The American Motors AMX was one of many "muscle cars," built in the late 1960s and early '70s, to satisfy a market niche that has waxed and waned, ever since. This bright yellow example is a 1968 edition - first year - owned by Willy and Mary Jo Lowe; displayed at a muscle car meet in Issaquah, Washington. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
The “muscle car,” as it’s known, is uniquely American in a way that both jazz and blues music are. Exactly which car was the first muscle car is still debated.
A good case could be made for the 1957 Rambler Rebel, equipped with a 327 cubic-inch V8, topped by a Carter four-barrel carburetor and producing 255 horsepower for establishing the basic template. The Rebel included both four-door hardtop and station wagon body styles. (That V8 was an enlarged version of a 250 cubic-inch engine that American Motors, the parent company, had been building; not the 327 cid engine that GM put into its Corvette and other Chevrolets, a short time later.)
The Rebel’s standard transmission was a three-speed overdrive unit with a Borg-Warner 10-inch clutch. The optional four-speed Hydra-Matic was essentially the same as used by Pontiac and Oldsmobile. A 3.15:1 rear axle was supplied with the Hydra-Matic. A 4.10:1 rear axle was specified for Rebels with the manual transmission.
Motor Trend magazine reported that the only American car capable of out-accelerating the Rebel, from 0-to-60, was the fuel-injected Chevrolet Corvette sports car.
But most automotive enthusiasts give credit for the muscle car’s development to the late John Z. DeLorean, who as head of the Pontiac division of General Motors, gave the green light in 1964 to putting a 389 cubic-inch V8 into the Tempest. That model was called the GTO - an acronym borrowed from Ferrari. GTO stood for “Gran Turismo Omologato” which is Italian for “Grand Touring Homologated” the last word meaning “approved for racing.”
The muscle car movement grew out of the hot rod and custom car movements of the 1950s and ‘60s. The V8 engines that were stuffed into the engine bays of mid-size bodies grew larger. What was then called the “Big Three” in Michigan all sold muscle cars. Even American Motors in Kenosha, Wisconsin got involved with its AMX and Javelin models.
All manufacturers felt compelled to have engines around 400 cubic-inches, as their top options. The phenomenon got so big, The Beach Boys, who’d started their rise to fame singing songs about surfing, did a song about the engine in one Chevrolet and entitled the song simply, “409.”
But the manufacturers sometimes fibbed about horsepower in the specs. The horsepower ratings given out were oftentimes not accurate, as a way of placating insurance companies; who would eventually be part of the reason muscle cars took a hiatus in the mid-1970s.
From the dark depths of a late fall day, a gathering of muscle cars, looking like a collection of oversized Hot Wheels toys, is as vivid in the memory of the human mind as the day they were seen. The first Sunday of August featured about 50 muscle cars, from clubs devoted to specific manufacturers and various models, arranged in the parking lot of the XXX (root beer) Drive-In located in Issaquah, Washington. It was the 25th Northwest Muscle Car Meet.
Amidst the Chrysler E-body cars (early ‘70s Dodge Challengers and Plymouth Barracudas), Pontiac GTO and Firebirds, a multitude of Chevrolet Camaros and even a bright red 1972 Ford Pantera (Ghia body and Ford 351 cubic-inch high output V8) were two examples of the American Motors AMX. As muscle cars from a manufacturer now gone, many people didn’t know what they were.
Willy and Mary Jo Lowe’s yellow 1968 American Motors AMX had some slight modifications that were period correct: Cragar SS magnesium wheels on BF Goodrich T/A tires and exhaust pipes, fitted just below the rocker panels. But the engine was as it came from the factory, “numbers matching” as it’s called, indicating a drive train that came with the car: a 390 cubic-inch V8 backed by a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission and a 3.55 gear ratio, inside the rear differential.
The other AMX, a red 1969 edition owned by Dan Phillips, showed how appearances can be deceiving. While the body and interior looked as AMC shipped it, the engine bay had performance and appearance modifications that Phillips was proud enough of having done, he had the hood open.
Phillips said that his car could produce 394.56 horsepower at 5,300 rpm, at the engine’s flywheel, along with 480 pounds of torque at 4,300 rpm.
Some of the reason why could be seen, such as the Edelbrock high-rise R46 large-passage intake manifold and the Bellanger Super Competition headers (with 50 percent better exhaust air-flow than standard exhaust pipes). Others were hidden inside the engine: Crane competition camshaft, forged steel crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons.
An ultimate example of a personal vision of what a muscle car could be was Jay and Evy Smith’s black 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS two door hardtop; brought over from Sagle, Idaho. It was a Pro-Street racer, equipped with a 6:71 supercharger, topped by two four barrel carburetors, setting on the intake manifold of a small block Chevrolet V8 (displacement not disclosed), it reportedly produced 1,040 horsepower - enough to take the Chevelle from zero to 60 miles-per-hour in just 2.2 seconds. Jay Smith said that he proved that at a track up in Langley, Canada during a 1,000 feet dash. Moreover, he added the car can run a quarter mile in just 9.80 seconds and achieve a speed (in that length) of 146 miles-per-hour.
The supercharger atop the engine in the Smith's Chevelle gives 17 pounds of boost. Jay Smith said, "It's basically a drag racer for the street." But after 20 years of ownership, he added, "There's no more racing. It stays nicer if I don't." (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
As much as Jay Smith might have liked to drive it from Idaho, he allowed that, “At six-miles-to-the-gallon, there’s not enough gas stations (between Idaho and Issaquah, Washington) to get us here.”
Like the “race to the moon,” which the United States won in the summer of 1969, muscle cars came to be testimony to something the poet Robert Browning once said, that being, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” - Terry Parkhurst