American muscle cars are known the world over for power and speed. The trend started in the 1960s when American automakers like Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Plymouth among others began taking massive, powerful engines and placing them between the wheels of smaller, lighter chassis. Performance became the name of the game, and these powerful beasts were leading the pack. Although the term "muscle car" is mostly associated with vehicles of this bygone era, modern rear-wheel-drive sports cars inspired by these extreme classic cars have started to adopt the term today.
1964 Pontiac GTO
It's always 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 GM on putting large engines in small cars and also by stealing the Ferrari name GTO, which stood for Gran Turismo Omologato and was supposed to indicate race cars with street-legal versions. The bold move quickly triggered an arms race from competing automakers such as Ford, Chrysler and even Buick. Pontiac continued to build on the GTO, making it bigger and more flashy, but it was eventually discontinued in 1974. It was revived in 2004 on an Australian-built coupe but dropped again in 2006.
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
Even though the American muscle car era got started in the 1960s, the 1970s are considered to be 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 for the time 450 horsepower. No other high-performance vehicle of the time was able to beat or even equal the LS6's power. 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 comers, and it generally did.
1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
The original Z/28 was made for Trans Am racing and the name has since been added to various other high-performance Camaro models through the generations. 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 is what entrenched the Mustang as the quintessential pony car. Chevy essentially built the Z/28 to take the Mustang down a notch, and it worked as the car won championships in both 1968 and 1969. The Z/28 had both powerful performance and handling, which helped it win.
1970 Plymouth Barracuda Hemi
As one of the top muscle cars of the peak 1970s era, the Barracuda Hemi featured a 426 cubic-inch engine with dual carburetors and the ability to put out 425 horsepower. The Barracuda Hemi also had a revised suspension that allowed it to withstand heavy acceleration. Like the Chevelle, the Barracuda had a profile that fit its speed and power. The front end was wide-set with a deep-set grille and split-channel air intake on the hood. The cabin had more of a low-profile look with less of a slanted back end. The sad part is that Plymouth didn't make very many Barracuda Hemis, which makes their present-day price very high compared to other classics.
1968 Ford Mustang GT
The 1968 Mustang GT might be the true icon of the muscle car era. It is the vehicle that starred in the classic movie Bullitt alongside Steve McQueen. It featured in the movie's main car chase, which is still considered one of the best in movie history. Ford has never forgotten the iconic car either, unveiling its latest tribute with the 2018 version. Offered in Highland Green paint in a nod to the movie car, it also features a blackout grille and low-profile lines similar to the original car.
1969 Dodge Charger
Another iconic car from the late '60s and early '70s was the 1969 Dodge Charger. Dodge presented this car to the American market with some different choices. The SE and R/T were the main models, and then the 500 and Daytona were the race models. There were also five V8 engines offered, including the Street Hemi, which put out 425 horsepower. The body style stayed the same across models, a two-door hardtop with long, sleek lines and a deep-set grille. 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 was extremely impressive for its time in that regard. NASCAR eventually changed its rule book and the Daytona's type was banned.
1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Pontiac's classic Firebird Trans Am became a legend partially due to its appearance in the 1976 movie, "Smokey and the Bandit." It also became one of the few American muscle cars to survive past the 1970s. Despite its name, it never competed on the Trans American circuit. The original Trans Am was always white with polar blue racing stripes. Though it had many of the regular Firebird specs, one exclusive was the functional air inlets on the hood. These could even be closed by the driver. It only took three years for the Trans Am to replace the GTO as Pontiac's most popular muscle car.
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429
Another muscle car designed specifically for NASCAR at the time, the 1969 Mustang Boss was a pretty exclusive vehicle. Less than 1,500 1969 Boss cars were made, which puts it in rare company for muscle cars in that year. 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. The standard car's had to be modified several times to get the big engine in. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as fast as the other '69 big-block Mustangs, but it did make up for it somewhat in looks. The trunk spoiler and scooped hood gave the Boss its distinctive beastly design.
