7. Ford Mustang McLaren M81
The late ’70s and early ’80s were bad times for muscle cars, but there were still a few unique versions Detroit released in that period. One of those is the famous M81 McLaren Mustang. This interesting car was built with the help of the well-known McLaren racing team from Michigan.
The idea behind the project was to take the 2.3-liter turbo engine from the regular Mustang and transform it into a street racing beast. It would include a race-tuned suspension and a lightweight body. McLaren and Ford installed a tuned turbo engine with 190 HP, which was a big numbercoming from 2.3 liters. They also changed the looks of the Ford Mustang.
The result was a good performance and driving dynamics, but also a high price tag. Ford offered the McLaren M81 for $25,000, which was roughly three times the price of a regular Ford. Even though they installed lots of improvements in the M81, it was a tough seller. Ford only sold about 10 before they canceled the project, making it one of Ford’s sales flops.
6. 2004-06 Pontiac GTO
Pontiac got the message with the success of the GTO Concept in 1999. But the biggest problem was that they planned to discontinue the Firebird/Trans Am, so there was no appropriate platform or design to base the GTO on. Pontiac and General Motors didn’t have the time or money to invest in a new platform, so GM looked to its subsidiaries, finding the perfect car in Australia.
Holden, GM’s Australian branch, produced a rear wheel drive muscle car called the Monaro. It sat on a modern chassis with a sleek two-door body just like the original GTO. It also had an independent rear suspension and disc brakes. GM’s plan was to import the Monaro to the USA and rebadge it as a GTO.
But things didn’t work out as they planned. The first year for the modern GTO was 2004 and the car received universal praise from the buyers and the car press. Under the hood was the LS1 5.7-liter V8 with 350 HP, delivering enough performance to be one of the hottest American cars for 2004. The target sales figure was 18,000 and Pontiac sold almost 14,000, which was considered a success.
Pontiac presented the 400 HP 6.2-liter engine, delivering better performance in 2005. Although it had a 0 to 60 mph time of just 4.6 seconds, sales started to decline to 11,000 and threatening to rank it among flops in 2006. The car didn’t excite customers like the original GTO. The design was restrained and not aggressive. Although it was fast, as an overall package, the new GTO didn’t appeal to drivers, which was the main reason for its early demise.
5. Pontiac Can Am
Back in the late ’70s, the American performance car segment was a pale shadow of its former glory. But in 1977, Pontiac introduced the Can-Am, the one-year-only model that was the last true muscle car with big-block power packed in a unique body style and white color.
Under the hood scoop from the Firebird Trans Am, there was a big 455 engine with 200 HP. That was more than any other muscle car on the market at the moment. The Can-Am package consisted of special rear window louvers, a rear spoiler, and a long list of special optional extras. They introduced the car early in 1977 and the market responded well. In fact, Pontiac received between 5,000 and 10,000 reservations. But in the end, they only sold 1,377 Can Ams, ranking it among sales flops of the decade.
4. Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442
Ever since the original muscle car era ended in the early ’70s, Oldsmobile has tried to recapture the magic of the original 442. Behind that honored name lies a compact, front-wheel-drive Calais two-door with a highly-tuned four-cylinder engine that developed 190 HP from 2.3 liters. Today, this doesn’t sound all that powerful, but when they presented this car almost 30 years ago, 190 HP was considered powerful.
Thanks to its low weight, race-tuned suspension, and gearbox, the Calais 442 W41 could accelerate rapidly. It could even beat much bigger and more expensive cars. Unfortunately, they limited production to only 204 cars. Despite its great performance, most drivers forgot about the W41. However, it influenced other car manufacturers to present similar compact-but-powerful cars. Without this obscure Oldsmobile, there would never have been the Chevrolet Cobalt SS or Dodge Neon SRT-4.
3. 1971 AMC Hornet 360
The early ’70s marked the beginning of the end for muscle cars with downsizing, tightening emission controls, and heightened safety standards. AMC was one of the first companies to realize they needed a new breed of muscle cars to keep power-hungry customers happy. So in 1971, they introduced the Hornet 360.
Even though the Hornet arrived just before the Malaise Era, it fits the profile. The Malaise Era was from 1973 to 1983 when most U.S. cars offered poor performance numbers. AMC based the Hornet 360 on the regular economy car called the Hornet, equipping it with an improved suspension and sharper steering. To that, they added a graphics package and a 360 V8, transforming this hot Hornet from an ordinary compact to a proper muscle car. Power wasn’t big at 245 HP, but in a lightweight body, those horses could make the Hornet fly.
The rest of the muscle car offerings in 1971 had problems with big sizes and weights, as well as engines that didn’t make power anymore. But the Hornet 360 was one of the fastest cars available. This is the only time that a Malaise or pre-Malaise Era car possessed real performance.
Unfortunately, most buyers didn’t understand the forward-thinking of AMC, so they sold less than 800 Hornets in 1971. That made the Hornet 360 a rare and obscure muscle car. In an era when bigger was always better, the Hornet 360 was unusual for its compact size and strong engine. Unfortunately, people failed to realize how good the idea behind it really was and it became one of AMC’s many flops.
2. Dodge Stealth
The Dodge Stealth is another ’90s legend most mainstream sports car enthusiasts have forgotten, which is a shame. With its pop-up headlights, rear panorama glass, and big spoiler, the Stealth screams early-’90s car design. But there is much more about this car than contemporary nostalgia, as it is one serious driving machine.
Under the hood is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 producing 300 HP that sends its power to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system. To behonest, the Dodge Stealth is basically the twin brother to the Mitsubishi 3000 GT. In fact, apart from the exterior design, the two cars are identical. They even produced them on the same assembly line in Japan and then imported them to the states.
1. Rambler Rebel V8
This one is an interesting early muscle car born by chance. Squeezing a 327 V8 engine from the Nash Ambassador into the small, compact, and light Rambler body created one seriously fast-yet-unassuming muscle machine. The 327 V8 delivered 255 HP, which wasn’t that much, but in the compact Rambler body it was enough for a 0 to 60 mph time of just seven seconds.
And to make things even more interesting, only the expensive fuel-injected Chevrolet Corvette could beat the small Rambler in 1957. However, the powerful engine option raised the price of an affordable Rambler. So, there were just a few buyers ready to pay extra for the privilege of outrunning anything else on the road. And for that reason, Rambler only built 1,500 of them.