7 muscle cars before the GTO


Don’t forget the 49-53 Olds Rocket powered 88. My granddad had a 1950 and it was fast and cool for it’s day. Even though HP was 135 it was the same theory of placing a bigger engine in a smaller than full size car. The 3 on the tree was cool too.


My dad bought a brand new Buick Invicta coupe in '62 with the 401 c.i. 325hp 425 lb. ft. nail head V8. What a real thrilling ride that car was for it’s day, even with the “Dynaflush” tranny. I was a junior in high school and I drove it like I stole it. Unfortunately my dad caught me smoking the tires one day and my stoplight drag racing career was postponed until I could buy a car of my own.


My definition of a muscle car is a small, light car with with a powerful engine and, preferably, the mechanical improvements to handle it. Most of these cars do not meet my standards but some are certainly more fun than the cars they are based on.


One can point to almost any car from any era of automobile history and say it’s a muscle car. However the term didn’t come to be until the advent of the GTO. Like it or not folks that is the car that set the standard for muscle car. And it remains thus to this day. The definition of muscle car has become blurred with time and has included various Corvettes ( sports car), Mustangs and Camaros, etc (pony cars), and any car that performed “in its era”. But the muscle cars are the GTO’s, SS396’s, Gran Sports, Torinos of the day. I am hesitant to include any Chrysler products from the day because the 'Cuda’s began as pony cars and the Darts were considered compacts. I know the Chrysler faithful will argue but while fast and powerful a full sized Dodge 440 sedan with a hemi was getting bested in A/Stock at the time by a lowly COMPACT Chevy ll with a small block. See what I mean about the muscle car definition becoming blurred?


In the late '60s through the early '70s, I was fortunate enough to help build and pit for a USAC Grand National stock car out of Berwyn Illinois.During those fun years I got the opportunity to buy a 1961 Ford Startliner, that was a factory 390/401 car, directly from Fred Lorenzen of NASCAR/USAC fame from Elmhurst Illinois.He had already up graded the car with an early 427 and a top loader 4 speed with a 3:89 open rear.Of coarse, being already a die hard Ford guy but helping build a Chevellel for USAC,I tore right into that car before hitting any of the hot spots in the area to take on a few might MOPARS and big block Chevys.I found the engine had one hole sleeved so that just wouldn’t do for me but luckily, right across the street from where we were building the USCA car was a huge Ford dealer who had connections for the Holman Moody factory.They got me a Holman Moody 427 side oiler block and from there the other pieces went to American Engine builders for blue printing.I put it together, dumping the cast iron headers for a set of custom made steel headers with 4" dumps connecting to a 2 1/2" exhaust system with connections that allowed me to run open headers in minutes.I left the car down on the ground and only added in AirLift coil/bags in the rear because Traction Masters did control the rear as well as I wanted.I changed out the stock Ford linkage with a Hurst Completion 4 speed shifter and went
out hunting the streets for action.The very best run I had was an off duty Chicago cop in his brand new '68-'69 Ford Fairlane fastback with a 428 CJ motor at 2 am in the morning.He would pull me out of the hole every time but I’d walk away from him at the high end.Those side oilers were made to run flat out all day long and stayed cool and the Ford Starliner chassis was a 4100 pound natural born car with a chassis ready made for a stock car track.How I miss those good ole days! Thanks for the memories.Grumpy


Thanks for your reply, Joe!

But I thought the context of your previous message was 1960-61, and that’s what I was responding to. I have Darrell Davis’ books on these cars and am pretty sure Dodge and Plymouth rated them the same, which was 330 horse. I’m away from home so I can’t verify.


