By Niamh Smith
In recent years, there has been a surge of muscle car popularity in the UK. It is apparent everywhere you look; at classic car shows, on social media, classified ads, even in car magazines. One only has to take a quick look on Car and Classic’s ‘American Cars’ section to see that, at the time of writing this article, there’s a whopping 434 listings, and that’s just one classic car sales website!
So what do muscle car’s popularity in the UK owe to its success? There’s plenty of reasons that contribute, that’s for sure. I don’t know about you, but we’re pretty pleased that muscle cars are being put on a pedestal here on home turf, and they definitely look mighty fine in the limelight.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a few different reasons for the recent rise in popularity of muscle cars in the UK, including some glimpses into the vibrant, revving culture they’ve helped to build.
Why Do People Love Muscle Cars Anyway?
Since their conception in the mid 60s – beginning with pony cars like the Plymouth Barracuda and the Ford Mustang – the muscle car really took off with every auto manufacturer in America jumping on the muscle car bandwagon until the gas crisis of the 70s. This brought an end to the true and original muscle car era. However, the ceasing of manufacturing didn’t stop people from maintaining, buying and modifying muscle cars.
There’s something indescribable about the excitement of seeing a muscle car on the street; the signature styling, the burble of a big V8 engine and a lumpy cam is something like no other. Don’t get me wrong, European cars have their own attractions, but there’s something about a big yank tank that seems to draw people in.
For a lot of people, owning a muscle car symbolises reaching the pinnacle of classic car ownership. They’re the biggest and baddest you can get. When little kids play with Hot Wheels or watch a film with a muscle car in, they all dream of one day owning a muscle car or hot rod, and so that becomes the goalpost.
Origins of Muscle Cars in the UK
Despite the fact that muscle cars were mostly made by American auto manufacturers, this didn’t mean that there weren’t originally muscle cars in the UK. There has always been an American car market over here. Although unusual, it’s not impossible to find right-hand drive muscle cars that were originally sold by dealers in the UK. There was a set of early British motoring enthusiasts who deliberately sought American built cars as opposed to the more conservative British cars of the 20th century. Buick, Lincoln (including Ford), Chrysler (part of Rootes Group from the mid-60s onwards) and GM all had a part in the UK classic American import market, but perhaps the manufacturer that monopolised on the trade the most was AMC. In 1967, AMC had as much as 40% of the UK market for American models, with the Javelin proving particularly Appealing to the British customer.
With the rising popularity of street rodding, drag racing and hot rodding throughout the 60s and into the 70s the number of privately imported cars also increased. These hobbies became more like a lifestyle for those who partook, and specialist American car dealers and mechanics began springing up.
Recent(ish) Rise in Popularity
Where the Scene is Seen
Nowadays, it would be strange to go to a classic car show and not see any American cars, let alone muscle cars. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time that the little local car show on the village green would be rows of MGs, Austins and English small Fords. Back in the day, the muscle car crew really kept themselves to themselves, but nowadays the classic car scene isn’t so polarised. Despite still having specific UK hot rod weekends and American car meets, the amount of variety on display at general classic car shows are phenomenal these days.
The same goes for other places you’re likely to see classic cars other than car shows, such as weddings or prom hire. Whereas once your options for a flashy hire car to arrive in style were limited to Rolls Royces and other early British cars, it’s not not unusual to see people hiring something with a few more horses and cylinders. This public accessibility to muscle cars leads to more exposure.
Some of the most popular muscle cars you’re likely to see out in public this side of the Atlantic are the more common or well known cars, such as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Challenger and the Chevy Camaro. Tri-Chevy’s also have a big following in the UK, and are an instantly recognisable piece of Americana. It is more unusual to see some of the oddball American cars in the UK, including Dodge Darts, AMC Javelins and Mercury Cougars.
Modern muscle cars are fairly popular in the UK now too. While you naturally don’t see as many as you would in the United States, I often see modern Ford Mustangs (after being offered officially to the UK market with right hand drive only recently in 2014) and occasionally a few Dodge Challengers. It’s much rarer to see modern Dodge Chargers and Chevy Camaros over here, but always exciting to spot one in the wild!
