25. Pontiac Tempest GTO
In the early â60s, Pontiac had much success on the drag strips across America. Little by little, the performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool because the new generation of buyers wanted powerful and fast cars. Although Pontiac wanted to capitalize on their success, the company was reluctant to invest in a sports car they would build from scratch.
In fact, all their production models were big, heavy vehicles. However, a young engineer named John Z. DeLorean thought of a genius idea. He would install a big and powerful 396 V8 into the light, intermediate Tempest two-door body to easily and affordably create a true performance machine. The result was the Tempest GTO, an option on the Tempest intermediate model.
For just $295, buyers could get a high performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in the standard or 348 HP in the famous Tri-Power form. A manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals, and dual exhaust were all part of the package. Since the car was light, the Tempest GTO provided a convincing performance. So, in 1964, it was one of the quickest American cars on the market. Even Corvette owners weren’t safe from the Tempest GTOs lurking at the stoplights across the country.
24. Buick Riviera GS
They presented the Buick Riviera in 1963 and immediately, it became one of the most interesting cars on the American market. The combination of sleek and elegant styling with the modern interior and the powerful Nailhead engine made the Riviera an instant bestseller. In fact, it was the first real competitor to the famous Ford Thunderbird.
But Buick wanted more so the company introduced the legendary Riviera Gran Sport or GS in 1965. The car featured a revised suspension, bigger 425 engine, and a host of other performance upgrades. In this version, the Rivera was a true world-class automobile.
It delivered 360 HP with an acceleration time of 7.9 seconds, which was better than most of the sports cars of the period. The Riviera as a model stayed in production until 1993. But the first three generations, especially the GS models, remained the most sought after and some of the best luxury muscle cars Detroit ever produced.
24. Chevrolet Chevelle Z16
The Chevelle Z16 is essentially a fully loaded regular Chevelle with all the go-fast options. It comes with a 396 V8 engine with Muncie four-speed gearbox as well as a heavy-duty suspension and equipment. Surprisingly, even some of their dealers weren’t aware this option existed because Chevrolet refused to market the Z16, making it sort of a secret model.
The Z16 was fast, but it was also expensive for a Chevrolet. And that’s why they made only 200 of them. Chevy offered the Z16 car for the 1965 model year only, so most of their dealers didn’t even know they built it.
23. Pontiac Catalina 2+2
In the mid-’60s, the Pontiac GTO was the car to have since it was at the forefront of the exciting new muscle car movement. With its performance, powerful engine, and great Pontiac styling, the GTO was the perfect car for the moment. But it wasn’t the only stellar performance machine coming from Pontiac. In 1965, there was another pure muscle car icon in the form of the Catalina 2+2.
Behind this strange name hides a full-size Catalina model, available as a coupe or a convertible, but with a performance twist. The regular Catalina was an attractive, decent selling model. But in 2+2 form, it turned into a true Gran Turismo with a luxury interior and fire-breathing engine.
Since the Catalina was a full-size model, it was eligible for engines over 400 CID according to the GM rules of the time. This meant the Catalina 2+2 came with the famous 421 V8. Also, if you wanted, you could get the Tri-Power intake system. It was the same as in the GTO, which boosted your car’s power to 376 HP.
Buyers could order limited-slip differentials, heavy-duty steering and brakes, and a lot more, making the Catalina 2+2 well appointed. But unfortunately, all that made it expensive. The top of the line 2+2 cost over $4,000, which was a hefty sum. In fact, it was much more than the similarly equipped GTO, for example. However, Pontiac produced around 11,000 of these fine machines in 1965 but only around 200 convertibles.
22. Oldsmobile 442 W30
Olds introduced the 442 in 1964, and it got a mild refresh for the 1966 model year and five HP more. And that meant the 400 V8 now produced 350 HP. This rating placed the Oldsmobile among the most powerful of Detroit muscle cars at the moment. But the most interesting model was the W30.
If you opted for that, you got a special ram air induction system with tubes going from the front bumper to the carburetors. Also, the W30 had a hotter cam and a few other go-fast options. Being a little conservative, Oldsmobile didn’t put any wild graphics or emblems on the car. So the W-30, which was significantly faster than the regular model, looked the same. Even though the price of the W-30 package wasn’t high, people somehow overlooked this model, so they only made 54 of them. This is a small percentage from the over 20,000 442s they built for the 1966 model year.
