Muscle Car Writing Contest Finalist #2: Don Gammil Wants You to Color Him Gone

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
muscle car writing contest finalist 2 don gammil wants you to color him gone

Sounding every bit as superficial as the redneck poseur he portrayed, the expression on actor Warren Oates’ face as he uttered those words in the 1971 cult classic “Two-Lane Blacktop” spoke volumes about what a muscle car was and what it was built for.

As his right foot slammed through the firewall and the big ’70 Judge GTO lunged forward, the contrast between Oates’ character and the two car-obsessed drifters he raced across the U.S. couldn’t have been starker: his brand-new orange Pontiac was a mean machine, but their beat-up primer-gray ’55 Chevy was the real deal.

In a recent blog, Motor Trend’s Angus MacKenzie pontificated about the fate of the muscle car. Mainly, he opined as to the engines and body styles it might possess in the not-so-V8-friendly future.

No offense, but I think Angus bypassed an important point. His view of what will happen to the muscle car and how it must change assumes that the concept’s definition is relatively static. History says it’s not.

Few would call the seemingly junkyard-ready Chevy in “Two-Lane Blacktop” a muscle car. Yeah, it was fast, but it didn’t particularly look fast to the non-automotive bystander. On the other hand, The Judge looked every bit the part, but by 1970 Pontiac performance had taken somewhat of a back seat to the appearance of Pontiac performance.

I’m not saying that muscle cars are all about style over substance. If anything, I think they were originally meant to embody the style of substance. But that style is subject to debate and (as Mr. MacKenzie correctly notes) evolution. Still, the dynamic nature of the concept makes prescriptions for the future somewhat risky.

A “muscle car” was originally defined as an inexpensive, small or intermediate (by 1960’s standards) two-door with the high performance engine/drivetrain from a larger, more expensive vehicle. The idea was to create a brand-invigorating yet affordable factory hotrod that would garner lots of buff book ink and make teenage boys drool. Exhibit A: The original Pontiac GTO.

Except if you do a Google image search for “1964 Pontiac GTO,” you’ll see a smallish workaday coupe that doesn’t look quite as tough as a muscle car is supposed to. Now google “1971 Dodge Challenger R/T” and check out those photos. This car will certainly look more like a muscle car to most people than the ’64 Goat. Both are muscle cars, but the original more-true-to-the-concept Pontiac looks less muscular than the Challenger-esque archetype.

Some combination of a bad-ass performance image and big horsepower fun is definitely required for any version of the muscle car recipe to work. But here’s the rub: If the formula can’t keep changing (and changing more than MacKenzie allows for), the term “muscle car” will either become universally misapplied or will die.

The big question seems to be whether or not the definition of a muscle car evolved much after the early 1970’s.

In the late Seventies, domestic cars shrunk and large two-doors became the size their intermediate counterparts were fifteen years earlier. In 1964, stuffing the brawniest of mills in a Riviera coupe would most definitely not have launched the concept we know today, but the 1980’s T-Type turbo Buicks transcended their “regal” origins to become honest-to-God muscle cars by almost any gearhead’s standard.

Allow for two more doors, FWD, and fewer cylinders, and even the putrid little K-car-based ‘91 Dodge Spirit R/T seems to capture the essence of what Pontiac was thinking in the mid-1960’s vis-à-vis “cheap car + big power = sales-boosting image builder.”

Stretch the definition that far, and what’s next? Do we ditch the “intermediate-sized” restriction and include powerful large cars (‘94-‘96 Impala SS, etc.)? If we do that, why can’t we say that any subcompact shitbox with a turbo four is a muscle car?

Okay, it’s gotta stop somewhere. But something else transcends the physical definition, anyway.

I’m willing to bet that “muscle car” is as much of a feeling as it is a tangible product. Maybe it’s when you feel as tough as a ’71 Challeger R/T looks, or when you own the crazy grin of Oates’ character in “Two Lane Blacktop.”

Yes, a special automotive formula is needed to elicit those reactions, and as technology, consumer preference, and economic reality all change, the formula will have to change, too.

But constraining muscle cars to a set blueprint and allowing only certain aspects to evolve is to ignore the bigger point of why muscle cars exist in the first place.

They exist for the same impractical reason – maybe an existential reason – that a mid-40’s GTO driver would race two kids thousands of miles for the pink slip to their ragged ’55 Chevrolet. And as long as that spirit is alive and well, the muscle car will never die.

[The above article is presented without editing.]

Join the conversation
2 of 6 comments
  • Probert Wow - so many digital renders - Ford, Stellantis. - whose next!!! They're really bringing it on....
  • Zerocred So many great drives:Dalton Hwy from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle.Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham WA to Skagway AK. it was a multi-day ferry ride so I didn’t actually drive it, but I did take my truck.Icefields Parkway from Jasper AB to Lake Louise AB, CA.I-70 and Hwy 50 from Denver to Sacramento.Hwy 395 on the east side of the Sierras.
  • Aidian Holder I'm not interested in buying anything from a company that deliberately targets all their production in crappy union-busting states. Ford decided to build their EV manufaturing in Tennessee. The company built it there because of an anti-union legal environment. I won't buy another Ford because of that. I've owned four Fords to date -- three of them pickups. I'm shopping for a new one. It won't be a Ford Lightning. If you care about your fellow workers, you won't buy one either.
  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?
  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.