There are few things more American than the classic muscle car. For those unfamiliar with the style, there are three features that define the muscle car: 1) The car is made in the United States of America (the “big three”, Chrysler, Ford and GM have each offered multiple makes over the years), 2) it is a small to mid-sized vehicle, typically two doored, and 3) it is powered by a high performance, eight-valve engine. What was to become known as the “muscle car” was first produced in the 1950s when engineers began installing massive combustion engines in petite pony cars to be used for drag racing. The muscle car gained popularity over the following two decades, peaking in the late 60s. This article discusses the 10 best muscle cars of all time and offer tips for those looking to invest in a classic high-performance compact vehicle.
Top 10 Must Have Muscle Cars
The first Chevy Corvette revved onto the scene in 1953. Although this all-American sports car was a beauty, its performance left much to be desired. Due to its high price and mediocre power, the first-generation Corvette failed miserably on the market, selling only 183 vehicles totally out of 300 made! Fortunately, Chevrolet stepped up its game in 1955 with the addition of a full V8 engine. By 1958 the fuel injection Corvette boasted one horsepower per square inch of engine, breaking the record of its day. Thus, the Corvette became known for its muscle as well as its looks. The Chevrolet Corvette continues to be manufactured to this day; the most recent model is the highly acclaimed 2020 Corvette C8.
While it is argued fiercely which, of the over 50 Corvette models, is the best of all time, our winner is the 1968 Corvette L88. The ’68 Corvette model is equipped with a 540 hp, 427 cu. in. combustion engine. This model is especially rare because there was only a total of 80 of the L88 V8 engines manufactured. This spectacular vehicle features four-speed manual transmission, independent suspension in the front and rear, in addition to front and rear power-assisted disc brakes. Tested new in 1968, it could leap 0–60 mph in 4.2 seconds and 100 mph in less than 8. Today the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette typically sells for between $450,000 and $550,000 USD.
Ford MustangThe Ford Mustang is one of the, if not the most, successful, and well know muscle cars. First produced in 1964 the Mustang has not ceased manufacture to this day. In the first year, the Ford sold over 400,00 units of the new make and topped a million by 1966. The name “Mustang”, suggested by executive designer John Najjar, is a reference to the WW2 P-51 Mustang fighter plane. The Ford Mustang is featured in multiple Bon movies from the 1960s.
Our favorite Mustang model the 1968. Consumers could choose between 16 different colors of “super diamond lustre enamel: finishes and 40 different vinyl interiors. The thunderbird special V8 engine (the most powerful of 4 buying options) offered a 28 cu in (7.0 L) Cobra Jet engine rated at 335 hp, designed specifically for drag racing. For all the hype, the Mustang was not so fast as the Corvette maxing at 105 mph and covering a quarter-mile in 14 seconds. Originally the mustang was priced around $3,000 USD. Today the classic model sells for anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 USD.
The Camaro was first released in 1966. Technically the Camaro is classified as a “pony car”, that is, an affordable mid-sized car with a sporty look. However, some high-power versions of the machine may be considered a full-blown muscle car. The Camaro shared components, including its platform, with the ’67 Pontiac Firebird (which will be discussed later in this article). The Camaro continues to be made today. Contemporary models are considered 5th generation.
Auto-enthusiasts agree that the 1969 Camaro ZL1 model is the best version of the Camaro. The 1969 Camaro is a well-recognized feat of engineering. At its highest performance option, the Camaro boasted 430 HP at 5800 RPM. The Camaro can reach a top speed of 135 MPH without losing a modicum of agility. Initially sold at $2,727, the Camaro 69 is valued between $40,000 and $90,000 USD.
The Dodge Charger was of the two muscle cars produced by Chrysler, the other being the Plymouth Barracuda (which will be discussed later in this article). The first model of the Charger came out in 1966. Like the first Corvette release, the first-generation charger met with dismal sales. However, with a few cosmetic upgrades, the Charger became a top seller by 1968. This second-generation model produced between 68 and 70 is undoubtedly the most iconic version of the vehicle. Sometimes referred to as the “bee”, the second-gen Charger’s notoriety is largely due to its appearance in the 1968 film Bullitt. Following a twenty-year hiatus, the 6th generation charger was released in 2006. Chargers produced between 2011 and 2021 are considered 7th generation.
