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Last Of The Breed: Top 32 Muscle Cars Of The 1970s

Vukasin Herbez May 9, 2019

17. Ford Torino Cobra

As the last true muscle car of the bygone era, Ford introduced the 1971 Torino GT with the Cobra Jet engine and 370 HP under its long hood. The 1971 model was one of the coolest looking cars out there. It had a semi-fastback rear end, a low stance, and a wide track.

But best of all, it came in coupe or convertible form. And the engine options were simple. You could get the venerable 428 Cobra Jet or 429 Cobra motor, both with the same power ratings.

16. Oldsmobile 442

As one of the premium muscle cars that combined great performance with good looks and luxury features, the Olds 442 returned for the 1971/72 model years. However, despite its big cube engine and factory blueprinting, the power was down.

For 1971 and ‘72, the Olds 442 produced 260 HP, or 300 HP in the W30 option, which was significantly lower than previous models. However, due to clever engineering from the Oldsmobile guys, the 442 was still fast enough to attract attention from the muscle car crowd.

15. Plymouth GTX

Plymouth presented the GTX in 1967 as a luxury option in the Belvedere lineup. They based this model on the same platform as the Coronet. But it was much more luxurious with 375 HP 440 V8 as standard and the famous Hemi as the sole option. Because Plymouth wanted the GTX to compete with the luxury cars of the period, they installed all the possible creature comforts.

And then they topped it all off with a special trim on the outside to distinguish the GTX from the rest of the model lineup. However, when the early ‘70s came, most muscle cars started to lose their power and torque figures. So Plymouth discontinued the GTX in 1971 to keep it from being a disgrace to its fire-breathing predecessors. And that is why the ‘71 GTX is the last of its breed and a fantastic muscle car.

14. Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD 455

By 1974, almost all of the muscle cars were extinct from the market. Those that were left were robbed of their power and style. However, there was one model that managed to survive and 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 the new front and rear end came the improved interior and details. The carried the SD 455 model over from 1973 but in a new package featuring a better suspension and brakes. The standard 455 V8 only produced 215 HP, but in SD trim it developed 290 HP, which was fantastic for 1974.

In fact, with 290 HP, a host of performance upgrades and four-speed manual transmission, the 1974 Trans Am SD 455 was even faster than the Corvette. And that is what made it the fastest American production car of the period.

13. Chevrolet Laguna 454

Back in the day, Chevrolet tried to make the Laguna desirable by giving it several body styles. They included the 350 V8 as the base engine, although with only 145 HP, and a long list of optional extras. However, nothing helped, so after a few years, they discontinued the Laguna.

But one particularly interesting thing is that most people consider the Laguna as one of the last classic Chevrolet muscle cars. And that is because they offered it in the coupe body style for 1974 with an optional 454 V8. Of course, the power level wasn’t high, but the big 454 still produced enough torque to spin the rear wheels.

12. Ford Mustang Mach I

The 1973 model year would be the last year for the classic Mustang. The car was already a legend, but the tight emissions and environmental regulations meant it was down on power.

But the 1973 Mach I was a far cry from the 1969/70 model, which was much more powerful and had big block engines. The top engine for 1973 Mach I was the 351 Cleveland V8 providing just 260 HP on tap.

11. 1970 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400

The year 1970 market the second generation of the Pontiac Firebird. It debuted as a mid-year introduction with a couple of new versions and only one body style, the coupe. That was because Pontiac decided to drop the convertible model. In fact, it didn’t return for over a decade. The company realized that traditional muscle cars like the GTO were slowly going out of style.

People were turning towards the smaller. more agile pony cars like the Firebird, so they decided to invest heavily into that lineup. The first true muscle model was the Formula 400 Pontiac introduced in 1970. The Formula 400 was a sort of middle version between the base Firebird V8 and fire-breathing Trans Am. The Formula had a 400 V8 engine delivering 330 HP.

