Brawny, bold and brilliantly quick, muscle cars revolutionised the American motoring industry in the 1960s when they roared onto the scene with their big-cube V8s and blistering acceleration. Sadly the muscle cars’ glory days lasted less than a decade with skyrocketing fuel prices, thanks to the US energy crisis, signalling their untimely demise. The data and the pictures have been sourced from the respective company websites.
But what classifies a model as a muscle car? Bar a few exceptions muscle cars are a uniquely American phenomenon that followed a very simply recipe – shoehorning the burliest and largest displacement V8 mill into a generally inexpensive two-door mid-size car that could barely cope with such power and speed. An electrifying mix by any standard.
Muscle cars have always been more about straight-line acceleration and tearing down the drag strip than they have been about handling or refinement. Dazzling top speeds were also of secondary importance. And the cars we have picked for this list, all meet this recipe.
Some modern models have emerged, retaining key elements, such as flared wheel-arches and roaring V8s of course, but the most memorable of the muscle cars inevitably all come from the vintage stable and those are the models this line-up pays tribute to. So fasten your seatbelt as we tear through 10 of the most memorable pieces of muscle iron.
Positioned at the top of the Cougar line-up (Mercury’s version of Ford’s Mustang), the 1970 Eliminator was built on a Mustang platform stretched by three inches for a more boulevard-like ride. With its blacked-out grille, concealed headlights and side stripe it certainly looked the part, while a 335bhp 7.0-litre V8 made sure it had the go to match the show.
Concerned about the roaring success of Ford’s Mustang, Chevrolet launched the Camaro as a direct rival in 1967 and debuted the brilliantly quick Super Sport version just one year later. Courtesy of a 325bhp 6.5-litre V8, the SS could storm to 62mph in just 6.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 130mph.
With a wave of successful muscle cars sweeping across the US, Dodge needed a successful rival to the Mustang and Camaro. Enter the Challenger. The fastest model was the “Trans Am” Challenger – powered by a beefy 290bhp 5.6-litre V8 – which could thunder to 62mph in just 5.8 seconds. Unfortunately the Challenger fell somewhat short on build quality.
With the US haemorrhaged by the energy crisis, muscle car fans only really had one model to consider in the early 1970s – the rorty “Super-Duty” version of Pontiac’s Firebird. Whereas many of its competitors had grown soft over the years, the Pontiac was a proper old-school muscle car with a super-thirsty 7.5-litre V8 thumping under its bonnet.
Forget about its unassuming looks, the Charger is a full-blooded muscle car – especially with Dodge’s chunky 7.0-litre Hemi V8 pounding under the bonnet. Its fastback styling and razor grille with concealed headlights and indicators helped set the Charger apart not only as a serious performer capable of 62mph in 5.3 seconds, but also as a real head-turner.
Although the El Camino’s history stretches back to 1959, this pick-up only truly turned muscle car in 1970 when a 360bhp 7.4-litre V8 was stuffed under its bonnet. Based largely on that other mighty Chevy, the Chevelle, the El Camino made sure most of its power reached the blacktop thanks to an optional Positraction limited slip differential.
With a name borrowed in part from Ferrari’s 250 GTO, this legendary Pontiac was always going to be about one thing: explosive speed. GM rammed a 360bhp 6.5-litre V8 under its scooped bonnet, enabling the GTO to storm to 62mph in a whopping 6.4 seconds – explosively quick for 1963.
Positioned as a larger sibling to the Mustang but smaller than Ford’s Galaxies, the Fairlane’s engine bay had to be widened to accommodate its super hot 7.0-litre 427 V8. If the 425bhp/480 lb/ft figures didn’t do the trick to win the public’s admiration, the Fairlane’s impressive performances at NASCAR certainly did. Only a few hundred of this top-of-the-range beast were ever built.
Originally launched as the Barracuda, it is the later generation (known simply as the Cuda) with its understated sporty looks and legendary engine that gets our nod. Powered by a fearsome 620bhp/655 lb/ft 7.1-litre Hemi V8, the race-bred Cuda could thunder to 62mph in a dazzling 4.3 seconds and on to 137mph.
Deciding on whether to include the Mustang in this list is the easy part. Indeed, a much more challenging task is picking just one model from a raft of Shelbys, Bosses, GTs, Bullits and Machs. The GT500, however, has to be the finest of this original model with a mighty 7.0-litre V8 and uprated suspension setting it apart from lesser GT350s.