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American Performance: Top 20 Early Muscle Cars

Vukasin Herbez June 18, 2018

Everybody knows muscle cars as we know them started in 1964. It was when Pontiac introduced their first GTO, creating a revolution in the automotive industry that is still strong today. But, muscle cars as a segment didn’t just pop out on the market. Long before the GTO, there were a lot of powerful, fast cars by the standards of the day, that helped the market grow.

The quest for performance started after the World War II with the appearance of the hot rod culture and drag racing. Those tuned engines and street rod cars were much faster than anything Detroit was producing at that time. Marketing experts realized that the performance aspect was attracting a generation of young Americans, which helped sell cars. However, the first American performance cars and early muscle models weren’t as affordable and plentiful as their successors from the 60’s.

Manufacturers were cautious with the new car segment, so the most powerful models were expensive and rare. They were hard to come by, but the exclusivity increased their appeal. This list includes the 20 best American muscle and performance machines from the late 40’s to the early 60’s. It was a period that preceded the birth of the popular muscle car culture. It also sparked the octane craze of the late 60’s and the early 70’s.

These 20 important cars created the term “American performance” and revolutionized the industry. Some cars on this list like the 1949 Cadillac, 1953 Corvette and 1955 Chrysler C-300 are definitely not muscle cars by today’s standards. However, they are all models that helped define the market, so car fans and historians celebrate those wonderful machines. So, keep reading to go on a cruise through the early history of muscle cars.

  1. 1949 Oldsmobile 88 Rocket V8

For 1949 model year, Oldsmobile presented two important things – the 88 model series and a brand new 303-cid V8 engine they called the Rocket V8. Both of these new things proved influential in Oldsmobile’s history. The 88 model was relatively light and compact, and the Rocket V8 was a hot engine with a two-barrel carburetor and 135 HP on tap. The combination of a light body and a powerful engine in the 1949 Oldsmobile 88 created the first muscle car from Detroit.

The 1949 Olds 88 was a success with customers, and on the race track, too. It won six out of nine NASCAR races that year and was competitive on drag strips, as well. The car was the theme of one of the first rock and roll songs ever – Rocket 88 by the Kings of Rhythm. All of this makes this car extremely influential in the automotive history, as well as in the history of rock and roll.

  1. 1949 Cadillac Coupe De Ville

The 1949 Cadillac was an important model for the company. It introduced a new design that created a trend in big chrome fins. The raised rear fenders near the rear lights sparked a revolution in American car design during the 50’s.

Also, with a new 331-cid V8, the 1949 Cadillac produced 160 HP, which was powerful for the standards of the day. They equipped it with a manual transmission. A pillarless Coupe De Ville could accelerate to 60 mph in just 12 seconds. This was fast for late 40’s and it transformed this luxury coupe into a muscle machine.

  1. 1951 Hudson Hornet

In 1951, Hudson introduced the Hornet. It was a full-size sedan with an affordable price and a few interesting features. The first was the sleek design with a sloping roofline that made the Hornet look longer, wider and sportier. The second was the all-new step down construction that merged the chassis and body in one piece. This gave the Hornet a lower center of gravity for better handling.

The third important feature was an improved straight eight-cylinder engine with 308cid and up to 170 HP on tap. All of this gave the Hornet a big advantage on the race tracks. In fact, Hudson dominated the NASCAR races from 1951 to 1954, becoming one of the biggest legends of the sport. In comparison to other models, the Hornet handled better. The big straight eight produced a lot of torque, which also helped with its performance.

  1. 1952 Lincoln Capri

In 1952, Lincoln presented the Capri. It was a new model in the full-size segment. It featured a new 317 V8 with 160 HP and a ball-joint suspension. The combination of power and improved handling proved to be great for road races. The Capri was dominant on the gruesome Mexican Carrera Pan Americana race in early 50’s.

Capri’s power steadily grew. It reached 225 HP in 1955, earning the nickname, Hot Rod Lincoln for all V8 equipped models. This was due to the decent performance and success of the Capri in many road races overseas.

