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Muscle cars: Five of the best American muscle cars of all time

Ford's Mustang is one of the all-time seminal muscle cars, spawning a dynasty that, so far, spans 55 years.

At the risk of embarking on a hiding to nowhere, let's define that essential US automotive staple, the muscle car. As distinct from hot-rods, lead sleds, sports cars, GT cars, rat rods and anything else under the automotive sun, muscle cars became an important part of the motoring landscape in the 1960s and 70s, with the trend even spreading to Australia.

So what is a muscle car? Well, definitions differ, but broadly speaking, a muscle car is a factory-modified version of a production sedan or coupe. Those modifications are all aimed to give the car a leg-up in the three As: Acceleration, attitude and ability. Attainability is also important, so the muscle car builds on a bread-and-butter model to keep costs down while still offering the rest of the deal.

Some muscle cars were built as race-car homologation specials, others were simply a set of decals on a wild colour aimed at creating showroom traffic. In many cases, early muscle cars were based on full-frame (separate body and chassis, not monocoque) and employed quaint touches such as drum brakes and five turns lock-to-lock steering. Then again, a five-tonne killer whale remains an apex predator, and we've never seen one of them ballet dancing. Nope, it was only ever about going fast in a straight line and sounding and looking good while you did it.

But the best ones were the cars where the manufacturer really put some thought into the end result. Some of these boasted huge engines in bodacious states of tune, monster graphics and a range of suspension and brake upgrades to give them a fighting chance of making it around the first corner.

The really good ones have become legends and, today, have collectors and nostalgia hounds fighting each other in driveways and auction rooms to own a slice of what was, for many, a golden age of production cars. Proof of that comes in the existence of the current crop of retro-styled models from Ford (the born-again Mustang) Chevrolet (Camaro) and Dodge (Challenger).

Other markets have tapped into the muscle-car vibe, too, and modern performance cars like the Mercedes-AMG E63, BMW M5 all owe their concept to the muscle-car era.

In Australia, The Big Three (Holden, Ford and Chrysler) sniffed the air, smelled petrol and wasted no time minting home brewed muscle cars based on popular family-car models like the Torana, Kingswood, Falcon and Valiant. And like their Stateside counterparts, these factory-spec muscle cars are now the darlings of the collector market.

Exactly what a slice of US muscle will cost now is a very elastic equation. Supply and demand aren't the only factors in play here, and while at least one of the following cars will rush you an easy seven figures, at least one is around for the same money as a well-optioned new hatchback. Other determining factors include a particular car's competition history and whether it has had a famous previous owner.

Meanwhile, since the USA invented the whole genre, it seems to fitting to list the best US muscle cars of all time. Not everybody will agree with the order or the cars themselves, but that's okay. Taste is a personal thing and with cars as wild as these, there will always be arguments. That's just healthy.

01. Dodge Charger 1968 to 1970

Although the first Dodge Charger came along in 1966, it took the next model in 1968 to deliver the aggressive lines that still rate among the best in the biz.

Overview: Can you hear the Dixie horn over the roar of the V8 and the Waylon Jennings opening theme song? Yep, the 70s silver-screen cult hit The Dukes of Hazzard launched Daisy Duke onto a million adolescent-bedroom walls, but it also catapulted the second-gen Dodge Charger into the stratosphere, too.

History: Although the first Dodge Charger came along in 1966, it took the next model in 1968 to deliver the aggressive lines that still rate among the best in the biz. And when it did arrive, it maintained all that was good about muscle cars including a range of optional V8 engines. Those included the mighty 426 Hemi and the improbable 440 Magnum with its Six-Pack (a trio of two-barrel carburettors). Lairy stripes and decals, vinyl roofs (as many as 75 per cent of 68 models had the vinyl-lid option) and tachometers were common fitments on this model Charger. And that was just from the factory. The fact that Dodge re-imagined the Charger for 2006 supports the original's cult status, although why the new version is a four-door remains a mystery.

When it did arrive, it maintained all that was good about muscle cars including a range of optional V8 engines. (image: carscoops.com) When it did arrive, it maintained all that was good about muscle cars including a range of optional V8 engines. (image: carscoops.com)

Fun fact: Although it looked primed for NASCAR racing, the second-gen Charger was an aerodynamic dud. The rear window buttresses created lift and the letter-box front end was a drag. Literally.

Production run: 175,000 including the 1969/1970 model

In pop culture: Aside from its slapstick stunts in Hazzard county, the second-gen Charger is also remembered for its role in Bullitt where it was the bad guys' car, but helped create the legend anyway.

02. Pontiac GTO 1968 to 1969

Under John DeLorean (yep, that John DeLorean) Pontiac went for the doctor for the second-gen cars, finally coming up with the GTO we know as The Judge in 1969.

Overview: While the Pontiac GTO of 1964 is widely regarded as the first factory muscle-car, by the time 1968 rolled around, the concept had lots of imitators. So, under John DeLorean (yep, that John DeLorean) Pontiac went for the doctor for the second-gen cars, finally coming up with the GTO we know as The Judge in 1969.

History: The wheelbase was shortened to give the aggressive, fastback lines that came to dominate late-60s muscle and the GTO featured a deformable, polymer nose panel and those fabulous graphics. The engine remained big with a 400 cubic-inch (6.5 litre) capacity (there was a 455 cubic-inch option) and there was a factory package called Ram Air that brought freer-breathing cylinder heads and a more aggressive camshaft. Suffice to say the GTO could comfortably cover the standing quarter-mile (400m) in the 14-second bracket.

