The muscle car’s return to power

American muscle cars are roaring back into the fast lane – mightier and more sophisticated than ever, says Simon de Burton

Dodge claims the Demon is the fastest 0-60mph production car
Dodge claims the Demon is the fastest 0-60mph production car

I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor. She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot, outside the 7-Eleven store…”

Steve McQueen driving the Ford Mustang in Bullitt
Steve McQueen driving the Ford Mustang in Bullitt

Those are the opening lines of Racing in the Street, Bruce Springsteen’s haunting melody from 1978 about a pair of hustlers making a living by driving from town to town in a souped-up Chevrolet and out-dragging local speed freaks for cash.

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For those not au fait with Stateside automotive parlance, the “396” refers to the cubic capacity of the car’s engine, the “fuelie” to its fuel-injection system and the “Hurst” to its high-performance gearbox – all typical features of the classic American muscle car, a type of automobile that became part of US culture with the arrival of the Oldsmobile Rocket in 1949, but was fast disappearing by the time the song was released. The Rocket came from nowhere as a mid-range, two-door family car that packed an unexpected punch thanks to the secret weapon beneath its hood – a super-tuned V8 engine.

The gear stick in the special edition Ford Mustang Bullitt is a replica of the one in the car Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt
The gear stick in the special edition Ford Mustang Bullitt is a replica of the one in the car Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt

An instant hit on the race tracks, the Rocket prompted other manufacturers such as Chrysler, Rambler and Studebaker to launch rivals, sparking a “muscle car war” that was at its fiercest during the 1960s and ’70s when models such as the Chevrolet Impala SS, Pontiac GTO, Dodge Charger, Ford “Boss” Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda lurked on almost every street corner. For years such cars were part of everyday life in the US and even became the four-wheeled stars of cult films such as Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds and, most famous of all, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, in which a Mustang and a Charger battled it out to create cinema’s most celebrated car chase.

The special edition 163mph Mustang Bullitt marks the 50th anniversary of the cult film
The special edition 163mph Mustang Bullitt marks the 50th anniversary of the cult film

Tighter environmental controls, reduced speed limits and the rise of the European-style hatchback eventually put paid to muscle-car production, making the term applicable only to classics. But now, in a twist that’s surprising in light of today’s focus on saving the planet and developing benign, eco-friendly, semi-autonomous transport systems, the American muscle car has come roaring back with a vengeance. “Highest horsepower of any production car” screams the official website for the 2018 Dodge Demon SRT, which also lays claim to it being the “world’s fastest quarter-mile production car” (9.6 seconds) and the “world’s fastest nought-60mph production car” (2.3 seconds, compared with the €2.4m Bugatti Chiron’s 2.5 seconds). 

The engine of a Chevrolet Oldsmobile Rocket
The engine of a Chevrolet Oldsmobile Rocket

On top of that, the 840hp Demon is also said to create the greatest G-force under acceleration and – perhaps the maddest fact of all – to be the first production car capable of pulling a wheelie, an achievement verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. In fact, the off-the-shelf car is so fast it is technically banned from competitions organised by US drag racing’s official body, the National Hot Rod Association, because the rules state that cars capable of such speed need to be equipped with roll cages.

A Chevrolet Corvette Z06
A Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Due to be produced in an edition of 3,300 in the US and 300 in Canada, the Demon is being marketed as the first-ever purpose-built, street-legal dragster and is supplied with just one lightweight seat for the driver. An additional passenger seat is being offered for the token price of one dollar, as is the so-called Demon Crate that contains all the extras an owner will need to go racing, including special, soft compound tyres and a set of “skinny” front wheels. But while the Demon is capable of leaving Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches and even Bugattis in its wake, its official US selling price is a mere $84,995 (although demand for the car has already led to examples being sold on for around $135,000-plus).

