Bobby Rahal is a three-time PPG Indy Car World Series champion and winner of the 1986 Indianapolis 500, as well as co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which competes in the IndyCar and American Le Mans series. To inaugurate our Motoramic Experts series, we asked him for his list of the top five — and only five — muscle cars. - Ed.
The ‘60s were a magical era. When you look at that 10-year period, there’s never been a percentage increase, in terms of performance, to rival that decade. The most powerful racing car in 1960 had maybe 300 hp, but ten years later, some race cars boasted in excess of 1,000 hp.
“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” That saying derived from the success the major automobile manufacturers had on the racetracks and drag strips, and how that related to sales in the dealerships. In terms of performance, what was being offered to the public was mindboggling. When you look at the '50s, the approach taken remained conservative. But in the ‘60s, all hell broke loose. I consider myself very fortunate to have witnessed — and lived — that era. Muscle cars became an integral part of my fascination with the automobile.
Ranking these cars, however, is tough, especially when narrowing it down to just five. There will always be opinions as to whether you’re right or wrong, and invariably you’re going to anger somebody. But for me, these are my five greatest muscle cars:
#5: 1964 Pontiac GTO: This was the car that truly ignited the muscle car era. John DeLorean became infamous for many things later in life, but at the time, he was in charge of the Pontiac division and came up with the crazy idea of shoehorning a high-performance engine into a Pontiac Tempest — calling it the GTO. Immediately, you had what appeared to be an everyday car with an incredibly powerful engine. Songs like Ronny and the Daytonas’ “Little GTO,” celebrated “three deuces and a four speed." It was the spark that bred life to that whole magical era. It has to be placed in my top five.
#4: 1965 Shelby GT350 Mustang: While everybody liked the original Mustang, Ford needed to up its image. They approached Carroll Shelby and asked him to turn this pleasant car into a fire-breathing monster. The ’65 GT350 was built specifically to qualify for entry into sports car races. So from a street-driving standpoint, they were pretty crude. They had no backseat, uprated Koni shocks and a Detroit locker rear-end. The exhaust came out of the side, making it excessively loud. It was built to race, at the detriment of build quality and ride. But at around 305 hp, it elevated the status of the Mustang to a true muscle car.
#3: 1965 Shelby Cobra 427: Another Shelby classic, although the chassis was of course built by AC. This was the ultimate “how big of an engine could you force into the lightest possible car and get away with it?” That was the 427. Although in the ensuing years you had the big block Corvettes and such, at the time, the battle for brute horsepower, strength and acceleration was won hands down by the 427. It wasn’t necessarily great to drive on the street, it overheated and was plagued by engine issues, but it stood for everything the muscle car was about.
#2: 1969 Chevrolet Z/28 Camaro: The 5.0-liter 302 small block Chevy engine is perhaps one of the greatest motors for the street or racetrack. In the hands of Mark Donohue, it won the ultra competitive Trans-Am championship. The ’69, too, was a far better car than the ’67 and ’68, and simply looked fantastic. It also came with every option you could ever want. In terms of bang for the buck, the ’69 Z/28 was probably the best package on the market. It remains iconic, and Chevy’s reintroduction of the Z/28 this year brings back great memories, as well as vast shoes to fill.
#1: 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda: Placing a 426 HEMI engine into a Plymouth Barracuda led to amazing, brute horsepower. While it wasn’t an everyday car, it won on the drag strip or on the streets, and perhaps boasted the title as the highest performance muscle car of that era. Today, Hemi Cudas, especially the convertibles, sell for well into the seven figures. It also came adorned in wonderful colors such as “plum crazy.” In 1970 and ‘71, this was the muscle car in its greatest excess, and because of that, it ultimately ceased to exist. Things like insurance costs rose dramatically, and that drove the car out of the market. It was the last of the true monsters.
As the ‘70s progressed, this wonderful era ended, and horrible machines like the K-car arrived. During the time of the fuel crisis, if you had a car with 120 to 150 hp, that was deemed high performance. Nowadays, you can’t find a powerful enough engine. Forget supercars; even wagons like the Mercedes E63 AMG boast well over 500 hp. Sedans like the BMW M5 sprint to 60 mph in the low four-second range. If you’re not above 500 hp, you’re nobody. And the fit and finish is far superior compared to where it was in the ‘60s.
No modern muscle car rings to the same tune as those from that magical era, however. Back then, brakes were terrible, the ride was bad, and yet they went in a straight line like a bat out of hell. That’s what a muscle car is. That crudeness offered a character that can no longer be replicated.
The ‘60s are exemplified by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the British Invasion, and the maturity of the baby boom generation. There was so much going on in this country. And when you combine the muscle car, and the inherent culture that they defined, it made for an unbelievable moment in history.