CHEVY MUSCLE CARS
IN THE BEGINNING
While the American Muscle Car era officially ran from 1964 with the launch of the Pontiac GTO, and ended somewhere around 1970 to 1973 as horsepower waned due to ever increasing emissions and safety regulations, the Horsepower Wars had been raging ever since shortly after the end of World War II. As civilian auto production was resumed, and all those talented engineers moved back into the private sector, Detroit geared up for a whole new kind of war. This time it was all about horsepower, and the market for more power couldn’t be satisfied. The Ford flathead V8 had been the standard in performance before the war, and was set to resume that role. However, GM and Chrysler had plans of their own. Cadillac and Oldsmobile came out with brilliant new oversquare (shorter stroke, bigger bore) OHV V8s, and Chrysler began developing their rocking Hemis. It became a game of measure vs. countermeasure. One car maker would come out with a new, bigger and more powerful engine, and the other two just had to outdo them. Horsepower and engine sophistication increased rapidly throughout the 1950s. But, Chevrolet, GMs biggest volume brand had no such V8 engine in its inventory. They were making do with the old Stovebolt inline 6. They hopped it up with 2 carbs and a hot cam for duty in the 1953 Chevy Corvette, but it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.
The “Mouse that Roared” was the nickname given to Chevy’s small block V8, a 327 in this case. The small block has been in production, in one form or another, from 1955 to the present day.
CHEVY MUSCLE CARS
THE BIRTH OF THE SMALL BLOCK
Coming late to the game could have been a handicap, but in Chevy’s case, it was an advantage, because everyone else was working with established designs. Chevy had the luxury of starting with a clean slate. And they did. Designer Ed Cole and other talented engineers put together an oversquare OHV V8 that was lighter, more compact, cheaper to produce and more powerful than anything else it’s size. Of course at the time they didn’t call it the Small Block because there wasn’t anything else, the Big Block wouldn’t come along for another decade. But the new 265 cubic inch Chevy V8 was a game-changer. It was immediately introduced into the 1955 Chevrolet model line as their top engine, and totally converted the Corvette from a European-style sports car to a chest-pounding muscle car.
1966 Chevy Impala SS, Chevy’s full-sized Muscle Car
CHEVY MUSCLE CARS
ONWARD & UPWARD
The new small block Chevy V8 was developed into several different versions, some with 2-barrel carburetors, some with 4-barrels, some with milder cams, some with wilder cams. In 1955, Chevy came out with their Power Pack option package, which included the 4-barrel carb with dual exhaust. The course was set. Each year, the small block gains more power and more development. In 1957, it grew from 265 cubes to 283, with even more power and more configurations. The crowning achievement came in 1957 with the introduction of the Rochester mechanical fuel injection (an industry first in a mass-produced car), and it set a new benchmark: 1 horsepower per cubic inch. Today with engines generating better than 150 hp per liter (the equivalent of about 2-1/2 hp per cubic inch), one hp per inch doesn’t sound very impressive. But in 1957 it was earth-shattering. Nothing but high-strung race cars even came close to that level of performance. From then in, it was ‘game-on’ for Chevrolet. The Tri-5 Chevys (1955, 56 & 57) were just the beginning. As the 1950s drew to a close and the 1960s opened up, things just got better and better. In 1962, the small block grew from 283 cubes to 327, and an enlarged version of Rochester’s fuel injection was introduced on it to handle the extra displacement.
1967 Chevy Chevelle SS, maybe the prototypical Chevy Muscle Car of all times
THE BIRTH OF THE CHEVY MUSCLE CAR
When John Delorean stuffed a full-sized engine (the 389 V8 out of the Pontiac Catalina) in a mid-sized car (the Tempest), creating the Pontiac GTO in 1964, it was a wake-up call for the entire industry. Pontiac being another division of General Motors, it only makes sense that the other GM brands might have known something about this, and were better prepared than Ford or Chrysler to capitalize further on this burgeoning new “youth market car”. Chevy had already launched the SS (Super Sport) option package on its Impala full-sized cars in 1961, so it was already on the high-performance track, but with big cars. Delorean had rewritten the book by putting a big engine in a smaller car. Chevy had it’s new Chevelle Malibu mid-sized car, and so they followed Pontiac’s lead and put its most powerful engines in the lightweight Chevelle, creating the Chevelle SS. The Impala SS continued as well.
