Fun, But Sadly Underrated Muscle Cars
What 1970 has a fastback design, 340 cubic inch engine, and does zero to sixty in 6.2 seconds? Gearheads put your hands down. It’s not the Mustang fastback which with a 429 does 5.5 seconds. It’s the Plymouth Duster, which suffers from, among other things, an incomplete transformation from the Valiant. The front half just doesn’t have the appeal of the famous Ford product (which is actually a “pony car”), but the rear half can lay down rubber really well.
Here’s a selection of other cars which don’t pull six figures at the auction, but don’t deserve being in the shadow of the muscle car stars. Let’s take a trip into the driveways of America to see what cars people love and put their energy and time into. Especially if they’re underrated. Some were marketed with cute names like Scamp and Twister. While some inspired odd nicknames on the street, like Bisquick. Which of the following cars had that name?
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20Dodge Dart Demon
The line arrived pre-muscle era in 1960. In the mid-60s it stood out with bug-eyed headlights and a push-button transmission shifter. By 1971 it was scaled down in size, but Dodge saw it as a way to reach out to the growing stock performance market. It was one of the first vehicles to offer a cassette player, also. Maybe the name and the cute little demon decal tarnished it somehow? Dodge’s three-pronged marketing strategy was one part style, one part engine, and another part weird names. Demon raised protests from some; Swinger didn’t do much better.
19Buick Gran Sport 455
The Buick Gran Sport 455, called a luxury supercar by some, makes a great show car because it mixes power with plenty of chrome and styling. Bucket seats, a convertible option, and a comfortable back seat made this car the best way to get luxury and performance from GM since focused on luxury at the time. The high-end horsepower of the 455 engine could be balanced with the GSX package upgrade for improved performance and handling and hopefully showroom appeal as well.
The Cyclone was designed to make a name for the Mercury division on the racing circuit, both drag racing and later NASCAR, and also attract style-conscious buyers with plenty of chrome, flashy wheel covers, and bucket seats. In some years, even the engine got some chrome. It started with a 289 in 1964 and before production ended in 1972 buyers could select a powerful 429 cu in engine. The Cyclone GT pushed the style envelope even further than the standard model with trim both visually appealing like the full-length console and functional like the scoop which could be used for ram induction.
17AMC Rebel Machine
AMC is almost the definition of underrated, with both amazing muscle cars and curiosities like the AMC Pacer which, to its credit, starred in a movie just like the muscle cars: the comedy Wayne’s World. The 1970 AMC Rebel Machine has also gotten some respect at auction as Mecum lot number S80 in 2017, price $50,000. It was one of the 1,000 produced with red, white and blue out of 2326 total. Legendary Hurst Performance Research had a hand in creating the Rebel machine, which featured a 390 V-8 with 340 hp.
16Ford Torino GT
Torino GT, Gran Torino, what’s in a name? It was changed in 1972 for the third generation of this style. Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino featured a later model of the Torino GT after the name, and most notably the grille had changed, along with performance downgrades due to emissions requirements. The look was arguably better, with the so-called fish mouth grille and a more tailored body. The Gran Torino also was featured in The Big Lebowski though not in as great condition as Clint Eastwood’s version, and the TV series Starsky and Hutch.
The Duster is both a partially evolved Valiant which Car and Driver said was ugly and cheap, but also a pretty decent compact supercar which could take on the Chevelle. They blamed the stylists who made the interior detailed but cheap instead of simple and solid and lowered the suspension, so it handled and rode poorly. Nevertheless, the Duster seems to have its share of fans and, with the 340 and 360 ci engines especially, it really earned its keep. It also bore the names Gold Duster, Silver Duster, Space Duster, and Twister.
The Buick Wildcat is a fastback-styled car on a full-size platform. It was an early attempt at what came to be called the personal luxury car, in the spirit of the Ford Thunderbird. The interior was plush, with a center console and bucket seats in most models, and when the Wildcat was introduced in 1962, it was clocked 0-60 mph in 8.1 seconds by Motor Trend Magazine. Marketing sold the 360 hp as a reason to buy full-sized Wildcat during the 60s, but the trend towards mid-sized muscle cars pushed the Wildcat to the side in the 1970s.
The Chevy Chevelle Laguna was a casualty of the times as the exuberance of muscle car culture was tamed by economics and fuel economy. The model only lasted from 73-76. It found its way into NASCAR even though Chevy wasn’t looking to race at the time. MotorWeek noted the suspiciously aerodynamic shovel-style nose and wondered if that was really an accident. Detoured into using styling to produce sales since it was hamstrung by new government-mandated emissions equipment, the Laguna didn’t last long.
12Pontiac Grand Prix
The name Grand Prix has been used on a variety of Pontiac models from 1962 until 2008 with seven generations produced. It started in 1962 as a personal luxury car, became available as a mid-size, a full-size and a coupe over time until the end of production in 2008. John De Lorean, who later created the car featured in Back to the Future, was a key Pontiac management figure behind the Grand Prix during later years of its life. The Grand Prix had many innovations both tried and abandoned and shipped, including new electronics features and a prototype steam-based engine.
