What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America?

The disdainful nickname “pony cars” did not prevent them from accelerating quickly and turning sharply.

We tell you why the relatively compact coupes for the SCCA Trans-Am with “small” engines were cooler than their older brothers armed with monster powertrains.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 2

“Doesn’t steer, doesn’t turn, and doesn’t slow down” — this is how canonical American sports cars behave, according to the stereotypical and, alas, true opinion. First of all, the stereotype refers to the muscle carts of the sixties, which, as a rule, did not differ in noble driving manners. But there were exceptions in those days due to motorsport. The SCCA Trans-Am series transformed compact hot pony cars from flying sledgehammers to relatively accurate tools for European-style tracks and public roads. Today, we will speak about the most famous and most glorious ones, which proved that the engine size was not always important.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 3

In the mid-sixties, mid-size and full-size muscle cars equipped with giant heavy big-block engines (units that usually exceeded 400 cc or 6.6 liters) ruled in drag racing and the NASCAR series. They didn’t have competitors in the whole world when it was necessary to drive through a short straight segment of the track to the accompaniment of engine roar or to turn left for hours at exorbitant speeds. Against the backdrop of midsize athletes, the relatively small Plymouth Barracuda, Ford Mustang, and Chevrolet Camaro looked like youngsters trying to figure out their purpose in the raging world of motorsport.

At the start of their market career, popular coupes and fastbacks were deprived of really big engines, and this circumstance put an end to successful participation in the Super Stock drag class. Chrysler, however, together with Hurst released a limited batch of special Plymouth Barracudas and Dodge Darts with 7.0-liter 500-hp Hemi 426 engines to the delight of professional racers, fans and… viewers. A red Barracuda Super Stock starred in Highwaymen, great decorating a frankly average film.

Plymouth Barracuda Plymouth Barracuda

Interestingly, there is no mention of rare and valuable modifications for drag racing in the historical archives of Chrysler. Hurst's participation in the project deprived them of the factory car status. According to rough estimates of the company’s former employees, about seventy Hemi Barracudas and eighty ferocious Hemi Darts were released. A year later, Chevrolet introduced the special small-scale Camaro ZL1 with a 7.0-liter aluminum V8. This muscle car, released in the amount of 69 copies surprises with its dynamics to this day.

Dodge Hemi Dart 2 Door Hardtop Dodge Hemi Dart 2 Door Hardtop

Super Stock from February 1969 wrote that the monster with racing ammunition can fly 402 meters in a breathtaking 10.41 seconds and show 12.10 mph (206 km/h) at the finish. Ford also did not stand aside and put up specially prepared drag Mustangs that deserve a separate story. Of course, pony cars were used in quarter-mile races but with “small” engines that did not overweight the front end and proper settings. Due to their mass-dimensional characteristics, they were also well suited for winding tracks.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 4

One of the first to understand this was Carroll Shelby, who prepared Mustangs for European tracks. The commercially successful Shelby Mustang GT350R, which was driven by the Texas 24-Hour of Le Mans champion Jerry Titus, turned out to be very efficient in the thick of road and ring battles Jerry Titus won the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) championship in the B-Production series three years in a row.

Shelby Mustang GT350R Shelby Mustang GT350R

The SCCA remained an inter-club of amateur racers аor a long time. However, in 1961, the organizers began to revise the concept and decided to turn the competition into a professional championship. So five years later, the professional Trans-American Sedan Championship was born with a division into two classes — “up to 2.0 liters” for all European compact cars such as that of Alfa Romeo and BMW and “over 2.0 liters” available to local monsters.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 5

According to the rules of homologation, cars based on serial engines with a volume of no more than 305 cc (5.0 liters) were allowed to race. Motorists could not always get their hands on necessary units. Chevrolet, for example, had to actually create a Trans-Am engine. Chrysler first rolled out cars with a small 273-cc V8. Later, the engineers reduced a 340-cc engine (5.6 liters), entering it into the required framework. But Ford, preparing a small 302-cc unit (4.9 liters), rubbed their hands in anticipation.

