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Loud, Proud & Outrageous: Muscle Car Badges

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 2015-07-27 Tom Shaw

We take a look at the deeper meaning of the muscle car badges and emblems on 1960s and 1970s muscle cars that were bragging about big, powerful engines.

Loud, Proud & Outrageous: Muscle Car Badges

You know what's odd about the 1960 Starliner I photographed for the October 2015 issue ("Super Star")? It's got the hottest engine Ford Motor Company had cooked up—hotter than the dual-quad E-code (270 hp) or F-code supercharged 312s (300 hp). Hotter than the Police Interceptors (300 hp in 1960). And at least as far as factory horsepower ratings are concerned, hotter than the 390 GT (320 hp), Boss 351 (330 hp), and 428 Cobra Jet (also 330 hp). But there was no badge or emblem bragging about it. It might as well have had the thrifty Mileage Maker Six.

When I was discussing this with owner Nick Smith, lifelong car guy and longtime Ford dealer, he pointed out that engine callouts didn't become an industry practice until 1962. But once engine badging began, the cool feature was off and running.

Among the most beautifully decorated muscle cars ever were the 1963 and 1964 Super Sport Impalas, with their engine-turned side trim and trunk panels and the perfect chromed SS in a circle on the rear quarter. But if you stepped up for the so-fine 409, you got a pair of front fender badges—the numerals "409" above a chevron, all in classic chrome—declaring your car's superior rank among so many lesser cars. Just the badge, though understated compared to the engine's firepower, was enough to ward off the wise and provoke the not-so-wise.

oldsmobile 442 w30 fender emblems © Provided by Hotrod oldsmobile 442 w30 fender emblems

Crosstown rival Ford went a little further with its larger, more elaborate Thunderbird engine badge that came with the upper-tier engine options. It made the right statement and was embraced by enthusiasts then and now.

Mopars didn't really get into the spirit of the badging game until the appearance of the street Hemi in 1966, which came with a highly revered emblem that read "426 Hemi" in thick letters set above a solid bar. It was easy to read at a stoplight when you were looking out of the corner of your eye and trying not to give the Hemi driver the satisfaction of knowing you were looking.

A few guys always played the ol' switcheroo. They replaced the 427 badges that came on their very quick Biscayne with, say, 327 emblems to disguise the mighty engine onboard and lure some unsuspecting slobs into a street fight. On the other side of the coin were the kids putting 427 emblems on their meek 327 grocery getters to imitate the swagger of a real powerhouse muscle car. They were usually good for a couple of other superficial mods too, like glasspacks or maybe a set of rear spring shackles or air shocks.

camaro engine emblem © Provided by Hotrod camaro engine emblem

It was harder to fake the badging when the industry shifted away from die-cast emblems and went to 3M's vinyl. 'Cudas had some of the best, including the 1970 "hockey stick" stripes with callouts of their powerhouse engines, and the 1971 'Cuda billboards (which will always be among my favorites) spelling out those four letters that mean so much: H-E-M-I. While we're on the subject, let me nominate the big 340 graphic on the 1972 Duster 340 hood as the best engine callout ever. It was typically Mopar for the era: loud, proud, and outrageous. It even made it onto the Cars' Heartbreak City album cover.

As the muscle car market peaked, engine badging moved to the hood, with 351, 390, or 428 Cobra Jet showing up on the side of the Mustang hoodscoop. Mopar added "Six Pack" in big red letters to the side of the A12 Super Bees. A 'Cuda script was added to the side of their shakers.

Bragging about big, powerful engines through badging largely disappeared during the smoggy 1970s. When badging reappeared in the 1980s, it was with a metric spin. On the dominant Mustangs and Camaros, it was now 5.0 instead of 302, but as long as the engines made plenty of tire-frying power, nobody seemed to mind. Detroit had been borrowing style from the continent for years anyway. A few were ahead of their time; Ford introduced the 1966 428 engine in a package called the 7 Litre (note that Euro spelling), and liter references showed up on Pontiac Trans Am Shakers during the 1970s.

Badging has made a big comeback today, with 5.0 badges on V-8 Mustangs and Hemi badges on Challengers and even Ram trucks.

I learned to read the writing on the fenders as a mere lad, and it's still one of my favorite things about muscle cars today.

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