Clive Sutton uses a Whipple supercharger in supertuned versions of the Ford Mustang
Clive Sutton uses a Whipple supercharger in supertuned versions of the Ford Mustang

The good news for Americana-loving speed freaks across the Atlantic is that the Demon and its muscle-car brethren are now available to buy in the UK, as specialist importers, dealers and the manufacturers themselves have begun to recognise a growing demand from enthusiasts wanting something fast that’s different from the products of home-grown marques that were once considered exotic but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

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Among the UK’s most experienced and respected muscle-car importers is Clive Sutton, who has specialised in the area since 2005. “The Dodge Demon is undoubtedly the hottest muscle-car ticket in town right now, but examples are extremely difficult to get hold of,” says Sutton. “Fortunately, we have an excellent network of suppliers in the US that has enabled us to sell seven in recent months: six to customers in the UK and one in the UAE. With taxes and duty paid, they work out at around £135,000-£144,000 on-the-road, which is considerably less than a Ferrari or Lamborghini – and you’re getting a far rarer car, as well as a faster and more powerful one.”

For those who want a true muscle car but don’t feel they need one as uncompromising as the Demon, Sutton offers alternatives such as the 6.2-litre, 707hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat, on which the Demon is based, or the Dodge Charger Hellcat four-door saloon. “The Hellcat costs less than £80,000 and we have sold around 25 in the UK,” says Sutton. “Despite their prodigious power, they are very drivable on a day‑to-day basis and also very well-equipped.”

In the past, drivability, equipment levels, comfort and handling seldom featured on the muscle-car options list, the originals from the 1960s and ’70s having been designed purely for one thing: going fast in a straight line. But now, says Sutton, things have changed. “The resurgence of the American muscle car is partly down to the fact that the quality has risen dramatically and they have become much easier to use. They also have well-equipped interiors, are considerably lighter and have sophisticated suspension systems that ensure they handle really well.” 

Ian Allan Motors, meanwhile, is the UK’s sole official General Motors dealer and offers Chevrolet’s Camaro and Corvette models from its showroom in Virginia Water, Surrey. “The most extreme Camaro is the ZL1 model, with its supercharged engine and a top speed of 190mph. It’s not available in the UK, but a standard V8 Camaro with a 6.2-litre, 453hp engine will still reach 60mph from standstill in 4.4 seconds,” says dealership principal Kevin Hurl, who also sells the latest example of the legendary Corvette, which, while often referred to as America’s first postwar “sports” car, also fits into the muscle-car bracket thanks to its big V8 engine and huge performance.

“A Corvette costs from £64,000 to £120,000 depending on the specification. The range-topping Z06 offers more than 650hp and a top speed of around 190mph – which is comparable with a Ferrari costing some £50,000 more. And in Europe, the Corvette is considerably rarer,” says Hurl, adding that another factor appealing to buyers of such cars is that they are available with manual gearboxes – a feature petrolheads frequently look for but that has been all but abandoned in British and European performance cars in favour of paddle-shift, semi‑automatic transmission.

No discussion about muscle cars would be complete, however, without mention of the legendary Ford Mustang, which since 2016 has been officially available in Europe in both left- and right‑hand-drive formats. The most muscular version fresh off a European Ford dealer’s showroom floor is the £38,095, five-litre V8 model, which offers 416hp and a top speed that’s electronically limited to 155mph. Such is the potential of the famous Ford V8 engine, however, that almost twice the power can be achieved with judicious tweaking – a service most famously performed by Las Vegas tuning house Shelby American, whose UK agent, Bill Shepherd, is thought to run the world’s only specialist Mustang dealership from its premises in Byfleet, Surrey. At the time of writing, the firm’s extensive stock of performance-enhanced cars included a 670hp, supercharged model for £79,950 and a Shelby Super Snake, offering a remarkable 808hp, for £107,000. Clive Sutton also creates supertuned versions of the Mustang in the form of its CS350, CS500, CS700 and CS800 “specials” that are built using bolt-on parts from a vast options list that includes everything from an £11,400 Whipple supercharger to a £5,820 exhaust upgrade.

But perhaps the best evidence that muscle-car culture is back and set to stay could be seen at this year’s Geneva Motor Show in March, where the main carousel on the Ford stand was not occupied by a futuristic autonomous vehicle or electrically powered people carrier – but by the new, special edition 163mph Mustang Bullitt that has been produced to mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the movie. Finished in dark Highland green – just like the 1968 Mustang GT fastback that McQueen drove – it even features a replica of his “cue ball” gear knob and a device that electronically “blips” the throttle between gear changes in an effort to emulate the growling exhaust note that provides the soundtrack to the 11-minute Bullitt car chase, for which the car-crazy star did much of the driving. But I doubt McQueen would have approved of that. Properly cool people should be able to “blip” for themselves…

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