The compact segment of our muscle car heritage is one that, ironically enough, can be traced back to the 1950s. True, it’s the last decade we would associate with muscle, while being the very first we would connect with such cues as tail fins, and the use thereof. But it was Detroit’s automotive “cunning” during the decade that would backfire on the market, forcing automakers to convert to a more compact formula, similar to those of Germany and Japan.
It was a wound to the American auto market, but it was one that was also self-inflicted, through such actions as building heavier vehicles, along with those that consumed considerably more gas than previous models. Sure, the abundance of chrome and tail fins were sweet, but ultimately it was the American market’s way of flexing muscles before the world.
In this vein, the luxurious and colorful styling cues of the 1950s were geared far more toward corporate greed than they were the desires of the enthusiast. The upcoming wave of compact cars, however, would soon put an end to whatever foul schemes the market had up their sleeves.
Of America’s “Big 3,” Chrysler was one of the chief pioneers of the compact auto market during the late ’50s and early ’60s. This probably had something to do with GM’s introduction of the Corvair in the fall of 1959, a rear-motored car that GM hoped would be the “Volkswagen” of the homesoil.
The all-new Corvair could have very well been a huge determining factor in Chrysler’s decision to introduce their Valiant marque, but it must have also had much to do with the fact that German and Japanese import sales had surpassed some 670,000 cars per year by the mid-’50s. It would prove statistically to result in horrible sales losses for Detroit, and it would force automaker executives to kick compact car production into serious gear.
Chrysler’s new Valiant, introduced in 1960 as sort of a corporate “question mark,” was originally meant to be an independent make, complete with its own chain of dealerships and corporate division. Once Chrysler realized their sales potential with the total Valiant units produced for the sales year, they instead decided to make the Valiant a Plymouth make. By the 1961 sales year, the Valiant nameplate was officially wearing Plymouth badges.
Many compact makes within the late-model and early muscle traditions have enjoyed their own sporty, higher-performance variants. Plymouth’s sub-sized Valiant was no exception, and so the “Barracuda” would eventually become “Cousin Kevin,” so to speak, to the Valiant lineup.
The Barracuda in itself would spin-off into its own styling and platform segment by the late ’60s and early ’70s, morphing into the E-body ‘Cuda that we all too often associate with Mopar muscle. In fact, Plymouth’s ‘Cuda essentially became to the Chrysler division what Trans Am became to Pontiac.
The downside for the Valiant marque, however, was that the E-body ‘Cuda left the Valiant lineup with no sporty equivalent. It was true for at least a few years, but the introduction of the Duster would bring the Valiant platform right back into the compact muscle market.
Dodge and Plymouth weren’t the only automakers to enjoy a compact performance market during the last part of the ’60s, and in fact it could even be said that the American Motor Company’s Javelin AMX was a car that almost sat beside the Duster in size class…but that was probably about it.
The most base-optioned AMX available in 1971 offered a 2-barrel 360 with a 3-speed, a V8 that put out 245 horses. American Motors’ souped-up Javelin, however, was also available with what was called the “Go” package. This upgrade consisted of an optional “T-stripe,” along with the option of either a 4-barrel 360 or 401-cube motor.
AMC also offered what they called a “Shift-Command” automatic transmission, one that featured a center console with a “stirrup-grip control.” If not, then the more race-oriented package would feature a 4-speed with a Hurst shifter, and some Javelin AMXs were even ordered with a 390 cubic-inch/315 horse package, monopolizing on racer Craig Breedlove’s land speed success with the two-seater AMX.
Regardless, our featured Cars In Barns find out of Eugene, Oregon, along with a few Mopar classics found in a farming field in Iowa, are reminders that our nation’s muscle car heritage is in desperate need of preservation. We’re sure that our featured finds will leave you in a state of awe for the rest of your work day; believe us, we’re with you!