21. Chevrolet Camaro Z/28
Although the 1967 Z/28 wasn’t the most powerful Camaro on offer, it was by far the best choice in terms of handling, braking, and overall driving dynamics. While the SS 350 and SS 396 were pure muscle cars with big engines and loads of tire smoke, the Z/28 was a driver’s machine. In fact, it was a road racing model that could handle most challenges.
The Z/28 package included front disc brakes, a close-ratio four-speed manual transmission, and revised suspension and steering. It featured exterior trim details like racing stripes, a vinyl roof, and headlight covers, but the real treat was under the hood. The power came from the 5.0-liter V8 with 290 HP of a high-revving nature. This engine proved to be ideal for the Z/28, giving the car a thrilling performance while retaining its low weight and nimble handling. Best of all, because the Ford Mustang didn’t have such a version, the Z/28 was a unique offering.
20. Pontiac Firebird 400
When Pontiac first unveiled the Firebird, it caused quite a stir among performance-loving car buyers in America. It was a coupe with a wide arrange of optional extras. Also, it came with one of the biggest engines you could get in a pony car, the Pontiac 400 CID V8. But back in the late â60s, GM had a reasonless rule that forbids manufacturers from producing cars with more than one unit of horsepower for every 10 pounds of the car’s weight.
The aim of this rule was to stop manufacturers from producing insanely overpowered models, and all GM products had to follow it. The only exception was the Corvette. In 1968, Pontiac introduced the new Firebird with a 400 V8 engine they rated at 320 HP. Immediately after the introduction, car fans were publicly asking the factory why the new 400 V8 engine in the Firebird was rated at 320 HP, while the same 400 V8 engine in the GTO made 366 HP.
Pontiac didn’t reply, but soon the answer came from the insiders from the factory. The new Firebird 400 weighed 3,300 pounds. So, in order to make it eligible under the GM one HP per 10 pounds rule, Pontiac had to rate the 400 V8 engine at 320 HP.
19. Pontiac GTO Judge
Muscle cars started out as affordable performance machines with lots of power at reasonable prices. However, due to the high demand, some models started to get more expensive. Soon, there was a need for a budget-friendly muscle car for the younger buyers who wanted a fast car, but couldn’t pay much.
And the Plymouth Roadrunner was the perfect example of such a model. It was budget-friendly, fun and fast. Because Pontiac wanted a similar car, in 1969 the company presented the GTO Judge. The Judge quickly became a legend in its own right.
The first reason is that it took its name from the popular TV show. And secondly, it was a bright red muscle car with a big spoiler and funky “The Judge” graphics all over it. The third reason is that the GTO Judge wasn’t slow, producing 366 HP with its four-speed transmission. Available from 1969 to 1971, the Judge always represented a top of the line model, which makes it desirable today.
18. Chevrolet Camaro SS 350
In 1969, the horsepower wars were in full swing, so Chevrolet prepared the Camaro for the battle with the new Z/28 and SS models. The SS 396 was a top of the line muscle model with 325 HP in earlier versions and up to 375 HP for 1969. But the best balanced and almost equally fast car was the SS 350 model. The SS 350 was a popular muscle car Chevrolet equipped with all their “go fast” goodies.
Also, it had the venerable 350 CID V8 engine that pumped out 300 HP. With racing stripes and a fresh graphics package, an optional vinyl roof and lots of extras, the SS 350 was one of the best pony cars around. It delivered a lively performance, had good handling, and came with perfect looks. Today, it is one of the most desirable classic Camaros and a much sought after piece of Chevrolet`s history.
17. Buick GSX
The 1970 model year was a watershed year for American muscle and performance models because there were so many great models available. Backed by steady sales and the great reception of their muscle models, Buick decided to introduce the ultimate muscle car in the form of the legendary and scarce Buick GSX. The GSX stood for Gran Sport Experimental and it was, in fact, a visually upgraded Gran Sport with the Stage 1 performance package.
The GSX debuted in 1970 with an aggressive graphics package not typical for Buick products. It was available in two bright colors, Saturn Yellow and Apollo White. Also, it came with front and rear spoilers, functioning hood scoops, side stripes, and Rally wheels. The power output was the same at 345 HP and 510 lb-ft. But, because the Buick 455 was significantly lighter than the Chevelle 454 or Plymouth Hemi 426, the GSX was a sure winner in street races all across America.
