Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino

| 7 Dec 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino

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America is barely recognisable.

No more jukebox romances, souped-up pre-war cars or romantic cruises in Daddy’s mint-coloured land yacht.

Something new is emerging from the great halls of the Big Three automobile manufacturers, almost by accident.

Welcome to the 1960s.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
From left to right: with the Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, Ford Torino GT 429, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth Road Runner SuperBird and Dodge Charger 440, the Big Three manufacturers took America by storm in the 1960s

Youngsters who just a few years ago were making the arteries of American suburbs unsafe with their self-made road-burners are now fresh-faced engineers, working in the Detroit development departments on a new concept: factory hot rods.

These are no-frills mid-range cars, the so-called ‘intermediates’, not dripping with chrome and luxury but instead boasting obscene levels of performance ex-works.

Those same youths have managed to convince their bosses that a lot of oomph for little cash is the zeitgeist. And who pioneered it?

The time machine builder, John Z DeLorean, car fanatic and then Pontiac chief engineer, who developed the secret plan of a race-ready production car with his head of marketing (and hobby racing driver) Jim Wangers and manager Pete Estes.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Pontiac was a pioneer of the muscle car with the GTO

The Pontiac men proved that they could do fast cars back in the 1950s with their ‘Super Duty’ programme, but this time the performance legend was born via the options list.

You simply ordered your 1964 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans, ticked the box for ‘W62 GTO Package’ and off you went.

Only later did Pontiac make the GTO an independent model in its own right.

Representing rebellion and freedom, these newly invented ‘muscle cars’ were designed to satisfy the tastes of the young buyers who had attained unprecedented prosperity during the ’60s and who, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, craved a new intoxicant: speed.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Pontiac GTO gave America’s youth the speed thrills they were clamouring for

Every manufacturer soon had its own muscle-car model in the range as Big Three Chrysler, Ford and General Motors outbid each other with colourful psychedelic advertising campaigns, aggressive slogans and wacky performance figures for their overpowered vehicles.

Cruise nights turned into drag races, and the numbers continued to grow as the genre reached its peak towards the turn of the new decade.

It makes sense to start at the very beginning, with the Pontiac and America’s first muscle-car.

Well, not quite, because this particular GTO is a second-generation car from the 1969 model year, but it doesn’t matter: with those three letters, you’re guaranteed a thrill.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Pontiac’s non-standard triple-carb set-up was no longer available by ’69

As Pontiac’s own ads proclaimed: ‘Dull driving can get to be a habit. Now, aren’t you ready to break away?’

And there’s nothing boring about turning the key of this menacing black coupe.

The mechanical fuel pump floods the three carburettors of the retrofitted ‘Tri-Power’ system in this particular car, the 6.5-litre V8 erupts into a shuddering idle and 350 horses wait under the Ram Air hood for the order to stampede.

The sheet metal vibrates, the Hurst shifter for the manual transmission fidgets back and forth nervously: we’re ready to go.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Pontiac’s bonnet-mounted rev counter was a $63 extra

Select first with a creak, wind it up to 2500rpm, step off the hefty clutch pedal and the nose rises, the tail squats and the tyres begin to fill the rear wheel arches with acrid rubber smoke.

As the Pontiac projectile shoots forward, you’re grateful that the rev counter is placed directly in the line of sight, on top of the bonnet, so there’s no need to take your eyes off the road ahead.

Grab second gear, then third and fourth; just 14 seconds later you have reached your destination: the quarter-mile marker.

After the original square-rigger GTO, the shape of this second-series car is an altogether more rakish affair from the pen of designer Bill Porter.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Charger was a legend of the screen and track, boosting its popularity among buyers

The contemporary ‘Coke-bottle’ body not only looks good, but also offers fine vision for the driver and, compared to Chrysler’s bigger battleships, feels pretty handy with its punchy engine, close-ratio manual gearbox and relatively short wheelbase.

But while the GTO ushered in the era of the factory hot-rodded mid-range coupe, by the time ‘our’ car was built everyone was talking about the Dodge Charger – and they still do today.

No wonder: given a bad-boy image by its role as a silver-screen villain and immortalised by numerous NASCAR victories, it quickly became a favourite among muscle-car fans.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Charger's elegant buttresses are almost a metre long

For the ’66 model year Chrysler, the smallest of the Big Three, formulated its response to the GTO in the form of a wild fastback based on the Dodge Coronet.

Despite its breathtaking pace and several NASCAR victories, however, sales figures in the first two years disappointed.

