Editor's Note: Co-creator of the Pontiac GTO and several other Pontiac specialty cars, Jim Wangers, also known as the "Godfather of the GTO," helped establish the "musclecar" of the Sixties to its rightful niche in the history of American car marketing. As Pontiac's marketing man, Wangers was there, helping to steer Pontiac down the road of success during American musclecar glory days of the '60s and '70s.
He first found work in the automotive field with Campbell Ewald, the advertising agency servicing Chevrolet. Jim's personal career theme was then as it is now: "If you want to be perceived as a winner by the public, you have to beat somebody." This concept has guided his career to this day.
With his award-winning book "Glory Days" recounting more than 40 years in the auto industry, Wangers is more excited about Pontiac than he's ever been and continues to be actively involved within the automotive industry. Jim is the former publisher of "Pontiac Enthusiast Magazine" as well as founder of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. (AMCI), an automotive testing and marketing firm. He recently wrote and published another book, "Pontiac Pizazz," which recollects his favorite Pontiacs throughout his career.
I was asked by the director of a very prestigious classic-car group, The Newport Beach Concours d'Elegance, to help select the top local musclecars for a display at their classic-car gathering at The Oaks Polo Field in San Juan Capistrano, California. Their selections included several "Goats" and Firebirds, so it became obvious that some folks really don't know exactly what a musclecar is.
"I don't know what to say about these things," the director exclaimed, "What actually makes a car a musclecar-" I quickly framed an answer, inviting him to use my explanation in any communication he needed. I would like to share my definition here. I call it "The Anatomy of the Musclecar."
Too many of us rattle off the term musclecar as if we really understand what it actually means. All musclecars are high-performance cars, but not all high-performance cars are musclecars!
Sound confusing? Actually it's really very simple. In the early 1960s, Detroit got locked into a very competitive horsepower race. Most of the manufacturers were building "really big" 4,000-pound full-size cars and putting "really big" 400 cubic-inch (6.6-liter) engines in them. At the same time, these manufacturers were looking down the road to where the future of the American car was headed.
"Make 'em smaller," said the federal government. "Make 'em cleaner," said the environmentalists. "Make 'em cheaper," said the financial guys. "Make 'em get better gas mileage," said the energy guys. So Detroit responded and built smaller, lighter, lower-priced and more-economical cars. Only problem was, nobody bought 'em!
About the only thing you could predict for this new crop of smaller American cars is that they were gonna get bigger, and they did. But while they were on the way to growing up like school kids, passing from compacts to intermediates, a strange but predictable thing happened. A couple of really sharp guys working at Pontiac got a bright idea: Why don't we take one of those "really big" 400 cubic-inch engines we're building for our "really big" full-size cars and put it into one of these new, smaller cars? This wasn't a new idea-the hot-rod community had been doing it for years. The formula was very simple: "Stuff a big engine into a small car and it's gonna really go." And it did.
Thus was born the first factory-built American musclecar, the 1964 Pontiac GTO. It didn't take very long to catch on, and soon every manufacturer had a musclecar of its own, created simply by stuffing one of their big engines from their full-size cars into one of their new intermediates. Falling in line behind the Pontiac GTO were the Chevy Chevelle Super-Sport, the Olds 442, the Buick Gran Sport, the Plymouth GTX and Road Runner, the Dodge R/T and Super-Bee, the Ford Fairlane GTA and Torino, the Mercury Comet Cyclone and the AMC Rebel Machine.
Meanwhile, another group of small but sportier looking cars were coming up on the outside, sparked by the Ford Mustang. They were called ponycars. Again, it didn't take long for most every manufacturer to follow up with its own ponycar. The Chevy Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, the Mercury Cougar, the Dodge Challenger, the Plymouth 'Cuda and the AMC Javelin all emerged. While they eventually became just as fast and just as capable, they aren't true musclecars.
My definition: "A musclecar is a smaller, lighter-weight, intermediate-sized car originally designed for economy but subsequently powered by an engine built for a heavy full-sized car." No wonder they went fast! No wonder they created a culture. No wonder they are a part of today's treasured collectibles.