The GTO featured a deformable, polymer nose panel and those fabulous graphics. The GTO featured a deformable, polymer nose panel and those fabulous graphics.

Fun fact: Pontiac revived the GTO tag for a two-door muscle car sold in North America between 2004 and 2006. The car was, in fact, an Australian-made Holden Monaro V2 with Pontiac badges.

Production run: 157,000 (1968/69) including coupes and convertibles.

In pop culture: Although not the hero car, a 1970 GTO appeared in 1971's Two Lane Blacktop road-movie starring Dennis Wilson and James Taylor.

03. Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1969

The ZL1 got the option of a heavy-duty automatic or manual gearbox and a tougher differential with a short, 4.1:1 final-drive ratio. (image: supercars.net)

Overview: Any first-gen Camaro with a V8 engine can really be called a muscle car. That's mainly because it's such a great looking thing with tons of attitude. Performance with any of the hi-po V8s was strong, too, but only one could be the fastest.

History: Designed as a homologation car to allow the Camaro to race in the Super Stock classes of the US' sanctioning-body's drag races, 50 examples had to be built with the modifications Chevy knew that would allow it to dominate these classes and sell more Camaros to more people. So, the ZL1 got the option of a heavy-duty automatic or manual gearbox and a tougher differential with a short, 4.1:1 final-drive ratio. But the big change was the addition of an all-alloy version of the 427 cubic-inch (7.0-litre) big-block V8 and tuning that pushed power to beyond 500 horsepower (373kW). In road trim, the car was good for low-13-second 400m times and 10-seconds in race trim.

Fun fact: The aluminium big-block was a horrendously expensive one, costing US$4160, more than doubling the price of the base car. As such, sales were slow and Chevrolet didn't unload them all until 1970.

Production run: 69

In pop culture: A ZL1 became an Aussie motorsport hero when Bob Jane imported one (in bright orange) and drive it to victory in the 1971 and 72 Australian Touring Car Championships.

04. Mustang GT 1967 to 1968

It was the inevitable chase in 'Bullitt' that really sealed the deal, making the 68 Mustang GT Fastback a cult hero. (image: watchcharge.com)

Overview: You can thank one film for this car reaching the heights it has: Bullitt, the gritty tale of a San Francisco detective (Steve McQueen) on the trail of the baddies. But it was the inevitable chase that really sealed the deal, making the 68 Mustang GT Fastback a cult hero.

History: Although the original Mustang concept was designed (in Ford's own advertising) for the secretary in all of us, by the time the company had given the first-gen Mustang, its first nip and tuck for 1967, the potential for the pony car to reach muscle-car status was clear. And that much was obvious when you looked at the brochure: Where the biggest engine Ford offered in the first place was a 289 cubic-inch V8, for the 67 model year you could option monsters including the 427 FE V8 or even the fire-breathing 428 Cobra Jet engine good for a claimed 250kW but, in reality, probably a lot more than that.

Fun Fact: The Dodge Charger driven by the baddies in the film was, in reality, actually much faster than the 390-cubic-inch Mustang driven by McQueen. At times the baddies had to let Bullitt catch up to maintain the chase's intensity.

Production run: 791,000 including all Mustang derivatives and variants.

In pop culture: More than just a car chase, the Bullitt chase scene is regarded as THE seminal movie car chase. It also made the original film car worth US$3.4 million when it last changed hands a few months ago. Ford has even re-imagined the Bullitt car based on a current-model Mustang, right down to the Highland Green paint.

05. Buick Grand National 1984 to 1987

By bolting a turbocharger on to the 3.8-litre V6 engine found in a Regal coupe, painting it black and claiming 200 horsepower for it (150kW) Buick had created the Grand National (a nod to NASCAR). (image: superchevy.com)

Overview: Left-field, anyone? Many people think the true muscle cars died out in the early 1970s. Certainly, tougher emissions laws required a rethink, but in the 1980s, conservative old Buick turned to turbocharging to give the genre a modern shot in the arm.

History: The Buick Regal was cannon-fodder in the 1980s. A nothing-burger with the lot, it served as a metaphor for the entire Buick line-up in North America. And then a strange thing happened. By bolting a turbocharger on to the 3.8-litre V6 engine found in a Regal coupe, painting it black and claiming 200 horsepower for it (150kW) Buick had created the Grand National (a nod to NASCAR). The idea was a winner so Buick continued to improve the concept, resorting even to aluminium (versus cast-iron) rear drum brakes and an intercooler and, ultimately, a version with a bigger turbocharger and a claimed 206kW (almost certainly an understatement). That final version was called the GNX and, despite retaining a V6 engine, was the fastest accelerating road-car in the US at the time.

Fun fact: The GNX was certainly fast, but it was how fast that made headlines. Reportedly, it could outrun both a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Ferrari F40 and could scamper across the quarter mile in about 12.7 seconds. Even now, that's hauling.

Production run: 39,500 across all years

In pop culture: Although regarded by film buffs as fundamentally unwatchable, the Fast and Furious franchise continues to appeal to car-fans out there. A Grand National was used in the first scenes of the fourth film in the saga, driven by Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) as the gang attempt to hi-jack a fuel tanker.