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20 Muscle Cars That Surprised Drivers In Ways They Never Expected

Cameron Eittreim June 29, 2021

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13: Studebaker Avanti R2

The Studebaker Avanti R2 is the favorite of drivers who want something fast and different-looking. When you look at the Avanti R2 you see a car that more resembles an exotic sports car than a traditional muscle car. But the Avanti R2 packed something special under the hood and that was a supercharged 289 HP V8 engine.

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The Avanti R2 is one of the rarest and most notable muscle cars from this era, mainly due to its unique look. Studebaker didn’t make it very long and the Avanti has become a sort of collector’s item. The unique look of the car and the performance of the V8 engine makes the Avanti R2 look different than you’d expect.

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12: Chevrolet Chevelle “Heavy Chevy”

When you drive a V8 muscle car, you generally have a heavy foot, but Chevy took things a step further with this car. The “Heavy Chevy” as it was called was a stripped-down performance version of the Chevelle that looked a lot different than you’d expect. The Heavy Chevy was meant to be an economy version of the SS model, accompanied by a 200 HP 307 CID V8 engine.

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From the exterior proportions of the car, there wasn’t much to see as the overall aesthetic looked the same. There weren’t any upgraded wheels or paint schemes to choose from, but the Chevelle was still a winner. The “Heavy Chevy” models are extremely rare and you don’t find them very often.

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11: Pontiac Can-Am

The main nameplates that come to mind when you think of Pontiac performance are the GTO and the Firebird. But there were a few other models that surprised drivers when it came to performance and design. The Pontiac Can-Am was a one-year-only production car and is often credited with being the last ‘real’ muscle car of the 1970s.

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The 455 V8 engine pushed out 200 HP, and this was during the time of the fuel crunch and new regulations. From a design standpoint, the Can-Am didn’t look like anything else that was on the market at the time. The sales numbers were quite promising at the time, with 1,377 being sold in a single year.

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10: Plymouth Fury GT

You always hear about the mainstream Plymouth brands like the Roadrunner and the Duster, but the Fury GT held its own as well. The Fury was traditionally marketed as an economy car for the brand, but the GT had a 440 V8 with 375 HP. The performance was more than adequate for the car at the time, and performance-minded consumers rejoiced.

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Styling was borrowed from other Chrysler models at the time, with a lot of shared components. But even despite that, the Fury GT managed to carve out a niche in the market. Nowadays the Fury GT is quite rare and you can expect to pay a pretty penny for one. With a phenomenal 440 V8 engine, the Fury stands out to this day.

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9: Chevrolet Laguna 454

The Laguna was a Chevrolet nameplate that was introduced to offer an upscale model in the 1970s lineup. Although initially positioned as a luxury coupe the Laguna 454 was a surprise package for performance enthusiasts. The car had most of the features that the standard coupe came with, coupled with a 454 V8 engine.

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The power of the legendary 454 V8 gave the car a level of attitude reminiscent of other muscle cars. GM hadn’t positioned the Laguna as a performance car but in the 454 packages was indeed a legitimate performance model. Although it is an extremely rare car, the Laguna 454 is seen from time to time at car shows and is a real pinnacle of GM design.

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8: Oldsmobile W31

Oldsmobile was a prominent player in the muscle car segment during the 1960s and ’70s. The Cutlass was the mainstream muscle car in the lineup, but buyers were hungry for a stripped-down model. The Oldsmobile W31 was that stripped-down model that would offer buyers performance without all the in-your-face stylings of the other models.

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Sometimes performance doesn’t have to come in a flashy package, and the W31 was an example of this concept. The 350 V8 was more than adequate to perform well in real-life situations and on the race track. There were only 116 of these models that were sold during the entire run, which makes the W31 quite rare.

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7: Mercury Cougar Boss 302

The Mercury Cougar was the corporate clone of the Ford Mustang, which the company had done with quite a few models. The Boss 302 was a performance version of the Cougar that surprised drivers with a powerful engine and bold styling. Like it or not, the Mercury brand did have some winners on their hands, and the Boss 302 was one of them.

