Chris is an avid automotive enthusiast with decades of hands on experience. He enjoys exploring the consumer experience with automobiles.
The 1960s and early '70s are commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Muscle Cars.” America was restless and the “need for speed” was the overpowering influence on the automotive industry. Everybody got into the act. Plymouth, Porsche, Chevy, Ford, Pontiac and, of course, Dodge all launched smoking hot rides with monster engines designed to do one thing: go in a straight line very, very fast.
While street racing never endangered baseball as the national pastime, it did have a huge fanbase and spawned a generation of young gearheads dedicated to squeezing the last ounce of power out of already powerful engines. Zero to 60 mph and quarter mile times became the golden standard by which all street machines were measured.
Of course, if the ride made a lot of noise, could shred rubber, and was a chick magnet, that was okay, too.
No “Truth in Advertising” Rule
It’s important to remember that the '60s were a tad different than life today. Automotive technology only vaguely resembled what it is today. Precise clearances, modern metals and materials, and robotic assembly simply didn’t exist, so these cars wouldn't be able to run with the fastest cars out there today. But they could hold their own back in the day.
Further, quality assurance and zero defects were buzz words that wouldn’t catch on until the late '80s and early '90s. The net result is that two identical models could be sitting side by side on the show room floor yet one would perform as advertised while the other would be a dog.
And that leads us to the way the “fastest muscle cars of the 1960s” were timed.
These cars were so simple to modify that few would resemble their “stock” configuration three months after they were purchased.
Without question the 1965 Pontiac Catalina 2+2 had the fastest 0 to 60 time of the decade at 3.9 seconds. Car and Driver was the one who published this speed and they celebrated “GTO’s Big Brother” as the car of the week. In 1971 they took another look at how they evaluated the 2+2 and decided to drop it from their database.
The dirty little secret of the automotive industry in the '60s is that manufacturers, particularly Pontiac, sent “ringers” to the car magazines for review. The reviews were supposed to be “stock” rides that were readily available at the dealer. The '65 2+2 had actually been tuned by Royal Pontiac, a famous tune shop of the time, and there was some questions regarding the integrity of the time recorded.
Pontiac was notorious for the practice, but all car makers did it occasionally. Did it matter? Probably not. These cars were so simple to modify that few would resemble their “stock” configuration three months after they were purchased.
So let's check out the hot muscle cars from the 1960s. Some of these are classics, while others are going to surprise you. Like the first one.
1963 Studebaker Avanti R3: 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds
That’s right, Studebaker. Desperately trying to hang in there as a member of the Big 4 Club, Studebaker knew it had to come up with something that would shake up the business and put it back in the running as one of America’s top car makers.
The Avanti R3 certainly made an impression on speed freaks with its 289 cubic inch V8 engine. Tuned by Andy and Joe Granatelli, the 259 horsepower engine could propel a stock Avanti R3 to 171 miles per hour. On major and local tracks across the country the Avanti R3 broke over 300 speed records.
The Avanti was fast but it was also subject to a " love it or hate it" kind of appearance. Its long hood, short rear deck and no grille nose gave it a sleek supersonic jet appearance. The curves and angles of the design would have been impossible to construct in steel. Studebaker farmed out the body to Molded Fiberglass Body Co., the same folks who made the first fiberglass body ever for the Chevrolet Corvette.
Fiberglass, unfortunately, was the downfall for the Avanti. When Studebaker tried to bring manufacturing in-house, the delays and poor quality led to order cancellations and the demise of the Avanti.
1969 Plymouth Roadrunner: 5.3 seconds
In the late '60s many of the muscle cars drifted away from being fast, cheap rides and began piling on features and jacking up the price. Plymouth saw this trend as an opening to bring out an inexpensive rocket to appeal to the original crowd.
In 1968 they rolled out the first Roadrunner complete with Wily Coyote logo. They planned to sell 20,000 and wound up selling 45,000. Only Pontiac’s GTO sold more muscle cars than Plymouth’s new entry.
In 1969 Plymouth upped their game and rolled out the Roadrunner equipped with a 4-speed Hurst transmission mated to a 426 Hemi engine. Additionally, a 440 cubic inch powerplant with three Holley two-barrel carburetors was available. The 440 generated 390 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque, resulting in a top speed in excess of 180 mph. In 1969 Plymouth sold 81,440 of the wily Roadrunners.
1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet: 5.1 seconds
By 1968 the Mustang was losing ground against the big block Camaros, Firebirds and Barracudas. The Cobra Jet, with its 428 cubic inch V8, quickly snatched back the public’s interest and put the pony back in the race.
Ford rated the 428 at 335 horsepower, but real life output was more like 410 horsepower. Featuring larger valve heads, ram air induction, functional air scoop, and a four-barrel Holley carburetor, the Mustang grabbed back attention as it blazed by at 145 miles per hour. The lower rated horsepower was Ford’s effort to get better rates from insurance companies and, in part, scam racetrack rules.
Ford’s factory team took eight specially prepared 1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jets and blasted past everything in their Super Stock class at the '68 NHRA Winter Nationals. Car and Driver declared the 428 engine as the leader of the pack, and that the Mustang was back.
