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Remembering General Motors’ Coolest Classic Muscle Cars Of All Time

Vukasin HerbezDecember 10, 2021

As the biggest car company in America for the better part of the 20th century, General Motors was always at the forefront of the muscle car revolution. The company claimed many of the industry’s firsts – such as the first muscle cars, first fuel-injected models, first turbochargers, and so on.

The history of General Motors is filled with interesting and relevant models. So today, we ranked the 24 coolest classic muscle cars from this legendary company. Enjoy a ride down muscle car memory lane below.

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24. Oldsmobile 88 Rocket

For the 1949 model year, Oldsmobile presented the 88 model series. It had a brand-new 303 CID V8 engine called the Rocket V8. The 88 model was relatively light and compact. And the Rocket V8 was considered a hot engine with a two-barrel carburetor and 135 HP on tap. This combination of light body and powerful engine in the form of 1949 Oldsmobile 88 was arguably the first muscle car from Detroit (via Autoexpress).

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The ’49 Olds 88 enjoyed success with the customers and on the race track. It won six of nine NASCAR races that year and proved competitive on the drag strip. The car was the theme of one of the first rock and roll songs ever made, “Rocket 88” by Kings of Rhythm. All of this makes this car extremely influential, not only in automotive history but also in the history of rock.

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23. Chevrolet Bel Air Fuelie

Since introducing the legendary 1955 Bel Air V8 model, Chevrolet has improved massively. But in 1957, Chevy presented the most advanced engine option of all American car manufacturers at the time – fuel injection (via Fuel Curve).

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Offered as a performance package for the Bel Air, “Fuelie” consisted of a unique fuel injection induction system that replaced carburetors. The 283 V8 engine had up to 270 HP with standard dual quads and 283 HP with fuel injection. Despite the slight difference in output, the fuel injection option delivered more power and was more efficient than standard intake.

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22. Chevrolet Impala SS 409

The legendary SS (Super Sport) package has its place in muscle car history as it promoted performance to the general public. This was one of the first high-performance automobiles that were relatively affordable. Just through mild modifications to the engine, it could produce up to 409 hp, which was enough to propel the Impala from a standstill to 60 mph in six seconds.

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At the time, that was Corvette territory. Chevrolet presented the SS package, which featured bucket seats, sports trim, and other details, and it came with the 348 V8 engine with 350 hp. However, the most attractive option was the 409 V8 with up to 409 hp if you optioned for a dual-quad intake system (via Hemmings). Today, the 1961 Impala SS 409 is one of the most valuable cars in Chevrolet’s muscle car history.

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21. Pontiac Catalina 421

In 1962, the best Pontiac muscle car was the Catalina, a full-size two-door coupe that came standard with a 389 V8 engine. 389-powered Catalinas were considered hot cars with good performance. When equipped with the famous “Three Power” setup, the Catalina 389 could deliver 348 HP.

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But for those who wanted more, Pontiac offered a 421 V8 engine with two four-barrel carburetors and 405 HP. These cars were street racing beasts and became an excellent basis for legendary Pontiac’s “Swiss Cheese” drag racers of the early ’60s. They dominated the NHRA championship in earlier days (via Pontiac V8).

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20. Oldsmobile Jetfire

For this, General Motors engineers took the compact F-85 model and retained its small 215 CID V8 engine, and gave it a new forced-induction intake system. This included a Garett turbocharger and special “Turbo Rocket Fuel” tank which consisted of distilled water, methanol, and a corrosion inhibitor mixture. This was necessary since, in those days, turbochargers were pretty primitive and prone to detonation or pre-ignition, which could ruin the engine. For the standards of the day, the Jetfire V8 was the state of the art technology. Initially, the market was very interested.

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The new V8 delivered 215 hp, which was one hp per cubic inch, making it one of the best performance cars of the day. It was almost as fast as the Corvette with the 0 to 60 mph time of around 8 seconds (via Autocar). However, the Jetfire had problems from the beginning. People just weren’t used to operating procedures that a turbo engine required. For example, most owners forgot to fill up the “Turbo Rocket Fuel” tank with distilled water, methanol, and a corrosion inhibitor mixture which caused loss of power and even failure of the engine in the long run.

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19. Pontiac Tempest GTO

In the early ’60s, Pontiac had much success on drag strips. The performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool since a new generation of buyers wanted powerful and fast cars. Pontiac wanted to capitalize on its success. But the company was reluctant to invest in a sports car built from scratch. All their production models were big and heavy vehicles. However, a young engineer named John Z. DeLorean thought of a genius idea. Install a big and pretty powerful 396 V8 into a light, intermediate Tempest and cheaply create a true performance machine (via GM Heritage Center).

