You don’t have to be an autophile (okay, that word might mean something completely different) to know that muscle cars are the iconic expression of our asphalt fantasies. Germany might hang its hat on engineering, and Italy on artistry, but we go for obscene power—hence this lineup of the 12 most iconic muscle cars in the history of the U.S.A. In determining which of these imposing rides deserved to be ranked best-of-the-best we considered their engineering, their backstory, and the tire tracks they left on the culture at large.
Note to sticklers: some of our picks were technically introduced as pony cars, but we feel their track record and/or cultural impact has earned them a spot here.
Note to non-sticklers: what’s a pony car?
Okay, here we go:
More From American Tales
Notable models: 1967 Cougar XR7
Aside from a 2-to-4-barrel V8’s worth of power, the XR7 makes this list due to its notoriety both on the track and in the sales charts. The Cougar was Mercury’s sister car to the popular Mustang, and placed in the SCCA group II sedan racing series (more recently called the Trans-Am) in 1967, helmed by one of the world’s most famous racing icons Dan Gurney. Mercury sold more than 150,000 units that year alone.
Notable models: 1966 Charger, 1968 Charger 440, 1969 Charger
When this quintessential slice of American beastliness was introduced for wide production in 1968 (after seeing concept models and limited-production package releases in ’64 and ’65) it sported a 318 cubic-inch base V8 and a classic fastback body. Its permanent enshrinement into Americana came via the ’68 starring in the most famous car chase in movie history (Bullitt, with Steve McQueen spreading peace, love, and horsepower all over San Francisco), and the ’69 starring as the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee. There's more, but for that...y'all come back now, ya hear?
Notable models: 1968 Javelin, 1968 AMX
The first generation of Javelins appeared in 1968 as two-door hardtop muscle cars, making for American Motor Company’s entrance into the pony and muscle game. Javelins won several Trans-Am titles in the ‘70s, and the second-generation AMX was the first pony car to be used by US highway patrol. Think: buddy cop movies, but with, like, real prison time.
Notable models: 1964 Barracuda, 1971 Hemi ‘Cuda’
The Plymouth ‘Cuda screeched onto the scene in ’64, beating the Camaro and Mustang to market as pony cars. While it was quickly overshadowed, it grabbed a new asset in 1970 that totally shamed the competition: a ridiculous hemi engine. One of the early ‘70s convertible models recently sold for $3.5 million. That’s almost as much money as Nic Cage’s lottery winnings in It Could Happen to You!
Ford Shelby Mustang
Notable models: 1966 GT350(H), 1968 GT500
The Shelby Mustang remains an inescapable symbol of American power because of its 271 horsepower, Cobra hi-riser V8 engine, and its development as an SCCA competition car (and champion). Then there’s this: in his completely awesome remake of Gone In 60 Seconds, Nic Cage closes out the movie by driving away in “Eleanor," a GT500, with Angelina Jolie. Cage, knowing he could never look cooler than he did in that car, basically gave up and his next two movies were The Family Man and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Notable models: 1967 Z28, 1971 SS350, 1968 COPO, 1969 Yenko
What’s most telling about the Camaro’s mark on muscle history is the sheer fact that it claims not one, not two, not even three, but four iconic models. The first-generation Camaro was introduced in part to compete with the Mustang, while the Z28’s slick racing stripes were a nod to the American rally concept. Chevy’s first flirtation with a 350 cubic-inch V8 was the SS350, and because automotive power corrupts in the best possible way, after that they built two more cars inspired by freakin’ drag races: the COPO and Yenko.
Notable models: 1969 Daytona
Emerging as a related model to the Charger, the ridiculous winged, sick-looking Daytona is one of the rarest muscle cars still stalking the planet today. Only a small number were manufactured—to qualify as a showroom stock car—and thus eventually run in NASCAR stock races. It was also part of a larger mid-to-late ‘60s push to introduce track-inspired beasts to the mean streets of Pleasantville, USA, and one of the first cars to go from track to street, where it turned ordinary dudes who just liked driving fast into local legends.
Notable models: 1964 GTO, 1969 “Judge” GTO
Developed by John DeLorean, the car was designated “GTO” as an homage to the Ferrari 250 GTO—Gran Turismo Omologato, which essentially denotes that a car was only produced for the street so it could qualify for a racing series, similarly to the Daytona. DeLorean gave the second-generation GTO the nickname “Judge” because he dug the popular ‘60s comedy skit by Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Here Comes the Judge”—to put that in perspective, had he built the car in the year 2000, he would’ve nicknamed it “More Cowbell.”
Notable models: 1962 Chevrolet II, 1970 Nova, 1975 Nova 9C1
Originally dubbed the Chevy II, the Nova’s goal was to drive under the radar as a compact, budget-friendly muscle car, bringing a commanding V8 to the party in 1964. In 1975, the 170-horsepower 9C1 was a Nova-with-Camaro-engine combo developed for police precincts. Is there anything more American than a police muscle car? Nope.
Notable models: 1966 Cutlass 442 W-3, 1969 442
The 1966 Cutlass W-3 was so limited-run that many Olds dealers didn’t even know it existed. Dubbed 442 after the four-barrel carburetor, the four-speed transmission, and the dual exhaust, this Olds muscle original sold as an option package under the F-85 and Cutlass models. The engineers’ goals were so centered on making a drag car that many W-3s only came in stripped down versions, sometimes without heaters or radios. How sick would your in-car vox be if you got to practice a capella all the time?
Notable models: 1961 Impala SS409
Not unlike the Nova, the Chevy Impala was marketed as a full-sized “sleeper” car with an unassuming profile and a 409-cubic-inch V8, meaning it wouldn’t look like overkill (it totally was) when you drove down to the store to pick up some microwave Beef Wellington. Oh, and by the way, in the Beach Boys song “409,” they weren’t referring to a brand of household cleaner…
Plymouth Road Runner
Notable Models: 1968 Road Runner
The Road Runner was named after the cartoon, but Plymouth didn’t stop there—they paid Warner Bros. $50k to license the iconic “meep meep” for the horn. The name of the game with this car was lightness—Plymouth dispensed with some interior refinements (like carpet… psssh) to give it low overall weight. With a gross horsepower of 335 in the 1968 model, and a scooped-out hood “shaker” intake that made the thing growl, its power didn’t suffer.
Meet the Next Generation
The muscle car’s return’s been so damn fun because unlike other revivals (Disco! Mustaches!), this one’s powered by something more exhilarating than irony. Prime example: the new 2015 Dodge Challenger. It’s not some stylized reference to the past; it’s more like some freakish creature from the past that somehow got itself equipped with impossibly advanced tech (e.g., a HEMI® SRT Hellcat V8 that’d leave the General Lee gaping in awe) before bursting through space-time and screeching to a halt in the present. Strap in, and check out the specs.
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