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14 Rarest American Cars Ever Built You Probably Never Spotted on The Streets

Vukasin HerbezOctober 28, 2017

The American car industry has always been a dominant player on the global automotive scene. Not only did an American invent the industry as we know it, the U.S. is the biggest, most demanding car market in the world. Domestic manufacturers are the most active despite numerous recessions, market changes, fuel shortages and tough emissions standards. Each year, there are almost 15 million new vehicles produced in the U.S. alone.

Although the American car industry is famous for massive production volumes, there are still cases where it produced some cars in limited numbers. Some cars are so rare, most car enthusiasts aren’t even sure they exist or if they are just myths. Over the years, there were dozens of small companies who tried their luck at producing bespoke sports cars. However, almost all closed their doors after only a handful of production models. The big manufacturers also produced a few obscure models, versions and trim levels in limited numbers.

This list concentrates on the number of cars and also on the rarity of the brands and models. There are some rare versions of massively produced ordinary cars, as well as crazy, exclusive sports cars. Some cars you may know, but some you probably have never seen because they are so rare. So, read on to learn more about the 11 rarest American cars in the world.

  1. 1969 Chevrolet Corvette ZL-1

Back in the late 60’s, Chevrolet was under a racing ban that General Motors proposed. This meant no official Chevrolet product could race and Chevrolet, as a manufacturer, couldn’t participate in any racing activity. However, nobody stopped Chevrolet from helping racing teams through their backdoor programs where they developed special engines and components. In the late 60’s, Can-Am was a popular racing series featuring prototype class cars with V8 engines. Chevrolet wanted to purpose-build a power plant for this championship.

So, in 1969, they produced an all-aluminum 427 big block they called the ZL-1. It was a high revving, 7.0-liter V8 with up to 550 HP in a mild tune. This monster of an engine was far more powerful than anything Mopar or Ford had in production at that time. Chevrolet produced approximately 200 of those engines. While most of them went to Can-Am racing teams, Chevrolet also made around 12 test Corvettes with that engine in late 1968.

The performance potential was unbelievable, so Chevrolet didn’t want to offer their wild racing engine to the general public. For this reason, they never mentioned the ZL-1 option in the press or in their official brochures. However, wealthy individuals close to the factory knew about its existence, so they could purchase the ZL-1.

That is why only two Corvette ZL-1s are known to exist – a yellow and a white one. They equipped one with a manual transmission and the other with an automatic. Chevrolet destroyed the rest as they were pre-production prototypes. Only two found their way to private hands where their owners have cherished and preserved them. They are now the most valuable and interesting pieces of Corvette history.

The original cost of the ZL-1 option was over $4,000 on the base price of a big block Corvette C3. This was a price few people could pay, but today, the estimated value is over $1 million.

  1. 1971 Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible

By 1971, the end of crazy muscle car segment was in sight. Tightening government regulations regarding safety, environmental and insurance issues were killing the power of cars. This destroyed the market since power was the main selling point of muscle cars. But, by 1970 and 1971, the muscle car market was full. Never before or since has there been so many muscle car models on offer. The GTO Judge deserves a place on this list because it is one of the rarest muscle cars Detroit ever produced.

The Pontiac GTO was always a strong seller, but with so many competitors in the early 70’s, sales were down. Pontiac introduced their popular Judge version in 1969 and continued production for 1971. It featured a big block 455 V8 engine, crazy graphics and a big spoiler on the trunk, which was wild for the 1971 model year. Because they raised the displacement limit, intermediate cars from GM could have the biggest engines available. So, they gave the GTO a 455 big block V8 rated at 335 HP.

Although 335 HP is a modest number compared to the earlier GTOs, in 1971, Detroit moved from DIN to SAE horsepower ratings, which lowered the numbers. The Judge version was relatively expensive so it didn’t sell as well as before. The convertible had a base price of over $4,000, which was a lot of money back then. For this reason, Pontiac only produced 17 GTO Judge 455 convertibles that year, making it one of the rarest GTOs and muscle cars in automotive history.

  1. 1971 Plymouth Barracuda 426 Hemi Convertible

One of the rarest and most desirable muscle cars is the Plymouth Hemi Barracuda. This model combines several desirable options for any muscle car lover. First, the Barracuda is a Plymouth, a brand that no longer exists. They were known for several highly respected muscle cars like the Roadrunner, GTX and Barracuda.