You, Darrell Davis, and I are in complete agreement that the '60-‘61 ram 383s were “rated” at 330 horsepower. However, both Darrell and I tend to believe that particular rating is somewhat suspect, primarily because of differing performance philosophies between the divisions of the corporation. The most obvious proof of this difference lies in the 310 HP rating of the ‘60 361 SonoRamic Commando and the 320 listed for the Dart ram-inducted 361 D-500. There was also an interesting ad in those days (that gives you an idea of just how old a fudd I am) proclaiming that the ram-induction on the 383 gives it the same performance of an engine of 421 cubic-inch displacement (I wonder where that “421” number came from?). In this vein, Al Eckstrand’s “330” horse 383 beat Jim Wangers’ 368(better put quotes around that number, too) HP Super Hydra-Matic “Poncho” to win S/SA and barely lost to Wangers’ T-10 4-speed S/S car in the the Stock Eliminator shoot-out. From my own experience back then, I can personally attest that the 330(again in quotes)/383 would absolutely walk away from a simple 305 horse “Golden Commando” in a fashion indicating more than a 25 horsepower difference.

Thus, I am totally with you that those 383 engines were rated as putting out 330 ponies. I just contend that in reality they developed much more (as did the Pontiac Super-Duty engines). Incidently, you just might find my name in Mr. Davis’ 1960 SonoRamic Commando book.



How can 56 Golden Hawk not be a muscle car? They took a Studebaker Commander sport coupe and replaced the 259 cu in Studebaker V8 with a Packard V8 almost 100 cubes larger.
The first US made v8 engine to achieve more than 1 HP per cubic inch was the 56 Chrysler 300 with the optional 355 HP 354 Cubic inch engine. The 1957 DeSoto Advebturer had a 345 HP, 345 Cu In engine as the only engine that car came with and there was a Dodge D591 that came with the 354 Chrysler Hemi in 57 or 56 but I can’t remember which and I don’t know what they reted the HP for that one.
As far as the 49-50 Olds, The 41 Buick Century with the the compound carbs (two 2 barrel) was actually quicker O to 60 and top speed. The Century was created by dropping the engine from their largest car into their smallest , the Special.


Yes he did create the GTO over the objections of the straight-laced “suits” at GM. DeLorean was a sharp dressing wearer of custom made suits, hair a bit longer than the standard GM buzz cut, womanizer and known to indulge in drink. And was a visionary at GM. He raised eyebrows with the old white guys at GM but he was one hell of an engineer and marketing person.
“Ronnie and the Daytona’s” was a group that DeLorean put together solely to sing an advertising song “Little GTO”. Brilliant marketing move.I was 15 when that song hit the radio and I still remember the lyrics.
Unfortunately John Z. DeLorean was a victim of his own ego. He thought he was greater than the team he had at GM. He forgot that the suits at GM allowed him some latitude because the “wide track” concept and the GTO made GM money and to some degree gave him a star. Once his ego took over his business accumen, GM and John DeLorean parted company.


Everyone thinks GM, Ford, and Chrysler when talking about cars, forgetting there were others. I agree that the Golden Hawk should qualify, but the 57 Rambler Rebel is probably the “first” if you assume it must be a compact with a big motor. The only car that would outrun the 57 Rebel at the Daytona new model introduction in late 56 was the 57 fuel injected Corvette. Of course that particular Rebel had electronic fuel injection… IIRC 388 hp compared to 355 for the 4V carb version. The Electrojector never made it to production, only three are rumored to have existed, only two known to exist (the two that were at Daytona together). AMC didn’t like the narrow temp range the Electrojector worked in, making it a bit unreliable. Chrysler used it a bit later and had issues with all, only a few Chrysler had it and 99% of those were dealer converted to 4V.


What is interesting was that in 1957, Oldsmobile offered a 2 barrel “economy” option (a 4 bbl was standard on all '57 Oldsmobiles) If you selected the 2 barrel carb, you got the J-2 tri-power intake manifold with the two end carburetors blocked off.


That’s almost the definition of Hudson’s Terraplane from the '30s…


That sounds like a hot rodder’s dream. Already having the tri-power manifold is pretty awesome when the car becomes “just a used car.”


