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Fastest American Muscle Cars of the 1960s

I have a 1967 Camaro Z-28 that I've owned now for 12 years. But that's not to say there's other beautiful makes and models out there.

1968 Dodge Charger

1968 Dodge Charger

Early History of the American Muscle Car

In a time now long ago, when the term 'political correctness' hadn't yet been invented, auto manufacturers were waging a horsepower war. As a result, cars were pouring out of the factory doors with such huge power capabilities that any lapse of concentration on the accelerator by the average driver resulted in him being up a tree before he could even realize what had happened.

Historians generally agree that the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, first produced in 1949 for a post-war public that wanted speed and power, was the very first American muscle car. There was nothing around that could match its 303 cubic inch V8, and it went on to win eight of the ten NASCAR races that year.

We then have to go to 1955, when Chrysler took over the NASCAR reins with its C-300. But then we go to the early 1960s as Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth (Mopar) compete with Ford as to whose car can get down the drag strip the fastest. The 1962 Dodge Dart with its production 413 cu inch engine could get through the 1/4 mile in a fairly staggering 13 seconds at over 100 mph.

Let's take a breather here and have a think about this. The 2015 Ford Mustang goes through the 1/4 mile at 12.8 seconds. So 53 years ago, a Dodge Dart on fairly skinny tires could go down the strip only 0.2 of a second slower compared to a newer Mustang.

By 1964, things were really starting to go wild in Detroit. Chevrolet had the SS, Pontiac the GTO, Dodge the Polara 500, Plymouth the Sport Fury and Ford released its 427 cu inch engine in response to Mopar's 426 cu inch. Then of course, there were others such as the early 60's rocket - the 60's Chevrolet Corvette.

There's no argument that the 1960s was the best decade for American car design ever. The top three—Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger—are still be recreating retro's from that era. It's amazing that we're nostalgic for a time so long ago. I guess the 60's stood for prosperity and freedom, two things sadly missing today.

Okay - Let's get going with a list of the best and fastest 1960s muscle cars. There's no particular order going on here.

The 1964 Pontiac GTO lead the American muscle car pack and is regarded by many as the first American muscle car. As I said before, the honor for the first goes to the 1949 Oldsmobile, but the GTO was the first out of the blocks to be well priced and widely available.

General Motors had a very conservative Board in the 60's and banned its divisions from rocking the boat with cars like the GTO, so Pontiac designed it in secret and then approached the Board with a stack of dealer orders, in fact over 5000. Pontiac's Chief Engineer, John DeLorean and fellow engineers, Bill Collins and Russ Gee found that by installing the 389 cu inch V8 into the mid sized Pontiac Tempest that they suddenly had something fairly wild. The Board had no choice but to produce it and it turned GM around from an old Nanny look to something that the new generation couldn't get enough of.

The GTO was actually marketed through the Pontiac Tempest. So, if you wanted one you ordered a Tempest but with the GTO option pack. So your Tempest was rebadged as a GTO. The base cost was $2556. But then for an extra $295 you got a GTO with a 389 cu inch V8 with 325 hp. You could then opt for a four speed manual transmission, tachometer, custom sports steering wheel and you could also go another $115 and get the tri power, triple carburettors that got that horsepower up to 348 and gave you a 0 to 60mph time of just 5.6 seconds. That's fast.

GM assumed a production rate of 5000 GTO's for 1964 but in Pontiac's history of car production, 32,000 were produced. Even more would have been sold if they had the production capacity.

Predictably, the GTO got bigger and fatter and more luxurious as its owners got older and wanted something more like an armchair than a lightweight demon and so by the time that 1974 came the Pontiac GTO was all over as the appeal for American muscle cars was waning and stringent Government lead safety and emission regulations were taking hold.

I'm giving this special mention because in my opinion the '66 GTO was the best looking of all the GTO's. This was the year of the 'coke bottle' look with kicked up rear fenders. It was copied across all manufacturers.

