'69 Super Bee
Auto buffs with a shallow interest in automotive history tend to believe that musclecars simply didn't exist prior to that short window of tire-smoking mayhem during 1967-1973. On the contrary, consumer appreciation of and demand for "fast" over "form" has been with us since at least the mid-'50s.
By our standards today, the post-war automotive evolution seemed a bit slow in coming. OK, a snail's pace may be a more accurate description. Although the Corvette and Thunderbird did shatter the "square and boxy" mold so favored by mainstream designers of the day, it took considerable time for the industry in general to realize the world was ready for something other than chromed-out land yachts.
As the U.S. economy emerged from the post-war era, disposable income went looking for a place to park. And with automobiles being the perennial reflections of status and perceived image, it was only natural that well-heeled enthusiasts searched for something to set their daily commuters apart from the crowd. The think-tank generals in Detroit, Dearborn, and Auburn Hills weren't blind to this. Coat-and-tie professionals wanted distinction on the road beyond style, and the Big Three obliged by stuffing bigger and more powerful engines into those flashy boulevard cruisers.
'68 Road Runner
Then, as today, heavy-pounding engines appealed to a specific breed of automobile buyer. In the old days, these folks could be reckoned as the country-club set-dapper gents bedecked with English leather driving gloves and ascots flapping in the breeze. Granted, these idealistic aficionados were more a product of advertising agencies than genuine Americana, but the image attracted the movers and shakers with gilded pockets.
All that changed, however, when the compacts (sans Corvette) rolled onto the highways in the early '60s. Baby boomers represented the mushrooming demographic segment-they were getting their drivers' licenses, entering the work force, and demanding sporty-not just stylish-transportation.
Part of the "sporty" quotient included more powerful engines. After all, no one wanted his or her car to be accused of being all bark and no bite. More muscle did come online in the first half of the flower decade, but the total "package" of sport and speed was reflected in higher sticker prices. Take the Ford Mustang, for example. The car was definitely sporty, and the 289 Hi-Po engine had the kick, but such a combination in, say, a fastback model, quickly put the price out of most blue-collar budgets. Shelby's GT-350 delivered the real deal for the testosterone crowd, but the cost of this beast could be satisfied only by an upper-crust income.
So it was with automakers across the board in the early '60s.
Drumbeats-Detroit Looks To Muscle For The MassesManufacturing costs aside, the Big Three knew that more power was the key to sales, notoriety on the track, and loyalty among the fastest-growing population segment-the under-30 crowd. Big engines littered the landscape, but the disparity between affordability and performance dampened sales potential, especially with the "new" target market.
By now, Chrysler execs, always looking for ways to break away from their third-place underdog status, saw the handwriting on the office wall. Muscle had to shift from Daddy's car to Junior's new ride, and shift quickly. Although the company wasn't quite ready to let go of the grampa styling, it did realize that high performance and a low sticker price would be a homerun with young buyers. So, working with the tools on hand, Chrysler brass aimed to start a war.