  1. 1953 Chevrolet Corvette

Despite the fact Corvette was never a muscle car per se, the Chevrolet Corvette was the biggest automotive news for 1953. It was also a big boost for the American performance scene since nobody expected Chevrolet to build such an exotic car. The most interesting thing about the new Corvette was the fiberglass body. Back in the early 50’s, plastic was still the material of the future, so they rarely used in the car industry.

The Corvette was the first car with a fully plastic body, making Chevrolet a pioneer of fiberglass construction. Under the hood was an inline six engine they called the Blue Flame. It featured 3.9-liters of displacement and a modest 136 HP rating. The engine came from Chevrolet’s standard lineup, although they equipped it with three Carter carburetors.

Chevrolet engineers tried to keep the costs down by borrowing mechanical components from other vehicles to use on the Corvette. With a price of $3,490, the 1953 Corvette wasn’t affordable. But, it was cheaper than a Jaguar XK120 or a Ferrari 166. However, despite the interest from the public the first year, they only made 300 Corvettes, all white with red interiors.

  1. 1954 Chrysler New Yorker

Even though Chrysler introduced the Hemi engine in 1951, it didn’t become a hot item until 1954. This is when Chrysler’s engineers managed to squeeze 235 HP into it, which drivers considered a ludicrous amount of power. Chrysler installed this engine in the elegant, restrained New Yorker. The 331 Hemi V8 proved to be fast and durable, but it was also a record breaker.

Chrysler entered a special 24-hour endurance run with the 1954 New Yorker. It managed to average 118.8 mph over 24 hours of nonstop driving. This highly publicized achievement was the perfect marketing tool for promoting Chrysler’s performance.

  1. 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air V8

The biggest news for 1955 was Chevy’s introduction of the legendary small-block engine in the form of the 265-cid V8. The engine featured casting which proved to be lighter than regular six-cylinder with 162 HP in base form. It delivered 180 HP with the special Power Pack package. It included a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust for an affordable performance car in the gorgeous new 1955 Bel Air body.

The V8 engine could reach 5,500 rpm and deliver much more power than advertised. Soon, it became the favorite basis for hot rodders and racers and is an automotive legend of first order today. In late 1955, Chevrolet offered a new Power Kit to boost power to 195 HP. With that upgrade, the 1955 Bel Air could accelerate to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. This was unbelievable back in those days.

  1. 1955 Chrysler C-300

The fastest, most powerful American production model for 1955 was the mighty Chrysler C-300. It was the car that shook up the automotive scene. This was the start of a 10-year production run of Chrysler’s famous letter car series. They were exclusive, fast and expensive coupes and convertibles with the maximum power, comfort and luxury. But the first car in that glorious lineup was the 1955 C-300.

The car got its name for its 331 V8 Hemi engine that had 8.5:1 compression figures and a race camshaft. It also came with twin four-barrel carburetors, producing 300 HP, which was a magical figure for the mid-50’s. The performance was outstanding with a nine-second 0 to 60 mph time and 130 mph top speeds. The car was expensive and full of luxury items, but it proved successful in racing, winning 37 stock car events.

Nowadays, the Chrysler C-300 is a valuable and extremely rare early muscle machine. Chrysler built just over 1,700 of those Hemi-powered cruisers, but no one knows how many exist today.

  1. 1956 Dodge D-500

The appearance of the Chrysler C-300 influenced all Mopar brands. Dodge, Plymouth and De Soto all got the hotter version of the Hemi engine, delivering better performance. The first car to benefit from this new-found quest for performance was Dodge. They put the Hemi in their new D-500 option on all their full-size models.

These cars also became famous for their interesting three-tone paint jobs and their 295 HP engines. The engine was basically the same as in those big Chryslers, but with a smaller displacement at 315-cid. They retained the 8.5:1 compression, as well as the Carter dual quads and beefy internals.

  1. 1956 Packard Caribbean

Packard was always a luxury brand that people knew best for their heavy limousines and comfortable sedans. But in 1956, they tried to enter the performance market with their Caribbean model. In those days, Packard was facing bankruptcy and the loss of sales, so the company was eager to find new customers any way they could.

