The History of the American Muscle Car Era - 1960

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1960 American Muscle Cars


American Muscle Cars of 1960

The Hurst Shifter
The right of passage for an American Muscle Car was the fitment of a Hurst Shifter.

Ford’s 352 Engine

Auto historians generally agree that the muscle-car era of U.S. automotive history ran from 1960 through 1972. Not that there weren't some strong, exciting cars around before the 1960s. But that was the year Ford threw down the first major musclecar challenge, in the form of its 352 Special engine - a big-block V8 that was engineered from the oil pan to the air cleaner to give virtual race track performance and durability for everyday street driving.

Previous high performance street engines had been essentially off-the-shelf parts combinations, thrown together, and not engineered as a package. The U.S. auto market was never quite the same again after the 1960 352 Special Fords. The 352 Special engine was based on the big-block FE design that was introduced in 1958 for the heavier Ford-Merc passenger cars and light trucks.

It always had an unusually rugged bottom end, so little had to be done for the street performance version, other than adding beefier rods, a 60 psi oil pump and harder bearings. The cylinder heads were not changed much either, other than a switch to smaller combustion chambers to bring compression up to 10.6:1 with flat-top pistons.The big improvements were in breathing: a neat aluminium intake manifold with a 550 cfm Holley 4-barrel and an open element air cleaner. Plus it got a hot 306-degree solid-lifter camshaft with 0.480-inch valve lift.

This was considered a pretty radical cam in those days. Also an important feature of the new engine was a set of split-flow cast-iron exhaust manifolds with large passages that were as efficient as steel tubing headers. They weighed almost 80 pounds total, but they sure helped exhaust breathing. Ford engineers didn't hesitate to rate their new toy at 360 gross hp at 6000 rpm. The new Ford high performance street engine looked great on paper.

Unfortunately, there was one fatal flaw in the design. For some reason, Ford used only standard valve springs with the high-lift cam. The result was predictable: The valves floated at revs as low as 5000 rpm. There was no way an aggressive driver could get full potential out of the engine. Ford engineers soon realised their mistake and started installing 270-pound valve springs in the engines in the spring of 1960, which allowed at least 5800 rpm before valve float.

But those first few hundred cars with the soft springs didn't help Ford's street reputation in that day. Everybody was feasting on those early models. Besides the Ford 352, there were three or four other 1960 model engine options that set the pace in street racing that year - when used in the lighter full-size coupe bodies and with the right transmission and axle gearing combinations.

Chevrolet Small-Block

The Chevrolet Small-Block was not from 1960, but from the 1950s, when light Chevy coupes with high performance 283 Corvette engines practically ruled the streets, especially the 270-hp version with dual 4-barrels and the Duntov cam. But in 1960, the Chev people decided to use just the big-block W engine for all performance chores in the full-size cars. The strongest small-block you could get was the regular 230-hp 4-barrel version And this just couldn't cut any mustard in a street scene that was going more and more to big-block V8s and cubes numbering up to 400.

Chevrolet 348 Tri-Power "Police" Engine

The US manufacturers often called the stronger engine combinations "police" engines in the early musclecar days - maybe to confuse the safety freaks, or help new owners keep their insurance premiums affordable. There were actually several hot versions of the 348 Chev big-block, depending on the combination of carburettor, cam timing and compression. The most popular in 1960 was the model rated at 335 hp at 5800 rpm. This used pretty much standard heads and short-block, but with a neat 6-barrel carburetion system - three Rochester 2-barrels on a big-passage manifold - 11.2 5:1 pistons, dual exhaust and a camshaft that used the same 287-degree duration as the small-block Duntov cam, though with different lobe phasing to help the extra cubes. It was a pretty strong engine and could turn over 5500 rpm with solid lifters and standard valve springs. The classic horsepower rivalry between Ford and Chevy was drawing a lot of attention, but the engineers over at the Mopar and Pontiac camps were busy preparing their weapons to enter the fray. Pontiac would become a major force in drag racing and the street scene immediately, while the Mopars would have to wait just a few short years before their turn in the spotlight.

1960 Ford
The 1960 Ford, when fitted with the potent 352 V8, started an era of American Muscle.

Ford's 352 V8
Ford's 352 V8 is widely considered to be the engine that started the whole US Muscle Car scene. It was engineered from the ground up to be a true race ready engine.

Impala Sport Coupe
One of the best from 1960 was the Impala Sport Coupe, particularly when optioned with the Super Turbo 348 with Tri-Power, solid cam and 11.25:1 compression.

1960 Dodge Dart
The 1960 Dodge Dart may not have been as potent as the Super Bee models that would appear later in the decade, but they were still mighty quick, especially when a 330 horse Long Ram 383 was under the hood.

1960 Chrysler 383 Long Ram engine
The 1960 Chrysler 383 Long Ram engine, which featured unique criss-cross manifolds that gave 30 inch ram passages with 4 barrel carbys on each side. The mid-range torque was incredible.

Dodge-Plymouth 383 Long Ram

These "Long Ram" Mopar performance engines featured long cast-iron runner pairs for each bank of cylinders looped over the opposite head, criss-crossing in the centre, with a big 4-barrel carb perched on a tiny plenum box at the end of each pair of runners. The total distance from the plenum to any intake valve was about 30 inches. The theory was to phase the bouncing suction waves on each intake stroke to give a slight supercharging effect at medium speeds - between 2500 and 3000 rpm - which was supposed to help mid-range acceleration in street and highway driving.

