Car Corner
Scott's Top Ten Muscle Cars

August 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

I have read many such articles about "Top Ten" Muscle Cars. I thought to myself... why not tackle it myself. I have not had the opportunity to drive most of the cars on this list, and certainly have not driven the exact models mentioned (for example, I have driven Chevelles, but not a Chevelle SS 454 LS-6). What the hey, I know what I like and I have a strong basic knowledge of Muscle Cars.

I will write this entire article from memory. I will not research anything. Don't take this to mean this article will not be reasonably accurate. I expect it to be filled with a lot of accurate information on Muscle Cars, and even some fun trivia on the subject. I hope to demonstrate my general knowledge of Muscle Cars. I am doing it this way in the hopes of generating feedback. I am weak in some areas, particularly Fords that don't have a small horse in the grill, some Mopars, and anything not coming from the big three (read AMC). Please send me info on any car you think should be a contender for Scott's Top Ten Muscle Cars. Be sure to give a couple of sentences on why it should be on the list. You don't have to go into great detail. You may jog my memory just by telling me the name of the car. I will reply with questions if I need more information.

I plan to re-visit this topic later with feedback and research. Until then I am killing time working from memory. Feel free to bash my opinion. I will defend my choices to the bitter end, but I am not closed minded.

The Rules

A big problem with coming up with a list of the best Muscle Cars is defining what is a Muscle Car. A lot of people will put Corvettes in with Muscle Cars of the sixties. Also, do the early sixties big cars like the 409 Impalas count as Muscle Cars? Some people believe that the Muscle Car was pioneered with the original 1964 Pontiac GTO. Pontiac took an intermediate sized car and put in the largest engine they could to create what is considered the first Muscle Car. That would leave the big cars of the early sixties out of the picture.

If you follow Pontiacs original recipe of an intermediate sized car then the pony cars would not be Muscle Cars. Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, Barracudas and Challengers... do these count? And since most of these were based on economy cars like the Nova, Falcon, Valiant, etc. do they count?

Muscle Cars are widely known to have died with the 1971 model year. This was the year that a lot of manufacturers lowered compression ratios to handle the lower quality gas that was being forced on the public. Dodge and Plymouth took the Hemi out of production after 71... clearly a low point in automotive history.

However, I can think of one car after 1972 that truly deserved the muscle status... the 1973-74 Pontiac Trans AM SD 455. I don't know if that's its proper name, but it makes the point. In 1973 Pontiac decided to buck the system and finish the development work it started with the 455 engine. Although it used a low compression ratio, it had all the hard core components that made for a great performance engine. They put this engine in Firebirds, both Trans Ams and Formulas with the SD moniker for Super Duty. It was a great swan song to the Muscle Car days.

Even my own 1973 Road Runner GTX with a 440 wasn't a real Muscle Car by that time, although I did rebuild that car to true Muscle Car capabilities. (Note: that car went to the big car collector lot in the sky back in 1985.)

Next are what I like to call semi-aftermarket specialty cars. Many remember the Yenko cars of the 60s. These were cars that were modified my Yenko Chevrolet and sold as new cars with full factory support and warranties. Imagine getting a 427 Chevelle or Camaro from a dealer when they were not available from the factory that way. Do these count? If so then you would need to include the Dickey Chevrolet cars, and my favorite... the Baldwin Motion cars from Joel Rosen of Motion Performance in conjunction with Baldwin Chevrolet back on Long Island (where I grew up).

Lastly, we need to classify a few cars that were so limited in production that almost no one could get there hands on them without special treatment. For example, the ZL-1 Camaro. This was a special 1969 Camaro with an all aluminum 427 engine that was supposed to be worth at least 500 hp, though conservatively rated at 435 hp to help with its placement within competition drag racing. They only made 69 of these, and if you didn't have an NHRA drivers license you probably couldn't get one. Add to that the fact that it cost more than twice as much as any other Camaro made it unlikely to be bought by the college kid dodging the draft.

So what counts? I have no idea. Personally I don't think the Corvette belongs on a list of Muscle Cars. That also eliminates the Cobra. I believe in the GTO as the original Muscle Car, so that eliminates the 409s, Max Wedges and Thunderbolts of the early sixties.

