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What Was the First Muscle Car?

12/10/2018
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Could the '55 Chevy have been the first muscle car?

We've all heard the bedtime story that the muscle car was born that fateful day when John DeLorean snuck a 389 from a fullsize Pontiac into the midsize Tempest. This lead to the legendary arms race between the big-three manufacturers to stuff the biggest engine into the smallest car and go beat up on each other on the street, each gaining a share of the youth market along the way. In some ways, this is true, and the GTO does represent a significant milestone. But, it wasn't the first car to do this.

When Pontiac skirted GM's corporate displacement cap for midsize cars, it fired a shot in the muscle car wars, but it was hardly the first.

Let's rewind a few years. Say it's spring of 1955. If you're an American kid who wants to go fast, you're feasting on a steady diet of Hot Rod magazines and spending late nights in the garage wrenching on your stripped down, early Ford hot rod. It likely has a flathead Ford engine that's topped with the latest and greatest from the burgeoning speed parts industry. It has a 3x2 intake, finned high-compression heads, a dual point distributor, and tubular headers. Maybe you even ordered some of it from "Speedy" Bill Smith. In any case, you've done the best you could with your teenage-kid budget to make it the fastest thing on the street. As the weather turns nice, you proudly back it out of the garage for the first time and take it for a spin. Man, does it go! Your buddies are impressed and for a few months you're the king of the street.

Then one night you're cruising the strip and you pull up next to one of those new '55 Chevys. Though it's only a few months old, you notice that it already has a dual exhaust, and the dorky stock wheel covers have been left at home. As you're taking it all in, the driver of the Chevy revs the engine. It sounds pretty good, but you're not scared. You've beaten every other fast car in town, and this will be no different. The light changes, tires spin, and as you're grabbing second gear, the Chevy's taillight is right next to you. By the time you're ready to shift again, he's ahead by a car length and already braking for the next red light.

You've just witnessed the birth of the muscle car.

In this photo from the early 60's, that B Altered Model T in the near lane is small block Chevy powered, probably pulled from a Tri-Five car. But look at that '56 in the background, it's a perfect example of the type of car we're talking about here.

No the '55 Chevy didn't have scoops or wacky graphics meant to appeal to young buyers, but what it did have was performance. This was the moment where the big-three carmakers upped the ante, offering a car that could drive out of the showroom and outrun a lot of homebuilt hot rods. Remember, in the "Little GTO" song, it "beat the gassers and the rail jobs." That's what the muscle car was all about, offering a showroom stock package that was stout enough to beat your buddy to the next stop light or through the traps at the strip.

Yes, this is a '57. But it shows the prominence of Tri-Five Chevys on the strip well before the GTO was even dreamed of.

Not only that, but the '55 Chevy responded readily to the same bolt-ons that hot rodders were already familiar with. Letting a 265 (and later 283) breathe better through a three-carb intake, performance cam, and headers made for a very stout combination in an already light car. Take the hopped-up engine out of the Chevy and drop it in that old Ford hot rod, a dragster, or an Anglia, and you had a real contender. And in the course of a few years the performance aftermarket responded by diverting their attention from the Ford flathead to the small block Chevy, as well as the other factory overheads like Olds, Cad, and Chrysler.

Once the hot rod industry realized the potential of the new Chevy, they started ending up in just about everything. Here's Speedway employee Bob Anderson with his Chevy-powered dragster in 1959.

It also didn't hurt that the '55 Chevy was a beautiful car. Those sleek body lines were a giant leap forward from the bulbous 54's. Like the '32 Ford before it, the '55 Chevy provided a new powerplant that would come to dominate the performance aftermarket in a beautiful, easy to modify package.

The '55 Chevy represented a leap forward in design as well.

So am I saying that the '55 Chevy was the first muscle car? Well, yes. But you could make a compelling case for several others. What about the '55 Chrysler 300? And as we move along through the years leading up to the GTO, the 409 Impalas, Super Duty Catalinas, and 406 Fords were muscle cars to their core. All of which offered turn-key performance that didn't require all-nighters in the shop and busted knuckles trying to engineer your own hot rod.

This is just one man's opinion, what's yours? There's a thread open on our Facebook page where you can tell us what you think.

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