Home Cars 25 Muscle Cars That Fail On The Racetrack

25 Muscle Cars That Fail On The Racetrack

Vukasin Herbez February 5, 2019

You probably know about the fire breathing, legendary and glorious muscle cars of the past like those Hemi Chargers, Cobra Jet Mustangs, Big Block Camaros. These mythical beasts that roamed the streets in the late ‘60s left tire marks on every stop light in the country. In fact, muscle cars have created a legend so big, it has endured the challenges of the last 50 years.

They even survived the oil crisis and safety laws that tried to kill the first generations of those models. The ‘70s were dark times for American car performance with numerous cars stylistically interesting, yet desperately slow. The ‘80s marked the return to performance, but the path to power was long and painful. This list will pay respect to the models that didn’t make it as performance icons of the last half century.

The car companies introduced these cars in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. However, they never achieved their full potential since they were underpowered, slow, or too obscure for the mainstream buyers to notice them. So read on to learn more about these 25 muscle misfits waiting to return from the margins of car history.

  1. Oldsmobile Starfire GT

The mid-70s weren’t an especially good period for Olds performance. So when they introduced the new compact Starfire model, the Olds engineers decided to present a performance version. They called it the Starfire GT. And basically, this model was an appearance package on a regular Starfire hatchback.

With special body stripes, colors, details, wheels and a stabilizer bar, the Starfire GT was a bit more dynamic than the regular model. In fact, it was the closest thing Oldsmobile had to a sports or muscle car in 1976.

  1. 1974 Pontiac GTO

They downsized the once mighty Pontiac GTO from a separate model to only a trim line option for the 1974 Pontiac Ventura. The Ventura was the smallest, most affordable Pontiac at the moment. Basically, it was a Chevrolet Nova sister model. It was sad to see the once glorious muscle car downgraded to just a trim level.

Pontiac stuck some decals on an economy model and added a 5.7-liter V8 engine pumping out just 200 HP. Pontiac experienced slow sales for the GTO line for a few years. And despite the relative success of the smaller Trans Am/Firebird line, the GTO just wasn’t popular enough to justify their investment into a separate model. Most drivers considered the 1974 GTO a pathetic attempt to recapture the former glory of the GTO, but the market didn’t fall for the trick.

In fact, 1974 was the final year for the classic GTO nameplate. After they produced 7,000 of them, the GTO quietly left the scene. Today, those last year GTOs generate some attention because they are the last of the breed. But everybody agrees the ‘74 Ventura GTO is a terrible, ugly and slow muscle car with a famous name.

  1. AMC Pacer X

In a desperate attempt to attract the performance-oriented crowd, AMC presented the Pacer X. It was a high-performance version of their legendary compact car. AMC equipped it with the VAM package for 1979. So, the Pacer X featured a 4.6-liter straight six engine with raised compression ratio and more power.

The output was around 150 HP and despite the fact it sounds funny today, this was a serious performing car by late ‘70s standards. With all that added power, AMC provided a special appearance package to make the X stand out from the regular Pacers.

  1. 1978-79 Oldsmobile 442

Back in the late ‘60s, the Oldsmobile 442 was a well-respected car. During its heyday, the 442 name stood for the 400 cubic inch engine, four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. But after the introduction of the big block and other options, all that changed while the name stuck. Although many legendary muscle cars died in the early ‘70s, Oldsmobile kept the 442 alive. Yet it was still far from the standards of its predecessors.

The mid-70s 442 was just an option on mid-size luxury coupes. Unfortunately, it was a marketing gimmick, rather than a full-fledged muscle car with powerful engines and crazy acceleration times. And even though Oldsmobile tried to keep the 442 legend alive, industry restrictions kept it from being more than just a couple of stickers on a regular model.

However, the lowest point in the 442’s evolution came in 1978 when they offered it as an option on the compact Cutlass. Tragically, Olds only provided the 442 option on V6 and 305 V8 models with four-barrel carburetors. The max power was 160 HP for 1978 and 170 HP for 1979. Sadly, that was about a third of what a true Oldsmobile 442 could generate back in the day.

The other shocking fact is that drivers could get the 442 option on a hatchback body, which was absurd. Fortunately, in the early ‘80s, the 442 returned as a more serious performance machine. But 1978 to 1979 were the lowest point in the history of this legendary muscle car.

  1. Pontiac Sunbird Formula

The Sunbird was the typical hatchback-type GM compact of the ‘70s. It was almost identical to the Buick Skylark and Chevrolet Monza. However, in the Pontiac version, the Sunbird had an interesting muscle version they called the Formula with an optional V8 under the hood.

