TCS Daily

The Noise and the Power

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 7, 2004 12:00 AM

What is it about muscle cars?

"The noise and the power."

That's the answer my friend Bill Stablein gave me. He owns a small business in my hometown. He's a civic leader, president of the volunteer fire company, and serves on the library board and I don't know how many others.

And he's a motor head.

He's proud of it, and it's guys like him, whose first car consciousness as kids came just as Detroit was rolling out the first muscle cars in the mid-60s, who help make the muscle car boom of today.

The original muscle cars were scorchingly fast and imposingly noisy mid-size cars with big engines. And now their prices are being driven skyward at car auctions where they are the hottest things past the gavel. Many of the bidders are boomers who have made it and can now afford to buy a prime piece of nostalgia from their lost youth.

Some of today's buyers actually owned muscle cars 35 years-or-so ago, but many more just dreamed of owning them until now.

The Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona back in January had the usual coterie of Rolls-Royces and Ferraris and Jaguars and some older classics. But the big noise was from muscle rides. A 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda coupe sold for $216,000. A 1967 Shelby Mustang GT500 went for $280,800, and a 1969 Z28 Camaro brought $121,000.

And two weekends ago the auction moved to Palm Beach County, Fla., where more muscle went over the block at premium prices. A 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible fetched $109,000 and another 1967 Mustang Shelby GT500, this one a fastback, went for $175,000.

True, these cars were meticulously restored to a condition in most cases better than the cars were when new. And buyers tend to get caught up in the enthusiasm of an auction, an unfortunate phenomenon that distorts car prices in the rest of the market and gives owners of fairly rough cars an inflated idea of their true worth. But the fact is these cars are generally bringing good bucks because, beyond the nostalgia thing, they are a throwback to when you could still find cars with guts and personality, cars that demanded to be heard as well as seen, cars that left the smell of burnt rubber lingering at the traffic light.

The original muscle car -- the one that defined the category -- was the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO. Those three letters stood for an Italian motoring term, Gran Turismo Omologato, meaning a "grand touring" high performance production car officially certified for racing.

Pontiac shamelessly expropriated the GTO moniker from a special model Ferrari and caused a furor among auto racing purists. But the car's performance soon shut the purists up. You started with a basic Tempest coupe, two-door hardtop or convertible. For $300 you could order the GTO option package -- a 389 cubic-inch V-8 producing 325 horsepower, dual exhausts, special tires, floor shift, stiffer suspension and "faster" steering (bringing the car, depending upon the model, to between $3200 and $3500).

The initial GTOs were understated, even modest looking, with their crisp "geometric" bodylines on a 115-inch wheelbase. But oh baby, could they go! As in zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph or so. The young crowd caught on fast. Pontiac hoped to sell 5000 GTOs the first year. It sold 32,000.

The 1965 GTO, with more horsepower, was riding on the coattails of a legend. Pontiac sold 75,000 of them despite stiff competition as other makers scrambled into the muscle field -- the brawny Oldsmobile Cutlass 4-4-2 and Chevrolet's Chevelle SS396 were the first out of the chute. Ford, still basking in the phenomenal sales of its new Mustang, had to wait until 1966 to field its first competitor, the mid-size Fairlane 500/XL GT, which by then had an engine compartment big enough to hold Ford's big block engines.

Chrysler's answer came in 1968 with the super affordable ($2800 to $3000) Plymouth Road Runner. It was a stripped down, lightweight Belvedere coupe with that raw, underdesigned look so common to Mopars of the day. Under the hood was a more than respectable 335 horsepower V-8.

But for those willing to fork over the cash (a then-whopping $714 extra) you could order your Runner with a true shutdown legend, Chrysler's 426 cubic-inch Hemi -- the unchallenged king of the NASCAR tracks at the time. In a curious bit of reverse psychology, Plymouth advertised this engine as putting out 425 horsepower. But every motorhead knew that actual output was far north of that. And in a final cultural piece de resistance Plymouth endowed the car with a horn that sounded just like the taunting "beep, beep" of the car's cartoon namesake.

Sorely underestimating muscle car mania and the Plymouth's amazing price point (competitors were in the $5000 range by then) Chrysler set a sales goal of 2400 for the Road Runner. They sold 44,599. It would never be the same again. In a story too often repeated in Detroit, successive Runners became fatter, frillier, less agile and much more ho-hum.

I'm not going to try to catalogue all the muscle cars. (Hey, what about the Daytona? Or The Judge? Etc. etc.) But suffice it to say, when you go to the car shows and the big sales and flea markets this is the iron that draws the crowds. Guys slip behind the wheel for a test drive, caress the floor shifter and look out over the huge expanse of hood as the engine rumbles ominously. Most of those cars were not particularly good rides, and many were not that well put together if you get right down to it. But ah, the noise and the power.

Bill Stablein touched on the mystique of the thing when he recalled a moment one summer night when there was a youth dance at Holy Trinity, back in Ligonier, Pa., and you could hear the rock n' roll music coming out through the open windows of the gym. "Then we heard this rumbling sound coming closer and closer and we knew what it was."

It was a precursor of the muscle cars, a 1962 Chevy Impala SS with a big block 409, dual quad carbs and a racing cam. "I could hear the rock n' roll and the sound of that engine shaking my world," he recalls. "Somehow we talked the guy into giving us a ride. All us motorheads piled in and we went out on Route 30 and he pushed it down and it sort of jumped in the air and took off. I'll never forget the sound of those two four-barrels bawling."


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