The History of the American Muscle Car Era - 1963

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1963 American Muscle Cars


American Muscle Cars of 1963

The Dodge Ramchargers 1963 Candymatic
The Dodge Ramchargers 1963 Candymatic was the most popular factory-built drag car of the decade.

Dodge and Plymouth Max Wedge Cars

Big engines in smaller bodies were still some time away - only Chrysler Corporation offered big-blocks in intermediate-size cars. And that was pretty much by accident, rather than as a marketing ploy. A major restyling the year prior resulted in scaled down Plymouths and Dodges, a not too successful bucking of the trend toward larger cars by the competition. Fords, Chevys, Pontiacs and other factory hot rods came only in full-size packages, though that would soon change with the success of the GTO.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the car fan's street scene back in 1963 was the quick but temporary end to the cubic-inch race that started in the late 1950s. In 1963, two of the largest race sanctioning organisations, NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association ( N H R A ) , clamped a maximum displacement limit of 7.0 litres, or 427.5 cubic inches, on passenger car engines eligible for competition. Both associations were alarmed at the swift rise in engine sizes in the early Super Stocks and could see no constructive purpose in letting the race go on. But it's still fun to think about how far it might've gone.

The result was that most of the companies that were active in the youth market took their last big bite of cubes and settled down to more subtle ways of getting the neck-snapping dig-out that was expected of the hottest factory models. Ford bored their 406 high-performance engine out to 42 7 cubes. Chrysler honed their 413 high-deck block out to 426 cubes for the Dodge and Plymouth Max Wedge cars. Chevrolet didn't change the bore and stroke of their 409 street engine, but they developed a special competition version of it, known as the ZII option, with 427 cubes and improved heads and manifold, while Pontiac stood pat with their 421 4-bolt. At least nobody could plead an unfair advantage in cubic inches anymore.

Total Performance

"Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" was the "in" theme in Dearborn. Ford's advertising punchline became "Total Performance." Though the average person didn't walk into a Ford dealership to purchase a 427, the supercar image transcended cubic-inch boundaries and boosted sales of 390s and 352s. Which car/engine combinations were the ones to beat on the street in 1963? Believe it or not, the picture changed quite a bit in the transition from 1962 to 1963 models. For one thing, Ford's entry in the stoplight chase not only got a booster shot of cubes from 406 to 427, but new 427 heads got bigger exhaust valves, and Ford's famous 6-barrel carburettor system was changed to dual 550 cfm Holley 4-barrels on a new, big-passage aluminium manifold. The increase in gross power rating from 405 to 425 hp at 6000 rpm hardly did justice to the improvement. Overnight, Ford fans had an engine that could go head to head with a well-tuned 409 dual-quad Chevy.

The new Z11 427 Chevy, on the other hand, was never available for street use. It was the most expensive RPO ever offered in a Chevrolet and included aluminum front sheet-metal and bumpers. Only about 55 were ever built, and all were used for racing. They were absolutely awesome automobiles. Dave Strickler and Bill Jenkins probably had the most famous Z11 in the land. It was the "Old Reliable IV." The team won over 90 percent of the races they ran that year, classed in both A/FX and "Match" races. Plans for semi-volume production and eventual street use were blasted when the GM front office issued an edict in early 1963, banning all division activity in racing and even stopping the advertisement of speed and performance. This put an end to the development of both the Z11 Chevy and the Super Duty 421 Pontiacs.

1963 Pontiac 370 hp 421 HO V8
The 1963 Pontiac 370 hp 421 HO featured a hydraulic cam and Tri-Power carbys.

Ford's new 406 V8
1963 Plymouth Max Wedge Sport Fury.

Chevy's 1963 409 single barrel V8
Chevy's 1963 409 single barrel V8 was rated at 340 hp.

1963 Pontiac 421 HO Catalina
1963 Pontiac 421 HO Catalina.

At Indianapolis, Parnelli Jones in "OF Calhoun," an Offy-powered Watson, was the first to break the 150-mph barrier around the Speedway, and he went on to win his only 500. As a portent, Jimmy Clark finished second in a rear-engined Lotus, a configuration that induced sweeping changes in race car design almost overnight. The Indy roadster's day in the sun had just about ended.