1969 Chevy Corvette Roadster with a 350 V8. Big blocks had big bulges in the hoods
CHEVY MUSCLE CARS
THE ARRIVAL OF THE BIG BLOCK
As the small block continued to develop and get more powerful with every model year, Chevy was busy working in its top secret skunk works on a brand new engine. This one was not based on the proven small block architecture. It was another totally new design, dubbed “the Mystery Motor” when word of it leaked out to the press. It first appeared in a production car in 1965 with 396 cubic inches. Within a year it had been bumped to 427. And by 1970, the biggest, baddest big blocks has grown to 454 cubic inches, the brawniest of which was the legendary LS6 with 450hp.
BELOW: 1970 CHEVY CHEVELLE SS 396
1979 Chevy Camaro Z28, this is what Chevy Muscle Cars turned into in the late 1970s
CHEVY MUSCLE CARS
LEADING THE WAY
In many ways, Chevrolet became the standard-bearer for the Great American Muscle Car Era, with a wide range of high-performance Muscle Cars, including the Corvette, the Impala SS, the Chevelle SS and the Nova SS. Performance continued to climb each year until it reached its zenith in 1970. By that time, the 327 had grown again (in 1967) to 350 cubic inches, and the 427 big block grew to 454 cubes. But rising insurance costs, safety regs, rising fuel prices, and most of all, ever more stringent emissions laws pretty much killed the Chevy Muscle Car, along with just about everyone else’s muscle cars. While reduced off its 1970 high, Chevy managed to wring some performance out of it’s cars for another few years. But the power was definitely going down, and the technology of the day didn’t offer many alternatives. By 1975, it had gotten so bad that Chevy was too embarrassed to call their hottest Camaro a Z28 and they dropped the option package for the 1975 and 1976 model years. It returned in 1977.
This 1996 Chevy Impala SS with 5.7 LT1 V8 was a prime player in the new era of Chevy Muscle Cars that began in 1985 with the TPI V8s
MODERN CHEVY MUSCLE CARS
The big problem back in the 1970s was that the technology didn’t exist to control engine functions, meter fuel, etc. that exists today. It was all carburetors and mechanical control systems. But as the technologies advanced, Chevy got back into the performance game. Their early CrossFire Fuel Injection (1982 & ’83 Camaro Z28 and 1982 Corvette) was a horrible system. But by 1985 the worked out the bugs and introduced their TPI (Tuned Port Injection) system and performance was back. They steadily improved it and all the other engine control systems, with the top-rated 5.7 (350 ci) V8 making 245hp. The next major advancement came in 1993 with the LT1 V8 and a whole new generation of fuel injection and engine control systems. Now the top 5.7 V8 made 300hp and it just kept climbing after that.
The brand-new 2014 C7 Chevy Corvette is the new face of Chevy Muscle Cars. And it’s a world-class car, on par with anything built anywhere at any price. In fact, it takes about twice the money to buy a car that will beat it. Congrats to Chevrolet.
CHEVY MUSCLE CARS TODAY
Chevy is back in the performance game. The new Chevy Camaro rocked the world with its retro styling and neck-snapping performance. The last 3 generations of Corvettes (I’m including the new C7) just keep getting better and better, faster and faster. And they get great mileage and don’t pollute the planet. How cool is that?
Born to do battle with the Mustang, the Camaro hit the streets in 1967, thundered through 4 generations until it was killed off in ’02, now to be reborn again! But there’s nothing like a classic Camaro Z28/RS.
Chevy got into the Muscle Car Wars early with their mid-sized A-body with the big power. Starting out ’64 with a 283, they quickly ramped up with a 327, then a SS396 big block, followed by the awesome SS454. The Chevelle SS became the best-selling Muscle Car in its day.
America’s Sports Car, the Corvette has gone through 7 generations now, one of the longest-running marques of all time. From its humble beginnings its grown into a legend. Technically a Sports Car, over the years Vettes surely have packed the Muscle.