The early 60s up to the 70s was a golden age for the American automotive industry, if only because muscle cars were growing in number and overall stature. The muscle car arms race of that time yielded plenty of options for customers looking for more power and metal-twisting torque from these vehicles. And the models only grew in popularity as more and more people began clamoring for the biggest, baddest, and most powerful muscle cars.
The general appeal these muscle cars offered to the growing American car culture of the time was the opportunity to own powerful vehicles that could be used for drag racing while also keeping costs at bay. At that time, several brands began developing their own models, including legendary names like the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Plymouth Barracuda, the Pontiac Trans-Am, and the Dodge Charger, to name a few.
While the golden age of American muscle was limited to parts of these two decades, the industry has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in recent years. It won’t compare to the ’60s or the ’70s, but as proven by customer clamoring, the culture of American Muscle Cars is far from bearing its last legs. To pay tribute to the time when the muscle was king of the road – and the drag strip – below can be found a compiled list of the most memorable muscle cars of the golden age.
Updated March 2023: The muscle car era is the pinnacle of greatness for many classic car lovers. For decades there was nothing on the market that could compare to any of the ’60s and ’70s performance cars on the market. Today, things have changed, and most of the go-to muscle cars have become collectibles that are only taken out on rare occasions. For some though, the era of the muscle car deserves more respect and is a time in history that should never be forgotten.
1964 Pontiac GTO Is A Street Racing Statement By GM
Front and side view of a 1964 Pontiac GTO
In many ways, the 1964 Pontiac GTO was regarded as one of the pioneer muscle cars during the golden age of the 60s and 70s only because of the simple premise behind the car’s build. The idea was to find the largest engine and put it on the lightest body that could be found. The brainchild of Russell Gee, Bill Collins, and John DeLorean, the GTO was born because of a decision to emphasize a car’s street performance after General Motors, at that time, issued a ban on factory-sponsored racing.
Together, the three visionaries built the Pontiac GTO as a muscle car that featured a 389 cubic inch (6.4-liter) V-8 engine with an output of 325 horsepower at 4,800 rpm with an optional “Tri-Power” carburetion that produced an increased output of 348 horsepower. Road tests on the GTO included a 0-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds, a standing quarter-mile of 14.8 seconds, and a quarter-mile trap speed of 99 mph.
Incidentally, the Pontiac GTO was the idea of John DeLorean, who took the name from the Ferrari 250 GTO, one of the most iconic race cars in history, with the “GTO” standing as an Italian abbreviation for Gran Turismo Omologato. Through much controversy surrounding the name of the car and the general apprehension about how it would do at the box office, the GTO surprised many people by becoming one of the most legendary muscle cars of all time.
1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake Bites In Any Direction
Front and side view of a 1967 Shelby 427 Cobra
Despite its streamlined, sports-car looks, the 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake had the pulse of American muscle coursing through its veins. And judging by the limited number of cars built for this particular model, it shouldn’t be surprising that the most powerful Shelby to ever be built still carries the title of one of the rarest American muscle cars in history.
Carroll Shelby always wanted the fastest and meanest car on the road. He set about doing it by introducing the Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake in 1967. Limited to only two units – yep! Two! – The Cobra 427 Super Snake was essentially a race car modified for use on the street and still holds acclaim as the most awesome of all the Cobras ever to be built.
Not only was it powered by the Cobra’s top-of-the-line 427 cubic inch V-8 Shelby engine, but to give it some extra juice, Shelby added a pair of Paxton superchargers to the mix, effectively doubling the output of the 427 Cobra to a mind-boggling 800 horsepower. An American muscle car from the 60s that produces 800 horsepower. That’s all you need to know about the 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake.
1968 Dodge Charger R/T Is Not Just Built For “Dom”
Front and side view of a 1968 Dodge Hemi Charger R/T
The 1968 Dodge Charger R/T is one of those muscle cars that have definitely withstood the test of time. How else do people explain the car’s popularity these days, more than 40 years after the car first made waves in the late 60s? As Vin Diesel’s character in Fast and the Furious will say, the answer is pretty simple: the ’68 Charger R/T was, and still is a true muscle car.
It’s the type of muscle car that imposes an image of fear and star quality wrapped in one awesome package. With an unmistakable design that features the now famous hidden headlight grille, the overall curvy body, the refined tail, and the prevalent use of chrome on the car, the ’68 Charger R/T was in a class of its own back then.
Beyond the impressive aesthetics and timeless design, the Charger R/T also boasted a powertrain featuring a 440 cubic inch four-barrel Magnum V-8 engine that produced 375 horsepower with an engine option in the form of the 426 Hemi engine that came with 425 horsepower. While other muscle cars at the time came out with a more dynamic profile or powerful engine, nothing could compete with the Charger R/T regarding the whole package.
