Muscle cars, or ‘Pony Cars’, began life in the 60’s as bigger and bigger engines were put in smaller and sportier cars. As soon as the namesake of the pony car, the Ford Mustang soared to the top of sales charts in 1964, other companies knew they had to get a piece of the pie, and within a year or two, the muscle car wars had begun. For about a decade, American automakers kept increasing the performance of their muscle cars, with a focus on straight line speed, cubic inches, and quarter mile E/T’s, with the end of the ‘war’ only being brought about by the introduction of smog prevention legislation. This legislation in the 70’s firmly put a stop to the growing horsepower of engines at the time, and also decidedly killed more than a few muscle car namesakes such as the Plymouth Barracuda and the Dodge Charger of that era. Times were bad.
For the last 30 years, car guys—especially older car guys—were focused on just how great the cars were from these muscle car wars, lamenting at the lack of competition-driven performance in the cars that were put out and labeled ‘muscle cars’ after the smog legislation passed. Sub-200hp Mustang GT’s and Camaro SS’ seemed to prove these lamentations correct, and by the late 90’s and early 2000’s, times were bleaker still: Muscle cars had been reduced to three (really two) competitors in the forms of the Mustang GT, Camaro SS, and the SS-derived Pontiac Firebird. In 2002, the muscle car world hit rock bottom: General Motors joined Dodge and Chrysler in dropping their muscle cars. The Camaro SS and Pontiac Firebird were dead.
This left the Mustang as the sole remaining muscle car—it seemed as it was first, so it shall be last. However, with the introduction of the very retro-inspired fifth-generation Mustang in 2005, the American buying public was smitten. Soon, the Mustang was experiencing relatively booming sales, and automakers again wanted a piece of the pie. With the introduction of the Charger in 2006 and the Challenger in 2008, Dodge once again was providing competition of the Mustang. Soon, in 2010, the also-retro-inspired Chevrolet Camaro was released, and the competition between the three marques was in full swing.
Up until the 2010 introduction of the Camaro SS and its 6.2L LS3 Corvette engine, the Mustang and the Dodge offerings were competing mostly on looks. While special Hi-Po editions existed from each company—Ford’s Shelby GT500 offerings and Mopar’s SRT8 Hemis—the standard V8 engines were not the most thrilling of units. The Ford used a 4.6L engine producing a measly 300hp, while the heavier Dodge offerings utilized a larger 5.7L V8 making 340hp, neither of which could be described as overly thrilling. The 426hp pushrod unit in the Camaro changed all of this, firmly restarting the Muscle Car wars in the same vein as before: power and straight-line performance were key selling points again.
After 2010, Ford upped their game with the 411hp DOHC 5.0L Coyote engine, and Dodge went a little crazy, producing a 485hp 6.4L Hemi to power its muscle cars. Over the years between the Camaro’s introduction and now, these power numbers have continued to grow, with the public and the manufacturers again shifting their attention to drag strip performance to sell cars. Now, each of the ‘Big Three’ in America has special-edition high output models, and each of the companies ‘normal’ V8’s produce over 450hp. Times are good. The Mustang GT produces 460hp out of its still 5.0L engine, the Camaro SS produces 455hp, and Dodge is making its mighty 6.4L 485hp V8 Hemi more accessible through much-cheaper ‘Scat Packs’. Times are very good.
Storm clouds gather on the horizon, however. Again, environmental legislation is beginning to choke manufacturers large engines, prompting an industry-wide shift towards turbocharging for efficiency and power gains. Across the board, V8’s are being downsized and turbocharged, or eliminated altogether. While the Big Three have spared their muscle car segment through tricky engineering and strategic engine downsizing in other model-lines, this cannot go on forever. I believe that the current phase of the Muscle Car war we are witnessing go on around us is the last hurrah of the big, naturally aspirated V8. Future muscle cars will utilize smaller engines under some form of boost to generate similar power numbers.