Sadly, despite all the qualities of the GSX and numerous accolades from the motoring press, Buick built less than 700 examples. Simply, the GSX package added $1,100 over the price of a regular GS 455. And this proved to be too expensive for most buyers. The GSX option was available in 1971 and 1972, but they produced those model years in even smaller numbers.
16. Chevrolet Nova SS
The Chevrolet Nova was the famous Bow Tie compact car they introduced first as the Chevy II in the early â60s. The small, affordable model was nothing more than a scaled-down Chevelle or Impala. However, by the end of the â60s, the Nova got some serious street credibility because it became a favorite street racer weapon. In fact, it was the combination of the lightweight body and potent V8 engine that made it go so fast.
Chevrolet introduced the SS 350 and SS 396 versions in 1968 and â69 that were extremely fast. They didn’t change the 1970 model, so it still retained its classic styling and two powerful V8 engines as an option. In fact, some independent tuners like Yenko even offered their own brutally fast 427 conversions.
15. Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454
The Chevrolet Chevelle was always a popular muscle car. After all, the combination of an affordable price, nice design and powerful engine was a hit with buyers. But for 1970, Chevrolet offered an expanded line of engines including the famous 454 V8 big block. They named the regular version of the LS5.
Although it was powerful, there was an even stronger LS6 variant they installed in just 3,700 cars. The LS-6 had an almost racing compression of 11.25:1. Also, it used a bigger carburetor and much stronger engine internals. Even though they rated it at 450 HP, it is more likely that it produced over 500.
14. Oldsmobile Rally 350
To fight the tightening regulations that were slowly destroying the muscle car class, Oldsmobile decided to introduce the bright yellow Rally 350 model. It was a clever way to avoid high insurance premiums with a smaller, but still powerful 350 V8 engine that produced 310 HP.
Other manufacturers introduced similar models, but the Oldsmobile Rally is the most famous due to its unmistakable appearance and that eye-catching yellow paint. However, the Rally 350 wasn’t a big success on the market despite the clever engineering. Olds only produced 3,547 examples in 1970, making them rare today.
13. Pontiac Trans Am
The continuation of the legendary Trans Am was ready for the 1970 debut of the second generation. It came with even more power, a new design and details, and delivered more performance, of course. The 1970 Trans Am got new spoilers, a fresh color scheme and new interior trim. Also, customers had a choice of several versions depending on the Ram Air induction system and the 400 CID V8 engine.
If you had the Ram Air III, you got the 345 HP engine, but if you optioned for the Ram Air IV engine you got 370 HP. And that was a substantial number for 1970 that guaranteed a brutal performance. The Trans Am also received better brakes and an updated suspension package, turning this muscle car coupe into a sophisticated sports car. Who knows what muscle cars would have become if it weren’t for the early â70s recession and the oil crisis.
12. Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS
Chevrolet revealed the first Monte Carlo in 1970. They built it on a modified Chevelle platform, and the Monte Carlo was a handsome coupe-only car. It came with a V8 engine, nice interior, and decent performance. Most Monte Carlos had the smaller V8 engine that customers concentrating on the luxury aspect bought. However, there was one crazy muscle option in the form of the SS 454 package.
The 454 version was a true full-size muscle beast with a monstrous 7.4-liter V8 engine that pumped 360 HP. It propelled the heavy Monte Carlo to amazing 0 to 60 mph times. For just $420 above the base price, buyers could get this trim level which transformed this coupe from a somewhat lazy cruiser to a quarter-mile beast. But because only around 3,800 people decided to buy it, the Monte Carlo SS 454 is one of the rarest luxury muscle cars they ever produced.
The reason for such a low number is obvious. At the time, Chevrolet had a few muscle cars in their model lineup, so most speed enthusiasts turned to the Chevelle, Camaro or Corvette for performance and looks. On the other hand, a typical Monte Carlo buyer preferred comfort and luxury, so the SS 454 option was left somewhere in the middle, which contributed to the poor sales numbers.
11. 1958 Pontiac Bonneville Tri-Power
The new styling of the Pontiac brand meant a new approach to the performance market. It also sparked the birth of one of the most powerful American muscle car brands. Despite a few impressive models, Pontiac’s muscle quest began in 1958 when they presented the Bonneville with their Tri-Power option.
This was a top of the line model featuring a big 370 V8 engine with three two-barrel Rochester carburetors, producing up to 310 HP. In late 1958, Pontiac introduced an even hotter setup with up to 330 HP they designed for racers and NASCAR.
