(first posted 3/19/2016) Muscle cars were the rage in 1966, with virtually every U.S. maker offering a “hot” mid size model to capture performance enthusiasts. Naturally, Car and Driver was keen to evaluate the offerings, and for the March 1966 issue, they arranged for Formula One driver Masten Gregory–also the winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1965–to test drive the “Super Cars” and give his preferences. The results make for a fascinating read, showcasing how hard the manufacturers fought, cheated (or not) to win kudos for offering the meanest machines on the streets.
Modified or not, the “Super Cars” were clearly a blast to drive (though none of them stopped as well as they should have). Masten Gregory’s reviews of the cars gave a great perspective on the abilities of muscle cars circa 1966, and he seemed to gravitate to the more balanced machines. For prospective customers considering which car to get for everyday use, I think Gregory’s opinions were usefully balanced. Had I been shopping in this segment in 1966, I think I would have been drawn to the GTO, in no small part due to its excellent marketing. Having read this article though, I would have had to consider the 442, and who knows–maybe the Olds would have been my pick as well.
Best car magazine reprint/scan ever!
At my 1st glance at the top [b/w] photo of the 442, I thought t was your namesake — a mid-60’s Linc)
i wish someone would have looked under the Comet and checked if the engine had the cross bolt main caps. That would have most certainly pointed to a 427 bolted in rather than the stock 390
Well, the Hurst folks did check the displacement. But this 390 was obviously far from a stock one, as it would would rev right to 6500 rpm, which is some 1200-1300 rpm more than a stock one. It was clearly a race-prepped engine, designed to still meet the very limited criteria of the test. Did they check valve lift and timing? Valve size? For thta matter, it undoubtedly had one of the hi-po heads.
It’s kind of pathetic, actually. And what’s really pathetic, is that the heavily race-prepped Comet and Fairlane did so poorly in handling, despite all the mods.
I remember this road test, it was in one of the first issues of Car and Driver I read. Even then I understood that the reason the Comet was “faster” was because it had a lower gear ratio in the final drive. If someone back then had given me $4000 (and a drivers license) I think I would have gone for the 4-4-2 first, followed by the GTO and then the Chevelle. What I find amazing today is how relatively light these cars were; even the heaviest is barely 3700 pounds.
Buick’s 1966 brochures rate the 401 at 325 hp, not 340. So perhaps it was really tuned up some? As far as I know all 401 engines were rated at a maximum of 325 hp for normal retail sales. The 425 was rated at 340 hp with one 4 barrel carb, 360 with two.
For ’66, Buick offered the new Quadrajet as an option, and that raised the power “rating” to 340. Otherwise, the engine was the same.
Here’s an ad for it.
Ah. I think the valve timing must have been changed too, or the peak torque would not have moved up 400 RPMs. The 4 speed manual was not in the brochures either.
Not from my understanding…I’m guessing that those numbers were largely made up by the marketing department. There’s no way either of them even approached those power numbers.
For example, my ’65 Skylark’s 300-4v was rated at 250 horsepower compared to the 2 barrel’s 210. They had the same camshafts from the factory; the 4-barrel just had higher compression and an AFB. There is no way that that car makes anywhere near 250 horsepower, and I’d be shocked if it were 20 up on the 2-barrel, let alone 40.
I have had doubts about the gross horsepower ratings for some time. During the 50’s horsepower race, the advertised gross horsepower is said to have been exaggerated by some (all?).
When we get into the 70’s and compression is reduced, I think that the net ratings are real, and the gross ratings were more realistic if not actual.
Simply putting a bigger carburetor on the 401 would not have done much in my opinion, and I don’t see the peak torque moving to a higher RPM without some tuning changes.
The 64 Chevy 327 rated at 250 gross is shown (gm heritage) to have 210 net. The 283 @195 gross is 150 net.
Six different axle ratios! Three transmission choices! And I bet they all have vinyl seats.
Amazing. Two of the six cars experienced major engine failure during the tests.
I haven’t read a car magazine in quite a while, but I’m inclined to believe that doesn’t happen too often these days – and particularly not with cars that are specially prepped AND in the manufacturer’s press pool.
Almost undoubtedly the reason for the failures was the oil pan. One of Ford’s design choices for their V8’s was to place the distributor at the front and driving the oil pump from the distributor drive was common practice. This in turn places the sump at the front of the engine so that acceleration forces try to uncover the oil pickup. For whatever reason the FE oil pans seem to have been particularly prone to this though the small blocks would do it too, just not as often.
The Ford and Mercury were obviously race-prepped engines, given that they would rev to 6500 rpm. Apparently they didn’t like those high rpm very much.
The bare crankshaft alone in a FE weighs more than a bare small block Chevy engine block! When my brother had the 360 in his F-250 rebuilt into a 390, we got the stock crank back, so I threw it on a scale. 105lbs, IIRC. Thats a lot of iron to be spinning at 6k+
Those numbers didn’t sound right to me, so I did the homework you didn’t. 🙂 The common cast nodular FE crank weighs 65 lbs; the rarer forged truck 391 crank weighs 76 lbs.
