Old School Muscle Cars: Ones to Buy and Ones to Avoid

March 9, 2012

They don't make 'em like they used to, but old school muscle cars aren't all created equal. Learn how to sort the high performance wheat from the chaff.

Old School Muscle Car

Looking at listings for used muscle cars can be daunting. You'll find a lot of them, but what's the best muscle car for sale? The truth is, everyone has different preferences. There's no one right choice in terms of which one you should get. A lot depends on your tastes and your budget. There are some interesting cars from which to choose.

However, not all muscle cars were created equal in terms of performance and reliability. While some muscle cars will be classics forever (and will always be an excellent investment), there are other models that brought shame to all American muscle car enthusiasts.

The Muscle Cars You Want
The late 1960s saw a fierce battle among American car makers to produce the coolest and fastest muscle cars. Many of the finest muscles cars ever made were produced between 1965 and 1969. Because the automakers took so much pride in their craft during the late '60s, it is difficult to say which models were actually the best.

Nevertheless, if current prices for popular models of the era are an indication, then the Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Chevelle and Dodge Charger would be right up there. Popular vehicles like late 1960s models of the Pontiac GTO, Plymouth Road Runner and Plymouth Barracuda have proven to be excellent investments as well. When in great condition, Chevrolet Corvettes from 1965 to 1969 often sell for astronomical amounts of money.

The 1970s: The Beginning of the End for the Muscle Car
The 1970s saw the Environmental Protection Agency take the muscle out of muscle cars. New emissions standards implemented by the EPA and oil embargos forced American car makers to reduce performance in muscle cars and simply make them a cool looking, yet basic, means of transportation. While there are a few exceptions, like the 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle and the 1970 Dodge Challenger, most other muscle cars produced in mid to late 1970s should be avoided.

While most muscle cars produced in the '70s were never able to quite compete with their '60s predecessors, there are few models that warrant particularly harsh condemnation. For example, some of the worst of the worst were:

  • 1976 Ford Mustang Stallion
  • 1976-1979 Chevrolet Rally Sport Camaro
  • 1968 AMC AMX
  • 1972 Mercury Montego GT
  • 1976-1977 Dodge Charger Daytona
  • 1976-1979 Plymouth Volare Road Runner
  • 1974 Pontiac GTO

While there are many reasons you shouldn't purchase one of the vehicles on the above list, the biggest reason is that they were all neutered by the manufacturers in terms of horsepower and performance. While some of the above models bear some of the most prestigious names the muscle car world has seen (Mustang, Charger, GTO, Road Runner and Camaro), the 1970s versions of these vehicles are nothing when compared to their 1960s predecessors.

A Special Place of Honor
The Chevrolet Corvette is considered by some to be the Holy Grail when it comes to American muscle cars. There has always been a special mystique about so much power under the hood of a fiberglass vehicle. However, the 1980 "California" Edition is considered by many muscle car enthusiasts to be the absolute worst car of its type ever made in America. Seriously underpowered with a mere 305 cubic inch engine, the 1980 California 'Vette was the laughing stock of the muscle car world when it was released.

The Top Muscle Cars

A list of the most popular muscle cars is an elusive beast to pin down. You could look at which cars sold the best when they were current year models. You might also look to the most exotic cars. If you ask collectors of classic cars you are likely to find the list varies from person to person. Still, certain vehicles like the Camaro and Mustang will probably be present in most of the lists. Most of the cars here would be likely to appear on such a list.

AMC Javelin
AMC might not be an obvious choice when looking for a muscle car. If you want a car that's not something you will see on the street all that often, though, the Javelin is a great choice. It was AMC's entry into the pony car market and came standard with a 360 cubic inch engine that delivers about 350 horsepower.

Chevrolet Camaro
Introduced in 1967 as Chevrolet's answer to the Ford Mustang (and their entry into the pony car race), the Camaro is an extremely popular vehicle. That applies both to its status at the time it was built and in terms of collectability. For many collectors, the first generation of Camaros (1967-1969 models) are the most desirable, but there are those who prefer the more European styling of the 1970s editions.

Produced in several different trims, and with several different engine sizes, the 1969 Camaro is one of the most popular muscle cars ever made. The 1969 model represents the most popular body style by far for any of the Camaro branded vehicles. You can find this particular make and model muscle car frequently on online auctions or even at car shows. For more common versions of the vehicle you'll spend between $10,000 and $30,000. For rarer version such as the XYZ or the SL1, you'll pay $40,000 at a minimum.

