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Few could have foreseen the divisions and entrenched opinions that have marked the United States over the past few years, with neighbours and even family members locked in bitter dispute.
But car enthusiasts might have been less surprised: long before wild-haired orange billionaires turned colleague against colleague, friend against friend, muscle car fans were defined by their allegiance to either Bow Tie or Blue Oval.
It’s a battle that can be traced back to the dawn of American muscle, and came to a head in the summer of ’69.
Where the muscle car phenomenon started has long been up for debate, but whether you reckon the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was the first or the Pontiac GTO, Ford certainly honed and perfected the concept before selling the idea to an emerging generation of young, affluent Americans.
In the Mustang, Ford’s designers had created not only a new car but also a new market segment, initiating a move away from the vast models of the late 1950s towards smaller, more performance-orientated machines.
The key to the Mustang’s success came down to a combination of V8 performance, seductive two-door styling and a ticket price of just $2476.
In business terms, the model owed much to what lay beneath the bodywork: under the flashy styling were the floorpan and many of the mechanical components from the considerably less exciting Falcon and Fairlane.
Familiarity was a blessing, reducing production costs and allowing dealerships to take the new model without the expense of a bespoke parts catalogue.
Combined with a huge early take-up in which the initial annual sales projections left the dealer forecourts in the first four months, the Mustang quickly established itself as the car to beat – both in the showrooms and on the road.
You can imagine the panic in the boardrooms of Detroit. Ties must have been loosened and brows mopped as public enthusiasm for the Mustang picked up pace, along with favourable reviews, silver-screen appearances in Goldfinger and Thunderball, and an unprecedented surge in sales to the extent that Ford struggled to keep up with demand.
The suits would have been most skittish at General Motors, where confidence in its own technologically advanced two-door four-seater seeing off the more rudimentary Mustang was rocked.
Launched in 1965, the flat-six Corvair held its own for a while, but even independent suspension and a turbocharged 180bhp couldn’t win over buyers when every time they picked up the paper they were told of the Chevy’s inherent dangers.
Fortunately, GM was alive to the danger of the Mustang, and, after receiving an evaluation model weeks before its release, hurriedly threw its weight behind an in-house rival, dubbed the F-Car.
Ford had everything its own way in the mid’ 60s, selling more than half a million Mustangs in both 1965 and ’66.
But by September ’67, just two years after the F-Car project began, the Camaro joined the fray.
The speed at which the new Chevy was turned around was all the more impressive given that, unlike the Mustang, the Camaro had been designed from the ground up.
It wasn’t without its compromises: to help. cover costs it would be the base for the 1968 Chevy II and, because the more mundane model had to be offered in different configurations including the money-maker four-door sedan, certain aspects were set in stone, notably the height of the cowl and the distance from the dash to the front axle.
It proved an uphill battle for stylists Bill Mitchell and Henry Haga to disguise the rather ungainly dimensions, but they managed to make a. car that was both sporting and attractive thanks to its flowing Coke-bottle shape that owed much to the gorgeous Corvette and Buick Riviera.
Where the Mustang range had expanded and evolved as the years went by, Chevrolet came to the fight in 1967 well armed.
Both coupe and convertible options were available, each with an array of engines ranging from a 230cu in ‘Turbo Thrift’ straight-six to the hugely popular 295bhp ‘Turbo Fire’ 350cu in V8.
Top of the tree was the big-banger 396, which pipped Ford’s new-to-the-Mustang 390 in terms of outright capacity.
When it came to performance models, Ford had one very valuable weapon in its arsenal, in the form of tuning legend Carroll Shelby, the racer-cum-designer who had turned the AC Ace into a world-famous competition car and who masterminded the revival of the GT40 project that would lead to resounding success.
Given a brief to hot-up the first-generation Mustang, Shelby had created the GT350 in 1965, a highly modified roadgoing racer equipped with a 306bhp Windsor 289 V8, a four-speed manual gearbox, Kelsey-Hayes front disc brakes, lairy side-exit exhausts that were illegal in some states and an unnerving ‘Detroit Locker’ rear end.
The car was an animal, a live wire that set a new performance benchmark. But, for the average enthusiast, getting to grips with the intimidating Shelby was like catching a fox in a henhouse.
Demand for the GT350 was always high, but it held more appeal to wannabe racers than average Joes.
