The 1960s and early ’70 were a tumultuous era in American history. The war being waged in Vietnam was having an intensely polarizing effect on the population, leading to their questioning of previously unchallenged American values and norms.
Everything from politics, lifestyles, and even facets of popular culture such as art, music, and design were going through rapid and radical transformations.
One area in which this change was profoundly apparent was in the type of cars Americans were becoming desirous of. Out went the bloated, tail-finned, chrome-covered boulevard cruisers of the 1950s, and in their place came a host of svelte, relatively diminutive muscle cars which one could enjoy on the streets, or if so inclined, on the drag strips of the country.
Now, great change doesn’t always necessarily correlate with improvement per se, but in many cases, the muscle cars of the ‘60s and ’70 did in fact bring with them a new era of style and performance previously unseen. Others, however, fell short of the mark in those aspects, resulting in some less-than-memorable rides.
In an effort to elucidate the American performance cars of the period, I thought we’d take a look at the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful in a series of articles. Since a striking visage is always a fine place to start, here then are my top ten most beautiful American muscle cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in no particular order.
1966 PONTIAC GTO
Legend has it that one day in 1963, Pontiac chief engineer John Z. DeLorean and designers Bill Collins and Russ Gee were sitting around a studio looking at a prototype for the 1964 Le Mans, when Collins offhandedly blurted out, “You know, John, it would take about 20 minutes to stick a 389 in that thing.”
And in that moment of serendipity, the idea of the muscle car was born.
Sure, putting a big motor in a car was nothing new, but the idea of placing one in an intermediate-sized, rear-wheel-drive coupe or convertible and then outfitting it with a heavy-duty tranny, diff, and brakes was unique at the time. In 1964, the GTO, a name swiped by DeLorean from the Ferrari 250 Gran Turismo Omolagato race car, became an options package for that year’s Le Mans.
Sales were tremendous, and by 1966 Pontiac made “The Goat” a separate model in the lineup, and bestowed it with a complete restyle that many, including this author, consider to be the iconic GTO generation.
Featuring cutting-edge “Coke bottle” styling, vertically stacked headlamps, and a plush interior, the ’66 GTO looked like nothing else on the road and made all the other domestic manufacturers rush to their drawing boards to create a Goat of their own.
The ’66 did indeed bring the muscle as well, with the hot engine being a “Tri-Power” version of the 389 with three, two-barrel Rochester carbs that pushed out a healthy 360 horses.
Although the GTO would go through several more attractive iterations, and spawn a legendary sub-model known as “The Judge,” none quite captured the zeitgeist like the ’66 did.
1970 PLYMOUTH ‘CUDA
When Plymouth designer John Herlitz was given the task of redesigning the company’s pony car for the 1970 model year, few would have bet on a truly iconic car being the result.
Despite that, Herlitz hit it out of the park.
His 1970 Barracuda was a thing of sinuous beauty: a long hood, short deck creature bestowed with an aggressive-looking grille, a compact greenhouse, and sensuous hips ahead of the rear wheel arches.
Inside was rather bare bones, but that was beside the point. Order the car with one of the Chrysler’s big V8 engines, consisting of the 340, 383, 440 Super Commando, 440 Six-Barrel, or the legendary 426 Hemi “Elephant” motor and you had yourself a “‘Cuda” – the high-performance model. Top it off with a 4-speed manual, and add the Super Track Pack option with its Dana 60 rear containing 4.10 gears, and you’d possess one of the most formidable street weapons in America.
While many gravitate to the ’71 model with its quad lamps, scalloped grille, and front fender fish gills, I have always contended that the dual lamp ’70, devoid of such histrionics, was the cleaner design. Regardless of year though, whether in hardtop or convertible configurations, the ‘Cuda was simply gorgeous from any angle, and today they fetch big commensurate dollars as a result.
1969 CHEVROLET CAMARO
Okay, the Camaro looked great straight out of the box when it debuted in 1967, but the antiquated vent windows were dumped in ’68, and in ’69 a restyled grille and those glorious contour lines that flowed off the tops of the wheel arches were added. As far as I’m concerned, that’s when the design hit its zenith.
When the car was first launched, many wondered what a “Camaro” was. The answer varied depending on who you asked. Some claimed the name was French slang for “buddy.” Others suggested it was “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.” Chevrolet General Manager, Pete Estes, claimed that the name referred to “the comradeship of good friends, as that is what a personal car should be to its owner.”
Um, yeah, okay…
Back here on Earth One, the Camaro was simply a sleek and tight-looking 2+2 coupe or convertible that rode on the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive GM F-body platform. An RS appearance package with covered headlights, an SS performance package, and a Z/28 road racing package enabled a purchaser to customize the look and handling of their car, while a wide choice of V8 engines, including the 350 and 396 cubic-inch mills, allowed them to decide the power level they wanted.
If that wasn’t enough, informed buyers could order a COPO model, essentially a lightweight, 427 cubic-inch powered factory hot rod which mustered an underrated 425 horsepower that made it one of the quickest cars of the entire era.