Pontiac borrowed the name, Formula from the Firebird line. The name always marked a model they equipped with a V8 engine. If you chose the Formula, you could get a 305 V8 engine with 165 HP and a hint of performance. Since the Sunbird was relatively light, you could call this Pontiac a muscle car, but just barely.

  1. Ford Mustang King Cobra

The second generation of the Ford Mustang debuted in 1974. It was on the market for four years, until 1978. Despite the fact it was the subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was an important model. The downsizing of the range, the introduction of economical four-cylinder engines and part sharing with other Ford models helped it survive the recession of the ‘70s and the death of the muscle car movement.

But there was one particularly interesting model, the special edition King Cobra. Ford knew their 5.0 V8 engine made only 140 HP in the Mustang II so the performance was slow. But they also knew that by dressing up the car, they could attract some buyers. So, they unveiled the King Cobra. With a flaming snake on the hood, front and rear spoilers and full body kit, the King Cobra was the typical ‘70s factory custom car.

They mated a 5.0 V8 with a four-speed manual transmission in an attempt to make a performance car. Needless to say, the performance was terrible, but the outrageous body kit stole the show. Today, people consider the King Cobra to be a collector`s item.

  1. AMC Spirit AMX

AMC introduced the Spirit AMX in 1978. It was a true compact muscle car because it had an optional 304 V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. Also, buyers could get it with a manual transmission. AMC designed the AMX as the performance version of the Spirit compact car.

Available for just two years, the Spirit AMX had some success because it was inexpensive and cool-looking. The AMX package included a body kit, special livery and wide wheels. Unfortunately, AMC decided to kill the model so the Spirit AMX didn’t return for the 1980 model year.

  1. Plymouth Volare Road Runner

Back in 1976, Plymouth introduced the Volare. It was a successful mid-size model they produced in many variants, exporting it worldwide. It was a twin to the Dodge Aspen featuring a rear-wheel drive platform. Also, it had a wide arrange of engines and a sleek design. Dodge and Plymouth had successful muscle cars models in the past.

So, the heritage was still strong when they presented the Volare. It was the perfect platform for a muscle car if it wasn’t for the grueling emissions and safety regulations that killed the performance. But Plymouth tried by introducing the Volare Road Runner with a 316 V8 engine pumping out a measly 160 HP. However, what it lacked in the performance department, the Volare Road Runner compensated in looks.

It had a full body kit with rear window louvers, a spoiler, graphics package and sports wheels. Some versions even featured a T top roof, which was a cool choice back in the day. Later, Plymouth introduced the 360 V8 delivering 175 to 196 HP. Although it improved the performance, it still was slow.

They ceased production in 1980 after just four years on the market, so they didn’t produce many models. Today, it is a collector’s car since it looks cool and has an interesting history. And that is despite the fact muscle car fans regarded it as a disgrace. They thought the Road Runner name should go on a better performing machine. Even worse, the Volare had rust issues, so the number of surviving cars is low.

  1. Chevrolet Vega Cosworth

In 1975, Chevrolet introduced the interesting, although not so successful Vega Cosworth. It featured a high revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin cam motor with 110 HP. Although it wasn’t particularly fast or strong, the Vega Cosworth was attractive.

It came with an interesting black and gold paint job and unique wheels. They built the model in cooperation with the British engine engineering company, Cosworth, who was famous for their Formula One engines.

  1. AMC Gremlin GT

The American Motors Company introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970. Because it was April Fool’s Day, everybody thought it was a joke. This subcompact American-made car with a funny design delivered good fuel economy by the standards of the day. Soon, the Gremlin became a popular, influential model that helped AMC survive the recession of the ‘70s.

AMC extracted all they could from the little Gremlin by constantly introducing different variants, keeping the old platform alive for almost a decade. In 1977, AMC decided to turn the Gremlin into a muscle car, so they installed a 304 V8 engine that pumped out 120 HP. The ridiculously low power resulted in a terrible performance, but the Gremlin GT was quite a looker. It came with a fresh graphics package, sporty wheels and interior equipment.

Realizing the performance was painfully slow even for a wannabe muscle car, AMC installed a 4.2-liter inline-six engine. Although it didn’t produce much more power, it delivered more torque, which was enough to improve it. But the higher torque and heavy discounts they offered didn’t help since they kept the production low at around 3,000 copies. However, they discontinued the GT option for the 1978 model year.

  1. Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Turbo

Pontiac presented the second-generation F-Body Firebird in 1970. By the late ‘70s, it was one of the most dominant cars in the segment. Unfortunately, the days of big cube motors and high horsepower ratings were gone. So, Pontiac decided to invest in new technology to generate more power.

That new technology was turbocharging, so in late 1979, Pontiac introduced the Trans Am Turbo. The engine in question was the 301 V8 with a Garrett turbocharger they bolted on it. The power output was relatively modest at 200 to 210 HP. But the torque number was high at 340 lb-ft, which resulted in a hint of performance.

