You’ve probably seen lots of movies with high-speed car chases. You may even dream of one day driving one of those sleek, high-performance automobiles that can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. If so, you’ve got your sights set on a muscle car.

“Muscle car” is actually a term used to describe a wide variety of powerful, high-performance vehicles. While some people have definite opinions about what qualifies as a muscle car and what doesn’t, the term usually applies to two-door, rear-wheel-drive, small to midsize cars with large, powerful eight-valve (V8) engines.

Muscle cars became popular with young drivers in the mid-1960s. Not only were they sleek, attractive and powerful, they were also affordable and able to be driven for everyday street use, as well as formal and informal drag racing.

Compared to modern cars, which tend to have smaller four-valve (V4) or six-valve (V6) engines that use less fuel and are better for the environment, muscle cars tend to be smaller cars with big, oversized engines.

The earliest muscle cars were not particularly fuel-efficient or environmentally friendly. Of course, fuel was cheaper in the 1960s, and science had not yet revealed many of the environmental impacts of vehicles at that time.

Many muscle car enthusiasts believe the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was the first true muscle car. It boasted America’s first overhead valve V8 in a relatively light body, giving it a lot of power and speed.

Manufacturers began to compete, offering more powerful engines year after year. Eventually, they produced muscle cars with engines rated as high as 450 horsepower.

Although the science behind the measurement of horsepower is quite complex, you can imagine how powerful an engine would have to be to equal the power of 450 horses!

These speedy muscle cars could travel in excess of 120 miles per hour, which made them popular as informal drag racers. Some cars could go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 10 seconds.

Auto manufacturers began to tame their muscle cars in the 1970s. In response to complaints by Ralph Nader and others who wanted auto manufacturers to focus more on safety, the automotive insurance industry began to charge more for insurance on muscle cars. At the same time, gas prices began to rise,  and efforts were under way to fight air pollution.

All of these factors led to the decline of the muscle car in the 1970s. Auto manufacturers concentrated their efforts on lowering horsepower, increasing luxury, improving fuel economy and reducing emissions.

Today, auto manufacturers still make powerful models that appeal to racing enthusiasts. For the most part, though, these models aren’t as affordable as the muscle cars of old.

Classic muscle cars, such as the Dodge Charger R/T, Ford Mustang, Plymouth GTX and Pontiac GTO, have become collector’s items for muscle car enthusiasts. Some of these old models are relatively rare today and have been valued at up to $500,000. Extremely rare models, like the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, are seen as museum-worthy artifacts!


38 Join the Discussion

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  1. Great wonder today!! My two boys love collecting model cars and are into muscle cars. They will be happy to know what was the first true muscle car! Thank u, it was nice to learn something to share with my boys.

    • What a great hobby for your boys, Veronica! We’re glad you liked today’s Wonder…thanks for stopping by Wonderopolis today! :-)

  2. The engines are not called v8s and v6s because they have 8 or 6 valves. They are called v8s and v6s because of the way they are built. The cylinders are lined up diagonally with either 3 or 4 pistons on each side driving a common crankshaft. There are also inline fours, sixes and eights, where all the cylinders are in a straight line driving the same crankshaft. V4s are never made for cars only for motorcycles and outboard motors for boats.

    • Hello, Paul! We think it’s GREAT that you get to visit so many car shows! We bet there are hundreds of cool cars to see (and hear) there. What’s the coolest car you’ve ever seen at a car show? :-)

  3. Great information, but I believe there is an error in the fourth paragraph after “Did You Know?”

    “… to have smaller four-valve (V4) or six-valve (V6) engines…” should probably read “four or six *cylinder* engines…”

    • Thank you for sharing your comment with us, Mike T! We appreciate your feedback about the Wonder and are happy that you’ve added your suggestion! Thanks for helping all our Wonder Friends learn something new today! You ROCK! :)

  4. Awesome me and my dad love all types of cars. I have always wondered exacly what classIfied a muscle car as a muscle car.

    • Hey Andrew, that sounds like an awesome way to spend time with your dad– WONDERing about cars of all kinds! We are glad you learned something new about muscle cars with us! Perhaps you will see some muscle cars at a local car show in your town! :)

    • We love cars of all sorts, Tanner, especially when we Wonder about how all the parts work together! It’s amazing that we can just hop in our car and it will transport us to an entirely new place! Isn’t transportation awesome?! We Wonder if you have a favorite car… a specific model or a series? :)

  5. I think this story is pretty good, but I don’t understand why gas went up and the number of muscle cars started to go down because of their palliation.

    • Hi Richard! Thanks for WONDERing with us! Gas goes up for lots of reasons like the economy and the cost of oil around the world! Muscle cars can take a lot of gas because of their older engines so maybe that’s why their numbers have gone down. Keep WONDERing! :)

    • Sorry, about that Jack! We are in the process of updating our past Wonders and re-posting them on the weekends. We hope to get to this one, soon. Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :-)

    • That’s a great question, Sean from Mrs. Mason’s Class! We’re not sure, but if you find out, we hope you’ll share what you discover with us! :)

      • We dug deeper into this, and here is what we found…

        The term is a lot older than many might think. It has its origins with the introduction of OHV engines by Oldsmobile and Cadillac in 1949 when car magazine writers described those cars as having “Plenty of Muscle.”

        Mrs. Mason’s awesome class :o)

        • That’s really neat, Mrs. Mason’s Class! Who knew it was that old of a phrase! We’re really glad you shared that extra information with us, Wonder Friends!! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a muscle car?
  • How fast can muscle cars go?
  • How much are vintage muscle cars worth?

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Try It Out

Ready to try your hand at designing your own muscle car and then racing it in a fun online video game? If so, it’s time to play “The Fast and The Phineas!”

Choose from a variety of wheels, chassis colors, engines and body kits to create your own custom ride. When you’re finished, you can print a picture of your creation before trying it out on the road.

For the artists among you, grab some crayons, markers or colored pencils, and draw your own custom muscle car.

What color car would you like to drive? Would it have flames down its sides? Is the engine so big it has to poke out of the top of the hood? What custom wheel design might be lurking in the back of your imagination?

When you’ve finished drawing your dream car, email or send a copy of your picture to Wonderopolis. We’d love to see your artwork!

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Transportation transformed America. Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s America on the Move lesson to choose from three interactive resources to explore how transportation shaped our lives, landscapes, culture and communities.


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