Americans have a thing for speed. This is quite evident in the 1960s and 1970s production of wild and quite rare muscle cars that had giant V8 engines with powerful torques. The 1980s introduced more powerful machines capable of faster speeds and more compatible with the then stringent emission controls. Behind the massive horsepower and speed stats of these cars, there were some surprising stories too. Let’s take a quick peek at some of the most interesting facts you may never have known about American muscle cars.
11. The 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
As any Mustang purist would tell you, Carroll Shelby’s first two years were quite admirable. We are talking about the simple styled, light, and track-perfect GT 350s of the 1965 and 1966 period. Models that came later in ’67 and ’68 provided greater fun in terms of performance and were also the top choice for anyone who ever dared venture into the drag race arena.
For the first time, the 1967 and 1968 Shelbys GT 500 featured 355 horsepower provided by 428 cubic inch block engines. Car analysts of those days saw, for the first time, quarter-mile runs in mid-to-low 14 second laps which were quite fast by the standards that existed back then. The Shelby Mustangs had flashier styles than the older cars, mainly because of the new found power and increased torque. The quicker and high performing King of the Road (KR) model had already hit the race track by 1968 too.
What you probably didn’t know: The ’67 Shelby Mustangs had mercury Cougar tail lamps but the ’68 models featured lamps modified from the 1966 Ford Thunderbird.
10. Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird
The NASCAR races were one of the most important battle arenas of the muscle car wars back in the late ’60s. The superspeedways were places of fierce clashes between Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Plymouth and Pontiac. The most interesting period was the late ’60s when NASCAR rules allowed some modifications to car bodies to make them more aerodynamic. The condition was to apply those changes to regular production examples and sell a limited number of them to the public.
Most manufacturers jumped at this opportunity and created “Aero racers,” or specially-designed cars homologated for the races. Two of the most famous was the Dodge Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird. They only built these two cars for one year, with the Dodge in 1969 and the Plymouth in 1970. Despite looking almost identical, the Daytona and Superbird had only two things in common: a front nose cone and headlight covers.
The manufacturers designed both cars using a wind tunnel. That big wing on the back was essential in achieving a high downforce at high speeds in NASCAR races. The wing wasn’t supposed to be that high, but designers deliberately made it high so drivers could open the trunk. They produced 500 Dodge Daytonas and approximately 2,000 Plymouth Superbirds.
When they introduced the Daytona in 1969, the rules stated the car company must produce over 500 models. However, when they presented the Superbird in 1970, the rules changed. The manufacturer had to produce one car per dealership. So, in the case of the Plymouth, that was exactly 1,936 cars.
Both models were successful in NASCAR and the investment in their specially-built bodies paid off. Daytona and Superbirds are rare finds nowadays. They are also expensive, highly-coveted pieces of muscle car history.
9. 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda Convertible
One of the rarest and most sought-after muscle cars is the Plymouth Hemi Cuda. This model combines several desired options for any muscle car lover. The car is a Plymouth, a brand which no longer exists. They were known for several highly respected muscle cars, like the Roadrunner, the GTX and the Barracuda.
The ’71 Barracuda, or Cuda, is the second and last generation of this model. Plymouth totally redesigned it for 1970. It featured a new body, interior, and a lineup of powerful engines. The Hemi option was extremely rare. This meant this Cuda had a 425 underrated horsepower engine delivering brutal performance.
The convertible body style was also rare because they made only seven Hemi Cuda convertibles in 1971. The reason that this was such a rare car was simple. Back in the day, a convertible with the most powerful engine option wasn’t as desirable as it is today. The Hemi engine was the favorite of the street racing crowd who wanted performance. So they installed this engine into the lightest body, which is a coupe.
They built this convertible cruising, so you don’t need a 425 thumping horsepower motor under your right foot. That is why Plymouth only built seven of them. However, since they are so rare, the Hemi Cuda droptop is also one of the most expensive muscle cars they ever made. A mint 1971 example sold for 4.1 million dollars back in 2008.
8. 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
The late 1970s muscle cars were a shadow of the earlier years’ models. Increasing emissions controls, hiking gas prices, and rising insurance costs made many car manufacturers to cut back on horsepower. However, Pontiac continued producing high-performance cars regardless of the changing environment. Since its starring role in the Smokey and the Bandit movie, the Trans Am had become a popular choice in the muscle car industry. To add to this popularity, Pontiac increased the car’s horsepower from 200 to 220. They also gave it a special package known as WS6 in auto engineering circles that included wider 8 inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension, and a faster steering wheel. The resulting Trans Am was faster and easier to handle than the Corvette.
In 1976, the Pontiac had a T-top roof that came close to what you could find in a convertible Trans Am. The roof section which could be lifted up was designed and made by a company known as Hurst, which is why many called the lift-up roof a Hurst Hatch. They had one major problem, they leaked. This made Pontiac to create their T-tops in collaboration with GM’s Fisher. The new T-top came in the 1978 model. Some 1978 Firebirds have Hurst T-tops while others have the Fisher version. You can tell the difference by the size of the roof panels. Fisher T-tops have larger glass panels than the Hurst Hatch versions.
7. 1987 Buick GNX
After the big block V8 muscle cars of the 60s and 70s had come and gone, Buick thought of bringing back the muscle car magic in the 80s. They built the Buick GNX that came with a turbocharged V-6 engine. It was based on the Grand National model but had a power improvement from the Grand National’s 245 to 276 hp. One of the GNXs was tested by Car and Driver in 1987 and found to go from 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds. It became one of the fastest cars of the time. There were only 547 of such machines made.