Second, the 71 Barracuda, or Cuda, is the second and last generation of this model, which they totally redesigned for 1970. It featured a new body and interior, as well as a lineup of powerful engines. Third, the Hemi option was extremely rare and meant this Cuda produced a 425-underrated horsepower to deliver brutal performance.

Third, the convertible body style was also rare. To be precise, they only produced seven Hemi Cuda convertibles for 1971. The reason the Cuda was such a rare car was simple. Back in the day, a convertible with the most powerful engine wasn’t as desirable as it is today. The Hemi engine was the favorite of the street racing crowd, but those guys wanted performance. So, they installed this engine into the lightest body, which was a coupe.

They built the Cuda convertible for cruising, so it didn’t need a 425-thumping horsepower under the right foot. That is why Plymouth only offered seven of them. However, since they are so rare, the Hemi Cuda drop top is also one of the most expensive muscle cars in existence. A mint 1971 example sold for $4.1 million back in 2008. After 1971, Plymouth continued to offer the Cuda until 1974, but they discontinued the Hemi engine option and convertible body style.

  1. 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T Convertible Hemi 426

Dodge introduced the Coronet nameplate in 1955 on full-size cars as the highest trim level. However, in the mid-60s, they moved the Coronet to the mid-size segment, where it became Dodge`s most successful product. Coronets had a nice design and were intermediate cars for family buyers. They came with a wide selection of engines and trim levels.

However, Dodge offered the famous R/T trim package on two-door coupes and convertibles. This meant more ambitious buyers could get a 440 V8 or the famous 426 Hemi engine in their Coronets. The Coronet R/T was Dodge’s answer to the Pontiac GTO, Chevrolet Chevelle and other intermediate performance cars. But the rarest is the 1967 Coronet R/T Convertible with a Hemi engine. They only built two of those cars, which makes this Coronet the ultimate collector’s item.

The Coronet R/T buyers in those days opted mostly for the more reliable and almost equally fast 440 Magnum engine and for closed body styles. Whoever bought those plush Hemi convertibles must have been looking for a powerful cruiser with a lot of options.

  1. 1954 Oldsmobile F-88

The 50’s were fantastic times for the American car industry. The post-war recession was over, the market was healthy, and sales numbers rose every year. In that kind of climate, the car industry focused on futuristic concepts and bold shapes. Crazy designs filled the car magazines and attracted audiences to car shows. During the 50’s, most car companies introduced futuristic cars that influenced future production models in some way, shape or form.

One of the most memorable 50’s concepts was the Oldsmobile F-88. They produced just a few examples and they found their way to the customers. In those days, car manufacturers produced concepts only for promotional purposes. So, after their lives on the show circuit, they destroyed the cars, but the Olds F-88 managed to survive.

Oldsmobile made two cars using a stretched Corvette chassis, their own 324 V8 engine and a specially designed lightweight roadster body. Back in the day, Corvette had only six-cylinder motors, so roadsters with a V8 was a big deal. Today, only one example is known to exist. It is safely parked in a special display in the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum.

The second example is still unaccounted for; however, there is a rumor it caught on fire in the late 50’s, burning beyond repair. Although unconfirmed, some car historians claim there are several more F-88s out there. So, until there is evidence of a few more, there is just one confirmed example of the great looking F-88.

  1. 1954 Packard Panther

They founded the Packard car company in 1899 and closed it down in 1958. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Packard produced some of the finest automobiles on the American market. Big, powerful and smooth engines, shiny black sedans and top-notch quality were the company’s signature. Always competing with Cadillac, the Packard was much statelier in appearance, so government officials preferred it.

The downturn of the Packard started after WWII when the market for luxury cars changed as the world returned to normal. The big companies like Cadillac and Lincoln could produce and sell cars, but Packard soon faced financial difficulties. In 1954 it was obvious that Packard was in trouble. One way of attracting customers was to introduce special models like the Panther.

The Panther was basically a concept car with a stylish fiberglass body on a regular Packard chassis with an interesting drivetrain configuration. Even though Packard used V8 engines, the Panther used an older style, straight-eight motor. However, they used a supercharged set up that helped deliver a hefty 275 HP.

Since the car was a light roadster with a fiberglass body and 275 HP, it delivered a lively performance, especially by the standards of the day. The company made four of them, but only two are known to survive. Unfortunately, this move didn’t help Packard, so after a few years, this once mighty company closed its doors for good.