  1. Chevrolet Monza Mirage

Chevrolet introduced the Monza in 1975 as the newest GM compact model. It came with a modern design, updated equipment and a wide arrange of versions and trim levels. The Monza succeeded the Chevrolet Vega and sold well, not only in America but also abroad. However, Chevy contracted an outside company, Michigan Auto Techniques, to make a muscle car Monza for 1977.

They named it the Monza Mirage. Interestingly, Chevy produced this one-year model in just 4,000 examples. It featured a 305 V8 engine that only delivered 145 HP. The design was quite striking with its white body, front and rear spoilers and special wheels. Also, the paint scheme was patriotic with red, blue and white stripes all over the body.

When Chevrolet realized there was still a market for sporty variants, they decided to introduce the Monza Spyder for 1978. However, that left Michigan Auto Techniques without a contract for 1978, sending the Monza Mirage to the history books. Today, only a handful have survived, so if you find one, restore it since it is a rare, forgotten muscle car.

  1. 1975 Plymouth Fury Roadrunner

Most people know the Plymouth Roadrunner as one of the most quintessential classic muscle cars. It was a model that always came with performance and power. However, for 1975, Plymouth moved the Roadrunner as an option on the Fury line.

On paper, the Fury Roadrunner had a 440 V8 option with 260 HP. Despite this being a respectable number by the standards of the day, the 0 to 60 mph times were over eight seconds. And that is something that today’s slowest economy cars can match.

  1. Chevrolet Citation X-11

The Chevrolet Citation X-11 is an interesting car but most people can’t decide how they feel about this model. In fact, it is a question whether it should be featured on this list or not. The Citation is a compact, front-wheel-drive hatchback they produced from 1980 to 1985. But it had a somewhat powerful V6 engine and muscle car looks.

Maybe it would be best to describe the Chevrolet Citation as a fine line between an American hot hatch and a late model muscle car since it features aspects of both segments. The Citation was a modern model Chevrolet needed to fight the import models. Also, it came in a wide arrange of flavors. Also, the X-11 featured a 2.8-liter V6 engine and 135 HP. Despite the fact it doesn’t sound much today, it was solid power for the time,

But the X-11 had a few more tricks up its sleeves, such as a sports tuned suspension, sharper steering and better brakes. From the outside, the X-11 looked unique with its special bulged hood and trim details. The magazine testers of the day spoke highly of the X-11 as much more than just a stronger engine and appearance package.

  1. 1977 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

The 1977 Z/28 Camaro was an important model for the breed. It marked the return of the Z/28 package with a slight power increase over the standard models. The 350 V8 delivered 170 HP, which was respectable in 1977.

Of course, the performance was just a shadow of what the Camaro was capable of just several years before. But it was also the best you could get in the late ‘70s. Car fans remember the 1977 Camaro Z/28 as a cool looking car, as well.

  1. Mercury Capri RS

The introduction of the third generation, Fox-body Mustang had a big influence on Mercury. In fact, the brand got its own version in the form of the Capri in 1979. But from 1970 to 1977, Mercury sold the Capri which was an imported model from Germany with four and six-cylinder engines. However, in 1979, thanks to the Mustang, the Capri was new, featuring a unique front end design.

Since it was a Mercury product, it was more upscale than the Ford. But other than a few aesthetical changes it was identical to the Mustang. As a performance version, Mercury introduced the RS model that featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged engine delivering a whopping 135 HP.

The performance was expectedly bad, but the car looked cool with the big air intake on the hood, RS badges and a rear spoiler. Today, those RS models are quite rare although not valuable or sought-after by car collectors.

  1. 1983 Dodge Charger

The Charger from the late ‘70s was a lame, slow car that threatened to kill the muscle car reputation of the glorious late ‘60s and early ‘70s cars. Even so, Dodge felt the name deserved another chance. In those days, the Chrysler Corporation was all about the K-platform front wheel drive cars.

So, Dodge introduced the Charger as an option on the compact and boring Dodge Omni for 1981. The appearance package was popular enough to convince Dodge to try it as a separate model for 1983. And that is how the L-Body Charger was born.

  1. Dodge Charger Daytona

You are probably familiar with the original Dodge Charger Daytona from 1969. It was a big coupe they based on the Dodge Charger with a pointy nose and massive rear wing. In fact, they designed this car for racing in NASCAR, producing only 500 examples. The Daytona with its cousin, the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird still are the craziest muscle cars they ever produced.

Less than 10 years after the memorable Daytona, Dodge had a terrible case of self-reinventing, so they decided to reuse this glorious name. However, this time they put it on the Dodge Charger. It was basically a Chrysler Cordoba, a big two-door personal luxury coupe with no muscle car credentials whatsoever.