As the Muscle Car craze was roaring many cars were treated to more power as part of the equation. I believe that cars like Camaros, Mustangs and the like are contenders for this list. Likewise I would add any car these pony cars were based on. That gets the Nova, Dart and such in the mix. All these cars received the marketing treatment as Muscle Cars during their heyday.

Next we might have what seems like an overlap of cars. Take the GTO Judge for example. Some might think the Judge is just another GTO, so you shouldn't include it as a separate car to compete against the original GTO. I don't think that way. The Judge attempted to raise the bar for the GTO therefore it gets listed along with the original GTO. The same can be said of Shelby and Boss Mustangs; they were separate models in the light of this top ten competition.

I don't feel super low production specialty cars like the ZL-1 Camaro count. In fact, I think it would be inappropriate to add the Yenkos, Motion, and other specialty cars. A true Muscle Car should be one that was a regular production model. Ford with there Boss 429 built a killer Mustang at a loss on every one so they could get that engine approved for racing. But anyone that wanted to pony (no pun untended) up the bucks could gallop (pun intended) off in one. The same is true for the 69 Dodge Charger Daytona and 70 Plymouth Superbird. These cars saw low production numbers, but were available for anyone that had the gumption to check the right boxes on an order sheet. A true Muscle Car must be a regular, even if low, production vehicle available to the general public from anywhere.

The Contenders

Here is were things are going to get sticky. I don't know all the Muscle Cars of the era (1964-1971). I was only single digits in age during this time period. Also, sometimes it is necessary to include a particular car for what it did to the Muscle Car industry. This is especially true of the 1964 GTO. It was not the fastest Muscle Car, but clearly it started the entire concept that we fondly remember today. 

Here is the list of Muscle Cars that contend for Top Ten status as I can remember them. Please send me ones that are missing. I would like to revisit this topic in the future with cars that I could not come up with from memory. I am especially weak on Fords. This does not mean I don't like Fords, just that I did not really remember them as strongly during the Muscle Car era. I blame this on the fact that I was born too late and Ford's sixties heritage was largely overshadowed but the hugely successful Mustang.

The following list is arranged so that variations of a car are listed together. All the GTOs are together, all the Mustangs, etc. Then I put them in chronological order based on when the first version was released.

1964 Tempest GTO (The GTO was only an option on the Tempest the first year. In 1965 or 1966 the GTO became its own model.)
1967 GTO Tri Power (This was the first year for the 400 c.i. engine in the GTO, replacing the 389. It was also the only year the 400 was available with the three 2 barrel carburetor setup. Some consider this to be the best version of the GTO before Pontiac went luxo-crazy and built the Judge.)
1970 GTO Judge (This was the pinnacle of the GTO with a 455 Ram Air engine.)

1965 Chevelle SS Z-16 (Although only 201 of these were made is was a regular option and was Chevy's first true Muscle Car... by the Pontiac definition created with the GTO.)
1966-69 Chevelle SS 396
1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS-6

1965-66 Mustang GT K-Code (K-Code was the designation for the 271 hp version of the 289. This was the basis for Shelby's Mustangs, though cranked up to 306 hp, and gave the Mustang the power it needed to qualify it as a Muscle Car.)
1965-66 Shelby Mustang GT350
1968 Mustang GT 428CJ
1968 Shelby Mustang GT 500
1969-70 Mustang Boss 429
1969-70 Mustang Boss 302
1971 Mustang Boss 351

1966-67 Chevy II Nova SS with 327/350 (Chevrolet put the 350 horsepower version of the 327 from the Corvette into the Chevy II. This was one light, quick and cheap car. Also the small block made it less of a target from insurance companies.)
1968-71 Chevy II Nova SS 396 (I don't know what year they started/stopped using the Nova and Chevy II designations for this car, but an economy car with a 375 hp big block was just plain scary.)

