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Quarter Mile Terrors: 18 Greatest Drag Racing Muscle Car Specials

Vukasin HerbezFebruary 20, 2018

From today’s point of view, classic muscle cars look like a car class built to go fast and look good doing it. And in most cases, that is true, but there was always more to them than just a shiny body and a powerful engine. Muscle cars were symbols of youth, freedom, speed and power, and sometimes, seriously capable racing machines. The early 60’s marked the dawn of the muscle car age. Even before Pontiac introduced the GTO in 1964 as the first mass-produced muscle machine, Detroit was producing powerful cars, although in limited numbers.

The drag racing scene was getting bigger and all the car manufacturers wanted a piece of the action. Soon, car companies started producing special models, equipment packages and engine choices for drag racers to participate in the Super Stock class. Those cars just looked like their regular counterparts, but in fact, they were secret drag racing machines. Most of the models were barely street legal and with limited production, but some of the cars were pure racing cars sold only to professional racing teams.

Here is a list of the top 18 fantastic drag racing muscle car specials. Rare, extremely powerful and brutally fast, these cars shaped the history of the muscle car segment. They helped establish the legends on the tracks, as well as on the streets. So, keep reading for the quarter mile ride of a lifetime.

  1. 1962 Pontiac Catalina 421 “Swiss Cheese”

In the early 1960’s, Pontiac realized that racing helps sell cars and that famous Detroit mantra, “Win on Sunday-Sell on Monday” works. In that period, Pontiac was big in NASCAR, but its drag racing reputation in NHRA championship was slim. Pontiac had a good basis for a fast super stock car in the form of a two-door Catalina. It had a potent 421 V8 engine, but it needed to add power and subtract weight.

To do the latter, Pontiac’s engineers manufactured numerous aluminum parts like bumpers, fenders and hoods, saving 159 pounds from the heavy car. Moreover, the car was soon nicknamed “Swiss Cheese” since they also drilled holes in the car frame to save a few grams. With a high compression 421 V8 engine and 410 HP, these Catalinas were lightning quick.

Needless to say, “Swiss Cheese” Catalinas proved to be the fastest on the strips and won numerous races, earning Pontiac some much-needed publicity. The cars were used for two years, 1962 and 1963, so Pontiac built only 14 “Swiss Cheese” Catalinas. They gave each one to notable drag racers of the day. Today, most of the cars are accounted for and the prices for those valuable drag racing legends are close to a million dollars.

  1. 1962 Dodge Dart 413 Max Wedge

The early 60’s marked Dodge’s entry to the drag racing scene with several models. The first of which was the brutally fast Dart 413 Max Wedge. The 1962 Dart was a mid-size family model Dodge offered with a choice of a six-cylinder or V8 engine and a long list of optional extras. Basically, it was a high-volume car with no racing pretensions. That was until somebody shoehorned a big 413 Wedge engine with high compression and up to 420 HP.

With a limited slip differential, several rear end ratios, a heavy-duty suspension and a lightweight body with a stripped interior, the Dodge Dart 413 was a true muscle car for the dragstrip. The 413 Max Wedge package was more expensive, but still popular with amateur racers who could finally challenge the big boys and win.

  1. 1962 Plymouth Savoy Super Stock 413

Mechanically almost identical as the Dodge Dart 413 Max Wedge, the Savoy Super Stock was Plymouth’s version of a drag strip special. It featured a different design, but the platform was the same. It also had the same engine, which was the mighty 413 Wedge with 420 HP in top trim.

The interesting fact was that the automatic transmission was the favorite option. It was even better for launching off the line than the standard three-speed manual. In those early days, Chrysler didn’t offer a four-speed manual and the automatic was a better choice. The Savoy Super Stock 413 was the first car to break the 12-second quarter mile time record for stock cars. But, this was just the beginning.

  1. 1962 Ford Galaxie 406

Ford was present on the drag racing scene, but in early 60’s, it was losing ground to those powerful Mopars and Pontiacs. The biggest Blue Oval engine was the 390 V8. But, it just wasn’t enough compared to the mighty 421 Super Duty and 413 Max Wedge V8. So, guys from Dearborn bored the venerable 390 and got a new 406 V8 for 1962 model year.

