Muscle Cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s Part III: The Quick

In the first two installments of this series, we had a look at what I thought were the most beautiful and ugliest muscle cars of the 1960s and ‘70s. The articles stirred up quite a bit of controversy amongst you, with many lamenting the exclusion and inclusion of certain vehicles on the lists.

This is only to be expected when subjective opinions are made in print, and I anticipated all the rancor even before I wrote the articles!

In this, the third installment, though, we’ll be dispensing with opinions and deal in cold, hard facts as we elucidate the flat-out quickest factory muscle cars of the Golden Era based on reviews and road tests by period automotive publications. So, away we go!


(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

Although muscle car authorities often point to the 1964 Pontiac LeMans GTO as the first muscle car, in actuality, there were a small handful of cars that predated it by incorporating the same formula of outfitting a rear-wheel drive coupe or convertible with a big, powerful V8 motor, heavy-duty tranny, diff, and brakes.

One such car was the 1963 Chevrolet Impala Z-11.

The Impala had been a mainstay of the Chevrolet lineup since 1958, and the company had taken to lending it increasingly more powerful powertrains over the years to keep it feisty. In 1962, they gave it the furious 409 Turbo-Fire V8 of Beach Boys song fame, but even that was tame in comparison to what the House of Bowtie had in store for the following year’s model.

(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

In the know Chevy dealers and buyers could tick off a box labeled (RPO) Z11 on the order form, and in return receive a lightened, stripped-down Impala equipped with a 427 cubic-inch V8 sporting a hi-rise intake manifold, dual Carter AFB four-barrel carbs, and a cowl-induction intake system. Output was a stated 430 ponies and a truly astonishing 575 lb-ft of torque.

As one would imagine, performance was scorching, with a 1963 Z11 with a 4-speed and 4.56:1 gears tested at an 11.20-second quarter mile at 122.11 mph. Impressive numbers even today. What’s more, only fifty-seven were built, making it a rare beast to boot.


(Photo courtesy of Hot Cars.)

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the various divisions of the Chrysler Corporation took their motor racing very seriously, culminating in their 200 mph winged warriors – the Hemi-powered 1969 Dodge Daytona and 1970 Plymouth Superbird – dominating the NASCAR series to such an extent that the rules needed to be changed to slow them down.

Another segment they sought to lord over was NHRA Super Stock drag racing, and to that end, both Dodge and Plymouth created their own version of the ultimate factory Class B dragster. We’ll deal with the Plymouth version later, and start here with the 1968 Dodge Hemi Dart L023.

Forging an agreement with Hurst Performance, the A-body Dodge Dart was subjected to an extreme diet, including acid etched doors, a fiberglass hood with a truly massive and functional “dustpan” scoop, fiberglass fenders, Dow-Corning Chemcor plastic windows, and a stripped down interior. So obsessive was attention to weight savings that the cars were delivered unpainted, with black fiberglass parts contrasting with the rest of the body.

(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

For the ultimate in go, a 426 Race Hemi with a 12.5:1 compression ratio, and dual 735-cfm Holley four-barrels atop an aluminum cross-ram intake was crammed into the engine bay. Backing that was a heavy-duty four-speed or a TorqueFlite three-speed automatic sending power to a Dana rear with 4.88:1 gears. Other race-spec toys such as four-piston front disc brakes, a heavy-duty cooling system, a high-capacity oil pump, and a transistorized distributor were also thrown into the mix.

The result? A car that could scream through the quarter mile in 10.2 seconds at 129 mph without any tuning or prep. Only 80 of these brutes were ever built, with only a handful surviving very rough lives.


(Photo courtesy of

Like Chrysler, Ford had its drag racing ambitions in the 1960s too. Come 1964, they attempted to go for broke and cranked out 100 copies of a monstrous version of their normally sedate, midsized Fairlane called the Thunderbolt.

Taking two-door Fairlane sedans off the regular assembly line, Ford specially finished the cars with fiberglass hoods, fenders, and decklids, and fitted aluminum bumpers in the place of the regular steel ones. Factory glass was replaced by plexiglass panels, and spartan bucket seats were installed. No sound deadening, seam sealer, carpets, armrests, sunvisors, radios or heaters were present.