1968 Plymouth Road Runner HEMI Is No Cartoon Character
Front and side view of a 1968 Plymouth Road Runner
It may have had a name inspired by the Looney Tunes character, but make no mistake, the Plymouth Road Runner HEMI was all business, all the time. With a standard powertrain featuring a 383-cid, four-barrel V-8 engine with 335 horsepower or a more powerful 426-cid HEMI engine with 425 horsepower, the Road Runner HEMI became a popular choice for a muscle car in the late 60s.
It offered customers a back-to-basics package that underscored everything people wanted in a muscle car without the frills attached. In building the Road Runner HEMI, Plymouth emphasized the car’s performance, leaving all the styling intricacies behind. Nothing about the car’s looks screamed incredible because everything that wasn’t essential in improving the car’s performance was left out, including the interior, where “added options” became a foreign concept.
But despite its pedestrian looks, the Road Runner HEMI’s impressive powertrain certainly made up for all of it. As a side note, Plymouth actually paid Warner Brothers $50,000 for the rights to use the name and likeness of the Road Runner and another $10,000 to develop the “beep, beep” horn. Just goes to show that despite being a simple-as-can-be muscle car, the Plymouth Road Runner HEMI still offered plenty of character.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Is A Muscle Car People Dream About
Front and side view of a blue 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is one of the fastest and most powerful American muscle cars of its time. It was conceived by drag racer Dick Harrell specifically for drag racing and came with a 427 cubic inch big-block V-8 engine called the ZL1.
This particular powertrain gave the Camaro all the performance output it needed – 500 horsepower worth – to be considered as one of the foremost American beasts of its time, capable even of hitting 0-60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. Only 69 ZL1 Camaros were ever built, making this model one of the rarest and most influential American muscle cars of its time.
1969 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet Put The Power Back Into The Mustang
Front and side view of a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach I Cobra Jet
The Ford Mustang has produced its fair share of doozy pony cars, but nothing draws “oohs and ahhs” more than the 1968 Mustang 428 Cobra Jet. Regarded as the model that took the fight to the big-block Camaros and Firebirds of the time, the Mustang Cobra Jet was a more powerful version of the Mustang and came with a powertrain worthy of its stature.
Powering the Mustang Cobra Jet was a 428-cid V-8 engine that featured larger valve heads than the standard Mustang, a ram-air induction, and a functional hood scoop while also carrying the same intake manifold as that of its less powerful brethren. While Ford rated the Mustang Cobra Jet as having “only” 335 horsepower, the truth was its output hit closer to 410 horsepower.
This figure was notable because it ushered in a new wave of interest for the Ford Mustang, which had been lagging behind the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, and the Plymouth Barracuda. With the release of the Mustang 428 Cobra Jet, the tables were finally turned, and everyone started looking up to the legendary Mustang.
1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS Was The King Of The Streets
Front side shot of 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS
Many people today are quick to label the Camaro as Chevrolet’s muscle car. While that, to an extent, is accurate, not a lot of people know that before the Camaro became Chevy’s go-to-muscle car, that title belonged to the Chevrolet Chevelle SS. After being introduced in 1964 to signal Chevrolet’s entry into the world of muscle cars, the Chevelle trudged along for several years, registering enough to make a name for itself but not enough to make its rivals worry.
It wasn’t until 1970 when the Chevelle SS finally broke out, thanks in large part to a 454 cubic inch big-block V-8 engine that produced 450 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque with a 0-62 mph time of six seconds. Understated because of its more famous successor, the Chevelle was once Chevrolet’s official muscle car, something not lost to those who had the pleasure of owning this spectacular machine back in the day.
1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda Convertible Is Rare But Worth The Money
Front and side view of a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible
One of the rarest and most important muscle cars of the ’70s is the 1971 Plymouth Hemi’Cuda Convertible, a car that, to this day, remains one of the most sought-after muscle cars in history. The HEMI ‘Cuda, a direct descendant of the Plymouth Barracuda, became a rare gem. Not only because it came with a 425 cubic inch V-8 engine that produced 425 horsepower but because it served as Plymouth’s answer to the established names of that time, particularly the Camaro and the Mustang.
But, of all the Barracudas that ever came out, the 1971 HEMI ‘Cuda Convertible remains the crown jewel of them all. Limited to only 11 units, the Hemi ‘Cuda Convertible is about as rare as any muscle car currently on the market. It helped its cause by being an aesthetically attractive car with a combination of imposing good looks and top-of-the-line performance credentials. One model was auctioned off at Barrett Jackson for a whopping $4 million to give a perspective on how rare and sought-after this muscle car is.
