the 1978 Firebird Trans Am. This muscle car bucked the trend by packing a huge motor and 220 horses. The result was just about the most fun you could have off the starting line in 1978. And it's still pretty impressive today.

3. Ford Mustang

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sicnag

We felt a Mustang deserved a spot on the list, and we selected this one to represent the brand. These iconic lines helped seal the deal, but it was really the fact that it redefined the car. Ford's new Mustang had been a stunning touring sedan. But the extra power under the hood along with styling cues and enhancements took it further. If there was any question whether before the Shelby GT 350, this made it clear. The Mustang was a muscle car.


Driving one of the best examples of these machines is a stunning experience.

In fact, that might be the best way to answer the nagging question, "What is a muscle car?" But short of giving you the keys to a '67 Camaro SS, we hope our guide gives you a clear idea. Basically, car enthusiasts just wanted their cars to perform at a higher level. And what resulted has gone on to thrill car enthusiasts for decades to this day.


If you enjoyed our look at muscle cars, share it with the motor heads in your life. And leaves us a comment below if you have any final thoughts or questions.

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