Restoring, showing and enjoying classic cars has always been an American obsession. The sleek lines, powerful engines and machine strength of muscle cars, in particular, have attracted us since the late 1960s, when performance and design filtered down from the luxury model and into the realm of the attainable. Since then, those early designs -- and all their later developments, refinements and modifications -- have captivated our imaginations.
Today, the combination of rarity and nostalgia has made some of those old beauties harder to come by, which only increases the fervor and passion with which true classic enthusiasts pursue the hobby and lifestyle of muscle car collection. In this list, we'll look a bit more closely at 10 of the most popular models, tracing their histories and connections, and discover exactly why these particular cars are still so beloved.
Plymouth Road Runner (1968-1970)
Plymouth knew the muscle car phenomenon wasn't going anywhere when it introduced this classic in 1968. In fact, it was one of the first companies to truly court the youth vote, as it were, with a shockingly low sticker price ($3,000 base) and a cartoon tie-in -- complete with the WB character's signature "beep-beep" horn.
Of course, that sticker price was only a starter. The operative word in muscle car has always been "muscle," and over the years of the Road Runner's popularity, the power options increased even as its no-frills design stayed fairly static. You could nearly double the price with some of those modification packages, such as the "six-pack" that increased the standard 383 horsepower to 390, or a 426 Hemi. At the top of the option selections, you could run a quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds and top out at more than 140 miles per hour.
In 1969 alone, more than 80,000 units sold. The hardtop version, without a central post, remains a favorite among collectors. But for every lovingly detailed, tenderly protected Road Runner still kept under lock and key, now -- 40 years later -- there are many that were driven exactly as intended: straight into the ground. The gold standard for collectors today is the 1969 ragtop version: There were only about 2,200 ever produced.
1971 Plymouth Superbird 440
This hardtop regularly makes best-of lists, edging out other Plymouth choices, although it was originally based on the Road Runner. Its distinctive redesign was built to meet the particular requirements of that muscle-car mecca, NASCAR: The highest expression of muscle car power back in the day, and something every driver -- whether by fantasy or aspiration -- knew signified the greatest accomplishments of both engineering and driving skill.
Equipped with a Magnum 440 cubic V-8 engine, the standard horsepower was 375. The Superbird shipped with two upgrade choices: either a "six-pack" (meaning three two-barrel carbs instead of the stock 4-barrel) or the 425-horsepower Hemi V-8, which remains the more valuable configuration.
While many of those Superbirds probably didn't get too close to living out their NASCAR dreams, they inspired a generation. For those who liked the look of the car's odd -- but trendsetting -- body better than the more utilitarian Road Runner, it was a question of aesthetics. But the Superbird is still bringing dreams alive.
In fact, over the last 10 years alone, the collector's asking price of a well-preserved Superbird 440 has increased by two-thirds: What could bring in $67,000 at auction in 2001 is now more likely to set you back $107,000 [source: CNNMoney.com].
Dodge Charger R/T 440 (1968-1969)
Recognizable to even the greenest amateur, this hardtop has the distinction of being one of the most visually striking and memorable cars on the list. "The Dukes of Hazzard" may have made the Charger famous, but in one of the most beloved chase scenes of all time, in the 1968 muscle-car classic "Bullitt," Steve McQueen's nemesis drove a black Charger into Hollywood history.
More recently "The Fast and the Furious" franchise has introduced the world once again to the beloved Charger. Something about those lines, and the power under the hood, seems to embody not only the muscle car phenomenon, but also a particular element of danger, rebellion and bad-boy power unmatched by any other vehicle.
This hardcore piece of Hollywood history would have set you back $39,000 in 2001, but demand and scarcity combined mean that now, just 10 years later, you're looking at closer to $170,000 for a mint machine. Not bad for a car that launched 37,000 cars in its first year with a base price of just $3,500 [source: CNNMoney.com].
Its classic "Coke-bottle" styling, distinctive front grill and hidden headlights all suggest swagger and power, while the R/T designation was Dodge's way of explaining that the car was equally suited for street performance or drag racing. The heavy-duty suspension lent itself to excellent handling, making those tricks even more exciting to pull off, but it was the look that inspired drivers then and collectors now.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1/Z-28/SS Coupe (1967-1969)
In 1967, the favored version of the Camaro was the Z-28, although options packages were pretty varied. With a 4.9-liter and a four-speed manual gearbox, the car was made for racing; its brakes were in the front, which made handling tricky for the newcomer but precise for more practiced drivers. The base package, which raced a quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds, included a small-block V-8 with 290 horses, Muncie four-on-the-floor transmission, positraction and power steering. The Z-28 was built for road racing, and it's still beloved for both handling and its well-known design.
The 1969 ZL1 is one of the rarest of muscle cars, and one of the most powerful and best remembered. With 500 horses in an aluminum V-8 engine and a top speed of 125 miles (201 kilometers) per hour, the ZL1 could hit 60 in about 5.3 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 13.16. Of only 69 models made, most of them found their way into drag-racing, and this powerful package option wasn't offered again. What could get you $18,000 in 2001 has since leapt to $91,000 among the highest-rolling collectors [source: CNNMoney.com].
Buick GSX (1970)
Take the body of a solid-selling, midsized day driver -- the Buick Skylark -- and cram a monster of an engine in there. Then offer it in a well-publicized dual configuration -- it was available as either a convertible or a sedan, as was the trend -- and wait. While the Grand Sport debuted in 1965, the car didn't really seize national attention for a few years. The GSX of 1967 was a beefy Buick, but it wasn't until the 1970 launch, with its 7.5-liter engine and capability of 400 horsepower, that people really got interested.
