The History of the American Muscle Car Era - 1965

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1965 American Muscle Cars


American Muscle Cars of 1965

1965 Chevy Corvette
The big news in the 1964 muscle street scene was the sudden and unexpected appearance of Pontiac's revolutionary GTO, essentially a mild big-block V8 in a light intermediate-size car, with as much emphasis on appearance and image as on neck-snapping acceleration. It was the first of Detroit's performance cars for the masses. Most chose to characterise 1965's street scene in one phrase, "catch-up".

The GTO was such an instant success, selling three times as many cars the first year as even Pontiac sales people predicted, that the other GM divisions, and Ford and Chrysler, were forced to try to get whatever they could on the streets as soon as possible, to meet the challenge of this upstart GTO. And on top of this, there was also the booming takeoff of Ford's unique Mustang ponycar, which hit the showrooms only six months after the GTO. This was another challenge that called for crash design and tooling programs by GM and Chrysler.

Shelby GT 350

The basic Mustang was definitely no musclecar, but in GT trim with the optional 271-horse high performance 289, it was a pretty hot little car. Ford was going crazy with its performance program at the time and wanted to capitalise on the success of Carroll Shelby's vicious Cobras in sports car and drag racing. For the enthusiast, this meant the availability of the limited production Shelby GT 350.

The GT 350 was essentially a Mustang fastback with a specially modified 289hi-po engine, 4-speed transmission, Shelby suspension mods, upgraded brakes and extensive body re-trimming, including blue and white striped paint, a gutted rear seat area and even a special instrument cluster on the dashboard. The deep changes made on the basic Mustang fastbacks at the Shelby factory in California would make a story in themselves. Shelby even changed suspension geometry and added race-bred Goodyear Blue Dot tires.

For an extra $2200 you got almost a complete new car. A Holley carb, aluminium hi-rise manifold and steel tubing exhaust headers added 35 hp to the engine (306 gross hp at 6000 rpm), and the 4-speed gearbox and 3.89 rear end gears assured lusty acceleration. The magazines were getting quarters in the mid-14s at 95 mph. But there was also fantastic handling for that day, with the suspension mods and Blue Dot racing tires. It was practically a race car off the showroom floor. Shelby had the capacity to produce only some 2900 GT 350 models in the 1965-66 model years. But orders were backed up five months at the end of the run! Ford struck gold with the Mustang, but no doubt there are many Moparites who'll disagree that it was the "first" ponycar. That honour, according to some Pentastar faithful, belonged to the 1964 Barracuda.

Plymouth Formula S Barracuda

For 1965, Plymouth offered a Formula S version, which was close to the 289/ 271 Mustang in concept and performance. Its 273-cubic-inch small-block V8 was hopped up to 235 gross hp at 5200 rpm, with a 4-barrel carb, 10.5:1 compression, special hydraulic cam and clean dual exhaust system. Suspension was beefed up, Chrysler's new 4-speed transmission was stuck in, and they even offered the macho Goodyear Blue Streak tires to assure optimum cornering and straight-line traction. The body was jazzed up with special trim and emblems, and a deluxe interior had bucket seats, floor shifter and a tachometer. There weren't enough cubes here to cause a Corvette any worries. But a 0-to-60 mph time of 7.6 seconds and quarters in the high 15s at 88 mph were fun with this small car that could get 20 mpg.

A neat little car out of Highland Park in 1965. Musclecar fans, though, were more interested in big-block-powered midsize cars. Everybody was playing catch-up with the Pontiac GTO, but for 1965, speed freaks with fat wallets could blow the Goats away with a 396 Corvette. This, of course, was the famous Mark lV design, with the unique semi-hemi combustion chambers and staggered valves. The special high performance version of the Mark IV had huge ports and valves, a hi-riser aluminium manifold, the first 780 cfm Holley street carb, beefed-up bottom and 6500 rpm valve-train on a solid-lifter cam. With the Corvette's efficient exhaust system, it could develop at least 40 hp more than the strong 327 fuel injection engine, but it cost $245 less. Needless to say, acceleration was impressive in the light Vette. For the first time, quarter mile trap speed went over 100 mph, with ETs in the low 14s, making it the hottest car on the street in 1965.