What is my proof for this? None, really. However, looking at both the market and the political landscape provides support for this theory. Looking at Ford’s lineup, the V8 engine has been largely replaced with smaller, ‘EcoBoost’ turbocharged V6 motors outside of the Mustang line. The top-spec F-150 pick-up truck—long associated with a big, stump-pulling V8’s—is sold with a 3.5L V6 featuring twin-turbochargers, and it looks like the currently-offered 5.0L V8 may be discontinued in favor of even smaller turbo-6’s. This is due to tightening regulations on how much a car company can pollute with its model-lineup, regulations which will eventually trickle down into muscle cars. Consumers too, are becoming more accepting of turbocharged motors, as more and more individuals have an interaction with one as they proliferate through the market.
Most of the automakers have an engine ‘in the wings’ so to speak, prepared to take-over V8 duty. Ford is the most likely in my opinion to make the jump, as they have generally led the way with engine technology in their muscle cars—the Coyote uses a DOHC setup after all, while the other two companies utilize pushrod construction. Continuing to look at Ford, they have been transitioning their other ‘halo’ performance cars away from V8’s with the Ford Raptor utilizing a 3.5L EcoBoost motor, and the Ford GT also utilizing a similar EcoBoost engine. It is this 3.5L twin turbocharged V6—found in everything from people haulers, to pickup trucks, to police cars—that I believe will replace the Coyote V8 before too long.
GM also has an engine they could utilize in the form of the Cadillac developed twin-turbocharged 3.6L engine. Used in the CTS Vsport and ATS-V, this engine makes similar numbers to the normal small-block V8 found in the Camaro SS, and could theoretically be put into a Camaro SS one day in the not so distant future. The wild card of the American manufacturers is Dodge—they have wholly invested in the ‘bigger-is-better’ strategy—as they do not have any high power, small capacity, engines. While one could theoretically be worked up from the Pentastar V6 motor, the development times would likely see a lapse in Mopar muscle car production, again leaving the market a GM/Ford battleground.
Automakers are probably the most aware of how short the lifespan is for their muscle creations: they do work directly with the government after all. Perhaps in recognition of the looming doom of the V8 as we know it, the Big Three have been on point with their high-output special edition models in the past year or so. Ford—keeping with the high-tech nature it likes to employ—developed a screamer of a 5.2L flat-plane crank V8, with a rumored supercharged 5.0L Coyote block in the works as well. Even the standard GT has a new Drag Strip mode that enables a 0-60 time of under 4seconds.
From General Motors, the new Camaro ZL1 already features a supercharged V8, with its output pegged at a mighty and neat 650hp and 650lb-ft of torque. But again, these companies have engines in the wings and may not be as pressured to make a bang as other…. less prepared companies.
Companies like Dodge.
Dodge has made the biggest bang in the muscle car war when they dropped the bomb that was the Hellcat-line of engines. A supercharged 6.2L Hemi V8 making 707hp was INSANE, and certainly seemed like a gas-swilling salute to the V8. Little did we know the Hellcat was the sane one, as earlier this year Dodge released the details on their Hellcat Challenger-based Demon drag strip car. Featuring the same 6.2L V8 producing 840hp on race gas, the Demon is capable of sub-10 second quarter mile times, lifting its tires up in a middle finger to the EPA as it launches itself down the line. As a last hurrah, it is a mighty hurrah. Thank you, Dodge, for being crazy.
Hopefully I am wrong. Hopefully the big, muscle car V8 will stay an American institution, but the retreat of the V8 from the rest of the market does not lead me to have high hopes. What does raise my hopes are cars like Ford’s GT, which show that a light, powerful V6 can give similar or better performance to V8’s, at the cost of some aural excitement. Agree with me? Disagree with me? Time will tell who is right, but for now leave a comment and let me know what you think the future will look like. Like the article and subscribe to the website for more, every week!
I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.