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Merriam-Webster defines muscle car as:

any of a group of American-made 2-door sports coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving

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  • Why is this term restricted to American-made vehicles, like the Camaros and Mustangs? Can I term Japanese-made or Italian-made cars of similar qualities as "muscle cars"?

  • Why aren't these vehicles simply called "supercars" or "sports cars"?

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up vote 32 down vote accepted

The earliest use of the term, 'muscle-car', in print, that I could find dates back to 1964...and it refers to a Land Rover (British-made):

Stylists Ignored
No concessions are made to style in this muscle-car; frills are few. Nobody tried to prettify the Rover. For example, there's not a significant speck of chrome on or in it. Belt-line molding and bumper are heavily galvanized instead. Even the grille is heavy wire mesh--galvanized.

(From Popular Mechanics, Jan 1964.)

The Land Rover, of course, does not match what the term came to mean.

The next appearance of 'muscle car' in print, in Popular Science (Oct 1965), does refer to a small car (for the time) with a large-displacement engine--typically a V8:

DODGE CORONET becomes "muscle car" with Hemi-426 engine, but relies on drum brakes only. Rally suspension makes car remarkably well-balanced and good-handling.

As is suggested by the "scare quotes", the term 'muscle car' was recently adopted with the sense of 'small car, large displacement engine', American-made at the time, but about that more below.

The OED Online doesn't hop on for the ride until the term's meaning is established in general journalistic use, beyond specialty magazines. Then, the use is attested with a quote from the Mar. 20, 1966 Chicago Tribune Mag.:

Gran Turismo Omologato. Our muscle car with all the would-be tigers in its wake.

["muscle, n.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/124020?redirectedFrom=muscle+car (accessed January 21, 2016).]

The OED Online presents a more restrictive definition than might meet general approval now and historically:

muscle car n. chiefly N. Amer. a high-performance car; spec. one of a class of sports cars having V-8 engines, produced in the United States mainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Historically, 'muscle cars' have been made elsewhere than in the USA. Australia made some in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Holden (part of General Motors at that time), Ford Australia and Chrysler Australia all contributed models, although they were handicapped early in the game by racing rules that required 200 of the cars had to be sold to the general public, along with a government ban of 'supercars' after some high profile incidents:

The first instance was a Wheels magazine journalist driving at 150 mph (240 km/h) in a 1971 Ford XY Falcon GTHO Phase III 351 cu in (5.8 L). While the car was getting exposure in the press, the second incident occurred in George Street, Sydney, when a young male was caught driving at an estimated 150 mph (240 km/h) through the busy street in a 1971 Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III, drag racing a Holden Monaro GTS 350. This was known in Australia as "The Supercar scare".

(From "Muscle car", at Wikipedia.)

Generally speaking, 'muscle car' refers not only to a 'small car with a large-displacement engine', usually a V8. It also designates a particular appearance and characteristics in contrast to European automobiles, as described by Peter Henshaw (and paraphrased at Wikipedia):

"The Muscle Car is Charles Atlas kicking sand in the face of the 98 horsepower weakling." Henshaw further asserts that the muscle car was designed for straight-line speed, and did not have the "sophisticated chassis", "engineering integrity", or "lithe appearance" of European high-performance cars.

(Internal quotes from Muscle Cars, P. Henshaw, 2004. Paraphrase from Wikipedia article cited previously.)

However, if Italy, Germany, Japan or whatever country designs and builds a car that meets 'muscle car' enthusiasts' approval, there's no doubt that car also will be called, and billed for sale, as a 'muscle car'. Where the car is made has little to no importance to many of the people that buy and drive 'em.


Regarding why muscle cars are not called 'supercars' and 'sports cars', the reason why not, as might be expected, is going to come down to an unverifiable matter of opinion. However, my semi-educated guesses are as follows:

  • 'Sports car' is and was in general use for a broader category of cars.
  • 'Supercar' is and was, like 'sports car', a more generic term in general use, without the specificity of 'muscle car'.

'Supercar', for example, is attested as early as 1927, with reference to an ideal car (that is, not one that existed):

European manufacturers believe that the automobile of the future will readily travel 90 or 100 miles an hour, and that superhighways will be built to allow a tremendous speed. The car of the future must be a supercar.

(From Boys' Life, Jun 1927.)

The next attestation from the Google Books corpus suggests that, by the time the 'muscle cars' were a product looking for a term, 'supercar' had been pre-empted and diluted not only by earlier use, but by company branding:

Frank Hrubetz Company, ride manufacturer, announces the appointment of two agents for the distribution of Spit Fires in Europe. The Supercar Company, Belgium, will handle sales in Europe except the Scandinavian ...

(From Billboard, May 24, 1947.)

Attestations in the aforementioned corpus then proliferate through the 1940s and 1950s, which to me suggests that the American car manufacturers making muscle cars, and the enthusiasts buying them, might well have wanted to settle on any term except 'supercar'--that term had been diluted and branded with a meaning that did not respect the unique qualities of the 'muscle car'.

This comment from an EL&U contributor helps clarify and explain the distinction between the supercar and the muscle car:

"American Muscle Cars" were designed around straight line drag racing while "European Super Cars" were designed around Le Mans and FIA racing. "Drag Racing" vs "Le Mans" is what drove the division. – K. Alan Bates

'Sports car' had a similar history, without the specific branding; it was used to designate a broad range of small, sporty, but not necessarily straightforwardly 'muscular' cars. Sports cars were known for speed and tight handling on twisty roads, while 'muscle cars', when they appeared on the scene, were not as suited to fast driving on curvy roads. Note that the muscle car may be considered a subclass of sports car by some enthusiasts and observers.

