The correct definition of “muscle car” is a mid-sized or compact car with a more-powerful-than-stock engine.
Muscle cars arrived in the early 1960s as U.S. automakers started selling cars that were smaller, and therefore less powerful, than the cars they’d been selling since the end of World War II. Therefore, most cars on Motor Junkie‘s list cannot properly be called “Classic Full-Sized Muscle Cars” because that term is an oxymoron.
Which doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile cars:
Over the years, the American car industry has introduced many cars people consider full-fledged muscle machines. However, some of them came in different packaging. Back in the 60’s and early 70’s, full-size models were family sedans or luxury cars. Despite the fact they had optional big block engines with high horsepower ratings, nobody considered them performance cars. Their heavy bodies, soft suspension and slow-shifting automatic transmissions had limitations when it came to driving dynamics.
However, not all full-size coupes were slow and boring to drive. During the muscle car heyday, Detroit produced a dozen capable, powerful and fast full-size muscle cars. In fact, they could run with the best of them and still look elegant. Most of those cars were luxury cruisers or personal luxury cars yet they performed and sounded like true muscle cars. Read on to find out what exactly makes those models so special and desirable.
Mercury Marauder X100
Today, the Mercury brand is defunct as a cost-cutting measure Ford made. But back in the 60’s, it was a well-respected luxury division, above the working-class Fords and just below the patrician Lincolns. With Cougars and Cyclones, Mercury was well into the muscle car segment. However, luxury performance models were scarce until 1969 when they introduced a new generation of the Marauder.
Mercury envisioned it as a luxury coupe. The Marauder had a fresh design with some interesting features like concealed headlights, a massive front end, and a sloping rear end with concave rear glass. It was a big, heavy car they intended for cruising rather than street racing. However, Mercury needed something to fight the Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Riviera GS.
They knew they needed to upgrade the Marauder to higher spec if they wanted a piece of the action. So, they presented the Marauder X100. Behind the strange name was a regular 1969 Marauder. However, it came with a 429 V8 engine delivering 360 HP and a heavy-duty suspension. It also had bucket seats, blackout rear trim and fender skirts.
The performance was respectable, but it was still a large, weighty car, so compared to some barebones smaller, lighter muscle models, it was significantly slower. The Marauder line was relatively popular, but the X100 didn’t become a bestseller, And in its two years of production, Mercury made just over 8,000 of them.
Just look at this. Fender skirts? Check. Hidden headlights? Check. Sport wheels? Check. Bucket seats on a full-size car? Check. The only thing this lacks is a manual transmission.
Pontiac Grand Prix SJ
Back in the 60’s, Pontiac was GM’s performance brand, so it is no coincidence when Pontiac conceived the GTO. The allure of powerful engines and aggressive design was Pontiac’s trademark. But the management wanted to widen its appeal and go beyond regular muscle cars like the GTO and the Firebird. To enter the world of luxury muscle cars, Pontiac had a perfect candidate in form of the Grand Prix.
The Grand Prix was a personal luxury coupe they introduced in 1962 in a coupe body style. It also came with powerful engines and a long list of options. They put this model against the Ford Thunderbird and Oldsmobile 98, as a so-called “gentleman’s express.” However, with the restyling of the Grand Prix for 1969 model year, there was a chance to introduce trim packages to transform this comfy cruiser into a real muscle car. And Pontiac jumped at the opportunity.
First, there was a new design with a long hood and short rear end and a driver-oriented dashboard. The 1969 Grand Prix stood apart from its competitors so sales immediately jumped. Second, there was a trim option called the SJ featuring a high output 428 V8 engine. It delivered 390 HP and a host of other performance options. Pontiac borrowed the moniker, “SJ,” from the legendary Duesenberg brand.
The SJ insignia was on the most powerful Duesenberg cars, so Pontiac wanted to get a piece of that legend with the Grand Prix SJ. The automotive press and car fans received this luxury muscle car well, so the Grand Prix sold in large numbers. The powerful V8 propelled this big coupe to some respectable acceleration times. Although Pontiac conceived it as an executive transport, the Grand Prix SJ was a respectable street machine.
