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BOOK REVIEW: MUSCLE - AMERICA'S LEGENDARY PERFORMANCE CARS

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, Dec 15, 2006

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

Book Review

MUSCLE AMERICA'S LEGENDARY PERFORMANCE CARS Words by Randy Leffingwell and Darwin Holmstrom Pictures by David Newhardt

Motorbooks, St. Paul, MN 2005 Hard Bound; 384 pages Dimensions: 12.3 x 10.8 x 1.6 inches ISBN: 0760322848 Catalog ID: 137444AP $50

Review by BRIAN KENNEDY, PhD

Muscle: America's Legendary Performance Cars by Randy Leffingwell and Darwin Holmstrom with photography by David Newhardt Motorbooks/MBI Publishing Co., 2006; Hardcover, 384 pages Price: $50 Available in bookstores or from www.motorbooks.com The musclecar, that particularly American invention that traces back to the 1960s, lives in the consciousness of most auto enthusiasts at some level. Especially these days, you can't read a car magazine without stumbling across a modern reinvention of the idea, from the forthcoming Shelby Mustang to the promise of the new Dodge Challenger.

That not to mention to plethora of magazines devoted exclusively to these icons of the past. With this exposure, or over-exposure, most car fans probably think they know much of what there is to know about GTOs, Hemi 'Cudas, and Boss Mustangs. So why do you need a book, or another book, about the musclecar, and why would someone take the time and trouble to write it? Read Muscle: America's Legendary Performance Cars, and you'll find out, but here's the short version: Because this book takes all the fragments of facts that you've ever read scattered across the pages of the buff books, and puts them into one place. And when you're done, you'll feel the era come alive in all its dimensions, and you'll understand the thread that connects the past to the present, as manifested in the renewed interest in these cars, and in their contemporary reincarnations.

But this is not just a musclecar encyclopedia. In fact, Muscle: America's Legendary Performance Cars stays away from the compendium-of-numbers approach, though it brings up facts and figures on production, engine size and output, and so on, on many occasions. But it doesn't get bogged down in statistics, useful though they may be. Instead, it strives higher, toward being a thinking-person's guide to the beauty, sociology, and psychology of the cultural phenomenon which is the musclecar. As such, it ranges into topics like the Viet Nam conflict, and it mentions William Faulkner, and in both cases, the references make perfect sense. The dissection of the musclecar craze alone is enough to make this book worth its price. But to that, add amazing photography, interesting historical contextualization, and a dash of opinionating over why the musclecar died and why some companies, namely Ford and Daimler Chrysler, are having more success than others - GM - at resurrecting it, and you have a gem.

But please, don't buy this book and let it sit. It's so pretty, and the photos are so many, that you might be tempted to do that. Promise yourself something - that you'll read Muscle rather than just page through it. That might seem like a daunting task at first. The volume is hefty, and oversized. It's the kind of book that you'll feel like you ought to put on the corner of your desk to flip open and peruse when you're on the phone or have a spare minute between appointments. Don't do it. Instead, put it on your bedside table, and read a section every night. Pretty soon, you'll enter into the book's rhythms, and you'll realize that you're putting together facts that seemed to float freely in your mind before. The relationship of the times, the cars, and the customers, and all of these in larger relationship to the culture and history of the muscle era, will come clear to you like never before.

To give you a few hints as to what you'll learn, consider these questions: What were the precursors to the musclecar, going back even to just after WW2? What was Buick's role in the musclecar era? Why was 1968 such an important year, even more, perhaps, than 1964? How did racing and musclecars go hand-in-hand? And what kinds of racing, anyway? What were the highlights of the waning days of muscledom in the early 70s? You probably know an answer to each of these. It's unlikely you know the range of answers that would make your understanding of the times complete. You will after you've read cover to cover.

The quibbles one might make with the book are minor. Occasionally, there are so many pictures of a given car that the text has moved past it by the time the next set of photos shows up. The occasional photo seems misplaced (that of a 1966 GTO comes after a series of later-60s cars, for instance, though to be fair, the text has returned to the topic of the Goat by this point. But the following photos of a 1967 GTO are placed on a page talking about the model's 1968 restyle, and then about Buick muscle). The style of prose in the early going is somewhat cloying in places, with, for example, language repeated over and over (the word "resourceful" used three times in two sentences, repetition of "support hose" as an image). The argument that the musclecar is an outworking of sexual desire is pushed too hard. And near the end of the book, there are a half-dozen typos which suggest a hurried job to go to press. On the car front, there's no mention of the Viper, though there is of the Dodge Daytona Turbo Z.

But so what? This book will amuse and educate you, and twenty or thirty years from now, when you're trying to explain to your grandkids what the big deal over the SS or Ram Air option is, it will still be there to provide you with textual and visual reference. In the meantime, it's cheaper than a shrink or a divorce if you find yourself having to explain to your partner why your musclecar love is so strong that you're willing to take out a second mortgage or make your kids go to cheap state schools so you can afford to finally drive what you never could back in the day when these cars were new.

Muscle: America's Legendary Performance Cars $50 - order via Motorbooks or Amazon.com

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