The special Fairlanes were then shipped to the Dearborn Steel Tubing Company, which pulled the factory 289 V8s, and with considerable modification to the engine bays, shoehorned in massive, NASCAR-spec Ford 427 cubic-inch V8s with high-rise intakes and dual four-barrel Holleys. To feed these beasts the air they needed to breathe, the high-beam headlamps were replaced with mesh-covered intakes that led directly to the air cleaner.

(Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

Backing these lumps were a buyer’s choice of a Borg-Warner four-speed manual or a heavy-duty three-speed slushbox, and a nine-inch locking diff containing 4:57:1 gears for the manual cars and 4:44:1s for the automatics.

Finally, a tough duty rear suspension consisting of traction control bars and asymmetrical leaf springs, as well as tubular headers and an electric fuel pump were added.

With a 12.7:1 compression ratio, the 427s in the Thunderbolt officially produced 425 horsepower, but actual output was in excess of a mind-blowing 500 horses, enough to propel the “Franken-Fairlanes” to an 11.61-second quarter mile at 124.8 mph.


(Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

By the late 1960s, what would eventually be referred to as the “horsepower wars” were in full swing. Ford and Plymouth had essentially transmogrified what were their pony cars, the Mustang and the Barracuda, into true muscle cars in an effort to outdo one another.

As Ford pumped up the ‘stang with 428 and 429 cubic-inch big-blocks, and Plymouth and Dodge dropped the 426 Hemi into their E-bodies, General Motors’ performance division, Chevrolet, found itself in a quandary.

While the company definitely wanted a slice of the muscle car pie too, it was hindered in transforming their pony car, the Camaro, in the same way, owing to a General Motors edict that stated that no car smaller than a full-size could have an engine larger than 400 cubic-inches. So how could the Camaro compete?

Enter the COPO program. Short for Central Office Production Order, COPO enabled custom vehicles to be special ordered directly from the factory to fulfill the needs of taxi and fleet customers. It enabled heavy-duty powertrains and components to be added to any vehicle in the Chevy roster.

(Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Urged on by Chevrolet performance dealer, Fred Gibb, and Chevy drag racer, Dick Harrell, the head of Chevrolet Product Performance, Vince Piggins, decided to use COPO to get around the 400 cubic-inch restriction, and drop a big-block into the Camaro.

The result was the 1969 COPO Camaro ZL-1. A base model Camaro stripped down to the very basic essentials, the ZL-1 was equipped with GM’s most prodigious motor, an all-aluminum 427 cubic-inch V8 based on the Corvette’s L88. Featuring open-chamber cylinder heads, wet-sump lubrication, and a massive 850-cfm Holley double-pumper, the 500+ horsepower mill was mated to a Muncie four-speed manual or a Turbo-Hydramatic auto, which, in turn, transmitted power to a posi-traction LSD with 4.10 gears.

The result was the Camaro to end all Camaros, one that was capable of blitzing the quarter mile in 11.80 seconds at 121 mph, and humiliating virtually any muscle car on the road. Fortunately for the latter, only 69 COPO Camaros were ever built, making an encounter with one very rare.


(Photo courtesy of

The little car company that could, AMC, put out a handful of performance vehicles in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that offered excellent horsepower and handling at a price point well below that of the majors.

In 1968, American Motors released the AMX, their version of the pony car. A quirky-cool compact that was essentially just a shortened version of the company’s Javelin model, the AMX was bestowed with much praise by the automotive press leading to a fairly successful first model year by AMC’s standards.

The following year, AMC decided it wanted to take on the Big Three in NHRA Super Stock racing and deemed the featherweight AMX as the perfect basis for a drag strip speed demon.

Partnering with Hurst Performance and engine builder H.L. Shahan, AMC shipped 52 AMXs equipped with the company’s 390 cubic-inch V8s, T10 four-speed manual transmissions, and TwinGrip differentials with 4.44:1 gears to the Hurst facilities in Ferndale, Michigan.