For 1968, designers Richard Sias and Harvey J Winn were sent back to the drawing board.

The original Charger was put on the rack, stretched to create one of the most beguiling American car shapes of the decade.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The 7.2 Chrysler is one of the most successful racing V8s

The hidden headlights were retained, concealed behind vacuum operated panels, and in a nod to its on-track ambitions there was a bold outside fuel-filler.

Various V8 options were available, from the 230bhp, 318cu in base motor to the storming 425bhp, 426cu in ‘hemi’ flagship.

Our test car is one level down, the 375bhp 7.2-litre ‘440’, albeit an unusual spec because it does without the stronger dampers and stiffer springs that came with the R/T (Road/Track) package.

Inside, the dash has an austere crackle-black finish, with only the centre console featuring wood-effect foil to give it the look of a miniature bowling alley.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
White vinyl in the cabin is a popular choice in the hot Arizona sun and suits this Dodge

The backrest of the white vinyl seat is not adjustable, which forces the driver into a slightly tense position behind the large, three-spoke steering wheel.

With a clunk, the near-indestructible 727 TorqueFlite automatic ’box engages drive, and the Charger gallops forward with a screech from its rear wheels.

Now, don’t lose your nerve: the over-assisted steering reacts sensitively, and once this heavy horse is out of control it’ll take some acrobatics to catch it.

The Charger has the pace to leave most in its wake, but there’s no point looking back to check: those vast buttresses obliterate the view.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Ford Torino’s name is an homage to Italy’s car capital

The Dodge’s long overhangs and the heavy big-block V8 sitting over the front axle remind you that America’s road network is rather less demanding than your average European B-road – this car’s main objective was to go straight ahead, for at least a quarter of a mile – but rarely is a classic with such a completely overwhelmed chassis so much fun, with every fast corner becoming an entertaining adventure.

The big Ford is the outlier in this rebellious quintet.

If it weren’t for a juicy Calypso Coral paintjob with yellow Laser Stripes, the 1970 Torino GT could almost be described as understated.

It never thundered across the big screen with Lieutenant Frank Bullitt’s GT390 in its rear-view mirror like the Charger; it doesn’t have a grab handle on the back like the SuperBird; it didn’t cause hysteria like its little brother Mustang, father of the ‘pony car’ genre.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Ford’s Thunder Jet 429 musters 360bhp

But that shouldn’t lead you to underestimate the Ford Torino as a pale imitation.

Ford’s own copywriters asked the rhetorical question of how something so hot could look so cool, and swiftly pointed to the NASCAR successes of the Torino on the most glorious stock-car slopes in America: ‘Grew up in a bad neighborhood... Daytona, Riverside, Atlanta.’

Okay, so the 1970 season was mostly a Dodge and Plymouth benefit, but who needs trophies when you can compete for fame, honour and recognition in high school senior year?

Drag-racing truants dreamed of the Torino SportsRoof, available on the forecourts with three versions of the 6.9-litre big-block V8: ‘our’ 360bhp 429 Thunder Jet, the 370bhp 429 Cobra Jet and the flagship 375bhp 429 Super Cobra Jet.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Torino GT’s Hurst shifter was a $194 option

Even in this supposedly puniest form the big Ford is not lacking in urge, but its sheer size and weight ensure that this is no hyperactive dragstrip terror.

Keep control of the wheelspin, plot the T-shaped Hurst shifter’s course accurately through the four-speed manual gate and you can still post a good quarter-mile time with a Torino, yet the role of the Friday evening cruiser simply suits this car better.

Relax into those white vinyl seats, two fingers on the large power-assisted steering wheel, and enjoy the view over the enormous hood while you go in search of the nearest drive-in movie.

Blending a smooth shape with a lot of punch, the forgotten FoMoCo powerhouse treads the fine line between luxury coupe and traffic-light racer, making it the ideal candidate for anyone looking for a real muscle car that’s a little out of the ordinary.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The tweaked 383 V8 tops 396 spec

In this group the Torino GT is neither the strongest nor the fastest, but it doesn’t matter: it looks for all the world like an overblown Hot Wheels toy, ready for a child of the ’60s to fling down an orange plastic track.

From the largest member of our heavy-metal band to one of the smallest, but like so many little dogs this Chevrolet Chevelle bites just as hard with its souped-up 6.3-litre V8, jagged handling and bad-tempered attitude.

The 1970 Chevelle quickly achieved cult status among petrolheads, cemented by the addition of a 350bhp, 396cu in motor in the SS (Super Sport).

