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Opinions on the origin of the muscle car vary, but the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, created in response to public interest in speed and power, is often cited as the first muscle car. It featured America's first high-compression overhead valve V8 in the smaller, lighter Oldsmobile 76/Chevy body for six-cylinder engines (as opposed to bigger Olds 98 luxury body).
Musclecars magazine wrote: "[t]he idea of putting a full-size V8 under the hood of an intermediate body and making it run like Jesse Owens in Berlin belongs to none other than Oldsmobile... [The] all-new ohv V8...Rocket engine quickly found its way into the lighter 76 series body, and in February 1949, the new 88 series was born.
The article continued: "Walt Woron of Motor Trend enjoyed the 'quick-flowing power...that pins you to your seat and keeps you there until you release your foot from the throttle [...] Olds dominated the performance landscape in 1950, including wins in the NASCAR Grand National division, Daytona Speed Weeks, and the 2100-plus-mile Carrera Panamericana. In (Belgium), an 88 won a production car race at Spa-Francorchamps A husky V8 in a cleanly styled, lightweight coupe body, the original musclecar truly was the '49 Olds 88."
Jack Nerrad wrote in Driving Today, "the Rocket V-8 set the standard for every American V-8 engine that would follow it for at least three decades[...] With a displacement of 303 cubic inches and topped by a two-barrel carburetor, the first Rocket V-8 churned out 135 hp (101 kW; 137 PS) at 3,600 rpm and 263 pound-feet (357 N·m) of torque at a lazy 1800 rpm [and] no mid-range car in the world, save the Hudson Hornet, came close to the Rocket Olds performance potential..."
Nerad added that the Rocket 88 was "the hit of NASCAR’s 1950 season, winning eight of the 10 races. Given its lightning-like success, one could clearly make the case that the Olds 88 with its 135 horsepower (101 kW) V-8 was the first 'musclecar'..
Steve Dulcich, writing in Popular Hot Rodding, also cites Oldsmobile, concurrently with Cadillac, as having "launched the modern era of the high-performance V-8 with the introduction of the 'Rocket 88' overhead-valve V8 in 1949."
1955 Chrysler C-300, "America's most powerful car", had 300 horsepower (220 kW)
America's fastest 1957 sedan: Rambler Rebel had lightweight unibody construction and V8 engine
Other manufacturers showcased performance hardware in flashy limited-edition models. Chrysler led the way with its 1955 C-300, an inspired blend of Hemi power and luxury-car trappings that became the new star of NASCAR. With 300 horsepower (224 kW), it was advertised as "America's Most Powerful Car".
Capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 9.8 seconds and reaching 130 miles per hour (209 km/h), the 1955 Chrysler 300 is also recognized as one of the best-handling cars of its era. Two years later, the Rambler Rebel was the fastest stock American sedan, according to Motor Trend.
The popularity and performance of muscle cars grew in the early 1960s, as Mopar (Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler) and Ford battled for supremacy in drag racing. The 1962 Dodge Dart 413 cu in (6.8 L) Max Wedge, for example, could run a 13-second 1/4-mile dragstrip at over 100 miles per hour (161 km/h). By 1964, General Motors' lineup boasted Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, and Pontiac muscle cars, and Buick fielded a muscle car entry a year later. For 1964 and 1965, Ford had its 427 cu in (7.0 L) Thunderbolts, and Mopar unveiled the 426 cu in (7.0 L) Hemi engine. The Pontiac GTO was an option package that included Pontiac's 389 cu in (6.4 L) V8 engine, floor-shifted transmission with Hurst shift linkage, and special trim. In 1966 the GTO became a model in its own right. The project, led by Pontiac division president John DeLorean, technically violated GM's policy, limiting its smaller cars to 330 cu in (5.4 L) displacement, but the new model proved more popular than expected, and inspired GM and its competitors to produce numerous imitators. The GTO itself was a response to the Dodge Polara 500 and the Plymouth Sport Fury, which in 1962 had been shrunk to intermediate size.
American Motors, though late entering the muscle car market, produced "an impressive array of performance cars in a relation.