Engine and transmission choices remained exactly the same as for the previous year and it was only 3 inches longer than the 1964 GTO. There was a new option called the XS which was a factory ram air set up with a new 744 high lift camshaft.

If you ever see one of these for sale, don't hesitate, just buy one because they only made 35 with this option.

All in all 96,946 GTO's were made in 1966. More than any other GTO production year. The youth market called it the Goat ( because a goat will eat anything), as it's still known today, even though Pontiac advertising tried extra hard to advertise it as the GTO Tiger.

One of my first 1960s American muscle car memories is a 1966 Pontiac GTO, as a 12 year old, at a hillclimb. It was a twisty narrow road up the hill, and the GTO was competing against all kind of cars including Jaguars and Mini Coopers. The GTO was one of the slowest cars there due to near zero traction, but nobody cared about that. The crowd got as close as they could to the start line each time he took off. We were all laughing like crazy as we were choking on tire smoke as this guy would floor it and get nowhere in first gear. Then ramming it into second he'd line it up sideways for the first corner. It was brutally loud and quick.

The 1966 Pontiac GTO is my favorite of the saloon type of 60s American muscle cars. So I'm not comparing the GTO to Mustangs and Camaros as in my mind these are sports muscle cars. Shorter wheelbase and almost two seaters, compared to the bigger GTO's, Chev SS's, Wildcats, Plymouth GTX's.

In my mind the GTO, GTX class were the real muscle cars of the 60's, as they were factory hot rods. If Ford, Plymouth, Buick, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Pontiac hadn't of created these overpowered brutes, they would still exist as they would have been created in the hot rodders garage instead.

In Chevrolet lingo, SS stands for Super Sport. The term was adopted right through their model range, so there were even Impala SS's, along with Camaro's and Malibu's.

Like the 1966 Pontiac GTO, the 1967 year of the Chevelle saw the introduction of the coke bottle rear fender look. The 396 cubic inch V8 was upped to 375hp late in 1967 and buyers had the choice of seven different transmissions. Four different manual boxes and two automatics. For the manuals, Chevelles came standard with a three speed, or, an optional four speed, wide ratio Muncie, or a close ratio, or, a M22 Rock Crusher.

If 1967 you had $2825 burning a hole in your pocket, then the Chevelle was all yours. Hundreds of dollars cheaper than any other American muscle car of the period. You did have to add a little for options. though. An extra $196 got you the 6.5 litre 396 cu in and Strato bucket seats were an extra $110. But with your 396 SS you could glide quite comfortably past the 1967 390cu inch Mustang down at your local strip in a total time of 14.9 seconds. Zero to 60mph was taken in 6.5 seconds. The downside was that you were using fuel at the rate of 9 to 13 mpg. But gas was cheap in those days so who cared. Making it one of the fastest muscle cars of the 60's.

Rare in 1967 was the Corvette engined L78 big block, Chevelle SS. Just 616 were made.

Design for the 1968 Coronet was all new and it came in seven different models with hardtops, convertibles, sedans and station wagons. Pricing started at $2500 for the sedan. But forget about the sedan - The Coronet R/T (Road and Track) came standard with a whopping 440 cubic inch Magnum V8 with a four barrel carburettor offering 375 hp. 150 mph speedometer, vinyl bucket seats and bumblebee stripes around the rear.

Even quicker though was the 426 cu inch Hemi version that went into only 226 Coronet RT's that year. With 425 hp you could wreck a pair of rear tires in minutes. Zero to 60mph took only 5.3 seconds and it had a top speed of 140mph. All for $3500.One of the fastest American muscle cars of the 60's for sure.

Pontiac introduced the Firebird in 1967 through its cousin the Chev Camaro. They really made the best use of any muscle car with regards the coke bottle rear fenders and still look totally stunning today, 48 years later. For 1968 the 400 cu inch engine from the GTO was available with 325 hp. But you could opt for the 'ram air' which gave you functional air scoops, a different camshaft and stronger valve springs. This was a pretty expensive option at an additional $600, so few were sold. Performance was good though, not much between this and a same year Camaro Z/28. Quarter of a mile was all done in 14.7 seconds, 0-60mph in 6.2 seconds.

