What Are the Best Muscle Car Engines? | Muscle Car Guide
The concept of the American muscle car is so ubiquitous in mainstream American culture that most Americans have some understanding of it, regardless if they have an interest in automobile history on the whole. Dating back to the 1920s, which were still relatively early days in the American automobile industry, the muscle car grew in the 1950s and peaked in the 1960s and 1970s.
Several factors, including fuel embargos and new federal regulations, led to waning public interest and less industry investment in the muscle car, which lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
More recent innovations in the 21st century have led to a renewed industry interest in the development and manufacture of muscle cars. Today, many serious collectors and casual car enthusiasts alike have a renewed appreciation for the muscle car, recognizing it as an exciting, stylish and valued part of American automobile history.
In this article, we'll discuss the origins of muscle cars and some of the most iconic muscle car engines known today. Keep reading to learn more!
Origins of the Muscle Car
The muscle car is generally defined as any vehicle with a high horsepower to low weight ratio. Often, the muscle car, as a concept, is strongly associated with speed, strength and mid-century American masculinity. In the 21st century, American muscle cars have achieved a kind of cult, near-mythic status among collectors and car enthusiasts alike. In the history of the American automotive industry, the actual origins of the muscle car remain somewhat shrouded in mystery.
History of the Muscle Car in the 1920s
Some believe that the need for lightweight, yet powerfully fast, vehicles dates back to the 1920s. With the passage of the Volstead Act in January 1920, the American federal government made the sale and manufacture of alcohol illegal in all fifty states, a time in American history known as Prohibition. The Prohibition lasted from January 1920 until December 1933, and today it is recognized as one of the most defining facets of the Jazz Age.
During that era, cars, in general, were still relatively new to the consumer market. Some historians believe that the need for fast cars that were also lightweight and easy to handle originated during the 1920s due to the Prohibition. Both small-time entrepreneurs, as well as nationwide organized-crime syndicates, began to make and sell bootlegged alcohol as a way to profit from the Prohibition and its constraints.
The practice of bootlegging was widespread and relatively well-known by law enforcement. Consequently, bootleggers began buying and using cars with more frequency during this era. Cars offered bootleggers a relatively private, efficient way to transport their illegal wares away from the prying eyes of public officials.
History of the Muscle Car in the 1930s and 1940s
Constantly trying to outrun the police, some bootleggers went a step further and began to modify their vehicles to be faster and easier to handle than ever before. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, some former bootleggers continued to use their modified vehicles in street races and eventually drag races into the early 1940s. Car manufacturers took notice, and the muscle car as we know it today began to emerge in earnest.
Most automobile historians agree that the Oldsmobile 88 was the first official muscle car on the American market. The Oldsmobile 88 debuted in 1949. During this era, the American automobile industry was flourishing. With the end of World War II, the American economy was flourishing, and an influx of American veterans had re-entered the American workforce. For the first time in American history, cars became a part of everyday life for many middle-class and suburban Americans.
During this time, the American highway system was also growing in size and importance, which led to an increased desire among consumers for speed and power. Amid all of this, the American automobile industry, which was dominated by Ford, General Motors (GM) and Crysler, was in intense competition among itself and with emerging foreign manufacturers.
History of the Muscle Car in the 1950s
These factors contributed to the rise of the muscle car, which grew in popularity throughout the 1950s before reaching its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. The first muscle car, the 1949 Oldsmobile 88, was primarily characterized by its powerful V8 engine.
Throughout the 1950s, muscle cars were primarily defined by the V8 engine. Today, the V8 remains one of the most iconic muscle car engines in automobile history. General Motors created the Chevrolet small-block V8 engine in 1955. This engine became a standard for the brand. GM continued using the small-block V8 throughout the following five decades.
Some of the most valuable muscle cars desired by modern-day collectors date from the 1950s. These models include the 1955 Chrysler C-300, the 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk and American Motor Corporation’s 1957 Rambler Rebel. The Chrysler C-300 was bigger than the Oldsmobile 88 and possessed a more powerful engine. It was capable of reaching speeds near 120 mph. The Studebaker Golden Hawk is especially coveted by collectors today. It was only produced between 1956 and 1958 and possessed a powerful, 275- horsepower engine.
Today, the 1957 Rambler Rebel is fondly remembered for its uniqueness and style. Originally marketed as a family car, the Rebel perhaps does not correspond to the stereotypical idea of the muscle car. However, it remains notable for its reliability, efficiency and speed. The Rambler Rebel could average 32 mpg, a figure of efficiency that was unprecedented in the 1950s. Its 255-horsepower, V8 engine could reportedly go from 0 to 60 mph in only about 7 seconds.