Thanks for mentioning the Century and Terraplane. Suspect manufacturers recognized the need to build fast cars long before the ‘Muscle Car’ era. They accomplished it by installing bigger engines in their smaller, lighter cars. For my money, the first was Ford’s 32 V8. Dodge also put their 8 in their smaller chassis in 31 and later offered the ‘Red Head’ which added to the compression ratio and horsepower.Auburn offered a big V12 in 32 and Pontiac offered a V8 the same year. Studebaker placed a 122 HP eight in their shorter Dictator in 31.

Things got more lively in 36 when Buick stuffed the 324 ci Roadmaster engine in its Special and called it the Century. Both Cord and LaSalle supplied fast V8 cars in the latter 30s. I think of the post-war muscle car era beginning when in 49 Olds placed its new OHV V8 in what had been the 76 body and called it the 88. The next year, Chrysler installed it’s new HEMI in the Windsor-size Saratoga coupe which most dealers had as demonstrators. They didn’t receive the same level of fanfare as the 88, but on the highway they were faster. And the horsepower race was on!

Can’t leave this discussion without mentioning 50 and 51 Cadillac 61 Coupes. They were the first post war cars to reach 60 in under 12 seconds - in the days when Mercury was struggling to do it in under 20.


@sonoramic60 - -

  1. You mentioned the 383/330 long ram that beat out the 389/363 in S/SA 1960 Detroit Nationals – I have down that the 383 ran 14.51 at 97.82 for the win, but don’t have the et/mph for the runner up 389/363 Pontiac – do you happen to know that?

  2. I also gather that prior to 1961, NHRA actually required MUFFLERS during racing (yuck), since you raced in that era can you confirm that??? It makes some sense because the trap MPH seems to jump up 4-5 mph from 1960 to 1961 which would be about right. The first time I hit the dragstrip in the 1970s, I uncorked the headers on the road outside the track – I figured they wouldn’t ALLOW a car with mufflers!!!

  3. You mentioned there were almost 1600 361 and 383 ram Plymouths (about half or 800 383 ram Plymouths) for 1960. I’m trying to find the total 383 ram production for 1960-61, Plymouth and Dodge. I could guess – if 1600 of each make were made each year with 1960 as a half-year, that would be 800p+800d+1600p+1600d = 4800 total 383 rams? I try to keep production on all these old engines, I don’t nit pick things but just trying to get a handle on the number.

  4. On ratings – I’ve “Gonkulated” every old road test, NHRA run, and dyno test I can find, and although the Gonkulator is “just a computer”, I can then mix parts with a little more confidence for unknown combos. What I find is, the long ram engines didn’t make that much TOP horsepower, but the mid range was like Mt Everest – the long ram 383 in NHRA trim was well over 500 ftlb, which is clearly 421 Super Duty territory.

  5. I find that as you go from Long Ram / Long Partition (LL), to Long Ram / Short Partition (LS), to Tandem (TN) (or In-Line dual quads), horsepower goes up but peak torque goes down. I also gather that Mopar offered these with a mild hydraulic cam and also a healthier solid cam which was about 30 hp better on top.

  6. You mentioned a book on the Sonoramic – can you give author & title? I searched but cant find it. I have Davis’ “Super Stock Family Sedan” and also Weertman “Chrysler Engines” but not the one you mentioned?

  7. Would welcome your comments on any of this, it is great to hear comments from somebody who raced back then. I was still racing my little red pedal car on the sidewalk in 1960!

  1. My info is that Jim Wangers’ winning e.t. for Stock Eliminator was 14.14 and his speed was 102.04, in a 1960 Pontiac Super Duty Catalina provided by Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, MI. That was a red car with the 389 and 4-speed. The car Wangers ran in S/SA was another '60 Royal “Bobcat” Catalina, but white and with the Hydramatic; supposedly this car still exists. In his autobiography, Glory Days, Wangers says the cars were virtually identical in performance.