The 1960s models had the "coke bottle" styling that was so popular with muscle cars of that time, but for the 1970s the car was redesigned to resemble European sports cars. Different people like different years of the car (and different models, Rally Sport, Super Sport and Z-28) better, but each one has its following. The attraction of the Camaro itself is pretty universal.

Chevrolet Chevelle
While it is important to mention that not all Chevelles really qualify as muscle cars, the Super Sport (especially when equipped with a big block V8) definitely fit the title. In the 1960s, the Chevelle was one of Chevrolet's most popular vehicles (partly because of the many various types of Chevelles--there was even a station wagon) and it is still a favorite with many muscle car enthusiasts.

The 1965 model Chevelle represented a vehicle that was a little larger than previous models of the popular Chevrolet car. What really launched the Chevelle in 1965 was the introduction of the SS 396, which is considered to be one of the finest muscle cars ever made in America. In fact, it is considered to be the predecessor for many popular Chevrolet muscle cars that followed in later years. Because it is not quite as popular as the same year model Camaros, you can usually find it priced rather affordably. In fact, you can find one in good condition for between $10,000 and $20,000.

Chevrolet Corvette
Some might disagree with the Corvette being included as a muscle car. That's because muscle cars were supposed to be affordable. The truth is, the Corvette is the American version of the European sports car and no other American car comes close in terms of sheer intensity and style.

While the Corvette was always priced well below the European super sports cars that it was patterned after, it has always been one of the most expensive American cars. Still, it is in a league of its own in terms of American cars, too.

What can you really say about the Corvette that hasn't been said? It has been, since its first model year in the 1950s, "the" American sports car. In fact, the 'Vette is so unique and iconic, that it is really almost off in its own category.

Dodge Challenger
The Challenger was Dodge's entry into the "pony car" market, making it competition for the Camaro and Mustang. Depending on the model year (the 1970 for example) the Challenger had more options in terms of engine choices than any of the other muscle cars. It is still very popular with collectors and some versions are real powerhouses.

Designed to be a more luxurious version of its sister model the Plymouth Cudo, the 1970 Dodge Challenger was sold in many versions. However, the Magnum 440 big block and 426 Hemi versions of the Dodge Challenger were the best performing and also the most popular. The Challenger was also Dodge's answer to the Camaro, the Mustang and other Pony Cars of the era. These days, it is found in many collector garages and at car shows all over the country. For a 1970 Dodge Challenger in good condition, you'll pay between $20,000 and $50,000.

Dodge Charger
The Dodge Charger is best known by many as the "Dukes of Hazzard" car, the "General Lee." Of course, muscle car fans and car collectors know it as one of the Mopar entries into the field and a well-respected and sought after vehicle. The Charger had some serious engine choices through the years, delivering major power.

The 1968 model Charger saw a slight change in body style that differentiated it from the popular Coronet. Using what was referred to as a "coke bottle" design or style, the 1968 Dodge Charger quickly became popular for its sleek and curvy good looks. Taking advantage of the very popular Magnum 440 and Hemi 426 engines, the RT version of the Dodge Charger quickly become one of the most popular muscle cars on the circuit. Because of its huge engine, good looks and raw appeal, the vehicle still demands high selling prices. For a 1968 Dodge charger in excellent condition, be prepared to pay between $50,000 and $150,000.

Ford Mustang
By definition, the Ford Mustang was the original pony car. That makes it the car that spawned a whole new concept. Without the Mustang it is conceivable that we never would have had Camaros, Challengers, Firebirds and a whole host of other cars that were launched in response to Ford's Mustang. The 1960s models are especially iconic and collectible.

The fact that Ford has been doing updated versions of the retro styles of the car these days shows just how popular they are. Of course, since it was an extremely popular vehicle in its day there is a pretty large supply of them--helping to keep them more affordable despite the demand.

Plymouth Barracuda
Plymouth's pony car, this is another vehicle that's legendary, even though it's perhaps not as common as some of the others featured in the list. They are definitely vehicles that inspire passion in their fans and owners.

Plymouth Road Runner
This was Plymouth's back to basics entry in the muscle car field, meaning it was fast and affordable. Of course, the upgrade Hemi engine (with dual four barrel carburetors) added some cash to the total.

