The biggest, most successful muscle car story was Carroll Shelby and his quest for performance. But, it wouldn’t have been possible without Ford’s support. Carroll Shelby was a Texas farmer with an incredible driving talent. He rose to fame in the racing world in the 50’s. In 1959, he won the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race behind the wheel of an Aston Martin.
However, in the early 60’s Shelby was forced to retire due to heart problems. Shelby moved to Southern California and started a driving school. However, his biggest dream was to build his own sports car. So, when he learned Bristol cars in England was stopping the production of their Ace roadster, he contacted the company. Shelby managed to buy a couple of bodies without the engines.
He knew he needed support from a major manufacturer. So, after some failed talks with Chevrolet, Shelby turned to Ford. They agreed to supply the engines and get involved in whole sports car scene. Before long the Shelby Cobra was born with Ford’s 260 and 289 V8 engines. It dominated the racing scene, first in America and then in Europe, as well.
However, Ford had bigger plans. So, when they introduced the Mustang, Shelby had the task of transforming it into a Corvette-beating machine. In 1965, Shelby American introduced the GT350, a street legal race car with a 306 HP engine. It also had the racing looks to capture the imagination of race fans in America. The Shelby GT350 was the first muscle car an outside company tuned, which started a trend.
Ford was satisfied with the results, so they invested further in Shelby. They produced more Shelby-prepared Mustangs, including a big block GT500 and special editions like the GT500 KR. Carroll Shelby became a Ford GT40 race team manager, returning to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times in a row in late 60’s. Ford ceased production of the Shelby Mustang in 1970 as the muscle car era started fading. However, Carroll Shelby remained active as a car constructor and builder until his death in 2012.
Famous in the late 60’s, Nickey Chevrolet was one of the country’s biggest high-performance Chevrolet dealerships and tuning outfits. Famous for their wacky logo featuring a backwards “K,” Nickey was based in Chicago. However, they sold cars and parts all over America. This dealership also sponsored many racing cars and drag racers participating in events in the area. Nickey’s specialty was transforming Camaros into dragstrip terrors by installing a hot 427 V8.
They also converted a few Chevrolet Novas and Chevelles. Interestingly, Nickey advertised they would give airline tickets to customers to get to Chicago to buy their performance car of choice. Nickey also printed a lot of mail order catalogs and sent them to buyers in other countries. Closed in the 70’s, Nickey Chevrolet is back in business selling hot Chevrolets, Camaros and Corvettes, just as they did in late 60’s.
Dick Harrell Performance Center
To all Chevrolet muscle car fans, Harrell’s name means a lot. He was the guy behind Yenko, Nickey and Gibb conversions. He was also a great driver who could show the potential of the cars he produced. In the late 60’s, he opened his own shop in Kansas City, producing parts and full conversion kits for Chevrolets, as well as racing them intensively.
His performance dealership was one of the few places to get parts, engines, fully converted cars, race tips and much more. Whatever Harrell said, he back it with his racing success and trophies. That is why the Dick Harrell Performance Center was one of the dealers of the fantastic 1969 COPO Camaro ZL1, unavailable through regular dealerships. His famous creations include a 427-powered 1968 Nova with drag slicks.
Mr. Norm Grand Spaulding Dodge
If you think Dodge and Mopar didn’t need specialty dealerships and tuning outfits since they got their crazy power straight from the factory, think again. Despite the powerful 383, 440 and the legendary 426 Hemi engines, there was always room for improvement. So, when 28-year-old Norman Kraus opened his dealership in Chicago in 1962, this is exactly what he had in mind.
Back in the early 60’s, the performance market was not an interesting segment for mainstream dealers. But, Mr. Norm wanted exactly that kind of youthful buyer. When the muscle car era launched, Mr. Norm`s dealership was more than ready. They offered a full selection of performance parts, components and cars. But the real climb to fame was the fact that Mr. Norm did something Dodge thought was impossible.