So, whether it was a good friend or a vicious animal, to me the ’69 Camaro was simply sublime.
1970 OLDS 442
If you’ve read my other columns, such as Rare Rides, you’ll know that I have a particular fascination for the “also-ran” muscle cars of the era, the ones that rolled out of factories not owned by the major players in the game. Perhaps the best example of such a car is the 1970 Olds 442.
Certainly, Oldsmobile is not the first name you think of when you hear the words “muscle car,” and rightfully so, as periodic hot rodded versions of their venerable Cutlass model is pretty much all the company did in terms of performance cars. None of them were as attractive or raucous as the 1970 442.
That year, the 442, named for its four-barrel carb, four-speed manual, and dual exhausts, rode on the same A-Body platform as the Chevy Chevelle. But unlike that car, with its fairly conservative styling, the 442 was bequeathed with some bold aesthetics, including a split grille, a sculpted hood, pronounced hips over the rear wheel arches, and a big ole optional wing on the trunk lid. An unforgettable design by any measure.
But looks weren’t the only area where the 442 excelled. Under the hood lurked a massive 455 cubic-inch, high output V8, good for 365 horsepower. Throw a few extra bucks in, and you could outfit the car with the W-30 package, which yielded a functional, twin-scoop fiberglass hood, a low restriction air cleaner, an aluminum intake manifold, revised heads, a more aggressive cam, an improved carb, and a better distributor to the mix.
While the 442 and 442 W-30 returned for 1971 in a largely unchanged form in terms of looks, the compression ratio of the 455 was reduced for emissions purposes. This resulted in a much less powerful package and cemented the 1970 model as the ultimate iteration of the 442.
1967 SHELBY GT350 & GT500
The 1964 ½ Ford Mustang was one of the greatest successes in the history of the automobile industry, with 418,812 examples being sold in its first year. Despite this, Ford vice-president Lee Iacocca wasn’t one hundred percent thrilled. He had promised before the Mustang’s introduction that the car would be a high-performance vehicle, capable of both street and racing use. In reality though, the car that was launched lacked chops both in terms of power and handling prowess.
To rectify this, Iacocca turned to his friend Carroll Shelby. In short order, Shelby modified the Mustang Fastback into a genuine street-legal race car by massaging the powertrain and suspension. An unqualified success, the ’65 Shelby GT350 would carry on largely unchanged for 1966.
In 1967 though, after Ford had refreshed the Mustang, Shelby took the his concept a step further by adding bespoke fiberglass body parts, including a gorgeous, elongated nose, a hood with twin, functional scoops, four side intakes located at the quarter windows and ahead of the rear wheels, and a tail with an integrated spoiler and sequential taillights borrowed from the Mercury Cougar.
What resulted was the perfect balance between elegance and toughness, a design for the ages. What’s more, the elongated hood allowed for Ford big blocks to be fitted, and so in addition to the GT350 with its 289 cubic-inch K-code V8, Shelby introduced the GT500, powered by a monster 428 cubic-inch “Police Interceptor” V8. Output was a sarcastically underrated 355 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of twist.
Though the GT350 and GT500 would continue in 1968 with the latter featuring an improved 428 “Cobra Jet” motor, those cars’ modified hood and front driving lights didn’t enhance the look, making the ’67 the Shelbys the ones to have in my book.
1970 AMC JAVELIN SST
Speaking of also-rans, no manufacturer in the 1960s and ‘70s was more of an outsider than the American Motors Corporation. The smallest American automaker, AMC was formed by the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car companies in the mid-1950s.
Its paradigm was to offer models with performance and safety at a price point below that of the majors. While this business plan often led to some fairly dreary models in terms of quality and style, every so often AMC came out with an eccentric yet thoroughly capable street monster that, by many metrics, bested cars from the Big Three.
One example of this was an exceedingly low-production variant of their popular Javelin model known as the 1970 Javelin SST Trans Am coupe, which commemorated AMC’s participation in the SCCA Trans Am racing series.
A conservatively styled yet sultry beast, the SST featured a deeply recessed grille, a “Power Blister” hood, a low roofline, and a gently sloping semi-fastback treatment topped with a large, adjustable rear wing. Inside was an eclectic dash covered in woodgrain, avant-garde by muscle car standards.
Underhood, the SST sported AMC’s most powerful lump at the time, a hot, 390 cubic-inch four-barrel V8 that offered 325 horsepower and 425 lb-ft of torque.
But the most unique facet of the SST was its paint job – Code 00 – consisting of a Matador Red, Frost White, and Commodore Blue scheme that replicated AMC’s Trans Am race cars’ look. Needless to say, it wasn’t demure and wasn’t to everybody’s taste. For me though, the car and its livery captured the essence of what ‘60s and ‘70s muscle was all about.
1968 DODGE CHARGER
Some people regard it as the single most beautiful muscle car of the era, while others consider it a candidate for one of the most stunning automotive designs of all time. Regardless of where you fall, there’s no question that the 1968 Charger, with its deeply inset “electric shaver” grille, long hood, flying buttress treatment at the trailing end of the greenhouse, and “jet-age” rear end is a flawless design, reminiscent of a gazelle in mid leap.
