With vast straight roads and a love of drag-racing, only America could have invented the muscle car.
There was nothing particularly sophisticated about these beasts, which operated on a simple premise: slam a V8 engine into a small (in American terms) car and drive it fast and straight.
And although they’re not wholly suited to UK roads, muscle cars have been held in awe by plenty of motorists this side of the Pond for decades.
Specialist American car insurance broker Adrian Flux took a look at 10 legendary muscle cars of the past six decades to coincide with the latest edition of Influx magazine, which is focused this month on American muscle.
The seeds of the muscle car may have been planted in the late 1940s, but it enjoyed its heyday in the Swinging Sixties through to the early 70s, when the Clean Air Act, the oil crisis and high insurance costs in the States brought about their temporary demise.
The kings of the road became unaffordable and impractical, with Detroit focusing more on emission controls and taxes on high-powered cars increasing. Aimed at hot-blooded young men who could no longer afford them, these street-legal hot rods became more of a rarity on US highways.
But in their golden era, some truly stunning and brutal beasts roamed the streets. Enjoy our own personal top 10 – and feel free to disagree.
1. Ford Mustang Boss 429
Clearly there have been many Mustangs over the years, but the 1970 Boss 429 makes this list partly because of its rarity and partly because of its racing pedigree.
Built for NASCAR homologation purposes, what makes this car special is that each one is hand built to fit the 7-litre V8 into the engine bay, and with only 859 made prices are astronomical, with a high-point of $417,000 paid at auction in Florida.
2. Ford Thunderbolt
Although legal for road use, 1964’s Ford Thunderbolt was considered just too hot for the streets, and only 111 were built.
Based on the mid-size Fairlane body, the Thunderbolt was a 7-litre monster that lived almost exclusively on the track, where its massive traction bars and trunk-mounted battery were intended to maximise its huge 500bhp output on the strip.
Weight-saving measures showed just how unsuitable this car was for the road, with no sun visors, heater, passenger windscreen wiper, arm rests, mirrors and even carpeting.
Ford even felt moved to rivet a metal plate inside the glove box which stated: “Because of the specialized purpose for which this car has been built and in order to achieve maximum weight reduction, normal quality standards of the Ford Motor Company…are not met on this vehicle.
“This information is included on this vehicle to assure that all customers who purchase this car are aware of the deviation from the regular high appearance quality standards of the Ford Motor Company.”
The Thunderbolt could run the quarter mile in 11.6 seconds at 124mph and the car dominated the NHRA World Championship and is almost certainly the fastest production drag racer ever produced.
3. Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird
Without doubt the most eye-catching car on our list thanks to its massive rear spoiler that looks like a carrying handle for a giant, the Superbird also featured a futuristic droop-snoot nose.
A highly modified version of the successful Roadrunner, the Superbird was designed for racing and fitted with a 7-litre V8.
As well as its startling looks, the car was famed for its horn tone, which copied the sound from the Looney Tunes cartoon Roadrunner character, which was also featured as a decal on the vehicle.
Only 135 were made with the 7-litre “hemi” engine, which has seen prices soar to between $100,000 and $200,000 today.
4. Chevrolet Chevelle
The original Chevelle was a fairly ordinary looking mid 60s saloon, but the introduction of the SS model was Chevrolet’s first real foray into the muscle car market.
But it’s the mark 2 of 1968 that moved things up a gear, with a new tapered body with a long bonnet and shorter body seeing the Chevelle become America’s most popular mid-sized car. It was a muscle car for the masses.
Many consider the 1970 SS 454 model as the high point of the muscle car movement, with the 450bhp LS6 version able to blow away virtually all of the opposition at the time.
With its swept-back roofline and bonnet bulge, there was no disguising that this car was something special.
5. Oldsmobile 88
The Oldsmobile 88 was introduced as long as ago as 1949 and is considered by many to be the forerunner of the later true muscle cars, thanks to its relatively small, lightweight body and powerful new Rocket V8 engine.
Until this marriage, Oldsmobile had produced fairly middle-of-the-road motors, but the 88 went on to become the first “King of NASCAR”, winning 36 of 69 races between 1949 and 1952.
