Are Sports Cars and Muscle Cars the Same Thing?

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In the world of cars, classifications can sometimes get a bit confusing. Anyone who has seen the end of My Cousin Vinny can attest to the intricacies of car history.
One such area of confusion can be knowing the difference between sports cars and muscle cars. In the past few years, most carmakers have focused on producing sports cars instead of muscle cars. But what are the differences between the two?
A blue Dodge Challenger on a gravel road in a forest
Some say that the Dodge Challenger is the last true muscle car in production.

The differences between sports cars and muscle cars

To put it simply, the term “sports car” forms a larger category under which muscle cars fall. According to Carfax, “all muscle cars are sports cars, but not all sports cars are muscle cars.”
Both prioritize performance, but in different ways. While sports cars are generally more well-rounded, striking a balance between acceleration and handling, muscle cars focus on acceleration.
Sports cars and muscle cars are both traditionally rear-wheel drive, but they can be all-wheel drive, depending on the model. Two-seater convertible or coupe sports cars are most common, as are two-door muscle cars. Powerful “V8 engine(s), wide tires, flared fenders, and large hood scoops” are characteristic of muscle cars, according to Carfax.
Engines for sports cars can be mounted at the front, rear, or middle of the vehicle, behind the driver’s seat.
Sports cars are optimized for aerodynamic performance and lend themselves to races with sharp turns, which are handled gracefully at high speeds. Muscle cars are ideal for drag racing with their bigger engines and boxier, “muscular” designs. They are also more practical with their larger trunks and cabins.
Most carmakers have stopped producing muscle cars in favor of sports cars. According to Carfax, the only legitimate muscle car that is still in production is the Dodge Challenger, although Dodge has announced that it will release an electric muscle car in 2024.

The early history of muscle cars

This much is undeniable: muscle cars are a classic American invention of the mid-20th century. Determining which automaker can be credited with manufacturing the “first true muscle car,” however, is less clear-cut.
Most agree that this honor belongs to Oldsmobile for their 1949 Rocket 88, which had a V8 engine—a trait that would come to define muscle cars. Other automakers followed suit in the mid-’50s, including Chrysler (with the 1955 C-300) and AMC (with the 1957 Rambler Rebel). The latter of these vehicles was also widely regarded as the first true muscle car. It was fuel-injected, which was not common for the time.
The widespread adoption of muscle cars in the ‘60s revolutionized American culture. Cars like the Pontiac GTO, Dodge Polara 500, Plymouth Sport Fury, and Plymouth Barracuda hit the scene, along with AMC offerings like the classic AMX, Rambler Marlin, and the 1967 Rambler Rebel. Carfax described the Rebel as “one of the greatest and most underrated muscle cars of all time.”
Packed with new tech and bigger engines, muscle cars got pricier with time. Although they didn’t offer outrageous performance, the Dodge Super Bee and Plymouth Road Runner were among wallet-friendly options.

Muscle cars almost didn’t survive

After the 1970 AMC Rebel Machine, Plymouth Road Runner, and the iconic Dodge Challenger were released, the combined effects of the oil crisis, insurance hikes, and government-imposed limitations stemming from pollution concerns all threatened to end muscle cars.
Ultimately, though, the industry prevailed, though it took some time. Interest once again began to grow in the mid-to-late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, before blossoming after the 2008 economic recession.
Muscle cars are big attractions for collectors today, often gracing car shows around the country. Newer re-invigorated models like the Ford GT, Dodge Challenger, and Dodge Charger, pay tribute to those of old, with thoughtfully reminiscent design choices.

The first American sports car

Sports cars were of European invention. Imports from popular names like Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, and Bugatti, among others, hit American markets in the ‘50s and ‘60s when muscle cars were just taking off.
U.S. automakers started manufacturing their own sports cars, and the Chevy Corvette was the first real American offering in the segment, according to Carfax.
It debuted at an auto show in January of 1953 to incredible success, and went on sale that same year for $3,498, per Car and Driver. Not a bad investment at all.
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