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Classic American Muscle Cars – 2020 Review

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Written by Elise

21st October 2020

Classic American Muscle Cars – 2020 Review
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Classic American Muscle Cars – 2020 Review

By Lucy Hotchkiss

Iconic, sleek and menacing. The term ‘muscle car’ was first coined to describe special, high-powered and mass-produced alternatives to sports cars, specifically tailored for drag racing.

So that’s what muscle cars were for. 

Now, big wheels, highly tuned suspension, V8 engine, high-performance specs, coupe-style body, aggressive stance, ever-increasing horsepower, outrageously good looks… Those are what muscle cars have. But what a muscle car is… is a lot more problematic because then pony cars come into the mix and upset all the rules we thought we had. 

We’ve all heard the names: Dodge Challenger, Shelby Mustangs, Chevelle SS, and Chevrolet Camaro all earned their spot in the muscle car Hall of Fame. Presumably, they ticked the right boxes. But how many boxes? Every petrol head’s answer is different. But what do muscle cars represent for automaking history and the generations of wide-eyed kids struck with fascination? Now that, we can try to help with.

This short car review attempts to define muscle cars and provide insight into their continued popularity across the worlds.

What Makes A Muscle Car?

Chevy Impala

In plain terms, a muscle car used to be an affordable, high-performance but street-legal car fit for drag racing, mass-produced in the 1960s or 70s with a V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. Some of the most infamous and well-loved American classic cars are muscle cars: think sleek Chevrolet Impalas, glossy Pontiac GTOs, and powerful Plymouth Barracudas.

Nowadays, muscle cars have a whole new look but retain the kind of awe-striking power that sealed them into global racing culture to start with. No longer are muscle cars the readily-affordable cool cars for reckless weekend racing, but their higher costs these days also reflect significant advancements in engineering and technology.

Sowing the Seeds of the Muscle Car Revolution

Oldsmobile Rocket 88

In 1949, Oldsmobile released the Rocket 88. Fit with a comparatively potent 135hp V8 engine and a more streamlined, lightweight design, the Rocket 88 can be considered America’s first muscle car. With a relatively impressive 283 lb-ft of torque and the catchy slogan of “make a date with a Rocket 88”, the Rocket won 10/19 races in the 1950 season at NASCAR, earning its place in automaking history. 

The Rocket 88 is often overlooked today due to its clunky-looking exterior and comparatively weak performance. However, for a performance car produced in the late 1940s, the 88 deserves far more respect due to its major engineering feats for the time. It should be regarded as a key breakthrough in planting the first seeds of the muscle car revolution.

The Horsepower Battle

The early sixties marked the beginning of a golden age for both muscle cars and the American automobile industry as the tough rivalry between the Big Three (General Motors, Ford Chrysler and American Motors) on NASCAR tracks spurred an automotive evolution.

As engineers and stylists became consumed with achieving victory in the ferocious horsepower war, the previously Herculean bulk of drag cars became leaner, meaner and boasted intimidatingly powerful engines.

In the 1964 NASCAR season, Chrysler unveiled their new 426 V8 Hemi engine. Now infamous for its use in several high-performance muscle cars like the Plymouth Belvedere, the 400hp Hemi was a complete game-changer in breaking the limits of how powerful a car could be.

A Booming Car Market

1969 Ford Mustang logo

As many Baby Boomers approached legal driving age in the US, they had their sights set on fashionable, compact and sporty-looking cars. With rumours swirling around Ford’s plan to release a new, sporty compact car based on the Falcon chassis, Chrysler stylists quickly designed a competitor: the Plymouth Barracuda.

Released two weeks before the Ford Mustang as a fastback version of the 1960 Plymouth Valiant, the Barracuda was Chrysler’s response to consumers yearning for affordable, sporty-looking cars. Fit with a new 180hp 4.5L LA V8 engine and the largest use of glass in any production car to date, the Plymouth Barracuda had an unprecedented suave appearance and provided a smooth handling experience.

However, the Barracuda simply wasn’t enough to unseat the Mustang. 

Compact, affordable and highly styled, Ford’s Mustang had established its own genre of muscle car: pony cars. Advertised as being perfectly suited to the lives of young professionals with a stylish, classic aesthetic suited for both Bond-style car chases and driving to and from the office, sales snowballed. 22,000 Mustangs sold on the first day alone, almost eclipsing the 23,343 Barracudas sold in the entirety of 1964.

Today’s Treasure Trove of Classic Cars 

The Mustang is only one of a plethora of hugely successful and well-known classic muscle cars. 

Some car lovers favour rarer classics, such as the almost mythical 1970 Plymouth Superbird 426 Hemi. Clocking in at 425hp and with a mean 490 lb-ft of torque, it’s easy to see why it is a favourite of many, including a handful of Hollywood producers.