  2. In the summer of 1960, I got into drag racing only by chance. A friend said I should drag my dad’s '60 SonoRamic Commando-equipped Fury. I didn’t know much about it and when I showed up, the car didn’t pass the tech inspection – I didn’t even have seat belts much less a driveshaft loop. So, the next week saw me drilling holes in the floorboards to install the seat belts and the 1/8" thick piece of 1" strap steel as a driveshaft loop that was adequate for the next inspection (honest!). Stock drags at that strip were mostly young guys (kids) like me who had cars we drove everyday, so competition wasn’t that developed, though it was fierce. I can’t really remember my first opponents (I think perhaps a Letter Car and a “Poncho” or two) I don’t recall having much problems with any (even with my 2.93 rear end) but I got my comeuppance on my first run at stock eliminator: a red '60 Impala, 335/348 and 4-speed. I easily jumped him off the line, but that Chevy absolutely blew me away as he out-wound me going through the gears; it wasn’t pretty. I don’t recall the on other cars, but mine still had the stock exhaust. During the off season, I did some research and found I could get Hedman Hedders for the car, so in next year I showed up with headers and lakes plugs as well as 4.10 gears.

  3. Darrell Davis, a former Chrysler exec and member of the Chrysler Historical Society, went through the company’s IBM cards and listed every ram-inducted car by VIN in his books in the '60-'61 DeSotos, Dodges, Dodge Darts, and Plymouths. I have only one, The 1960 Plymouth SonoRamic Commando Guide, and that gives 692 383 cars. Of course, every ram '61 was a 383, but it is interesting that production of 361 SonoRamic Commandos continued through the entire '60 run.

  4. I base my horsepower ratings on my own experiences as well as my contention that since the internal components of all ram-inducted engines, 361, 383, and 413 CIDs, were virtually identical (albeit the 361 heads had smaller valves) their power outputs should be proportionate to their displacement. I think this is demonstrated in the 2X4V 325 horsepower 361 of the '58 Adventurer and the 2X4V 345 HP '59-D500 as well as the 350 horse Adventurer (all of which were produced in one plant). In fact, my discussions with the “old guys” of the corporation they concur that ratings of the cheaper Darts and Plymouths were listed at 3600 RPM while the larger and more prestigious Chryslers had theirs at 4400 or even 4800 levels. You might also find it interesting that Dodge listed their ram 361 at 320 horses while the same engine in Plymouth was 310. Those road tests back in 1959-1960 inevitably had cars with PS and even AC – my '60 then had only power brakes

  5. As far as I know, only the 300F “Specials” (the 400HP “short” long ram cars) had solid lifters. There was some publication of a 340 horse Plymouth 383, but this never came to fruition. Before the beginning of the 1960 drag season, word got around how to internally modify the tube walls of the long rams to get peak high-rpm performance as well as how to modify the old TorqueFlites for longer second-gear runs. I have also heard that some RB 383s (3.75" stroke) found themselves in Darts and Plymouths giving even more torque – perhaps for the shorter NASCAR tracks as well as the AHRA and NHRA strips.

  6. I thought you were a decent guy until I saw the nasty “red pedal car” crack. FYI, I was only 17 until the fall of 1960.

Seriously, I am very happy to give you my thoughts on the above as well as any other info you may want. The trouble about being one of the few that dragged Plymouths back in the old days is that we’re becoming fewer. I hope I gave you at least a feel for what were my salad days.



@sonoramic (Joe)
Wow thanks for that response. I do like that Hagerty has a forum like this because it makes sense – these cars are all about the history that goes with them. So those who remember “back in the day” first hand, writing like yours really adds to that theme of capturing history.

