Home Cars 30 Most Unusual and Innovative American Performance, Sports and Muscle Cars

30 Most Unusual and Innovative American Performance, Sports and Muscle Cars

Vukasin Herbez July 18, 2018

  1. Chevrolet Corvair Monza

The American car industry was intrigued when Chevrolet presented the Corvair in 1959. It was a compact car in time when compact cars were rare on U.S. soil. In fact, mostly foreign brands produced them. It had an engine in the back, rather than in the front like other domestic vehicles. Also, it was a six-cylinder boxer, not a straight six or V8 as everybody expected.

All in all, it was a bold and unusual move by the ultra-conservative Chevrolet. However, the most interesting model was the Corvair Monza. It was a two-door coupe or convertible that was a performance car in the Corvair lineup. The Monza featured one of the most unusual power plants Detroit has ever produced, the turbocharged boxer engine. It was basically Chevrolet’s four-seat Porsche 911 Turbo, 15 years before Porsche even thought of the idea.

The heart of the car was the 2.4-liter, flat six engine with a turbocharger on top. The result was 150 HP. That may not be a big number, but the small weight of the Corvair Monza helped produce a lively performance by the standards of the compact car class. For years, Corvairs and Monza turbo versions have been out of the limelight of serious classic car collectors. Most people tend to avoid them for their weirdness, but the prices are slowly rising. That turbocharged Chevrolet Monza compact might be the next big thing.

  1. Saturn Sky Red Line

American manufacturers don’t do roadsters. Apart from first generation Ford Thunderbird, Corvette or Viper convertible, there were no small, two-seat open top models in production ever. That is why GM’s decision to introduce a small, turbocharged roadster in 2005 in form of the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky was strange. Those models were basically U.S. versions of the Opel GT from Europe.

But GM thought having a cool, little two-seater roadster could help bring back Pontiac sales and help Saturn’s image. Unfortunately, it didn’t do any of those things, even though the Solstice and Sky were powerful, exciting cars to drive. Compared to the BMW Z4 or Mercedes SLK, for example, GM’s roadster had a much lower price. It also delivered up to 290 HP in the Pontiac Solstice GXP version, offering great performance and handling.

After a few years on the market, the sales numbers were not impressive because car buyers didn’t understand this model, so GM killed it. A few years after, there were no Pontiacs or Saturns on the market, either.

  1. Ford Mustang McLaren M81

The late ’70s and early ’80s were bad times for muscle cars, but there were some cool-looking special 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 at their American operation office from Michigan.

The whole 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, lightweight body, and a host of other modifications. McLaren and Ford installed a tuned turbo engine with 190 HP, which was a big number, especially coming 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.

  1. Panoz Roadster

Younger enthusiasts don’t remember the name, Panoz. But back in the ’90s, this company was a famous limited production American brand. Successful in racing, Panoz was one of those brands that offered lots of racing technologies in street legal vehicles, making them a favorite with performance driving fans.

They introduced the Roadster model in the early ’90s. It represented the modern-day version of the legendary Shelby Cobra. It was a stripped down open-top two-seater consisting of aluminum, which kept the weight down. Panoz used a lot of Ford Mustang components including the engine, drivetrain and suspension which gave the Roadster 300 HP and a brutal performance.

  1. Dodge Neon

Everybody knows the about awesome, turbocharged Neon SRT4 from the early 2000s. But that car wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fantastic and forgotten Neon ACR they produced for just two years, in 1996 and 1997. Back in the ’90s, the Neon was one of the best compact cars America produced. However, the Dodge engineers realized the chassis had the potential to be something more than just a grocery go-getter.

The Neon ACR was basically a race-prepared Neon with a twin cam engine, four-wheel disc brakes, a different speedometer, a stiffer suspension and radio delete. The name ACR was derived from American Club Racer and soon, the Neon ACR was the prized car of many amateur racers on track weekends.

  1. Ford Thunderbird Supercharger

Ford introduced the Thunderbird in 1955 and it outsold the Corvette immediately. But the T-Bird was never as sharp and fast as Chevrolet’s sports car. To compete in performance as well as in looks and desirability, Ford introduced two engine options. They set the standards in terms of performance and have a special place in the history of American performance and muscle cars.

Mounting Paxton or McCullough supercharger on top of 312 V8 engine was optional, but it gave the Thunderbird 300 HP rating. And if that wasn’t enough, Ford offered the even hotter 340 HP version of the same supercharged engine for racers.

  1. Duesenberg Cummins Diesel Special

Even though they unveiled the Cummins Diesel Special in 1931, this race car was so far ahead of its time and so unusual, it belongs on this list. So, what was so unusual about this car? First, it was probably the first diesel-powered race car they ever built. In fact, they made it in cooperation with the luxury brand Duesenberg and the engine company Cummins, who specialized in the production of oil burners.

The Cummins Diesel Special had a 360 CID four-cylinder engine with 86 HP. Of course, the power was not substantial by any means, but the car could achieve high top speeds due to lots of torque. Best of all, it could run for 500 miles without fuel stops.

  1. Equus Bass 770

Muscle cars are the perfect canvas for Restomod painters, but most of the companies do engine swaps and suspension modifications. However, Equus is not that kind of a company. They managed to produce a fully custom car from scratch with the unmistakable ’60s muscle car look.

However, it also came with the state of the art power, technology and quality that sets them apart from the rest. The basis for the Bass 770 is a ’67 Mustang Fastback, but during the process, the car got its own visual identity with a new front, back and several other design details.