Pontiac Firebird
Pontiac's version of the Camaro, this is another car that has become legendary. Of course, with the demise of the Pontiac nameplate, there will be no more Firebirds, but the 'Birds of the 1960s and 1970s are definitely popular with collectors.

Just like the Camaro the most popular versions with collectors and muscle car fans are the ones built in the 1960s and 1970s. Arguably the Trans-Am style is the most popular, but all Firebirds are collectible.

Pontiac GTO
The GTO was immortalized in song, but they would have been legends with collectors even without that publicity. The 1969 Judge configuration was built for power and is a very expensive collectible car to this day.

The GTO represented a return to the affordable power car concept that really made muscle cars "muscle cars." No matter what year or particular model, these are collectible and sought after. Of course, the 1969 "Judge" is just plain legendary.

Although not quite as popular as the 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS or Chevrolet Camaro, the 1969 GTO was still one of the best-selling muscle cars of the year. The vehicle offered excellent performance even in the least expensive models, especially when compared to other muscle cars that sold for about the same price. The "Judge" trim version is the most sought after model today, and one in excellent condition can be had for about $50,000.

American Muscle Cars vs. Australian Muscle Cars

The Australian muscle car and the American muscle car are two types of vehicle that are largely the same. Both fall under the same category in terms of performance, size and other characteristics. You can accurately describe both Aussie performance muscle cars and their American counterparts as mid-sized vehicles with rear wheel drive and two doors. They are also considered high performance sports cars. However, there are a few differences between Australian muscle cars and American muscle cars that are important to keep in mind if you're looking to purchase a vehicle of this type.

American Muscle Cars
The primary American manufacturers of muscle cars are Dodge, Ford and Chrysler. The Ford Falcon is a prime example of an American muscle car. These vehicles were designed with one thing in mind; to put an exceedingly powerful engine into a relatively small car body. The car therefore is quite powerful and capable of accelerating and driving extremely fast. It has lots of "muscle."

American muscle cars came about first in the early 1950s, as the V8 engine came into development. This engine was the most powerful available on the market, and manufacturers sensed a desire in the public to increase the speed capabilities and horsepower of their vehicles. They responded by keeping a similar shape and design from previous models of sports and high performance vehicles, but by outfitting those same cars with the new and powerful motor.

Most American muscle cars have engines that grew in size into the muscle car trend. Even by the late 1950s, many engines were upwards of seven liters in capacity, making them by far the largest engines on the market at that point.

Australian Muscle Cars
The main manufacturers of Australian muscle cars were the branches of Chrysler and Ford in that country, as well as the Australian-specific manufacturer Holden. In contrast with a general desire for speed on the streets, these manufacturers built muscle cars originally for racing purposes. In the United States, on the other hand, the cars were only included in drag races and other similar events after they gained overall popularity.

Due to a few separate incidents in which people drove Australian muscle cars recklessly or suffered high profile accidents, the Australian government began to closely regulate the sale and manufacturing of these vehicles. The government ensured that any new models must be approved and sold to the public in a certain quantity before they could be put on the market as muscle cars. This effectively limited the power of the engines in Australian muscle cars. For that reason, none of the engines approached the capacity of those in the States, and the largest engines were around four liters.

Related Questions and Answers

What Makes the 1974 Pontiac GTO such a Popular Muscle Car?

The 1974 Pontiac GTO is one of the most popular muscle cars built. The GTO is considered by many to be the first muscle car ever built when it was introduced in 1964. The GTO was originally designed by one of GM's chief designers, John DeLorean. The 1974 GTO is one of the rarest editions made, with only slightly over 7,000 units produced. This car was only available with a 350 engine and a big four barrel carburetor. The GTO also came with dual exhaust, a performance ride and handling package. The 1974 GTO looked like a performance car with a mean stance and the ever popular Rallye wheels.

Where can You find Parts for the 1968 AMC AMX?

The 1968 AMC AMX is a unique muscle car, in that it is much shorter and narrower than all of the other muscle cars of the era. This car is quite popular with collectors of Mopar (Chrysler Performance Division) products. However, as these cars get older, finding quality parts to repair or restore them are becoming harder to find. One of the best sources for hard to find parts for older muscle cars is Year One. With an online search, you will also be able to find a number of websites that specialize in those hard to find 1968 AMC AMX parts. Additionally, there are always a number of AMX parts advertised on eBay.

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