For 1956, Packard introduced the biggest V8 engine available in America with the 374 V8. It delivered 310 HP with the help of high compression heads and dual quad carburetors. However, despite its big power, the Caribbean wasn’t fast because it was too heavy.

  1. 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk

Studebaker as a car brand disappeared in 1966 after years of trying to stay relevant on the American market. But in mid-50’s, it was still one of the best names in the business with a lineup of interesting models. One of the best Studebakers they ever built was the elegant, fast 1956 Golden Hawk.

They conceived as a cool-looking personal luxury coupe. The Golden Hawk had a Packard-derived 352 V8 engine with 275 HP, which was impressive for the day. The performance was also significant with 0 to 60 mph acceleration times of less than nine seconds.

  1. 1957 Fuel Injected Chevrolet Bel Air

Since their first introduction of the legendary 1955 Bel Air V8 model, Chevrolet improved the specifications. They also upgraded the power, creating faster cars. But, for 1957, Chevy presented the most advanced engine option of all American car manufacturers at the time – fuel injection. They offered it as a performance package for the Bel Air and named it the Fuelie.

This engine included a special fuel injection induction system, replacing carburetors. The regular 283 V8 engine produced 270 HP with its standard dual quads. However, with fuel injection, this V8 engine could pump out 283 HP. Despite the small differences in output, the fuel injection option delivered power more efficiently than the standard intake.

  1. 1957 Supercharged Ford Thunderbird

Just like the Corvette or Chrysler C-300, drivers didn’t consider the Ford Thunderbird as a proper muscle car. To consumers, the Thunderbird was a luxurious two-seater with low production numbers and a high price tag. However, its style and performance raised the collective car consciousness, which created the muscle car segment in the following years. Ford introduced the Thunderbird in 1955. It outsold the Corvette immediately.

But in 1957, Ford introduced two engine options that set the standards for car performance. They have a special place in the history of American performance and muscle cars today. Mounting a Paxton or McCullough supercharger on top of the optional 312 V8 engine gave the Thunderbird a 300 HP rating. And if that wasn’t enough, Ford offered the even hotter 340 HP version of the same supercharged engine they intended for racers.

  1. 1957 Rambler Rebel V8

The Rambler Rebel V8 is an interesting early muscle car born by chance. By squeezing a 327 V8 engine from the Nash Ambassador into a compact, light Rambler body, they created a fast yet unassuming muscle machine. The 327 V8 delivered 255 HP, which wasn’t that much, but in a small Rambler body, it accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in just seven seconds.

To make things even more interesting, only the expensive fuel-injected Chevrolet Corvette could beat the small Rambler in 1957. However, the powerful engine option raised the price of the affordable Rambler. Unfortunately, few buyers wanted to pay extra to outrun anything else on the road, so they only built 1,500 of them.

  1. 1958 Pontiac Bonneville Tri-Power

The new styling of the Pontiac brand meant a new approach to the performance market. It also sparked the birth of one of the most powerful American muscle car brands. Despite a few impressive models, Pontiac’s muscle quest began in 1958 when they presented the Bonneville with their Tri-Power option.

This was a top of the line model featuring a big 370 V8 engine with three two-barrel Rochester carburetors, producing up to 310 HP. In late 1958, Pontiac introduced an even hotter setup with up to 330 HP they designed for racers and NASCAR.

  1. 1958 Plymouth Fury

Before the Fury was a separate model, it was an option on the Belvedere. But for 1958, this model benefited from Chrysler’s new Golden Commando engine. The mighty Hemi was gone, but Chrysler didn’t abandon the performance market. The Golden Commando came with a 350-cid displacement and updated equipment, delivering 305 HP.

Plymouth even experimented with a fuel injection setup, but the system proved problematic. The problems caused the factory to compensate car owners, giving them the conventional four-barrel setup. If the fuel injection worked, it would have produced up to 315 HP.

