Home/News and Feature Articles/Special Features/ The Performance Car Chronicles/

It started here - with the GTO. But would the GTO have happened or even been so earth-shattering if GM had been actively involved in racing?

1964 – The muscle car blueprint is made!

By Society Staff - Reprint with Permission Only

The world of performance cars had been getting hotter and hotter from the '50s through the early '60’s. But when we hit 1964, we can see that it's the seminal year of the decade, because that's when virtually every major player pushed in all their chips.

Stock car racing was soaring to new heights with the development of “super speedways” in the decade. At the end of the '50s and starting with Darlington, and then Daytona in 1959, big and bigger tracks were being constructed. At the start of the '60s new tracks in Charlotte, Atlanta and California were put in place. These new high banked super speedways responded well to serious doses of horsepower. That pushed the Big 3 manufacturers to begin all-out efforts to develop and build special motors that could take 500 miles of flat out running and survive.

Likewise, the NHRA in response to fan pressure, (read attendance figures), rescinded its ban on nitro fuel in late 1963. That meant that the 1964 season would be the first to feature the nitro burning top fuel dragsters that had been huge draws on the AHRA circuit and in match races around the country.

In 1964, Big Daddy Don Garlits won the first of his record 8 Top Fuel Eliminator titles at the NHRA Nationals with a run of 202.24 MPH and an ET of 7.67 sec.  To put that into perspective, the 1963 Nationals, when the fuel ban was still in effect, was won by a gasoline powered rail with an ET of 8.50 sec and a top speed of 182.18 MPH. Big Daddy – on nitro – ran almost a full second quicker and 20 mph faster. The fans loved it!!

In the “stocker ranks” there had been a whirlwind of development activity by the factories since 1957. Every one of the “Big 3” manufacturers had developed and refined a “big block” engine.These powerplants, originally developed to power the heavier car introduced in 1958, were recognized as the way to go for drag and super speedway racing - not to mention the impact on the street..

Here are some examples for 1963: 

  • By 1963 Chevy had the Z-11 427 cube engine for drag racing – the final iteration of the 348 cu. In. “W” engine introduced in 1958. Their "Mystery Engine" (the precursor to the famous 396-454 "rat" motor) had shattered the speed record at Daytona.

  • Ford had built up their 332 cu. in. V8 (called the "FE" for Ford/Edsel use) introduced in 1958  first to 390, then 406, and finally by 1963 to 427  cubes.

  • Pontiac had stretched their famous 389 "Trophy" V8 to 421 cubes - and in so doing offered what amounted to race engines to those in the know. As a result, Pontiac was the car to beat at the drags and in NASCAR.

  • By 1963, Chrysler's "B" wedge had moved from 413 to 426 cubes and the ram effect had been refined to a point where they dominated S/S in 1963.

The “Super Stockers” in NHRA/IHRA competition had become immensely  popular and the frantic pace of development by the factories, with, by 1963, Chevrolet and Pontiac going head to head alongside Ford Dodge and Plymouth for bragging rights. 

But in the midst of this crescendo, suddenly at the beginning of the 1963 season, General Motors – by executive order of its Chairman – immediately ceased all forms of racing activity. This was more than just the “wink-wink” given to the phony 1957 AMA ban; this was a firm corporate order. Well that might have been a racing ban, but it had the unintended – or perhaps intended – consequence of all the GM divisions (save for Chevrolet which could carry on under the Corvette label) trying to figure out how to put "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" into useful effect.

What this really did was give Ford and Chrysler the "field" to go head to head in NASCAR and NHRA in the coveted S/S ranks. But it left GM scratching their heads. Lightweight big-car super stockers were stuck with whatever the factory had supplied prior to Jan 1, 1963, and no new development was allowed of race pieces – what to do?

So what would happen in 1964?

When many back in the day were saying that GM's racing ban would seriously curtail performance cars, the exact opposite happened. Product planners in each company were driven by different demands, but the results made 1964 an outrageous year for performance. Let's take a look:

Chrysler Corporation - 
The Dodge & Plymouth divisions were riding high in drag racing with their 426 Max Wedge drag engines at the end of 1963. Led by the Ramchargers, Dodge swept both Top Stock Eliminator at the NHRA Winter Nationals and US Nationals. Max wedge cars were virtually unbeatable in drag racing's top stock classes.

