There’s nothing quite like a muscle car. Classic American muscle cars capture the spirit of the auto industry (and the open road) like no other vehicle. They are also the type of car that many gear heads are most passionate about. From the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 to the 1970 Ford Mustang, everyone loves muscle cars. It’s a combination of their nostalgic looks and their powerful engines.
Loosely defined as a smaller, two-door car powered by a high-displacement engine that is typically found in a larger, full-sized sedan, muscle cars continue to be hot sellers at auctions and dealerships across the United States. They also continue to generate intense debate among car lovers. Which one was the best? Which one was the fasted? Here is a list of ten classic American muscle cars that we feel particularly passionate about.
1967 Pontiac GTO
One of the most intense debates regarding muscle cars is which vehicle was the very first. Many people claim the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 as the very first muscle car. However, there are a good number of people who disagree. They cite the 1967 Pontiac GTO as giving birth to the muscle car genre as we know it.
Legend has it that engineers at Pontiac defied General Motors’ ban against putting any engine larger than 330 cubic inches into small cars when they snuck a 389 cubic inch V8 engine into a Pontiac Tempest. They offered this model as an option called the “GTO.” Response to the GTO model was so crazy that the car won over senior executives at GM. That paved the way for a steady succession of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Pontiac muscle cars.
While the very first Pontiac GTO came out in 1964, the 1967 model is more significant. It marked the first availability of Ram air through a functional hood scoop on the GTO. The 1967 GTO also came with a 400 cubic inch V8 engine capable of delivering 360 horsepower.
9. 1968 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi
The Road Runner has a cult of its own among car lovers. For many people, the Road Runner is the definitive muscle car. The Road Runner is known as a muscle car that offers up raw power and torque with no apologies. No version of the Road Runner is more powerful and explosive than the Hemi version — the 1968 Hemi to be precise.
Equipped with a 425 horsepower, 426 cubic inch Hemi V8 engine, the 1968 Plymouth Road Runner is a legendary drag racing car. Interestingly, Plymouth actually licensed the Road Runner name and likeness from Warner Bros. So yes, the car was named after the famed cartoon speedster (and Wile E. Coyote rival). They even went so far as to develop a horn for the 1968 Hemi that mimicked the cartoon character’s famous “beep-beep” sound. So cool.
8. 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429
The brand most associated with muscle cars is, arguably, the Ford Mustang. The Mustang has been synonymous with muscle cars for half a century. While there have been many classic Mustangs over the years, few compare to the 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429. Less than 1,400 of these cars were built between 1969 and 1970, making the Ford Mustang Boss 429 rare and desired by car collectors everywhere.
Surprisingly, the engine wasn’t overly powerful or noteworthy. The 429 cubic inch V8 engine delivered 375 horsepower. That’s decent but not exactly earth-shattering. More impressive was the fact that the car was hand-built, owing to the fact that the engine wouldn’t fit into a standard Mustang without extensive modifications. Ford farmed out its assembly to Michigan-based car builder Kar Kraft, who literally assembled each vehicle by hand.
7. 1970 Buick GSX Stage 1
Anyone who thinks that Buick doesn’t make cool cars has never seen a 1970 GSX Stage 1. Admittedly, Buick was a bit late getting into the muscle car market. When they finally did enter the ring, they did so with a purpose. In fact, Buick made some of the most luxurious and powerful muscle cars ever. The best of the bunch was the GSX package.
First available for the 1970 Gran Sport 455, Buick added a rear spoiler and body striping to the “Stage 1” upgrade, making it very un-Buick like in the process. Of the 687 GSX cars built, 488 were ordered with the Stage 1 package. The 1970 Buick GSX Stage 1 also came with a 455 cubic inch V8 engine that produced 510 pounds foot of torque. Those with Stage 1 tuning and engine tweaks delivered 360 horsepower to the rear wheels alone. Now that’s power!
6. 1969 Ford Fairlane/Torino Cobra
Known simply as “Cobras,” the 1969 Ford Fairlane/Torino Cobra featured two body styles. There was a hardtop model and a more popular sport roof fastback. The car’s performance package included a standard 335 horsepower, 428 V8 engine that had a Holly 4bbl. Optional Ram Air boosted the vehicle’s performance peak to 5,600 rpm. Pretty damn impressive!
