What’s a muscle car? If something came to mind immediately, chances are you’ve felt the rush you can only get behind the wheel of a two-door coupe with rear-wheel drive and a V8 engine. If not…we’re about to give you a gift.
Most enthusiasts agree that to count as a muscle car, a car has to be from the golden age before regulations in the mid-80s made it impractical to build for the same kind of power. All 16 cars on this list are old enough to be aging legends now, but still young enough that you might see them in their natural habitat on the wide-open road.
1. 1965 Pontiac Catalina 2+2
In 1964, Pontiac kickstarted the muscle car era with the GTO Tempest. The year after, they added the larger Catalina 2+2 to the family, equipping it with a 6.9-liter, 338-horsepower engine, and a heavy-duty front suspension. Car & Driver test-drove a Catalina 2+2 just after it hit the market and went from 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds.
2. 1970 Ford Torino Cobra
The 1970 Torino Cobra embodies everything that was great about old-school Ford, with a sleek body redesign based on supersonic aircraft and a V8 engine capable of 370 horsepower. It easily cruised to win Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year award for 1970.
3. 1970 Oldsmobile 442
Despite having one candidate for America’s first muscle car (the Rocket 88 in 1949), Oldsmobile isn’t always known for its muscle cars — but the 1970 442 should convince anyone they were just as big a player as GM and Ford. “442” stands for four-speed manual transmission, four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhaust.
4. 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
The ’69 Dodge Charger Daytona was designed and built for one purpose: break Dodge’s dry spell on the NASCAR circuit. It succeeded with flying colors, managing to not just take first place at 1969’s Talladega 500, but to be the first vehicle to ever hit 200 miles per hour during a NASCAR race.
5. 1970 Chevy Chevelle LS6
By 1970, the Arabian oil embargo was looming on the horizon, and the wave of American muscle cars was cresting. That same year, GM removed all limits on engine size in its midsized cars, leading to an arms race that produced a slate of late greats. Our personal favorite, the Chevy Chevelle LS6, came equipped with a 450-horsepower engine and an aerodynamic design for truly wild acceleration.
6. 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge
In 1968 Pontiac wanted to add a smaller, cheaper car to their pioneering GTO line. They didn’t exactly succeed – but what a glorious failure. The ’69 model, with its trunk wing and Ram Air III engine, cemented Pontiac’s status as the standard-bearers of the muscle car world, and on the side, may have inspired Paul Revere and the Raiders to invent the rock music video. Here come da judge!
7. 1968 Plymouth Road Runner
Chrysler’s Plymouth Road Runner was conceived as the working man’s muscle car, lean and accessible. It managed to be affordable without sacrificing power, as the famous Hemi V8 engine – bigger than anything GM was putting out at the time – could reach 425 HP. Wile E. Coyote doesn’t stand a chance.
8. 1966 Shelby GT350
Carroll Shelby was an engineer’s engineer, constantly looking for anything he could take away to make his designs more perfect. The 1965 Mustang Shelby was too much car for most of the public, but in 1966, Shelby achieved the perfect balance of muscle and accessibility with the GT350. With nowhere to go but up, he’d produce some even more fun designs in the following years…but that’s another list entry altogether.
9. 1968 Dodge Dart 426 Hemi
The 7-liter 426 Hemi was the gold-standard V8 engine of the muscle car era, and the ’68 Dodge Dart put it to use like no other car. Capable of a 10-second quarter-mile run, this might be the greatest drag racer of all time.
10. 1970 Buick GSX Stage 1
Like the 442 was for Oldsmobile, the GSX was Buick’s bid to be taken seriously as a muscle car manufacturer instead of just a luxury brand. The Stage 1 performance pack made it a true icon, with a 455-inch engine cooled by advanced air induction, with a torque potential of 510 lb-ft.
11. 1970 AMC AMX/3
The AMX/3 is a true holy grail of muscle cars. It was designed by the American Motors Corporation, a long-forgotten competitor to the Big Three automakers, with input from Italian and German greats. This ultimate fusion of American and European engineering could hit a top speed of 170 mph, and while only six were ever built, some of them still exist today in private collections.
12. 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
In 1977, the Burt Reynolds film Smokey and the Bandit made driving cool again after nearly a decade of fuel shortages and astronomical insurance premiums. Pontiac, the OG of muscle cars, capitalized on the Firebird Trans Am’s lead role in the movie by jacking up the horsepower of the ’78 model, upgrading its tires and suspension to boot.
13. 1969 Baldwin-Motion Phase III GT Corvette
“Baldwin-Motion” refers to a partnership between a Chevy dealership and an auto shop on Long Island, New York. Between 1969 and 1971, Motion Performance upgraded and fine-tuned 12 brand-new Corvettes for customers at Baldwin Chevrolet. Motion’s Corvettes could reach up to 600 horsepower — good enough to impress the inventor of the Corvette when the Phase III GT was first unveiled to the world outside Baldwin, NY.
14. 1969 Chevy Camaro ZL1
With only 70 ever built, the Camaro ZL1 is one of the rarest Chevys still rolling. With its 427-inch V8 engine, it could pump out 500 horses, extraordinary for a production vehicle at the time. The ’69 Camaro ZL1 proved so enduringly popular that Chevrolet resurrected the design in 2016.
15. 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
If the ’66 Shelby GT350 was like a finely tuned watch, the ’68 GT500 was more of a bazooka. The Road King’s Cobra Jet power plant helped it blast through the quarter-mile in 14 seconds. Film buffs will recognize it as a close match for the Fastback driven by Steve McQueen during the legendary San Francisco car chase sequence in Bullitt.
16. 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429
Since an auto model only had to sell 500 units to count as a “stock car” for NASCAR purposes, a lot of NASCAR teams in the late 60s raced cars you’d never see on the street. The 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 was the apex of that trend, but also pushed back on it, designed to be a vehicle with both racing power and street maneuverability. Call it the “Boss 9” or just “the Boss” if you want to sound like you know your cars.
Featured Image Credit By: Markus Spiske, flickr
- 1. 1965 Pontiac Catalina 2+2
- 2. 1970 Ford Torino Cobra
- 3. 1970 Oldsmobile 442
- 4. 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
- 5. 1970 Chevy Chevelle LS6
- 6. 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge
- 7. 1968 Plymouth Road Runner
- 8. 1966 Shelby GT350
- 9. 1968 Dodge Dart 426 Hemi
- 10. 1970 Buick GSX Stage 1
- 11. 1970 AMC AMX/3
- 12. 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
- 13. 1969 Baldwin-Motion Phase III GT Corvette
- 14. 1969 Chevy Camaro ZL1
- 15. 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
- 16. 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429