Muscle cars are an All-American mode of transportation. I say American because even though other countries have produced similar vehicles, they’re so symbolic of American automotive culture in the 1950s and 1960s that everything else just pales in comparison. European cars made during the same time period were mostly meant for shorter distances, congested cities, and fuel economy. American cars were built for power at the cost of everything else. They barely got 15 miles per gallon on the highway for crying out loud! Modern cars get more than twice that on a bad day.
They had style, they had power, and they had class. Even though developments in car design for both safety and functionality have made leaps and bounds since the 1960s, they still bring tears of nostalgic glory to the eyes of many a baby boomer, and many younger people who just like the olden days when cars were simpler and you could actually work on them without having a PhD in rocket science. Of course cars back then HAD to be worked on since they were less reliable. Cars today can run on nothing but neglect and abuse, but you absolutely needed to work on the early ones.
I’m not bashing old cars or the people who love them. What I’m going to talk about is a list of the best, and the worst, classic muscle cars from the good old days, putting the timeline before the malaise era of the mid 70s when exploding gas prices, environmental regulations, and the rise of the Japanese automotive industry all changed the US auto industry forever. So let’s talk about the best (and the worst) of that bygone era of gas-guzzling, bodybuilder cars.
15. BEST – 1964 Pontiac GRO Tri-Power
First on our list of the best classic muscle cars is the two-door coupe that is the Pontiac GTO. It came with a powerful, 348 horsepower engine and a massive 428 ft-lb of torque that would allow it to accelerate very quickly down any road, going from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds and can cover a quarter of a mile in just 14.1 seconds. Despite complaints about difficult steering and inadequate breaks, the car was an unexpected hit and considered to be one of the best muscle cars of the 1960s. Not bad for a car that originated as an option package for the Tempest Lemans.
14. BEST – 1971 Buick CSX
Put into production at the tail end of the classic muscle car era. It is another two door coupe with a 455 V8 engine charged with 345 horsepower and 360 pounds-feet of torque. It can go from 0 to 60 mphs in 6.9 seconds and cover a quarter mile in 15.3 seconds. In terms of prestige, it seems like General Motors considered this to be one notch below a Cadillac, which was ironic since at that time Cadillac did not HAVE any performance vehicles to compete with the Buick CSX. This specific model was the most famous Gran Sport ever produced.
13. BEST – 1969 Pontiac Firebird 400 Coupe
The Firebird 400 coupe, with the L67 499 CID Pontiac Ram Air IV V8 engine capable of throwing out 345 horsepower and achieving a quarter mile in 15 seconds (whether or not the tires would be set on fire is another question). It burned its way into the history books of muscle cars. Not only was it a muscle car, but it was a pony car, meaning it was inspired by the success of the Ford Mustang that came before it. A special version was produced for SCCA road racing and was not normally available for normal production cars. This version featured a larger, 303 cu in (5.0 L) engine that delivered an unspecified amount of power. I wasn’t able to get that information, but if it’s racing, it’s going to need to compete with more than grandmas at the red light…
12. BEST – 1970 Plymouth Road Runner
So with a name like the Road Runner, it makes me wonder just what kind of sound its horn makes (I wonder if it goes ‘Beep Beep’ in a cartoonish fashion) or whether or not there is another car that is called the Coyote that has a corporate sponsor that’s out to create havoc for the Road Runner. Jokes aside, it is another classic from the tail end of the muscle car era. With an engine that delivers 330 horsepower and 425 ft-lbs of torque, it obviously still dwarfs most of the family cars today. No information on whether or not it can accelerate fast enough to match everyone’s favorite cartoon bird.
11. BEST – 1969 Chevrolet Corvette ZL-1
This is a cool car whose shape cannot be improved upon. Even the more modern updates to cars like these just keep the cool, sleek lines, but make them only smoother and more space age (even if 1969 WAS space-aged; it was the time when humanity landed on the moon). The engine was all-aluminum, and it delivered 430 horsepower and was able to do a quarter mile in 12.1 seconds. It was also one of the rarest cars since around 3 of this specific model were built, making it one of the rarest cars ever made. One of them belongs to a Gulf Oil engineer who still owns it and races it every once in a while.
10. BEST – 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429
Another fine example of a coupe from Ford, the Mustang is a classic that never ceased production from Ford, and the 1969 Boss 429 (affectionately called ‘Boss 9’ by car lovers) was designed with NASCAR in mind. So the engine that they put into it was a respectably powered 375 horsepower V8 delivering 450 ft-lbs of torque… with actual output even going into the 500 horsepower range. The Mustang was used in the Lincoln/Mercury Race Division in 1969. What was the result of that race? I have no idea. Either way, the Mustang is a fine vehicle deserving of being named after a wild, untamed horse.