The new engine delivered 385 HP in standard trim, but with an optional six-barrel intake system, it pumped out a respectable 405 HP. Those G-Code cars were rare, but they found their way onto the race tracks. They showed that Ford is capable of defending its turf against those Mopars and Pontiacs. But the best was yet to come from Ford.

  1. 1963 Chevrolet Impala Z-11

Pontiac was not the only GM’s division involved with drag racing on a full scale in the early 60’s. Chevrolet was also active, too. The SS package they introduced in 1961 with the fantastic and extremely powerful 409 V8 engine was a popular choice for street and drag racers all over America. But for 1963, Chevrolet introduced a limited but highly influential Z-11 option on their two-door Impalas.

The idea behind the RPO Z-11 was to introduce the best street/strip technology in one model. The first order of the day was to shed weight by using aluminum panels, grilles, hoods and fenders. The radio and heater were gone and they stripped the interior of all unnecessary luxury. Next, they added power, so the new 427 came with numerous performance updates and racing internals that premiered in the Z-11.

The power output was close to 450 HP, but some claim it was closer to the 500 HP mark. The Z-11 Impalas were regular 11.2 seconds quarter mile cars, so they obviously had a lot of power. Chevrolet built only 50 to 57 Impala Z-11s in 1963 and less than 10 are known to survive today. The package was kind of secret and public didn’t know that the model was available. There were no brochures or dealer materials, so only well-connected drag racers knew about them.

  1. 1963 Dodge 330 Ramcharger

For 1963, Dodge and Plymouth presented a new design and upped the power of the legendary 413 Max Wedge motor to 426 CID displacements. Dodge presented a plain-looking Ramcharger version of their two-door 330 model. It was a bare-bones two-door sedan with bench seat and 426 cubic inches of pure power in the front. The 413 was heavily revised with a bigger stroke, different valve train and larger ports in the cylinder heads.

The upgrades all allowed more power, 426 cubic inches and an insane 6,500 rpm limit. Chrysler claimed their new 426 Max Wedge engine delivered 415 HP with standard 11.0:1 compression, 425 HP and an optional 13.5:1 ratio. However, most experts claim the real power output was much higher at closer to 500 HP. In 1963, this was one of the quickest cars in the world.

  1. 1963 Plymouth Max Wedge 426

To complete the domination in Super Stock class in NHRA championship, Plymouth introduced its own version of Dodge Ramcharger. They put it in the Sport Fury body with the same crazy 426 Max Wedge engine and specifications.

For most buyers, the regular 11.1:1 compression was more than enough. And the 13.5:1 compression engines were extremely hard to use for the street, even with high octane leaded fuel. For professional racing teams and wealthy individuals, Plymouth offered an option of aluminum panels, bumpers and other lightweight components. This lowered the weight and maximized the performance.

  1. 1964 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt

In 1963, Pontiac, Chevrolet and all of GM were out of factory-supported racing, Mopar was dominating the strip with their Max Wedge engines. Back then, Ford didn’t have enough firepower to compete with Dodge or Plymouth. But that was about to change in 1964 when Ford introduced a factory-built drag racer they called the Fairlane Thunderbolt. Ford built it using a plain Fairlane two-door sedan body. However, they removed all but the essentials because the Thunderbolt was all about light weight and big power.

They stripped the interior and removed the trim, but Ford realized the van-sourced bucket seats were lighter than the standard bench. So, the Thunderbolt had two small seats in the front to save on the weight. They replaced the heavy glass windshield with the lighter Plexiglas. The Thunderbolt had lightweight fenders, bumpers and a hood with the characteristic “teardrop” air scoop. Under the hood was the new 427 V8 FE with factory output of 425 HP.

However, most car experts think the real output was closer to 600 HP. Ford equipped the engine with all kinds of go-fast goodies like a special intake manifold, high-performance heads and special pistons. Ford made exactly 100 Thunderbolts in 1964, selling them to professional racers for one dollar each. Out of 100 cars, 49 were four-speed manuals and 51 were three-speed automatics. The Thunderbolt was so successful, it won the 1964 NHRA for Ford title despite the fierce competition.

  1. 1964 Dodge/Plymouth Maximum Performance A-864

The biggest news in the Mopar clan for 1964 was the return of the mighty and legendary Hemi 426 engine. Chrysler realized that other manufacturers had caught up with powerful 413 and 426 Max Wedge engines. The only solution was to bring back the Hemi as the ultimate drag strip weapon. This wasn’t the famous Street Hemi, introduced two years later in 1966 as a regular production option.

