The Story of... How America's muscle cars powered their way onto the auction block

It's said that Americans like to do things 'big' - and few inventions typify this more than the "muscle car", a name given to the gas-guzzling high performance vehicles which the USA specialises in.

Opinions on where and when the muscle car originates vary, but they're believed to have stemmed from the hot rodders' philosophy of taking a small car and putting a big engine in it.

Like hot rods, muscle cars were designed for straight-line speed and, according to Peter Henshaw's book Muscle Cars, didn't have the "sophisticated chassis", "engineering integrity" or "lithe appearance" of European high-performance cars.

The US public wanted speed and power on America's sprawling highways - and their desires were met by the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It boasted a powerful innovation: America's first high-compression overhead valve V8 engine.

An all-American muscle car

As 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 Oldsmobile tapped into a unique vein of the American psyche, and before long other manufacturers began showcasing their own muscle cars with flashy, limited edition models. Among them was Chrysler, leading the way with its 1955 C-300.

Blending Hemi power and luxury-car trappings, the C-300 became the new star of NASCAR. With 3000 horsepower under the bonnet and capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 9.8 seconds, it was also officially "America's most powerful car."

But the C-300 wasn't just about speed and power. It was also recognised as one of the best-handling cars of its era, and its performance and popularity led to the continued growth of muscle cars in the early-1960s.

By then, Mopar (which comprised Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler) was battling Ford for supremacy in drag racing. Mopar's muscle motors included the 1962 Dodge Dart, which could run a 13-second 1/4-mile dragstrip at over 100 miles per hour.

Chevrolet, Pontiac and Buick had joined Oldsmobile under the General Motors (GM) banner by 1965. In under 20 years, muscle cars had evolved from the cult of drag racing into a fully-fledged all-American phenomenon (that Australia, South Africa, the UK and other countries would emulate).

Today, the legacy of America's muscle cars continues to thrive on the world's top auction blocks. Most recent was the sale of the one-of-a-kind 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible, the only example built to its configuration, at Mecum Auctions' sale earlier this month.

Boasting a RAM Air III V8 engine capable of 400/366 horse power and mated to a 4-speed, the car was given a complete frame off restoration before the sale. In the end, it brought an impressive £141,000 ($220,000).

The 1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88, sold for $401,500

As big-money sales like these show, the passion collectors' feel for classic muscle cars rivals the power under their bonnets. Take for instance the US collector who so desired the Chevelle SS 454 Convertible that he spent 20 years tracking down his beloved muscle car before finally finding it.

After two decades, the collector tracked down and rescued the hallowed automobile. With no expense spared, he treated the car to a frame-off restoration and restored it to its original glory. The Chevelle later sold for $253,000 at RM Auctions, earlier this year.

Few auction houses understand car collectors better than RM, which went so far to dedicate an entire auction to the muscle cars phenomenon. According to the auction house, over 102 muscle cars featured in its $6.9m June sale boasting a total of 35,000 horsepower.

Among the highlights were a number of Detroit muscle entries, including the 1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88. One of just 116 high-performance L88s made in 1969, one of the last L88s built and the only 1969 Monza Red/Saddle leather example in existence, it sold for $401,500.

For now, it seems that the legacy of America's muscle cars will remain as long as its desert highways. Among the big new collectors on the market is Tammy Allen, a series high-level buyer with a penchant for rare 'n' powerful Mustangs and Dodge Vipers (you can read more about her here).

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