1964 Chev Mark IV Big Block V8
Chevrolet introduced the Mark IV big-block displacing 396 cubic inches. This version, for the very rare Z16 Chevelle SS was rated at 375 hp with dual snorkel air cleaner, but the large Corvette exhaust manifolds did not fit the A-body chassis.

1965 Chrysler 273ci V8
Chrysler introduced a high performance version of its 273 cubic inch small block V8 in the Barracuda Formula S, rated at 235 bhp @ 2500 rpm.

427 Super Stock V8
Ford continued its 427 Super Stock from 1965 to 1967, after the other early SS engines like the 409 Chevy (discontinued after 1965) had been dropped. It was one of the most powerful engines of 1965, good for a whopping 425 bhp.

It was just what the well-to-do street racer needed for boulevard combat. The Big Three were quick to cater to the demand for high-horsepower cars, because they knew that sales of these models would inevitably have a positive effect on sales of other cars in the line-up. Profit was not always the immediate concern of the carmakers, as hard as that is to believe. Chevrolet probably lost a few bucks putting together the run of 201 Z16 Chevelles that year. This was the quickest answer Chevrolet could come up with to meet the GTO challenge.

By setting aside a special assembly area, Chevy was able to fit 201 1965 Chevelle Super Sport hardtop coupes with a special Z16 version of the new 396-cube big-block engine, rated at 375 hp. These engines were much like the all-out Corvette version, except for a milder hydraulic cam, snorkel-type air cleaner (for less noise) and standard 396 exhaust manifolds, since the big streamlined Vette manifold castings wouldn't fit in the tighter Chevelle chassis. But the performance was equal to a good GTO. Several Z16 cars were loaned to various car magazines for testing, and they pulled quarters in the high 14s at 96 to 98 mph, with 0-to-60 in the 6-second range.

Admittedly, though, this small handful of cars didn't have any real impact on the 1965 street scene. (They were sold to selected dealers and division VIPs.) Chevrolet built them only to let the muscle fans know what to look for in the future. Its real GTO fighter, the Chevelle SS 396, didn't appear until the fall of 1965, as a 1966 model. Pontiac didn't waste a minute counting the profits from' 64 GTO sales, meanwhile. When Pontiac stylists did their face-lift of the original '64 GTO for the '65 model year, one of the more significant changes was a new hood with two neat air scoops in the centre. These were originally plugged with caps and were there only for looks. But Pontiac had secret plans. A few months later, in the summer of '65, the division announced a unique dealer-installed Ram Air kit for Tri-Power models - to utilise those hood scoops.

The kit consisted simply of a sheet-metal tub to go around the tops of the three carbs, under the air cleaners, with a thick foam rubber gasket that sealed against the underside of the hood when it was closed. By removing the metal plugs in the scoop openings, you had a neat system to ram cool outside air into the carbs. The whole kit cost less than $50 and could be installed in 30 minutes. The effect of the cooler intake air was to add 5 to 10 hp to net engine output. It was one of the better horsepower-per-dollar buys of the musclecar era. The Ram Air kit came too late in the '65 model year , to have much impact on the street scene. But it was a unique first for Pontiac that perhaps did more good for the GTO image than any performance boost.

Some performance car buyers still wanted a BIG car to go with the BIG engine. For them, Pontiac offered the 2+2. This was Jim Wangers' idea for a "gentleman's GTO." Essentially, the 2+2 was a 1965 Catalina hardtop coupe with special body trim—fender louvers, emblems, special wheels, blacked-out grille—plus heavy duty suspension, bucket seat interior and a 421-cubic-inch 4-barrel engine as standard equipment. The 421 HO engine, Muncie 4-speed floor shift and aluminium 8-lug wheels were highly recommended options. Needless to say, this was one sweet, sweet road car. It weighed well over two tons, but with the 421 HO Tri-Power engine kicking out 376 gross horses and 4-speed, you could easily pull 0-to-60 in the low 7s and quarter miles in the low 15s at 95 mph. And handling was unusually good for such a big car. It's too bad that the smaller, less expensive muscle cars overshadowed this excellent Pontiac package in 1965.