This was race-spec Hemi which was not street legal in most states and not available to the public. The 426 Hemi was rated at 425 HP, but the real output was much more than that. In 1964, Chrysler built just 70 copies, 35 as the Dodge 440 Hardtop and 35 as the Plymouth Belvedere Hardtop. Most of the cars they produced had automatic transmissions and others had four-speed manuals.

  1. Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16

GM has imposed a racing ban in 1963 that immediately stopped all racing actions and put Chevrolet’s racing programs on indefinite hold. For years, Chevrolet’s engineers tried to find the way to return to the race tracks. The independent racers used the Bow Tie cars, but there was no factory support of any kind. The solution was to introduce the Chevelle Z-16.

It was a high-performance model, produced for one year only and in just 200 examples.The Chevelle Z-16 is an extremely rare and valuable piece of Chevrolet history. Basically, it was a fully loaded regular Chevelle with all the go-fast options, a 396 V8 engine with Muncie 4-speed gearbox and a heavy-duty suspension. Some dealers weren’t aware this option even existed.

Also, Chevrolet refused to market the Z16, making this Chevelle a kind of a secret model. They thought if they produced a special high-performance car, racers would use it. However, the Z-16 package was more of a street performer than a disguised racing car, so it didn’t leave a big mark on the drag racing scene.

  1. 1965 Dodge Coronet/Plymouth Belvedere Altered Wheelbase

Chrysler didn’t offer any Race Hemi lightweight models for 1965. Instead, they went a step further and produced a handful of altered wheelbase Plymouths and Dodges. They were for professional racers and the newly-founded Factory Experimental (FX) class. The FX class in the NHRA championship was a predecessor to today’s funny car class. Basically, it was a place where factory supported teams could race cars that resembled stock vehicles.

They equipped them with engine, drivetrain or body modifications that could never go on a street car. Chrysler decided to make six Dodge Coronets and six Plymouth Belvederes with altered wheelbases. They simply moved the whole floorplan 15 inches forward, moving the rear axle just behind the driver. This helped the weight distribution and traction off the line.

Those altered wheelbase cars were never street legal. But they featured numerous interesting combinations, such as fuel injected, supercharged or turbocharged engines. Today, real altered wheelbase cars are extremely rare, but they present a valuable piece of muscle car history.

  1. 1966 Ford Fairlane 427 Lightweight

Ford introduced the new Fairlane for 1966. The car was immediately a hit with customers all over America. However, to make sure the Fairlane continued the tradition of the massively successful Thunderbolt, Ford produced 57 specially designed R-Code Fairlane 427 Lightweights. They sold them to drag racers nationwide.

The 427 was the final evolution of Ford’s venerable FE block. The real output was around 650 HP. This version of 427 Medium Riser had 13.2:1 compression ratio that insured big power, but questionable street manners. Also, 427 Lightweights benefitted from fiberglass hood with functional hood scoop, lightweight fenders, bumper and stripped interior.

Thanks to all that power and low weight, the 427 Fairlane set a new B Class record with 11.2 seconds quarter mile time. This proved Ford had made another drag strip monster after legendary Thunderbolt.

  1. 1967 Plymouth Belvedere/Dodge Coronet RO/WO Series

After the crazy 1965 altered wheelbase cars, Chrysler returned to more stock-looking models for 1967. So, they produced a limited run of RO/WO Plymouths and Dodges for 1967. Some say that Chrysler built 100 cars to satisfy the NHRA rules for Super Stock class, but the number seems high. The number of 50 cars is more likely, but some even claim they produced as little as 32 cars.

The RO/WO cars were mechanically identical with Dodge or Plymouth body style. The front end was lightweight. They equipped the cars with limited slip differentials, heavy duty suspensions and stripped-down interiors. The delivered all the cars only in white, so the racing teams could put their own decals and numbers.

Automatic cars came through with a special Torque Flite transmission that drivers had to shift manually through its reverse shift pattern. In some cases, this proved to be faster than regular four-speed manual. The heart of the car was the Race Hemi. With 426 cubic inches and over 600 HP in race trim, it was still one of the craziest power plants on the scene.