The Stage 1 GSX performance package claimed a base 360 horsepower, but testers assured the public that -- depending on upgrades to valves, heads and camshaft -- it could top 400. Capable of the quarter-mile in 13.38 seconds, this car was famously offered in only two iconic colors, "Apollo White" and "Saturn Yellow."
Plymouth Barracuda (1970-1971)
Along with the distinction of being the biggest earner over the past 10 years' market (an already-high value of $49,000 has jumped for the best-kept cars to more than $2 million in some cases), the Barracuda has a rich and long history [source: CNNMoney.com]. Though it launched in 1964, it took more than six years to become a hit. In 1970, Plymouth introduced a 7.2-liter engine capable of 390 horsepower, which brought the Barracuda into the mainstream of the muscle car community.
Another version included a 7-liter Hemi block capable of 425 horsepower, known like its less-powerful brothers for difficult handling no matter how many times they revamped the suspension. This "Hemi-Cuda" could hit 60 in 5.6 seconds and had a reputation for burning rubber without much effort at all. Due to the price tag and increased insurance premiums, only a few hundred were made. None had the same trim, color or transmissions, making each collectible in its own right, and it's said that only about a dozen convertibles had the Hemi setup.
Pontiac GTO (1964-1969)
While the GTO appeared in 1964, it wasn't until 1965 that it really captured the attention of the muscle car crowd. The 1965 "Goat" remained a favorite of muscle car devotees even after it was outdriven in speed and power, thanks to its iconic status. Going from zero to 60 in the range of 6.1 seconds, it was one of the first cars to help create the muscle car phenomenon across the country.
Marketed to youth -- cheap and fast -- the Goat put a 6.3-liter V-8 in the body of a midsized Tempest, adding the classic split-grill design that remains one of the most recognizable front features of any muscle car. The 1967 increased the motor size and traded in its six-pack for a single 4-barrel carb, with a possible "Ram Air" induction option that increased the peak rpm and 360 horsepower, but it ended up in only 751 of the 82,000 units sold that year.
The 1969 "Judge" version raised the horses slightly, with a 6.5-liter engine and several luxury interior options packages. In addition to the internal redesign, changes were made to the outside that launched the popularity of the car all over again. It's no wonder that this auto's rarity and nostalgic status took its value from around $36,000 in 2001 to as much as $200,000 today [source: CNNMoney.com].
Chevrolet Chevelle SS/LS (1966-1970)
One of the most often mentioned muscle cars, the Chevelle went through several redesigns over the years of its popularity. Originating in 1966 as the "Super Sport" package for the '61 Impala, the recognizable Chevelle SS wasn't truly brought to market until 1966, when those classic forward-thrusting front fenders, special wheel covers, red-line tires and black-out grill were added to show off the car's bold new look. The 1966 Chevelle SS 396 was only produced in about 100 models, highly prized today. In fact, the high end of resale has gone from $28,000 to $369,000 in the last decade alone [source: CNNMoney.com].
In 1969, a special-order by Chevy dealers who couldn't sell the things fast enough was designated the Central Office Production Order, or 427 COPO, and released in a limited run of about 320 cars. It had 450 horsepower capability and an L-72 427-cid V-8 engine, proving the dealers wanted power.
The last great SS, 1970's 7.4-liter, had 450 horses and could hit 60 in a flat six seconds. With racing stripes and a nice interior, it was the people's choice.
Shelby GT 500KR (1964-1968)
The "KR" is for "King of the Road," and that's what the Shelby is. What ran you $64,000 in 2001 has jumped to $100,000, or as high as $5.5 million for some special orders [source: CNNMoney.com]. The Original GT 500KR advertised a V-8 with 360 horses, making it the only non-American muscle car worth talking about among collectors. Its popularity and rarity remained constant throughout the four years of its major sale, and it has remained in these lists -- and discussed among fans in hushed tones -- ever since.
The 1964 Cobra 289 roadster ($175,000 in 2000, now $330,000 to $5.5 million for the one-of-a-kind "Super Snake") is much beloved among the highest echelons of muscle car fanatics [source: CNNMoney.com]. The 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 S/C had too much power for its chassis, albeit along with an impressive 480 horsepower. In fact, a special order for Bill Cosby, turbocharged, ended up in a lake after he sold it for being too powerful. The only other version of this ultra-elite muscle remains with Shelby, a cautionary tale about the limits of muscle … or perhaps an inspiration.
Oldsmobile 442 (1971)
The 442 configuration -- which stands for a 4-barrel carb, 4-speed gearbox and dual-exhaust -- was an options package for the Cutlass until 1968, when the 442 debuted as a model of its own. The most favored muscle option was the L69, available only in 1971, which carried a hotter cam and gave the car 360 horses through its tri-power arrangement of three double-bbl carbs. Hitting the quarter-mile at 14.8 seconds, the car's improved springs were known to aid in handling.
This hardtop is unavailable today in 1970's "W-30" format, a 365-horsepower engine with a six-pack ("tri-power") motor incorporating an air-induction system piped through from the front bumper. There were only 54 factory-released W-30s, although another 97 were dealer-installed. For most of us -- with $85,000 to spare, of course -- it's most worth looking for the popular L-69.
To learn more about classic cars, check out the links on the next page.
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- Valdes-Dapena, Peter. "1971 Plymouth sells cheap for $2.5 million." CNNMoney.com. Jan. 20, 2007. (June 18, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2007-01-20/business/scottsdale_saturday_roundup_1_collectible-cars-muscle-cars-hemi-cuda?_s=PM:AUTOS