Another reason for this increase in popularity is the rise of the internet and social media. As much as we berate our reliance on social media, it is an intrinsic factor of modern living that has made the muscle car world so much more accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t have even thought they could own a classic American car.
The age of social media has proven instrumental in the advancements of car clubs, classic car sales and importation of classic American vehicles and parts. Those who previously had no knowledge of what it means to own and drive a performance car now have an insight into a world that seems so far away for many, and it has helped people realise that owning a muscle car is not necessarily an unrealistic goal. In fact, if it wasn’t for social media, I would probably still be driving Morris Minors and would never have known what a Plymouth Barracuda was, let alone have one sitting in my garage.
Social media hype has also led to easier importing of vehicles from America, with increased ease of communication with sellers stateside. Sometimes it can even be more affordable to import a vehicle than find one already for sale in the UK.
The Effects of Boredom
Despite 2020 being a nightmare of a year for many, it hasn’t all been bad. A lot of people suffered economically, but for others it meant that they could save money… and when classic car owners save money it burns a hole in their pocket (ask me how I know!).
Used car sales took a pounding in 2020, but some people realised that they wanted a little lockdown project to tinker with or restore. Some found that now is the time to make an investment, or that life is short so why not buy the car you’ve always dreamed of having? As we say, drink it while it’s fizzy! This meant that there was a lot of movement in the muscle car market last year, and many people who had never even dipped their toes in before had now cannonballed into muscle car ownership, desperate for show season to show off their new pride and joy.
A Plethora of Specialists
Dealing with something totally new can be off-putting for those that are new to the scene, but luckily for them there are specialist dealers and experts who can make muscle car ownership a breeze. American muscle car specialists like MCUK can help restore, maintain, fix and even supply the perfect car for each customer, so you know you’ll be looked after. There are specialists all over the UK and Europe for each brand of American muscle, so you’ll never be far from someone who knows what they’re doing, which means even people who aren’t particularly mechanically adept can get involved too.
Muscle in the Media
Naturally, the human race is so influenced by media and pop culture that the rise in popularity stems from our exposure to muscle cars through what we see and read. There are hundreds of films that feature muscle cars, so it’s likely that everyone has seen at least one muscle car in a film or on TV. Bullitt, Smokey and the Bandit, Ford v Ferrari, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Dukes of Hazzard… all of these have a huge influence in dictating which muscle cars are desirable.
Old school films such as Two-Lane Blacktop, Hot Rod, The California Kid and American Graffiti (all of which should be on your ‘to watch’ list if you haven’t already seen them, by the way) had an influence on previous generations of hotrodders. In turn, they showed these films to their kids, and thus starts the circle of generational hobbies. Now their kids are all grown-up, they want a slice of the pie too just like their old man had back in the 70s.
Even the news regularly report on sports car and muscle car mania; last year the 1968 Ford Mustang driven by Steve McQueen in the film Bullitt sold at auction for a record-breaking $3.4 million. News of these incredible sales most definitely have an influence on those who are looking to make an investment; perhaps they thought ‘now is the time to buy a Ford Mustang’, and they’d be right—we predict that they’ll only ever get more desirable.
Muscle car popularity in the UK has risen tenfold in the last decade, and now a Great British car show wouldn’t be the same without seeing at least a couple. There are many contributory factors in this rise in trend, including but not limited to newfound accessibility through the internet and social sites, the influence of media and a global pandemic leading people to replace fancy holidays with other luxuries. Despite this, it all boils down to the fact that muscle cars were just iconic cars straight out the factory.
I’d say that, after the initial craze of the 1960s and early 70s, now is the perfect time to buy a muscle car in the UK and join the thousands of others who already have.
Author: Niamh Smith
Muscle Car UK and Pilgrim Motorsports are leading UK classic car specialists for muscle cars, sports cars and classic cars. We build, service and upgrade all classic cars, specialising in Mustangs, V8 engines, Carroll Shelby Cobras and Corvettes.
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