1966 Plymouth Satellite Hemi: 5.3 seconds
The '66 Satellite was the true Clark Kent/Superman persona of the muscle cars. Nothing special to look at. It is a well-behaved coupe with good street manners that might even be a nice car for a small family. There is nothing in the interior or exterior that hints at the monster that beats under the hood.
Plymouth’s 426 cubic inch “Street Hemi” engine turned the Satellite into a screaming demon when pressure was applied to the gas pedal. The former race engine underwent modifications to make it a street plant. Still, the engine’s power and weight required extras like heavy duty-suspension and police grade 11-inch disc brakes. Other muscle cars had the same features, but what they didn’t have was a car that could be driven as your everyday ride. The Satellite was a supercar without looking like a supercar.
The street Hemi versions only numbered 341. They went for $4,000 back then, which was a bit pricey. However, that kind of money bought you a car that would take you to 120 mph without knowing how you got there.
1968 Dodge Charger 426: 4.8 seconds
Dodge put their 1968 Charger RT through a major design refresh to bolster its image as a muscle car. The recessed grille, hidden headlights, aggressive stance and lip spoiler on the trunk did give the ride a sportier appearance. But it was what they dropped under the hood that earned the '68 Charger a place on the list of fastest muscle cars of the decade.
They paid a visit to Mopar and grabbed the same 426 cubic inch Hemi V8 that Plymouth used in their Satellite. Same engine, same brakes, a beefier suspension that rode stiffer than the Plymouth version, and a manual four-speed transmission turned the Charger into significantly more than just a pretty face.
The Hemi pushed out 425 horses and 490 lb-ft of torque. The Charger shot through the quarter mile in 13.2 seconds hitting 105 miles per hour. Not bad for 4,346 pounds of steel and rubber.
1967 Chevrolet Corvette 427 Stingray: 4.7 seconds
The year 1967 was important for Corvette engine performance. The “porcupine-head” big block 427 cubic inch V8 came with fuel injection, tri-power, or mondo-four-barrel induction. The 435 horsepower engine was coupled to a close-ratio four-speed manual transmission and a 3.55:1 Positraction rear end. The thing could fly!
However, with a sticker price in excess of $4,500 this Stingray was much more expensive than the other affordable sports cars of the day.
Everybody loved the Stingray. Car and Driver's nearly 400,000 readers voted it the Best All-Around Car of 1967. Its unique “Stinger” hood and sleek styling made it the eye candy of choice, but it was its ability to blow through the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds hitting 110 miles per hour that impressed the crowds.
1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO: 4.6 seconds
When the Tempest GTO first came out some folks thought Pontiac was stealing another name that they didn’t earn. Ferrari had a GTO that was a successful racer. To quell concerns about the legitimacy of their car’s name, Pontiac built the GTO so it would blow the rims off a Ferrari in a drag race. To further differentiate the two cars, the public began to routinely refer to the Tempest GTO as a “Goat.”
Not only was this vehicle a genuine muscle car, it was also a very well-behaved touring car as well. This offered the driver the opportunity to appear as a respectable citizen taking the family for a Sunday drive, or stomp on it and be an evil demon of speed. The Goat was awesome and Pontiac had a hard time keeping up with demand.
1966 Shelby Cobra Super Snake 427: 4.3 seconds
Former Texas chicken rancher turned race car driver, turned heart patient, turned worldclass tuner and automotive designer, Carrol Shelby made a big impression with the muscle car crowd with his ‘66 Shelby Cobra 427.
Shelby’s forte was cramming massive engines into little cars. Getting that accomplished is a trick unto itself, but then keeping those little cars from bouncing off the road was another issue. Shelby’s ’63 Cobra 260 was the fastest production car of the year. But when you stuff a bunch of horsepower into a small frame there are going to be torque issues that can seriously hamper control of the vehicle.
The 427, however, turned out to be a perfect performance mix, at least for a purist. The roadster (which was really pretty bare boned with a hand operated roof and button up windows) had raw power, fantastic brakes and a suspension system that minimized fishtailing caused by the 6:1 weight ratio between front and rear. The 427 cubic inch V8 engine created an incredible 800 horsepower and metal twisting 462 lb-ft of torque.
The 60s were full of fast muscle cars. Cars that you wouldn’t think of being road rockets turned out to be speed demons depending on what kind of powerplant you dropped into them. For example, the 1969 Mercury Cyclone was really just a rebadged Ford Fairlane except for the Cobra Jet 428 engine that allowed it to get to 60 in 5.5 seconds.
Other hot to trot rides included the Dodge Demon and its brother, the Plymouth Duster. With 340 cubic inch engines they didn’t have the most power, but they both were lightweight and that allowed them to compete with the big boys.
Honorable mention also goes to the Cobra Jet-equipped Ford Torino, the supercharged Studebaker Super Lark, and of course the Dodge Coronet Super Bee with the 426 Hemi.
It was a great decade for muscle cars and one that most likely will not be repeated.
WheelScene (author) from U.S.A. on October 11, 2017:
Robbie Clark from Lexington, Ky on September 27, 2017:
That video of the two Plymouth's racing is tight!
WheelScene (author) from U.S.A. on August 24, 2017:
Agreed! Thanks for sharing
Billy Mumfrey from NYC on August 23, 2017:
They don't make like that any more! Love live the GOAT!!