With the recent launch of the 2020 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 and the new 2020 Mustang Shelby GT500, the ghosts of muscle cars past seem to have come full circle. Now we know automotive technology has advanced at almost an exponential rate over the past fifty plus years and brought more horsepower, better fuel economy and a slew of other “improvements” to the game.
These things may make an already good thing better, but that isn’t want we’re really talking about here. Back in the great muscle car heyday that was the 196′s and the early part of the 1970′s those just weren’t pieces of mass produced metal rolling off the assembly lines. They had attitude, daring ambition, never before tried premises’. They had souls of their very own. Flash forward to today. The American retro sports car revolution is in full swing! There is a hunk of nostalgia in just about everything that rolls off the assembly line and is branded “Sports Car” or holds a familiar moniker with the past, with very few exceptions (I’m looking at you Dodge Dart.) So the golden age is back right?! Viva La Revolution! Or is it? Sure, all the new models have power, comforts, styling (for better or worse), and that great retro swing to them, but do they truly stack up to the legends that they are paying homage to?
We’re going to take a look at 5 American sports car legends, then and now, and see just how well they hold on to the heritage of their past. Do they live up to the name? Do they still have that “IT” – a factor that made them so famous? Do they still fully embody the soul their ancestors had? Now, we could just throw quarter mile times, top speed, and horsepower numbers around but I think we all know how that would turn out. Besides, that isn’t what we’re really digging for here. It would be very easy to just take the five and list them in some kind of all too familiar “Top 5 List!” and let people argue it out over the water cooler till their forehead veins burst. So instead, I’ve gone a bit off script compared to normal reviews or then and now comparisons. Hopefully we will take a nice trip down retro lane and have a little fun at the same time. So strap in, and away we go!
5 American sports car legends then and now
Number One: The Shelby Mustang GT 500
The Ford Mustang, symbol of all things muscle car in the 1960′s. The Shelby GT 500 was the pinnacle of all Mustangs through 1970. Merely sitting in one would make you instantly sprout a Magnum PI style mustache and quote John Wayne movies, even if you were a woman. They made women swoon, movie directors congenial and your very own theme music play as your drove by. They were the definition of cool, and set the bar for what a muscle car should be. For the time they lived in, they handled well, had good power, a fantastic sound and the fun factor while driving it was off the charts. With all that, they still managed to throw in just enough insanity to just push the “IT” factor over the top.
Coolness factor rating: Steve McQueen
Soul factor rating: Enough to make James Brown yell “DAMN! That’s some soul!”
Legend factor rating: I am the stuff legends are made of
The newest incarnation of the Shelby Mustang GT 500 is a modern day straight jacket with a head rest. When the 2020 GT 500 was announced, there was speculation aplenty when Ford said that it would have 650 horsepower. There was much gnashing of teeth, doubt and general wringing of hands wondering if Ford could truly deliver. When the car was finally released and tested, it in fact did NOT have 650 horsepower (it had 662.) “Oopsie!”Â said Ford, as it walked away smirking over its shoulder at the general public. Also, it looks well… kinda mean… like “Holy shit I think your car just knocked over that Girl Scout and took her cookies!” mean. The engineers at Ford took the heritage of the car seriously, and it shows.
Coolness factor rating: Pre-Bullitt Steve McQueen
Soul factor rating: Shaft! Can ya dig it!
Legend factor rating: I am son of Legend and I’m tryin’ hard to give the family name the reputation it deserves!
Number Two: Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Yes, I know the ZL1 is a kind of obscure testament to the Camaro line, but with the re-release of the ZL-1 by Chevrolet and all the hoopla about what it “means” to the heritage of the Camaro, it actually does fit in the legend column. The Camaro was a big hit for Chevrolet, and by 1969 the battle with the Mustang was raging hot and heavy. The ZL-1 was the salt shaker of craziness that Chevrolet needed to help spread the word among fellow gear heads that they too had mad scientists making monsters in the basement. The all aluminum 427 engine was cranking out damn near 550 horsepower. They even tried to tell the NHRA that it only had 425 horsepower, so they could sneak it into a lower racing class, apparently in the hopes of delivering strokes to competitors at the drag strip. Mix that insanity with the smooth yet aggressive looks and you had a street born serial killer on your hands.
Coolness factor rating: John Wayne in True Grit
Soul factor rating: More than a halibut farm
Legend factor rating: Freddy Krueger
580 horses of supercharged LSA motor wrapped in a retro treatment filled with tech goodies galore. Just saying that out loud makes you feel like you should be hunched over a bit, with a touch of madness in your eyes as you start to cackle. However, little has been done cosmetically since its Gen 5 rebirth in 2009. The retro look is still good but some serious tweaking is due. All that being said, it is definitely more iconic than its Gen 3 and 4 cousins and has been a strong seller since it was re-introduced.
