The Muscle Car Is Dead. We’re All at the Wake
The era of cheap horsepower and home wrenching is coming to an end. That’s a shame because it created a world of car fans with no clear successor.
Hot rodding is almost as old as American cars themselves. And muscle cars are undeniably modern hot rods: built to be driven, raced, and most importantly, tinkered with. Now, the gasoline-powered factory muscle car as we know it is dead. The doctors need only to pronounce it officially when the last 1,025-horsepower 2023 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon 170 eventually rolls off the assembly line.
There isn't much like the Challenger, either. Pony cars like the 2024 Ford Mustang, are pivoting into a new generation; it tellingly lends its name to an electric crossover, too. The Chevy Camaro has just over a year to go. EVs can deliver giggle-inducing acceleration, but can they bring stupid belly-laugh fun and replicate the joys of shade-tree tinkering? Like my colleague Peter Holderith, I’m not so sure.
Muscle cars are about theater just as much as performance. They represent some of the best (Eds note: and worst) parts of being American: loud, proud, and unapologetic. It’s right there in the name: “muscle." Not strength. Not speed. Those cars can be strong and fast, but their defining characteristic is the perception; the flex. Sure, the Superbird’s wing was functional in NASCAR, but it also looked wild on the road. "Roadrunner," "Challenger," and "Plum Crazy"—the cartoon nicknames, radioactive colors, and whimsy are just as much a part of the lore as drag or stock car racing. Motorsports gave muscle cars their place in the automotive pantheon. Once they were there, muscle cars sustained themselves on attainable thrills and exciting looks.
Modern muscle cars rely on theater even more. They invoke their predecessors through oversized engines, undersized tires, and screaming exhaust notes. They whistle past contemporaries with the same hardware, too. It’s easy to write off muscle cars as Boomer relic nostalgia machines or unsophisticated dinosaurs, which misses their point. Now, as then, muscle cars democratize speed and power without taking themselves seriously. They’ve stayed true to their low dollar-per-horsepower draw among new enthusiasts while simultaneously appealing to nostalgic buyers. In 2019, the average age of a Dodge Challenger buyer was 51—two years younger than the average new car buyer overall. Remove buyers in their 60s and 70s who may have sentimental reasons for buying, and you’re left with people who weren't alive until decades after the originals were sold. And they attract a figurative and literal rainbow of car enthusiasts. If you want to feel the strength and diversity of the muscle car scene today—and maybe feel better about the state of the country—just visit a car meet near a major city. The community has never been stronger.
We’re at another crossroads today, and this one is more permanent. Manufacturers, governments, and the planet are moving on, but enthusiasts aren’t ready to. Dodge has shown us a preview of what they’re thinking with the Charger EV concept and its "e-Rupt" digital exhaust system. Judging by the public’s response and comments by Dodge’s own CEO, Tim Kuniskis, I’m not sure people are buying it yet. If modern muscle cars are a faithful-to-a-fault replication of what made the ‘60s and ‘70s originals special, the electric Charger concept is a simulation, for better and for worse. Will people buy it? Probably—there’s always a market for things that are fast, and I have no doubt Dodge will one day produce a version that out-drags the Demon 170 to show it can be done. But will it represent the same attainable entry point—yes, entry, because every build is just getting started—into the hobby that it’s been since the days of carb tuning? That’s a tougher question to answer.
Like it or not, internal-combustion V8s are a defining characteristic—perhaps the defining characteristic of muscle cars. Without them, it might be time for a new name.
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