Firebirds were roughly $200 more on all models compared to the Camaro. Camaro's outsold them two to one. A true American muscle car.

Very limited production for these Mustangs. Only 5000 were made in 1965. They all came standard with the Solid Lifter 289 cu inch V8 with 271hp. The very same engine that Carroll Shelby stuffed straight into his GT350 Shelby Mustangs. So basically these were a poor mans Shelby. They really weren't a lot slower either. The base Mustang 289 V8 was stock with 200hp so by Ford adding higher compression, a four barrel carb instead of the standard 2 barrel and solid valve lifters, this all added up to an extra 71 hp. So, you didn't have to do a lot to these small blocks to increase power by 40% or so. In fact, race versions were throwing out 350 reliable horsepower.

The GT option pack also included front disc brakes, four speed manual box (instead of the three speed), quick ratio steering, chromed dual exhausts that backed out through the rear valance panel, built into the grill, twin fog lamps and five purposeful round dials in the instrument panel, in place of the standard Falcon instrument panel. You got all this including that glorious engine for an extra $276.00.

All up Ford produced 13,214 K Code Mustangs between 1965 and 1967. A good one today can cost in the $40k mark. But it may very well not have its original K-Code engine or drivetrain. Also, be very wary of American muscle car fakes. There's quite a lot online for you to be able to tell the difference as over the nearly 50 years since these first appeared, many have been made to look like K-Codes.

Dodge were pretty late to the party with this one as it was meant to go up against the Mustang and the Camaro.

The Challenger became famous overnite with the release of the movie 'Vanishing point.' The main star, Kowalski, evades cops from Colorado to nearly San Francisco, where he's destined to deliver the car he's driving, a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum. If you've never seen this film, download it or borrow or buy it. Yeah of course it's aged but it's actually got some fairly strong social commentary going on as well as a car chase.

These Challengers came out with a range of hot rod engines. First up was was a 383 cu inch 6.2 litre Magnum V8 rated at 335 hp. But you could order it also with the 440 cu inch, 7.2 litre, six pack (that's a trio of 2 barrel carburettors) which gave you a race car motor for the street with a 4 speed hurst stick and 425 hp. With this engine, the 440 could go through the quarter mile in just 13.4 seconds at 107 mph. One of the fastest muscle cars of the 60's.

In 1970 tires were nothing like we have today, in fact, radial ply tires were a fairly new innovation, so, a quarter mile in 1970 was run with a complete loss of traction for the first 1/8th mile. Recently 'Car Life' ran a 440 down the strip with ten inch slicks and it came through in the low 12's. One of my favorite muscle cars.

A true blooded race car in street clothes, the Z/28 was designed to compete in the SCCA Trans-Am series. It came standard with upgraded suspension, Muncie close ratio 4 speed transmission, power disc brakes on all four wheels, and a solid lifter 302 cu inch V8 of just under 5 litres. Chevrolet advertised the horsepower at 290 hp. But this was mainly to do with racing and insurance reasons. The true rating was closer to 360 hp. This was for the standard single four barrel carburettor. By putting on the optional dual four barrels, you were looking at 400 hp.

The Z/28's popularity started to grow rapidly after GM won 10 of the 13 Trans-Am races that year and production rose to 7199 cars. These Z/28's could be supplied to customers basically as race cars with no air conditioning and other comfort trimming. Zero to 60 mph in a tire sizzling 5.5 seconds and the 1/4 all done in 13.8 seconds. The 2014 Camaro goes down the quarter in 12.9 seconds so there's not much in it. In fact it's possible that the 60's Z/28's could have even been faster than the latest ones. Current ones have all sorts of traction and stability controls plus tires that weren't even dreamt of in the 60's. So, go put a pair of rear slicks on the older one and I bet there's more than a few seconds in it.

