Definition of a muscle car....
Can we agree that, at its most elemental, a muscle car is a midsized car with an engine taken from the fullsize-car line? Using this broad definition, the ’64 Pontiac GTO is generally accepted to have kicked things off. We take nothing away from the GTO—its popularity certainly set the trend for the day and kicked things into high gear. But the first muscle car? Don't think so.
Many will argue that the ’62-’64 Max Wedge Mopars, fullsize cars downsized to midsize status, are the Genesis of the movement. Consider: the downsized, new-for-’62 Polara had a 1-inch-longer wheelbase, a shipping weight of 200 pounds more, and, packing 413 wedge power, about 60 more horsepower than the GTO. Chrysler’s laughable notion of this being a fullsize car aside, will anyone argue that this isn’t a muscle car? Not us. But it’s not the first, either.
Some will allow cars as early as 1960 into their definition. This is what most of your magazines and books have brainwashed most casual muscle-car fans into believing. Maybe the ’60 Pontiac Catalina, with a tri-power 421 under the hood? Smokin’ for sure—certainly tops in its day. Not a midsize, though, and not first. What about the one-horsepower-per-cubic-inch fuel-injected 283-cube Chevy V-8, available in Corvettes and fullsize Chevy models starting in ’57? Absolutely hot. Some could argue that the ’55 Chevy, a vehicle that brought pushrod OHV V-8 power to the masses, kicked things off. Both represent significant milestones in automotive performance and development—we’d even consider the ’55 a landmark in that regard. But muscle cars? The ’55 Chevy clocks in at roughly the same size as a ’64 GTO, but is still considered a fullsize ride.
The 400-hp milestone was reached in 1958 in Mercury, of all marques. But, in those days, there were no midsized Mercury models—only large ones, and larger ones.
If anything, we’d suggest that the ’57 Rambler Rebel fit the bill more than any of these listed above. In terms of sheer power, it wouldn’t be top of the heap, but it was the midsize option (Ambassador was the traditional-sized model) with the four-barrel, 9.5:1 compression, 327-cube V-8. As a bonus, it was even marketed as a performance model. Mostly forgotten, and generally lumped in with the rest of the ’50s orphans and oddballs, the Rebel deserves far more credit than it gets.
But it’s still not the first.
Before this time, big power was a hallmark of premium cars. Some would argue that the first Chrysler 300, the first modern production car with 300 hp, is where it all begins; alas, it’s fullsized, too. Others may point to 1949 as a pivotal, highlighting the Caddy Series 62 and Olds 88 as the prototypes for muscle cars to come, a solid decade and a half before the ’64 GTO. Two different all-new OHV V-8 engines dropped into the smaller, lower-line bodies fit the general criteria, yet reside well outside the generally accepted timeline.
What about the Buick Century? Introduced in 1936, the Century—a combination of low-line, short-wheelbase Special body (122 inches was fairly petite in those days) and fullsize eight-cylinder engine—didn’t actually top the 100-mph mark until 1938 model-year upgrades. How Harlow H. Curtice, Buick’s general manager at the time, managed to get the Century built at a time when GM’s political hierarchy was iron-clad, is anyone’s guess.
Why the Century doesn’t get more lip service is beyond us. Too far back in history? Did the real-world performance of ’60s performance cars, with massive amounts of horsepower able to boil a pair of redlines in a blink, make everyone forget the past? Undetermined, but the Boomer generation that helps define the muscle era wasn’t around in ’38; perhaps it’s a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind?
There’s another example that predates even that. Studebaker’s five-passenger Sport Phaeton launched in the fall of 1924. The marque had three engine/chassis combinations: the 113-inch wheelbase three-to-five-passenger Standard Six with a 50-hp engine; the 120-inch wheelbase three-to-five-passenger Special Six with a 65-hp engine; and the Big Six, with a 75-hp mill to push around the bulk of a 127-inch wheelbase and up-to-seven-passenger capacity. The Special Six and the Big Six shared external engine dimensions and a 5-inch crank stroke; only the bore was different. Dropping the Big Six engine (with BIG lettering cast into the head, a move that seemed perfectly in keeping with air scoops with teeth and other psychedelic graphic frippery of the 1960s) into the Special Six chassis was a no-brainer.
The five-passenger Duplex Phaeton, a hardtop with optional side curtains, was a new body style launched on the Special chassis in the fall of 1924. Mix in the 75-hp Big Six engine that quickly gained favor with the law enforcement types in the desert Southwest, and the Sport Phaeton was born. Nicknamed “Sheriff,” it retailed for $1,575—toward the lower end of the Special Six price range, offering the same power as cars costing twice or three times as much. It may well be the first muscle car; it certainly fit the fullsize engine/midsize body definition.
Others may argue that stripped-down Flivvers and low-production Stutzes or Duesenbergs were the first muscle cars, based on sheer output alone. We would argue the point; Stutzes were sports cars, Doozies were never small, and Ts were only made muscleable with aftermarket parts. (You can throw aftermarket parts at anything and make it faster.)
Don’t believe us? Don’t agree? That’s Okay. We can argue all day long about when the first muscle car was built. Just as long as we can stave off the day when we argue about the last one.