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What are the Classic Muscle Cars?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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The debate over what constitutes true classic muscle cars has been argued by collectors and fans for decades. Most restoration companies and collector groups have come to a general understanding that the term muscle car refers to a class of two-door, American-made automobiles that were manufactured from 1960 to the early 1970s. Included in this group of classic muscle cars are the commonly big-block powered, four-speed vehicles that came factory equipped with dual exhaust and positive traction rear differentials. In order to enhance the horsepower capabilities of these classic muscle cars even further, many of the vehicles were delivered with tubular exhaust headers and glass pack mufflers put in the trunk for later application by the customer.

Commonly referred to as the first of the classic muscle cars, the 1964 Pontiac GTO reigns supreme on many collector lists. This vehicle was equipped with a large V-8 engine and was capable of very impressive times at the drag strip in factory trim. While not the most powerful of the classic muscle cars and not the fastest by a long shot, the 1964 GTO is credited for starting the muscle car craze that swept across the United States and eventually around the world. In perfectly restored factory trim, a 1964 GTO with matching numbers is capable of fetching over $1 million US Dollars (USD) at a reputable auto auction.

Arguably the most popular of the classic muscle cars is the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle. With a 454-cubic-inch or 7.430-liter V-8 engine delivering 450 horsepower, this was the height of the muscle car evolution for General Motors. Many of these vehicles are bought and sold as investment purchases that net a better return for investors than the US stock market. Many of these early muscle cars were cut up and used for drag racing with many others being destroyed and wrecked on the streets by inexperienced drivers unfamiliar with the high-power output of the big engines. This drives the prices of the restored vehicles to well over $100,000 USD, and unmolested genuine factory stock survivors bring over $1 million USD at auction.

Detroit's big three automobile manufacturers, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, all had offerings that have become cherished classic muscle cars. Ford created the potent factory stock racer, the 427 Thunderbolt. General Motors produced the Camaro and Chevelle, Pontiac Firebird and GTO, as well as Oldsmobile's Cutlass. Chrysler followed suit with many hemi-equipped offerings.

These were not, however, the only classic muscle cars coming out of Detroit at the time. American Motors Corporation, commonly known as AMC, was churning out some muscle of its own in the form of the Rambler, Javelin and AMX. Any of these lesser-known classic muscle cars could hold their own and even beat any offering from the so-called Big Three on any given day at the race track. AMC eventually evolved into a cult status among muscle car collectors.

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