The chassis, suspension and drivetrain are all brand new and much more advanced than anything you could find in a production muscle car. Yet the real gem is the engine. It’s a hand-built, 6.2-liter Chevrolet LS9 V8 with 650 HP and the performance numbers ’60s muscle cars could only dream about.

  1. Pontiac Grand Prix GXP

Despite the name, most people didn’t consider the Pontiac Grand Prix a performance car. So by the early 2000s, it was just an ordinary GM sedan. However, they introduced the GXP package and suddenly, the front wheel drive Grand Prix was a hot performance car.

The GXP package consisted of a 5.3-liter V8 with 303 HP going to the front axle. It also had a revised suspension and gearbox. Pontiac managed to transform a family sedan into a highway missile. The GM engineers invested a lot of time to make this front wheel drive car perform and handle like a European performance sedan. The GXP even had wider front wheels than the back to fight torque steering and improve the road holding.

21. Yenko Stinger

Everybody knows about the fantastic Yenko 427 Camaros but did you know about the Yenko Stinger, a race prepared Corvair which won the SCCA championship? Even before the Camaros, Yenko produced at least 100 white Yenko Stingers all with special suspension, modified bodies and 160 to 190 HP flat six engines.

The cars proved to be very competitive, fast and stable in comparison to other SCCA competitors at the moment. However, when the Camaro was introduced, Yenko turned to 427 conversion and the Yenko Stinger project was put on hold. Today, those white coupes are sought after by collectors.

22. Ford Torino King Cobra

Ford wanted to attack fast and victorious Aero Mopars (Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird) and for 1970 season they designed Torino King Cobra. The King Cobra was a regular Ford Torino but with special, wedge-shaped front end and 429 engine. The car did well at initial testing but in last minute Ford pulled the plug and the project was cancelled. They only made three cars which are incredibly expensive today.

23. Shelby Cobra 289

The story of Shelby Cobra 289 is a widely known one, but it’s still interesting enough to tell it again. Carroll wanted to build a sports car with his name on the hood and contacted British company AC Cars. They delivered the bodies and Ford supplied the engines and that is how the Cobra was born. The small but powerful American V8 in a light and nimble body proved to be a match made in heaven and soon, Shelby installed the 289 V8 with 271 HP which brought some serious performance to this little roadster.

24. Dodge Viper RT/10

The release of the original Viper R/T 10 in 1992 was one of the biggest events of the American automotive scene in the `90. Under the hood was a 8.0-liter fully aluminum V10 with 400 HP and 465 lb-ft of torque which was unheard of at the time and secured Viper`s place as one of the most powerful new models on the market. The design wasn’t much different from the prototypes and a long hood and short rear end with necessary roll bar made Viper visually dramatic and fast-looking even when it was parked.

25. Vector W8

The legendary Vector W8 is a wedge shaped, V8 powered monster presented in 1990. It was an ambitious project by the Vector Aeromotive Corporation. Under the engine cover was a typical American powerhouse in form of a Chevrolet small block V8. They paired it up with twin turbochargers to produce 625 HP, which was an impressive figure. The company claimed that at full boost, the 6.0-liter twin turbo engine was capable of 1200 HP. This car showed that Americans can build exotic machinery which could rival the best from Europe.

26. Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk

There were fast SUVs before Jeep introduced the Trackhawk and there will be long after the Trackhawk is discontinued. However, this glorious machine deserves a place on our list for two reasons. First, the 707 Hellcat Hemi engine under the hood. Second, with 3.4-second 0 to 60 mph time, this makes it faster than some supersports cars. The Trackhawk is a brutal machine which is highly unusual and influential.

27. Chaparral 2J

The most interesting and extremely fast model from the famous Chaparral company was the 2J which featured two fans and rubber skirts around the vehicle. Powered by an additional two-stroke engine, the fans were designed to suck air from under the vehicle and plastic skirts were there to keep the vacuum and hold the car practically sucked to the ground. That was an insane combination, but it worked, and years later, Formula One cars used the same principle which just shows how good Jim Hall`s vision was.

28. Shelby EXP 500 “Green Hornet”

Although only a working prototype, the Green Hornet featured the most innovative features for any muscle car like 390 V8 equipped with fuel injection, disc brakes on all four wheels, and independent rear suspension. With this layout, the Green Hornet was a very capable car which handled and stopped better than any other sports car on the market. Unfortunately, the cost of producing those features was too big and Ford and Shelby decided to go with more conventional technology.

29. Chevrolet Corvette ZL1

The Corvette ZL1 was kind of a secret model but still it was one of the most unusual American sports cars. The heart of the ZL1 was the fantastic and basically racing-spec fully aluminum 427 V8 with up to 550 hp in mild tune. This monster of an engine was far more powerful than anything Mopar or Ford had in production at the moment. Chevrolet produced around 200 of those engines and while most of them went to Can-Am racing teams, Chevrolet also made around 12 test Corvettes with that engine inlate 1968. The performance potential was unbelievable and Chevrolet didn’t want to offer this wild racing engine to the general public, so the ZL-1 option was never mentioned in the press or official brochures.

30. Callaway Sledgehammer C4 Corvette

Rives Callaway established Callaway Cars in 1977, long after the muscle car craze winded down and high horsepower performance machines were just a thing of past. He specialized in producing turbocharger kits to be installed mostly on European cars. His knowledge, expertise and start of the turbo era perfectly lined up and the company really took off. In order to show the real potential of twin turbo C4, Callaway produced the legendary Sledgehammer Corvette, a highly modified and heavily turbocharged 1988 Corvette which had 898 HP and could go over 250 mph!

These are the top most unusual and innovative American performance and muscle cars available today. But, car fans know Detroit is working on more of them to offer in the future. Who knows what those designers are thinking up now.

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