But the story on the NASCAR/USAC circuit was not as bright. The max wedge engines did not have the sustainable horsepower to run with the big Fords and Pontiacs on the super speedways. Something had to be done, and the "B" Wedge was just not up to it.

Looking to their past, Chrysler approached Tom Hoover, of the Ramchargers, and asked what he would do. He told the top brass that the 426 could be modified with the addition of Hemispherical heads with little development time. After all, who else had so much experience with this kind of engine but Chrysler.

The heads and a beefed up block, were developed in rapid time – about 5 months and released  in time for the Daytona 500 in February 1964. 426 cid Hemi powered cars went 1-2-3 at the 500, to the delight of Mopar fans and the dismay of the Ford camp. The 426 Hemi would also be fitted to the drag race Mopars. While the 426 Max Wedge cars, fitted with the indestructible 727 Torqueflite automatic transmissions, “owned” the S/SA class, the 426 cid Hemi would prove to be a legendary engine everywhere; on the street, strip or track.

Ford Motor Company –
The 427 cid  “hi-riser” or “side-oiler” engine that was so successful in the 1963 NASCAR circuit would be initially fitted to the same "lightweight" big car chassis, and was quite competitive in what would be called SS/B. But ford recognized that they were losing "press" because they did not have a car capable of going head to head with the Mopars in S/S.

For 1964, Ford continued the 427 in its full sized Galaxie and Mercury line. But, through a contract with outside vendor, Dearborn Steel and Tube, made 100 427-equipped, mid-size Fairlanes called "Thunderbolts". These cars fit into NHRA’s S/S and S/SA for the automatics. Ford was hunting the Max Wedge Mopars!!

And a funny thing happened over at Ford. Some guys (including Lee Iacocca) were working on a "small sporty car" called the Mustang that was released at mid-year 1964, and was immediately available powered by a 289 "Hi-Po" V8 developing 271 HP.  In this 2600 lb. car it offered terrific performance. We all know where this went.

General Motors –
GM divisions were in a bind in 1964. The edict in 1963 forbade them from actively or overtly participating in any form of racing. For some – such as the Pontiac division – this was a near mortal blow to their marketing efforts.  Pontiacs had been competitive and dominant in the NASCAR/USAC circuits with their 389 and 421 Super Duty programs. Now they and the other GM divisions had to resort to a “Plan B”, which could only be to find a way to "take it to the street" and capitalize on the youth market – the "baby boomers" as we now know them, who were reaching driving, and more importantly, buying age.

But where would they go? Certainly, their "lightweights" were not compatible to street driving so the only answer was to continue the cars offered to the public like the 409 Chevy, the 421 Pontiacs, the Buick 425 cube GS models and the Olds Starfire 394s.

The problem was that these cars were very expensive, way far away from the youth market. Sure, the top of the line models would be tested and lauded by the car magazines, but that wasn't going to get these kids in the showroom.

Luckily, GM had decided to up-size their small cars: the Cutlass, Skylark and Tempest to what we now call midsize cars, and to give Chevy one too.  All were designed to accept a big car factory V8, unlike the earlier versions that were too small for that.

John DeLorean, Pontiac Chief Engineer, and two of his assistant engineers: Bill Collins and Russ Gee, realized in mid-1963 that the 389 V8 was the same size as the 326 slated for the Tempest line. Eureka!  They fitted a 389 cid. Tri-powered 348 HP engine, upgraded the suspension, and applied some special identification to the upscale LeMans and called it the "GTO".

The car was a smash hit, and soon Oldsmobile responded with the 442. Olds and Chevrolet were caught a bit flatfooted as their new big block V8s - the 400 and 396 were a year away. But like the 310 HP 330 for Olds, Chevy made do with the 327 but called their Malibu the "SS" and packed it with buckets, HD suspension and all the performance cues. Buick was really caught flatfooted in 1964, initially only offering a 300 cube V8, but they would remedy that bit of shortsightedness next year.