1967 Camaro Z/28 (This is included because it started the Pony Car Wars. Similar to the 1964 GTO's reason for being on this list for starting the Muscle Car wars.)
1967-69 Camaro RS/SS 375/396 (any of the first generation Camaros available with the 375 horsepower version of the 396 engine was a powerful Muscle Car buy any standard.)
1969 Camaro Z/28
1970 Camaro Z/28

1969 Trans Am (How many people realize that Pontiac pays a royalty to SCCA for use of the Trans Am name. Even to this day, every Trans Am sold gets a kickback to the SCCA because it was their Trans Am racing series.)
1973-74 Firebird Trans Am SD 455

1968-69 442 Hurst/Olds (This was Oldsmobile's sneaky way of getting a bigger engine in the 442 than their GM cousins. They teamed up with Hurst, the shifter people, and created this special package with a 455 big block.)
1970 442 W-30

1968-70 AMX 390 (I am not very familiar with the AMX. I know I like them, but don't know a lot about them. I am pretty sure they were available from 68-70, but the 390 engine may have only been available in 69 & 70.)

1968-69 Dart 383 (Like the Nova with a 396, this was an economy car with a big powerful engine.)

1968 Road Runner (This car reminded the public what a Muscle Car was supposed to be. A purpose built performance car that was inexpensive. The original GTO did this to a degree, but the Road Runner slammed it home. After 4 years, GM had turned its Muscle Car offerings into luxury, option laden cars. Plymouth went back to the basics and provided a true bare bones car with lots of engine. Even with the 383 it was fast and affordable. Adding the legendary 426 Hemi took away the affordability issue a bit, but with a huge leap in performance.)
1969 Road Runner (This would be the 440 6-pack version. It included a fiberglass hood that was only attached by hood pins. Let's see a car maker do that today. The 440 6-pack engine was just about as fast as the Hemi, especially on the street. It is generally thought that the 440 6-pack was faster on the street because it was much easier to tune, and keep tuned, than the Hemi. A Hemi owner had to spend much too much time keeping his car ready to run if he wanted to beat a 440 6-pack car at a stoplight.)

1969 Dodge Daytona & 1970 Plymouth Superbird (The wildest winged cars ever to come out of the Muscle Car years.)

1970 Ford Talladega & 1970 Mercury Cyclone (Ford's answer to the Daytona and Superbird)

1970 GS Stage 1 455 (For simplicity's sake this will include the famed GSX since I think they had the same Stage 1 455 engine making the GSX really just a cosmetic upgrade to the GS.)

1970 Cuda AAR & 1970 Challenger TA (Specially built to get the Cuda and Challenger into Trans Am racing, these one year wonders had a unique 340 6-pack engine. It was probably more civilized than the Camaro and Mustang it tried to compete with. Unfortunately, one year is not enough time to perfect a formula and it never lived up to its potential.)

1970-71 Hemi Cuda

1968-71 Hemi Anything (The Mopar guys knew enough to put the Hemi engine in almost every car they built. From a Muscle Car point of view we could look at any of the intermediate or smaller cars that received this engine and was available to the general public. I don't think the 68-69 Barracuda or Darts were ever available to regular people with the Hemi, but certainly enough other cars were. This would include Road Runners, Chargers, Super Bees, Challengers, Cuda, etc. All these cars could be lumped together. They are all very highly desirable today, and certainly the legend & mystique of the Hemi has put it as the top engine to want from the Muscle Car era. The Hemi was available in some cars before 68, but with the introduction of the Road Runner in 68 any car acquired true Muscle Car status that received this engine.)

I could think of more cars, but it does start to get redundant. Oldsmobile's original 442 didn't have enough to justify a top ten rating, as was the case for the early GSs from Buick. Any Ford or Mercury that came with a 428 could be put on this list, but I don't know the years or names they went buy. I am sure they had Fairlanes, Torinos & Montegos with 390 & 428 engines that qualify as Muscle Cars, but until someone tells me about them I have to leave them off the list (remember, I am doing this from memory this time around). Almost any car in the Dodge lineup that received the R/T badging counts as a Muscle Car, but compared to the way the Hemi is listed above, any other engine would pale by comparison. I really like the 68-70 Dodge Chargers. In R/T guise with a 440 engine they would be great Muscle Cars, as would the sibling Super Bees, Coronets, Challengers, etc. Personally I really like the AMX. It was a nice concept... just by a company that didn't have the resources to compete. All you AMC fans can bash me if you like, but I just don't see the Rebel making a dent in the list above.