(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

There, the cars were stripped of anything non-essential such as radios, heaters, clocks, rocker moldings, seam sealer, sound insulation, undercoating, and grille supports. The engines were then pulled from the cars and sent to Shahan in Florida, where they were modified with special pistons, hot cams, cross-ram intakes, dual four-barrel carbs, headers, and low-restriction exhausts. The race-prepped engines went back to Hurst and were installed in the cars.

Hurst then did some mods of their own, consisting of revised rear suspensions, forged axles, stiffer springs and shocks, a lightweight hood with a massive scoop, and a set of Cragar wheels shod with drag slicks. The cars were then painted in either Frost White or in AMC’s iconic red, white, and blue corporate racing scheme.

The result was a pocket rocket packing roughly 420 horsepower that was capable of 11.08 second quarters at 127.11 mph, enabling the AMX Super Stock to do some serious damage on the streets and drag strips of America.


(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

The Dodge Hemi Dart L023 that we discussed earlier wasn’t the only factory Super Stock car that Mother Mopar decided to release in 1968. Plymouth, it seems, wanted a piece of that action too, and turned their pony car, the Barracuda, into a drag strip dominator as well.

Subcontracting Hurst Performance as Dodge had with the L023, race spec 426 Hemi engines with 12.5:1 compression ratios and dual 735-cfm four-barrel Holley carbs residing atop aluminum cross ram intakes were put into about 60 Barracudas with considerable difficulty. To make the “Elephant Motors” fit, Hurst engineers had cut away the inside of the cars’ shock towers to provide the necessary room.

Added to the Hemi were a high-capacity oil pump, a dual-breaker distributor, a transistorized ignition, unsilenced air cleaners, a heavy-duty radiator, and a high-performance fan. Hooker headers and lightweight, side-exiting glass-packs handled the exhale.

(Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

A buyer’s choice of transmission, consisting of a four-speed manual with a heavy-duty clutch, or a fortified TorqueFlite automatic, were installed ahead of a Dana rear with 4.88:1 gears on the sticks and an 8-3/4-inch diff with 4.86:1 cogs in the autos. A special, drag-tuned rear suspension and four-piston front discs were also provided.

To keep weight at an absolute minimum, Hurst crafted a fiberglass hood with an almost comically large ram air scoop, fiberglass fenders, acid-etched steel doors, and Chemcor windows. Inside, the car was bare bones, with only the most essential furniture.

When all was said and done, the Hemi Barracuda B029, weighing in at a mere 3,100 pounds, was possessing of an extraordinary power-to-weight ratio which enabled it to rip 10.1-second quarter miles at 131 mph, just barely edging its Dodge L023 cousin.


(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

As we learned, General Motors’ 400 cubic-inch limit in the 1960s which resulted in the creation of the COPO Camaro ZL-1 was not applicable to full-sized cars. As such, any lump in the GM bullpen was okay to put in a boulevard cruiser like Chevrolet’s Biscayne.

In 1966, prospective Biscayne purchasers could therefore check a box on the order form to afford their soon-to-be-built car the L72 version of Chevy’s 427 cubic-inch V8. Rated at 425 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of twist, the L72 featured a forged-steel crank with hardened journals, forged steel rods, aluminum domed pistons, cast-iron, high-performance, rectangle-port heads, and an aluminum dual-plane intake manifold.

Keeping things cool were an 18-inch cooling fan and a four-core, heavy-duty radiator, while exhaust gasses passed through cast-iron manifolds into 2-inch exhaust pipes replete with dual reverse-flow mufflers.

(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

Power was transmitted through a choice of robust three- or four-speed manuals on its way to a 12-bolt differential with 4.56:1 gears and available posi-traction limited slip.

The result of all this goodness was a full-sized ride that could hang with much smaller muscle cars, and burn through the quarter mile in 12.2 ticks at 120 mph.


(Photo courtesy of AutoEvolution.)

Like Chevy, Ford had some tricks up their sleeve in 1966, and one of them was to revisit the Fairlane for muscle car duty.