A curvy coupe with protruding rear wings, the Rocket’s race-winning pedigree saw buyers flock to the Oldsmobile showrooms, with many young men coming out of the army post-war looking for the type of powerful machinery they’d been used to operating.
The car inspired early rock and roll song, Rocket 88, and the company adopted a rocket logo on its trunk lid in 1950.
By 1952 the Rocket pumped out 160bhp from its 5-litre V8, and the 88 name continued for 10 generations until it was discontinued in 1999 – just five years before the Oldsmobile brand left the motoring arena completely.
6. Chevrolet Corvette L88
The Corvette L88, produced in 1967 and 1968 in the stunning Stingray body shape, was a racing package featuring a 7-litre big block engine, and so concerned was Chevrolet at the power on offer they discouraged dealers from selling it for the road.
The company said the car pushed out 435bhp, only slightly more than a standard Corvette, to further discourage buyers, but later testing showed the power was closer to a staggering 560 horsepower.
Anyone buying it for the road would have had trouble driving far, however, as the high compression ratio required 103-octane fuel, only available at a small number of service stations.
Only 196 were made as increased emission controls saw production stopped and Chevrolet readied themselves for the Corvette’s new model shape in 1968.
7. Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1
Chevrolet had no such qualms about selling 1969’s Camaro ZL-1 to the public, despite it utilising a lighter, aluminium version of the L88 engine from the Corvette.
The engine alone cost $4,000 and was hand assembled in a surgically clean workshop, each engine taking 16 hours to put together.
The resulting $7,200 price tag for the car put off buyers, as well as fears over its power, with some cars sent back to the factory to be fitted with smaller engines to help them sell.
With the first 20 cars sent straight to the drag strip, and problems selling to the public, only 69 aluminium-engined ZL-1s were made, making these among the fastest and most rare of all the muscle cars.
8. Chrysler C-300
In 1955, the Chrysler C-300 burst on to the scene, boasting 300bhp (hence the name) from its 5.4-litre “hemi” V8.
Essentially a racecar aimed squarely at NASCAR, the C-300 was produced for the road for homologation purposes, with 1,725 sold for road use.
At the time, this was the world’s fastest stock-car, and within a year it monstrous engine was pumping out 355bhp – the most powerful car produced in the United States and enough to propel the Chrysler to a speed of 127mph in the Flying Mile.
Over the years the styling of the 300 (with different letters attached to its name) became even more dramatic, with huge yawning grilles and large rear fins, and engine size increasing to 6.8-litres, propelling the car to 142mph.
9. Pontiac GTO
If you’re not convinced of the true muscle car credentials of the C-300 or the Rocket, then maybe the Pontiac GTO of 1964 is your idea of where it all began.
Not as pretty as the Oldsmobile or the Chrysler, the Pontiac is basically a Tempest with a 6-litre V8 lump producing 348bhp – fast and powerful, but its true legacy is that its success convinced General Motors to produce the following stable of Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac muscle cars.
The name was the ideal of John DeLorean, who noticed that Ferrari had not patented the GTO name in North America – it officially stood for Pontiac Grand Tempest Option.
In 1969, the second generation featured bolder, fastback styling with engine capacity increased to a massive 7.5-litre urging the car from 0-60mph in just 5.2 seconds. Seriously rapid for the time.
10. Dodge Challenger
The 1970 Dodge Challenger was slightly larger than the average muscle car or pony car (we’re not making a distinction for the purposes of our list), going head to head with the Mercury Cougar and the Pontiac Firebird.
Aimed at affluent young buyers, the design was similar to the Dodge Charger and the car was a hit with the public, selling 165,000 units.
The Challenger was offered with a vast array of engines, but the pick of the crop from a performance point of view was the R/T (road and track) model fitted with a 7-litre 425bhp unit.
The model lives on today, with styling cues clearly taken from the 70s, in the shape of a 485bhp monster.
Insurance from Adrian Flux
Get competitive American car insurance for all types of muscle car with Adrian Flux.
Features can include:
- Agreed value
- Limited mileage discounts
- Owners club discount
- Laid up cover
- Wedding hire cover