By ’66 the model was toned down for those who liked the performance and image, but struggled with the compromises. It lost little of the magic: the ’66 cars became the stuff of legend after Hertz bought 1000 for its rental fleet.
Ahead of the Camaro’s arrival the Mustang was reworked for 1967, featuring bigger and more stylised sheet metal, while an optional FE-series 390cu in V8 knocked the 289 from its perch.
But the market had changed, and where before your choice was notchback, fastback or convertible, now buyers were being lured away by everything from the Plymouth Barracuda to the Chevrolet Chevelle and new Pontiac Firebird.
The biggest rival, however, was the incoming Camaro: no other muscle car challenged Ford’s dominance to the same degree.
In its first year, going toe to toe with the restyled pony car, one Camaro was sold for nearly every two Mustangs.
A year later, in ’68, the gap had closed to 82,000 as Mustang sales tanked amid stiff competition, with many buyers drawn to the Camaro and the halo effect of Chevy’s 375bhp L78 396 V8.
The answer to the power problem came from Tasca Ford in Rhode Island, which replaced a damaged 390 with a 428cu in Police Interceptor engine, promptly attracting the attention of Hot Rod after posting a series of blistering 13 secs quarter-mile times.
Shelby liked the idea, too, and dropped the 428 into the Mustang to create the GT500. The clamour to bring the Tasca Mustang to market was also heard by Henry Ford II, and in April 1968 a more refined factory version of the 428 unit was born: the Cobra Jet.
It was reminiscent of Shelby’s switch from the strung-out 289 to colossal 427 engines that had resulted in a clean sweep at Le Mans in 1966, and it was fitting that the new motor would find its most comfortable home in the GT500 ‘King of the Road’.
With a new Camaro and Mustang slated for arrival in the early ’70s, battle lines had been drawn for an end-of-decade showdown.
In many ways 1969 was the peak for the muscle car, a golden era before emissions and safety regulations, rising fuel costs and crippling insurance premiums led to tumbling compression ratios and lacklustre performance.
It was also a Goldilocks period where the performance-orientated early muscle cars met with changing consumer tastes for greater comfort and refinement, before the middle-aged spread of the ’70s had properly taken hold.
Shelby was a man who knew which way the wind was blowing, and 1969 marked the final year of his involvement with the first-generation Mustang.
Production had already shifted from Los Angeles to Michigan by the end of ’67, with AO Smith Corporation contracted to carry out the conversions, and his cars were no longer being used in competition, which is where his passion really lay.
Before the decade was out, Lee Iacocca agreed to terminate the contract.
The swansong was the 1969 Shelby GT500 Cobra Jet. Only 245 GT500 convertibles were built in 1969 – some cars were registered in 1970 fitted with Boss 302 spoilers, black bonnets and new serial numbers, but they were surplus from ’69
‘Ours’ is finished in Gulfstream Aqua, which suits the reworked Shelby design.
The entire front of the car was extended thanks to a weight-reducing glassfibre bonnet with triple NACA ducts and wings, while the tail was shortened and fitted with a spoiler and rear lights with the Mustang’s familiar sequential indicators.
The result was both less cluttered and considerably more aggressive than the standard item, offering a tempting glimpse at the ’71 redesign.
Under the lightweight bonnet lies that monster of an engine, a 428cu in masterpiece in iron that features heavy-duty conrods, the same aggressive cam used in the 390, plus a four-barrel 735cfm Holley carb.
Though it shared many similarities with the engine built by Bob Tasca, the factory Cobra Jet was considerably more powerful than both the Police Interceptor engine and the advertised figure of 335bhp.
So much so that period production-line dyno testers could barely keep the smiles from their faces while running new Cobra Jets through the gears.
At a time when the average insurance cost for a 25-year-old with a fast car could top $1000, it isn’t surprising that some told the odd white lie about just how powerful their products were.
Outside of the Yenko-built COPO Camaros (a loophole using Central Office Production Orders allowed top brass to skirt GM’s 400cu in capacity cap), top of the Chevy totem was the 396cu in V8 borrowed from the Corvette.
And if you wanted a soft-top in 1969, the car to have it in was the Camaro SS Indy 500 Pace Car.
Just as the Mustang had burst on to the scene as the pace car for the 1964 race, the Camaro did the honours in its debut year, with Chevrolet offering 88 cars for use throughout the weekend.
Most were for the committee and ferrying VIPs, with three L78-equipped cars to pace the 500-miler.
