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Dodge SRT: Why Muscle Cars Matter

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author photo by Jason Fogelson May 2016

The Dodge SRT brand occupies a unique space within the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles family. Short for Street and Racing Technology, the SRT moniker is applied to a select group of Dodge and Jeep vehicles that are tied together by a focus on performance and designed to keep the Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth legacy of muscle cars alive.

The current crop of SRT cars includes all variants of the Viper, the Challenger SRT 392, the Challenger SRT Hellcat, the Charger SRT 392 and the Charger SRT Hellcat. There's also a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, but as an SUV, it doesn't exactly fit the formula.

To better put these vehicles in context, let's take a look at the origins of the segment and review the muscle-car legacy.

The First Muscle Car

The muscle-car movement began in the 1960s when a young General Motors engineer named John DeLorean -- yes, that DeLorean -- put a big, powerful engine into the placid Pontiac Tempest and created the 1964 Pontiac GTO, an abbreviation for Gran Turismo Omologato. Thus was born what many consider the first muscle car.

Sure, there had been fast American cars before, but they were mostly roadsters like the Corvette, and ambitious hot rodders had been fitting big engines into suburban sedans and coupes for decades. Probably the most popular hot rods were the Deuce Coupes, radically modified 1932 Ford 2-doors that were chopped, channeled and souped up in garages across the country.

But the GTO was different. It was a turnkey, factory hot rod that could be purchased new at a dealership by anyone with the means, giving drivers access to wild, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive performance without the need to ever turn a wrench.

The GTO spawned a new market for horsepower and a race to produce muscle cars at each of the major American automakers -- General Motors (GM), Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth and American Motors Corporation (AMC).

GM applied the muscle-car formula to a wide range of vehicles, including the Pontiac GTO and Grand Prix, the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, the Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 and the Buick Skylark GS. The Camaro and Firebird pony cars also got big, high-performance engines. Meanwhile, Ford pumped hp into the Thunderbird and upped the output of the Mustang and Mercury Cougar. AMC responded with the AMX and the Javelin.

Chrysler Flexes Its Muscles

But Chrysler was not to be outdone. The brand dove headfirst into muscle cars, releasing a spate of vehicles in the segment. According to the Muscle Car Club, the list of Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars of the 1960s and '70s includes:

  • Chrysler 300.
  • Dodge Challenger.
  • Dodge Charger.
  • Dodge Coronet.
  • Dodge Dart.
  • Dodge Super Bee.
  • Plymouth Barracuda.
  • Plymouth Duster.
  • Plymouth GTX.
  • Plymouth Road Runner.
  • Plymouth Superbird.

Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday

Manufacturers competed for owner loyalty with racing programs and hp claims. These were the days of "race on Sunday, sell on Monday," and weekend track results threw a reflected glow on showroom floors.

Muscle cars were not race cars. They were high-performance street cars, often much better in a straight line than when faced with curves. Buyers, mostly young males, didn't care about that. They wanted the biggest engines with the most hp for bragging rights in the parking lot, and manufacturers fed the beast.

The Trend Wanes

Three big factors brought the muscle-car wars to a skidding halt. The first was safety. Muscle cars were capable of impressive performance, which could lead to disastrous consequences when the powerful vehicles were placed under the control of impulsive young drivers.

The second and more major roadblock was the 1973 oil crisis. An embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries caused gasoline prices in the United States to skyrocket, and the gas-guzzling muscle cars found themselves waiting in line for expensive fuel.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency implemented the Clean Air Act of 1974. Emissions-control equipment such as smog pumps and catalytic converters became mandatory on new cars, decreasing power and making big engines less desirable. Almost overnight, the race for hp was over, and the muscle-car wars had ended.

Modern Muscle

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Advanced engine technologies -- turbocharging, supercharging, electronic fuel injection, variable valve timing, direct injection -- have made it possible to extract more power from gasoline with reduced emissions. Meanwhile, a new generation of drivers has discovered the joy of big horsepower.

Nostalgia for the muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s pushed the prices of these classic cars into the stratosphere, and a new school of automobile design called retrofuturism led to a reawakening of muscle-car design.

Retrofuturism is just what it sounds like: taking classic designs and creating new concepts that echo the details of those designs in modern interpretations. Designer J Mays spearheaded this movement with the New Beetle, and in 2005, he brought retrofuturism to the muscle car with the new Ford Mustang. The success of the Mustang led to the reintroduction of the Dodge Challengers in 2008 and the Chevrolet Camaro in 2010.

With muscle-car designs back in vogue and ample power once again available through advanced engine technologies, the horsepower wars have begun anew, and Dodge SRT cars are at the leading edge of the battle.

The 2016 Challenger SRT Hellcat produces 707 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque, dwarfing the output of the 1971 Challenger R/T -- and it does so while getting 22 miles per gallon on the highway with an 8-speed automatic transmission.

There's no telling where the new muscle car wars will lead. Will we get still more horsepower and more retrofuturist designs? Or as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards tighten, will more emphasis be placed on efficiency and alternate-fuel vehicles, compromising power just as the Clean Air Act did?

Whatever the answer, one takeaway is clear: Never underestimate the American need for speed.

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Dodge SRT: Why Muscle Cars Matter - Autotrader