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There were 169 of the Boss 302 models sold during its quick run, making the car rare. The Cougar underwent a lot of different changes over its lifespan but the Boss 302 was one of the most unique models. To this day, the Mercury Cougar Boss 302 is among one of the most highly sought-after models on the road.

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6: 1969 Pontiac Trans Am

The Pontiac Trans-Am has always been in the shadow of the Camaro, which is its corporate stablemate. Although the Camaro would always get a good deal of the press, the Firebird was the lesser-known car. The Trans-Am offered a 400 V8 engine with a Ram Air III intake, a first for the period. This made the Trans-Am stand out from the Camaro in its initial run and gave Pontiac fans something unique.

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As time went on the Trans-Am would evolve with various trim packages, often differentiating from the Camaro. The two cars were always very similar, but this incarnation of the Trans-Am would propel the Pontiac brand to even higher heights. This also marked the start of the Pontiac partnership with Ram-Air that would last well into the 2000s.

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5: 1969 Plymouth Barracuda 440

There’s no denying that the Plymouth brand was on a roll by the 1970s, thanks to a string of popular performance cars. The Barracuda 440 had something special under the hood that was designed to surprise drivers as well. The look of the car was downright intimidating and the muscle car had the biggest engine installed yet. The V8 produced 375 HP and 480 lb-ft of torque, enough to tear up any dragstrip.

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The engine was so big that the Barracuda 440 didn’t have power steering, and that made some drivers uncomfortable. However, when you had the type of power that the Barracuda 440 had, there are very few cars that can match it. The 1969 Barracuda 440 was a hot-selling model for the brand and has become an icon of the Plymouth brand.

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4: Chevrolet Impala ZL-11

When it comes to performance cars ,the Impala isn’t always the first nameplate that comes to mind. The ZL-11, on the other hand, was meant to change that perception. The ZL-11 had a lot of unique features to it which included a special edition paint job. There are only 57 of the ZL-11 models that were manufactured and rumor has it there are only 10 in existence today.

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The special-edition package had ultimately been kept a secret, which is why there are so few of them left. Performance editions of the Impala were generally relegated to SS models, which made the ZL-11 quite rare. For a great combination of street and sports credentials, the ZL-11 was a standout car in more ways than one.

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3: Studebaker Golden Hawk

The Studebaker brand already had noticeable success with the R2 and the Golden Hawk is another well-known model. The ’56 Golden Hawk was released well before the R2 was even a thought and it did quite well. The 352 V8 was one of the most powerful V8 engines of the time, which made it a blast to drive.

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Coupled with the beautiful styling of the car the Golden Hawk was a marvel of design. It’s interesting to see what the Studebaker brand was at the height of its popularity. Similar to how AMC was popular, the Studebaker brand was a well-known American institution. The Golden Hawk was a notable example of American ingenuity and performance.

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2: Buick Century GS

Buick is another brand that’s well known in the muscle car business and the Century was one of the well-known models. The Century GS had a lot of interesting features to it but the look was different than the average muscle car. The standard 455 Stage 1 big block was a massive engine that offered quite a bit of performance at the time.

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When you think of the muscle car era, the Buick Century GS is not a well-known entity. But the performance is above standard and there were quite a few of these cars manufactured. A lot of drivers consider the Century GS as the last “true” Buick muscle car, although the GNX would come later on down the road.

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1: Oldsmobile Toronado GT

There was a time when Oldsmobile was considered the pinnacle of the muscle car industry. The Toronado nameplate is iconic for several reasons, including later on being the first car with an airbag. But the Toronado GT is highly considered to be one of the most capable muscle cars in the lineup.

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The 455 engine was a high-performance option that offered 400 HP at the wheels. Performance-wise, the Toronado GT could hang with the best of the big boys including the Chevelle SS. It’s also interesting to point out that the Toronado GT came with a fair amount of luxury features. The value of the Toronado GT has steadily risen over the past decade as the muscle car bubble has peaked.

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