History of the Muscle Car in the 1960s
The 1960s ushered in new innovations in both engineering and style. According to the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), the Muscle Car Era lasted from roughly 1961 - 1974. Today, historians and collectors still recognize this time period as the Golden Age of the muscle car. Some of the greatest and most powerful muscle car engines of all time originate from this era of American automobile manufacturing.
During the muscle car era, each of the major American manufacturers contributed their offerings to the muscle car era throughout the 1960s and into the mid-1970s. Ford created several iconic models during this time, including the Thunderbird, the Mustang and the Torino. From Chevrolet came the Chevelle and the Camaro.
General Motors contributed the Pontiac GTO and the Buick Gran Sport, while Chrysler innovated with the Dodge Charger and the Plymouth Roadrunner. Of course, the golden era of the muscle car encompassed many more models from these and other manufacturers.
History of the Muscle Car in the 1970s
The popularity of the muscle car began to wane in the early- to mid-1970s. The oil embargo, which lasted from late 1973 into the spring of 1974, caused nationwide fuel shortages and severe increases in gas prices. In addition, increasing environmental concerns led the government to institute emissions limits.
Concerns about safety, and pressure from insurance companies, pushed car manufacturers towards studier and safer cars that could be marketed towards families. Due to these factors, by 1980, the golden age of the muscle car had fully come to a close.
The Muscle Car Today
Despite this, several designs from the original muscle car era have stood the test of time. The Ford Mustang, for instance, still retains its cachet. The Mustang has been in continuous production since 1964, making it Ford’s longest-running nameplate. The 2020 Mustang GT500 possesses an aluminum-alloy V8 engine. Both the Dodge Charger and the Dodge Challenger remain on the market; with modern updates, they remain tied by style and power to the original muscle car iterations from which they descend.
The Cadillac CTS-V, which was in production from 2016-2019, is the modern car that is perhaps most aligned with the spirit and power of the golden age of the muscle car. Its supercharged gasoline V8 engine made the Cadillac CTS-V the most powerful Cadillac ever produced to date.
Today, historical muscle cars are remembered as emblems of the historic prowess of the American automobile industry and are synonymous with the conventional construct of mid-century American masculinity. Blending speed, power and style, muscle cars of all models and from all makers remain prized by collectors around the globe today.
Best Classic Muscle Car Engines
Classic muscle cars are loved and appreciated for their style and mid-century aesthetic. However, among car enthusiasts and collectors, muscle cars are perhaps most defined by and appreciated for their powerful, innovative engines. It's the engines that give the muscle cars their power and speed.
Today, these classic vehicles are prized for their design and remain highly covetable by collectors. Some of the rarest and most powerful muscle car engines still date from the classic era. While there will always be debate about which of the muscle car engines is, definitively, the best, we’ve included some of the greatest engines in the following list:
The “Rocket” engine powered what is popularly believed to be the first-ever American muscle car: the Oldsmobile 88. The Rocket, as it was sometimes called, refers to the then-groundbreaking V8 engine, which powered the 88 models and is known as one of the top muscle car engines. Beginning in the late-1910s, General Motors researcher Charles Kettering worked on an overhead-valve — a higher compression engine — that could be used as an alternative to the popular flathead designs of the era.
His first design for the Rocket was a 303 cubic inch V8 engine, with 135 horsepower and 283 lb-ft of torque. The Oldsmobile Rocket 88, which debuted onto the market in 1949, was highly notable in its day for the new innovative Rocket engine. Though ultimately outpaced by its competitors, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 did enjoy a few years as the preeminent muscle car and engine on the American market.
Pontiac’s parent company, General Motors, was heavily invested in creating a powerful engine to compete with the Oldsmobile Rocket. In 1955, Pontiac’s offering, the Pontiac V8, entered the market. The very first iteration boasted 180 horsepower. A modified version, developed in late-1955, had increased engine strength to 200 horsepower.
Pontiac continued to innovate in the design of their V8. A 1957 version with 2-barrel carburetors increased horsepower to 290, and it was termed the “Tri-Power” in hopes that it would appeal to a younger, faster demographic. Pontiac would continue to improve on their V8 design through the late-1970s. General Motors ultimately retired the Pontiac V8 in 1981.
Ford FE Block
The Ford FE (Ford-Edsel) was a Ford V8 engine produced between 1958 and 1976. Throughout its existence, engineers and designers at Ford were constantly improving and modifying the various interpretations of the FE.