Midway through the model year, the R-code option was added to the Fairlane’s order sheet. When selected, the package yielded Ford’s 427 cubic-inch side-oiler V8 with an 11.6:1 compression ratio, a cast-iron block, and a medium-riser intake, good for an underrated 425 horses and 480 lb-ft of torque at a low 3,700 RPM.

All R-codes came with Ford’s Toploader four-speed manual with synchromesh ratios, sending power to a 9-inch open differential with a 3.89:1 ratio. Included was a lightweight, fiberglass, lift-off hood with quad pins and a functional scoop, heavy-duty suspension, and 11-inch vacuum-power assisted front disc brakes.

(Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

Available only in Wimbledon White, the R-Code had a spartan, black vinyl interior with a front bench seat, a dash-mounted tach, and a radio delete plate as the only clues inside that this wasn’t your grandma’s Fairlane.

Also, not grandma-ish was the R-code’s performance, which consisted of a 12.9-second blast at 117 mph through the quarter.

Owing to difficulties in producing the car’s unique exhaust manifolds, production was limited to just 57 examples of one of FoMoCo’s most brutal rides.


(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

The ’62 Dart was truly one of the ugliest cars ever produced, so much so that it made my ugly list with ease last month. But Dodge did something late in the model year that helped mitigate the car’s bizarre aesthetics. It wasn’t a refresh or makeover, but instead, the dropping in of the most powerful motor Chrysler had: the 413 Max Wedge.

A raised block V8 equipped with 13.5:1 aluminum pistons, a high-lift camshaft, solid lifters, Magnafluxed connecting rods, and a short-ram intake topped with twin Carter AFB 650-cfm four-barrel carburetors, the Max Wedge, named for the wedge shape of its combustion chambers, was a monster capable of churning out 420 horses and 480 lb-ft.

(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

Transmissions consisted of a Borg-Warner T-85 three-speed manual or a 727 TorqueFlite auto-shifted with dash-mounted pushbuttons. Power was sent to an 8-3/4-inch rear with 3.91:1 gears.

Inside, things were rather unremarkable, with only a radio and cigarette lighter delete betraying that this wasn’t a normal Dart.

Configured with the Max Wedge, the Dart was built for one thing and one thing only: domination on the drag strip. It acquitted itself well there, with stock Dart Ramchargers able to trip the quarter in 11.4 seconds at 119 mph. Only 55 of these apex predators were produced.


(Photo courtesy of

In late 1962, a memorandum was handed down to Pontiac zone managers that announced the cancellation of Super Duty engines in advance of a General Motors ban on factory-supported racing.

Scrambling to build as many factory drag cars as they could before the ban took effect, Pontiac engineers commandeered twelve 1963 Tempests – six two-door coupes and six four-door station wagons – and outfitted them to be GM’s last hurrah on the strip.

Into these cars they dropped the 405 horsepower, Pontiac 412 cubic-inch Super-Duty engine, complete with forged internals, special cylinder heads, McKeller Number 10 cams, medium-riser dual quad intake manifolds, and stainless-steel headers.

In order to provide perfect weight distribution, the engineers opted to mount the front of the driveshaft directly to the crankshaft, and the other end to a rear-mounted PowerShift transaxle.

(Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

Weight savings came in the form of stamped aluminum hoods, front fenders, lower front valences, grill surrounds, and radiator core supports. Additionally, lightweight steel bumpers were mounted, and ¼-inch thick clear acrylic replaced glass for the windshield. No seam sealer or sound deadener was used, and heaters and radios were deleted. All twelve cars left the factory painted Cameo White.

When these cars hit the streets and strips of America, they were a true terror indeed, capable of crossing the quarter-mile mark in 12.42 seconds at 113 mph.

Sadly, all but two of the twelve 1963 Tempest 421 Super Duty cars have been lost to time and rigorous lives, though the two surviving coupes have been given rigorous, ground-up restorations.

So there you have the absolute quickest muscle cars of the Golden Era. See you next month when the final chapter of this series, Muscle Cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s Part IV: The Rare, drops. Until then, my friends…

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
Read My Articles