Home Cars American Performance: Top 20 Early Muscle Cars

American Performance: Top 20 Early Muscle Cars

Vukasin Herbez June 18, 2018

  1. 1957 Rambler Rebel V8

The Rambler Rebel V8 is an interesting early muscle car born by chance. By squeezing a 327 V8 engine from the Nash Ambassador into a compact, light Rambler body, they created a fast yet unassuming muscle machine. The 327 V8 delivered 255 HP, which wasn’t that much, but in a small Rambler body, it accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in just seven seconds.

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 the affordable Rambler. Unfortunately, few buyers wanted to pay extra to outrun anything else on the road, so they only built 1,500 of them.

  1. 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.

  1. 1958 Plymouth Fury

Before the Fury was a separate model, it was an option on the Belvedere. But for 1958, this model benefited from Chrysler’s new Golden Commando engine. The mighty Hemi was gone, but Chrysler didn’t abandon the performance market. The Golden Commando came with a 350-cid displacement and updated equipment, delivering 305 HP.

Plymouth even experimented with a fuel injection setup, but the system proved problematic. The problems caused the factory to compensate car owners, giving them the conventional four-barrel setup. If the fuel injection worked, it would have produced up to 315 HP.

  1. 1960 Ford GalaxieStarliner

Ford felt left out of the performance race, so for 1960, they introduced their Interceptor 360 package. It was available on the full-size Galaxie with the Starliner body style. The Starliner was a two-door coupe with a sloping roofline. It was ideal for those fast NASCAR tracks that Ford wanted to dominate in the early 60’s.

They based their Interceptor 360 package on an old 352 V8 engine. However, they equipped it with a new performance intake system, beefed up internals and a dual exhaust. This resulted in some impressive 360 HP ratings. Ford managed to achieve 15 wins in the NASCAR championship for the 1960 season.

  1. 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409

The legendary Super Sport (SS) package has a place in muscle car history as an important model that promoted the concept of performance to the public. This was one of the first high-performance automobiles that relatively affordable and fast. Everything started when Chevrolet decided to transform its 409 truck engine to use in passenger cars. They found out that the unit was powerful and it could outrun all other cars on the road. Just by making some mild modifications to the engine, it could produce up to 409 HP.

Chevy’s changes to the 409 were enough to propel the Impala from a standstill to 60 mph in six seconds flat. At that time, that was Corvette territory. So, as a mid-year introduction, Chevrolet presented the SS package that featured bucket seats, a sports trim and other interesting details. It also came with the 348 V8 engine with 350 HP. However, the most popular option was the 409 V8 with up to 409 HP if customers chose the dual quad intake system.

Although Chevrolet sold over a million of its full-size models, they only made 456 Impala SS cars in 1961. However, only 142 of them came with the 409 engine. No one knows the exact number of Impala SS 409 Convertibles Chevy built. However, Chevrolet historians speculate they made around 45 of those immensely powerful open-top cruisers.

Interestingly, the 409 option was available for all Chevrolet full-size models in 1961, so it was possible to install this engine into plain-looking sedans and wagons. But, those cars have yet to surface. Today, as you may expect, the 1961 Impala SS 409 is one of the most valuable cars in Chevrolet’s muscle car history.

  1. 1962 Pontiac Catalina 421 Super Duty

In the early 60’s, the best Pontiac weapon was the Catalina. It was a full-size two-door coupe that came standard with the already potent 389 V8 engine. The car-buying public considered those 389-powered Catalinas as hot cars with good performance. When they equipped it with their famous three power setup, the Catalina 389 could deliver 348 HP.

But for those who wanted more, Pontiac offered a 421 V8 engine with two four-barrel carburetors and 405 HP. Those cars were street racing beasts that became the basis for Pontiac’s legendary Swiss Cheese drag racers of the early 60’s that dominated the NHRA championships.

  1. 1963 Studebaker Avanti R2

In the early 60’s, Studebaker management decided to invest in a luxury coupe to fight poor sales. They thought a new, fancy upscale model would attract customers, turning their attention back to Studebaker. So, in 1962, they presented the sleek, modern-looking Avanti. The innovative design, construction, and technology were interesting, so the car received praise from the motoring press.

The base version was not powerful, but soon Studebaker introduced a supercharged R2 option that delivered 289 HP. The R2 version didn’t come with an automatic transmission or air conditioning. It was only available with a close ratio manual gearbox. Besides that, they included lots of performance upgrades, turning the Avanti into a fast machine.

The R2 broke 28 world speed records, achieving top speeds of 170 mph, which was a big deal in 1963. The acceleration numbers were also good, and the R2 could sprint to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. Unfortunately, Studebaker had problems with production, so the Avanti was limited in availability, which affected its popularity.

So, by 1964, they discontinued this model. Today, car fans and historians recognized the Avanti R2 as one of the coolest 60’s cars, as well as an early luxury muscle car. During its short production run, they made just over 4,600 Studebaker Avanti and only a handful of them were those incredible R2s.

This list contains the origin of American performance – the 20 best early muscle cars in U.S. automotive history. If you happen to see one of these beasts, be sure to take a picture because they are becoming rarer with each passing day. It won’t be long before the only place you’ll see these cars are in a museum. They certainly belong in the annals of car history.

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