  1. 1970 Ford Torino King Cobra

Back in the late 60’s when muscle car wars were at their height, most manufacturers raced them at NASCAR. Those races were legendary since the best Dodge, Plymouth, Chevrolet and Ford muscle cars battled each other on superspeedway tracks. NASCAR allowed aerodynamic modifications for the 1969 and 1970 season. This sparked the introduction of those so-called Aero Specials, like the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Road Runner Superbird.

Those cars became famous for their racing success and for their crazy appearance. They sported spiky noses and big wings at the back, which looked ludicrous, but it was effective. Ford wanted to get into the Aero Specials game. So, for the 1970 season, the company prepared a special model based on their mid-size Torino Cobra muscle car. They named this racing model the Ford Torino King Cobra.

It featured a special front end assembly, hidden headlights, and an updated bumper and fenders. Ford made two prototypes in red and yellow and was getting ready to start racing. However, the company learned NASCAR was going to ban Aero Specials for the 1971 season, so they pulled the plug on the project. This made the King Cobra obsolete, but both cars are known to survive. The red one recently sold for a half million dollars, which is a big price for an obscure muscle car that never got its chance to race.

  1. Gaylord Gladiator

The Gaylord Brothers of Chicago established their car company in the early 50’s. Gaylord was set to be the producer of bespoke, luxurious sports cars for the world’s wealthiest clientele. The brothers inherited a fortune. They wanted to invest a big part of it into a car company under their own name.

Their first and only project was called the Gladiator, which debuted in 1955 at the Paris Motor Show. It caused quite a stir among the world’s car enthusiasts. The Gaylord Gladiator featured the same 300 HP V8 as in the Chrysler Hemi and Cadillac. It produced a top speed of 120 mph and had acceleration times 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds. This was quite spectacular for the standards of the day.

The Gladiator had an ingenious automatic folding roof and a host of other luxury features years ahead of its time. It had an astronomical price of $17,500, which was almost three times the price of the most expensive Cadillac. The price was high because they contracted the famous engineering and design company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, Germany, to build it. Despite the interest from the world’s rich and famous, including the Princess of Monaco, actress Grace Kelly, the Gaylord brothers made only two of them.

However, there is a legend of a third car they made in Germany, but nothing is confirmed. Afterwards, the Gaylord Gladiator fell into obscurity and it is one of the rarest American cars today.

  1. Dodge Storm Zeder Z-250

Most people have probably never heard of the Dodge Storm Zeder Z-250. It was a sports car from the early 50’s and the pet project of Chrysler engineer, Fred Zeder, Jr. In those days, only Chevrolet had a sports car embodied in the Corvette, so Dodge wanted an even better car. However, the Zeder Z-250 never made it into production.

The idea behind this car was quite straightforward. Use common mechanical components and a powerful Chrysler engine. Add a body by Bertone, a famous design house from Italy to create a comfortable, fast sports car.

But the Z-250 had one interesting feature.

It was easy to remove the whole body and replace it with a lightweight fiberglass body. The reason was to make two cars for the price of one. When the owner wanted to go driving on the street, the regular metal body would suffice. To go racing, drivers just used the lighter fiberglass body to achieve better performance and handling.

Unfortunately, despite the advantages and fantastic design of the Z-250, Chrysler decided it would be too costly to produce, so they scrapped the idea. However, Fred Zeder, Jr., produced around nine of them, selling them to his friends.

  1. Chrysler Turbine

During the early 60’s, Chrysler was heavily involved in turbine car testing. At the time, using an engine like those jet aircraft engines made sense for the future of internal combustion engines. After extensive testing in laboratories and test tracks, Chrysler needed some valuable real-life data. So, they built 55 cars and sent them to Italy’s Ghia design house to get some fancy handmade bodies.

Chrysler gave these cars to families they chose randomly all over America. The families were supposed to use them as regular cars for a time. After that, they wanted to send the cars to other users. They wanted to evaluate their experiences to see if their turbine engine was suited for mass production.

This extensive testing program lasted two years during which the cars covered millions of miles in various conditions. Chrysler decided to abandon the project and scrap all 55 cars due to import duties to ship from Italy. However, due to lucky circumstances, nine cars survived. Today you can find them in museums and private collections all over America.