The move was not well received since the Cordoba had a lame 145 HP V8 engine. It was more focused on luxury and its well-appointed interior than performance and driving dynamics. Unfortunately, the car buyers punished Dodge for using the precious Daytona nameplate for a boring car. In the end, they made only 250 examples, and this Daytona’s reincarnation remained on the margins of muscle car history.

  1. 1979 Ford Mustang Cobra

1979 brought several major improvements to the Mustang range. First, it was a newer model that featured a modern design, better chassis and wider track. Second, Ford offered an interesting performance version they named the Cobra.

Although not as powerful or crazy as the Cobra Jets before it, the 1979 Cobra featured a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine producing 140 HP. This was pathetic, even by the standards of the day. But, it was a step in the right direction since American performance vehicles were finally starting to recover.

  1. 1980 Chevrolet Corvette C3

It is kind of funny when you think of it, but the 1970 and 1980 Chevrolet Corvettes were basically the same car with 10 years between them. The design was the same, although the 1980 model had a more sculpted front and rear end with much less chrome. Even the technology and engines were the same on the outside. In 1970, the hottest Corvette produced 435 HP but in 1980, the hottest Corvette delivered a modest 180 HP.

However, due to the stricter emission standards in California, it pumped out 10 HP less. So, what happened in just 10 years and where did all those horses go? It was the recession, emission standards and safety regulations that killed almost all performance from the legendary Corvette. The 1980 Corvette was a dinosaur with its old technology under its plastic skin. Also, it came with lazy engines and an outdated interior.

Although the Corvette still looked like it meant business, the years caught up with it and the disco era was over. They sold the tired C3 with its slow performing engine up to 1982. But, in 1984 Chevy replaced it with the Corvette C4, which was a more modern, much faster model.

  1. 1974 Mercury Cougar

Mercury presented the third generation Cougar in 1974. It marked their departure from the athletic and performance models of the past. They no longer based the car on the Mustang but instead moved to a heavier, bigger chassis.

And that meant Cougars were more like personal luxury cruisers than muscle cars, even though Mercury tried to present them as such. Sadly, even with its optional 460 V8 delivering 220 HP, the acceleration times were disappointing.

  1. Dodge Aspen R/T

Like the Plymouth Volare Road Runner, the Aspen R/T was Dodge’s effort to present a muscle car at a time when such vehicles were almost impossible to construct and sell. However, the Dodge Aspen R/T looked like the real deal. It even possessed some power to distance itself from similar attempts of other brands with disgraceful power outputs.

Under the ram air hood of the Aspen R/T was a 360 V8 engine that pumped out 170 HP. The selling point of this car was its attractive looks. It came fully equipped with all the bells and whistles of the late muscle car era. It came with a body kit, stripes, white letter tires with wide wheels, spoilers and even a T top option.

It is just unfortunate those cars didn’t have the power of their ancestors because they could easily earn top spots in muscle car history. Similar to the Volare, the Aspen had big problems with rust, so there are just a few surviving examples today.

  1. 1975 Buick Gran Sport

To connect this 1975 model to the fire-breathing 1970 GSX and other muscle cars, Buick introduced the Gran Sport car they based on their Century lineup. Unfortunately, gone was the powerful 455 big block, so car buyers were only left with a 350 V8 delivering 175 HP. It goes without saying the 1975 Grand Sport was an extremely slow muscle car because it weighed almost two tons.

  1. 1974 AMC Javelin AMX

1974 was the last year for the legendary Javelin AMX despite all the effort from AMC`s engineers. The power output went down by 20 HP to 235 HP from its optional 401 V8 engine. Even with all performance goodies, sports suspension and manual transmission, the 0 to 60 mph times were just over eight seconds. And that is not fast, especially for a muscle car. The Javelin did enjoy some success on the Trans-Am circuit, but it didn’t win many street races.

  1. 1974 AMC Matador X

When they discontinued the Javelin AMX, AMC was left without a muscle car in their lineup. So, they quickly decided to introduce the Matador X. But AMC redesigned the Matador for 1974 featuring a signature coupe body style that was aerodynamic.

Next, the company presented the “X” package drivers could get with a 360 V8 or an optional 401 V8 producing 235 HP. Regardless of the dress up kit, big V8 and all performance goodies, the Matador X wasn’t any faster than the Javelin. AMC killed the option after only one year.

These are the muscle misfits and the 25 slowest, ugliest and strangest muscle and performance cars they ever built. Do you remember any of these vehicles? If you were a driver during the recession, there’s no doubt you do. While some of these are still around, many have gone to the wrecker due to rust and other issues. But, it would be fun to bring some of them back, like the Gremlin.

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