At this point send me your own list of cars. I will update this list and select a new top ten when I have enough information to justify changing the list. Now for the final selection:

Scott's Top Ten Muscle Cars:

  • 1970 Chevelle SS 454 - With GM's 400 c.i. engine limit removed for intermediate sized cars in 1970, Chevrolet put its largest, most powerful engine into the Chevelle to build what is considered by most enthusiasts to be the ultimate Muscle Car. 450 hp in a car that weighed around 4000 pounds. This car would run the quarter mile in the 13 second range right off the showroom floor with serious traction problems. A set of slicks would put it deep into the 13s. It would not take much to get it into the 12s. Truly the crown jewel in the Muscle Car wars.
  • 1970 GS Stage 1 455 - Buick fanatics will tell you that the under shadowed GS Stage 1 was better than the Chevelle SS 454. The Stage 1 had the highest torque rating of any engine GM put in a car during the Muscle Car era with 500 ft. lbs. (The LS-6 in the Chevelle was rated at 490 ft. lbs.) The Buick had what it took, but ultimately it was under shadowed by the GTO Judge, 442 Hurst/Olds and the Chevelle SS that it comes in second place on my list. 
  • 1970 Hemi Cuda - I could list Hemi after Hemi on this list. However, I decided to settle on the Hemi Cuda to carry the Hemi banner. The Cuda had a shorter wheelbase than its cousin Challenger, making it probably the lightest Hemi equipped car available to the general public. This should mean that a properly tuned 426 Hemi Cuda should be the fastest Hemi you could buy. I seem to recall the Chevelle and Buick being faster and just can't in good conscience put the Hemi any higher. (When I move into my house later this year I will unpack my collection of car books and find old reports of road tests to confirm the performance as I remember them.)
  • 1970 Superbird - Regardless of the engine in this car, and the 69 Daytona, it is the wildest car to ever come out of the Muscle Car era. Equipped with a well tuned Hemi or 440 6-pack these cars were ready to run on the NASCAR tracks right off the showroom floor. It was amazing the things the Mopar guys were willing to do to win races while dealing with unusual homologation rules.
  • 1968 Road Runner - I believe this was a better Muscle Car than the original GTO. Even the original GTO left too much room for options to cloud the issue of having a purpose built muscle machine. The Road Runner hit the formula on the head... with a sledge hammer. A heavy duty police car suspension with a taxi cab interior and a big engine (either 383 or 426 Hemi) and not much else. It started the silliness that Mopars became famous for with attachment to cartoon characters and wild colors. This was the ultimate youth attraction Muscle Car of the sixties.
  • 1964 Tempest GTO - The original Muscle Car has to be on the list. We all owe it to Jim Wagner and John Delorean for creating the Muscle Car. No top ten list would be right without it.
  • 1969-70 Boss 429 Mustang - Ford needed a weapon to battle Chrysler's Hemi in NASCAR. They came up with the canted valved Boss 429 "semi-hemi" engine as a result. But they needed to put it in at least 500 cars to homologate it for use in racing. The rules of the day said they just had to put the street version of the engine in a car... any car. Rather than use the Fairlane/Torino based body style that was running on the track, Ford decided to use one of the most successful cars of all time... the Mustang. The Mustang could not even hold the engine. The cars were sent to a specialty shop where their shock towers were cut and welded to widen them enough to fit the engine. It is commonly known among Boss aficionados that you need to lift the engine out of the engine compartment to change the spark plugs on the Boss 429. Rumor has it that Ford took a loss of at least $1,000 on every Boss 429 Mustang it sold. That shows you how much it wanted to beat the Mopar guys on the track. Remember the saying "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." Ford obviously believed in it.
  • 1968 Mustang GT 428CJ - This is arguably the fastest Mustang to come out of the factory. Although the Boss 429 had a killer engine, it was not a practical engine on the street. The 428 CJ was a great street engine. It was designed to replace the 427 engine that Ford was using extensively in racing at the time. The 428 was more tractable than the race breed 427. In the Mustang it was an excellent way to put the most power to the ground. The 69-70 models got a little heavier, and that is why I will argue that the original 428 CJ Mustang of 1968 takes the crown for the fastest production Mustang available to the general public. (In case you think the 68 Shelby GT 500 with the same engine should be given the title, remember that by 68 Shelby was fighting with Ford as it kept pushing the Shelby version of the Mustang up market and adding so much luxury that they became heavier, and hence slower, than the regular Mustangs.)
  • 1969 Camaro Z/28 - This was the pinnacle of Z/28 stardom for the Camaro. In 1969 you could order a Z/28 with chamfered exhaust that has to be installed at the dealer, 4 wheel disc brakes, and a dual four barrel cross ram induction system that was in the truck when the car was picked up. I don't know why they couldn't install that cross ram setup, but it would make for a very temperamental engine. With 4:11 or 4:56 gears you could take the car to a Trans Am race ready to win. It was the Z/28 that caused Ford to build the Boss 302 Mustang. Once again the homologation rules of the day dictate what the manufacturers put it on the street. The Z/28 kicked Ford's butt all over Trans Am racing in 68 and 69.
  • 1968-69 442 Hurst/Olds - GM had a rule that limited displacement in intermediate sized car to no more than 1 c.i. to 10 lbs of car weight. Most of their intermediate cars were around 3600-4000 pounds, so a 400 c.i. limit was created. Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile each had a 400 c.i. engine, while Chevrolet made due with a 396. Olds would not let well enough alone. It found a way to get around the rule. By shipping cars to Hurst without engines. They would then send 455 c.i. engines to Hurst and let them install the larger engine while adding the special Hurst goodies. This resulted in the badest GM car you could legitimately get in 68-69 in the intermediate body style. They were expensive, but not exactly your father's Oldsmobile.