Pontiac's sister divisions, Oldsmobile and Buick, were also smart enough to see the profit potential of the muscle-car. Olds was actually the first company to get a GTO "clone" in the showrooms—the 4-4-2 debuted in the spring of 1964, some seven months after the original GTO was introduced. And Buick was the second. Buick had its Gran Sport, or GS, model in the showrooms in December of 1964, only two months after the regular '65 models were introduced. It took a real crash design and tooling program to swing it. The GS was actually an option package for the A-body Skylark hardtop coupe or convertible, consisting essentially of the big-block 4-barrel V8 (401 cubic inches, 325 hp), heavy duty suspension, special wheels and a minor amount of special body trim. There were ' also identification emblems on the instrument panel and floor shifters, but no special gauges were available in 1965.

Actually, the performance of this first Buick GS was not too impressive. Remember, the basic engine design was nearly 15 years old at the time. That was the infamous Nail Valve engine, with curled exhaust port, pentroof combustion chambers and something less than lusty breathing. Quarter miles for the early GS with this 401 engine were in the mid-15s at 88 mph. It wasn't until Buick brought out its new big-block V8 in 1967 that the Gran Sport line really started to turn on. The 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 was significant because Olds switched from a 330-cubic-inch small-block engine to a 400-cube high-deck block. This added 35 gross hp and 85 lbs.-ft.'of torque and made a whale of a difference in the performance. Suddenly, the 4-4-2 was fully competitive in acceleration with GTOs and other big-inch muscle-cars.

Ford may have been making a financial killing with the Mustang, but its intermediate cars, the Ford Fairlane and Mercury Comet, had to make due with the 289/271 as the top performance option. This may have been the perfect engine for the lighter Mustang, but it was not quite enough to keep the FoMoCo cars competitive with the CM muscle-cars on the street. You could order a Dodge or Plymouth with the 383 or 426 Wedge engines and have a potent intermediate, but Ford was still a year away from dropping its big-block in the mid-size cars. For Ford enthusiasts who felt the Mustang was too tame, or too small, there was still the full-size car with a 427. Ford was the last company to continue production of its original Super Stock engine from the early 1960s. The basic 427 FE engine started out in 1960 as the 352 Police Special, rated at 360 hp at 6000 rpm with a single 4-barrel carb. By 1965, it had become a very sophisticated street engine, with dual 4-barrels, solid-lifter cam, NASCAR-type bottom end with side oiling system and a rev capability of 6500 rpm. The gross rating of 425 hp told the story.

Not very many 427 Galaxies were sold in 1965, but if we had to list all the '65 muscle-cars in order of acceleration potential, the 427 Galaxie would have to be right behind a 396 Corvette. And better than a Z16 Chevelle, Ram Air GTO or Buick Gran Sport. By far the hottest car in '65 was the Aston-Martin DB-5 James Bond drove in the box-office smash Goldfinger. It was really no quicker than any American musclecar, but its front-mounted machine guns gave new meaning to blowing somebody's doors off. The car's most outstanding feature, and the one most moviegoers probably hoped would reach production status on Detroit's offerings, was the passenger ejector seat. The rear-engined revolution finally bore fruit at Indy as Jimmy Clark in a Ford powered Lotus took the 500 with a 151.388 average speed. Clark also won his first World Driving Championship. Ford also took the Daytona 500 with Fred Loren-zen at the wheel, but Ned Jarrett won the NASCAR overall title.

For carmakers, 1965 was a pretty good year, to say the least. So good, in fact, that the carmakers predicted even higher horsepower for 1966. But in October of 1965, President Johnson called for stiffer regulations for automobile exhaust emissions. Big metropolitan areas, such as L. A., New York and Chicago, were already feeling the toxic effects of smog. Though this foreshadowed the eventual end of the musclecar era. for high performance fans, the fun was still just starting.
1965 Chev Corvette
The new 396 cubic inch Mark IV V8 was rated at 425 hp in the 1965 Corvette, and gave quarter mile times in the low 14s at over 100 miles per hour. The hood bubble was required to clear the hi-riser intake manifold.
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