Z/28 on the Manx Hillclimb

I don't think there was a cleaner design in the muscle car 1960s than the 1968 Dodge Charger. Just look at that long racked coupe roofline and such a simple squared off front with hidden headlights that just works.

The most memorable car chase in movie history in Steve McQueen's Bullitt, has to be the 1968 Dodge Charger verses McQueen in the fastback 390 Mustang. Knowledgable car guys with not a lot to do have analyzed that film for decades and come up with the conclusion that throughout that chase the Charger was faster.

1968 was a whole new year for the Charger as they got a complete redesign. A nice quite subtle coke bottle design was grafted around the rear fenders and the rear window had a new curved in 'flying buttress' effect.

Standard engine was the 318 cu inch V8 but you could get the R/T version with the 440 cu inch Magnum. 96,000 Chargers were manufactured in 1968 including 17000 R/T's. You could buy the base 318 one for a shade over $3000, or, $3480 for the R/T.

The one to get though was the Charger with the 426 cu inch Hemi and 425 hp. With a four speed transmission this hit 60mph in just 5.4 seconds and would top out at 140 mph. Mind you, the economy like all 60's American muscle cars was very distant in the minds of the manufacturers. The Hemi Charger would go through 13mpg just cruising and 11mpg in town. The gas tanks weren't even that big at 19 gallons, so if you were cruising you'd have to fill that tank up every 250 miles.

Below is the famous car chase scene from Bullitt. See how the Charger's got the edge on the Mustang.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say of all the years that Barracudas were produced, 1970 was the best design and it went all the way through from 1964 to 1974.

Mind you the 1966 Barracuda was a really nice looking car too with a stunning wraparound curved window just like the British Jensen of the same year. They were all based on the Valiant, but in 1970 Plymouth gave the Barracuda its own distinct design.

Known as The Cuda, it shared engines with the Chrysler Charger and Challenger at the time. So available V8's were from 318 cu inch right through to the 426cu inch Hemi and 440 cu inch Magnum. Although the Cuda looks remarkably like the Challenger it only shares its platform and no other sheet metal. In fact the Challenger's got a 2 inch longer wheelbase.

The Hemi was the way to go with a 5.8 second 0-60mph time but costing an extra $880 for this engine option is probably the reason only 666 cars were delivered. The standard car with a 225 cu inch 6 cost $2865 so yeah another 30% extra for that American Hemi muscle car would have been quite a hike.

Javelins were more unusual 60's muscle cars. They were built in two generations, a 1968-1970 version and a restyle for 1971-1974. Personally, I prefer the styling of the first model.

A real wake up to the big three was that Javelin's won the Trans-Am series. Not just in 1971, but 1972 and 1976 - two years after they'd stopped production.

AMC built them in Wisconsin, but they were also assembled in Mexico, Venezuela, Germany, and Australia. Richard Teague penned the design and it was a clever combination of both notchback and fastback.

Prices started at $2742 and they only came in two-door form. Engine options ranged from an entry level straight six, but most opted for the 4.8 litre, 290 cu inch V8.

Biggest engine option was the 390 cu inch, 6.4 litre with four-speed manual transmission. This made 315 hp and went through the zero to 60 time at 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 122 mph. But AMC offered a big range of dealer-installed engine performance options. These included a dual four-barrel cross ram intake manifold. High-performance camshafts. Needle bearing roller rocker arms and dual point ignition.

Total production for 1968 was a healthy 6725 cars. Not large by the big three's standards, but AMC definitely stole some sales off them.

Only eleven, yeah you read that right, 11 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda Convertibles were built in 1971. Making it one of the rarest American muscle cars of the 60's. Today they are without question the most sought after by any collector. One sold 17 years ago in 2004 by collector Bill Weimann for $3 million. He has two and turned down $4 million just a year later.

The joke is that there was nothing particularly special about them. They didn't hand make them or made them out of any special exotic materials in 1971, they only made eleven, because that's all they could sell that year.

With a base price of $3221 that was fine but if you opted for the Hemi engine they stuck you for another $883. Not much today, but that's an extra 25% for the engine.

