Fifty years ago, GM’s Pontiac division invented what is widely regarded as the world’s first muscle car: the 1964 Pontiac GTO.
To celebrate the anniversary of the ’64 GTO, we’re showcasing ten of our favorite GM muscle cars and performance machines.
Automakers used big, powerful engines long before 1964, but they were typically relegated to big, heavy, full-size cars. Things changed in 1964, when Pontiac decided to ignore corporate policy and stuff an engine larger than 330 cubic-inches into the intermediate Tempest LeMans, essentially creating the first true muscle car. The Gran Turismo Omologato package stuffed Pontiac’s 389 cubic-inch V-8 underhood. Pontiac’s sales manager proclaimed the idea was bunk, and that it’d be hard to sell any more than 5,000 copies. Instead, Pontiac wound up selling just over six times that figure by the end of 1964.
1966 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 W30
Oldsmobile’s Cutlass 442 was completely restyled for 1966, and treated to a significant boost in power, thanks to a 350-horsepower, 400 cubic-inch V-8. But if that wasn’t a potent enough package, buyers could opt for the W30 package. Designed for drag racers but offered to all customers, the W30 option added a high-lift cam, high-tension valve springs, and most importantly, a ram air intake system embedded in the front bumper, which directly fed fresh air into the three two-barrel carburetors. The package was something of a secret – only 54 cars were built in 1966, although that number increased to 502 in 1967.
The muscle car might have been born and bred in Detroit, but it wasn’t strictly an American affair. In 1968, GM’s Australian Holden division joined the muscle car crowd when engineers discovered the engine compartment of its new HK range of cars could actually hold a small-block Chevrolet V-8. The Monaro GTS coupe could either be ordered with a 305 cubic-inch V-8 or a hotter 250-horsepower, 327 cubic-inch 327 V-8, which quickly became a favorite of racers down under.
In 1969, Chevrolet’s official order guide proclaimed there was no way to order a brand-new Camaro with an engine any larger than a 396-cubic-inch V-8. However, dealers in the know leveraged the Central Office Production Order (COPO) system to order some wicked factory-built performance machines. The ZL1, which was intended to be a drag race homologation special, was one such COPO creation. The 450-horsepower aluminum-block 427 cubic-inch V-8 (which reportedly actually made at least 550 horsepower) was bundled with drag-racing goodies like a 4.10:1 limited-slip rear axle, heavy-duty springs, power front disc brakes, and a cold air induction hood. All this hardware wasn’t inexpensive: in fact, the ZL1 package alone added $4,160 to the price of a new Camaro, bringing the base price to over $7,000.
Buick’s Skylark Gran Sport models were powerful muscle cars in their own right, but wrapped in subtle sheet metal , they didn’t broadcast their power to the world through splashy graphics. That changed in 1970, when Buick launched the GSX as an optional package for the Skylark GS455. Available only in Saturn Yellow or Apollo White, the GSX treatment included black hood and side stripes, a fiberglass deck spoiler, a hood-mounted tachometer and 15-inch chrome wheels. A 350-horsepower, 455 cubic-inch V-8 was standard, but the Stage 1 package, which included larger valves, a high-lift cam, enhanced ignition components and heavy-duty cooling, added another ten horsepower.
1971 GMC Sprint SP
Yes, even GMC – known then as “the truck people from General Motors” – was able to get in on the tail end of the muscle car craze. The Sprint, which was sold from 1971 through 1977, was a variant of Chevrolet’s car-based pickup, the El Camino. And, just like the El Camino, the Sprint was also available in a sporty version. Customers could order a Sprint SP with a 454-cubic-inch V-8 underhood, and even order hood stripes and cowl induction, but few did. Roughly 250 Sprint SPs were built in 1971, and only a tenth of that figure were equipped with the 454.
Rising fuel costs, insurance premiums, and ever-tightening emissions standards collectively put the kybosh on large-displacement, high-performance engines in the early 1970s, but Pontiac engineers gave it one last go with the Super Duty 455 cubic-inch V-8. Along with a fortified block, the Super Duty engine also received forged aluminum pistons, forged connecting rods, a heavy-duty oil pump and high-flow cylinder heads. Initially, the engine was rated at 310 horsepower, but a milder cam installed in all production engines dialed power back to 290 horsepower.
No, a turbocharged, 3.8-liter V-6 engine didn’t abide by the typical definition of muscle – but with 245 horsepower on tap and sinister looks to match, the Grand National turned the definition of muscle – along with Buick’s brand image – upside down. The Grand National went out with a bang in 1987 thanks to the limited edition GNX, which packed a 276-horsepower punch. That power was enough for the GNX to blitz from 0-60 mph in less than 5.5 seconds, embarrassing many other performance cars in the process.
Some of the best performance options available on the third-generation Camaro were limited to the sporty IROC-Z model. Not only could buyers opt for the 350-cubic-inch TPI V-8, but they could also order a new 1LE “Special Performance Components Package.” Designed for SCCA Showroom Stock racers, the package added enlarged front brake rotors, two-piston front brake calipers borrowed from the Corvette, an aluminum drive shaft, unique dampers, and fuel tank baffles. The package also shaved weight by deleting fog lamps, T-tops, and power locks and windows. Oddly enough, buyer could only order the race-grade 1LE equipment by adding the G92 performance axle package and abstaining from ordering air conditioning. Today’s 1LE package, available on the 2014 Camaro SS, is far less secretive – and far more comfortable in warm weather.
Stereotypically, muscle cars sacrificed cornering in favor of straight-line acceleration. If you needed further proof that the old stereotype is dead and buried, take a good look at the 2015 Camaro Z/28. This track-bred Camaro is packed with high-performance hardware, including Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, spool-valve dampers, and unique aerodynamic parts designed to produce an extra 410 pounds of downforce at 150 mph. All this — along with a 505-horsepower, 7.0L V-8 — equates to a Z/28 capable of lapping the hallowed Nürburgring road course in 7:37.47, besting published times for both the Porsche 911 Carrera S and Lamborghini Murcielago LP640.
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