The Definition of American Performance
Since it first rolled off of assembly lines in the mid-1960s, the Mustang has been an icon.
I would go so far as to say it embodied — and continues to this day — the quintessential formula for the American performance car.
Sure, there have been imitators and the term Muscle Car — which the Mustang has come to carry as a title — didn't initially belong to it. That was a title bestowed upon a mid-sized car. And it was given to a car that beat the Mustang to market by a few months, the Pontiac GTO.
While the term Muscle Car has grown to be synonymous with American performance, the Mustang is the car that truly revolutionized American performance by making it accessible to millions, by providing a sports car-like experience, but with the utility of a mid-sized car.
The original definition of Muscle Car — from my many years of both casual and intensive research — is a mid-size car, with two doors, a V8, rear-wheel drive, and a 10:1 power-to-weight ratio. That means that a full-sized car, a Pony Car, a sports car, a truck of any ilk, anything built with anything other than a V8 or rear-wheel drive, or anything with more than two-doors doesn't actually qualify for the moniker as it was originally intended. Regardless, today, a Muscle Car is what an American performance car is.
The formula for a Muscle Car as it has evolved, is different in a number of key ways, but, in my opinion, all for the better.
It now embodies any American car, regardless of size, from sports car on up to family hauler. It can have any number of doors or hatches, it can have any form of drivetrain configuration, and the V8 requirement is now more of a guideline. Power-to-weight ratio has been thrown out the window as well. Instead of these criteria, the car must simply be American and it must perform in a specific manner.
That manner includes two things. One of which has always been a Muscle Car staple, the other, you can honestly thank the Mustang and its kissing cousins the Cougar, Camaro, Firebird, Barracuda, Challenger, and Javelin for. That first performance qualification is that the car must — must — be overpowered.
Too much engine is the only acceptable amount for an American performance car. It is the one, single, defining characteristic that separates it from the antiseptic European and Asian performance cars. It is that overpowering experience that adds the excitement to driving American Muscle. It places the onus of driving the vehicle directly on the driver's skill and makes it feel not quite safe — just a bit unnerving — to get behind the wheel of one, and that is the way it should be. Whether that car be a sport-compact, a sports car, or a sport truck, in order to qualify for the moniker of Muscle Car, it better have too much engine. The second characteristic is a modern one — and an excellent one — the car had better be able to handle. That simply wasn't something those old Chevelle's, Fairlanes, GTOs, 442s, and Skylarks could do. Today, thanks to the SCCA sports car and Trans-Am Pony Car wars of the mid-to-late '60s, it's expected. American Muscle Cars may or may not be as refined and easy to drive fast as the gentler EuroAsian fare, but they prove time and again that they are capable of running times on the track near too, as good, or better, model after model after model than the best the world has to offer.
And, yes, whether you are a died-in-the-wool Ford, GM, or Chrysler fan, you can thank the Mustang for that. It started with the GT, and the unequivocal dominance of the GT-350, and was then thoroughly cemented in the battle between the Boss 302, Cougar Eliminator, Z28, Trans Am, AAR 'Cuda, Challenger T/A, and Javelin AMX.
It's that feeling that you might shit yourself behind the wheel of an American performance car that makes it distinctly American. It's why a car like a base-model Mustang, Chevelle, or Corvette fits the mold even without enough power to fall within the old definition. It's what makes a car like a Buick Grand National, GMC Syclone, or even the Chevrolet Cobalt SS feel like one too. Regardless of the engine's size, or its ultimate power, it has the ability to go beyond the capability of the chassis to keep it under control, and it places the responsibility of managing it on the driver, and in that way, it is always engaging, always a little awe-inspiring, always a bit dangerous in a very rewarding way.
I mean, unless you fail to keep it under control — but that's the whole point.