Also, it had a cool-looking twin-scoop hood that could be functional if the buyer bought the optional Ram Air induction. The Firebird Formula 400 was fast, but it wasn’t all that affordable, so Pontiac only made around 7,700 for the 1970 model year.

10. 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Special Edition

The late ’70s were sad times for muscle cars. All the available models had diminutive horsepower ratings and massive bodies, which made performance embarrassingly slow. The Firebird/Trans Am range could not escape this, as well. However, Pontiac still managed to produce some memorable cars through its Special Edition models. Soon, they dressed up the Trans Am and turned it into a street icon.

The primary model was the Trans Am, which could come with either a 4.9-liter turbo engine or a 400 NA V8. However, neither of those powerplants had more than 220 HP during the 1977 to 1981 production run. However, the main aspect was the design with its signature graphics and appearance package. They affectionately called the car the “Screaming Chicken” because it had a highly-stylized flaming bird logo on the hood of the car. The graphics package was extraordinarily modern for the standards of the day.

The bird logo started as a relatively small sticker in the middle of the hood in the early ’70s, only to grow to a big sticker covering the entire hood. Then it found its way to the B pillars, rear end, and front fenders. The 1977/78 Firebird Trans Am gained international fame by appearing in the cult movie, “Smokey and the Bandit.” The film helped triple the sales numbers, turning the Trans Am into a movie legend as well as a muscle car icon.

9. 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.

1975 Chevrolet Camaro via GM

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.

8. Dodge Magnum

The model name, “Magnum,” may sound familiar to you since Dodge used it in a successful line of station wagons. Although they produced it between 2005 and 2008, it’s production goes back to 1978. The original Dodge Magnum was a luxury muscle car coupe they produced for two years, 1978 and 1979. Back in the late 70’s, the American performance market was practically dead.

The insurance companies, as well as strict environmental and safety laws killed the muscle car culture. This meant any new cars had embarrassingly low power figures. The muscle car market wasn’t extinct. However, there weren’t any cars consumers could buy with performance numbers like the late 60’s.

As a prominent muscle car company, Dodge wanted to introduce a model with more power. However, they wanted to offer it in a luxury package to appeal to a wider audience. This is how they came up with the Dodge Magnum. It was a cool looking coupe with all the right ingredients. They included rear-wheel drive, a long hood, a short deck and a thumping V8 in the front.

The biggest engine that consumers could order was a 5.9-liter V8 with 195 HP. That is diminutive by today`s standards, but back in 1979, this guaranteed respect. Unfortunately, high prices affected sales, so they discontinued the Dodge Magnum for the 1980 model year.

7. Plymouth Fury GT

Despite being an economy brand in the Chrysler Corporation, Plymouth had a surprisingly large number of muscle cars during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Their luxury muscle car was the GTX, but in 1970, the Fury GT debuted as the biggest model on offer. The Fury GT was a two-door coupe version of the Fury sedan.

In GT guise, it was a full-size muscle car with the perfect combination of looks and power. Under the hood was a well-known 440 V8 with a three-carburetor setup and 375 HP on tap. Buyers could choose between the 727 Torqueflite automatic and a four-speed manual. However, despite its power and looks, the Fury GT wasn’t a big performer because it was such a heavy car.

6. Dodge Lil’ Express Truck

The muscle car era affected the truck segment, which resulted in a few special versions and more powerful engines. However, nothing changed the truck industry more than when Dodge introduced the Lil’ Express Truck in 1978 as the first full-size muscle truck in the world. The secret of the Lil’ Express Truck and its importance lies in the strict rules of the late 1970s, which robbed V8 engines of their power.

But, Dodge found an interesting loophole in the current regulations that declared pickup trucks didn’t need catalytic converters. This meant Dodge could install a more powerful engine and allow it to deliver more punch than previous models or competitors.