As with the Corvette, there are over 50 Charger models from which to choose a favorite. However, our pick is the 1968 Charger —the same model which sailed through the most famous cinema car chase in history. The film did not overstate its performance capability. The charger engine —a pushrod water-cooled V-8, with cast-iron block and heads — has 425 hp. This speedster’s C/D test results demonstrated a capacity to reach 30 mph in 1.7 sec and 60 mph in 4.8. Additionally, the Charger boasted break power of 70–0 mph in just 274 ft. The classic ’68 Dodge charger can be purchased today at anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000 USD depending on its condition.
The name of GM’s Pontiac GTO is a reference to the Ferrari 250 GTO. The Ferrari GTO is an abbreviation of the Italian phrase, Gran Turismo Omologato ("grand tourer homologated"). In the case of the American-made GTO, the acronym stands for “Grand Tempest Option”. Although the Corvette began production more than 10 years before, and the Oldsmobile 5 years before that, Pontiac is credited with popularizing the muscle car. The first-generation GTO entered the scene in 1964. Although criticized for slow steering, the GTO was an immediate market success, inspiring other American carmakers to invest in similar models. Pontiac eased mass production of the GTO in the mid-70s. The make was relaunched in 2003 as the “Holden Monaro”. This contemporary version of the GTO is a variant of the Australian Pontiac VT/VX Holden Commodore.
Our favorite model of the Pontiac GTO is the original 1964 edition —the one which launched the muscle car craze of the 60s and early 70s. This vehicle was available in hardtop, coup, and convertible styles. The Tempest contained a 326-cubic-inch V-8 engine which offered 348 horsepower. A little larger and heavier than the Charger or Corvette, the GTO could still manage an acceleration of zero to 60 mph in 4.6 sec, and zero to 100 mph in 11.8. Initially, the ’64 was sold for a little over $2,500 USD, it can now go for over $120,000 USD.
The Buick Skylark, named after the fast-flying songbird, was prefigured by the Roadmaster Skylark which was released in ‘53 on the 50th anniversary of Buick. From the get-go, the Skylark Roadmaster contained a powerful V8 engine. The initial model was a convertible with luxury detailing that was almost entirely handmade. By the mid-sixties, the success of the Skylark Roadmaster lead to the creation of a full Skylark production line. With this new line, the Roadmaster’s 215-cubic-inch-displacement, aluminum-block V8 engine was replaced with a Rover V8 engine. At this time, the vehicle became available in hardtop as well as convertible models, in addition to offering both two and four-door styles. The Skylark continued to be manufactured up until 1998 when the production line in Lansing was retooled and sold to Chrysler.
The most popular version of this Buick muscle car was the 1970 (second generation) model. At its highest power engine option, this vehicle offered 360 BHP (264.96 KW) @ 4600 RPM. The same engine could reach a max of 196 km/h (122 mph), with an acceleration of 0- 60 mph in 8s; 0- 100 km/h 8.4. Currently, the 1970 Skylark sells for between $10,000 and 50,000 USD making it one of the most affordable classic muscle cars.
The Chevelle made it debut later than the Corvette but enjoyed even greater popularity, likely due to its increased affordability. The first generation of Chevelle was released in 1964; by 1969 the Chevelle was the top-selling mid-sized car in America. After three generations, the Chevelle name was phased out by Chevrolet. By 1978 Malibu and not Chevelle became the basic name for Chevrolet's midsize cars.
Our pick of the Chevelle line is the 1970 Chevelle SS 454. Despite its affordability (at least in its time) the Chevelle had an incredibly powerful engine—the 454 CID V8 which boasts 450 hp at 5600 rpm. It also contained an M22 four-speed transmission nicknamed the “rock crusher”. In its C/D test, the Chevelle drove ¼ mile in 13.7 seconds at 139.3 MPH. In today’s market, the 1970 Chevelle is typically sold between $40,000 and $80,000 USD.
