American muscle cars are known the world over for power and speed. The trend started in the 1960s when American automakers like Ford, Chevy, Dodge, and Plymouth, among others, began taking large, powerful engines and placing them between the wheels of a smaller, lighter chassis. Performance became the name of the game, and these powerful beasts were leaders of the pack.
Although automakers and historians attribute the muscle car term to vehicles of this bygone era, modern rear-wheel-drive sports cars inspired by these bold classic cars earned the name as well. Here is a list of the top 15 American muscle cars, including some new era powerhouses and the classics.
1964 Pontiac GTO
It's debatable which vehicle was the first American muscle car, but fingers often point to the GTO. Pontiac's performance car presented buyers with a big engine and an affordable price. Not only that, but the automaker marketed it directly on the performance angle.
Pontiac also made a couple of rebel moves in the construction of the GTO by not following restrictions from General Motors on putting large engines in small cars, a formula that hot rods and race cars had used for years to turn heads. The bold move quickly triggered an arms race from competing automakers like Ford, Chrysler, and Buick, among others.
Pontiac stole the Ferrari name GTO, which stood for Gran Turismo Omologato and was supposed to indicate race cars with street-legal versions. The original 1964 GTO had a 389-cubic-inch V8 engine with 348 horsepower. They continued to build on the GTO through the years, making it bigger and more striking throughout its 10-year original run (before being resurrected from 2004 through 2006).
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
Even though the American muscle car era started in the 1960s, the 1970s are considered the peak of the muscle car period. One of the primary representatives of that era was the 1970 Chevy Chevelle.
The Chevelle came in two versions; the LS5 and the LS6. The former put out 360 horsepower, but the latter blew away the competition with an incredible output of 450 horsepower. No other high-performance vehicle of that time was able to beat or even equal the LS6's horsepower.
The Chevelle had distinct muscle car lines too. It was sleek with a slightly slanted back end and bulging hood to give the impression of speed and power. It looked like a sports car that would beat all newcomers, and it generally did. Even fifty years later, it retains its iconic status as one of the most celebrated American muscle cars of all time.
1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
The original Camaro Z/28 was made for the Trans-Am Series of racing, with the name attached to various other high-performance Camaro models through the generations. When it was built, it raced against similar hot cars like the Challenger and the Mustang Boss in the main showcase for sports cars of the day.
The Trans American sedan series by the Sports Car Club of America entrenched the Mustang as the quintessential pony car. General Motors wanted to compete for the win, so Chevy built the Z/28 to take the Mustang down a notch. It worked since the car won championships in both 1968 and 1969. The Z/28 had both powerful performance and handling, which helped aided its success.
Alongside the similar Pontiac Firebird, the Z-28 was rated at 290 horsepower, although some estimate it closer to 360 horsepower when new.
1970 Buick Skylark GSX Stage 1
As described by Motor Trend as "the quickest American production we had ever tested," the Skylark GSX Stage 1 was an American muscle car that was not shy on speed, performance, and power. It was an even higher-specced and more track-focused version of the GS 455.
Only 687 models were produced, making it a special model and gave it rights to boast its upgraded internals under the hood, its dedicated graphics package, and the few aerodynamic adjustments in the bodywork. It produced the perfect recipe for a more slippery drag coefficient.
The GSX features a monstrous 455 cubic-inch V8 engine with a factory rating of 350 horsepower. The torque is mind-blowing at 510 lb-ft at a low 2,800 RPM. This figure held the record for the most torque in any American car until 2013.
1970 Plymouth Barracuda
The Plymouth Barracuda was produced for a decade from 1964 to 1974 and is objectively one of the most celebrated classic muscle cars in history.
Then-Chrysler Corporation a Plymouth that the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro wouldn't overshadow. The 1970 model year received a substantial overhaul, resulting in its most popular body style and increased performance. The mighty Street Hemi Cuda was born in 1970 and was a Barracuda equipped with a 426 Hemi engine with 425 horsepower.
The 'Cuda became a favorite of many club racers. It had one of the hottest shapes from Detroit matched with one of the most storied engines in a compact package. On the same race tracks in 1970 was its sibling, the highly modified Plymouth Superbird (a short-lived version of the Plymouth Road Runner). Both these classic muscle cars were a force to be reckoned with on the tracks.
1969 Dodge Charger
Another genuinely iconic car from the late '60s and early '70s was the Dodge Charger.
The SE and R/T were the main models for the 1969 model year, and then the 500 and Daytona were the race models. There were also five V8 engines offered, all with the 426 Hemi treatment, including the Street Hemi, which has an output of 425 horsepower.
The body style remained the same across all the models, but the '69 model updated the '68 with a vertical grille divider. One of the most interesting facts about the Charger is that the Charger Daytona was the first vehicle to go over 200 mph top speed for NASCAR. The Daytona was specifically modified to be more aerodynamic and extremely impressive for its time.
Dodge successfully resurrected the Charger name in the mid-2000s, and while the current model offers a wide array of V8 engines, rear-wheel-drive, and is a modern muscle car on its own, the original Charger two-door is still the icon.
1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Pontiac's Firebird Trans Am became a legend partially due to its appearance in the Smokey & The Bandit film series of the 1970s and lived well past the muscle car heyday into the 2000s.
But the original Firebird Trans Am of 1969 is the real classic. The first models were distinctive, painted white with polar blue racing stripes. Though it had many regular Firebird specs, one exclusive was the functional air inlets on the hood. The car itself is also exclusive and a rare find with only 697 models manufactured.
It took just three years for the Trans Am to beat the GTO as Pontiac's most popular muscle car. It produces 335 horsepower as a standard model; however, some buyers opted for the 400 Ram Air IV, which touted 370 horsepower under the hood of the same-year GTO.
