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The Vaunted American V-8 and the Dawn of the Muscle Car Age

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Published on Mon, Jan 23, 2017

By: The LACar Editorial Staff


LA CAR BOOK REVIEW American Performance V-8 Specs: 1963-1974 Author: Rick O. Rittenberg Review by Steve Ford – The Car Guy® When first glancing at American Performance V-8 Specs: 1963-1974, I thought to myself, “A book about specifications? How much excitement can there be in reviewing a book that’s perhaps only incrementally less compelling than reading an excellent factory shop manual?” READING FOR HORSEPOWER Yet having known and respected the book’s author, Rick Rittenberg, across many years as a friend and fellow car enthusiast, I wanted to discover how he treated the topic of American V8 specifications. After reading American Performance V-8 Specs for only a few minutes, I found myself discovering much more than just charts of numbers. Instead of finding a book filled with merely “specification sheets,” I found myself swooping through the different sections of these chapters feeling like a kid set free at the Smithsonian Institution.

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How could mere specs be alluring? One answer is that in addition to compiling and presenting engine data in clear and well-organized formats, Rittenberg has also included key narratives about each engine brand and V8 family. While the production milestones related to these marvels in metal are significant, another answer to how these specifications can be intriguing is found in how they enhance many of our own favorite driving memories. The fun occurs in seeing the exact numbers that define a powerplant of a favorite car model, or perhaps how we’ve seen cars make “headlines” in motorsports racing due to what these engines helped make possible. DUAL QUADS, TUNNEL PORTS AND TRI-POWER During the years of 1963 to 1974, dealer showrooms unveiled new cars that were often more exciting due to what was “under the hood” than only some new exterior redesign. While the 1960s included some iconic new-model designs, oftentimes models also included only minor changes in grills, tail lights and wheel trim shapes.

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Yet, inside and around engines in that time, you also found fresh new dual quads, cross rams, tunnel ports, tri-power, shaker hoods, cowl induction, open-chamber and Hemi heads, the hottest new cams and free-flow exhaust manifolds and systems. Reading about any of the automaker’s engineering efforts in these pages provides a well-documented tour of those advancements, improvements and successes that most car buffs will appreciate. Of greater significance, however, is that this book provides dozens of many lesser-known facts that even some of the most experienced car enthusiasts may encounter for the first time. When it comes to the vast dimensions of information in the world of wheels, it seems there’s always more to learn. Fortunately, author Rittenberg has methodically researched, documented and generously presented a treasury of facts to make this book a valuable resource. Yet these American V8 engine stories take on extra meaning when we look at how they also impacted and changed perceptions in pop culture – as well as the sub-culture of motorsports.

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Just as there were so many memorable and captivating engines produced in the innovative era that this book chronicles, there also were a corresponding number of exciting car models launched during the period. For example, the one vehicle that is most commonly recognized for establishing “top dead center” and igniting the Muscle-Car era was the 1964 Pontiac Tempest with the GTO package as an option. But what if you had to sneak these fire-breathing engines by the “bean counters” without their nitpicking the costs of hardware on the way to the assembly line? CAMARADERIE, ENGINES & CONVERSATIONS Impressive as the GTO was in being considered the vanguard of the great 1960s Muscle Car era, when you look at the engine specs for that tri-powered 389 cid engine, it was a relatively modest 348 hp. Looking at the prior year’s 1963 H.O. 421 cid “High Output” engine that powerplant produced 376 hp. One could reasonably question why Pontiac didn’t simply drop that 421 cid in the 1964 GTO. Pontiac purists would likely want it pointed out that as an assistant chief of engineering, John DeLorean had to actually maintain a low profile for the GTO package during the development cycle. Perhaps that is why he didn’t elect to ‘spec’ a truly rowdy engine like the 421 H.O., as that could have set off alarm bells among top brass that a renegade hot rodder (i.e., product and marketing expert) had slipped into the management team. Delorean pulled it off with a legendary special option. Packaging the GTO option with a slightly less-potent 389 cid kept the special Tempest option just low enough on the radar to allow the GTO upgrade “package” to receive approval. By the time DeLorean’s clever move was recognized as the stunt that it was, the Pontiac brand was becoming almost as celebrated as Ford Motor Company - with their nearby party going on around the also-new sensation with the just-launched Mustang. For those who already know the story of the 1964 Pontiac GTO, they may agree with the same premise that is so reasonably clear to all of us today. The GTO story is about the right V8 engine being slipped into a perfect candidate of a car – and meeting the market at just the right time. The 1960s were ready for souped-up production machines and a new breed of car enthusiasts were there for the “all-you-can-eat” horsepower buffet. As it turned out, DeLorean was just the inspiration that Pontiac needed to shift it from a “me-too” G.M. brand into a trend-setting industry leader. He was promoted to division head of Pontiac in 1965 and went on to lift the nameplate even higher with the subsequent Firebird and Grand Prix models. 11 TO 1 COMPRESSION & THE 12,000-MILE WARRANTY Keeping in mind that building a racing or hot rod engine is about capturing and converting as much heat as possible into torque for potential all-out battles at the strip, the closed road race track, or other somewhat-limited time frames, the engineers behind the Muscle Car engines in this book deserve special recognition. They had to unleash V-8 monsters in mass production and also keep crankshafts from being pushed out of the oil pan beyond the new-car manufacturer’s warranty. Otherwise, as they and we knew, the proverbial ‘bean counters’ would have had everyone driving 140-horsepower in-line sixes back then. There are some rightfully proud mechanical engineers who retired knowing that they created engines with pre-historic tempers and excellent table manners. Grocery store parking lots literally had 426-hemi powered Cudas parked next to Boss 429-powered Mustangs across the lane from a CEO’s tri-powered 428 Bonneville family sedan – just to pick up a quart or two of milk and a dozen eggs. This book is destined to initiate many enriching conversations among car experts, enthusiasts and historians – making us all better for the discussions and discoveries that this book affords. Plus, with the impeccable attention to detail, extensive research and the cross-checking Rittenberg has done to bring us the best sources and facts, we get to enjoy solid information. The period covered in American Performance V-8 Specs: 1963 to 1974 spotlights an era when claims of volumetric efficiency and race track dominance were clearly paramount. Insurance companies cringed and teenagers grinned. You’ll find that “horsepower” is a 10-letter prescription for endless intrigue and this book details well the genetics of our collective interests.

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Whether you’re a newcomer to the world of vehicles and engineering, or a veteran who is ready to look to see if you really do know it all, you will find this one of the best investments for your automotive library. If you are a fellow gearhead, or know one whom you may want to surprise with a special gift, enjoy a special era in car culture when there were actually bumper stickers that said, “Ban low-performance drivers, not high-performance cars!”-SF "American Performance V-8" is now available at ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Ford -- The Car Guy® is a lifetime car enthusiast and student of car culture raised in Southern California and inspired by a five-year automotive industry internship living in Detroit. In ongoing professional work as a broadcast journalist and educator today, he is a certified ASE-Master Automotive Technician/Trainer and credentialed instructor with a Master of Arts degree in Education from MSU. In volunteer work he contributes to skilled-trades and youth-careers outreach programs as a part-time automotive technology instructor and career planning/motivational speaker to schools and at-risk youth programs.

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