Peak torque on those 383-cube engines was a whopping 460 lbs.ft. @ 2800, with 340 horses coming on stream at 5000. These proved to be tremendous street engines. The only trouble was that the system cost almost $450, which was a lot of hay in 1960, especially to a young street fan just out of high school. Only a few diehard Moparites popped for the Long Rams. The ones who did were the centre of attention when hoods were popped at the drive-ins. 1960 was also the first year that Dodge offered economy models based on the Chrysler B-body shell, with a 118-inch wheelbase, the same as the Plymouth. These new Dart models weighed 150 pounds less than the more luxurious C-body cars and soon caught on with the street racers.

Pontiac Trophy 425-A

Pontiac were deep into NASCAR and drag racing in the late 1950s, and they had a very long list of special speed parts you could buy over the counter to make your Poncho go. But the strongest Light Dodge and Plymouth performance models in 1960 offered this 383-cubic-inch Long Ram engine, with unique criss-crossing manifolds that gave 30-inch ram passages with 4-barrel carbs on each side, and these helped the engine provide tremendous mid-range torque. You could also order off the assembly line the Trophy 425-A engine - new for 1960.

It was based on the 389-cube block and included the popular Tri-Power 6-barrel carburettor system, 10.75:1 compression, a hot 288-degree hydraulic cam, 4-bolt main caps and special streamlined exhaust manifolds feeding dual mufflers. The rating was 348 gross hp at 4800 rpm, with 425 lbs. ft. of torque. (That's where the "425" in the name came from.) The mid-range torque was impressive. The new Trophy engine proved to be an excellent street hauler. It was smooth, quite flexible, with the vacuum secondary carb opening, and yet it would pull up to 5600 rpm with the hydraulic cam. When mounted in a light Catalina Coupe, you had a very competitive package for those Woodward Avenue bashes (the ultimate in Detroit street racing], and at a reasonable price.

The Warner T-10 Manual

These four engines were the ones to beat on the street in 1960. Admittedly, there were some other fairly strong combinations in the 1960 model crop. All the companies except AMC had 400-plus-cubic-inch V8s with 4-barrel carburettors in their catalogs, with gross power ratings well over 300 hp. But they didn't have especially strong camshafts, very high compression, streamlined exhaust manifolds and other goodies that have always been needed to produce winning performance either on the street or the drag strip.

And, of course, there were some 1959 and earlier models on the street that could give the new '60s a tussle. Models like the Corvette-engined Chevs, 1958 J-2 Oldsmobiles, 1957 312 supercharged Fords, Chrysler 300 letter cars and a few others. The manual transmissions Detroit was bolting behind its new muscular power-plants were definitely lacking in strength.

This was the first year that the famous Warner T-10 manual 4-speed was offered as a factory-installed option in full-size Chevrolet and Pontiac cars. This transmission, which first appeared in 1957 in the Corvette, was a clever modification of the Warner T-85 heavy duty 3-speed, originally designed for heavy cars and pickup trucks. In effect, the designers squeezed the four synchromesh forward gears into the main gearcase and moved reverse into a special tailshaft housing. The conversion saved GM a ton of tooling money, as well as time, and delivered a neat manual 4-speed that was relatively small, light and inexpensive to produce.

But there were problems when they started using the T-10 in full-size passenger cars. To squeeze four forward gears and synchros into a space originally intended for three meant those gears had to be pretty narrow and light. The result: a lot of expensive blown 4-speeds among Chev and Pontiac street racers in 1960. The T-10 cost $188 extra when ordered on a new car, and most serious racers spent at least that much each year maintaining it.

Nevertheless these 4-speeds helped a lot in street racing. Not only could you shift quicker with the accompanying floor shifters, but the closer ratios kept engine revs up on the power curve. These factors were worth 20 or 30 horses over a standard column-shift 3-speed. Especially when the engineers used slightly wider ratios in the heavier cars, like a 2.54 low gear instead of a 2.20. So 1960 was a year of transition in the area of street transmissions.

At that time, Chevrolet had a heavy duty Powerglide 2-speed automatic that you could get with some hotter engine combinations, but not with any solid-lifter job capable of 6000 rpm. Chev and Pontiac performance bugs were faced with the choice between the T-85 column shift and the T-10 floor shift, which was quicker in most cases. The buyer of a 352 Special Ford had to take a 3-speed column shift and like it. When you threw a shift, you never could be quite sure which gear you would end up in. When you come down to it, every high performance transmission option in 1960 was a choice between evils.

Fortunately, the market in bolt-in floor shifters was coming on strong in those days. The Hurst people offered a wide variety of quality floor shifters for all popular transmissions, and a big portion of serious street racers used them. They were infinitely better than the sloppy factory column shifters. But a wide-ratio 3-speed was just no way to go with any hot engine, regardless of how neat the shifter. They just couldn't be speed-shifted in the way we know it today. This factor alone was enough to keep Ford and Mopar Super Stocks out of the winner's circles at national drag meets in 1960. Top Stock Eliminator at the NHRA Nationals that year went to a heavy Pontiac Catalina. The winning quarter mile time was 14.14 seconds at 102 mph. The Warner T-10 4-speed was a very big factor in that win. The top street cars for 1960 in the order of performance potential - with all factory-installed optional equipment - would be (arguably):
  • Chevrolet 348 Tri-Power (335 hp) with 4-speed in a low-line Bel Air coupe.
  • Pontiac Trophy 425-A (348 hp) with 4-speed in a Catalina coupe.
  • Ford 352 Special (360 hp) with column shift 3-speed in a Starliner.
  • Dodge-Plymouth 383 Long Ram (340 hp) with column shift 3-speed in either a Dart or Fury - preferably a cheapo coupe.
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