If you’re a fan of American muscle, chances are you’re excited about the Dodge Demon. Based on Dodge’s aging but still too-cool Challenger, the Demon is an 840-horsepower drag strip slayer based on a car that you probably see on your everyday commute. Yes, it’s an $86,000 car, but for the ridiculous amount of power it puts out, it’s an automotive bargain.
And as the authority on classic car valuation, Hagerty knows that the Demon is just the latest in a long line of daily drivers that automakers transformed into straight-line rockets. For almost as long as there have been cars, Americans have been obsessed with making them go as fast as possible, one quarter-mile at a time. As early as the 1930s, manufacturers themselves got into the mix. Ever since, the world has been better for it. According to Hagerty, here are 11 classics that were the Demons of their day.
1. 1932 Ford V8
Even if you didn’t know anything about this car, you probably recognize the 1932 Ford as a hot-rodding icon. But there’s so much more to it than that. That year, Ford introduced the “Flathead” V8. On top of being the first mass-market V8 engine, it was incredibly advanced for its day, outperforming virtually everything else on the road. In the depths of the Great Depression, bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger usually carried out their heists with help from the fast Fords — Dillinger even went so far as to write Henry Ford a thank-you note from prison. After World War II, the Flathead V8 and ’32 Fords were directly responsible for the birth of hot-rodding, drag racing, and NASCAR. The engine itself remained in production until 1953.
2. 1957 Dodge D-501 Coronet
Chrysler’s bold 1957 styling sent shockwaves across the automotive industry. But if you were a true speed junkie in the 1950s, you were probably more interested in the 354-cubic-inch, dual-carburated Hemi V8 available in some cars. In ultra-rare D-501 trim (just 57 were built), the car had that red-hot engine, a heavy-duty truck transmission, brakes, and rear axle, lightened coupe body, and a suspension from heavier Chryslers and Imperials to handle the power. Because of a ban on manufacturers directly running teams in NASCAR, the D-501 remained a fairly obscure footnote in performance car history. But old-school drag racers have never forgotten the first time they saw this Dodge tear up the strip.
3. 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409
Despite being immortalized in a Beach Boys song, the 409 isn’t as well-known or revered as its replacement, the long-serving 427-cubic-inch V8. But that doesn’t mean the 409 was some slouch; from 1961 to ’65 the engine (especially in the Impala SS) was drag strip royalty. With two four-barrel carburetors, the engine actually made 409 horsepower, matching its displacement. Simply put, it blew anything Ford or Chrysler offered out of the water.
4. 1964 Pontiac GTO ‘Tri-Power’
1964 will always be remembered as the Year of the Mustang, but as far as performance went, the new GTO was king. While Ford and Dodge had bigger engines, they were powering dedicated drag cars or moving around land yachts. The GTO’s 389-cubic-inch V8, especially optioned with three four-barrel carbs (hence Tri-Power) was an assassin on the street or the track. In its first year, the big-dog GTO made 348 horsepower. By 1965, the car would gain its iconic stacked headlights and power would increase to 360 ponies.
5. 1966 Plymouth Belvedere Hemi
The late ’60s are when Chrysler’s Hemi V8 truly became “The Hemi.” After dominating NASCAR in the early ’60s, the company began aggressively marketing the big engines in its performance cars. To put it mildly, the rest is history. In 1966, you could buy a $2,500, stripped-down, intermediate-sized Plymouth Belvedere coupe, and add another $1,000 for a 426-cubic-inch Hemi. That would turn the cheap and cheerful runabout into a 425-horsepower rocket. It’s no wonder that these cars are still a common sight at drag strips around the country.
6. 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle LS6
Today its name is synonymous with speed, but back in 1970, the Chevelle was one of the most popular cars in America. Still, out of the nearly 500,000 that were built for the year, some 4,500 customers checked the LS6 options box, cementing the Chevelle’s legacy as a drag strip royalty. LS6 cars came equipped with a 454-cubic-inch V8 that put out a whopping 450 horsepower. At this high point of the classic muscle car era, it was the king of the hill, offering way more power than anything from Chrysler Corporation or Ford.
7. 1973 Pontiac Trans Am SD455
For the most part, 1973 was the year the party ended for muscle cars, as a recession and looming insurance and emissions standards for 1974 would largely neuter the segment. That year, most automakers had already begun detuning their bigger engines in the midst of a historic gas shortage. Ford, AMC, and Chrysler began radically scaling back their performance offerings. But Pontiac decided to close the golden era on a high note. The brand beefed up its big 455-cubic-inch V8 to create the Super Duty. Putting out 310 horsepower, it was the most powerful V8 offered in any American performance car that year. Power would continue to drop throughout the ’70s, but Pontiac’s range-topping Trans Am continued to keep the faith through the darkest times.
8. 1978 Dodge Lil’ Red Express
By the late ’70s, the muscle car segment was on life support due to the increasingly strict safety and emissions standards and skyrocketing insurance costs. But at one of the darkest points in American performance car history, a team at Chrysler found a loophole: Few, if any, of these strict guidelines applied to trucks. So for 1978, they took a short-bed Dodge Adventurer, dropped in a 225-horsepower 360-cubic-inch V8, a set of semi-truck-inspired stacks, and a wood-paneled step side bed. Sold for just two years, the Lil’ Red Express was the fastest accelerating vehicle you could buy in America in 1978.
9. 1987 Buick GNX
Sharing its body and interior with the dowdy Buick Regal coupe, the 1982-’87 Buick Grand National proved that a turbocharger mated to a V6 engine could replicate the insane amounts of power that could only be achieved with huge V8s just a few years before. For the Grand National’s final year, Buick rolled out the iconic and insane GNX. Substantially reworked by McLaren, the GNX cranked out a massive (for the era) 300 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, making it the hottest American performance car of the ’80s. With just 547 cars built, the GNX has become one of the most sought-after American collector cars built in the past 30 years.
10. 1991 GMC Syclone/Typhoon
The first big SUV boom was just ramping up in the early ’90s, but the concept of a performance model still seemed ridiculous. And ridiculous is the perfect word to describe the GMC Syclone truck and Typhoon SUV. Based on the workaday Sonoma pickup and Jimmy SUV, these wild offerings had a turbocharged and intercooled 4.3-liter V6 shoehorned under the hood, making an impressive 280 horsepower. In 1991, Car and Driver famously pitted a Syclone against a Ferrari in a performance test. The GMC won.
11. 2007 Shelby GT500
The 1990s and 2000s might not be remembered as a golden automotive era, but it was a time when automakers finally figured out how to return to insane amounts of power while still meeting modern emissions standards. In 2007, the Camaro had been discontinued for five years (it would return in 2009), and Dodge had yet to release the Challenger. But Ford was still on the warpath. That year, it revived the iconic Shelby name and launched the perfectly retro GT500. So much more than just an homage to its ’60s-era namesake, the GT500 shared a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 from the Ford GT supercar. Cranking out 500 horsepower, the Ford lit a fire under its competitors, starting a whole new horsepower war. We’re still reaping the benefits today.