Coolness factor rating: Jeff Bridges in True Grit
Soul factor rating: Luther Vandross
Legend factor rating: Scary hook handed guy from campfire stories
Number Three: Dodge Challenger
Even though it came a bit late to the game, the Dodge Challenger managed to make a pretty decent impact in the muscle car wars in the early 1970′s. It had a staggering choice of trim levels and engine packages. It was big, it had a touch of the crazy in the overall design, and you just can’t picture one in your head without that aggressive hood scoop. It housed the now famous Hemi power plant and it forced you to take some kind of notice even if the other kids on the block were around.
Coolness factor rating: Star Wars
Soul factor rating: Sammy Davis Jr
Legend factor rating: Dean Martin
The Hemi is back! The third generation Challenger holds all the right retro markings from the good ol’ days. It’s big, it pays homage to the 1970′s predecessor very well, your eyes still focus on the hood whenever you see on go by and there are enough trim levels available to almost make you feel like you’re at an automotive buffet! However, what is gone is that special touch of crazy or even a type of quirkiness. Everything LOOKS retro and tries to pay homage, but yet everything feels overly “safe” and a tad cookie cutter to a degree design wise. While that isn’t a bad thing overall for a large automotive market, it does put a slight damper on the car still being a legend. While they are still a ton of fun to drive it just feels like it is missing something… something you can’t quite put your finger on.
Coolness factor rating: Return of the Jedi
Soul factor rating: American Band Stand
Legend factor rating: Mickey from Rocky
Number Four: Dodge Charger
Mopar again! This time it is the Dodge Charger. The Charger was the slightly older brother to the Challenger yet still had a lot of personal charm and enough differences to really make it stand out. At first glance someone might think it was merely a two door late 60′s early 70′s commuter car… but if you looked a little closer you could see that there was some anger in those lines. The Charger seemed to exude a little hatred to other cars around it, almost daring them to stare too long as it rumbled by as if it was looking for someone to steal their lunch money from. If you saw it coming towards you the grill sort of reminded you that you suddenly had somewhere else to be. It took the “muscle” part of muscle car seriously. With the Super Bee variant and the”cousin we only let out on special occasions” Plymouth Road Runner Super Bird, you knew it could go from American Graffiti to Texas Chainsaw Massacre if it really wanted to.
Coolness factor rating: Marlon Brando in The Godfather
Soul factor rating: The Blues Brothers
Legend factor rating: Rocky from Rocky II
Oh my… I don’t quite know how to put this. The new Charger is a great car in many ways, but as far as living up to the memories of the past… not so much. Other than the name badge there really is nothing to remind you where it all came from. Yes, you can get a Hemi, yes it has power, and yes it says Charger, but is really about the sum of its parts in the current reincarnation. It’s almost as if the folks at Dodge said “Ok, we’ll take everything that made up the old Charger… and do the exact opposite!”Â It has four doors, it looks like a slightly drunk taxi cab and the grille looks like it should be holding steamer trays at a Golden Corral. If the other cars on this list thought it was important to go for the retro styling, the new Charger gave it the finger and decided it was going to hang out with the younger kids.
Coolness factor rating: Marlon Brando in The Island of Doctor Moreau
Soul factor rating: Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas
Legend factor rating: Rocky from Rocky V
Number Five: Chevrolet Corvette
If the Mustang was the symbol of the muscle car in the 1960′s then the Chevrolet Corvette was the icon on the other side of that coin. The Corvette had been around much longer and was already an automotive standard, but when the second generation Corvette hit the streets the muscle car arms race was on like Donkey Kong. While most other muscle cars had hard edged, in your face styling, the Corvette truly looked like a predator on wheels. It was aggressive yet stylish, it had an established history yet looked like something out of a science fiction movie. Bill Mitchell’s decision to use the Mako shark as an inspiration would set the standards for one of, if not the most recognizable vehicles of all time. It was fast, powerful, gorgeous and yet still seemed like it was prowling the streets looking for some sort of prey to feast on. If a woman even touched a 1967 Stingray Convertible she suddenly looked very similar to, but not entirely like Raquel Welch (it was never scientifically proven, but it was well talked about.)
Coolness factor rating: Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (so cool it has cool in the name)
Soul factor rating: If John Lee Hooker and Marvin Gaye had a love child…
Legend factor rating: I bring you these 10 commandments…
The Corvette has gone through numerous transformations in its long history. Even during the rough times of the early 80′s (ahem… 1983) the Corvette was still looked upon as the staple it had become. Now in its sixth generation, it still radiates everything it has ever stood for. While some of the styling may be over modernized, you can still instantly see the memories of the past seeping through. It still looks as if it should be gliding through a coral reef in search of its next meal like the predator it is, but it also still looks like you could be touring Alpha Centauri in it later that evening.
Coolness factor rating: Paul Newman in The Sting
Soul factor rating: Soul Train!
Legend factor rating: Frank Sinatra