There were several of these engines left when Buick halted production of the GNX. Pontiac took some of them and fitted them in the 1989 Trans Am released on the company’s 20th anniversary. The V-6 was rated at only 250 horsepower, but real GM fans knew the true power that resided under the Trans Am’s hood.
6. Street Testing
Back in the glory days of muscle car culture, the Detroit engineers used public roads to do final testing and adjustment. This meant that any given night you could see several pre-production muscle cars rumbling along the streets looking for a drag racing opportunity to prove its worth.
The famous Woodward Avenue in Detroit was not the only place where you could show your new, shiny set of wheels, though. It was also a place where engineers tested their cars and compared them in real life races.
5. 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge
Pontiac was the reigning king of muscle cars in the early 60s. One of its most significant breeds was the 1964 Pontiac GTO. Come 1968 the car was facing fierce competition from new entrants. The company began contemplating on how to make cheaper versions of the car fitted with smaller 350 cubic inch engines. However, the idea didn’t go down well with the company’s boss, John DeLorean, who decided to have the company make another version of the car that was better than the regular GTO. DeLorean named it Judge. It featured a 360 horsepower Ram Air III engine as a standard but buyers could go for an optional Ram Air IV engine that had an output of 370 horsepower. GTO Judge Ram Air IV convertibles are quite rare to find today because there were only 5 made in 1969.
The Judge was so popular that the lead singer of the rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders wrote a song about it. In fact, the first TV commercial for the car featured the band singing about the car. It is one of the first rock music videos made.
4. Hemi 426
One of the most famous engines in the muscle car era was Chrysler’s 426 Hemi V8. They conceived it in the early ’50s. The Hemi engine was an innovative way of constructing the heads of the engine with big hemispherical combustion chambers; hence, the name. It also had side mounted valves. This configuration delivered more power, torque and revs than regular V8 engines, so Chrysler adopted it for most of its cars.
The Hemi family started with the 331 cid engine and went all the way to 392 cid before they discontinued it in the late ’50s. However, while looking for racing engines, a Chrysler engineer remembered the Hemi and resurrected it in 1964 as a pure racing engine with 426 cid and 7.0-liter displacement.
The new engine proved to be fantastic for drag racing and on NASCAR ovals, too. It didn’t take long for the management to understand its commercial potential. So, in 1966, the 426 Hemi became a regular production option on selected Dodge and Plymouth models. Compared to other muscle car engines of the period, the Hemi was the king, earning the nickname, The Elephant, for its size and power.
The engine, in street trim, was rated at 425 HP, but it delivered around 500 HP straight from the factory. But, the 426 Hemi was difficult to maintain. Also, it wasn’t fuel efficient and it was expensive. The last year of the 426 Hemi production was 1971 and for five years, they made around 10,000 engines and installed them in Dodge and Plymouth road and race cars, and even in drag racing boats.
3. 1984 Chevy Corvette
The Corvette, a 3rd generation American sports car, had a very long reign that began in 1968 and extended all the way to 1982. When GM was launching the next-gen C4 Corvette, every car enthusiast back then had their own wild speculation about what the car would look and feel like. While some predicted a mid-engine chassis similar to those found in exotic Italian models, others believed it would be a rotary engine similar to Mazda’s.
When it came out, the Corvette wasn’t as radical as expected. It maintained the same small block Chevy V8 engine driving the rear wheels. It had a meager output of 205 horsepower. Years later, the engine was endowed with a better tuned fuel injection system that boosted horsepower and performance. After five years, Chevrolet launched its ultra-performance Corvette, the ZR-1 which was capable of delivering 375 horsepower.
No Corvette was ever manufactured in 1983. The third-generation Corvettes were produced in 1982, but Chevy had to wait until ’84 to launch the all-new high-performance car. There were many reasons for the delay. Some experts in car matters claim the delay was occasioned by tighter emissions regulations that called for further development and refinement, while others state that there were quality glitches in the factory. All we can authoritatively say is that for some reason all the 1983 Corvette prototypes were destroyed, except one. It is a white car that can be found now at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.
2. 1970 Chevy Chevelle LS6
After GM finally allowed midsize cars to be fitted with engines bigger than 400 cubic inches, it created a frenzy of muscle car production. Oldsmobile gave its 442 model a 455 cubic inch engine while Chevy installed a massive 454 cubic inch V8 engine to its Chevelle SS.
The L6’s power output is estimated at 450 horsepower and 500 pound feet of torque. With a high compression ratio and a bigger Holley 780 CFM carburetor, the car had a significantly higher output. Experts claim that the L6 has the highest hp rating of all muscle cars.
The Chevy Corvette is the company’s best performance car. However, the planned LS7 that was said to have 465 hp would have rivaled the L6, but it was never released to the public.
1. Ferrari Family?
If you were of driving age in 1964, you’d remember the 1964 Pontiac GTO. This was one of the hottest cars of the decade and the most intriguing for its comparison to some of the very best European cars. At that time, Pontiac was comparing it to a close cousin of the Ferrari 250 GTO after Car and Driver publicly noted the resemblance.
When Pontiac started getting that attention from Car and Driver, they knew they would come under scrutiny by European car makers, and they immediately replaced the car’s original 389 engine with the 421 CID “Ringer” GTO. The change made the 1964 Pontiac GTO a formidable opponent to the loved Italian car.