Honorable Mention: (Below are some cars that gave me long pause before deciding not to put them in the top ten. The following were great cars, it's just that there were only 10 spots on the top ten list.)

  • 1970 Camaro Z/28 - This is arguably the best overall Pony car of the 64-71 era. It had a huge improvement in handling over the first generation Camaros and the 350 c.i. engine with 360 hp was much smoother and faster on the street and the drag strip than the high winding temperamental 302 before it. I should have put it on the list in place of the 69 Z/28, but I felt the racing heritage of the 69 provided the extra justification for its placement.
  • 1971 Boss 351 Mustang - Let's consider this the forgotten Pony car. This was the only year the 351 Cleveland engine was given the Boss treatment. Had the Muscle Car era lasted 2 or 3 more years this engine would have reigned supreme in the Pony car ranks. Even with the lower compression ratios used in 71 this engine put out 330 hp in a very tractable engine. The Mustang got grossly large in 71 which also downplayed the importance of this engine. It was a great engine with bad timing. I firmly believe that if Ford had kept the Mustang's size reasonable and continued development on this package it would have beat the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD 455... with 104 fewer cubic inches.
  • 1968-71 Hemi Anything - As stated before this engine made any car a Muscle Car. However, the Hemi engine was eventually eclipsed by bigger engines in the LS-6 and Stage 1 from Chevrolet and Buick, respectively. The Hemi was a serious racing engine that was detuned for the street. It was temperamental and difficult to tune. But when it was running right it ruled the streets in its day. Today it is probably the most coveted engine of the Muscle Car era.
  • 1970 442 W-30 - This was Oldsmobile's attempt to do what Plymouth did with the Road Runner. The entire GM lineup of intermediate sized performance cars had gotten soft. Luxury was becoming more important. These cars were turning into luxo-barges with big engines rather than purpose built performance cars. The W-30 was Olds' last chance at getting back to the basic formula by putting a 455 c.i. engine in a low optioned Cutlass with just the right amount of Muscle Car badging to satisfy the youth market.

That does it. What do you think? How many of these cars could you remember without looking them up? If you would like to get into a discussion of Muscle Cars please feel free to e-mail me. I love this stuff.