Like food, music, or literature, every country puts its own spin on cars. While European and Japanese firms are known for emphasizing handling, the traditional American approach has been all about power.
In the 1960s, American automakers began stuffing the biggest engines they could find into the smallest, lightest chassis that would hold them. It was a time when performance was as important a marketing angle as smartphone connectivity is today, and it birthed American muscle cars.
Traditionally, a muscle car’s performance is defined by the size of its engine. As the saying goes, there’s no replacement for displacement. Modern American performance cars are more well-rounded, but big engines and lots of horsepower are still their calling card.
Many great muscle cars have been unleashed over the years, but this list represents our personal favorites. We’ve got something from every major manufacturer, including plenty of classics and a handful of newer models. We listed engine displacement in both cubic inches and liters for the older cars, since that’s how they were identified when new.
We went over the first 5 of the Top 10….here’s the rest >
Ford Mustang GT (second generation, 1968)
The 1968 Ford Mustang GT may be the most iconic muscle car of all, thanks to its co-starring role in the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. McQueen piloted a Highland Green Mustang with a 390-cubic-inch V8 to immortality in what many consider to be the greatest movie car chase of all. To celebrate Bullitt’s 50th anniversary, Ford created a special-edition 2019 Mustang, and helped bring one of the original cars used in the movie out of hiding.
Plymouth Road Runner (1968)
By the late 1960s, the original idea of muscle cars as affordable performance cars seemed to have run its course. Muscle cars were getting more elaborate and, consequently, more expensive. That’s when Chrysler’s Plymouth division saw an opportunity for a back-to-basics model.
The Road Runner was nothing more than an ordinary car with a big engine and copious references to a certain cartoon character. On the outside, the Road Runner didn’t look like anything special, but it packed some serious firepower under the hood, including Chrysler’s legendary 426 (7.0-liter) Hemi V8. In 1970, Plymouth fitted the Road Runner with a streamlined nose and massive rear spoiler to create the Superbird, a NASCAR-inspired sibling to Dodge’s Charger Daytona.
Things went downhill from there, though. Later Road Runners lacked the guts of models from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Today, not only is the Road Runner gone, but so is the entire Plymouth brand.
Ford Mustang Boss 302 (1969)
The early days of muscle cars were all about NASCAR and drag racing, but those weren’t the only motor sports disciplines muscle cars were created for. The SCCA Trans Am road-racing series ignited a war between Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and AMC.
Ford’s weapon of choice was the Boss 302, a version of the Mustang built specifically to win in the Trans Am. The “302” referred to the car’s 302-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) engine, built to satisfy Trans Am rules limiting engine displacement.
In the hands of driver Parnelli Jones, the Boss 302 took the fight to Ford’s rivals, leading to some epic on-track battles. While far from the only memorable Mustang performance variant, the Boss 302 was so fondly remembered that Ford revived the name for a limited-edition model in 2011.
Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (1969)
Today, the Trans Am is probably best known as the car Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey & The Bandit, but Pontiac launched the model in 1969. It was named after the Trans Am race series and positioned as a high-performance version of the Pontiac Firebird, itself a twin of the Chevy Camaro. The Trans Am was one of the few muscle cars to survive into the 1970s, long enough to achieve icon status with Reynolds at the wheel.
Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 (1970)
In the golden age of muscle cars, the Super Sport (or SS for short) badge denoted high-performance versions of Chevy’s mainstream models. It’s survived to the present day on the Camaro SS and recently discontinued SS sedan, and that’s thanks to legendary cars like the Chevelle SS.
The Chevelle SS was in many ways the quintessential muscle car. Chevy took its bread-and-butter midsize car and stuffed a succession of massive V8 engines under its hood. The madness culminated with the SS 454, which debuted in 1970 with a 454-cubic-inch (7.2-liter) engine. With that big engine and a stylish exterior, the SS 454 represents the peak of classic muscle cars. As the 1970s wore on, emissions standards and insurance companies gradually killed them off.
These 2 aren’t in the Top 10, but they get honorable mention
Buick GNX (1987)
By the 1980s, the golden age of muscle cars was long gone. But Buick was able to keep the concept alive, swapping big, naturally aspirated V8s for a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6. With that boosted engine, the Buick Grand National was one of the quickest cars of its time, and looked like it was designed by Darth Vader.
By 1987, the Grand National was on its way out, but Buick gave it a great sendoff. A limited number (547) of GNX versions were built, with engines tuned to produce 276 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque. The GNX ran the quarter mile in 12.7 seconds at 113 mph — quicker than a Ferrari F40.
Dodge Viper (1992)
Like the Corvette, the Viper is really more of a sports car with American muscle car DNA. Built around a massive V10 engine, the Viper was known for being both refreshingly basic and difficult to drive, owing to Dodge’s resistance to modern driver aids like traction control. The last-generation Viper gained that feature, as well as more creature comforts, but that wasn’t enough to keep it alive. At least Dodge sent it out in a blaze of glory with the ACR, a hardcore model that set records at 13 racetracks.