Buick introduced the Wildcat in 1962. It was one of the first personal luxury coupes featuring a performance-tuned engine and other go-fast options. Since it was a Buick product, they guaranteed their luxury appointments and upscale options. Even before the Rivera GS or the start of the muscle car craze, Buick noticed there was a market for full-size coupes with the performance of a sports car.
Young, successful people wanted an upscale product that looked expensive. But they also wanted enough power and driving dynamics to make driving fun. In those days, luxury coupes like Thunderbirds or Eldorados were all big, heavy cruisers with soft handling. That is why Buick introduced the Wildcat. Available as a regular four-door hardtop, two-door coupe or convertible, the Wildcat was a separate model.
Under the hood was a powerful V8 from the top of Buick’s engine lineup. One popular year was 1967 when they offered the Wildcat with the mighty 430 V8 engine producing 360 HP. This kind of power in an unassuming sedan or coupe was unheard of at the time. The Wildcat provided great performance, but also exclusivity to the owners.
Mustangs and Thunderbirds were the most famous, recognizable Fords of the 60’s, so the Ford 7-Litre is a forgotten luxury muscle model. In fact, most people are not even aware of its existence, but this is an interesting, powerful car. Unfortunately, it has a short history. The story starts in the mid-60’s when Ford introduced a new engine with 428 CID; an evolution of their venerable FE block.
They designed this engine to be a powerful street engine with lots of horsepower and torque. At the same time, Chevrolet had a successful Impala SS model featuring the 427 V8 engine, so Ford wanted to compete with it. But, Ford had a different vision. If Chevrolet produced the Impala SS as a mundane car, Ford would produce its model as an upscale coupe or convertible with an emphasis on luxury and exclusivity.
So, using a full-size Galaxie two-door hardtop or convertible platform, Ford introduced a new model for 1966 they called the 7-Litre. The 7 stood for displacement and the Litre spelling gave more European charm to the otherwise ordinary Galaxie. Under the hood was the 428 V8 with respectable 345 HP, which delivered a convincing performance. However, the 7-Litre’s equipment was also interesting since Ford put everything they had into this car. Buyers could get air conditioning and bucket seats were standard.
There was also a heavy-duty suspension, power everything, a choice of special colors and the 7-Litre badges on the sides to identify this model. This was a one-year only model so in 1967, the 428 was back, but only as an option on the Galaxie. In muscle car history, the 7-Litre was forgotten for quite a while. But, in recent years, its popularity has grown.
So now these big coupes and convertibles are of high value on the classic car market. In 1966, they produced a little over 11,000 7-Litres, so it can be hard to find one.
Chevrolet Impala SS
The legendary Super Sport or SS has its place in muscle car history as a model that promoted performance to the public. This was one of the first high-performance automobiles that were relatively affordable yet fast. Everything started when Chevrolet decided to transform its 409 truck engine for use in passenger cars. They found out that the unit was so powerful, it could outrun all other cars on the road.
With some modifications to the engine, it could produce up to 409 HP. This was enough to propel the Impala from a standstill to 60 mph in six seconds flat. At the time that was Corvette territory. So, as a mid-year introduction, Chevrolet presented the SS package featuring bucket seats and a sports trim. It also came with the 348 V8 engine producing 350 HP. However, another option was the 409 V8 with up to 409 HP if you got the dual quad intake system.
Although Chevrolet sold over a million of its full-size models, they only made 456 Impalas SS that year. And out of those only 142 Impalas came with 409 engines. This started the SS sub-model for Impala lineup. So from 1961 to 1969, Chevrolet offered the biggest, most powerful engines in the prestigious SS package for its two-door coupes and convertibles. They turned a regular family car into a fire breathing full-size muscle car.
Chrysler 300 Hurst
Everybody knows about the legendary Chrysler 300 “Letter Cars.” They were a series of high powered coupes and convertibles Chrysler built from 1955 to 1965. Chrysler called them “Letter Cars,” since they marked each model year with a letter starting with “C” and finishing with “L” in 1965. With low production numbers, bespoke interiors, leather upholstery and powerful engines, the “Letter Cars” were true Gran Turismo coupes of their era.