1992 Dodge Viper
A more modern muscle car is the Dodge Viper. This sports car smashed onto the scene with a V10 engine and styling that somewhat resembled the Chevrolet Corvettes of the time. It was well-known for its bare-bones construction, which did not include traction control. It gained a reputation for being hard to drive as well. Those issues and its price tag likely shortened its lifespan. Dodge attempted to make up for that in the Viper's last generation with more comfort features and the needed traction control, but it didn't keep the Viper alive. Dodge gave it a well-deserved farewell by designing the Viper ACR, which was built for nothing but speed. It set incredible records at 13 different race tracks.
2016 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The ZL1 name has been typically attached to what was the fastest Camaro of the time. In 2016, this vehicle had a 6.2-liter V8 engine that put out 650 horses. This version of the Camaro was meant to perform alongside some of the best sports cars in the world, including the Z06 Corvette. It wasn't just fast either. The 2016 Camaro had high-performance handling due to an updated suspension and chassis.
1969 Pontiac GTO The Judge
As previously mentioned, the Pontiac GTO triggered the muscle car trend with its original 1964 incarnation, but The Judge was the big upgrade. In 1968, other automakers had taken the bait and the muscle car market was rife with competition. The GTO had to get better. Instead of making a smaller, cheaper GTO, Pontiac stepped up with an even bigger car. 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 cars. The Judge had a very recognizable body design and it usually came in a bright reddish-orange. 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. The Judge made such a big splash that it even had a rock song written about it by Paul Revere and the Raiders.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The original Camaro ZL1 came out for the 1969 model year and had the most powerful engine of the time for Chevrolet. This engine was the 427 V8, and it remains one of the most recognized Chevy engines. Many cars of the time had iron block engines, but this one had an aluminum block, which made it lighter. The ZL1 was marketed as having the standard 430 horsepower of the 427, but later tests revealed that the power of the ZL1's engine was a lot higher. As one of the rarest production cars from Chevy, the original ZL1 has vastly outlived its original price of $7,200 and remains one of the most classic muscle cars of its era.
Ford Shelby Mustang GT350R (2016+)
Ford attempted to rope in both American muscle car fans and European sports car enthusiasts with the 2016 Shelby Mustang GT350R. Taking inspiration from the original 1960s Shelby Mustang model, Ford gave it a 5.2-liter V8 engine meant to rev high, but the hardcore R version also added carbon fiber wheels and made the rear seats optional. The resulting vehicle was indeed racetrack-capable, but also very basic. It didn't need electronic help for speed. With powerful mechanics in place, it only required an experienced driver to fill in the rest.
2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat was already a pretty beastly machine with 707 horsepower, but the SRT Demon variant took it to another level. Nearly every muscle car automaker has made cars for the track, but Dodge went a bit further by making the Demon able to navigate the natural state of the muscle car on the drag strip. The figures are pretty incredible 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 while pulling a wheelie. The Demon's speed comes from a 6.2 liter supercharged Hemi V8 engine that puts out 808 horsepower under normal circumstances. Give the same car 100-octane racing fuel and the Demon puts out 840 horses.
Along with the speed, the Demon employs a few tricks previously reserved solely for race cars. The car has a standard single seat, and it has a transmission brake to lock it on the starting line to get off faster. The dedication to sheer drag racing ability in the Demon is something that won't be seen again for a while.
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Although the Corvette has always been painted with more of a sports car brush than a muscle car brush, it's still an iconic American speedster. Chevy has made some "Vettes" over the years that easily wear both titles. The 2019 Corvette line, however, includes the high-performance ZR1, which is the most powerful variants ever made. It features a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 engine with 755 horsepower and 715 lb.-ft. of torque. This amount puts even the Dodge Hellcat and Z06 to shame. It has a top speed of 210 mph. The ZR1 is not the Corvette to be messed with. At least based on the numbers. Not only that, but Chevy has given drivers the option of a seven-speed manual transmission or eight-speed automatic. Its handling is also described as accomplished, with the inclusion of magnetic ride control, traction management and an electronic limited slip differential. The ZR1 can run with some of the best muscle cars in the past and present.