Aaron Widmar
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What Qualifications Make a Car a Muscle Car?

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Classic 1978 Chevy Nova Coupe blower
1978 Chevy Nova Coupe engine blower
Photo: The News Wheel

If there’s one concept that’s central to the legacy of American automobiles, it’s the muscle car. While automakers from around the globe have imitated our trucks and sedans, the legacy of the American muscle car stands apart. The term “muscle car” is commonly applied to classic cars, but not all instances are accurate. What qualifications define a muscle car?

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A brief look at the origin of muscle cars

Defining what qualifies as a muscle car isn’t as easy to pinpoint as you’d expect. What, for instance, differentiates it from a pony car?

To determine what a muscle car is, U.S. News & World Report points back to the hot-rodding culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when American grease monkeys would take light sports cars and drop in huge engines. Drivers wanted their toys to have more power.

These modifications were mostly performed aftermarket (post-manufacturing), as the only production model that attempted this was Oldsmobile’s Rocket 88, and the Pontiac GTO being considered the first true muscle car. Eventually, with the introduction of Chrysler’s HEMI and Chevy’s V8, automakers began creating the cars that buyers wanted with bigger engines.

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Classic 1978 Chevy Nova Coupe shift knob
1978 Chevy Nova Coupe shift knob
Photo: The News Wheel

Explained: What qualifies as a muscle car

Due to its history, “muscle car” originated as a broad term referring to powerful American-made performance cars, with the most common characteristics being

  • Two-door
  • Rear-wheel drive
  • Front engine placement
  • V8 engine
  • Fast acceleration
  • Big tires
  • Medium vehicle weight and size

So why has there been a decline in the past 30 years of muscle cars on the market? How Stuff Works points to the rise in gas prices and stricter regulations (industry and insurance) as being two major factors in the decline of these wildly powerful, unruly machines. Also, buyers wanted track-ready cars that weren’t just about big engines but had well-tuned suspension and aerodynamics too.

Because of this change, the most common place you’ll find muscle cars these days isn’t on the track or on the road, but in parking lots at local car cruise-ins.