I do suspect it’s the “solid cam” option that made the 383 “ram” cars competitive in NHRA. Weertman notes the solid cam 383/330 option in his book “Chrysler Engines”, but more importantly, they are listed in the NHRA blueprint sheets which means they ARE legal, whether any cars left the factory that way or not (in theory it means they were factory built, but……). Below is part of the 1960 NHRA blueprint file – “Note 4” says you can run either hydraulic or solid cam in the 383/330 ram engines. Did they leave the FACTORY that way? No idea.

For 1962, NHRA allows a nice 383/343hp engine in stock class, in-line dual quads, solid cam, 413 “J” heads. Nobody can find evidence that any cars left the factory this way, but the option is still legal. Allegedly it was a “parts in the trunk” option. So, I realize, just because it’s in the NHRA file, it doesn’t really mean any cars were built this way. This 383/343hp combo gets so much attention in NHRA history (along with the max wedge and the hemi) that the old sonoramic 383 is often forgotten. So your writing will help future folks to NOT forget!

HP Disp Mfg C.R. Ind. Make Model/Transmission Manifold Lifter Head cc Notes

330 383 CDP 10.0 2-4 Cart AFB-2903S (2)/ALL Ram Manifold 1.50 H 74.5 2,4
330 383 CDP 10.0 2-4 Cart AFB-2903S (2)/ALL Ram Manifold 1.50 M 74.5 2,4

	Deck	Piston

HP Disp Mfg Cl. Type Height Vol Valves Cam Lift Gasket Springs Notes
305 361 P .023 Flat 1950/1600 446/458 020 Outer w Damp 5
305 383 C .051 Flat 1950/1600 390/390 020 Outer Only 2
310 361 DP .023 Flat 1950/1600 430/430 020 Outer Only 3
310 361 DP .023 Flat 1950/1600 430/430 020 Outer w Damp 5
325 383 C .051 Flat 1950/1600 430/430 020 Outer Only 2
325 383 DP .023 Flat 2080/1600 430/430 020 Outer w Damp 3,5
325 383 C .051 Flat 1950/1600 390/390 020 Outer Only 1
330 383 C .051 Flat 1950/1600 430/430 020 Outer w Damp 2
330 383 DP .023 Flat 2080/1600 430/430 020 Outer w Damp 3,5
330 383 DP .023 Flat 2080/1600 449/454 020 Outer w Damp 3,4,5
350 413 C .051 Flat 2080/1600 390/390 020 Outer Only 2
380 413 C .051 Flat 2080/1740 449/454 020 Outer w Damp 2

Notes: 1 - DeSoto engine 2 - Chrysler engine 3 - Dodge engine
4 - Cam specs for solid lifters 5 - Plymouth engine


I believe it’s nothing more than urban myth that Delorean and/or Wangers had anything at all to do with “Ronny and the Daytonas” Little GTO. The writer of the song was John Wilkin. “Ronny and the Daytonas” didn’t actually exist at the time of recording and release. Simply John Wilkin writing a song about a car he was lusting over after reading Car and Driver (the ringer 421 car I suppose) and later having a get together with some Tennessee studio musicians to record the song. His mother was already connected to the music business so this wasn’t hard to pull off. From a 1997 web page John Wilkin is quoted as saying-

“We never got together with Pontiac. They sort of gave us the cold shoulder. It was like they had the hit car and we had the hit song. They tried puttin’ out their own song. It was just miserable.”


While all the cars you mentioned are performance cars to be sure, only the Dart could by definition, a mid size car with a full size car’s engine, be considered a muscle car. I would agree that the first muscle car by definition would have be the Buick Specials of the 30’s with the I8 from the full size Buick.


I had a good friend that we would have his dads red/white 1957 Dodge D500 on weekends and we used to race a lot in Harrisburg Pa up 2nd street to the Barbecue Cottage and down on front street and several times we would race a guy that had a silver/white 1957 327 Rambler Rebel , the first time we raced we said to each other Hah Rambler it got nuthing ,well when the light turned green well he sure made us eat our words in fact he did it to many of our pals , he also raced it at York US 30 Drags did very well as I recall .ah those were the Good old days .