The Top Muscle Cars of the 60s and 70s
The early 60s all the way up to the 70s was a golden age for the American automotive industry if only for the simple fact that muscle cars were growing not just in number, but in overall stature. The muscle car arms race of the 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 machines.
The general appeal these muscle cars offered to the growing American car culture of the time was the opportunity to own powerful cars that could be used for drag racing while also keeping costs at bay. At that time, a number of 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’s not going to 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 where muscle was king of the road - and the drag strip - we have compiled a list of the 10 most memorable muscle cars of the golden age.
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 if only because of the simple premise behind the build of the car. The idea was to find the largest engine and put it on the lightest body you can build. The brainchild of Russell Gee, Bill Collins, and John DeLorean, the GTO was born because of a decision to put emphasis on a car’s street performance after General Motors, at that time, issued a ban on factory-sponsored racing.
All together, the three visionaries built the GTO as a muscle car that featured a 389 cu in (6.4-liter) V8 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 done on the GTO at that time 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 name of 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 in how it was going to do in the box office, the GTO surprised a lot of people by becoming one of the most legendary muscle cars of all time.
Check out our history article on the Pontiac GTO.
1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake
Despite it’s 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 being one of the rarest American muscle cars in history.
Carroll Shelby always wanted to have the fastest and meanest car on the road, and he set about doing it by introducing the Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake back in 1967. Limited to only two units – yep! two! - the Cobra 427 Super Snake was essentially a race car that was 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 cu. in. V8 Shelby engine, but to give it some extra juice, Shelby decided to add in 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. Really, that’s all you need to know about the 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake.
Read our full review on the 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake
1968 Dodge 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 you explain the car’s popularity these days, more than 40 years after the car first made waves in the late 60s?
The answer, as Vin Diesel’s character in Fast and the Furious will tell you, is pretty simple: the ’68 Charger R/T was, and still is, a true man’s 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.
More than the impressive aesthetics and timeless design, the Charger R/T also boasted of a powertrain that featured a 440 cu. in. four-barrel Magnum V8 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 either with a more dynamic profile or a more powerful engine, nothing could compete with the Charger R/T when it came to the whole package.
Read our full history article on the 1968 Dodge Charger R/T
1968 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi
It may have had a name that’s inspired from the Looney Tunes character, but make no mistake about it, the Plymouth Road Runner Hemi was all business, all the time. Coming with a standard powertrain that featured a 383-cid, four-barrel V8 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 because 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 pretty much put emphasis on 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
The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 holds the distinction for being 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 cu in big-block V8 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.
All told, only 69 ZL1 Camaros were ever built, making this model one of the rarest and most important American muscle cars of its time.
1969 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet
The Ford Mustang has produced its fair share of doozy pony cars in the past, 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 V8 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
A lot of people today are quick to label the Camaro as Chevrolet’s muscle car and 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 a number of 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 cu. in. big-block V8 engine that produced 450 horsepower and 500 lb/ft 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
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 as 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 cu. in. V8 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 you’ll ever find. It certainly helped its cause for being an aesthetically attractive car, one that came with a combination of imposing good looks and top-of-the-line performance credentials.
Just to give a perspective as to how rare and sought-after this muscle car is these days, one model was auctioned off at Barrett Jackson for a whopping $4 million.
Read our full review on the 1971 Plymouth Hemi’Cuda Convertible
1973 De Tomaso Pantera
The De Tomaso Pantera may not have the first-name recall of some of the 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 went about and 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 and mated to a ZF five-speed manual gearbox with a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds and 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 that was owned by no less than the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley.
Read our full review on the 1973 De Tomaso Pantera