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The result was the Tempest GTO. For just $295, buyers would get a high-performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in standard or 348 HP in famous Tri-Power form. Manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals, and dual exhaust were all part of the package. Since the car was light, the Tempest GTO had a convincing performance. In 1964, it was one of the quickest American cars on the market.

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18. Buick Riviera GS

The Riviera was presented in 1963, and immediately became one of the most exciting cars on the American market at the moment. The combination of elegant styling, modern interior, and the Nailhead engine made the Riviera an instant best-seller. It was the first real competitor to the famous Ford Thunderbird. But Buick wanted more, and the company introduced the legendary Riviera Gran Sport or GS in 1965 (via Hemmings).

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The car featured a revised suspension, a bigger 425 engine, and a host of other performance upgrades. In this version, the Rivera was a genuine world-class automobile with 360 hp and acceleration times of 7.9 seconds. This was better than most of the sports cars of the period.

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17. Chevrolet Chevelle Z16

The Chevelle Z16 was a fully-loaded regular Chevelle with a 396 V8 engine, Muncie 4-speed gearbox, and heavy-duty suspension and equipment. Even some dealers weren’t aware that this option even existed. Chevrolet refused to market the Z16 for some reason, making this Chevelle a sort of secret model.

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The Z16 was pretty fast, but it was also expensive for a Chevrolet. That’s why they made only 200 of them. The car was offered in 1965 model year only, and most of the dealers didn’t even have an idea Chevrolet built it (via Hemmings).

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16. Pontiac Catalina 2+2

The regular Catalina was a great-looking and decent-selling model. But in 2+2 form, it was transformed into a true Gran Turismo muscle car with a luxury interior and fire-breathing engine. Since the Catalina was a full-size model, it was eligible for engines over 400 CID. This meant that the Catalina 2+2 came with the famous 421 V8. If you wanted, you could get a Tri-Power intake system that boosted your car’s power to 376 HP (via YouTube).

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Of course, buyers could order limited-slip differentials, heavy-duty steering, and brakes, and a lot more. This made the Catalina 2+2 very well appointed, but unfortunately, very expensive as well. The top-of-the-line 2+2 cost over $4,000, which was a hefty sum and much more than a similarly equipped GTO. However, Pontiac did produce around 11,000 of these machines in 1965.

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15. Oldsmobile 442 W30

Introduced in 1964, the 442 got a mild refresh for the 1966 model year and five more HP, producing 350 HP. This rating placed the Oldsmobile among the most powerful of Detroit’s muscle cars at the moment. But the most interesting model was the W30. If drivers opted for this, they got special ram-air induction with tubes going from the front bumper to the carburetors and a hotter cam.

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Oldsmobile didn’t put any wild graphics or emblems on the car. So the W-30, although 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. General Motors only made 54 of them. This is a tiny percentage from over 20,000 442s built for the 1966 model year (via Hemmings).

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14. Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

Although the 1967 Z/28 wasn’t the most powerful Camaro on offer, it was the best choice in handling, braking, and overall driving dynamics. If the SS 350 and SS 396 were pure muscle cars with big engines, the Z/28 was the driver’s machine. It was a road racing model that could handle most challenges (via Motor Trend).

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The Z/28 package included front disc brakes, close-ratio four-speed manual transmission, revised suspension and steering, exterior trim details like racing stripes, vinyl roof, and headlight covers. Still, the real treat was under the hood. The power came from a 5.0-liter V8 with 290 HP. This engine proved ideal for the Z/28 and gave the car thrilling performance while retaining low weight and nimble handling. The Mustangs didn’t have such a version, and the Z/28 was a unique offering.

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13. Pontiac Firebird 400

When the Firebird was first introduced, it caused quite a stir among performance-loving car buyers in America. It was a pretty coupe with a wide arrange of optional extras and one of the biggest engines you could get in a pony car – Pontiac’s 400 CID V8. In the late ’60s, General Motors had a rule that forbade the manufacturers from produce cars with more than one horsepower for every 10 pounds of the car’s weight. This rule aimed to stop manufacturers from making insanely overpowered models, and all General Motor’s brands had to follow this.

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The only exception was the Corvette. In 1968, Pontiac introduced the new Firebird with a 400 V8 engine rated at 320 HP. Immediately after the introduction, car fans were publicly asking the factory why the new 400 V8 engine in the Firebird rated at 320 HP while the same 400 V8 engine in the GTO had 366 HP. Pontiac didn’t reply, and soon, the answer came fro the factory. The new Firebird 400 weighed 3300 pounds. So in order to make it eligible under the GM 1 HP per 10 pounds rule, Pontiac had to rate the 400 V8 engine at 320 HP (via Hemmings).