Ford, taking the aggressive approach with motor racing, began having great success. Their new 1963 V2 fastback Galaxie model swept the Daytona 500. At the wheel was Tiny Lund, and what it proved was the importance of aerodynamics: The fastback roofline of the newly introduced Ford was more slippery through the air than the typical notchback of the day. This was a bad time for GM fans, in NASCAR and drag racing as well.

It created a situation in which long time Chevy and Pontiac drivers were forced to switch to other brands after the '63 season to continue their racing careers. "Dyno" Don went to Mercury, Fireball Roberts to Ford, Strickler and Jenkins to Dodge, and Butch Leal to Plymouth, just to name a few. Fortunately, Chevy engineers had done some homework on the regular409 street engine for 1963 - bigger cylinder heads, a stronger cam - so buyers of a new 409 that year were able to trim a 1962 model by a couple of car lengths. Power rating was 425 hp at 6000 rpm, same as the 427 Ford. And though we focus on the big-blocks, there were plenty of 327 Chevys out on the street cleaning up in the typical stoplight drag.

Pontiac Super Duty 421

Winning races attracted attention, which sold more cars. The GM front office anti-racing edict of early 1963 had put a stop to development of the Super Duty 421 Pontiac cars and engines. But fortunately, the ever alert Pontiac design and marketing team - people like Jim Wangers, John De-Lorean and new manager Pete Estes - were one jump ahead with a brand-new street version of the 421 for the 1963 model year. This was the year of introduction for the famous 421 HO option, which turned out to be one of the strongest and sweetest Pontiac performance options. Essentially, it was a combination ofthe421 4-bolt block— but with the early 421 medium-valve heads, 10.5:1 compression, Tri-Power carburetion, new exhaust manifolds - with a new 288-degree hydraulic cam. A beautiful compromise between street flexibility and top-end power.

The new 421 HO carried a gross power rating of 370 hp at 5200 rpm. As you can imagine, it was a huge improvement over the famous Trophy 425-A 389 engine that had served so well in the 1959 to 1962 period. Most serious Pontiac street racers ordered 421 HOs in the lightest Catalina coupes in 1963. Then, of course, there were the new 426-cube Max Wedge cars from Dodge and Plymouth. These engines also had other improvements besides the displacement. New connecting rods beefed up the bottom end (mostly for NASCAR track racing), and breathing was improved by machining around the valves in the combustion chambers. Without a doubt the most famous Mopar drag car was the "Candymatic" machine campaigned by the Ramchargers, though there were countless others coast to coast.

Dodge vs. Chevy

Drag strip operators were quick to capitalise on the "factory" stacker trend by scheduling match races between rival brands and drivers. Dodge vs. Chevy? Dyno Don's Chevy against the Ramchargers in a best-out-of-five match would pack 'em in like sardines. But perhaps the most important change for Mopar fans in 1963 was a new company policy to offer both street and all-out race versions of the Max Wedge cars. The street jobs had compression ratio reduced from 12.5 to 11.0:1, they had all-steel bodies (no light aluminium panels), and the standard axle ratio was dropped from 4.56 to 3.91:1. The Mopar Max Wedge street versions were arguably the best. They could turn low 13-second quarter miles at 110 mph with no more than uncapped exhausts and a set of 8.50-14 Bucron tyres.

It's too bad that Mopars were only beginning to gain a performance image in the early 1960s, so there weren't many buyers for the Max Wedges. The cars also carried a bit of an "ugly duckling" connotation, not the best thing for a solid street image. But no car had more respect at a light. Next would be the 409 Chevys and 427 Fords. And here it would be a toss-up. The 409 Chevys had a slight advantage over the 1962 406 Fords, but that edge melted when Ford went to 427 cubes and dual 4-barrels. It usually came down to how the cars were tuned and who was doing the driving. Finally, we have the 421 HO Pontiacs — not quite in the same league with the solid-lifter Fords and Chevys. They were heavier cars, so they had a built-in handicap. 1963 could be thought of as the last year before the musclecar "explosion." The following year would see Pontiac releasing their GTO, the first "packaged," mass-market musclecar.
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