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This usage appears to be from 1960: books.google.it/… – Josh61 Jan 21 at 8:05
    
@Josh61, thanks. I'm having trouble verifying the date on that, because the resource is a "continuously updated" looseleaf, and a full preview doesn't seem to be available to me. – JEL Jan 21 at 8:13
    
@Josh61, see worldcat.org/title/products-liability/oclc/1508921 I'm sure your English is much better than my Italian, since my Italian consists of "ask my wife" (and al dente, etc. restaurant Italian). – JEL Jan 21 at 8:16
    
Hard to detect! This 1961 usage is probably more reliable: books.google.it/… – Josh61 Jan 21 at 8:22
    
Impressive. Most impressive! If the rules permit, I'd give a +100 for such a detailed, well structured and wonderfully worded answer! And after seeing some of the answers you've posted, I am thinking - "How does this dude find the time and patience to write such lucid, elaborate answers?!". :) – BiscuitBoy Jan 21 at 8:59

The key feature of a muscle car is its large displacement engine (often more than 5 litres.) Hence "muscle" refers to the large engine and large amount of torque available. Muscle cars are not particularly small, nor do they have especially outstanding handling. They are suited to driving conditions in America, in particular long straight roads and cheap fuel. They also perform well in quarter-mile racing, which is similar to drag racing and very much a part of American racing culture. Hence a muscle car doesn't have to be American made, but the vast majority of muscle cars are. Countries mentioned in other sources include Australia which has similar driving conditions to America.

European and Japanese sports cars tend to be more designed for their particular home market. Therefore they tend to be smaller and focus on exceptionally good handling, in order to perform well on twisty roads. Their engines are not generally as big as muscle car engines, but they tend to be more highly tuned, in order to rev faster and get more power out of a smaller displacement.

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1  
Yes. Power, not finesse. These cars are good at accelerating in a straight line. Handling (at least for the consumer, not race car, versions) is a distant second concern. For this reason a Porsche is not a muscle car; it is a "sports" car. – Tom Hundt Jan 22 at 1:54

The concept of the expression dates back to 1949 when it was used to refer to a sport car with specific characteristics:

  • The American muscle car, introduced in 1949, is an essential component of the car industry. In response to the sudden demand for faster cars at this time, Oldsmobile débuted its Rocket 88. The Rocket 88 had a high-compression overhead valve V8 in a lightweight Oldsmobile body. The body was the same platform as the Oldsmobile 76, which was designed for a six cylinder engine. This combination created the definition of a muscle car: a car with a light body and a powerful engine. The Rocket 88 dominated the NASCAR circuit in 1950, escalating the craze for speed.

(www.gentlemansgazette.com)

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Interesting. The makers must have imagined a light body and a powerful engine akin to someone "putting on muscle"! If I refer to cars made by non-American companies as "muscle cars", would it offend American manufacturers or the American people in general? – BiscuitBoy Jan 21 at 7:08
    
I don't think anybody will feel offended. It is a kind of car, nor a brand. – Josh61 Jan 21 at 7:11
    
@BiscuitBoy, the only people who would be offended would be the muscle car owners and drivers... The rest of the population really doesn't care. FYI, the same people refer to Japanese cars as "rice burners". – Tim Ward Jan 21 at 18:52
    
Quibble: this article dates the concept of light-body-powerful-engine to 1949, not the term "muscle car". – Marthaª Jan 22 at 4:36
    
@Marthaª - that is what I say: "The concept of the expression dates back to 1949". – Josh61 Jan 22 at 7:57

Muscle car is a predominantly American concept. It applies to a type of cars that were manufactured in the US (piking in the 1960's, with a later decline and apparently a recent revival). Wikipedia appears to contest the M-W view, mentioning also Australian-made muscle cars, but there is little doubt that the term evokes American-made cars, and indeed, particular makes and models thereof. There is no strict definition; the class appears to be outlined by a few of its members.

Note that while this type of cars gained popularity since the (legendary) Rocket 88, the term itself is more recent: Etymonline attest it in 1969.

Why? Well, it sounded good, and it was pertinent. The excitement is not about the size, but all about the engine (some facial features naturally go with it). I think the term is typical of its era; both the term and the cars now constitute precious collectibles.

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Basically they are a subset of sports cars.

Functionally they are all about power. Not necessarily speed (though many do have some decent speed) but it's about a lot of torque from a big high-displacement engine. Big, heavy, solid, and powerful.

And the big one: historically they come from an era where U.S. cars were largely being made like that. It's a historical thing, like how scotch can only come from Scotland. Even if it's the same thing chemically...if it came from somewhere else then it lacks the history and isn't scotch. Muscle cars are an American category just the same. Most of the muscle cars made today are modern versions of the same models as were made back then: Camaro, Mustang, etc. And the ones that aren't are mostly from the same companies (Ford, GM, Dodge, etc.) which have history in muscle cars anyway.

It is half a matter of what it is technically, and the other half a matter of history and tradition.

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Because they all look like Sylvester Stallone: as if they could kick anybody's ass.

They're guzzlers, very uncomfortable, the suspension sucks, and the cops love to pull them over (rightly so).

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5  
Just a heads-up, Ricky. Your answer was automatically flagged as low-quality. Can you try to elaborate a little more? – Rathony Jan 21 at 7:05
    
@Rathony Are you serious? Is there such thing as automatic flags? – sharptooth Jan 21 at 13:13
    
@sharptooth The answer is in the link, Is the “low quality” system unfair to concise programming languages?. – Rathony Jan 21 at 13:24
    
@Rathony WOW! There IS automatic flagging... – sharptooth Jan 21 at 13:25
    
@sharptooth Please make sure you write a long answer. :-) – Rathony Jan 21 at 13:26

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