Welcome back to Elvisceral Appeal. This is the final word on the word musclecar! The intersection of supercar and musclecar with various other automobile classes like “GT” and “sportscar” is still waiting to be addressed in future posts on Elivsecral Appeal. At the end of this post laurels will be set upon the head of him who ‘coined’ the term musclecar.
After obsessively combing through Google Books (in which I uncovered the September ’65 mention of “the ‘musclecars’ from General Motors” in a story by Jan P. Norbye writing in Popular Science), I set out on a digital safari in the wider web in search of an even earlier reference to ‘muscle cars.’
I found this very tantalizing story in the July 1965 ROD AND CUSTOM magazine. It takes us back (for the third time!) to that prime suspect in the supercar and musclecar quest: Roger Huntington. Feast your eyes upon a reformulation of the CAR LIFE definition that now includes the Plymouth Barracuda Formula S.
Behold, Huntington’s "Super Compact."
It's not such a strange coinage if you consider that for Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, the A body chassis, which was the foundation of the Grand Sport, 442 and GTO respectively, really was the smallest car those GM divisions offered. The Special, F85 and Tempest were indeed 'compacts' when introduced in 1961 and continued as such at least nominally after being ‘upsized’ in 1964. However, Hungtington also includes the Chevrolet “A body” 375hp Z-16 Malibu SS, despite the existence of smaller Chevy II and Corvair 'compacts' in the Chevrolet stable.
Notice in this definition, we are getting a new prerequisite that was notably absent from the ‘supercar’ definition in the May '65 CAR LIFE (see previous post “American Supercar Provenance – or – UK ‘CAR’ magazine supercar candard): The car must be a 'package' deal that includes some kind of marketable image.
Curiouser and curiouser that Huntington keeps trying to define the species of the "GTO-type car." It makes one wonder if he was the primary force behind the CAR LIFE definition of ‘Supercar’ in May '65.
This also brings us back to a central question of the nascent supercar period and the relationship between different magazines and their writers. In this case, Roger Huntington was a relatively rare breed then as now: A writer who wrote for a laundry list of magazine titles. Part of this might have been because Huntington, a paraplegic, didn’t actually drive or even photograph the cars he ‘tested’ – he hired others to perform these tasks for him. You can often tell a Huntington article because he spent a lot of time with the slide rule and spec sheet so cars are compared on a purely abstract, mathematical basis – like net engine force per ton/mile or some such other esoteric formula. But the “Super Compact” brings up an interesting question about when and where and how super car and muscle car became adopted as terms of distinction. For some revelatory biography on Huntington let’s turn it over to an excerpt of an article by Steve Magnante…
Remembering Roger Huntington: 1926-1989
By: Steve Magnante, “MOPAR MAX” magazine. 5-2-07
One particularly noteworthy aspect of Huntington’s career was that he was a freelance writer, as opposed to being a full time staff member at one specific title. By keeping his nose clean and churning out solid work ahead of deadline, Roger endeared himself with the editors and managed to contribute to just about every title in the fiercely competitive world of car magazines. This cannot be understated. You see, there’s a tradition where many editors won’t accept stories from writers who also work for their arch rivals. It’s easy to fall into a sort of black list situation if you don’t play your cards right. But this was never a problem for Huntington thanks to the thoroughness of his research and the quality of his stories. In fact, Huntington was one of a handful of writers who managed to make a full-time career as a freelance writer. (KINGEVLIS BOLD)… end quote.
The point of all this is that other “fiercely competitive” car magazines might have treated the CAR LIFE ‘supercar’ word almost as proprietary, and/or they were not eager to quickly ‘prove a competitor right’ by adopting CAR LIFE’s parlance of supercar. Huntington clearly was a major player in the CAR LIFE definition. But it’s interesting that he doesn’t move over to ROD AND CUSTOM and simply say “Hey guys, these are ‘supercars.’ We got that all straightened out at CAR LIFE two months ago!” Instead he comes up with a new ‘tag line’ of “Super Compact.” It seems likely this was in order to avoid offending his CAR LIFE editors.
The skeptic would rightly point out that the sequence of events in question here occurs literally over a matter of sixty days, and it was simply an inchoate world for the supercar. But if it was anyone but Roger Huntington, we might just write it off as another attempt to give form to this embryonic stage of development of the ‘GTO type.’ The CAR LIFE formula explicitly names the ‘full size’ Ford and Chevrolet because they offered 425 horsepower, 427cubic inch (7 liter) engines.
Huntington’s ROD AND CUSTOM “Sport Compact” category throws the 427 Fords and Chevrolets overboard and stirs in the Barracuda Formula S. The slight name change and substantive alteration was perhaps enough to ‘keep his nose clean’ with CAR LIFE and convince ROD AND CUSTOM he wasn’t just re-writing the same article. The GT350 Shelby Mustang would most deservedly belong in this category, though Huntington doesn’t include it here. All the pictures in this article seem to have been taken from manufacturer press kits – the ’65 GTO pictured is actually from an advertisement (“our Thing”). So maybe Huntington just didn’t have a suitable photo of a GT350 Mustang!
