What do you think about when you think of the term, “American muscle?” If you answered Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, while he is American and has muscle, that was not the image we were trying to invoke by use of the term American muscle. Rather, we hoped American muscle would take you back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when speed was king and torque-heavy, horsepower-rich street beasts ruled the road. Unfettered by modern emission and gas-mileage regulations, these classic muscle cars gave birth to the term, American muscle. So, we’ll take you back to the 60s and 70s for our list of top 10 classic muscle cars.
So, what exactly is a muscle car? If it elicits images of a circa 60s or 70s GTO, Chevelle, or a Shelby Mustang (sweet), then you’re not far off the mark. For those car aficionados though, if you ask 10 of those experts, you might very well get 10 different answers depending on how they view muscle cars. For the layman though, a muscle car is fast, and it looks cool driving down the road. It is the kind of car you wish you had when you were a teenager. Heck, it may be the kind of car you wish you had if you are middle-aged. That could explain the modern-day versions of the classic muscle cars.
For the purpose of this article though, the muscle car’s production year had to be in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. It is non-modified, meaning it came off the production line the way it was floored at the dealership and is has the horsepower and torque to put a little Gs in your face if you’re accelerating down a flat track from 0 to 60. In other words, as fast as “greased lightning.”
The rankings for the top 10 classic muscle cars of the fifties, sixties and seventies is based on a composite score from a survey of classic car writers, editors and bloggers. There are certainly a great many cars that could be on the list. You may even have your own opinion of what should be on the list. Please feel free to share. Honorable mentions go out to the ’66 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake, the ’68 Plymouth Road Runner, the ’70 Plymouth Superbird, the ’70 Dodge Challenger, the ’70 Torino GT 429 Super Cobra Jet, and the ’70 Ford Mustang Boss 302.
10. 1970 Buick GSX
1970 Buick GSX – Specs
Engine: 455 V8
Torque: 510 lb-ft
Number Built: 687
A Buick muscle car? Yeah, that’s right, Buick made a muscle car and, actually, a very good one. Released in 1970, the Buick GSX was an option for the Gran Sport 455 or GS 455. It was Buick’s response to the Pontiac GTO Judge and the Chevrolet Chevelle SS. And if the GSX looks like the Chevelle, that’s because GM decided to use that body style for the Buick muscle car entry.
The GSX came equipped with a 455 ci (7.5 L) V8 engine used in the Gran Sport 455. Talk about a rocket. The GSX not only had the muscle but the performance features and luxury that come with the nameplate, Buick. It was everything you could want in a muscle car and more.
9. 1970 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
1970 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Engine: Ram Air 400 V8
Torque: 445 lb-ft
Number Built: 3,198
Although GM opted for a redesign on the Firebird (and Camaro, which shared the body design) as it moved into the second generation of the car with more of a sportier European styled influence, the car that was unleashed on the market to compete against the Ford Mustang had brute American muscle under the hood. The ’70 Firebird Trans Am came equipped with the Ram Air III (345 hp) or the optional Ram Air IV (370 hp), both 400 ci (6.6 L) V8 monsters.
The redesign did feature some impressive functional changes that added to the front-end speed and handling of the car. The car came with a rear-facing shaker scoop to capture air while it flowed over the hood, came standard with a four-speed transmission and Hurst shifter, a padded Formula-style steering wheel, stiffer springs, front and rear sway bars, front air dam and air extractors on the fenders. With the standard Ram Air III, the Firebird was able to produce a 14-second elapsed time at the dragstrip.
8. 1966 Chevrolet Corvette 427 – Top 10 Classic Muscle Cars of The 50s, 60s & 70s
1966 Chevrolet Corvette 427
Engine: 427 ci Big Block V8
Torque: 465 lb-ft
Number Built: 27,720
In 1966, Chevy gave the muscle car of muscle cars another dose of power with its 427 ci (7 L) big block V8. Although Chevy claimed the engine only had 425 horses under the hood, most people would put it closer to 450 hp or insist the horses under the hood were on steroids. Either way, you get the picture – lots and lots of power with torque rated at 465 lbs./ft at 4000 RPM.