A Chevy sbc bare block weighs between 162-169 lbs. So exactly 100 heavier than the FE crank.
The issue is not the crankshaft spinning fast; these can take significantly higher speeds. It’s that the true stock FE engines (except for the true and rare hi-po versions of the 390-406-427-428CJ) had heads that wouldn’t breathe well enough to allow such engine speeds. High rpm = high hp.
These FE’s had obviously been massaged to breather better and run faster.
Fun to read this well drafted C&D review which was done at the dawn of the muscle car era and it’s evident that GM and FOMOCO took some of the recommendations to heart which improved these machines’ successors. Also a knockout were reading those manufacturer list prices but I have to remember it’s all relative to the time. In 1966, I was within a few years of buying my 1st car acquired for all of $90, so these cars were all well beyond my financial grasp.
Interesting that the Chrysler reps had cold feet; they knew Detroit too well, evidently. No wonder Consumer Reports buys their test samples incognito from dealers, instead of inviting fraud by a letter to manufacturers. And that race-prepped Comet should’ve been excluded. Proverb: “Trust everyone in the game, but always cut the cards.”
Then as now, I wonder how many American hot-car buyers really care about roadholding. It would be interesting to correlate chassis-upgrade take rates versus engines back then.
Considering how wide (and sticky) most OEM tires are these days, I would imagine that just about any vehicle today – including vans and half-ton pickups – would best any of these beasts from 50 years ago in a roadholding contest. Or at least come close.
Funny, you really don’t see very many standalone suspension upgrade options for cars anymore, like Chevrolet’s bargain-priced F41 package. But then again, you don’t see many standalone options, period.
I wish I had the link to it now, but I remember seeing a video where they lined up a bunch of classic “super cars” (Like Jag XKE’s and the like) and whomped all of them with a Honda minivan. 50 years of engineering development will do that… Nothing today can match the style and presence of classics, but living with them day-to-day would be tough compared to more modern cars.
^^^^The Consumer Reports comparison came to mind only a couple paragraphs into the article; CR (say what you will about their auto evaluations) is also unbeholden to advertisers (i.e., the automakers), unlike the “buff books.”
CR buys the cars they review straight from a dealer. They resell as used when testing is done. Wonder if they were doing it that way in 1966? If so it would be fun to see what testing revealed about “straight off the showroom floor” with factory tire and wheels, no super prep, etc. performance. I am sure it was hugely different than what we saw here.
Interesting article. It’s amazing how much BS surrounds the old muscle cars today.
I spent lots of time with cars like this when they were at the bottom of their price curves and the only people who cared about them were gearheads like me. And in stock form, they weren’t really all that fast. I always laugh when I see a modern day article ranking the performance of the old muscle cars using test results from decades old magazine articles.
From the old articles I’ve seen, the cheating only got worse in the next few years. I suspect everyone was doing it by the end of the era.
Back in my drag racing days it wasn’t uncommon to see someone show up for the first time with a car they were sure would run deep into the 13s based on what they’d read somewhere, and end up in the mid 14s at best. Oddly enough, the brand that seemed to run closest to what the magazine hype said was Buick. They weren’t the fastest cars out there but they ran a lot harder than their reputation would have suggested.
Fun cars anyway, and I’m glad I knew them before the investment and collector types got involved.
Back when these were at the bottom of the price curve, off roading was just starting to take off, and many of these got parted out, with their engines ending up in 4WD trucks. And NOBODY cared.
Amazing what…ahem… tuning can do. Back in high school, 1982ish, had a friend with a ’68 390 GTA Mustang. Had a Mick Gray built (a local Tigard engine builder) 428 in it, that probably had more NASCAR 427 parts in it than 428. No matter where you were on campus, when it started, you heard it. Rode in it several times, and it made you a believer in religion before the 140mph speedo even cracked 100. My older brother had a ’69 SS396 Camaro, felt like a six cylinder Nova in comparison. Don’t let anybody tell you a FE Ford can’t run; they can make you wish you had a spare pair of shorts with you.
Hey now wait a minute there partner my first car,a six cyl nova
compared to my mothers 71 automatic pinto my chev
felt like a 427 corvette!
Remember this article if you ever feel the urge to say, “Cars today all look the same, not like back in the 60s when you could tell the difference between cars a mile away!”
I certainly can, the headlight position varies, unlike modern cars where they’re all slanted into a goofy grin. Plus they look a million times better than the one body style amorphous safety blobs seen today
I might be the only one here who’d like to have the ’51-2 Buick Ambo….
I doubt it. I haven’t even read the article yet. I was stopped by that Buick ambulance!