Now consider that same logic as applied to the other prime suspect in the musclecar quest, Jan P. Norbye. He also wrote for Car and Driver in 1964 (I discovered an article on the KING KONG 426 Chrysler engine by Mr. Norbye) although it appears he didn’t start with Popular Science until April 1965. But, like Huntington he wrote a column on car makers plans for future models called “Detroit Report.” Norbye might have recognized the category of a GTO type car, but, believing it was CAR LIFE’s property, might have ‘coined’ musclecar believing that it would offend PS editors to use another magazine’s word, or to avoid offending CAR LIFE editors by ‘stealing’ their supercar word.
Before we can anoint Norbye as father of the word muscle car, however, there is one other earlier alleged reference and one other ‘famous’ (within car-guy circles) auto writer who might have written the words ‘muscle car’ as far back as May1962. The reference is by ‘Uncle’ Tom McCahill to the Ford Thunderbird sports tourer in Mechanix Illustrated. He says the T-bird was quick “though not a muscle car.” I don’t have a scan of this to read and the web evidence is sketchy and thin. This looks like an article mashed together by one of those web robots… http://www.classiccar.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&
But even if we accept that McCahill wrote it, he doesn’t define what the term means systematically– only that the T-Bird doesn’t live up to it. If it was a systematic category for McCahill, he does not use the word ‘musclecar’ in reference to the '65 Oldsmobile 442 in the March ‘65 MECHANIX ILLUSTRATED. He calls the 442 a generic term for fast car from that period that we’ve all but forgotten: “bomb.”
In this June '65 scan of a test of sports cars Tom seems to make reference to Pontiac GTO type cars. See for yourself and interpret, but McCahill's class of "Hot Prestige Seekers" would include the GTO - and he's saying these aren't 'sports cars.' He refers to HPS as being introduced by nearly all the makers in the past 'year or two' and that would certainly include the GTO. Note in the caption he calls the Shelby Cobra a “bomb.”
McCahill's June '65 "Hot prestige seekers" and Huntingtons' "Super Compact" formulation of July '65 makes me think that neither McCahill nor Huntington 'coined' the term musclecar, since they were written, literally within three months of Jan P. Norbye's 'coinage' of musclecar to explicitly refer to the "GM musclecars" extant in 1965. McCahill would not have been aware of the CAR LIFE definition of the supercar when writing this article, so the HPS formula is another attempt at defining the GTO type.
In my epic odyssey around the web, I eventually stumbled on mustangtek – a capacious archive of MOTOR TREND, CAR & DRIVER and CAR LIFE. This occupied me for the better part of a week! Thanks to this massive archive, along with a variety of other road test reprints from my own collection and those I’ve shaken out of the couch cushions of the internet, I believe I’ve performed a "process of elimination" with the musclecar quest. I've read just about every supercar/musclecar road test from 1965 and NOBODY is saying musclecar.
But after many hours of searching through the crucial late 1965 period, I found this intriguing advertisement introducing the 1966 Chevelle SS396 in the November '65 Car and Driver.* It actually has the word “musclecars” in it! So we can now confirm that very early after the supercar formula by CAR LIFE, ‘musclecar’ strode on the stage as a term of distinction or 'technical' term since here it's already being acknowledged by the manufacturer. This is a supremely important clue in the musclecar quest because the only known quantity "muscle cars" being referred to in the SS396 ad were all GM cars at the time when the ad was conceived. This conforms with Jan P. Norbye's phrase "the ‘musclecars’ from General Motors" from Sept '65 Popular Science.
I never expected to find an advertisement referring to ‘muscle cars’ in the fall of 1965. By the Fall of ’67 Plymouth used the word ‘supercar’ in cartoon ads for its “Roadrunner” and Dodge was using the word ‘supercars’ in brochures in 1969, and Ford used the word ‘supercar’ to refer to its Cobra Torino in a 1969 Television ad. But it comes as a shock to find GM using the musclecar word in an ad practically at the moment the category first coalesced into recognizable form. This timing raises the tantalizing possibility that someone within GM itself might have ‘coined’ the term. As I mentioned already, Norbye had a column “Detroit Report” on automakers plans for cars in the near future, and you have to wonder if Norbye might have picked up the word from his GM contacts, or even in a press release from GM.
This should get the testy Dodge boys (renown for their sour grapes about Pontiac siring the category ‘supercar’/‘musclecar’) even testier, since not only was the GTO the first 'supercar' but even the word 'musclecar' was early on associated with GM by Jan P. Norbye. In this case it was actually used by GM first to refer to the breed.
So, by the process of elimination, I'm ready to come full circle. One of the first pieces of evidence I found in the muscle car quest - the reference by Popular Science's Jan P. Norbye of "Musclecar" in the September 1965 issue - might just be the 'smoking gun.' If not smoking, it certainly is warm to the touch and smells of gunpowder. So get used to it. Until we can find an earlier published reference to 'muscle car,' the current evidence points directly to Jan P. Norbye.
*the same ad appears in the November '65 Motor Trend.