After downing his milk, AJ Foyt was offered a car but refused on the grounds that it didn’t have air-con or a power roof – a sign of changing tastes even at the top – so Chevy built him one, along with 20 replicas, in June.
When Chevrolet again took over pace-car duties at Indy in 1969 the firm didn’t make the same mistake twice, giving race-winner Mario Andretti a Camaro loaded with mod cons.
GM also recognised the marketing opportunity, and produced a run of 3675 replicas – of which ‘our’ car is one – in addition to the 133 Camaros supplied.
It began life as a Dover White Camaro SS/RS before being modified with a ZL2 ‘Super Scoop’ bonnet painted with striking Hugger Orange stripes, white-painted sills and a white rear panel instead of the usual black.
The paintjob was complemented by 15in Rally wheels and a matching houndstooth interior. Combined with trademark hidden headlamps, it’s a real looker.
The lion’s share of 1969 pace cars were convertibles – only around 200 hardtops left the Norwood plant – with many opting for the cost-saving ‘Pacesetter Value Package’ that included the L48 350cu in engine.
‘Our’ car benefited from the L35 396, one of around 6000 Camaros so equipped in ’69. With a Rochester Quadrajet carb and 10.25:1 compression, it produced a healthy 325bhp, just 10 shy of its Detroit rival.
On paper there isn’t much to separate these two, but the difference is apparent as soon as you put your foot down.
Floor it in the Camaro and it’ll gladly light up the rear axle; do the same in the Mustang and it feels as if it could rip the tyre from the rim, such is the surfeit of power.
The Cobra Jet earned its stripes on the dragstrip, and when assessing the handling of either machine all you can really judge them on is how straight they track under full power.
Steering in both is marked by its vagueness, with a dead spot so wide it makes you wonder what, if anything, connects your hands to the front wheels.
Cornering is best taken at a leisurely pace thanks to nose-heavy weight distribution, particularly in the Camaro, which throughout its life never fully shook a tendency to swap ends.
Both cars come to life out here in the desert on the sort of straight road where you can hammer along without fear of running into the cops.
After a heat-hazy afternoon thundering around in two living legends, it’s hard to think of a better combination than a couple of circa 7-litre V8s and the wind in your hair.
Though the popularity of muscle cars didn’t wane too much as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, changing tastes had transformed the concept from out-and-out high-power street machines to something more akin to the grand tourers of Europe.
With every horsepower lost and every pound gained something of the dream died as well.
However, there’s a happy medium to be found in most things, and when it comes to Detroit iron few cars match either the GT500 or Camaro SS 396.
Today, just as in period, they tread the tightrope between tyre-shredding performance and the comfort that comes with power steering, air-con and assisted brakes.
Which you choose is a decision that has probably already been made for most Americans; the Ford or Chevy question is like asking a Glaswegian whether they’re green or blue.
But as an outsider, free from any predilections, I’d opt for the Camaro: not only is the organic Coke-bottle styling a joy to look at, but it’s easier to appreciate the lines when the car isn’t sitting in the shadow of an earlier generation.
Images: James Mann
Chevrolet Camaro SS 396 Indy Pace Car
- Sold/number built 1967-’69/97,227 SSs (3675 ‘Indy Pace Cars’)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 6489cc V8, Rochester Quadrajet carburettor
- Max power 325bhp @ 4800rpm
- Max torque 410lb ft @ 3200rpm
- Transmission three/four-speed manual or M40 Turbo Hydra-Matic three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 15ft 6in (4724mm)
- Width 6ft 2in (1880mm)
- Height 4ft 3in (1293mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft (2743mm)
- Weight 3269lb (1482kg)
- 0-60mph 6.9 secs
- Top speed 129mph
- Mpg 13
- Price new $2940
- Price now $150,000*
Shelby GT500 Cobra Jet
- Sold/number built 1967-’70/4950 (428, 428 Cobra Jet, 428 King of the Road)
- Construction steel monocoque, glassfibre bonnet and wings
- Engine all-iron, ohv 7010cc V8, four-barrel Holley 735cfm carburettor
- Max power 335bhp @ 5600rpm
- Max torque 440lb ft @ 3400rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual or C6 automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 15ft 6in (4724mm)
- Width 5ft 11¼in (1811mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1316mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft (2743mm)
- Weight 3939lb (1787kg)
- 0-60mph 6 secs
- Top speed 131mph
- Mpg 12
- Price new $5027
- Price now $250,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication