The cars lined up in the main gallery at LeMay — America’s Car Museum all seem to be saying the same thing.
“Yeah, I work out.”
The Tacoma museum opened its newest exhibit last weekend, “American Muscle: Rivals to the end.” The show has 20 high performance production cars ranging from 1964 to 1971.
These are cars that bulge with bicep-like fenders and flare air breathing nostrils. These are the rides that made teenage hearts skip a beat and launched a million mid-life crises.
“People have been asking for this since we opened,” said Scot Keller, LeMay’s exhibit curator.
Representing eight brands, the show uses three cars from the car museum’s collection. The rest are on loan from local collectors.
As Keller defines it, a muscle car was the result of taking a manufacturer’s production passenger car and re-engineering it with a high performance engine, transmission, braking system and drive train.
The show starts with a 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO convertible on loan from the LeMay Family Collection. It’s a souped up version of a Tempest. It’s also the car that engineer John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean) created.
“We thought there was a cultural story and a terrific automotive story around this particular period starting with John DeLorean and what he did with the Tempest from an engineering standpoint,” said Keller. “A lot of car experts would argue it was the original muscle car.”
With car design, form and function often get blurred and it’s never more so with muscle cars. Common features include dual exhaust pipes, chrome gas caps, extra air intakes, spoilers and robust wheels and tires. It’s hard to say how much of that was necessary but some of it definitely was.
“They needed a wider rubber patch to put down the power and not spin the wheels,” Keller said of the sturdy wheels and tires. “In this era there was a lot of street racing.”
One striking pair in the show is a 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A and a 1970 Plymouth AAR ‘Cuda. Both models bear a strong resemblance to each other. The Dodge is painted “Moulin Rouge” and the other is “Panther Pink.” But it’s the same coral pink color. Both have matte black hoods and other accents.
One of the cars on loan, a 1964 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS, is in original condition, complete with rust patches. Only the carpet is new. The owner bought it from his next door neighbor.
“When he was a young boy he went to school in it. He had fond memories of it,” Keller said. “What we’re showing here is the preference for survivor cars versus restored cars. We’re not arguing one way or another.”
Other cars in the show include a 1969 427 Yenko Camaro, a 1970 Dodge Coronet Super Bee and a 1966 Buick Skylark Gran Sport.
Keller could have kept adding cars and years in the show but he ended the show with 1971. That was just before the Arab Oil Embargo shoved a banana up the collective tail pipe of American gas guzzlers.
“We could literally fill the museum with all the high performance variations of the muscle car era,” Keller said. “Focusing this down to 20 great cars was a great challenge.”
Today, Camaros, Mustangs and Challengers are revving up the road again and filling movie screens from “Transformers” to “Fast and Furious.”
And they’re fulfilling new generations of teen fantasies and mid-life crises.
AMERICAN MUSCLE: RIVALS TO THE END
Where: LeMay - America's Car Museum, 2702 E. D St., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Tickets: $16 adult, $14 senior/military, $12 students, $8 (ages 6 to 12), free younger than 6.
Information: 253-779-8490, americascarmuseum.org