  1. 1960 Ford GalaxieStarliner

Ford felt left out of the performance race, so for 1960, they introduced their Interceptor 360 package. It was available on the full-size Galaxie with the Starliner body style. The Starliner was a two-door coupe with a sloping roofline. It was ideal for those fast NASCAR tracks that Ford wanted to dominate in the early 60’s.

They based their Interceptor 360 package on an old 352 V8 engine. However, they equipped it with a new performance intake system, beefed up internals and a dual exhaust. This resulted in some impressive 360 HP ratings. Ford managed to achieve 15 wins in the NASCAR championship for the 1960 season.

  1. 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409

The legendary Super Sport (SS) package has a place in muscle car history as an important model that promoted the concept of performance to the public. This was one of the first high-performance automobiles that relatively affordable and fast. Everything started when Chevrolet decided to transform its 409 truck engine to use in passenger cars. They found out that the unit was powerful and it could outrun all other cars on the road. Just by making some mild modifications to the engine, it could produce up to 409 HP.

Chevy’s changes to the 409 were enough to propel the Impala from a standstill to 60 mph in six seconds flat. At that time, that was Corvette territory. So, as a mid-year introduction, Chevrolet presented the SS package that featured bucket seats, a sports trim and other interesting details. It also came with the 348 V8 engine with 350 HP. However, the most popular option was the 409 V8 with up to 409 HP if customers chose the dual quad intake system.

Although Chevrolet sold over a million of its full-size models, they only made 456 Impala SS cars in 1961. However, only 142 of them came with the 409 engine. No one knows the exact number of Impala SS 409 Convertibles Chevy built. However, Chevrolet historians speculate they made around 45 of those immensely powerful open-top cruisers.

Interestingly, the 409 option was available for all Chevrolet full-size models in 1961, so it was possible to install this engine into plain-looking sedans and wagons. But, those cars have yet to surface. Today, as you may expect, the 1961 Impala SS 409 is one of the most valuable cars in Chevrolet’s muscle car history.

  1. 1962 Pontiac Catalina 421 Super Duty

In the early 60’s, the best Pontiac weapon was the Catalina. It was a full-size two-door coupe that came standard with the already potent 389 V8 engine. The car-buying public considered those 389-powered Catalinas as hot cars with good performance. When they equipped it with their famous three power setup, the Catalina 389 could deliver 348 HP.

But for those who wanted more, Pontiac offered a 421 V8 engine with two four-barrel carburetors and 405 HP. Those cars were street racing beasts that became the basis for Pontiac’s legendary Swiss Cheese drag racers of the early 60’s that dominated the NHRA championships.

  1. 1963 Studebaker Avanti R2

In the early 60’s, Studebaker management decided to invest in a luxury coupe to fight poor sales. They thought a new, fancy upscale model would attract customers, turning their attention back to Studebaker. So, in 1962, they presented the sleek, modern-looking Avanti. The innovative design, construction, and technology were interesting, so the car received praise from the motoring press.

The base version was not powerful, but soon Studebaker introduced a supercharged R2 option that delivered 289 HP. The R2 version didn’t come with an automatic transmission or air conditioning. It was only available with a close ratio manual gearbox. Besides that, they included lots of performance upgrades, turning the Avanti into a fast machine.

The R2 broke 28 world speed records, achieving top speeds of 170 mph, which was a big deal in 1963. The acceleration numbers were also good, and the R2 could sprint to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. Unfortunately, Studebaker had problems with production, so the Avanti was limited in availability, which affected its popularity.

So, by 1964, they discontinued this model. Today, car fans and historians recognized the Avanti R2 as one of the coolest 60’s cars, as well as an early luxury muscle car. During its short production run, they made just over 4,600 Studebaker Avanti and only a handful of them were those incredible R2s.

This list contains the origin of American performance – the 20 best early muscle cars in U.S. automotive history. If you happen to see one of these beasts, be sure to take a picture because they are becoming rarer with each passing day. It won’t be long before the only place you’ll see these cars are in a museum. They certainly belong in the annals of car history.

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