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Muscle Cars Make the 2015 Motor Muster

June 24, 2015 Think THF

The Plymouth Barracuda, seen here in its 1964 form, could be made into a muscle car by 1967, when Chrysler’s big 383-cubic inch V-8 became an engine option.

If it’s summer, it’s car show season. And if it’s Father’s Day weekend, then it’s time for Motor Muster at The Henry Ford. Some 850 cars, bikes, commercial and military vehicles gathered in Greenfield Village for our annual celebration of automobiles built from 1933 to 1977. This year, we paid special attention to muscle cars, those massive-engine, intermediate and full-sized cars that reined for about ten years before rising insurance premiums and gas prices – to say nothing of tighter emissions regulations – put them out to pasture. Formally, the muscle car’s beginning is traced to Pontiac’s GTO performance package, first offered for the 1964 model year. But 2014 was the year of the Mustang at Motor Muster (and besides, our own GTO is a 1965 model) so 2015 seemed like a perfect opportunity to salute Detroit’s horsepower heavies.

Our 1965 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO. The GTO was an option package for Pontiac’s mid-sized car until 1966, when it became a model in its own right.

We brought our 1965 Goat (as the gearheads called it -- perhaps for want of another animal with the letters G, T and O in its name) out to the Village Green for a special display devoted to the original muscle car. As Ronny and the Daytonas so memorably sang, our car is fitted with a “Tri-Power” 389-cubic inch motor with three two-barrel carburetors, as well as a four-speed transmission. (Sing it with me, “Three deuces and a four-speed, and a 389…”)

Participant Gerald Szostak, of Plymouth, Michigan, was good enough to park his 1964 Tempest LeMans GTO on one side of our car, while Chris Higgins, of Flat Rock, Michigan, kindly displayed his 1969 GTO on our other side. Between the three cars, visitors could get a quick look at the GTO’s evolution from an option package on the 1964 Tempest LeMans (General Motors policy forbid the big 389 engine from mid-sized cars -- making the GTO an option was a clever workaround by Pontiac executives) to its own unique model line.

Pontiac may have been first, but the GTO’s stellar annual sales (almost 97,000 by 1966) ensured that other manufacturers would offer their own muscle cars. Oldsmobile had its 4-4-2, Dodge had its Charger, and Plymouth had its Road Runner (with a horn that sounds just like you’d expect), among many others. Smaller rides, like Ford’s Mustang or Chevrolet’s Camaro, could be made into muscle cars if properly optioned. No one would use the word “muscle” to describe a 120-horsepower, 6-cylinder Mustang, but it seems fitting for a 306-horsepower, V-8 equipped Shelby GT350. It’s the same story with a base 140-horsepower Camaro versus a 290-horsepower Z/28.

This 1950 Cadillac looks appropriately regal in front of the Robert Frost Home.

As always, participant vehicles were spread through nearly every corner of the village, grouped by decade. The 1930s and 1940s cars sat in the suitably serene environs of Suwanee Lagoon and Maple Lane, while the World War II-era military vehicles looked right at home alongside the English Cotswold Cottage. Our 1950s and 1960s participants stretched from the Ackley Covered Bridge past Menlo Park and onto the Village Green, while the 1970s cars assembled on the other side of Main Street, arcing from the DT&M Roundhouse to the Armington & Sims Machine Shop.

The Jeep, that quintessential military vehicle, takes its turn at Pass-in-Review.

Over each of the two days, we presented our popular Pass-in-Review programs. Owners were invited to parade their cars, grouped by model year, past our Main Street grandstand where automotive historians provided commentary on each vehicle. Even the bicycles and military vehicles had their own presentations. Saturday night was capped with literal dancing in the streets at our big Record Hop USA, while Sunday concluded with our awards presentation. Motor Muster awards are based on votes from our visitors, so it’s especially exciting to see which cars nab the prizes. I think most would agree, though, that the best reward was the weekend of fun and fellowship with fellow motorheads. It’s a highlight of any summer.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Motor Muster

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