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12. Pontiac GTO Judge

Muscle cars started as affordable performance machines with lots of power and reasonable prices. However, due to high demand, some models started to get more and more expensive. Soon, there was a need for a budget-friendly muscle car aimed at the youth market who wanted a fast car but couldn’t pay much. The Plymouth Roadrunner was a perfect example of such a model. It was cheap, fun, and quick. Pontiac wanted a similar car, so in 1969, the company presented the GTO Judge (via Audrain Auto Museum).

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The Judge became a legend in its own right, first because it took the name from the popular TV show. Second, it was a bright red muscle car with a big spoiler and “The Judge” graphics all over it. The GTO Judge wasn’t slow either, with 366 HP and a four-speed transmission. Available from 1969 to 1971, the Judge always represented a top-of-the-line model, which makes it very desirable today.

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11. Buick GSX

The 1970 model year was a watershed year for American muscle and performance models since never before or since there were so many great models available. Backed by steady sales and 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. It was a visually upgraded Gran Sport with Stage 1 performance package (via Mecum). 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.

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The power output was the same (345 HP/510 lb-ft). And because Buick’s 455 was significantly lighter than Chevelle’s 454 or Plymouth’s Hemi 426, the GSX was a winner in street races across America. However, despite all the qualities of the GSX and numerous accolades by the motoring press, Buick built less than 700 examples. The GSX package added 1,100 dollars over the price of a regular GS 455. This proved to too expensive for most buyers.

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10. Chevrolet Nova SS

The Nova was Chevrolet’s compact car introduced first as Chevy II in the early ’60s. The small and affordable model was just a scaled-down Chevelle or Impala. Still, by the end of the ’60s, it obtained serious street credibility since it became a favorite street racer’s weapon. The combination of Nova’s lightweight body and potent V8 engines made it very fast (via Amazing Classic Cars).

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Chevrolet introduced the SS 350 and SS 396 versions in 1968/9, which were extremely fast. The 1970 model wasn’t changed and still retained classic styling and two powerful V8 engines as an option. Independent tuners like Yenko even offered brutally quick 427 conversions.

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9. Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454

The Chevelle was always a trendy muscle car. Its combination of affordable price, excellent design, and powerful engines was a hit with the buyers. For 1970, Chevrolet offered an expanded line of engines, including famous 454 V8 big blocks. The regular version was called LS5, and it was mighty, but there was an even stronger LS6 variant installed in just 3,700 cars.

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The LS-6 had almost racing compression of 11.25:1 and used a bigger carburetor and stronger engine internals. It was rated at 450 HP, but it is more likely that it produced over 500 (via Auto Express).

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8. Pontiac Trans Am

The continuation of the legendary Trans Am was ready for the 1970 debut of the second generation with even more power, new design and details, and more performance, of course. The 1970 Trans Am got new spoilers, color scheme, interior trim, and a choice of several versions depending on the Ram Air induction system on the 400 CID V8 engine (via Motor Trend).

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If you had the Ram Air III, you got the 345 HP engine, but if you optioned for the Ram Air IV engine, you had 370 HP, which was a pretty substantial number for 1970, which guaranteed brutal performance. The Trans Am also received better brakes and suspension packages, 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 ’70s recession and the oil crisis.

Foto Credit: GM

7. GMC Syclone

Back in the 1980s, GM has experimented a lot with turbocharged engines. The most famous were Buick Grand National or Buick GNX, which featured 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engines and fewer than sub-five-second 0 to 60 mph times. Those black Buicks were terrorizing the drag strips and stop lights with that kind of firepower. By the early 1990s, Buicks were gone, and GM engineers were looking where to install that turbo hardware (via Top Speed).

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The decision was made to make a crazy sports truck out of a plebian Chevrolet S10, a compact pickup with diminutive four-cylinder power. This is how the GMC Syclone was born. General Motors took installed a 4.3-liter V6 with a turbocharger with 280 HP, a unique 4-speed automatic sourced from a Corvette, and performance-based all-wheel drive. The power figures don’t sound much these days, but the Syclone was able to sprint to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. The key was its lightweight with small dimensions and lots of torque from the turbocharged engine. Less than 3,000 were built. The Syclone wasn’t the first performance truck, but it was the first turbocharged compact pickup designed to win stoplight races.

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6. Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

1993 marked the return of the Camaro and the Z/28 in a brand-new body. The fourth-generation Camaro was a modern-looking and capable muscle car which came in two body styles, a coupe and a convertible (via Edmunds).