In addition to its use in Ford’s commercial vehicle offerings, the FE engine was also used in many of Ford’s racing cars, including mid-1960s models like the Shelby Cobra and the GT40. The Ford FE also has a connection to show business and a truly iconic piece of American pop culture: the original Batmobile, created in 1966 for the ABC television show Batman, was powered by a Ford FE! The Batmobile sold at auction in 2013 for over $4 million.
Chevrolet Big Blocks
Chevy’s big-block crate engines burst onto the market in the mid-1950s. Today, they are associated with many of the most iconic muscle cars from their mid-century golden age, including the Nova, the Chevelle and the Camaro. The 1970 Chevelle 454 SS, powered by a big block with 450-horsepower, is arguably the most iconic muscle car from the classic era. Chevys' indisputable power and style throughout the golden age of the muscle car leads many to believe the Chevy big-block crate engines to be the top engines of the era.
Chrysler first designed the Chrysler Hemi (short for hemispherical combustion chamber) during World War II. In the postwar era, the manufacturers saw an opportunity to use this crate engine in their commercial offerings. True to its name, the Hemi engine is constructed from a hemispherical shape, different from other 1950s-era engines. Hemi’s design allowed for improvements in the combustion process and an increase in overall engine power.
The Second-Generation Hemi, produced between 1964 - 1971, is the iteration most associated with the muscle car era. Also called the 426, this style of Hemi was originally built for use in NASCAR racing. It powered the 1964 Plymouth Belvedere. The 426 Hemi also appeared in several of Chrysler’s street models in the early 1970s, including the Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger.
The Hemi Cuda features the rarest muscle car engine, the 426 cubic inch Hemi. From 1970 to 1971, the Cuda was the only car to feature a 426 cubic inch Hemi engine, making these convertibles incredibly rare today. Only 21 of these were produced during this time, making the 426 cubic inch Hemi engine the rarest muscle car engine.
Best Modern Muscle Car Engines
The golden age of the muscle car ended over forty years ago. Still, the legacy and tradition of the American muscle car live on today. The “Big Three” of American automobile manufacturing, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, were the primary innovators during the classic era. They continue to carry the muscle car mantle into the 21st century.
With new, innovative technologies and materials, the concept and design of the muscle car have naturally evolved as time has passed. However, what remains for all muscle cars, whether classic or modern, are the same principles: speed, power and style. The following list includes just a few of the best modern muscle cars of today.
Dodge Challenger Hemi V8
The Dodge Challenger is an excellent option for anyone longing for a classic muscle car's power and speed while also incorporating many modern comforts. The Challenger has multiple powerful Hemi V8 engines, offering up to 807 horsepower, and reflects its lineage as a modern interpretation of the classic muscle car.
Also included in this model are common modern conveniences such as smartphone integration and a touch-screen information system. The Challenger's exterior aesthetic reflects the traditional shape and style that many people associate with a muscle car.
Ford Mustang GT & GT500 V8
The Ford Mustang is one of the most iconic nameplates in American automobile history and it looms large in the history and tradition of the American muscle car. The Mustang has such a strong reputation for good reason. Today, the Mustang GT offers 460 horsepower from its V8 engine. For drivers and collectors who are especially interested in style, 2020 GT offers both coupe and convertible options. For collectors who want something more special and powerful, the GT500 can be had with a 760 horsepower fire-breathing V8.
Chevrolet Camaro SS V8
Like the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro has a cachet that comes from classic muscle car pedigree. Its big-block V8 engine with 455 horsepower and rear-wheel drive makes the Camaro SS one of the most fun modern muscle cars to drive. Chevy offers both coupe and convertible options of this model. It also includes many common modern comforts and amenities.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 V8
As is the case with the modern Chevy Camaro SS, the Camaro ZL1 is a great modern muscle car for owners interested in blending speed, power and incredible looks. It packs a huge punch with a 650 horsepower 6.2L supercharged V8 engine.
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Find Your Dream Muscle Car at Volo
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Whether you are a muscle car connoisseur, a collector, or just beginning to learn about the golden age of muscle cars and their place in American automobile history, Volo Auto Sale and Museum are happy to assist and accommodate you and your interests.
Volo Auto Sales are pleased to share our expertise with anyone interested in classic and modern muscle cars. As specialists in acquiring and selling rare and classic vehicles, Volo Auto Sales and Museum offers an engaging and educational experience for amateur car enthusiasts and serious collectors alike. View our current inventory online to browse through our collection of muscle cars. Please contact us with any questions, and we will be happy to assist you.