People have different opinions about which car was the very first muscle car. Some would say it was the very early 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, while others argue that it was actually the 1964 Pontiac GTO. Still others point to the 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang, which was definitely the first Pony car, but could it be called the first muscle car?
Each of these cars were trail blazers in their own way, so we thought we’d take a look at each of the 3 vehicles and give them the respect they deserve for their roles in influencing the American muscle car trend.
#1 – The Pioneer: 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
Does 1949 seem early to pin the term “muscle car” onto? Experts do point to the end of the 1940s as the first spark in the muscle car trend when they look at the Rocket 88. Oldsmobile was the first American automaker in the mainstream to put a high compression, dual overhead cam equipped engine into one of their cars. The engine was really considered to be too large for the size of the car, but isn’t that one of the characteristics that we love about muscle cars? By later standards it was hardly “muscular” with only 135 horsepower, but in 1949 that was certainly something! The car was very successful and acted as a catalyst for more engine power in future car trends.
#2 – The True Muscle: 1964 Pontiac GTO
There’s a long gap between 1949 and 1964. Did it really take 15 years for the next muscle car to take shape? The Pontiac GTO came to life when they took the 389 cubic-inch engine out of the full-sized Pontiac Bonneville and put it into a mid-sized Tempest LeMans body. That’s right, the "GTO" was actually a Tempest LeMans, but later it earned its own dedicated name. Think 325 horsepower, or you could even upgrade to up to almost 350 if you added 3 two-barrel carburetors. That’s a far cry from the 135 horsepower of the Rocket 88.
#3 - The 1st Pony: 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang
Same year, different car. There’s no doubt about it; 1964 was an important year in the trail blazing for future muscle cars. The Mustang did come out after the GTO, and it was the first pony car. It was a short, sporty, lightweight four-seater vehicle and the price was right—it sold for less than $2,500. As a buyer, you could choose from four engine options. If you were a true speedster, you would choose one of the two 289 cubic inch V-8's with a four-barrel carburetor, delivering between 210 and 271 horsepower. That places the Ford Mustang well below the 325-350 horsepower of the GTO, but certainly more powerful than the Rocket 88. It was the perfect (and first) pony.
These three trailblazing cars make most people’s lists of the early muscle cars. In our opinion, we’d call the Rocket 88 a definite pioneer, and the GTO a true muscle car. We love all of these vehicles. If you ever have the chance to ride in any of these cars, don’t hesitate to jump at the chance!