And while other manufacturers experimented with bizarre model names and ever wilder designs, Chevrolet knew how to score points with young buyers: more performance.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The SS clone has an aggressive stance

The pinnacle of the model year was marked by the vast 454cu in (7.4-litre) big-block, in 360bhp LS5 and outrageous 450bhp LS6 forms, the latter featuring all the racing technology Chevrolet could throw at it, including a forged crankshaft and connecting rods, forged pistons, larger intake ports and performance manifolds.

And that power output was reportedly an understatement to appease the insurance companies, with factory cars said to be good for up to 100bhp more.

Ordinarily we’d steer clear of a replica in a comparison test, but the creation of this SS tribute car ties in with the muscle-car philosophy of taking a lowly model and turning it into a road-burner – something thousands of enthusiasts did in period and still do today.

Our test car rolled off the assembly line in 1970 as a basic 307cu in Chevy Malibu, but today it’s a Chevelle SS clone with a hot-rodded 383cu in V8 pushing out around 400bhp.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Chevy’s mid-range racer feels agile

Fall into the comfortable vinyl chairs of the Chevelle, wake the V8 and the slightly rasping idle of the 6.3-litre all-iron unit comes as something of a surprise.

This is down to the short stroke, with longer connecting rods and shorter pistons enabling higher engine speeds.

Foot to the floorpan and the three-speed auto throws in its gears jerkily but firmly as the needle flicks around the rev counter, the engine roaring like a North American Aviation P-51 fighter.

And that seems entirely appropriate, because all good patriots love a Chevy.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Chrysler acquired the rights to Warner Brothers’ comic-book bird for its Road Runner

Uprated sports suspension helps this Chevelle feel the most agile car here.

With retrofitted anti-roll bars and the most accurate steering of the group, this roadgoing coyote sprints around corners keenly, noticeably more light-footed than the bearish Dodge and Ford.

What better to follow a wily (or should that be Wile E?) coyote than its fictional prey, the Road Runner?

Surely a leader in the competition for craziest American car of all time, this extreme version of Plymouth’s street-racing bird featured a nose prosthesis and cast-aluminium arch across the tail in a bid to help the Road Runner climb to the top step of the NASCAR podium.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Vitamin C Orange was among the wild paint hues

The 1970 SuperBird and its Dodge Charger Daytona twin are the embodiment of the frenzy that America’s automotive industry had reached by the turn of the decade.

It seemed everyone was going a bit bonkers, from engineers to designers to the advertising teams.

Everything had to be faster, more colourful, crazier; and at the top of the tree sat the Road Runner.

If it was stark even in its homeland, cruising provincial European streets in a Vitamin C Orange SuperBird today feels akin to riding a hippopotamus down the high road in a Batman costume.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Chrysler aimed for NASCAR glory with the Road Runner

Heads spin and jaws drop, just as they did when passing a Plymouth dealership in 1970.

And even as late as 1973, because nobody wanted to buy the SuperBird back then.

Not that its manufacturer was too bothered, because Chrysler’s sole aim with the Charger and Road Runner’s aerodynamic aluminium noses and monumental wings was racing success.

After Ford’s NASCAR titles in 1968 and ’69, Chrysler wanted to fight back.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The 58cm spoiler was key to stabilising the Plymouth in a straight line

It chose a radical path: the engineers took their steeds into the wind tunnel and mounted a 58cm-high spoiler on to the rear – half as high would have achieved the desired downforce, but an everyday car needs a bootlid that can be opened.

To homologate these tweaks, 1920 civilian specimens had to be produced and the result was one of the most outrageous road cars of the muscle-car wars.

SuperBird aviators can see the left strut of the wing permanently in the rear-view mirror, but the view ahead is weirder still: the snout appears to end somewhere near Texas.

The spongy power steering reacts with displeasure at every change of direction, but those speedway aerodynamics stabilise the Road Runner in a straight line even at autobahn speeds.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The Plymouth’s Super Commando V8 was topped by 426 ’hemi’

The 727 TorqueFlite transmission shifts more smoothly and precisely than a Mercedes-Benz automatic of the time, and can reportedly handle up to 1000bhp.

On America’s high-speed ovals, Chrysler’s bewinged coupes could top 180mph, when more than enough air was blown through the limited nasal opening to cool the powerful 7.2-litre V8.

The result was 38 victories in 48 races of the Grand National Series, until an aero ban clipped the SuperBird’s wings in 1971.

In city traffic, however, it’s quite a different story.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
Spectacular though it may be, the Road Runner isn’t exactly practical

Starved of cooling air and, despite stiffer springs than its Charger sibling, about as agile as Mount Rushmore, this most extreme of Road Runners struggles with everyday usability.

