The story of the Fiero is one of the greatest “what if” tales of the American car industry. This compact sports car caused a big sensation when Pontiac introduced it in the early 1980s. Everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac, but they got a small sports car that was something the skilled Italian companies would build. It was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact, rear wheel drive car with the engine in the center of the car.
They even paired it up with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox. For the standards of the day, this was the most advanced American production model. The customers were hyped by the appearance of the Fiero with its cool, modern design. The advanced technology garnered an initial response was more than good. So, in 1983 they sold over 130,000 Fieros.
Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, so the early models were badly put together. The engine power was lackluster, and the interior was cramped. GM responded by upgrading the car. As a result, by the end of the 80’s, the Fiero was a solid sports car delivering 150 HP from its 2.8-liter V6 engine. Pontiac gave the Fiero improvements all around and it paid off for them.
However, it was too late, so GM killed the Fiero after the 1988 model year. Over the years, Fiero fans were active in promoting their favorite car, although the general market has forgotten about the model.
The 1980s are generally considered the dark ages of American performance and muscle cars, but there were a few bright moments. One of the cars that restored the faith in the muscle car movement in the ’80s was the mighty Buick GNX. The story of this model is an interesting one. Back in 1982, Buick started experimenting with turbocharging its line of standard V6 engines. The results were satisfying, so Buick gave their engineers permission to develop a performance version that would deliver better acceleration figures.
Soon, there was the Buick Grand National with 175 HP, which wasn’t impressive, but it was a start. In the next couple of years, the Grand National got a bigger engine and more power, jumping from 175 HP to 200 HP, and then to 235 HP. With those numbers came acceleration times of less than six seconds, so black Grand Nationals were seriously quick cars. But in 1987 came the ultimate version called the Grand National Experimental (GNX). It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 but with 275 HP and 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.
Nobody expected such a bold move from Buick. After all, Buick was a company for old people that produced cars lacking any excitement. Suddenly, there was a turbocharged V6 coupe that broke every classic muscle car mold faster than a Ferrari. At that moment, the Buick GNX was the fastest accelerating production model in the world. At $29,000 it wasn’t budget-friendly.
However, there is a widespread legend that GNX owners paid for their cars by street racing them for the prize money. Unfortunately, the Buick GNX was a one-year only model, so the company made just 547 of them. Today, people praise the GNX as much as they did back in the late 80’s.
Ford Bronco Boss
The Ford Bronco is a car fan favorite. What most people don’t know is that it was the prototype for a high-performance Bronco off-roader Ford produced in 1969. For decades, the public didn’t know about this car, but someone recently recovered it, displaying it in its original condition. Although Ford soon abandoned the Bronco Boss in 1969, it still is one of the most unusual American performance cars.
The Bronco was a popular SUV back in the late 60’s and Ford wanted to see what they could do to improve its appeal. At that time, Detroit was caught up in the muscle car wars and their engineers wanted an excuse to put big power in everything they could. So, somebody decided to install a 351 V8 engine from a 1969 Shelby GT350 into the Bronco. Ford called it the Bronco Boss, equipping it with two limited slip differentials for improved traction.
Today, high performance SUVs are common, but back in 1969, this class simply didn’t exist. The Bronco Boss was arguably the first performance SUV that could do a burnout with all four wheels.
Back in the 1980s, GM experimented a lot with turbocharged engines, which was in sync with industry trends at that time. The most famous of them all was the Buick Grand National or Buick GNX. It featured a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine with a fewer than five-second 0 to 60 mph acceleration time. With that kind of firepower, those black Buicks were terrorizing the drag strips and stoplights. By the early 1990s, the Buicks were gone, so GM engineers were looking for a place to install their turbo hardware.
The GM engineers decided to make a crazy sports truck out of a plebian Chevrolet S10. It would be a compact pickup with diminutive four-cylinder power. This is how the GMC Syclone was born. GM took an ordinary S10 body shell and installed a 4.3-liter V6 with a turbocharger good for 280 HP. It had a special four-speed automatic GM sourced from the Corvette and a performance-based all-wheel drive.
The power figures may not sound like much these days, but the Syclone was able to sprint to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds, making it faster than contemporary Ferraris. The key was its lightweight, small dimensions and lots of torque from a turbocharged engine. The price was significantly higher than the regular model.
GM built less than 3,000 Syclones, almost all of them in signature black color. The Syclone wasn’t the first performance truck, but it was a first turbocharged compact pickup GM designed to win stoplight races. This made it quite unusual and unique. Today, the GMC Syclone is a collector vehicle and a highly desirable model. It is still quite fast and can hold its own against those much younger and more powerful cars.
Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird
The NASCAR races were one of the most important battle arenas in the muscle car wars. Back in the late 1960s, superspeedways were places of many fierce clashes between Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Plymouth and Pontiac. The most interesting period was the late ’60s when NASCAR rules allowed some modifications to car bodies to make cars more aerodynamic.
The condition was to apply those changes to regular production examples and sell a limited number of such cars to the public. Most manufacturers jumped at this opportunity and created “Aero racers” or specially-designed cars they homologated for the races.
Two of the most famous are the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird. They built those two cars for only one year – the Dodge in 1969 and the Plymouth in 1970. Despite looking almost identical, the Daytona and Superbird have only two things in common. They are the front nose cone and headlight covers, but everything else is different. They designed both cars using a wind tunnel.
The big wing on the back was essential in achieving high downforces at high speeds in NASCAR races. The wing wasn’t originally supposed to be that high. But the designers deliberately modified it, so drivers could open the trunk fully. They made just 500 Dodge Daytonas and 2,000 Plymouth Superbirds. When they introduced the Daytona in 1969, the rules stated they had to produce over 500 copies.
However, when they produced the Superbird in 1970, the rules changed. The manufacturer had to produce one car per dealership, which was exactly 1,936 cars in case of the Plymouth. Both of those models were successful in NASCAR and the investment in their specially built bodies paid off. Daytona and Superbirds are rare, expensive and highly unusual pieces of muscle car history.
Dodge Challenger GT AWD
The definition of a muscle car is a two-door coupe with a big V8 engine and rear wheel drive, but Dodge has a different vision. For decades, muscle cars were rear-wheel drive only vehicles. However, in 2016 Dodge introduced a special model in its Challenger lineup they called the GT AWD. It was a Challenger with recognizable coupe styling, retro charm and an aggressive stance.
But underneath the cool-looking body, there is a V6 and intelligent all-wheel drive system. Instead of smoky burnouts and rear wheels on fire, it had loads of traction, even in the toughest of conditions.
At that time the Dodge Challenger AWD was the only all-wheel drive production muscle car they ever built. Ford and Chevrolet didn’t have anything similar for the Mustang or Camaro. Unfortunately, Dodge offered the GT AWD with a V6 engine, and even though the V6 is powerful, producing 305 HP, car fans wish it was available with a proper Hemi V8.
Out of all SUVs Detroit produced in the early ’90s, arguably the most interesting and fastest was the GMC Typhoon. What the Ford Bronco Boss didn’t get the chance to achieve, the Typhoon did. It was a limited production small SUV with a high price tag for its day and unbelievable performance, setting it apart from the rest. More than 25 years since the first Typhoons saw the light of day, this vehicle is still a benchmark of performance and style. But, what makes it so interesting and desirable?
Typhoons came with a 4.3-liter V6 engine with a turbocharger and intercooler. The power output was 280 HP, which is not that impressive today, but back in 1991, it was a nice number. The automatic transmission, performance oriented all-wheel drive system and suspension helped its performance. The Typhoon could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds. Even today, this is fast for an ordinary SUV.
The rest of the package included special trims, luxury interior appointments, special colors and wheel choices with limited production numbers. In just three years of production, from 1991 to 1993, they made 4,697 Typhoons. Since then, this model has achieved collector car status. So, now they are worth more than the original sticker price of $29,000.
You may think those performance figures are not great, but the Typhoon could outrun a Ferrari 348 back in its day. Today, performance SUVs are relatively common, but they come with high price tags, big weights and a lack of performance and speed. That is why the market needs a new Typhoon to reintroduce pure performance in the compact SUV class. It should also be capable of defeating modern sports cars in stoplight drag races.
Oldsmobile Achieva SCX W41
Despite the fact Oldsmobile was near the end of the road, the Olds engineers knew the 2.3-liter four-cylinder had potential to be more than just a footnote in their company’s history. They discontinued the Cutlass Calais for 1992, replacing it with the all-new Achieva model. So Olds decided to introduce another W41 model and develop the concept of a compact front-wheel drive sports car.
So, for 1992 and 1993 model years, Oldsmobile offered the SCX W41 model, the last W-named performance version ever built by Oldsmobile. They based SCX W41 on the previous model, featuring the same 190 HP, 2.3-liter engine which revved to 7,200 rpm. They improved the design, as well as the interior equipment and made some changes to the suspension and brakes.
The biggest improvement was the five-speed manual gearbox they developed especially for this model. The SCX W41 was the quickest car in its segment. However, despite its qualities, it still flew under the radar of most enthusiasts. Olds only sold 1,600 Achievas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.