Dodge took a standard D Series short bed truck, added a 360 V8 engine and put big truck-like stacked exhaust pipes right behind the doors. They also installed a more durable automatic transmission. This wild-looking special model had a 225 HP engine, which was considered powerful in those days. Thanks to a revised drivetrain, it was the fastest accelerating domestic vehicle in 1978. It was faster than muscle cars like the Mustang, Camaro, and the Corvette. Today, these cool-looking Dodge trucks are highly sought-after and command high prices

5. Monroe Handler

Few people know what the Monroe Handler is. But back in the late ’70s, the Mustang was a disgrace due to a serious lack of performance and power. However, Hot Rod Magazine thought that underneath it was a cool, little performance car. So with the help of Monroe, a manufacturer of shock absorbers, they built the Monroe Handler. It turned out to be the only real-performing Mustang II.

Thanks to a long list of modifications, the Monroe Handler came with a 400 HP engine and a racing suspension. Monroe added an extensive body kit and a long list of other upgrades. Although it was a show car, the Handler proved the Mustang II had potential, so they started producing kits for the public.

4. Ford Mustang II King Cobra

The second generation of Ford Mustang debuted in 1974 and was on the market for four years, until 1978. Despite the fact it was the subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was an important model. The downsizing of the whole Mustang range, the introduction of economical four-cylinder engines and parts sharing with other Ford models helped Mustangs survive the recession of the 70’s and the death of the muscle car movement.

But all of that doesn’t mean there weren’t any interesting Mustangs between 1974 and 1978. They just were slow. There was one particularly interesting model and it was the special edition King Cobra model. Ford knew their 5.0 V8 engine made only 140 HP in the Mustang II, but they also knew by dressing up the car, they could attract buyers.

So, they introduced the King Cobra. With a flaming snake on the hood, front and rear spoilers and full body kit, the King Cobra was a typical 70’s factory custom car. They mated the 5.0 V8 to a four-speed manual transmission to make a performance car. However, the performance wasn’t great, but the outrageous body kit stole the show. Today, the King Cobra is a collector’s item.

3. Buick Century GS

After 1970, the muscle car segment decline started. And in just a few short years, those glorious muscle cars disappeared from the scene. Buick tried their best to deliver great performance in luxury package. But after the slow sales of their 1971 and 1972 models, they decided to kill the GSX package.

However, in 1973, they renamed their Skylark line the Century. And that meant the engineers at Buick managed to sneak one more proper muscle car model, the Century GS. The Century GS was a Colonnade-style intermediate coupe. In fact, it was similar to those Pontiac and Oldsmobile intermediates with the characteristic front-end design. But the GS was just an appearance package that mimicked the looks of previous models.

The standard engine was the 150 HP 350 V8. However, if you optioned for the 455 Stage 1 big block, you could get 270 HP with revised brakes and suspensions. This version delivered some performance, so car fans consider it the last true Buick muscle car. However, the number of Century GS Stage 1 cars produced in 1973 is low. They only made around 700 of them with four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmissions.

2. Ford Mustang HO

In 1972, Ford discontinued the Boss 351 and Cobra Jet Mustangs after killing their Shelby models two years prior. However, performance Mustang buyers weren’t left with a choice, so Ford offered the HO model. The “HO” stood for high output and it was like offering the Boss 351 for 1972.

It featured a performance 351 V8 they rated at 275 HP, which was impressive by those early ‘70s standards. In the end, Ford only made about 60 of those interesting machines in all three body styles.

1. 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. In fact, it had 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. And that was more than any other muscle car on the market at the moment. The Can-Am package consisted of special rear window louvers, a rear spoiler and a long list of special optional extras.

They introduced the car early in 1977 and the market responded well. In fact, Pontiac received between 5,000 and 10,000 reservations. But in the end, they only sold 1,377 Can Ams.

These are last of the breed and 32 of the best muscle cars from the early ’70s. Did you pick your ultimate favorite? Some of them are still available, so you should get out there and start looking before they disappear forever.

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