1973 De Tomaso Pantera Was A Celebrity Magnet
Front and side view of a 1971 DeTomaso Pantera
The De Tomaso Pantera may not have the first-name recall of some other muscle cars on this list, but rest assured, it’s got an impressive pedigree that dates back to the ’70s. The car was born from the mind of Alejandro De Tomaso, an Argentinian racing driver who sought to combine Italian engineering with American muscle.
Together with the help of Tom Tjarda – the man responsible for the styling of the car – and Giampaolo Dallara – the man tasked to build the structural design of the Pantera and coincidentally, also aided in the development of the Lamborghini Miura. De Tomaso quickly sought a way to infuse both ideologies into one powerful muscle car. Thus, the Pantera was born. Powering the Pantera was a 351 cubic-inch ‘Cleveland’ V8 engine with 330 horsepower mated to a ZF five-speed manual gearbox.
The Pantera could sprint from 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds and had a top speed of 150 miles per hour. First introduced at the New York Auto Show in 1970, the Pantera quickly gained popularity in the ’70s, thanks to a combination of its eye-catching yet simple design and powerful engine. It became so popular that the Pantera became one of the most sought-after celebrity muscle cars of its time, including one owned by no less than the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley.
1965 Shelby GT350 Was The Original Shelby GT
Front and side view of a 1965 Shelby GT350
The one person who could take a stock production car and turn it into a muscle car built for racing would be the one and only Carroll Shelby. Up until the early ’60s, he had been racing and working on his own version of the Cobra, which has been revived this year. A series of 1965 Mustangs were shipped to the Shelby shop in Los Angeles, where Carroll and his team went to work.
They slid a modified 289 under the hood that could kick out up to 329 pound-feet of torque and 306 horsepower. This combination allowed the 1965 Shelby GT350 to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and run down the quarter-mile track in under 15 seconds. It was a muscle car designed for one task; to destroy the competition on and off the street.
1970 Plymouth Hemi Superbird Was A Racecar By Day, Street Racer By Night
Front and side view of a 1970 Plymouth Superbird
One car that should always stand out in the mind is the unique looking 1970 Plymouth HEMI Superbird. Now, if it was on the racetrack, it fit right in with the other cars that also had designs that maximized racing, but when on the city streets and parking lots, it was sorely out of place. But, even then, it caught the attention of many muscle car lovers that had rides like the 1970 Chevelle SS and 1970 Ford Mustang Mach I.
The car was built with the 426 HEMI that could easily push out up to 425 horsepower, with a ground-pounding torque of 490 pound-feet. On the track or in the city, the 1970 Plymouth Hemi Superbird could accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds and rocket down the quarter-mile strip in 13.5 seconds.
1978 Dodge Lil Red Express Is Not A Car But It Has Plenty Of Muscle
Front and side view of a 1978 Dodge Lil Red Express
The 1978 Lil Red Express may not be a car, but when it comes to muscle, it belongs on any list of classic muscle cars. It came after most vehicles had been de-tuned and emission compliant by adding a catalytic converter onto the exhaust system. Luckily for Dodge, the regulations had a loophole that could be utilized to give the public a much-needed rest from economical cars that had little, if any, power. That loophole was actually simple.
Since the Dodge Lil Red Express was a truck that could haul 6,000 pounds, it had no restrictions and did not need a power-robbing catalytic converter. So, with the high-performance 360 under the hood, the truck put out 225 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. This pushed the truck down the quarter-mile track in under 16 seconds and could accelerate from a dead stop to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. Not too bad for a pickup that could be used for truck duties such as towing and hauling.
1972 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Was Not A Good Seller But Was A Beast On The Streets
Side and front view of a 1972 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
The 1972 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am may not have been as huge a seller as the Mustang or Camaro, but it was a unique muscle car that deserves some recognition. The marketing flyers circulated by Pontiac stated that “You don’t have to be a designer to see that Firebird styling is futuristic.”
This was the case, of course, offering curves and styling only close to the ones used on the Corvette. Under the hood was the 455 High Output V-8 that could still push out 335 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque after it was de-tuned to meet regulations. That allowed the Pontiac Trans Am to sprint from 0 to 60 in 7.0 seconds and down the quarter-mile in around 14 seconds.
1971 AMC Javelin AMX Was An Underdog That Rose From The Ashes
Front and side view of a 1971 AMC Javelin AMX
AMC (American Motors Company) is one of those carmakers that many people have long forgotten about, even those that like to collect and restore classic cars. The company produced a few great muscle cars, such as the Rambler Rebel and the AMC Javelin AMX, that came race-ready straight from the factory. The 1971 Javelin AMX was designed for competition.
Since not many people know about AMC muscle cars, it makes the perfect sleeper. Under the hood can be found the infamous 6.6L V-8 that could push out 330 horsepower. The 401 big block gave the car enough power and torque to accelerate to 60 from 0 in 5.1 seconds, and it could get through the quarter-mile in just over 13 seconds.