The oatmeal really hit the fan in '68. It was the year of the Hong Kong flu and a host of other ills. Assassinations and riots dominated headlines during a time when so many things just seemed to go wrong. But on the automotive front, things couldn't have been more right. Probably the biggest news on the hot car scene was Plymouth's new Road Runner. Chrysler never dreamed the car would be such a hit. They took the base-level B-body and loaded it up with a hot 383 and performance goodies—and left out the fluff. When the car was Hemi-equipped, you knew that "Beep-Beep" horn meant business. The Highland Park group had been planning a production run of about 2500 units. But once the cars hit the showrooms, it was all Chrysler could do to keep up with demand. Eventually, some 45,000 cars hit the boulevards of America.
Dodge's version was known as the Super Bee, but Chrysler wound up getting stung with this one. The marketing strategy of using a bumblebee just didn't work, which is not surprising. Chrysler offered an amazing variety of engines, including 170 and 225 sixes, and 273, 318, 340, 383,426 and 440 V8s - a dozen horsepower ratings in total. The new high-performance, small-block 340 was almost a brand-new big-port head castings with larger valves, big intake manifold with 650 cfm Carter AVS 4-barrel, 10.5:1 compression, hot cam, beefed-up rods and forged crankshaft, windage baffle and streamlined exhaust manifolds. The ultra-responsive 275-hp 340 could propel the lightweight Barracudas and Darts to mid-14 quarters and deliver 15 to 18 mpg as well.
You could also get a big-block 3 83 in a Barracuda, but the package was so nose heavy that both traction and handling went down the tubes. It wasn't a popular option at all. With the group American Breed singing their hit "Bend Me, Shape Me," Chrysler responded by giving much of its line-up all-new sheet-metal, with the Charger receiving a complete revamp. The 426 Street Hemi option made it run like the wind. In the hands of a pro like "Dandy" Dick Landy, prepped NHRA-legal 3600-pound Chargers ran high 10s at nearly 130 mph. But the ultimate Chrysler factory hot rod wasn't a Charger. Model No. B029, coupled with the special order code 366, got you an elephant of major proportions—a racing Hemi in a lightweight Barracuda or Dart body. The cars were acid-dipped and trimmed with liberal use of fiberglass, the successful diet resulting in a weight of only about 3000 pounds. This factory-produced land rocket could cover a quarter mile in the mid-lOs at about 130 mph. A warranty was not available, and neither was food in Biafra. The 1968 Pontiac GTO offered Ram Air induction, Endura plastic nose and a new body style.
Censorship was also tested at Indianapolis, where the USAC. decided to ban turbine-powered cars after the disputed powerplant almost won the 500. Bobby Unser wound up victorious in an Offy-powered Eagle and went on to win the USAC driving championship. Graham Hill became World Champion in Formula One, and David Pearson was at the top of NASCAR.
Motown's music was still in its golden decade. Notable tunes that year include Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life." Tiny Tim tiptoed into the spotlight, as TV shows such as "Laugh-In" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" tested censorship at the networks. Much of their controversial commentary involved politics and the Vietnam War.
Creedence Clearwater Revival broke onto the national music scene with singles "Susie Q" and "I Put a Spell On You." They would soon be the most popular rock band in America. Julie Nixon married David Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy announced she would wed Aristotle Onassis. Probably the most newsworthy divorce of the year was that of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra. Appearing on the cover of Life magazine were the Beatles, Jane Fonda and Paul Newman, just to name a few. The magazine was having financial problems, and its time as a weekly publication was nearing an end. Our highways were becoming more jam-packed day by day, with 99.9 million automobiles registered in the U.S. While 78.6 percent of all families owned at least one, amazingly every fourth family owned two or more! The love affair continued. Muscle Ford products, like many automobiles, were often seen sporting bumper stickers that read Remember the Pueblo. It was the first Navy ship captured since the British seized the U.S.S. Chesapeake in 1807, and the incident with North Korea created nationwide embarrassment.
Mercury's Cougar GTE was the last production Ford product to use the 427 Wedge power-plant, rated at a detuned 390 hp with a medium-riser manifold. The package used early 406 cylinder heads and a mild hydraulic cam, while retaining goodies like the forged steel crank and Wmm cross-bolted main bearings— hardly necessary with the 5800 rpm rev limit of the hydro lifters. Dual hood scoops and distinctive paint schemes were part of the GTE package. The car is a rare find today.