There wasn’t much change to the rest of this model of the Corvette Sting Ray. It did come with electric windows, a sight change in the grill and it was also the first time the roadster also received an emblem in the corner of the hood. But, again, the thing that stands out with the ’66 Corvette Sting Ray was the added power to a car that was already a muscle monster.
7. 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda
1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda
Engine: 426 ci (7 L) V8 Hemi
Torque: 425 lb-ft
Number Built: 666
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Plymouth, it used to be a Chrysler nameplate. For those of you familiar with the Barracuda, well it just doesn’t get much better than the 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda. Yeah, ‘Cuda is short for bare-knuckle bad-to-the-bone muscle car. The 1970 ‘Cuda came with five engine choices and if you opted for the 425 hp 426 Hemi, your roar would be the envy of all car buffs who knew their stuff back in 1970.
The 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda was pure unadulterated power and Plymouth made sure to give the car everything needed that the ‘Cuda’s bite was as big as its roar. From the hardened suspension to the shaker scoop, hydraulic lifters for the Hemi, and Hurst pistol-grip shifter, the Hemi ‘Cuda was made for the asphalt jungle.
6. 1967 Yenko Camaro
1967 Yenko Camaro
Engine: 427 ci Big Block V8
Torque: 465 lb-ft
Number Built: 106
Isn’t it the Chevy Camaro you may ask? It is but it isn’t. The Camaro was introduced in 1967 by GM to compete with the many of the muscle cars of the day but for some reason the car company didn’t want to put an engine larger than 400 ci (6.6L) V8 in the vehicle. So, Don Yenko, a Chevrolet dealer in Canonsburg, Pennyslvania ordered his Camaros with the L78 engine and modified them with the Corvette’s L72 426 ci (7 L) V8 and the Yenko Super Camaro was born.
Yenko made 106 of these brutes but the modifications didn’t stop with the engine. Yenko reinforced the suspension and added a fiberglass “Stinger” hood similar to the ’67 Corvettes. What emerged was one of the most highly sought after muscle cars of its era.
5. 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 – Top 10 Classic Muscle Cars of The 50s, 60s & 70s
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429
Engine: 429 ci (L7) 385 Cobra Jet V8
Torque: 450 lb-ft
Number Built: 858
You were probably wondering when, not if, a Mustang was going to be on this list. Well, here it is. Checking in at number 5 is the 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429. Just saying that name gives me the shivers. If you are a car enthusiast, you probably know this car as the “Boss 9.” However, you choose to call the car though, this is a real street beast.
The ’69 Mustang Boss 429 was designed around a new engine that Ford wanted to qualify for NASCAR’s Grand National Division. In today’s world, that division is now called the Sprint Cup Series. To qualify the engine, a 429 ci (7 L) V8, Ford had to have at least 500 cars sold to the public with the engine. Ford built 858 of these gems. They not only included the new engine but decked out the car with a screaming interior, hood scoop, front spoiler and Magnum 500 wheels. The ’69 Ford Mustang Boss 429 was epitome of muscle with style.
4. 1964 Pontiac GTO
1964 Pontiac GTO
Engine: 389 ci (6.4 L) V8
Torque: 428 lb-ft
Number Built: 32,450
The “Goat” as it has been nicknamed just had to be on this list and why not start with the first year the car was offered, 1964. The GTO was actually offered as an upgrade to the Pontiac LeMans. The $289 GTO, or Grad Turismo Omologato, upgrade consisted of swap in engines from the stock 326 ci engine in the base LeMans to a 348 hp 389 ci (6.4 L) V8. There were other features of the upgrade and you could also order Tri-Power package, which comprised of three Rochester two-barrels, a four-speed manual transmission, a Super Turbine 300 two-speed automatic transmission and much more.