Also included on the 1969 Cobra was a locking rear differential. At the time, it was an Ford feature. Roughly 14,000 Cobras were sold in 1969, with the vast majority of them being the fastback version. Only about 3,000 hardtop Cobras left the Ford assembly line, making them more prized among today’s collectors.
5. 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
Those who love the Chevy Chevelle, love it a lot. Lots of muscle car fans think that 1970 was the best year ever for the segment. Many more claim the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 as the very best muscle car made that year. Chevy offered two versions of the car that contained a 454 cubic inch V8 engine. There was the LS5 that generated 360 horsepower, and the LS6 that hit 450 horsepower.
However, it was the more powerful LS6 version of the car — with its Holley four-barrel carburetor — that put the Chevelle SS 454 on many muscle car lovers’ all-time list. There’s an argument to made that it’s the most powerful muscle car ever built. The Chevelle SS 454 also looks great, with its swept-back roof line and bulged hood. It’s hard to take your eyes off this beauty.
4. 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 name is still used today. However, the current models are named after the legendary 1969 Camaro ZL1. This beast is still considered one of the greatest muscle cars ever to burn rubber. With less than 70 of these cars built, the 1969 Camaro ZL1 is highly sought after by collectors all over the world.
Not only is the ’69 ZL1 a rare bird, it also contains the most powerful Chevrolet engine ever built. In fact, the 1969 ZL1 is the rarest production car ever made by Chevrolet. At an original price of $7,200, it was actually quite expensive when first sold. Today, a ’69 ZL1 can sell for more than $1 million. Based on Chevrolet’s iconic 427 V8 engine, the ZL1 engine has an aluminum block in place of the regular 427’s iron one. Although it was officially rated at the regular 427’s 430 horsepower, independent tests have clocked the engine’s output as much more powerful.
3. 1970 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda
The Hemi ‘Cuda gives muscle car aficionados fits. Powered by a selection of six- and eight-cylinder engines, the 1970 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda also came with an optional dual carburetor, 426 cubic inch Hemi engine that revved up to 425 horsepower. It’s not surprising that the 1970 Hemi Barracuda is still in the conversation for top muscle car of all -time. It can certainly stand next to the era’s other top muscle cars. It boasts a superior suspension, tailored specifically to acceleration. It’s a design that would be later copied by other car makers.
The Barracuda was originally based on the Plymouth Valiant. With a 1970 redesign, the Barracuda finally shifted away from the Valiant’s design and achieved its own identity. Plymouth produced a limited number of the Hemi ‘Cudas, making them highly prized at auctions these days.
2. 1968 Dodge Charger R/T
For some, there is no true muscle car other than the 1968 Dodge Charger. The sleek body, black-out front grill, and hidden headlights make this car a true classic. Dodge even came up with the “R/T” designation to denote that the car could be used for drag racing. How cool is that?
The ’68 Charger also featured heavy duty suspension, exemplary handling, and a powerful 375 horsepower 440 Magnum V8 engine. The R/T Chargers also came with an optional Hemi engine that offered even more power and torque. A total of 96,100 Chargers were built in 1968, with 17,000 of them having the R/T designation. This car is so fine that it was featured in the Steve McQueen movie Bullit, in perhaps the best car chase ever filmed.
1. 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
The grandfather of muscle cars (and the vehicle credited with starting the drag racing craze) is the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It’s easily the most influential muscle car in automotive history. While not the fastest or coolest looking, the Rocket nevertheless helped to kick start an entire genre of cars.
Oldsmobile created a sensation when it dropped a V8 engine into the light weight body of its Rocket 88. Automotive historians claim this car ushered in the modern high performance era. Oldsmobile introduced a generation of drivers to a short stroke, high compression, V8 engine that continues to be popular to this day.
Oldsmobile began working on its new V8 dubbed “the Rocket” in 1946. The completed Oldsmobile Rocket was introduced in late 1948. The rest, as they say, is history. By the mid-1950s every car maker was in the V8 engine game. Chrysler introduced its first car with a Hemi V8 engine in 1951. Ford and GM followed closely behind, as did all the previous cars on this list. The Rocket 88 started it all.