In 1971 6228 Barracuda hardtops were built and 374 convertibles. 128 Hemi Cuda hardtops were sold. Well that would be what I'd be jumping into anyway. To me convertibles just aren't muscle cars.

What's the fastest American muscle car? In 1963 Dearborn announced a limited production run of just 212 lightweight Galaxies just for customer drag racing. And light they were. With fibreglass hoods, doors, fenders and trunk lid, steel bumpers replaced with aluminium, lightweight bucket seats, all accessories pulled out like radios, the clock, carpets and all sound deadening material and even door pulls and armrests. Visors were replaced with thickened cardboard instead of vinyl covering. There was no spare wheel or jack included. The flywheel housing and T10 transmission casing were aluminium. They had a lightweight chassis built for the 6 cylinder cars. Ford managed to shave off 425lbs. But the price was $1400 more.

Following Henry Ford's Model T promotions "that you could have them in any colour your like as long as it's black, ' the Lightweights were only available in Corinthian white with red upholstery.

They came standard with the 427cu in 425hp engine with transistorised ignition and high lift cam. Popular Hot Rodding in 1963 got a 12.49sec - 116mph pass straight out of the box. Definitely one of the rarest and fastest muscle cars of the 60's.

Strangely for something so desirable and so rare, prices aren't ridiculous. A two owner car with an incredibly low 1483 miles on it, sold for $220,000 in 2015.

Back in 1969 Pontiac was getting ready for the 1970 SCCA Trans Am series for compact saloons. So they built this Pontiac Firebird Trans Am ( borrowing the name from the Trans American series and paying $5 for each car sold to SCCA for the name rights). With a 303 Ram Air 111 engine rated at 335 hp plus 4 speed Muncie this motor just fitted into the 5L maximum allowed by SCCA rules.

Pontiac built just 667 of these Trans Ams with only 150 manual transmission cars.

Motor Trend tested one in 1969 and reckoned it beat the pants off a 396 Camaro, a Hemi GTX and a couple of Corvettes.

1970 Ford Torino 429 Super Cobra Jet

The Ford Torino Super Cobra when equipped with the cast iron 7 litre 429, could beat any Hemi in its day with 13 second quarter's and a 0-60 time of just 5.8 seconds.

Yet it was big and heavy compared to some of the fastest American muscle car rivals. The 1972 Dodge Challenger weighed 3075 lbs and had a length of 191." The Torino weighed a staggering 3925 lbs and had a length of 206." Almost 25% heavier yet it clean it out down a straight.

The Torino did come with a 4 speed close ratio gearbox straight from the factory which meant on the freeway you'd be cruising at around 3500 rpm - so not very freeway friendly.

Just 7675 Torino Cobra's were built. The 429 Cobra Jet's were only available in hardtop (Sports Roof) form.

Optional was competition suspension with 500lb springs up front and 250lb springs at the rear.

When ordering the 429 cu in the 'drag pack, came with it but with a few options, such as either the 3.91:1 or the 4.30:1 axle ratio. It included a 4-bolt main engine block, forged pistons, 780 CFM Holley carburettor, engine oil cooler, and a solid lifter cam. The "Detroit Locker" rear differential was included when the 4.30:1 axle was ordered while the "Traction-Lock" limited-slip differential was included with the 3.91:1 axle.

The extra weight did give the Cobra Jet an advantage off the line as it minimised axle tramp and tire spin.

And that shaker hood was accurately named. At idle the Cobra Jet just lies there spitting and rocking from side to side.


Borrowing on the Roadrunner v Coyote cartoon, Plymouth pulled a great marketing ploy with its range of Roadrunners featuring the decal on the back, and marketing the 'beep beep' in their commercials. The actual horn went 'beep beep.' Plymouth paid $50,000 to license this from Warner Bros. As the car cost about $3000 new, (You paid an extra $750 for the 426 cu in Hemi engine option) so $50k back in 1970 would be worth about $500,000 to Warner Bros today. I reckon for the mileage they got out of it, that was money well spent.