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429
Another muscle car designed for NASCAR, the 1969 Boss 429 was an exclusive vehicle. Ford made fewer than 1,500 in the model year, which puts it in rare company for muscle cars.
Despite being hand-built for racing, the Boss never actually got to race for NASCAR. Featuring a massive 429 cubic-inch V8 engine, it only put out 375 horsepower. However, it could still rev up to 6,000 rpm. To get such a big engine into a standard 1969 Mustang, the car had to be substantially modified. Perhaps not the ultimate Mustang of the era, but the Boss' looks and power gave it a following.
1992 Dodge Viper
A more modern muscle car is the 1992 Dodge Viper. This sports car smashed onto the scene with a monstrous V10 engine and styling that somewhat resembled the Corvettes of the time. It was well-known for its basic, bare-bones construction, which did not include traction control. It gained a reputation for being hard to drive as well.
Dodge wanted to produce an outrageous model that was cutting edge and would turn heads. It was the start of a new generation for the brand.
The later Viper ACR went on to incredible records at 13 different race tracks. And while the Viper lived on for five generations from 1992 through 2017, it strayed more from the raw original format while never becoming anything as civilized as a Porsche 911 Turbo or even a similar Corvette or Ferrari.
Finding this muscle car is rare, with the production numbers limited in 1992. But these first Vipers are truly collectible and modern-day classics.
1969 AMC AMX/3
This classic muscle car is arguably one of the most unusual cars on our list. The AMC AMX/3 was an American-designed car, but it was an Italian-manufactured prototype. It was first unveiled at the 1970 Chicago Auto Show to display its sleek muscular American supercar looks, despite having taken clear inspiration from Italian designs of the era.
AMC engaged with BMW to help with the production and development of the AMX/3. It was to going to feature a V8 engine with 340 horsepower and 430 lb-ft of torque. Unfortunately, only five prototypes were manufactured by the company after federal regulations made the project unworkable. Nonetheless, the AMC AMX/3 remains a classic. Even it was merely a prototype.
1969 Pontiac GTO Judge
As mentioned earlier, the Pontiac GTO triggered the muscle car trend with its original 1964 incarnation, but the '69 Judge was a significant upgrade. By the late 1960s, the muscle car market was rife with competition, but the GTO stayed on top of the game. Instead of making a smaller, cheaper GTO, Pontiac stepped up with an even bigger car with a 1969 redesign.
The Judge had a standard 360 horsepower Ram Air III engine and then a Ram Air IV upgrade with 370 horsepower. Pontiac briefly made a convertible Ram Air IV, but it was extremely limited to only five classic cars.
The Judge had a recognizable body design and usually came in a shiny reddish-orange color. The trunk had a wing, the hood featured split air intakes, and the grille had a vertical divider that was an extension of the body rather than the grille itself. This classic muscle car's design is timeless and a collector's dream.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The 1969 Camaro ZL-1 was born out of Jim Hall's success with the Chaparral/Chevrolet aluminum big-blocks in the Can-Am series. Based on the Corvette iron block/ iron heads L88, the 1969 Camaro ZL-1 was updated to boast enormous horsepower and torque. Many cars of the time had iron block engines, but the ZL-1 aluminum block made it lighter.
This engine was the 427 big-block V8, and it remains one of the most recognized Chevy engines today and the most powerful of its time. The ZL-1 was marketed as having the standard 430 horsepower of the 427, but later, tests revealed that the horsepower was a lot higher. It is an open secret that the ZL-1 can produce over 500 horsepower from the factory.
As one of the rarest production cars from Chevy, the ZL-1 Camaro remains one of the most classic muscle cars of its era.
2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Our compilation wouldn't be complete without the 2020 Shelby Mustang making its way towards the top of the list. The Ford Mustang has been in continuous production since 1964, with the 2020 Shelby GT500 the most powerful and quickest factory Mustang ever produced. Shelby Mustang carefully blends an iconic muscle-car presence with sports car performance and is a high-performance version of the Mustang GT coupe.
Built on the same racetrack-capable chassis as the Shelby GT350, the GT500 provides an extra 234 horsepower that offers credibility as a racer at the drag strip. Supercar acceleration comes from a 5.2-liter supercharged V8 engine with an output of 760 horsepower.
Several Mustang editions have come and gone, with names like Bullitt, Boss, Mach 1, and Cobra. But the Shelby name will be associated with the hottest Mustangs ever.
2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat was already a beastly machine with 707 horsepower, but the 2018 model year had bigger plans for the Challenger.
The SRT Demon variant took the Dodge Challenger to another level. Nearly every muscle car automaker has made cars for the race track, but Dodge took it a step further by making the Demon capable of a drag strip presence. With 840 horsepower shadowing rival competitors and its exclusive drag-racing equipment, this limited-edition Demon was monstrous.
The figures are astounding, with a 9.65-second quarter mile going 140 mph. On its way there, the Demon can go zero to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds. All that power emanates from a 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V8 engine that puts out 808 horsepower under normal circumstances. A classic in the original muscle car era, the Challenger remains a staple in modern car culture.
2017 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Although the Corvette has always been painted as more of a sports car than a muscle car, it's still iconic American performance. Chevy has made some Vettes over the years that easily wear both titles.
The seventh-generation C7 'Vette lineup included the top-of-the-line ZR1, which is the most powerful Corvette ever made even today. It features a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 engine with 755 horsepower and 715 lb-ft of torque. It has a top speed of 210 mph, putting the more powerful Dodge Challenger Demon to shame.
Chevy offered a seven-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic on the ZR1. Handling was no slouch either with the inclusion of magnetic ride control, traction assists, and an electronic limited-slip differential. The ZR1 can run with some of the best muscle cars in the past and present. That is until the mid-engine Corvette C8 gets the ZR1 treatment.