9. BEST – 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
The Chevy Chevelle is a mid-sized, four-door sedan… nowadays. But the 1970 version was another two-door coupe with a powerful 360 horsepower engine and an absolutely monstrous 500 ft-lbs of torque. It was so powerful that the advertising brochure wrote that ‘you can make our tough one even tougher’ describing how this model was an improvement on the previous 1969 Chevy. The car was capable of going one fourth of a mile in just 13.1 seconds at 107 mph. It’s amazing how the Chevelle was many different types of vehicle through its odd 50+ year history. Most sedans stay sedans and don’t transform into other kinds… unless they’re Camaros, then they turn into bumblebee…
8. WORST – 1961 Chevrolet Corvair
Starting off the list of worst muscle cars is the earliest. The Chevrolet Corvair was a rear-engine car that gave it the fantastic tendency to spin out of control at the most inopportune time. This wasn’t a new problem that was just discovered. During WW2, the Nazis in occupied Czechoslovakia banned people from driving rear-engine cars due to the exact problem. So if the Nazis did something right, this was it. The Beetle managed to fix this issue, but the people at Chevrolet decided to throw all caution to the wind and just do it anyway. It leaked oil like a sinking tanker and it had a single steering column that could impale the driver in the case of a front-end collision. Nice piece of work…
7. WORST – 1970 AMC Gremlin
The term Gremlin originated during WW2 when it was used as a term to explain engine problems that aircraft had during flight… and when they landed to try to investigate them, they discovered nothing was wrong, so they attributed the problem to Gremlins. That being said, this pretty much describes the issue with this car.
According to the Global And Mail, this car was released on April Fools day, 1970 and this series of vehicle has been looked upon as the beginning of the decline of the once great American automotive industry. Highly appropriate that they named it after something imaginary that caused real problems…
6. WORST – 1971 Ford Pinto
The Ford Pinto is one of the most notorious automotive failures of all time. Even TVtropes.org has an entry that says ‘All cars are Pintos’. What does that mean? Well here’s the meaning. Most cars are designed specifically not to explode. I mean, in the movies cars explode at the slightest prick (as parodied so brilliantly in the 1984 comedy movie Top Secret), but the Pinto was one of those cars that really does explode, and it did with alarming regularity. It had an issue with rear end collisions where its fuel system would ignite violently and set off an explosion. They could have fixed this problem with an additional 10 dollar installation to the car in the rear, but Ford had actually joined many other automakers to delay legislation that would force manufacturers to have those safeties installed. Meaning they probably wanted the world to be a Michael Bay movie for a while.
5. WORST – 1958 Ford Edsel
The Ford Edsel was actually Mel Blanc’s favorite car. Mel Blanc was the voice actor behind Bugs Bunny and other classic Warner Bros characters. The Ford Edsel is also another failure of the automotive industry, like the Triumph Stag (look it up). No one reason dominated why it was such a failure, but it was overpriced, overhyped, and ugly. Consumers said that its front grill looked like a toilet seat and it had very serious reliability issues and even the gauges didn’t report correct speeds and mileage. It was a muscle car with muscular dystrophy for sure, and it earned its place in history as one of the worst cars of all time, not just muscle cars.
4. WORST – 1971 Chevrolet Vega
This car is one of the most overhyped cars ever made, and one of the least durable. Some people who drove it said that after only a few years of mild daily use, their car had suffered such wear and tear that it would be completely worn out. The plastic interiors almost always broke down immediately out of the factory. The engine was extremely weak, despite its hype for power. Most cars, even at that time, could last for decades, for many owners. The Chevy Vega only lasted around 5 years. If you find one that’s still running, chances are likely it’s a genetic anomaly, if cars had genetics that is.
3. WORST – 1972 Mercury Montego GT
As far as muscle cars go, this is the sign of the beginning of the end. The early 70s were the final hurrah of the Muscle Car Era and it differently shows. It wasn’t so much that this car performed badly, but rather that it was just plain unwanted. Sales for the car waxed and waned in the early 70s as people were starting to get all interested in the classic two door powerhouses. They either wanted the economical cars or the full-sized sedans of yore. Maybe it wasn’t its performance, but the winds were definitely changing when this beast rolled out on the market.
2. WORST – 1974 Ford Mustang II
OK, so this is cheating… just ever so slightly. This was Ford’s pony car. Not exactly a true muscle car, but rather a muscle car lite. It was supposed to be a cheaper, compact car that still delivered a lot of power and performance for a vehicle of its size. It still had a Windsor V8 engine that delivered a powerful 210 horsepower, which was fantastic for the time and its class, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. With the oil crisis underway, it is considered, in retrospect, to be a car that came out at the wrong time and has been considered one of the worst American muscle cars of all time.
1. WORST – 1975 Chevrolet Corvette
The 1975 Chevrolet Corvette is one sleek looking car. Just like the 1969 model shown above, its looks alone are enough to turn heads anywhere it goes… but beauty is only skin deep, as the old saying goes. Beneath this gorgeous chassis lied an underpowered, underperforming, lackluster engine that just failed to deliver. It was much weaker than both the previous models and the future models that would carry the Corvette name. It seems like the 1970s were just a really, really tough time for American automobiles that most people will never forget (and never want to forget… everyone needs something to look back and laugh at, after all).
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