Shelby Mustang GT350R Engine Shelby Mustang GT350R Engine

Another feature of the SCCA Trans-Am was the lack of personal competition: the big prize was played only between manufacturers, which, however, was not a psychological or image barrier for such overseas racing celebrities as Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue, Parnelli Jones and David Pearson. The first race was held in March 1966. A year later, the championship reached its “design capacity”: the number of stages increased from seven to twelve. By this point, the Shelby Mustang GT 350R was already a star. It was based on a standard fastback with a 289-cc 310-hp V8 Windsor (4.7 liters) that was topped with a new intake manifold and also featured more powerful brakes with a modified suspension. According to some reports, 36 such racing versions were built, which could be purchased by anyone who wanted to pay $5,950. At least a hundred more fastbacks with 275-hp engines were released for public roads.

Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

The cars prepared by Shelby American were just the beginning of an era. The new championship attracted car companies with a well-known opportunity to “win on Sunday and sell on Monday”. Some of them were willing to go over their own corporate rules just to participate and announce their product. So, in the years of the dawn of the Trans-Am, Chevrolet did not officially participate in motorsport disciplines, and this fact greatly saddened product promotion manager Vince Piggins. Indeed, the worst rival with a stallion on the radiator grille was already taking part in the battles and winning, and the new Camaro was vegetating … Not good! So the special Z/28 version was born. Who would have thought that one of the famous top-end modifications, which existed in the line-up for decades, was originally created for racing, although the car had nothing to do with it later?

Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

GM’s pony car came out on the market with engines, a working volume of which is strictly higher than the permissible limit. After playing with the forced “283” unit, the engineers developed a modification specifically for the racing regulations — a V8 327 received a forged crankshaft from a 283-cc unit, forged connecting rods, a camshaft with a more aggressive cam profile, new valves, an aluminum intake manifold with a high-performance Holley carburetor and a sports exhaust tract. The result was a 302-cc engine (4.9 liters) with a compression ratio of 11.0:1 and, seemingly modest by the standards of those times, a power output of 294 hp and impressive 5,800 rpm. This power output appears in the literature, although, according to some sources, the real figure is closer to 350 hp.

Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Engine Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Engine

The Camaro Z/28 almost did not stand out on public roads and did not attract attention, but it could surprise the driver accustomed to the typical “meaty” nature of the average V8, high-speed rage and a clear lack of torque below 4,000 rpm. When it came to traffic light racing, the Z/28 accelerated to 97 km/h (60 mph) in… 5.3 seconds. This is the result recorded by Car and Driver. However, the muscle car, turned into a track weapon, was of interest not only for fans of driving from intersection to intersection, because it was still sharpened for cornering and had steering with a modified gear ratio, sports springs and shock absorbers.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 6

During the 1967 model year, only 602 copies were produced. In August, the Z/28 team of Roger Penske with sponsored war paint Sunoco and Mark Donohue at the wheel recorded their first Trans-Am victory. In 1968, the dark blue coupe won ten of the thirteen races, achieved the championship title, and repeated the success a year later. In parallel, the Z/28 increased its influence on public roads: 7,199 and 20,302 cars rolled off the assembly line, respectively.

Ford Mustang Boss 302 Ford Mustang Boss 302

Ford was slightly late with their Mustang Boss 302; the special version appeared only in 1969, and Shelby’s Mustangs had to defend the honor of the glorious name before its arrival, making a huge effort to do this in the end. Automakers did not spare their budgets to participate in the Trans-Am. Drivers naturally lost the battle with factory monsters. The problem was not only the power and magic of the almighty dollar multiplied by the engineering potential and top-level drivers but also various tricks for graceful violation of the rules. Jim Whelan, who began his career in the Trans-Am in 1967 and initially performed under the Shelby banner, recalls that most of the body panels and chassis of many Mustangs were made of acid-etched iron for making them lighter. A strong safety frame was required to hold the shell and everything else together. And this is just one example of technical tricks. Later, Whelan moved to the Mustang Mach 1 with a V8 Boss 302 and fondly remembers the monster that had a violent temper.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 7

The beautiful Boss was primarily powered by a 4.9-liter V8 engine with excellent “purging” of the cylinder heads developed for the larger Cleveland 351 engine. Channels with a diameter of a metro tunnel and hefty valves made it possible to push huge portions of the fuel-air mixture into the combustion chamber at the tops.

The motor reached its peak power, starting from 5,000 rpm. We limited the revs to 8,500, but the guys from the factory team spun it up to 10,500 rpm

says Whelan, admiring the reliability of the Boss 302. However, the racing Stang impressed not only with its wild power and flashy looks.