Wow, there was so much cheating with those “ringers.” Hollman and Moody, Bud Moore and of course the Royal Bobcats. Imagine if these cars had to pass stock emission requirements like modern cars! They couldn’t pass, they were so hopped up. While it’s true in racing that your car only has to last long enough to finish the race, a couple of these couldn’t even manage that. There was a reason that the factory redlines were so low, the engines could not sustain high rpm operation for extended periods as they were built.
The test really documents how compromised the cars were to excel in a narrow aspect of the competition, the drag strip. Those were the numbers that sold these cars. Biasing these early muscle cars for that task made them miserable for any other usage.The least tuned and modified cars, like the Olds, the Buick, and the Chevy could still be considered to be enjoyable road cars.
These cars can still be modified a bit by current owners to make them enjoyable and better performers. Years ago Popular Hot Rodding had an article about old muscle cars and they stated that the best improvement that can be made is a set of high quality, high performance tires. That change alone would improve braking, steering, handling, and ride. The suspension could upgraded with better shock absorbers and the addition of anti sway bars and better brakes linings could be substituted. These were areas that Detroit didn’t spend much money on, as the cars were built down to a price.
I grew up during the hey day of the classic muscle cars but I’m glad that modern cars can exceed their limits in every way. Even prosaic cars like the Camry and Accord have much higher levels of performance.
Tires… I don’t know how many people looking at tire-smoke today remember how bad bias tires were compared to radials. As I recall the first Datsun 240Zs were deadly with biased tires, I think radials and suspension mods came pretty quickly (but I couldn’t source it beyond my memory).
I think the AWD RAV-4 is probably the most capable car on the pavement that we have ever owned…and I hate it.
The Olds 442 was judged by C & D to the best of the lot, about 1985 or so I seem to remember Odsmobile confessed the 442 supplied for the test was not stock, I’ve forgotten what the modifications were; I seriously doubt if any of the cars tested were stock. Maybe another reader can supply the grim details.
Wait, whoah, whoah, hold the phone. You’re suggesting the autos written up by the buff books were specially prepared and not representative of what people could actually buy?
Consumer Reports, possibly the most boring but informative magazine at the time, bought their test cars anonymously off the lot. Real cars with real test results. Of course, they were interested in the trunk space of a four-door sedan and would have probably rated all these cars “not acceptable” for a dozen reasons.
Still seems odd that Chrysler bailed on supplying cars. Don’t know about the Hemi but their 383-powered cars would have seemed to fit in with what the other manufacturers had.
And as to the other cars being tuned, hell, what was stopping Chrysler from doing the same with their cars?
All I can figure is that Chrysler products didn’t yet have performance-specific models like GM and Ford in 1966, even if they had available performance engines and suspensions. It would have just been a couple of 383-4v Satellite and Coronet hardtops.
now you know wy Consumer Reports always buys their test cars on the down low – to avoid the sort of shenanigans that went on here. And to those who protest that it was just good ‘ol boys doing what they do and aw shucks and all that – the test GM X-cars were massaged to seem much better than they were for the car mags, with the result that a lot of good people were separated from their hard-earned money at the least; with many more being hurt or worse when their cars swapped ends.
Rules exist for a reason, and my response to bad rules is to change them, not ignore them. As a lawyer I’ve seen too often that ignoring bad rules engenders disrespect for the good ones too. I would have disqualified the GTO and the two Ford machines, and thereby rewarded the remainder for playing by the rules. The readers of the article would then have an honest assessment of the cars in the form that 99% pf them would be buying.
You’re a lawyer. I’m a salesman. We will see this from a different perspective.
Car & Driver sells ads. Auto companies are big advertisers. Given their business model, I’m actually a bit surprised C&D so openly outed the cheaters.
Consumer Reports doesn’t sell ads. Given their business model, CR writers & editors had no worries about offending advertisers.
The different business models of the respective magazines cannot help but lead to very different perspectives.
Fair enough. In my younger days I would have nodded my approval of the cheaters; you now; ya do what ya gotta do. Boys will be boys and all that. I guess as you get older you start to feel that there’s no integrity anywhere, anymore. It was an interesting and fun read; probably made more so by the cheating.
I’m actually a bit surprised C&D so openly outed the cheaters.
Ford may have asked them to do so after the juiced engine blew up. They wouldn’t want people to think their production engines were so fragile. Karma is a bitch, as they say.
I know they were quick, especially for the day, but I’m kind of disappointed in their performance, especially the Fords. Unapologetically highly prepped engines, that wouldn’t stay together, geared so low they’d only be doing 83MPH at peak power? You couldn’t daily drive a car like that. The Buick actually impressed me the most, breaking into the 14’s in the quarter with a 2 speed auto with a livable 3:36 diff. I expected more out of the Chevelle, I’ve heard such stories about early 396s, but maybe it was just 65s, not 66s. And I know brakes weren’t what they have become, but 9 1/2″ drums all the way around on the GM cars? I had a 61 Ford that wasn’t that much heavier that had 11″ all around.
Enough with perspective, I bet they were fun in the day.