The GTO option for the LeMans was so popular, Pontiac, which hoped to sell at least 5,000, sold 32,450 of the cars. Pontiac finally made the GTO a separate model in 1966 and the rest is muscle car history.
3. 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle
1970 Chevolet Chevelle
Engine: 454 ci (7.4 L) Big Block V8
Torque: 500 lb-ft
Number Built: 8,773
Chevy introduced the Chevelle (AKA Malibu) in 1964 as a mid-sized sports sedan but perfected it in 1970. In 1970, two things happened to herald in one of the all time best muscle cars: GM lifted its ban on only offering 330 ci engines within their mid-sized car models and the Chevelle went through a slight revision in body style to square up the front so the design could be used interchangeably with the 1970 Buick GSX (remember muscle car #10).
The revision to Chevelle’s design didn’t have as much to do with muscle car nirvana as the update in performance. The Chevelle came in a few models: The Sport Sedan, the Sport Coupe, the El Camino sport utility, a convertible version of the car, a 4-door version and a few wagons. However, it was the coupe, convertible and El Camino that came with the two available optional Super Sport (SS) options: The SS 396 with a 402 ci (6.6 L) big block V8 and the SS 454 with a 454 ci (7.4 L) big block V8. Of course the SS 454 was the pinnacle of the Chevelle line, especially if you opted for the LS6 hydraulic lifter. Many car enthusiasts point to the Chevelle SS 454 as the apex of the golden age of muscle cars.
2. 1968 Dodge Charger – Top 10 Classic Muscle Cars of The 50s, 60s & 70s
1968 Dodge Charger R/T Hemi
Engine: 426 ci (7.0 L) Hemi V8
Torque: 490 lb-ft
Number Built: 475
Introduced in 1966, the Dodge Charger was Chrysler’s entry into the mid-size car market to compete against popular models of the day like the Rambler Marlin and Ford Mustang. The Charger was originally based on the Dodge Coronet body but that changed in 1968 when the car took on a new bold, sportier look but that year also marked the addition of the R/T (Road/Track) option for the car. The result was a muscle car for the ages. The 1968 Dodge Charger R/T Hemi was the pure definition of a muscle car.
The R/T came standard with the 440 ci four-barrel Magnum V8. That engine had an impressive 375 hp. But, you could also opt for the 426 Hemi. Rated at 425 hp, most car buffs insist that is underrated. No matter how you cut it though, the Dodge Charger R/T, Hemi or not, was a marvel of a muscle car, even if Steve McQueen’s 390 Mustang bested it in the film, Bullitt. Must have been the driver.
1. 1956 Chevy Corvette
1956 Chevy Corvette
Engine: 265 ci (4.3 L) Small-Block V8
Horsepower: 210 to 225
Torque: 270 lb-ft
Number Built: 3,467
The Corvette was first conceived in 1951 under the code name “Project Opel.” The prototype, EX – 122, was shown to the public in 1953 and the first production model of the Corvette rolled out for sale in June 1953. Each of the 300 Corvettes build that year were handmade, all white exteriors with red interiors and a black canvas top. However, it was with the 1956 model that Chevy got serious with its muscle roadster. It redesigned the body with a bolder, squarer front end, a tapered rear end and more racing design lines along the side panels. There was an optional hard top and power assist for the soft top. The biggest change though was with the engine. The six-cylinder that came with the 1953 to 1955 models was gone in favor of a powerful V8. Although the engine was still 265 ci, the hp increased, ranging from 210 to 225.
This car set the stage for muscle cars to come and for Chevy, it marked the transition of the Corvette from the slick little sports car designed to compete with the likes of the Nash Healy to a sports car that was also an all-out muscle street brawler. So, while there are other cars on this list with more straight line power from the purring monsters under their hoods, we pay homage to the ’56 Corvette for being one for of the first cars to usher in the golden age of muscle cars.