Pick a Side: Who Made the Best Muscle Car?
In the muscle car era, the domestic automakers were engaged in a legendary war with one another for dominance of the street, track, and the lucrative Baby-Boomer fueled youth market. It’s a moment in time when they all seemed to be doing something clever to outfox one another, and it’s an era where many of us have great memories and clear favorites. Now, with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, let’s talk about who actually built the best muscle cars. Here are the contenders and some things to consider:
We’re starting here because GM muscle represents the lion’s share of the market. They’re everywhere, which is both a good and a bad thing (we’ll get to that in a minute). But you can’t argue with the fact that the General turned out some beautiful and fast muscle cars. If you look at it completely objectively, the ’70 Camaro was a beautiful piece of industrial design. Throw the Z/28’s 360-horse solid lifter LT-1 under that long hood and you have a great example of what we’re talking about here. Ditto the W-30 442’s or GS Buicks. Also, we would be remiss for not mentioning that the ’64 GTO is often credited as the origin of the muscle car species.
And we can’t forget that GM also has the Corvette in their arsenal. The Corvette may be “America’s Sports Car,” but Chevy infused plenty of raw muscle into the plastic fantastic over the years. From the 2x4 and Fuelie-equipped 283’s of the 50’s to the mighty L88’s of the 60’s, there was no shortage of horsepower available on the Corvette’s option sheet. A couple 69’s even snuck out of the factory with the crazy ZL1 aluminum 427 under the hood.
On the other side of the coin, the sheer number of GM muscle that was cranked out and kept alive means that they’re all over the place. I defy you to go to an all makes car show and not see a first-gen Camaro. Because of this, I often find myself walking past some really great cars simply because I’ve already seen so many that day. Hot Rod Magazine used to candidly voice the conundrum that the issues with a red Camaro on the cover always sold well, but then they were in for a raft of angry letters from readers who were tired of seeing red Camaros on the cover. This is the blessing and the curse of GM muscle fandom.
Ford really did itself a favor when it invented the pony car in ’64. The Mustang sold like hotcakes and caused all the other automakers to scramble for an answer. Not only that, but the Mustang would prove to be the perfect platform as the muscle car wars started heating up.
Often, folks think about the big block Chevy and the Hemi as the poster children for muscle car horsepower excess, but Ford created some pretty wild engines. Look at the gorgeous, sculpted valve covers on a Boss 429 or better yet, the mighty SOHC “Cammer.” Even the little Boss 302 was loaded for battle in the Trans Am wars with 10.5:1 compression and massive valves. They said 290 horsepower. We don’t believe them.
Add the name Shelby to all of this and it’s hard not to place Ford near the top of the “greatest” list that we’re discussing here. The name has become inextricably linked to Ford muscle. He helped Ford beat the Ferraris in their own backyard. His modified Mustangs offered SCCA-winning hot rods to the performance hungry public, and the 427 Cobra might just be the ultimate example of the “huge engine, small car” philosophy that has guided hot rodding from the beginning.
And if we’re still allowed to call cars from the 80’s and up muscle cars, then we have to mention the Fox-body Mustang. As we all woke up from the funk of the 70’s malaise-era, there was the Mustang, freshly redesigned and ready to do battle once again. And battle it did. A new performance aftermarket grew up around the platform in much the same way that the industry embraced the Mustang’s grandpa; the ’32 Ford. Everyone was making parts to hop up the Fox, which was already pretty darn good. A 5.0 badge on the fender meant you were facing a tough competitor at the Friday night street races. Simply put, the Fox Mustang was the ’32 Ford or the ’57 Chevy for my generation.
Man, Mopar knew how to market their muscle cars. They had crazy, cartoon print ads that showed exaggerated drawings of their cars literally peeling up the pavement. Their cars had motorized bees on them and roadrunners leaving a smoke trail down the whole side of the car. They had wild stripes, big scoops, and big horsepower from high winding 340’s and big 440’s. They didn’t just call their 3x2 induction system “a bunch of carbs,” they called it a Six-Pack. Even the names of the colors were wild. Sassy Grass Green? Plum Crazy? The Mopar marketing folks figured out a formula that’s still fun to talk about.
And also, Hemi. It’s rare for one word to pack such a punch in the automotive industry. This engine was so great that an evolution of it is still powering Top Fuel dragsters down the strip all these years later. And the adrenaline rush that comes from opening the hood of a Hemi car and seeing those monstrous black wrinkle valve covers is hard to duplicate anywhere else.
And Mopar folks are serious about their identity. What they may lack in number, they make up for in passion. It seems completely possible to own a Chevelle in a very casual way, taking the grandkids to get ice cream on Friday night and throwing a coat of wax on it occasionally. But Mopar people are hardcore. Usually, they own more than one car and have garages and sheds full of pieces to build even more.
If you’re looking for a downside, even the big Coronets and Chargers were unibody. While that light weight combined with the gonzo horsepower made them street racing legends, it also means that many of them have been gobbled up by the rust monster. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket sheet metal suppliers that have embraced the Mopar market and offer the pieces needed to stitch them back together. Also, compared to the ubiquity of GM and even Ford, bolt-on parts for Mopars tend to be more expensive and harder to come by.
Like their kooky public image, Mopars are also a bit different mechanically. If you’re used to working on a Camaro or Galaxie, then you might find torsion bars and k-members to be a bit foreign. But I’m willing to bet that crazy community of Mopar fanatics will be right there to help you learn the language.
First and foremost, you’re definitely not going to get confused about which red, white, and blue striped AMC muscle car is yours in the grocery store parking lot. For every 15 Camaros or Mustangs at the Friday night cruise, you will maybe find one AMC. And that’s a good thing. These things stand out, and not just because they’re a little rare these days. American Motors also went a little wild with some of the graphics and PR. I mean, how cool is it that they made a car called the Rebel Machine? The AMX was an honest-to-goodness two-seat sports car with big engines, big stripes, and big attitude. The Hurst-modified SC/Rambler had an arrow on the hood that pointed into the functional hoodscoop as though it needed to remind the air what direction it needed to go to be consumed by the hungry 390 underneath. Cool.
It can be hard to find parts for an AMC. The rarity that will make you stand out at your next cars and coffee also means that you might be in a pickle the next time you need to find a hood, bumper, or brake rotor. But, like Mopars, there is an active and enthusiastic network of fellow AMC lovers that will be happy to help you out.
For me, there’s no right answer here. I love them all and spend just as much time looking for nice Buick Grand Nationals on Bring a Trailer as I do scheming about how to build a cheap Hemi Dart clone (I hear you Mopar guys laughing). The 60’s cars in my garage all happen to be from GM, bit none of them are Camaros or Chevelles.
Muscle cars represent a golden age of automotive history. When the automakers were engaged in a no holds barred horsepower arms race and deployed big-cube engines with giant Holley carbs, solid lifters and big compression into battle. These cars are raw, rough mechanical symphonies. It’s hard for me not to love all of them, regardless of the make.