(iSeeCars) — Muscle cars are as American as baseball and apple pie. Over the last 60 years, several Asian and European automakers have co-opted the classic muscle car recipe – a large V8 engine stuffed into a smaller, rear-wheel drive platform – but muscle cars remain an American phenomenon.
They were born in a post-war era dominated by cheap gas and rapidly evolving automotive technology that incited a horsepower war between the major U.S. automakers. The first shots were fired when the Chevrolet Corvette’s 265 cubic inch V8 engine was dropped into a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. That same year, Detroit rival Chrysler put a 330 cubic inch V8 in its Chrysler 300 performance two-door coupe. The term “muscle car” hadn’t yet been coined, but the concept of putting a large, powerful engine in a – relatively – small body was established and would become the primary definition of what constitutes a muscle car forever after.
The official muscle era kicked off 9 years later when Pontiac put its largest engine, a 389 cubic inch V8, into its midsize “Le Mans” coupe and dubbed it the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO. GTO comes from the Italian term Gran Turismo Omologato, or Grand Touring Homologated, and was already in use by another car company – Ferrari. That didn’t stop Pontiac from using the name and seeing strong demand from car enthusiasts drawn to the concept of a high-performance car made in the USA.
The GTO’s strong sales, along with Ford’s massively successful 1965 Mustang, opened the floodgates, with every major U.S. automaker fielding their best muscle car models over the next 10 years. Sadly, the original muscle car era ended with the last 1974 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am powered by a 455 cubic inch Super Duty V8. But happily, American cars regained their performance standing in the mid-1980s, with at least one powerful V8 muscle car available in America’s new-car showrooms ever since. With over six decades of muscle car history, let’s count down the 20 best American muscle cars of all time.
20. 1964 Pontiac GTO: Let’s start off with the car that started it all – the aforementioned 1964 Pontiac GTO. With its 389 cubic inch V8 rated at 348 horsepower, and a highly controversial Car and Driver cover story pitting the American GTO against the Italian (Ferrari) GTO, this car caused a sensation and launched the original muscle car era. Kudos to Pontiac!
19. 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396: General Motors’ Chevrolet division wasn’t going to let Pontiac have all the fun. A year after the GTO, Chevy launched its Chevelle SS with a 396 cubic inch V8 rated at 375 horsepower and capable of running the quarter mile in 14.60 seconds, making it one of the quickest cars available at the time.
18. 1966 Dodge Charger Hemi: The first year for the Dodge Charger was also the first year for the 426 hemi V8 in a production car. This combination caused yet another sensation, both at NASCAR tracks and on America’s public roads. Its fastback shape and “no-headlight” grille was cutting edge design in 1966, as was public access to a full race motor like the 426 Hemi.
17. 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28: Every automaker watched with envy as Ford’s Mustang sold in the millions (yes millions) in its first 3 years. But Chevrolet countered with the Camaro in 1967, creating an instant icon that was available in several trim levels, including the manual-transmission-only Z/28, a model that proved quite successful in Trans Am racing.
16. 1969 Plymouth Road Runner 440+6: Plymouth introduced the Road Runner as a low-cost alternative to its more expensive GTX (Dodge had a corporate twin, called the Super Bee). In 1969 both brands introduced the 440+6 engine, a low-cost alternative to the 426 Hemi that could pull the same ¼-mile times at a drag strip (or on the street…) for a much lower cost.
15. 1965 Ford Mustang GT: Ford was already known for its Cobra sports car, but in 1965 the Ford Mustang started the pony car craze, which was essentially the muscle car concept using even smaller vehicles. Ford’s Mustang found almost 700,000 buyers in its first year, with the GT model powered by a 289 V8. Ford has sold a new Mustang every year since 1965.
14. 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am: Pontiac’s other big nameplate from the original muscle car era was the Firebird, another Mustang-inspired pony car introduced in 1967 alongside the Chevy Camaro. In 1969 the Firebird got its own road racing version, similar to the Camaro Z/28. Pontiac called it the “Trans Am”, a direct reference to the Trans Am racing series it competed in.
13. 1970 Oldsmobile 442 W-30: By 1970 the V8 engines in muscle cars were sized well beyond 400 cubic inches, with the 1970 Oldsmobile 442 offering a 455 cubic inch engine and a W-30 upgrade package. The W-30 added more power and a cold-air induction system to the already torque-enabled motor, giving it a peak rating of 500 pound-feet.