Although there were a number of engine options in the Roadrunner, we're only concerned with the 426 cu in Hemi. Out of 39,600 Roadrunners manufactured in 1970, only 52, got the 426 ( 425hp) Hemi engine. That was 75 hardtops, 73 pillared coupes and incredibly only 3 convertibles. Where are those 3 cars today?

Acceleration didn't let you down with a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds. A quarter mile was rushed through in under 13 seconds at 106mph. Impressive given it was a heavy car tipping the scales at 4000 lbs.

For 1970 the Road Runner featured a very cool option known as the 'air grabber box.' So at the lights with the Mustang shaking from side to side next to you as the driver looked over, you'd pull a lever underneath the dash and that powered up the air grabber box on the hood with an awesome shark cartoon, allowing a big dump of air into the Hemi once on the move.

There's an argument whether a Buick Wildcat should be included in American muscle cars but I guess there's no question that Pontiac's GTO very much deserve a place so so should its direst cousin the Wildcat then.

for 1966 Buick produced the GS (Grand Sport) Super Wildcat and of 25,000 Buick Wildcat's built in 1966, only 22 Super GS Wildcat's were ever sold. Distinguished from the ordinary GS Wildcat the Super Wildcat had an extra 20hp with 360hp onboard in its MW coded 425cu in engine. The Super Wildcat was optioned with two four barrel carburettors and special camshaft, giving it its extra 20hp. it also came with heavy duty suspension and dual exhausts for better breathing.

The General Manager could get to work in one helluva hurry. 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds and onto 125 mph.

Don’t know about you but I reckon these Plymouth Roadrunner Superbirds were about the ugliest thing to ever come out of Detroit in 1969. The public in 1969 thought so too, with most sitting on dealers lots for months before getting a heavy discount.

Plymouth and Dodge – with their sister Hemi powered Dodge Charger Daytona couldn’t haver cared less. Dodge made 503 and Plymouth 1920 purely for homologation for NASCAR racing.

And dominate it they did, being the first NASCAR ‘winged warriors’ to go over 200 mph.

They didn’t win in 1969, Bobby Isaac in a Ford Torino did, but they did win 38 races in 1970 – cementing a good sales position in the showroom and becoming one of the classic fastest American muscle cars of that era of the 60’s and 70’s.

There’s been an ongoing myth about that huge wing. The myth is that it was made that tall so you could still fully open your trunk. There’s nothing in the NASCAR rule book saying that trunk lids have to fully open. At the time the only two rules were that they had to be able to remain open on their own power (read struts just as in road cars) and they had to have two pins to lock them down.

Designer of the SuperBird and Daytona, John pointer simply designed the 23.5” high spoiler high enough to be able to get ‘clean air’ so no interference by a car in front. It was widely tested in wind tunnels both with scale models and the full size car and the spoiler definitely helped to keep those rear tires on the track.

Of the 1930 cars made only 93 got the Hemi 426. They had an output of 550hp at 5800rpm.

The other Superbirds got a 440 six pack rated at 385hp.

The front spoilers on the Daytona and Superbird are quite different. In a windtunnel test the Daytona came out tops with a .28 drag coefficient compared to the SuperBirds .32. Extremely slippery even now. But this resulted in the Daytona having a 3mph better top speed.

Every Superbird has a vinyl roof but Daytona’s don’t. If you look at a 69 Dodge Charger, you’ll see the two buttresses in the rear with a 45-degree angle rear screen. In the interests of aerodynamics, they put a new rear screen at a 22-degree angle right on the edge of the buttresses. They did all the Dodge Daytona’s first. It was a fairly painstaking job, then they had to repaint the whole roof line. So when it came to the SuperBird’s turn, they deemed it all too expensive. They still had to do the job, but not nearly as carefully and covered up their fast work with a vinyl roof instead.

So probably the fastest American muscle cars of the 60’s as far as road going examples go with a 0-60mph time of 5.5 seconds and through the quarter in 14.