A highly modified version of the 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner, only 1,920 Superbirds were produced. With its extreme styling (and comically large rear wing) many Superbirds sat unsold until showroom engineers modified them into the less-severe looking Roadrunner.

Today, given the rarity of the fabled classic, Superbirds typically sell for upwards of £150k– a far cry from its original price of around £3,400.

Plymouth Superbird

We wouldn’t talk about legendary classic muscle cars without mentioning the 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible, which made it to our list of discontinued muscle cars we wish were back. With a 366hp 6.5L L74 D-port Ram Air III engine and a torque of 445 ft-lb, the Judge was inspired by the already-popular 1964 Pontiac GTO, a 325hp car credited with inspiring the wild muscle cars of the drag racing era. 

With a full-width rear spoiler and striking tri-colour body stripes, the Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible had a thunderous exterior suited for NASCAR whilst still being relatively affordable, something that prior to the 1964 GTO seemed close to impossible.

With only 108 GTO Judge Convertibles ever produced, it’s no wonder the Judge Convertible is hard to find for sale today.

No Stranger to Hollywood

Classic American muscle cars are no strangers to blockbuster Hollywood films, either. From Bullitt to Fast and Furious and Goldfinger, an entire alphabet of movies feature classic muscle cars.

1966 Ford Thunderbird Convertible

One of the most chronically underrated of these is 1991’s Thelma and Louise. Driving in a turquoise 1966 Ford Thunderbird Convertible, Thelma and Louise take an impromptu road trip through America, which goes awry when they kill a man who assaults Thelma and resort to robbing a shop. As the film progresses, their pasts (and the police) inevitably catch up with them, despite the admirable performance of the Thunderbird. Faced with going to jail for the rest of their lives, Thelma and Louise instead drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon in an oddly magical, iconic and bittersweet ending scene that sees their Thunderbird practically flying. 

2014’s John Wick is another film rendered iconic in part through its automobile star. The story focuses on John Wick’s fixation with finding the culprits who broke into his home, killing his puppy and stealing his 420hp (we suppose) 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1. In typical Hollywood fashion, it turns out to be the head of NYC’s Russian crime syndicate. By the end of the film, Wick sadly hasn’t recovered his stolen car, despite his best and dangerous efforts. 

Classic Muscle Cars Are Still Popular

Unsurprisingly, the automotive industry has come in leaps and bounds in the last sixty years, with the use of electric cars starting to skyrocket and the widespread use of self-driving cars remaining a strong possibility within the next ten year. In fact, see Pilgrim Motorsports’ project with the Academy of Robotics: Kar-go, the world’s first fully-autonomous self-driving vehicle (below).


These advancements have made possible some head-turning, modern masterpieces like the 2020 Aston Martin DBX. 

Yet, there are a great many who lust over cars that are older than themselves.

At Muscle Car UK, it’s not unusual to receive queries from customers about cars released in the same year as they were born.

Classics are beguiling, with a certain atmosphere of nostalgia; the word ‘gravitas’ often comes to mind. Classic muscle cars are not overly flashy or exotic but possess an understated classiness and nonchalance that compare favourably to their modern-day counterparts. Not only that but owning a muscle classic is owning a piece of automobile history, crafted at the peak of Americana during the muscle car’s golden age.

Muscle Car Restoration Projects 

The constant need in classic muscle cars for TLC may seem like a downside, but there are a multitude of cheap muscle cars crying out to be your next restoration project. Go for a car like the Mustang to benefit from a huge and overall affordable aftermarket, it means you’ll be able to refurbish your classic muscle car even on a pretty tight budget.

Take it from the experts: the team at MCUK and Pilgrim Motorsports have worked on some of the rarest and most challenging projects in the country. Nothing beats the feeling of satisfaction from restoring a classic beauty. 

Tending to a worn-down car should be an educational and enjoyable experience. While it can be a time-consuming and expensive experience, here are all the insider tips on how to budget and finance your project, and a list of services and parts to look out for.

Owners often end up making contacts and friends for life through trustworthy recommendations. So here’s ours: never hesitate to ask for help.

Ask For Help

With so many classic American muscle cars out in the world, there’s one to suit most budgets- and with such a rich heritage, it’s clear that the toned silhouette of these cars will remain timeless for many years to come.

Author: Lucy Hotchkiss

Muscle Car UK is the UK’s leading specialist Mustang and Muscle Car dealership. We import American muscle cars from the US, restore them here in the UK, and re-home them with our delighted customers.

For more updates, news and tips, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

All cars on our feeds are available and up for sale. Looking for something specific? We can help.

We also provide service and restoration on any car, classic or otherwise.

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