Ford Mustang Boss 302 Engine Ford Mustang Boss 302 Engine

Driving properties: this is one of its main trumps.

This is a completely different Mustang. It goes through the turns with unprecedented indifference. Without a doubt, this is the best creation of the Ford brand in terms of handling, which can be the standard for future cars

wrote Car and Driver in June 1969 following the results of the test. In light of these words, the results of the Boss 302 track tests based on the fifth-generation model, which were conducted in 2011 by Motor Trend, are very symbolic. The pony car managed to smash the BMW M3 E92 at the Laguna Seca circuit, despite the rear axle beam, which greatly annoys the adherents of progress.

Ford Mustang Boss 302 with shaker hood scoop option Ford Mustang Boss 302 with shaker hood scoop option

In 1970, Parnelli Jones and his fighting Mustang did what they had to: they won the championship, beat Donohue at the wheel of the AMC Javelin and… managed to fulfill their main mission before the blue oval left motorsport in November of that year. A new decade was on the threshold, forcing a change of priorities: to put speed and brute force on the altar of ecology and security. However, the Boss 302, like the Z/28, lit up the world of overseas racing, becoming one of the symbols of the golden era of the Trans-Am. In two years, it sold 1,628 and 7,013 cars, respectively.

Dodge Challenger T/A Dodge Challenger T/A

Despite the big changes that awaited the American automobile industry in the seventies and the pony car market in particular, Chrysler Corporation fielded its co-platform fighters: the Plymouth Cuda AAR, named after Dan Gurney’s racing team All American Racers Dan and the Dodge Challenger T/A, the abbreviation of which does not require additional decoding.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 8

Black hoods with air intakes, “ducktail” spoilers, distinctive racing stripes and an exhaust system brought out under the sills make them look uncompromisingly rough and charismatic to this day! But in turns, the wide and massive Cuda and Challenger, whose engine compartments could accommodate even a 7.2-liter V8 engine, were inferior to their rivals. The chassis wasn't as good as the Mustang Boss 302, although the V8 did its job. The road version was equipped with a 340-cc Six Pack unit with three two-chamber carburetors and 294 hp, while the combat versions came with 303-cc 450-hp engines.

Plymouth AAR 'Cuda Plymouth AAR 'Cuda

The Plymouth and Dodge pony cars were not to win, but this now-forgotten circumstance does not prevent them from making old and young people love the true Chrysler sinister glamour and making their hearts beat in unison with the V8 thunder. In late 1970, Chrysler cut the racing program, giving life to 2,724 special Barracudas and 2,399 Challengers. Each of them is worth its weight in gold.

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe

Now, the Camaro Z28 is not associated with the racing battles of the late sixties, as well as the related Pontiac Firebird for the Trans Am, which was top-end and adorned the line of the muscle car until its withdrawal from production in 2002. Say the iconic name in the presence of an americanophile and the answer will be a blissful smile and a poem about the magnificent design of the “bandit” of the late seventies, and at the same time a universal longing for GM’s untimely closed division. You probably won't hear a word about the eponymous competitions.

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe

The Firebird entered the racing series with engines from Z/28 in late 1968. The management agreed with the argument that Pontiac models are also equipped with a V8 Chevrolet in Canada and gave the car the green light. There were no problems with homologation, but there were difficulties with their engine. The most modest V8 had an unacceptably large volume of 326 cc, and the company was forced to prepare a new 303-cc unit under the SCCA regulations. They wanted to present the powerful unit with block heads, which worked like anabolic steroids on an athlete dreaming of winning the IFBB Arnold Sports Festival, installed on the homologation modification named after the racing championship.

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe

This was not meant to happen. The Trans Am debuted in 1969 without the coveted unit, because too much time was spent on development. The situation was paradoxical and in some ways tragic; the new model did not have homologation and could not participate in racing, although its name literally screamed about involvement. However, the modification still won the championship in 1982, when the Trans-Am was already quite different and was present at the top of the Firebird line-up for decades.

What Was Faster Than Muscle Cars In America? photo 9

The V8 303 engine was also released, but separately. One of the American specialized publications provides the following information: a total of 25 such units were built, which were sold to race participants for installation instead of the standard 350-hp 400-cc engines. Despite the strange and sad circumstance, the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am based on the first-generation model was released in a series of 697 cars and is now an object of collecting and reverence. Well, the embarrassment in racing is a matter of days gone by.

Sign up or log in to post a comment