However, when production stopped in 1965, everybody thought that a true 300 Series car would never be available again. But, in 1970, they produced a special limited edition 300 Hurst. Chrysler built just 500 with the help of the famous transmission company, Hurst. The Hurst featured a special white and gold paint job. It also had a similarly styled interior and rear spoiler integrated into the rear deck lid.
Under the hood was a mighty 440 V8 engine with 395 HP that could propel the two-ton beast to respectful acceleration times. They offered this model for one year only, so people soon forgot it. But true Mopar aficionados will always remember those gold and white behemoths with Hurst emblems. And dedicated Chrysler historians place this special version as a continuation of the “Letter Cars” lineup.
Pontiac Catalina 2+2
In the mid-60’s, the Pontiac GTO was the car to have since it was on the forefront of the exciting new muscle car movement. With its performance, powerful engine and great Pontiac styling, the GTO was the perfect car for the moment. But, it wasn’t the only stellar performance machine coming from Pontiac. In 1965, there was another pure muscle car icon in form of the Catalina 2+2. Behind this strange name hides a full-size Catalina model available as a coupe or a convertible but with a performance twist.
The regular Catalina was a great looking, decent selling model. However, in 2+2 form, it transformed into a true Gran Turismo with a luxury interior and fire-breathing engine. Since the Catalina was a full-size model, it was eligible for engines over 400 CID, according to the GM rules of the time. This meant that the Catalina 2+2 came with the famous 421 V8.
But, if you wanted, you could get the Tri-Power intake system like on the GTO. This boosted your car’s power to 376 HP. Car buyers could also order limited slip differentials, heavy duty steering and brakes. This made the Catalina 2+2 well appointed, but expensive, too.
The top of the line 2+2 cost over $4,000. This was a hefty sum and much more than the similarly equipped GTO, for example. However, Pontiac produced around 11,000 of these fine machines in 1965, but only around 200 convertibles.
Plymouth Fury GT
Despite being an economy brand for the Chrysler Corporation, the Plymouth had a surprisingly large number of muscle cars during the 60’s and 70’s, as well as numerous special versions. Their luxury muscle car was the GTX, but in 1970, the Fury GT debuted as the biggest model on offer. The Fury GT was a two-door coupe version of the Fury sedan. But in the GT guise, it was a full-size muscle car with a perfect combination of looks and power.
Under the hood was a well-known 440 V8 with a three-carburetor setup and 375 HP on tap. Buyers could choose between the 727 Torqueflite automatic and the four-speed manual. But, if you wanted real performance, you could choose the manual.
However, despite the power and looks, the Fury GT wasn’t a big performer since it was still a heavy car. In combination with a relatively high price tag, it proved to be a slow seller. So, after just one year in production, Plymouth discontinued the GT model.
Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS
Back in the late 60’s, Chevrolet’s product planners decided to enter the personal luxury segment with a new model. Since Chevrolet was famous as a mid-priced car brand, moving up the ladder was a big deal. Chevy knew that they needed a fresh design, name and powerful engine. So, in 1970, the presented the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Chevy built it on the modified Chevelle platform. The Monte Carlo was a handsome coupe-only car with V8 engines, a nice interior and decent performance. Although most Monte Carlos came with small V8 engines, there was one crazy muscle option in the form of the SS 454 package. This version was a true full-size muscle beast with a monstrous 7.4-liter V8 engine.
It pumped 360 HP and propelled the heavy Monte Carlo to amazing 0 to 60 mph times. For just $420 above the base price, buyers could get this trim level to transform this coupe from a lazy cruiser to a quarter mile beast. However, only around 3,800 people decided to do that, so the Monte Carlo SS 454 remains one of the rarest luxury muscle cars they ever produced.
The reason is that Chevrolet had a few muscle cars in their model lineup already. So, most car enthusiasts turned to the Chevelle, Camaro or Corvette for performance and looks. The typical Monte Carlo buyers preferred comfort and luxury. So, the SS 454 option fell somewhere in the middle, contributing to the low sales numbers.
Buick Riviera GS
In the early 60’s, Detroit was aware of luxury Gran Turismo European coupes coming to America and selling in significant numbers. Performance-oriented buyers didn’t want big, heavy domestic coupes. This is because they had the power, but didn’t provide the handling or the feel of a sports car. So, instead, they turned to Ferraris, Maseratis, and Jaguars for that performance car excitement and prestige.
