There is nothing to match the genuine kick in the pants you get from an original, no-apologies American muscle car. Flowing body curves, wild colors, the screaming roar of a wide-open four barrel with dual exhaust and the smell of burning rubber spell pure adrenaline. No other automotive ride offers the visceral thrill to match the sheer arrogance of these classic rides. Here are five icons of the era to move your soul (and the rest of you).
1968 Pontiac Firebird
The first-generation Firebirds came with a lean, aggressive look that reminded onlookers of a jet fighter. The 335-horsepower 400 was the one to have, especially if you could get your hands on the High Output Ram Air II. This was a 15-second quarter miler out of the box and it felt like it. This was the first pony car to feature variable ratio power steering. Handling and ride weren’t the strong points with early Firebirds, but the boot in the backside more than made up for that with the Firebird 400.
1967 Shelby GT500
The primary differences between the GT350 and the GT500 are the big-block 428 Interceptor in the GT500 and the lack of the Mustang name. At 335 horsepower, the dual-carb big-block was an impressive, snarly beast, but these cars didn’t get the suspension modifications and body lightening of the GT350, and aren’t as fast because of the heavier engine. By this time, the Shelby mods were mostly cosmetic, with headlight bucket extensions, extra road lights, fiberglass hood and trunk lids and scoops on the brake vent and roof pillars. The GT500 remains a head-turning ride to this day, and it brings a lot of juice to the table.
1969 Dodge Charger
This is one of the signature muscle cars of the entire era. The larger size of the muscle cars meant they tended to have better traction at launch than the pony cars, so most of the time they crossed the line first at the local drags. The Charger was a big, heavy car that needed the big block to really be effective, and with the 440 Magnum Six Pack on the R/T, this was a drag strip wonder. The 426 Hemi is the more famous and desirable motor nowadays, but the 390-horsepower Magnum outperformed the 425-horsepower Hemi at the track because of the extra weight the Hemi added. The rarer production of the Hemi engines makes them very valuable today. Only 392 of those came in the Charger body.
1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda
The 1970 Hemi ‘Cuda is the king of the hill for collector pony cars, with one of the six convertibles made going for over 2.5 million dollars at auction. This was the fastest muscle car Hot Rod magazine ever tested from 1960-1970, though Plymouth admitted later that they had specially prepared the car for the magazine testing session. Track results proved to be different at the drags. Though blindingly fast and gorgeously outrageous, the car had atrocious handling because of the 70-30 front to rear weight balance and severe lack of traction. Dan Gurney’s AAR racing team consistently placed dead last in the SCCA Trans Am road racing series with the 318 version of the car. Still, nothing screams “muscle car” like the Hemi ‘Cuda, and when you stomp the pedal, your heart better be in good shape.
1970 Chevelle 454 SS
The LS-6 Chevelle for 1970 was the most powerful muscle car ever produced, at 475 horsepower for the Cowl Induction version. Like the ‘Cuda, this car was quite front heavy, with the 454 weighing in at almost 750 pounds. Since these cars weren’t road raced like the pony cars, that didn’t really matter. The larger size and heavier weight of the Chevelle made a traction difference at the track, and a stock LS-6 can turn low 12-second times on street tires. The Chevelle was a favorite with the public and had much higher sales than the other cars featured here. Like the ‘Cuda, the Chevelle is a car that represents the words, “muscle car” to perfection.
The muscle car era was a unique period in American car building history. These five cars are only a few among the multitude of paint, power and model combinations available, and there is bound to be one to please just about anybody. From small block pony cars to big block family car bruisers, no other period in American automotive history is remembered so fondly, by so many people.