Camaro, Mustang and the New Golden Age of American Muscle Cars

Perpetrators of unspeakable Malaise Era crimes come home to roost… and do burnouts.

We’re living in a golden age for American muscle. Nameplates like Camaro, Charger and Mustang—all of which once suffered from ponderous handling, limp power and less structural integrity than a popsicle stick bridge—are now again titans of the road. Every American car we’ve classified here as a “muscle car” is available with well over 500 horsepower. Three are available with over 600. And the Hellcat, of course, comes packing 707 ponies. This quintet has supercharged our love, and cast a smokey spell over our hearts. In the world of Yankee muscle, things are better than they’ve ever been.

But, in the not-so-distant past, the roads weren’t full of square-jawed, automotive incarnations of the Brawny man. Once-proud models, the same Camaros, Chargers, Challengers, Mustangs and Corvettes that are trouncing Europeans and overrunning dynometers, were naught but rebadged economy cars or larded luxury coupes with sub-200 horsepower engines. As recently as the first Reagan administration, America’s muscle was atrophied. Here’s proof.

The 2016 Camaro is a feat. A triumph. Yes, it even trumps the Mustang. But circa 1982? The early third-gen Camaro, for all its flash, was a sad performer. Its base engine was the thrashy, slow Iron Duke; even the top-spec, Cross Fire Injection 305 V-8 made just 165 horsepower. Gaze upon its fat lassitude—a 39 year-old high school jock, all flab.

Wikimedia Commons/Ford

Like the Camaro, the new Mustang is a world-beating sports coupe. Doubly so in in righteous GT350 guise, with a 505-horsepower, flat-crank plane V-8 that revs over 8000 rpm. Its shape is refined and mean, despite the Fusion nose. It’s what the BMW M3 should be, except faster and less expensive. Gaze back to 1974, though, and you’ll find that the Mustang was but a reshaped Ford Pinto whose most powerful engine was a 2.8-liter V-6 from a Mercury Capri. That’s 105 horsepower, net.

Wikimedia Commons/Chevrolet

It’s been derided by snobs as a “Plastic Fantastic,” but today, the Chevrolet Corvette is every bit the rival to German sleds like the Porsche 911. In Z06 trim, GM’s finest is a mercenary track machine with 650 horsepower and the ability, somehow, to get it all to the ground for a 3.3-second zero-to-60 time. By any measure, that is an overabundance of power. If only cars could reach across time to donate cojones to their historic brethren. The old C3 Corvette could’ve used some—in 1982, its catalyst-choked big-block only mustered 180 horsepower.

Wikimedia Commons/Dodge

The Charger Hellcat. A homebuilt family sedan with 707 horsepower, an old Mercedes chassis with a supercharged Hemi; a sign of the end time, or the dawn of a great age. To love the Charger Hellcat is to shiver with fear at its power but grin at its existence. Whatever it is, the Charger Hellcat is mighty. Back in 1975, however, the Dodge Charger was just a Chrysler Cordoba with neat paint. And a Cordoba, despite the Corinthian leather, is meek.

Wikimedia Commons/Dodge

Where the Hellcat sedan is hilarious because its combination of firepower and sedate shape, the coupe is just plain sexy. Like no other mid-level car, the Challenger owns its copious size, growling at imports with a Hemi bark and hooded eyes. Every teenage bedroom in America deserves a poster of the 2016 Dodge Challenger Hellcat. You know who deserves a poster of the 1978 Challenger? Fascists. It is one of the ugliest, most pathetic cars to ever have traveled the roads. Lord, have mercy.