This ’Bird is not built for cruising the strip: SuperBird drivers wear half-shell helmets, not hillbilly shirts.

Even though the Super Commando V8 of this car sends its power through a three-speed automatic ’box, and beneath the extreme sports wear lurks a normal Road Runner, don’t be fooled by the cartoonish decals: this is a street legal oval racer, not a child’s toy.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The SuperBird may be the fastest car of the five, but it’s also more expensive and less pleasurable to drive

Trying to make a rational decision and pick between these irrational machines is a challenge.

After all, in this arena only two things matter: performance and image.

Yet in the final reckoning the SuperBird doesn’t fly away from its rivals.

It’s faster than them, sure, but also costs significantly more and makes a far less satisfying companion on the road.

Classic & Sports Car – Heavy metal thunder: Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth SuperBird, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino
The GTO’s power and agility make it the standout car in our test

The Ford Torino GT remains the underdog, which keeps prices low for this comfortable yet surprisingly handsome near-two-tonner, but it’s outperformed by the star quality of the Dodge Charger.

It’s a compelling package, the prettiest of the set and still with NASCAR and movie cachet, but the king of Mopar lacks the handiness of the Chevrolet Chevelle, whose pace can be exploited by a chassis that feels more at home on the street.

Yet none of this madness would have existed without the gran turismo omologato – even if few local buyers at the time even knew what that meant.

The GTO marked the jumping-off point for the muscle car genre, and among this group impresses with its blend of power and sophisticated handling. The original, and still the best.

Words: Helge Thomsen/Lukas Hambrecht

Images: Roman Rätzke


Factfiles

Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396

  • Sold/number built 1970/53,599
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 6590cc V8, four-barrel carburettor
  • Max power 350bhp @ 5200rpm
  • Max torque 415lb ft @ 3400rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 17ft 3in (5258mm)
  • Width 6ft 4in (1930mm)
  • Height 4ft 4¾in (1339mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 8in (2946mm)
  • Weight 3746lb (1699kg)
  • 0-60mph 7 secs
  • Top speed 130mph
  • Mpg 11.1
  • Price new $3497
  • Price now $50-80,000*

 

Pontiac GTO

  • Sold/number built 1969/58,126
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 6490cc V8, four-barrel Rochester carburettor
  • Max power 350bhp @ 5000rpm
  • Max torque 445lb ft @ 3600rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by double wishbones rear live axle, trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 16ft 9½in (5118mm)
  • Width 6ft 3¾in (1925mm)
  • Height 4ft 4¼in (1328mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 4in (2845mm)
  • Weight 3673lb (1666kg)
  • 0-60mph 7.3 secs
  • Top speed 131mph
  • Mpg 9.2
  • Price new $2831
  • Price now $30-70,000*

 

Plymouth Road Runner SuperBird

  • Sold/number built 1970/1935
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 7206cc V8, four-barrel Holley carburettor
  • Max power 375bhp @ 4600rpm
  • Max torque 480lb ft @ 3200rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 18ft 2in (5537mm)
  • Width 6ft 4½in (1946mm)
  • Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 8in (2946mm)
  • Weight 3841lb (1742kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.4 secs
  • Top speed 160mph(est)
  • Mpg 8
  • Price new $4298
  • Price now $120-200,000*

 

Dodge Charger 440

  • Sold/number built 1968-’70/221,000 (all)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 7206cc V8, four-barrel Carter carburettor
  • Max power 375bhp @ 4600rpm
  • Max torque 480lb ft @ 3200rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 17ft 4in (5283mm)
  • Width 6ft 4½in (1946mm)
  • Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 9in (2972mm)
  • Weight 3770lb (1710kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.4 secs
  • Top speed 131mph
  • Mpg 8
  • Price new $3506 (R/T)
  • Price now $50-90,000*

 

Ford Torino GT 429

  • Sold/number built 1970-’71/88,460
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 7033cc V8, four-barrel Motorcraft carburettor
  • Max power 360bhp @ 4600rpm
  • Max torque 440lb ft @ 3400rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension at front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 17ft 2¼in (5240mm)
  • Width 6ft 4½in (1946mm)
  • Height 4ft 3in (1295mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 9in (2972mm)
  • Weight 3840lb (1742kg)
  • 0-60mph 7.1 secs
  • Top speed 134mph
  • Mpg 12.1
  • Price new $3315 (1973)
  • Price now $20-40,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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