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American Performance: Top 20 Early Muscle Cars

Vukasin Herbez June 18, 2018

  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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