" D y n o " Don Nicholson and "Fast" Eddie Schartman campaigned awesome Cougars on the match race circuit. The fuel-burning Funny Cars ran in the low 7s. On the NASCAR front, Cale Yarborough won the Daytona 500 in a Mercury Cyclone prepped by the Wood Brothers, and a GT-40 once again took LeMans. Ford went the full route on Fairlanes and Comets with a thorough re-skinning. The new 428 engine was available in these models, as well as in the Mustang Cobra Jets, a midyear intro. Optional on the Mustangs was a ram air-style shaker hood scoop that operated by vacuum. Mustang CJs were very successful in NHRA racing, despite the fact that they carried very conservative 335 hp ratings. They were really much closer to 400 hp. By the time the cars hit the showrooms in April, Ford street fans were breaking down the doors. Mustangs were still ahead of Camaros in Sales, but the gap had narrowed.
FoMoCo convertibles lost popularity, as ragtop orders dropped 40 percent from the prior year, with GM and Chrysler experiencing much of the same. Production of Shelby Mustangs reached a peak, with 4450 rolling off lines in Michigan. Not many people opted for the base GT 350 with the 302-cubic-inch engine rated at 250 hp. Instead, Shelby customers went for the gusto in the form of the GT 500, available with either the 427 or 428 engines. But Carroll Shelby's interest was waning, as Ford continued to soften the car's hard-core performance image.
Our leaders were telling us we were winning the war in Vietnam, yet ominous signs were cropping up that the opposite was true. The Tet Offensive proved that the Communist forces were much stronger than estimated. It was a war that divided the U.S. into doves and hawks, and the fact that it was an election year made the subject all the more volatile. Johnson's political career was, in effect, ended by the war, as he announced that he would not accept his party's nomination for president. His critics were overjoyed. The American Civil Liberties Union decided to support draft evaders in a year that saw the Defense Department budget soar tc 572 billion. Some of those dollars went toward nuclear experimentation, with the U.S. conducting 39 tests during the year.
Apollo 7 and 8 were launched. with the latter beaming a televised picture of the moon's surface back to the earth. The time for a landing was drawing near. Calls for gun control rang out far and wide after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot down in cold blood. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to lend his support to striking garbage collectors, most of them black, when he was cut down. It was ironic that his death would touch off the worst outburst of arson, looting and rioting in our nation's history. Kennedy, whom many experts felt would have gone on to win the election in November against Richard Nixon, was shot on the eve of his victory in the California primary. The nation was stunned.
The Beatles had another hit on their hands with "Hey Jude," and at a press conference made a point of renouncing the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a "public mistake." One didn't know what to expect next from the Fab Four. In New York City, a garbage strike left tons of rotting material on the street, and even the cops called in sick. At other times teachers, fire fighters and air traffic controllers went on strike. GM changed its intermediate body styling. Pontiac made the most of the revisions by retaining the original character of the GTO while remaining a looker in the process. Pontiac also brought on board the famous Ram Air option. Coupled with a radical cam, special heads and other goodies, the car was a certified goer. New also was an "Endura" flexible front bumper/nose piece, an industry first, complete with hideaway headlamps. Firebirds were virtually a carryover with engine refinements.
Simon and Garfunkel won a Grammy for "Mrs. Robinson" and Glen Campbell earned his with the album By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Oliver! won the Oscar for best picture. Graham Nash quit The Hollies and formed a group with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Crosby, Stills and Nash went onto make some of our best-loved music and a few not-to-be-forgot-ten classics.
A true musclecar legend was born late in the model year in the form of the Hurst-Olds. The car was powered by a massive 455 Toronado engine producing 3 8 0 hp. Naturally, it feature d a Hurst Dual-Gate shifter for the reworked Turbo 400 transmission, and the package included the W30 induction system. The car offered both Oldsmobile and Hurst high visibility among performance car buffs, and just 515 were produced, though there were orders for many more. This near two-ton combination was good for high 13s in absolutely stock form. Set up properly for the quarter mile, a Hurst-Olds would break into the 12s. It became one of the best-known and most seldom seen cars of the decade.
At last, 4-4-2 Olds-mobiles could be had with factory-installed Forced Air packages, eliminating the expense and hassle of the previous dealer installation. The W30 combo featured the famous vacuum cleaner intakes below the bumper. It was a true horsepower bargain, with the cost a paltry $263. Olds altered the bore/stroke combination on the 400-cubic-inch engine, going to a longer stroke and smaller bore, and the car suffered. The extra friction hurt output above 5000 rpm. With 360 hp, the car was capable of low 15-second ETs with 0-to-60 mph times in 7 seconds flat.