11Mercury Marauder X-100
The Marauder X-100 combined the comfort and features of Lincoln/Mercury with 360 enthusiastic horses. It could do zero to sixty in 7.8 seconds but at 4,500 pounds, how quickly could it return to zero? The land-yacht dilemma. After a few years of success in the early 1960s, the Marauder yielded to the pony cars and the mid-sized crowd which packed more power into less. The powerful Marauder had a similar appearance to full-luxury Lincoln cars in its later years, bringing to mind the 1950s song about the “hot rod Lincoln.”
10Pontiac Ventura GTO
The designation GTO was apparently Pontiac executive (and later independent car manufacturer) John De Lorean’s idea borrowed from the Ferrari 250 GTO. It stands for Gran Turismo Omologato derived from the Italian for Grand Touring and homologation which is the process of approval in racing. Ferrari enthusiasts raged about this bare-bones muscle car with no credentials taking on the name so not only did the name stick, but gearheads defiantly simplified GTO to “goat.” From there, they said it burns “Gas, Oil, And Tires.” You get the picture, and it does. It was one of Pontiac’s fastest cars in the day.
9Chrysler 300 Hurst
Only 501 of these were produced, so there hasn’t been much chance for them to be appreciated. They were part of the original luxury line but produced in 1970 in conjunction with Hurst Performance. The engine was a Chrysler 440 TNT V-8, transmission a three-speed Torqueflite and they were all two-door models, painted in a white and gold color scheme with scoop and spoiler added.
8Ford Falcon 260
The Ford Falcon, Nash Rambler, Chevrolet Corvair and Plymouth Valiant competed as compact cars, all introduced around the year 1960. The 1958 song “Beep Beep” by the Playmates made fun of the aspirations of these compacts, telling about a Nash Rambler driver who was keeping pace with a Cadillac no matter how fast the Caddy drove. Ford used characters from Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” to advertise this small car. It sold well and was in production from 1960 to 1970. It was widely modified and converted by hot rodders and drag racers and still is a popular project car.
7Chevy Biscayne 427
The full-sized Chevy Biscayne was produced from 1958 to 1972. To the frustration of street racers, some models were annoying “sleepers” which could beat anyone when the red light changed while looking like granny’s sedan. The Biscayne with a big-block 427 V-8 offered 425 hp straight from the factory. Other versions had engines down to 230 cubic inches, so competitors had to guess what they were dealing with. The money for the Bisquick went into the performance: the Biscayne was the least expensive full-sized Chevy at the time.
6AMC Matador Machine
As seen in NASCAR and also the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun and many other 1970s movies and TV shows, the AMC Matador was produced as a mid-size car and coupe from 1971-73 and full-size sedan and wagon versions were available from 1974-78. It competed in the personal luxury car market but was also a popular police car which outperformed many others. For fans of the AMC Rebel Machine, Matadors could be ordered, including four-door sedans and wagons, with a “Go Machine” option which brought it up to speed, so to speak. The option added “the works” from brakes to tires and either a 360 V-8 or the 401.
Two years of production in 1964 and 1965 were all that the Oldsmobile Jetstar was afforded, but it offered a lot in a full-sized package during that time. It was basically a luxury Starfire scaled down on the luxury side for buyers who wanted performance. It was available in bright colors such as yellow and red and hot engines including a 394 cu in 345 hp offering in 1964 and a 421 cu in, 376 hp Tri-Power option in 1965.
4Dodge Coronet Super Bee
Low price, high power was the major selling point of the Dodge Coronet Super Bee and its sibling, the Plymouth Road Runner. This is the original version of the Super Bee, based on the Coronet and available from 1968 through 1971. Chrysler has reused the name on various models, mostly Chargers, up until 2013. In the 1968-71 version, buyers could get an affordable car with a 383 Magnum, 426 Hemi, or 440 Six-pack engine and enjoy it as is or get to work modifying it.
SHO stands for Super High Output, but Ford has kept the styling fairly discreet in this family and executive car with something extra under the hood. Movie appearances include Men in Black 3, where it fit the dark suit, top-secret capabilities motif nicely. Current models come with a 3.5-liter twin-turbo Ecoboost V-6 and a Performance Package with Sport Mode. Recalibrated steering and better braking and cooling equipment is available in addition to the SHO-specific performance upgrades.
From the front, it looks vaguely like an old early-70s Datsun, overall more like a period Alfa Romeo, but the interior is that of a British touring car and under the hood, 440 ci of Chrysler muscle. The Interceptor is a relative of the Lotus-powered Jensen-Healey sports car, also underrated in its class. Interceptors were first built in the 1950s, then a new version appeared in the 60s and 70s, with occasional revivals of the company and the car continuing until the present (see Jensen International Automotive). Jensen was also involved in the manufacturing of several other companies’ cars including the Volvo P1800 and the Sunbeam Tiger.
1Dodge Magnum SRT8
This car is a vivid reminder that auto manufacturers have, over the years, put impressive performance into sleepy station wagon bodies. The Magnum SRT8 doesn’t hide its performance heritage, though. It’s offered in both subdued gray or black and bright color schemes including traditional gimme-a-ticket red, which with a 425 hp 6.1-liter engine under the hood it can easily earn. In the parking lot of the supermarket, whoever is driving gets to say, “yeah, it’s got a Hemi” to all those generic SUV and crossover drivers.