10. Buick Wildcat GS
They introduced the Wildcat in 1962 as was one of the first personal luxury coupes. It featured a performance-tuned engine and other go-fast options. And since it was a Buick product, they guaranteed the luxury appointments and upscale options. Even before the Rivera GS or the muscle car craze, Buick noticed there was a big market for a full-size coupe with the performance of a sports car.
Young and successful people wanted an upscale product that looked expensive, but still had enough power and driving dynamics to make every day driving fun. In those days, luxury coupes like Thunderbirds or Eldorados were all large, heavy cruisers with soft handling. So, that is why Buick introduced the Wildcat. Available as a regular four-door hardtop, two-door coupe or a convertible, the Wildcat was a separate model.
Under the hood was a powerful V8 from the top of Buick’s engine lineup. However, the success of the Skylark GS and the Riviera GS inspired Buick to offer the GS package on the Wildcat, too, but just for 1966. However, the package was much more than just two letters on the trunk lid. It consisted of a Riviera 430 V8 engine with 340 HP and a chrome air cleaner.
They added a revised suspension and brakes, and even Posi-traction limited-slip differential. This made the performance even better than the regular Wildcat. And lastly, the GS package was available for both the coupe and the convertible.
9. Pontiac Trans Am 20th Anniversary
In 1989, Pontiac was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its favorite muscle car – the Trans Am. What was a better way than to introduce a very limited run of 1500 cars to commemorate the occasion? But, the anniversary editions have to have a twist and not to be just another decal and paint job, Pontiac decided to install Buick’s 3.8-liter turbo V6 from the GNX and create the fastest Trans Am of the decade.
The white commemorative edition could accelerate 0.1 seconds faster from 0 to 60 mph than the GNX, at 4.6 seconds. The reason was pretty simple, better weight distribution and gearing from the Pontiac gearbox.
8. Buick Gran Sport 455
The Buick GS 455 is special and interesting in muscle car mythology. As with all other GM muscle cars, they limited the Buick Gran Sport to 400 cid. But, in 1970 when GM lifted its ban on engine displacement, Buick introduced a strong model they named the Gran Sport 455. This car featured the famous 455 V8 rated at 360 HP.
And it could launch this big, heavy car to 60 MPH in just around 5.5 seconds. This was lightning fast in 1970 and its speed is still respectable today. In fact, the power output wasn’t that far from the 1969 GS 400. But the torque figure was significantly higher, so the mighty 455 engine delivered over 500 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers made it one of the strongest muscle engines of all times.
And it was this characteristic was what launched Buick into the front row of the most powerful models of the period. However, since it was a Buick, they equipped the GS 455 with updated standard equipment. Also, it had a long list of optional extras. So, in a modern-day package, this super luxurious modern muscle car offered a pleasant, yet blisteringly fast ride.
But for those who found the 360 HP and 510 lb-ft of torque wasn’t enough, Buick offered the extremely rare, expensive Stage 1 and Stage 2 kits. They included different intake systems, high compression heads, beefed-up engine internals and sports exhaust. However, those cars are extremely rare since most customers were unaware of the existence of such options. So, most Stage 1 and 2 buyers were professional drag racers.
7. Pontiac Can AM
Back in the late ’70s, the American performance car segment was just 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 and as much power it could produce 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, more than any other muscle car on the market at the moment. The Can Am package consisted of special rear window louvers, rear spoiler, and a long list of special optional extras. The car was introduced early in 1977, and the market responded very well, Pontiac received between 5,000 and 10,000 reservations, but at the end, it only sold 1377 examples.
6. 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 the Buick engineers got permission to develop a performance version that would deliver better acceleration figures.
Soon, there was the Buick Gran National with 175 HP, which wasn`t impressive, but it was a start. However, in the next couple of years, the Gran National got a bigger engine and more power. This made it go from 175 HP to 200 HP, and finally to 235 HP. With those numbers came acceleration times of less than six seconds, making those black Gran Nationals seriously quick cars.
But in 1987 came the ultimate version they called the GNX, or Gran National Experimental. It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6, but with 275 HP and 0 to 60 mph times of 4.7 seconds. Nobody expected such a bold move from Buick. After all, Buick was a company for old people producing cars without any excitement.