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The engine lineup consisted of V6 and V8 units. The Z/28 version got Chevrolet’s LT1 engine with 275 HP. It doesn’t sound as much today, but for the early ’90s, it was a good number that translated to lively performance. The Z/28 package also got improved brakes and six-speed manual transmission.

Foto Credit: GM

5. Chevrolet Impala SS

The Impala SS is one of the most legendary names in Chevrolet’s performance history. The original Impalas SS were produced from 1961 to 1969. They were full-size muscle cars that could beat many other performance cars at the stoplight. The Impala SS was a street-legal drag racer of the highest order powered by big-block engines and equipped with a close-ratio four-speed transmission unit.

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However, as the muscle car era ended, the Impala SS was discontinued. It was resurrected in 1994 as an option on the seventh generation of this legendary model. Since the early ’90s marked the return to performance for most American manufacturers, Chevrolet installed the famous 5.7-liter LT1 V8 engine in the full-size rear-wheel-drive sedan. They also equipped it with heavy-duty suspension and components that created a modern-day muscle legend (via Driving Line). For two years, Chevrolet produced almost 70,000 Impala SS models in several colors. The engine delivered 260 HP and propelled the big sedan to 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds. Not exactly spectacular numbers, but for the mid-’90s, they were good results.

Foto Credit: GM

4. 1983-88 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS

Chevrolet introduced the Monte Carlo in 1970. The SS version was the perfect blend of performance and luxury in an affordable package. But they discontinued the option in 1974, and customers soon forgot it. In 1983, Chevrolet decided to reintroduce it in the 1983 model, continuing the option 1988 successfully (via Monte Carlo SS).

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The mid ’80s Monte Carlo was one of the coolest two-door coupes of the period, although the performance wasn’t exhilarating. Under the hood was a 305 V8 with 180 HP mated to slow automatic transmission. What the SS lacked in performance contributed to looks and reputation. Chevrolet built over 180,000 of those sleek coupes in its five-year production run.

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3. 1985-90 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

The third-generation Camaro was popular. But after a while, buyers wanted more performance and power. So, Chevrolet delivered that in the legendary IROC-Z version in 1985. The IROC-Z was a tribute to the Chevrolet-sponsored International Race of Champions racing series.

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However, it was more than just an appearance package and a cool name. Under the hood was a 350 V8 with 225 HP and in later versions, 245 HP. Buyers could opt for manual or automatic and tuned suspensions and steering. Chevrolet even offered a cool-looking convertible: the first Camaro ragtop in 18 years. The IROC-Z proved a popular and influential muscle car which finally brought some actual performance to the buyers (via Motor Trend).

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2. Buick GNX

Back in 1982, Buick started experimenting with turbocharging its line of standard V6 engines. The results were intriguing. So Buick engineers developed a performance version with better acceleration figures. Soon, there was the Buick Grand National with 175 HP. This wasn’t that impressive but it was a start (via Motorious). In the next couple of years, the Grand National got a bigger engine and more power, jumping from 175 HP to 200 HP and finally to 235 HP. With those numbers came acceleration times of less than six seconds, making the black Grand Nationals high-speed cars. But in 1987, the ultimate version they called the Grand National Experimental (GNX) came.

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It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 but pumped out 275 HP with a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds. Nobody expected such a bold move from Buick. Suddenly, their turbocharged V6 coupe broke every classic muscle car mold. It was even faster than a Ferrari. At that time, the Buick GNX was the fastest accelerating production model globally. At $29,000, it was expensive. However, legend says some GNX owners paid for their cars by street racing them. Unfortunately, the Buick GNX was year only model, and the company made just 547 of them. Today, those cars are as equally praised as they were in the late ’80s.

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1. Pontiac Trans Am GTA

Arguably, the Trans Am was the hottest version of the third generation Pontiac F-body. Pontiac introduced it in 1987 as their top-of-the-line Firebird. The package was available in relatively limited numbers until 1992. The secret weapons of the GTA were the engine and the WS6 handling package.

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The engine was a 350 V8 with 210 HP in earlier models and 245 HP in later versions. Rumor was the engine was the same as the Corvette. They used the same TPI fuel injection system and displacement but not similar motors. The Corvette used aluminum heads while Pontiac used iron cast ones (via How Stuff Works). However, the power and performance were similar. The WS6 package offered unmatched road holding and braking capabilities. It consisted of four disk brakes and a stiffer suspension. The WS6 also came with stronger sway bars, unique wheels, and performance tires.

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