Riding on Chrysler’s B-body platform, the ’68 Charger was the first year of the second generation of the car. Designed principally by Richard Sias, his brainchild was more than just a pretty face.
Handling was crisp on the high-end R/T models thanks to heavy-duty suspension components, and acceleration was on point thanks to a host of big V8s, including the 383, 440, and 426 Hemi mills. A Charger equipped with the latter was tested by an automotive publication at the time hitting 60 mph in a mere 4.9 seconds and tripping the quarter mile in 13.5 ticks at 105 mph – serious numbers for 1968.
Although the basic design would carry on for several more model years, albeit with updates and tweaks, none surpassed the looks of the ’68. Today, big-block ’68 Chargers fetch premium dollars, and it’s not hard to understand why.
1970 CHEVROLET CHEVELLE
It’s the car that many picture in their minds when the topic of muscle cars comes up, and there’s ample reason why. A classic shape with long hood/short deck proportions, a bold front end with quad lamps, a side profile that lent the car the perfect mix of elegance and muscle, and a semi-fastback rear treatment that screamed speed. What’s more, if you ordered yours carefully, you could have yourself a contender for apex predator of the entire Golden Era of muscle.
The car I’m referring to, of course, is the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle.
Lightly restyled from the previous model year’s car, the 1970 really had it all, and was never bested in the looks or performance department when it came to Chevelles. The SS, or Super Sport model, was the performance variant, and brought a host of heavy-duty and factory hot rod components to the car.
Ticking off the RPO Z15 box on the order form took things to an entirely different echelon though. When you did that, you received the ultimate in Chevy power and performance: an LS6 454 cubic-inch solid lifter V8 that churned out an underrated 450 horsepower and 500 lb-ft, a choice of a Muncie M22 “Rock Crusher” four-speed or a three-speed M40 Turbo Hydra-Matic slushbox, a massive 12-bolt rear end with either 3.31 or 4.10 gears, and heavy-duty suspension.
What resulted was a car that could rocket through the quarter mile in just 13.1 seconds at 108 mph – faster than just about anything on the road – and do it looking like a boss.
1971 PLYMOUTH GTX
Okay, here’s the car that will generate the most email traffic to me from people who don’t think it should be on the list.
Controversial when the body style was released in ’71 and still opinion-splitting now, the GTX looked like nothing that came before it and nothing after. While you may say that’s a good thing, I contend that it is for this very reason that it belongs in this discussion, and personally think it’s one of the most beautiful cars of the era.
Possessing what Plymouth’s ad department referred to as “Fuselage Styling,” the GTX’s most unforgettable feature was its front end with a bumper that completely surrounded the grille and quad lamps. Lending the car a jet intake look, the fascia led to an lengthy hood, ideal for swallowing up big V8s, and then a greenhouse that featured an interesting trapezoidal shape to the quarter window openings and a ski slope that gracefully led to an extremely short deck.
While the ’71 Roadrunner and Satellite also shared the body style, as had been the case with the previous generation, the GTX was the high-end model in the lineup, giving it all the best trim and features. In addition, it was available with every massive V8 in Chrysler’s arsenal, and yes, that included the Hemi.
So go ahead and disagree, but Richard Petty, who won a NASCAR championship in one, and I will beg to differ.
1970 BUICK GSX
Yup, it’s the third General Motors A-body car to make it to the list, but the Buick GSX eschewed the Olds 442’s contours and hips, and the Chevelle’s stately, conservative lines for pure, brutish muscle.
There was a blacked-out, two-section grille, a cold-air induction hood with twin scoops that mirrored the grille’s motif, bulging fenders, a pronounced crease below the beltline, radiused rear wheel openings, and a large, sculpted rear wing for downforce. Oh, did I mention the wild side and hood graphics, or the fact that it was only available in blinding Saturn Yellow or Apollo White?
Complementing the brash looks was GMs 455 cubic-inch V8, tuned to a rated 350 horses (roughly 390 in actuality) and an astonishing 510 lb-ft of torque. Incredibly, the latter figure held the record for the most twists in any American car all the way to 2003, when the Dodge Viper’s V10 finally eclipsed it.
For a couple hundred bucks more, you could add the Stage 1 package. Aside from the cool name, the GSX Stage 1 had a higher compression ratio, a more aggressive cam, and a 3.64:1 final drive ratio. Buick said all those toys were good for an extra 10 horsepower, but once again they lied – the boost was more like 30 ponies, pushing the output well and truly over the magic 400 mark.
Between its testosterone-jacked looks and all that grunt, the 1970 Buick GSX and GSX Stage 1 were two gorgeous cars to be wary of at the stoplight races and on the drag strip.
So, there you have it. Those are my picks and I’m sticking to them. Drop me an email and let me know what you think, and be sure to stay tuned for next month when we look at Muscle Cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s Part II: The Ugly.