We all know the story; it started in 1964 with the Ford Mustang. No, wait — I mean the Plymouth Barracuda. Or the Pontiac GTO. Or was it earlier with the Pontiac Catalina SD? The ’50s Dodge D-500 maybe?
Debating the origin of the muscle car is like debating over the first rock and roll record: everyone you talk to has a different opinion, and no one is exactly wrong. Let’s just say that by the early ’60s, a generation coming of age fell in love with high-performance midsize cars coming out of Detroit, and for a few brief years, performance ruled the day. Naturally, the good old days seem to look better with each passing year, and as the book was written on the muscle car, a fair amount of contenders fell by the wayside.
Every gearhead could tell a Mustang from a Camaro from a ‘Cuda from a GTO in their sleep. Slightly more advanced fans know about the Buick GNX, the Ford Torino Cobra Jet, Plymouth GTX, and the AMC SC/Rambler too. But go much deeper than that, and cars begin to get lost to time. And that’s a shame because with performance being the magic word, a number of automakers tried to cash in on the muscle car craze and, even when they failed, left some seriously powerful and interesting cars behind. Here are 10 ’60s-era muscle cars that deserve to re-enter the conversation.
1. 1964 Studebaker Avanti R3
The Avanti isn’t generally counted among muscle cars, but then, Studebaker was never exactly considered a performance powerhouse to begin with. But the fiberglass Avanti had a long hood, short rear deck, and 289-cubic-inch V8 a full two years before the Ford Mustang did. In 1964 (after production officially ended), Studebaker bored out nine V8s to 304 cubic inches, slapped a Paxton supercharger on them, and dropped them into remaining Avantis. The result was a 171-mile-per-hour rocket, which the company claimed made it the fastest production car in America. This R3 was sold by Auctions America in 2010 for $96,250. With the collector market being what it is today, good luck finding one this cheap ever again.
2. 1965 Pontiac 2+2
As far as classic muscle cars go, the ’65-’67 GTO is remembered to be about as big as they came. But with the success of the GTO, Pontiac wanted to take its go-fast formula to an even bigger car, which became the ’65-’67 2+2. Based on the full-size Catalina two-door, the 2+2 had its own unique 338-horsepower 421-cubic-inch V8, and in High Output guise, power jumped to 376 ponies, which when tuned right could rocket from zero to 60 in a mind-bending 3.9 seconds. Bigger, plusher, and often faster than its smaller stablemate, the 2+2 deserves a lot more love from speed freaks.
3. 1964 Mercury Comet Cyclone
For ’60s Ford products, the Mercury Comet was about as basic as they came. Closely based on the Ford Falcon, the ’64-’65 Comet could be livened up with Ford’s famous 289-cubic-inch V8. But for those who wanted more from their Mercurys, Ford built 50 Comet Cyclones for the dragstrip, complete with fiberglass hood, fenders, doors and front bumper, plexiglass windows, and the same 425-horsepower 427 V8 found in the Shelby Cobra. In ’66, Mercury introduced the production Comet GT with the 390 V8, and while they’re capable compact muscle cars, they couldn’t hope to match the insanity of their big block predecessor.
4. 1968 Ford Ranchero 500
It’s been long overshadowed by Chevy’s iconic El Camino, but the Ford Ranchero was America’s first car-based Ute. And while Chevy was offering the 396 V8 in its muscle trucks, Ford upped the ante in ’68 and made its restyled Ranchero available with a 335-horsepower Cobra Jet 428 V8. Unfortunately, a lack of weight over the rear wheels made the hot Rancheros a handful to drive, so very few were built with Ford’s biggest motor. While it seems like every surviving El Camino happens to be an SS model, we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen a Cobra Jet Ranchero. Come to think of it, we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen any Ranchero.