Mr. Norm wanted to put a 383 V8 engine in a compact Dodge Dart body. He knew it would sell because Dart was a lightweight car and with a potent 383, so it would be fast. However, the Dodge engineering team told him the 383 V8 wouldn’t fit the small Dart’s engine bay. So, he ordered a brand-new Dart and a crate 383 V8 engine. In a few days’ time, a Dodge Dart Grand Spaulding Special (GSS) was born.
Each performance car Mr. Norm sold got a special performance tune. He became the guy to see if you wanted your Mopar to be the fastest car on the streets. The original dealership closed in 1980, but Norman Kraus is still active today.
To explain Yenko’s role in muscle car popularity in the 60’s, it is best to describe it as Chevrolet’s answer to Shelby American. The Yenko family started a Chevrolet dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania in 1949. However, in late 50’s when Don Yenko started managing the business, the company slowly turned to the performance car market. They started with a series of race-prepared Corvettes Don raced himself. Then they worked with full conversion jobs they based on various Chevrolet models.
The first Yenko model was the Corvair Stinger which they introduced in 1966. It was a tuned version of the Chevrolet Corvair Monza coupe. However, it had more power, a better suspension and sharper handling. The Stinger even had success on the race tracks, turning the attention of the performance car public to the Yenko dealership. With Chevy’s introduction of the Camaro in 1967, Yenko started converting them to 427 V8 power. They sold Camaros as Yenko Super Cars.
In addition to more power, wild graphics and a long list of optional extras, Yenko offered a factory warranty. They also heavily promoted their models. That is why Yenko Camaros were the most popular choice if you wanted a custom 427 V8 conversion on your regular SS. Besides Camaros, Yenko produced Chevelles, Novas and Vegas.
They all came with their signature stripes and crazy visual packages. Don Yenko would still build his powerful Chevrolets; however, he tragically died in an airplane accident in 1987.
Royal Bobcat Pontiac
How dealerships and major manufacturers combined their efforts of promoting, building and racing muscle cars is in the story of Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan. They established the dealership in the late 50’s. But it landed on the map by sponsoring and preparing local drag racing Pontiacs with the help of Pontiac’s marketing guru, Jim Wangers. When Pontiac started racing and building performance machines on a bigger scale in the early 60’s, Royal Pontiac helped prepare and test the cars.
However, the popularity of Royal Pontiac exploded with the GTO. In fact, Ace Wilson was the guy who prepared all GTOs before the cars were sent to magazine testers. Jim Wangers knew they had to blow the magazine testers away with the performance of the new GTO. So, he instructed Ace Wilson to install the mighty 421 V8 and disguise it as 389 V8. The trick worked, and the legend of GTO was born.
Royal Pontiac also prepared and converted many GTOs and even sold mail order performance kits. Ace Wilson was also responsible for many drag racing cars. The dealership also sponsored many local and national racers.
One of the most successful collaborations between a major car company and a small aftermarket outfit was the deal between Hurst and Oldsmobile. Back in the late 60’s, Hurst transformed the Oldsmobile 442 into one of the fastest cars available on the North American market. They equipped them with their famous shifter and signature gold and white or black and silver paint jobs.
At the time, Oldsmobile was under GM’s ban which forbade the company from putting engines larger than 400 CID in intermediate cars. This meant the popular 442 model couldn’t receive the biggest available engine. Due to that, it was inferior to Mopar muscle cars that had engines of up to 440 CID under their hoods. However, since Hurst was an independent company, GM rules didn’t apply. So, Oldsmobile shipped some partially disassembled 442s to Hurst.
Hurst installed the biggest engine Oldsmobile had in the car, which was the mighty 455 V8 with 390 HP. Of course, the Hurst Olds package also got numerous other performance upgrades, a ram air induction system, a heavy-duty suspension and brakes. Since the Hurst Olds was a limited production factory hot rod, it was quite expensive.
Hurst produced its versions of Oldsmobile performance cars from 1968 to 1979 and from 1983 to 1984. However, it was only during the first few years with the unrestricted power output that was the most interesting for collectors. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, those Hurst Olds were just warmer versions of standard Cutlass two-door models. They produced them in limited numbers and people soon forgot them.
