Q: Greg, I’m very much interested in muscle cars and am happy to see your columns in our area newspaper. I’d like to know if you agree that the first muscle car was a 1949 Oldsmobile 88? Also, can you give a quick review of what you feel were the “biggest and baddest” of the muscle cars early on that led to the great decade of the mid-1960s and early 1970s?
Charlie L., Rhode Island

A: Thank you Charlie for you kind words and question. First, yes, I feel the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 two-door coupe was the first muscle car Detroit ever produced, although unwittingly.

Back then, the early drag and oval racers found out right away that the new and first ever overhead valve V8 from General Motors in the 303-inch Rocket 88 V8 engine was a winning combination. Regardless of discipline, from street to drags to ovals, these 135-horsepower Rocket 88s were top shelf power cars especially when hopped up.

Notable, too, was the larger Cadillac 331-inch overhead valve V8 from that same year, although even with 160-horses it wasn’t as quick due to Cadillac’s near 1,000-pound more curb weight in its longer wheelbase editions.

As for influential muscle cars, here’s the list of vehicles I feel made the biggest impacts as the years progressed and in my opinion started the craze that to this day has collectors more than willing to pay big money for the right to own one.

1961-1962 409 Chevy: At Chevrolet, and with full respect for the first 265-V8 1955 Chevys, the 409 Chevy that was available late in 1961 kicked off the Chevy muscle car craze. Already match racing nationally at drag strips in the summer of ’61 (thanks to Dyno Don Nicholson), the tremendous positive press and magazine coverage really got things rolling. The 409 would then grow to a Z-11 427-inch V8 available to drag racers only prior to being replaced by the first big blocks that appeared in 1965 in 396-inch size. Thus, the 409 was clearly the most popular muscle car to come along and thanks to the Beach Boys “She’s real fine my 409” hit single and winning performances at the drag races, it will remain one of the most influential muscle cars ever. Other early 409 drag racers included Dave Strickler, Hayden Proffitt and Ronnie Sox.

1962 Dodge/Plymouth 413: Over at Chrysler Corporation, the ’62 413 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Savoy models were immediate winners at the drag strip and the choice of those who couldn’t desired an automatic that could win races. These wedge head 413 and then 426 Super Stock Dodge models were big winners, and would evolve into all those nasty 440-inch V8s that roamed the boulevards through the early 1970s. MOPAR drag racers from back then include Jim Thornton, Herman Moser, Ken Montgomery, Al Eckstrand and Tom Grove.

1962-1963 Pontiac Catalina Super Duty 421: Already formidable in the late 1950s with a 389 Tri-Power V8 under the hood, in ’61 Pontiac released a Super Duty 421 that was a dealer installed option. Rated at 405 horsepower with two four-barrels, this engine easily put out 450 ponies and was a terror on the drag strip, especially in 1962 and 1963 when they became factory available. One of the 1963 match race stars was Harold Ramsey, who drove what the sport called a 421 Super Duty “Swiss Cheese” Catalina out of Union Park Pontiac in Wilmington, Delaware.

To explain further, Pontiacs were heavier by design than the Chevy, MOPAR and Ford entries, so corporate Pontiac went into a “reduce weight” mode by cutting out any unnecessary pounds, adding aluminum where there used to be steel and then drilling “swiss cheese” holes into the actual chassis for match racing only applications. Only 14 “Swiss Cheese” 1963 Pontiacs ever came from the factory, which was then headed by John DeLorean with Pontiac racer and marketing executive Jim Wangers in tow. These lightweights were formidable, and Pontiac teams I remember in addition to Ramsey and Wangers are Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick and Don Gay.

1963 Ford 427: Ford was also in the game, and also produced notable muscle cars in the 1950s as did Chevrolet and Chrysler, the latter with its 300 series cars. In 1962, you could order a 406 inch, 405 horse tri-power in your full size Ford and take on everyone at the drags. Ford quickly bumped the 406 up to a new 427 design with two-four barrels and things improved dramatically. Match race drivers I remember include Dick Brannan, Gas Rhonda, Al Joniec and Les Ritchey in very competitive Fords.

Soon thereafter, the popularity of the heavy full-size muscle from 1961 through 1963 faded as in 1964 the mid-size frenzy took over. Led by the ’64 Pontiac GTO, Chevy Chevelle and Ford Fairlane, things shifted to lighter weight cars and even smaller Pony Car formats to come. When MOPAR joined in full-tilt with its 383, 440 and 426 Hemi Dodge Challengers and Plymouth Barracudas, it was a muscle car lover’s paradise along every city boulevard in the USA.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and GateHouse Media. Contact him at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.