5. 1969 Chevy Kingswood 427
Back in the ’60s, you could order virtually any option you wanted on a car, and companies would actually build it for you. So imagine you’ve got a growing family, and your Corvette just can’t handle them. What to do? Buy a Chevy Kingswood station wagon with Rally wheels, hideaway headlights, seating for seven, and the same 390-horsepower V8 found in your ‘Vette. Only 546 buyers opted for the big V8 in ’69, but a number of 427 Kingswoods spent the next decade making their mark on the drag strip.
6. 1969 Oldsmobile Rallye 350
When gearheads think of outrageous muscle cars from 1969, the Pontiac GTO Judge easily sits at the top of the list. But while the Judge has gone on to become a legend, Oldsmobile’s analog, the Rallye 350, is all but forgotten. Like the Judge (at least at first) it was offered in one outrageous color (Sebring Yellow), had color-matched wheels and bumpers, a spoiler, and a fiberglass hood. And compared to Olds’s top-dog 442, the car’s 310-horsepower 350-cubic-inch V8 made it significantly lighter, allowing it to scramble from zero to 60 in seven seconds and run the quarter mile in a respectable 15.27 seconds at 97 miles per hour. Just 3,500 Rallye 350s were built, making it one of the more obscure muscle cars to ever come from GM.
7. 1969 Ford Torino Talladega
Half a century on, the Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird and Dodge Daytona get all the love when it comes to NASCAR homologation specials. But in 1969, Ford tried its hand at aerodynamics too and built the Torino Talladega. Starting with a Torino Sportsroof, Ford worked with the Holman-Moody race shop to design a sleeker, longer front clip and rear fascia for the car. The Talladega was honed in the wind tunnel — a relative novelty for the era — and powered by the 429-cubic-inch V8 found in the Boss Mustang. Production was over by March; Ford only built 754 of them and they were barely advertised, but the slippery cars dominated during the ’69 season, winning 29 races. In 1970, however, the 200-mile-per-hour Superbird ruled NASCAR, and the Talladega’s time in the spotlight was over. Today, the Talladega (and near-identical Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II) are bargains on the collector market compared to the beak-nosed Mopars.
8. 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix SJ
The second-generation Grand Prix is largely remembered for its role in popularizing the Personal Luxury Coupe segment, but in its early days, it was one of the hottest cars on the street. With a long hood (the longest hood of any production car in ’69, in fact) and short deck, the Grand Prix was available with Pontiac’s 390-horsepower 428-cubic-inch V8, allowing it to scramble from zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds and run the quarter mile in 15 seconds at 97 miles per hour. Its combination of luxury and power made it the Grand Prix massive hit for Pontiac; within a few years, any semblance of performance would be gone.
9. 1970 Chrysler Hurst 300
As early as 1970, Chrysler die-hards were feeling nostalgic for the 300-letter series, which ended in 1965. The 300-series carried on, but performance had taken a back seat as mid-sized muscle cars had picked up the go-fast mantle. Chrysler tried to recapture the magic for ’70 by outfitting a 300 coupe with the interior from an Imperial, a fiberglass hood and decklid, a 375-horsepower 440-cubic-inch V8, and a Torque-Flite automatic to handle all that power. At 18.5 feet long and 4,400 pounds, the big Chrysler could still make zero to 60 in 7.1 seconds and run the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds. With just 500 built, the Hurst 300s rank as one of the rarest Mopar muscle cars of all time.
10. 1971 AMC SC/360 Hornet
In the ’60s, AMC’s red, white, and blue Rebel Machine and SC/Rambler muscle cars failed to move the sales needle for America’s last independent automaker, but they sure caused a scene wherever they went. For 1970, the company had introduced the compact Hornet and Gremlin to replace the Rambler, and with them came the SC/360 Hornet. With an available 285-horsepower 360-cubic-inch V8 under the hood, the small Hornet could hit 60 from a standstill in 6.7 seconds, and run the quarter mile in 14.9 seconds at 97 miles per hour. But in 1970, displacement still ruled the day, and despite being cheaper than a Plymouth Duster 340, AMC found just 784 buyers for its smallest muscle car. We think it’s aged remarkably well, and would love to take one of these ’70s-era sleepers to the drag strip.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.