The first-generation firebird was released in ‘67 to compete with the ford mustang in the high-performance pony-style vehicle market. Initially, Pontiac had intended to open a line of Banshee sports cars based on the 1964 concept car. However, the bigwigs at GM were concerned that the Banshee would infringe on the Corvette market and pushed the Firebird model instead. Despite it being a second option, the firebird was an immediate hit when it was released in 1967. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of this vehicle is the ‘screaming chicken’ decal which began to be slapped on the hood of the firebird in 1973.
1977 Pontiac Firebird is the classic Firebird in our books. This model came in three buying options, the third option— the W72 Performance Package was the highest power. This package featured a L78 Pontiac 400 engine with 200 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque. Although the chicken screams speed demon, the 1977 is pretty slow by today’s standards clocking in a at 16.9 seconds per quarter mile. But what the firebird lacks in speed it certainly makes up for in style. On average the 1977 Firebird goes for 45,000 today.
Oldsmobile, the oldest car manufacturer in the United States, operated under GM for the majority of its existence. In terms of its market niche, it was middle of the road, slotted above Chevrolet and Pontiac, but below Buick and Cadillac. Oldsmobile produced the first proto-muscle car in 1949, featuring the first American-made V8 engine, “the rocket”. Oldsmobile was a pioneer in design, both regarding performance and style. Surprisingly, however, it was never a huge seller. The Oldsmobile division of GM folded in 2004 to the chagrin of millions of car-lovers.
Our favorite of the Oldsmobile’s is another 70s model, the 1970 442. Not only is this vehicle aesthetically pleasing, but it is also a powerhouse. The ‘70 Oldsmobile is powered by a 370 BHP V* engine which can propel the vehicle across a quarter mile in 14.2 seconds. This classic goes between $60,000 and $100,000 USD on the contemporary market.
The Plymouth Barracuda was the first produced of Chrysler’s two muscle cars. The “cuda has a relatively short production history —three generations between 1964 and 1997. The Barracuda entered the already hot muscle car market just a few weeks before the Ford Mustang with which it was intended to compete. While it remained in manufacture the Barracuda was known as an affordable, more ‘Modest’ alternative to the mustang.
Our favorite of these small-bodied, big fish is the third generation 1970 model. At its highest-powered option, the Barracuda boasted 425 HP (312.8 KW) at 5000 RPM. The barracuda maxes out at the relatively low speed of 118, but can accelerate from 0-60 in 5.8 sec. Although once an affordable vehicle, times have changed; You would be lucky to purchase a 70’s ‘cuda for less than 100,000 USD.
Which Muscle Car Is The Fastest
Our winner for fastest is the Chevrolet Corvette. Our favorite 1968 model, with its 540 hp engine, is able to accelerate from zero to 100MPH in an astonishing 8 secs. With its top speed of 139 MPH hour, it blows its contemporaneous Ford and Chrysler competitors clear out of the water. However, if you are looking for real speed, we recommend the 2020 Corvette C8 which can accelerate to 60 MPH in 2.8 sec and has a max speed of nearly 200MPH.
Which Muscle Car Is Most Reliable
Although it is not the fastest muscle car, the Ford Mustang is a winner for reliability. As many have said before, the Mustang is meant to last a lifetime. Moreover, given the popularity of the mustang, parts are abundant and cheap. Runners up for reliability are the Dodge Charger and Pontiac GTO.
Which Muscle Car Should I Buy
Ultimately, your choice of muscle car will be made on the basis of your own taste. However, our purchase recommendation is the Chevrolet Corvette or Chevelle. These outstanding vehicles near the performance capacity of the Corvette at a fraction of the asking price.
Are Muscle Cars A Good Investment
Obviously, cars do not get in better shape through time and use, but novelty often has greater value than condition. The value of classic muscle cars has shot up in the last few years making muscle cars not only a nice hobby but an excellent investment. This especially applies to rare models and colors.