If you were on the East Coast in the early 60’s and needed the ultimate Chevrolet Camaro, Chevelle, Nova, Impala or Corvette, there was only one place to go: the Baldwin Motion dealership in Long Island, New York. They established the business in 1967 when Baldwin Chevrolet dealership teamed up with Joel Rosen’s Motion Performance. Before long, the dealership was the place for all a car fan’s performance needs.
In contrast to other performance dealerships and tuning houses, Baldwin-Motion did all the precise tuning of their cars. They also put out written guarantees that the car would perform in a certain way. For example, they guaranteed their top of the line Phase III 427 V8 Camaro conversion had 500 HP and produced 10-second quarter mile times or your money back. Baldwin-Motion also created bodywork kits and performance parts that were so desirable, they exported them to Europe and the Middle East.
The best period for this performance outfit was in the early 70’s. This was when Baldwin Motion produced limited numbers of highly customized big block Corvettes and Camaros. Those cars were brutally fast and powerful.
Fred Gibb Chevrolet
They opened the Fred Gibb Chevrolet dealership in 1948 in the rural Illinois town of La Harpe. For years, they sold regular cars and trucks to this small community 250 miles from Chicago. Fred Gibb didn’t intend to race or modify muscle cars. But when his employee bought a new Camaro Z28 and started racing successfully, Gibb realized there was potential in the performance market.
Gibb met Dick Harrell by chance. So, he started preparing race cars with the help of fellow Chevrolet performance dealers, as well as the factory itself. Gibb invested heavily in race cars and even bought 50 Chevy IIs from GM. He transformed them into racing cars, selling them to enthusiasts.
Apart from the numerous successful race cars he built, Gibb’s biggest achievement was when he persuaded Chevrolet to build 69 legendary COPO Camaros ZL1. He wanted to fit them with the mythical all-aluminum 427 V8. They built the cars as special orders, selling them through special, performance-oriented dealerships. However, Fred Gibb Chevrolet was the main dealership that sold most of the 69 Chevys they made.
Shelby had the biggest support from Ford, but he wasn’t the only one who built fast Fords ordinary customers couldn’t get. Bob Tasca established his business in 1953 and his Ford dealership soon became successful. It was even one of the major Ford partners on the East Coast. Bob Tasca was one of the first guys to fully understand the legendary “Win on Sunday and sell on Monday” mantra. He first started racing and sponsoring cars in his Bristol, Rhode Island area.
With Ford`s quest for racing success, management realized Tasca Ford could be a valuable partner. So, when the Ford Thunderbolt drag racer project started, Tasca Ford had an important place. Tasca also experimented with engine conversions and started offering 427 V8 kits for Mustangs and other Fords. Using his experience and know-how, Ford presented the 428 Cobra Jet Mustang in 1968.
Tasca helped develop the Boss 302 race car and the Boss 429 race engines. Since it was a big dealership that sold a lot of cars, Tasca was Shelby American’s main partner for the East Coast. Although Bob Tasca is gone now, the dealership is still active today and proud of their heritage.
Rives Callaway established Callaway Cars in 1977, long after the muscle car craze was over. At the time, those high horsepower performance machines were a thing of past. He specialized in producing turbocharger kits for installation in European cars. His knowledge and expertise started the turbo era. This lined up perfectly with the times, so the company took off.
In the late 80’s, Callaway was already a well-known name in the car industry. He concentrated on building his own creations on regular models. Back then, the hottest U.S. car was the Corvette C4 with 245 HP. They may not seem like much, but in those days, it was a respectable number. Callaway developed a twin turbo kit for the venerable Chevrolet V8.
In the end, the car produced mighty 345 HP, an increase of 100 HP over stock. Chevrolet was so impressed by the result, they included the Callaway conversion as a regular production order. So, customers could order the Callaway Corvette C4 from every dealership. To show the real potential of the twin turbo C4, Callaway produced the legendary Sledgehammer Corvette. It was a highly modified, heavily turbocharged 1988 Corvette with 898 HP that could go over 250 mph.
These are the most famous, legendary classic muscle car tuners and dealerships. Luckily, many of these businesses still exist today.