Why Muscle Cars – the Original Ones – Still Rule

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by Eric Peters EricPetersAutos.com

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A new V-6 Mustang or Camaro gives you about 100 more hp than the V-8 in my Trans-Am put out when it left the Norwood, Ohio line back in the spring of ’76. Either of these new cars could walk away from my old car in a heads-up drag race. The V-6 Mustang, especially. It can do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. That is quicker than most V-8 muscle cars ever were… in stock trim.

And that’s the catch.

The new stuff is quick and fast – as delivered. But the old stuff could be made quick and fast – easily and inexpensively. For example, my ’76 Trans-Am. That year, the 455 V-8 produced a pretty pathetic 200 hp – about the same as a current-year four-cylinder engine. But a simple cam swap, exhaust upgrade and power tune could just about double the 455?s output in a weekend – and for about $1,000 in parts (today’s money equivalent). The same applied to the earlier – and much more potent in as-delivered form – muscle cars of the early 70s and mid-late ’60s.

It was possible to go really fast on not much money.

The old stuff had – and still has – other advantages, too. Generally, they’re much lighter than their modern equivalents. For example, a ’69 SS Chevelle. It’s a big car by modern standards – but it only weighed about 3,335 lbs. (see here). A 2013 Camaro SS weighs almost 3,900 lbs. This is the reason the new Camaro SS is relatively slow – 5 seconds to 60 – given an engine that puts of 426 net hp.

Back in the late ’60s – when horsepower was measured (and advertised) using the old SAE gross standard, the current Camaro’s 426 hp would have been adjusted upward by at least 75 and perhaps as much as 100 hp. In other words, the current Camaro’s power would have to be compared – to be compared fairly – with the power made by purpose-built bracket racers in the 500-plus hp (SAE gross) category. Those cars were running 11 second quarters – and more. Yet the new Camaro is slower – as delivered – than a still street-drivable ’69 Yenko Super Camaro with an advertised 425 (SAE gross) hp – which measured by today’s more honest measurement methods would likely come out to around 375 SAE net hp.

Reason? The new Camaro is a porker. (See here for the why.)

The old stuff was (generally) hundreds of pounds lighter – and lighter always equals quicker, all else being equal. It’s also easier to make a lighter car quicker. The early pony cars – like the first generation Mustang, for example – weighed less than 3,000 lbs. A ’72 Nova only weighed about 3,200 lbs. Put an even mildly strong small-block V-8 (like a 289 Hi-Po) in a car that light and it’s not hard to go fast.

Put another way, imagine how much faster a new Camaro SS would be if it weighed 600 pounds less.

The other thing old muscle cars had in their favor – and still do – is bigger engines. More displacement equals more torque – the oft-neglected red-headed stepbrother of horsepower. Torque – rotational energy – is what gets mass moving. This is especially important in a massive (i.e., heavy) car. And big-inch engines make lots of torque. Even the comparatively weak – by hp standards – 455 V-8 in my ’76 Trans-Am makes a startlingly high amount of torque: 330 lbs.-ft at just 2,000 RPM. The new Camaro’s 3.6 liter V-6 may make 123 more hp than my 455 put out in stock trim (200 hp) but the little V-6 only produces 278 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4,800 RPM. (Which is why, even in stock trim, my car does a much better burnout than a V-6 Camaro.)

Even the new Camaro SS’s brawny V-8 – which makes more than twice the power (426 hp) my TA’s 455 did – only makes 420 lbs.-ft of torque. And to get it, you have to spin the engine much faster – to 4,600 RPM.

Reason? Cubic inches.

455 cubes equals 7.4 liters.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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