  1. 1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet

Ford introduced the legendary 428 Cobra Jet in 1968 and immediately put it in the Mustang. The Mustang 428 CJ was a mid-year introduction mostly intended for drag racing. That is why it was sold in modest numbers. But the real drag racing special was 50 Wimbledon white Fastbacks. They came with the 428 CJ engine and were lightweight.

They also had a close ratio four-speed transmission and heavy-duty suspension to satisfy the NHRA rules. Ford rated the new 428 Cobra Jet at 335 HP, but everybody knew the big block produced far more than that. The real output of race-prepared white Fastbacks was closer to the 500 HP mark. Even with less power than some competitors, the Mustang won races since it was smaller, lighter and better balanced than most Mopars.

  1. 1968 Dodge Hemi Dart LO23 Super Stock

As one of the biggest forces on American drag strips in the 60’s, Chrysler always looked for ways to improve performance. They also introduced new concepts and broke records. After years of fiddling with mid-size platforms, for 1968, Mopar shoehorned the Race Hemi in the smallest platform they could find – the Dodge Dart. The actual fabrication of this beast was a tough task. The Hemi Darts were assembled almost by hand using the regular 383 Dart as a basis.

Installing the big Hemi in the small Dart engine bay was challenging. It was a tight fit, but Chrysler engineers managed to produce exactly 80 cars. None of them were street legal, so all went to racing teams, painted in primer and ready for race decals and stripes. The new Dodge Hemi Dart was a drag strip terror since it had the lightest body with the most powerful engine. In fact, Mopars owned the 1968 NHRA season.

  1. 1968 Plymouth Barracuda Hemi

The 426 Hemi engine was not a regular production item in the Barracuda until the 1970 model year. But for 1968 racing season, Plymouth produced 50 drag racing specials using the Barracuda Fastback bodies and 426 race spec Hemi engines. They shared the manufacturing with the Dodge Hemi Dart in Chrysler’s Hamtramck, Michigan plant.

As a Dodge Hemi Dart, Barracudas came as pure racing, non-street legal vehicles they sold only to racing teams. They even painted them in primer ready to be personalized by the racers.

  1. 1969 AMC AMX 390 SS

American Motors Company was a legendary economy car manufacturer that battled Detroit’s Big Three for decades. But, eventually, they folded in the mid-80’s. AMC was always famous for its wide selection of compact and affordable cars, interesting concepts and dependable mechanics. However, in the late 60’s, AMC decided to enter the muscle car market since it would bring some excitement to AMC’s lineup.

This was a good decision. Today, people remember AMC for its muscle cars, not for their basic, low-optioned family sedans, which were what they produced the most. AMC presented two models, a four-seat coupe they called the Javelin and a two-seat coupe they called the AMX. At that time, the AMX was the only American two-seater model besides the Corvette.

They built the AMX on a shortened Javelin chassis. It featured better equipment, more powerful engines and lots of go-fast options. Both the Javelin and AMX enjoyed considerable success at the time. However, there was one rare, special version, and that is the AMX SS 390. They built this car in cooperation with Hurst, a famous company from the era.

It featured lots of modifications and the biggest AMC engine, the 390 V8 with 340 HP. This may not sound as much as some other muscle cars of the period, but the AMX SS 390 was light, compact and brutally fast. They only made 52 of them. Most were red, white, and blue machines that went to drag strips where they beat much more powerful cars with ease.

  1. 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1

Back in the late 60’s, Chevrolet was under a racing ban General Motors proposed. This meant no official Chevrolet products could race. It also meant Chevrolet as a manufacturer couldn’t participate in any racing activity. But, nobody stopped Chevrolet from helping racing teams through its backdoor programs where they developed special engines and components.

In the late 60’s, 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 they produced an all-aluminum 427 big block called ZL-1 in 1969. 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 ZL-1s in C.O.P.O Camaros, selling them to drag racing teams.

The Camaro ZL-1 was the same as a regular 1969 Camaro on the outside, but it was so fast, it was barely street legal. Chevrolet literature in 1969 didn’t mention the ZL-1 option for the Camaro. However, if you were a successful drag racer or dealer, you knew about this expensive option. That is why they only produced 69 Camaro ZL-1s.

These are the top 18 quarter mile terrors – the greatest drag racing muscle car specials of all time. They broke records and introduced new engines and upgrades. These cars are forever an important part of muscle car history.

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