  1. Muntz Jet

The growing interest of wealthy American buyers for European sports cars in the early 50’s inspired a few entrepreneurs to produce cars of equal appeal and performance. One of those attempts was the Muntz Jet. Earl “Madman” Muntz, a well-known Californian, used car dealer and electronics retailer built it. With the help of famous Frank Curtis, Muntz produced 400 Muntz Jets, one of the first American sports cars.

All cars were convertibles and came with numerous unique features, along with a choice of a Cadillac or Lincoln V8 engine. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t ready for an expensive and production-limited American sports car. In just a couple of years, they discontinued the Muntz Jet. Out of around 400 cars they built, only approximately 45 remain today.

12. Vector W8

A legendary and mystical supercar, the Vector W8 is a wedge-shaped, V8-powered monster that first emerged in 1990. It was an ambitious project by Vector Aeromotive Corporation. They wanted to produce the most advanced supercar in the world by using aeronautical technology and materials in car production. The W8 had a space frame chassis with a Kevlar body they also reinforced with a special kind of plastic.

Under the engine cover was the typical American powerhouse, a Chevrolet small block V8. They paired it with twin turbochargers producing 625 HP, which was an impressive figure. The company claimed, at full boost the 6.0-liter twin turbo engine was capable of 1,200 HP. But they didn’t recommend using full boost for extended periods of time since it could affect the durability of the engine.

The Vector W8 cost a whopping $450,000, which was an enormous sum for the day. Despite being featured in numerous movies, TV shows and computer games, the Vector failed to achieve sales success. When the production ended in 1993, the Vector Aeromotive Company managed to produce only 22 of these fantastic and fully American supercars.

13. Shelby GT 350 Convertible

Many muscle car enthusiasts will tell you the first model year for the Shelby Mustang convertible was 1968, but this is only partially true. In 1968 Shelby offered a convertible version for sale to the public as a regular production option. But the first convertibles built by Carroll himself were produced in 1966 as a secret project.

They introduced the Shelby GT 350 in 1965 as a race-ready version of the Ford Mustang. It soon proved itself on the race tracks all over the world. By 1966, the GT350 was a global success. Ford praised Shelby for giving them a race car that could beat both the Corvette and Europe’s finest sports cars of the era. For 1966, they offered the GT350 with more street friendly equipment, and an automatic gearbox and color choices, which affected its popularity and sold more cars.

However, there was still no regular convertible option. But, at the end of the 1966 model year, Carroll Shelby decided to produce a limited, secret run of 6 GT350 convertibles. He gave them to his family and friends. It was a commemorative edition to celebrate the success of the GT350, as well as a prototype for the potential production of convertibles.

Each car received full options like air conditions and a roll bar. They also painted each car in a different color with the signature white racing stripes. For years, mainstream muscle car enthusiasts were unaware of the 66 GT350 convertibles simply because the owners kept them in private collections, rarely showing them in public. Today, four are known to exist and two more are missing.

14. Chevrolet Impala 409

The legendary Super Sport (SS) package has its place in muscle car history as an important model that promoted performance to the public. This was one of the first high-performance automobiles that were relatively affordable, yet fast. Everything started when Chevrolet decided to transform its 409 truck engine to use in passenger cars. They found the unit was powerful and it could outrun other cars on the road.

With nothing but mild modifications to the engine, it could produce up to 409 HP, which was enough to propel the Impala from a standstill to 60 mph in six seconds flat. At the time, that was Corvette territory. So, as a mid-year introduction, Chevrolet presented the SS package featuring bucket seats, a sports trim and other details. It came with a 348 V8 engine with 350 HP.

However, the most interesting option was the 409 V8 with up to 409 HP if you chose the dual quad intake system. Although Chevrolet sold over a million of its full-size models, they only made 456 Impala SS models that year. Out of those, only 142 Impalas came with the 409 engine. The exact number of Impala SS 409 Convertibles is not known, but Chevrolet historians speculate they made around 45 of those immensely powerful open-top cruisers.

Interestingly, the 409 option was available for all Chevrolet full-size models in 1961. This meant it was possible to install this engine in plain-looking sedans and wagons. But, those cars are yet to surface. Today, the 1961 Impala SS 409 is one of the most valuable cars in Chevrolet’s muscle car history.

If you want a car that will make people stop and point, consider one of these rare finds. You’ll be the talk of the town as you roll down the street.

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