In baseball we saw two of the most incredible season pitching performances ever. Denny McLain of the Tigers won 31 games, while Bob Gibson finished his Cardinal year with a 1.12 earned-run average. It came as no surprise that each won his league's MVP award. Mickey Mantle's illustrious career came to an end, as he played out his last season in pretty dismal fashion. Detroit went on to win the World Series over St. Louis, and the city celebrated in a very big way. The cruise down Woodward Boulevard that night was a display of ground-shaking horsepower, as the Motor City brought out its best for the all-night street party.
Songs on the Detroit radio stations that wild evening were quite a mixed bag. Motown hits were mixed in with straight rock as well as psychedelic sounds. John Fred and his Playboy Band had a one-hit wonder with "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," its one and only gold record. Steppenwolf produced its first album, which included hits "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride." The Yardbirds decided to call it quits as a group, so Jimmy Page formed another band called the New Yardbirds. Keith Moon commented that the group would go over like a lead zeppelin and, hearing that, Page decided to change the name to Led Zeppelin.
American Motors was not content to sit back and watch the other companies produce performance machines. Its entry was a two-seater known as the AMX. available with a 390-cubic-inch V8 producing 315 hp. The fact that it was a two-place car may have hurt sales, as only 6725 were produced during the model year. A completely revamped Corvette graced the streets, though, unfortunately, the car grew in the process. Five 427 engines were available, including the rare full-race L88. As in previous years, the big-engined Vettes could hold their own against just about anything on the street and could out-handle most of the muscle-cars of the era.
Not too much was new on the Chevrolet front, though the Chevelle benefited from a re-skin. The Camaro was warmed over slightly, as GM decided not to mess too much with success. Where Bowtie engineers focused .their energy was on the Chevy II line. The car grew and wasn't as cleanly styled as before, but it now had room to house the 396 line of Rat motors under the hood. In L78 trim, 375 hp was on tap. The package managed to circumvent the GM front office policy against cars with fewer than 10 pounds of curb weight per horsepower because it was listed as a dealer-installed option.
Not to be left out of the horsepower-for-lunch bunch, Buick brought out its Stage I Kit in the aft end of the model year. Special pieces included a high-lift cam, heavy duty valve train components, forged 11:1 pistons, oil system modifications, high pressure fuel pump and the usual ignition/carburetion improvements. The dealer-installed package was rated at a very conservative 345 hp, good for mid-14 runs and 0-to-60 mph in close to 6 seconds flat.
In November, we elected a new president. Law and order was his theme. Little did performance car enthusiasts realize that in the not-too-distant future, the law and order guy would hand them a 55-mph national speed limit to live with, and the musclecar legacy would be a thing of the past. But all of that was in the crystal ball of the future - wasn't it?
Formula One Championship:
Graham Hill (Britain) / Lotus-Ford
Billie Jean King d. J. Tegart (9-7 7-5)
Rod Laver d. T. Roche (6-3 6-4 6-2)
- Bullitt (number #1 in our Top 5 Car Chase Movies)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Romeo and Juliet
- Funny Girl
- The Lion in Winter
- Barefoot in the Park
- You Only Live Twice
- Best Picture - Oliver!
- Best Actor - Cliff Robertson (Charly)
- Best Actress - Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl)
- "Hey Jude," - The Beatles
- "Love Is Blue," - Paul Mauriat
- "Honey," - Bobby Goldsboro
- "People Got to Be Free," - The Rascals
- "Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay," - Otis Redding
- "Love Child," - Diana Ross and The Supremes
- "This Guy's in Love With You," - Herb Alpert
- "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," - Hugo Montenegro
- "Sunshine of Your Love," - Cream
- "Woman, Woman," - The Union Gap
- "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," - John Fred and His Playboy Band
- "Young Girl," - Gary Puckett and The Union Gap
- "Tighten Up," - Archie Bell and The Drells
- "Mrs. Robinson," - Simon and Garfunkel
- "Little Green Apples," - O.C. Smith
- Jim Clark (Arguably the greatest F1 Driver - ever)
- John Coltrane (Jazz musician)
- Woody Guthrie (Folk musician and artist)
- Langston Hughes (American Poet)
- Alice B. Toklas (American literary figure)
- Martin Luther King, Jr. (American civil-rights leader)