So what was happening at NASCAR?
While the 426 Hemi dominated the super speedways, Ford’s 427 Galaxies were competitive on shorter tracks. In fact, Ford driver Ned Jarrett had 15 wins in 1964 – 13 on short tracks. So in roundy-round the Plymouths, Dodges, Fords and Mercurys battled it out and certainly got lots of publicity. Stunningly, the two manufacturers learned that NASCAR victories weren't resulting in increased big car sales. In fact, the Mustang and Barracuda were generating far more excitement in the coveted youth market.

Who were the big guns in NHRA?
At NHRA and AHRA strips, things rapidly got out of hand. In 1964, the NHRA totally took the cuffs off the Factory Experimental class. Dodge put 426 Hemis in Coronets that had their wheelbase altered by 2%; Ford Motor Company dropped 427 side oilers into their compact Mercury Comets for several top drag race stars. Ford even built some 427 side-oiler Mustangs late in 1964.

Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick dropped a Pontiac 421 Super Duty engine in his 1964 GTO and qualified as an A/FX car. The Chevrolet boys were installing the Z-11 427 into Chevelles and Chevy II’s. It was as close to “run what you brung” match racing as could be seen in a sanctioned meet.

A special note should be made of the 4 cars that made up an even newer S/FX classification at mid-year. These were the two 1964 Dodge Hemi cars that had been supercharged and fuel injected; The 427 supercharged and fuel injected Comet of Art Chrisman and the supercharged and fuel injected 421 cu. in GTO – the Mystery Tornado” of Arnie Beswick. There was mayhem in the FX ranks for all to enjoy.

The Payoff for John Q. Public –

If you were into racing in 1964, you could go to a NASCAR/ USAC stock car race and see the new 426 Hemi Mopars battling with the 427 Fords/Mercurys. Or you could head over to your local drag strip and see the awesome Super Stockers and those wild FX cars scream down the asphalt. Hang around for Top Eliminator and see, smell and feel those nitro burning Hemi fuelers shake the ground and run 200+ MPH!

But that wasn't the real deal - a young person with bucks in their pocket could go to any one of the “Big 3” dealerships and purchase a car that provided more sheer performance than any car in any previous year.

Here is just a short list of the “hot street” cars available:

  • Chrysler - Dodge & Plymouth 426 wedge engines with up 375 HP were available were available in the less expensive mid-size Dodges and Plymouths.

  • Ford and Mercury - the 427 “hi-riser” 425 HP was available and could be had in the full sized Galaxie and Mercury line along with a 335 HP Interceptor 390. The new Mustang had plenty of go, with the 225 and 271 HP V8s in such a light car.

  • Pontiac had the 389 cid, Tri-power, 348 HP GTO as well as Tri-power, HO 421 Catalinas.with up to 370 HP. Oldsmobile had their new 330 cid, 310 HP 442 with the 345 HP 394 in their full sized line.

  • Chevy still had lots of 409’s in their full size line plus the 327 cid, 320 HP Chevelle SS.

Of course, the "muscle car" kept expanding over the years until the mountain was peaked in 1970 with 454 Chevelles, 400 Ram Air IV Pontiacs, 429 Super Cobra Jet Torinos, and even AMC's Rebel "The Machine" to name a few. So while the world of performance cars got better every year, not worse as had been predicted – 1964 was a crucial year with the “blueprint” for the muscle car inked and the emphasis on super high performance V8s being set.



Prior to the GM racing ban, Pontiac's efforts in NHRA were involved in "lightweight" big boys.

Mopars were having a field day with their Max Wedge V8s in 1963.

Like their competitors, Ford was pushing big car performance in 1963.

Chevrolet was in the same boat - the big Impala SS was the car to beat.

Pontiac was dang serious about the GTO - and this ad was just great advertising!

Ford's mid-size cars were caught napping - thinking 289 cubes would be enough.

Chrysler Corp continued to tout their drag racing accomplishments.

But if you wanted some street dig - Plymouth (and Dodge) had plenty to offer in their mid-size line.

Olds touted their police pursuit lineage in their first 442 ads.

Like Ford Mercury's emphasis was on their big car - it took them two years to catch up.

Ford was saved by the Mustang and created a whole new class of performance cars.

Chevy appealed to the "wrench spinners" with this 1964 ad

Chrysler and Ford battled it out in NASCAR here at Darlington

Don Nicholson's 1964 427 Comet

Art Chrisman's supercharged 1964 Comet

Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick's 1964 supercharged "Mystery Tornado" GTO