12. 1970 Buick GSX Stage One: If the Ods 442 W-30 didn’t have enough torque at 500 lb-ft, Buick’s top muscle car that year offered 510 pound-feet from its 455 V8 engine. That’s the highest torque figure from the muscle car era, and the GSX was known for putting other muscle cars in their place, including a highly publicized and controversial win over a 426 hemi car.
11. 1968 Mustang Shelby GT500 KR: The Shelby name has been attached to numerous Mustangs over the past six decades, but the 428-powered Shelby GT500 KR is arguably the most “muscular” of the original Mustangs. The brawny engine combined with brawny body lines to give the Mustang its most aggressive look, with more than enough power to back it up.
10. 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T SE Hemi: Dodge introduced the Challenger in 1970, creating one of the best-proportioned muscle cars of all time. Available in multiple trims and with everything from a 6-cylinder engine to the 426 Hemi, a 1970 Challenger R/T SE Hemi marries performance with luxury. Since we’re dreaming, go ahead and make ours Plum Crazy Purple.
9. 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1: Most Camaros were built with handling in mind, but the limited-production (only 69 were built) ZL1 wanted it all – quickness and cornering. It got there with an aluminum block 427 V8 engine, conservatively rated at 435 horsepower. Dyno tests have shown a more realistic 525 hp, which is why it could pull 11-second quarter-mile times
8. 2023 Dodge Challenger SRT Jailbreak: Not every great muscle car is from the old era. Dodge has been building 700-plus horsepower SRT Hellcats since the 2015 model year. The Jailbreak offers 807 horsepower and 707 pound-feet of torque from its supercharger-enhanced 6.2-liter V8. It even uses the air conditioning system to cool the intake charge for added power.
7. 1973 Pontiac Firebird 455 Super Duty: In the waning days of the original muscle car era Pontiac’s engineers refused to surrender. Fitting, given Pontiac’s role in starting the era, that the 1973/1974 Pontiac Firebird 455 Super Duty was the last original muscle car to offer a powerful big block V8 and nearly 300 rear-wheel horsepower, right before performance evaporated.
6. 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona: Designed to win on NASCAR tracks of the late 1960s, the Dodge Daytona started with a Charger body and added an aerodynamic front end (with flip-up headlights) and a massive rear wing to let it break the 200 mph top speed barrier on a race track. Its corporate twin, the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, featured a similar design.
5. 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 LS6: Rated at 450 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque, the 454 V8 engine in LS6 configuration had the highest horsepower rating of any muscle car from that era. This technically gave the Chevelle more power than Chevy’s own sports car (the Corvette) for that year, representing the peak specs of the original muscle car era.
4. 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429: A loophole in NASCAR’s rules meant teams could run any engine sold in a production car, not just the engines sold in the Torino race car of that era. So Ford decided to put its most powerful 1969 production engine in the smaller Mustang instead of the midsize Torino, creating the most powerful Mustang up that point in the model’s history.
3. 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge: The most powerful version of the 1969 Pontiac GTO, the “Judge” was named after a popular TV show character at the time and featured a 400 cubic inch Ram Air III engine offering 366 horsepower. The GTO Judge’s hood-mounted tachometer, open hood scoops, and bright graphics epitomized the height of the original muscle car era’s styling cues.
2. 2018 Dodge Demon: While not an original muscle car, the Dodge Demon is the most extreme muscle car ever built. Its 6.2-liter V8 offered 840 horsepower and 770 pound-feet of torque. This made the Demon capable of a 9-second ¼ mile…if it could gea t sufficient grip when drag racing on the kind of prepared surface you’ll only find at a drag facility.
1. 1971 Hemi ‘Cuda Convertible: The Barracuda began as a Mustang alternative in 1964, but by 1971 it had morphed into a full-blown muscle car using the same platform as Dodge’s Challenger. The ‘Cuda’s shorter wheelbase gave it an even “meaner” stance than the Dodge, and only 11 convertibles were built with the hemi engine before it was retired from production.
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This article, Top 20 American Muscle Cars, originally appeared on iSeeCars.com.