And suddenly, there was a turbocharged V6 coupe that broke every classic muscle car mold out there. And, it was even faster than a Ferrari. At that moment, the Buick GNX was the fastest accelerating production model in the world. But at $29,000 it wasn’t exactly budget-friendly. However, legend says some owners paid for their cars just by street racing them for money.
5. 1977 Chevrolet Camaro
Like all muscle cars in the ’70s, the Camaro was faced with tightening emissions and safety regulations. This resulted in a loss of power and performance. The early second-generation models looked promising, but just a few years after, they discontinued the Z/28. It was the most powerful V8 model with approximately 165 HP. But it was just a pale shadow of its former glory.
However, the 1977 model is important for two reasons. First, it marked the return of the Z/28 option after a few years of absence. The 1977 Z/28 had just 185 horses but came with a special body kit, wild graphics package and spoiler. However, the second reason is much more interesting. In 1977, Chevrolet Camaro finally outsold the Ford Mustang for the first time since 1967.
The mid 70’s Mustang was a slow, ugly car while the Camaro looked much better with its proper muscle car styling and stance. That is why Chevy sold over 200,000 Camaros that year, while Ford only sold 153,000 Mustangs.
4. Pontiac Trans Am 455 SD
By 1974, almost all muscle cars were extinct from the market, and those who were left were robbed of their power and style. However, there was one model that managed to survive and to offer as much performance and power as possible, and that model was the ’74 Trans Am Super Duty 455.
The year 1974 marked the first restyling of the whole Firebird range, and with new front and the rear end came the improved interior and details. The SD 455 model was carried over from 1973, but it featured better suspension and brakes in the new package. The standard 455 V8 had only 215 HP, but it developed 290 HP in SD trim, which was fantastic for 1974.
3. Chevrolet Camaro IROC
The third-generation Camaro was a well-received, popular car but after a while, buyers wanted more performance and power. So, Chevrolet delivered it in the form of the legendary IROC-Z version. Chevy introduced the IROC-Z in 1985 as a tribute model to the Chevrolet-sponsored International Race of Champions racing series. However, it was much more than just an appearance package with a cool name.
Under the hood was the 350 V8 with 225 HP in the early years and 245 HP in later versions. Buyers could opt for a manual or automatic transmission and they tuned the suspension as well as the steering. Chevrolet even offered a cool-looking convertible which was the first Camaro ragtop in 18 years. The IROC-Z was a popular, influential muscle car that finally brought some real performance to drivers.
2. 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1
As you may already know, back in the late ’60s, Chevrolet was under the General Motors racing ban. This ban meant that no official Chevrolet products could race and Chevrolet as a manufacturer couldn’t participate in any racing activity. But nobody stopped Chevrolet from helping racing teams through its backdoor programs developing special engines and components. In the late ’60s, the Can-Am was a popular racing series featuring prototype class cars with V8 engines.
Chevrolet wanted to purpose-build a power plant for this championship. So, in 1969, they produced the ZL-1, an all-aluminum 427 big block. It was a high revving, 7.0-liter V8 with around 550 HP in mild tune. Chevrolet produced around 200 of those engines. While most of them went to Can-Am racing teams, they installed 69 of them in C.O.P.O Camaros they sold to drag racing teams.
The Camaro ZL-1 was the same as the regular 1969 Camaro on the outside, but it was so fast, it was barely street legal. The official 1969 Chevrolet literature doesn’t mention the ZL-1 option for the Camaro. However, if you were a successful drag racer or a dealer, you knew about this expensive option. That is why they only made 69 Camaros ZL-1.
1. 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
In 1969, Pontiac wanted to present a model they could homologate for Trans-Am racing. But, as a part of GM, the factory was still under the racing ban. Still, fans and private teams used many Pontiac products, so the factory wanted to introduce a version they could easily modify for racing. That’s how the Firebird Trans Am came to be.
To mask its intentions, Pontiac introduced the Firebird Trans Am as a loaded version. It featured big-block power from the famous 400 V8 engine equipped with the Ram Air III or IV intake system. The difference between those engines was significant since the Ram Air IV featured improved engine internals and components.
They rated both at 366 HP, which was an understatement. However, this particular version with its signature white paint, blue stripes, Rally II wheels, and other equipment proved to be a tough seller. Sadly, Pontiac only sold 634 Firebird Trans Ams that year. Among those, only eight were convertibles.
These are the greatest classic muscle cars by General Motors. Did you find your favorite? While some of these are still plentiful, others are not. Either way, every one of these gems made their mark on muscle car history.