GM decided to capitalize on this trend by introducing a new luxury model with great styling, a cool name and enough power to put all those European coupes to shame. So, in 1963, they presented the Buick Riviera. It immediately became one of the most interesting cars on the American market back then. A combination of sleek and elegant styling, modern interior and powerful Buick’s Nailhead engine made the Riviera an instant bestseller.
It was also the first real competitor to the famous Ford Thunderbird. But Buick wanted more, so the company introduced the legendary Riviera Grand Sport or GS in 1965. The car featured a revised suspension, a bigger 425 engine, and a host of other performance upgrades. In this version, the Rivera was a true world class automobile with 360 HP and acceleration times of 7.9 seconds.
This was better than most of the sports cars of the period. The Riviera as a model stayed in production until 1993. But the first three generations, especially the GS models remained the most sought after as some of the best full-size muscle cars Detroit ever produced.
The fastest, most powerful American production model for 1955 and the car that shook the car scene was the mighty Chrysler C-300. The car got its name from the 331 V8 Hemi engine which they equipped with 8.5:1 compression. Chrysler added a race camshaft and twin four-barrel carburetors to produce 300 HP, which was a magical figure for the mid-50s.
The performance was outstanding with nine seconds 0 to 60 mph times and 130 mph top speeds. The car was expensive and full of luxury items, but it proved successful in racing, winning 37 stock car events. …
Even though Oldsmobile started the muscle car segment, it wasn’t active until 1961. This was when the rest of Detroit’s manufacturers introduced more powerful models, gaining respect on the streets and on the strips. Oldsmobile saw the potential and introduced the Starfire, its top of the line model which featured engine from the bigger models.
All big Oldsmobiles used a 394 V8 with 325 HP ratings. But in the Starfire, the engine delivered 330 HP and gave the 1961 model some performance credentials. These models weren’t true muscle cars since they were more luxury machines. However, they still had the power, performance and looks.
As the muscle car era came to an end, Chevrolet discontinued the Impala SS, only to resurrect it in 1994 as an option on the seventh generation of this legendary model. Since the early ’90s marked the return to performance, Chevrolet installed the famous 5.7-liter LT1 V8 engine in this full-size rear wheel drive sedan.
Then they equipped it with a heavy-duty suspension and components, creating a modern-day muscle legend. The engine delivered 260 HP and propelled the big sedan to 0 to 60 mph times of seven seconds. Although not exactly spectacular numbers, for the mid-90s, those were quite good results.
Despite the fact they never intended the Grand Marquis to be a performance car, Mercury decided to turn it into one. So, they installed a highly tuned 4.6-liter V8 with 302 HP and added a revised suspension, gearbox and brakes. All those changes turned this sleepy and comfy sedan into a sharp muscle car.
The black paint, which was one of three colors available, gave the Marauder menacing looks and an aggressive stance. This clearly differentiated it from its more sedate cousins. The performance was good for a big, heavy sedan with 0 to 60 mph time in around seven seconds.
The legendary Roadmaster name returned to the Buick lineup in 1991 after a 33-year long hiatus as a freshly styled luxurious sedan and station wagon model. The car was basically the same as other offerings from General Motors in the same class. However, the Roadmaster had some more luxury options.
Also, it had one interesting engine that turned this comfy cruiser into a muscle car. Buick engineers found a way to install a Corvette LT1 5.7-liter V8 engine into the Roadmaster’s engine bay. The LT1 produced 300 HP in the Corvette, but in the Buick, it delivered 260 HP, which was more than enough.
Cadillac Coupe DeVille 1949
The ’49 Cadillac was an important model for the company since introduced a new design element that sparked the trend of big chrome fins. The raised rear fenders near the rear lights started a revolution in American design during the ’50s.
And with the new 331 CID V8, the ’49 Cadillac produced 160 HP, which was powerful for the standards of the day. Equipped with a manual transmission, the pillarless Coupe De Ville could accelerate to 60 mph in just 12 seconds. This was fast for the late ’40s and transformed this luxury coupe into a muscle machine.
The reasons muscle cars muscled out these speed yachts is (1) they were less expensive and (2) therefore purchased by younger buyers.