The Buyer's Guide to Vintage American Muscle Cars
Nothing says 'Murica like 'Murican metal.
It’s best to be a bit cynical about the classic muscle car market. These aren’t cars hand-built in race shops to win world championships. Craftsman didn’t obsess over shaping the perfect fender, the paint was never sprayed on to retain its luster for generations, and the engineering was primitive, even by the standards of the era. And yet muscle cars embody the hopes and aspirations of, well, at least a couple of American generations now. Of course you want one. Or several.
So you’re aiming to enter the muscle car market. We're here to help. First, let’s clear up a few things.
What is a muscle car, anyway?
The classic muscle car era runs from the introduction of the big-engine 1964 Pontiac GTO and ends as the 1972 model year and high-compression V-8s passed into history. Muscle cars are always North American-made and are defined more by how they were marketed than by any feature they possessed. They were sold as exuberant expressions of the baby boom generation that at that time was emerging as the richest, largest and most self-obsessed demographic the US had ever known.
None of this should be taken to mean there’s a hard-and-fast rule about what constitutes a muscle car. Some will include the Shelby Cobra and Chevrolet Corvette as muscle, while those of us with our heads screwed on right know that they are sports cars. Big cars like the 1966 Ford Galaxie 7 Litre push the muscle envelope, but it was marketed more as an executive express than a youthful warrior. And while the muscle era ended in ’72, one of the greatest muscle cars ever was the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am powered by the Super Duty 455 V-8 produced from 1973 to 1975. So let’s keep it loose.
What To Look For
- Manage your expectations. If you grew up in the Seventies or Eighties, it’s tempting to think of muscle cars as mere used cars. They aren’t. At between 52 and 44 years old, muscle cars are antiques. Except for a few preserved-in-amber freaks, they’ve all been hit a few times. They’ve all got a little rust. They’ve all been repainted a few times. Most of the people who designed and built them are dead. So be realistic in your expectations of what you’re buying. And even if you find a perfect one, it will drive like a 50-year-old car and not like a new Ford Focus. Keep your expectations in line.
- Rust is death. You can expect at least some on any muscle machine, but there’s a vast difference between a little surface schmutz and deep, unsalvageable corrosion. That rust bucket 1967 Camaro Z/28 will be tempting, but you’re likely to have more fun with an ordinary 1967 Camaro sport coupe that isn’t already half dissolved.
- Seek out alternatives. Everyone wants a 1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda so they’re very expensive. Meanwhile, a ‘Cuda powered by a 340 small-block V-8 will not only be much cheaper, but likely drive better than the temperamental Hemi. Don’t get hung up on a particular muscle model; that’s almost a sure way to get ripped off.
- Don't expect to get rich off this. It’s not likely that you’re going to make a lot of money on your muscle car. Let’s take a look at the auctions listed on Barrett-Jackson’s website. In 2005 a beautiful restored 1967 Pontiac GTO sold at the auction house’s Scottsdale event for $78,100. A year later, the same car at the same event hammered down at $95,700. Then in 2007, it showed up at the Scottsdale auction again and sold for $83,600. Last year a comparable 1967 GTO convertible sold at Scottsdale for $66,000. Sticking the money in a savings account would have guaranteed a return and never leaked oil, required insurance or took up space in a climate-controlled garage. Yes, if you’re lucky, you may make a few bucks. But it’s more likely you’re going to take a hit or break even. Muscle cars in the early 21st century are fully valued.
- Buy what you want, not what someone else says you should. Don’t go into buying any collector car without following your own passion and no one else’s. If you’ve always loved ’68 Javelins, then get a ’68 Javelin and succumb to the honest advice that AMC parts are impossible to find, that reproduction pieces are scant, and that when you’re done getting it perfect, it’s still an old Rambler. Have fun.
- Be honest with yourself. If you’re a talented mechanic, expert body man and have a paint booth at your house, buy something cheap and have fun with it. Don’t imagine you can do things that you’ve never done or have talents you’ve never tested.
- Know what you want to do with the car. If you’re that guy in the front row at Barrett-Jackson, wearing a big watch and a Hawaiian shirt next to your surgically enhanced significant other, then the sheer act of bidding on the car may be enough. And you’ve probably got room in your Scottsdale hacienda’s garage for plenty of cars that just sit around looking pretty. But if you actually want to drive a car, look for one that’s well sorted but not so nice you won’t let it back out of the carport.
- Think twice, it's alright. Maybe you don’t need to get a muscle car at all. For all intents and purposes a “personal luxury” 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo is a Chevelle with a nose stretch and new fenders. But while Chevelles, particularly the SS models, are expensive, Montes are relatively cheap. So buy a Monte Carlo for about six grand and shove a good crate engine into it. Chevy’s drop-in LS3 E-Rod engine is almost ridiculously cheap and is rated at 430 net horsepower. And who cares about “numbers matching” Monte Carlos anyhow? Play with a station wagon, muscle-era trucks are still affordable, and it doesn’t take much to turn a Plymouth Duster or a Mercury Comet into a beast.
- Screw with the car. Stock muscle cars are, for the most part, garbage. They’re not as fast as legend has it, they don’t handle particularly well, and they’re built haphazardly. But over time a significant aftermarket industry led by companies like Detroit Speed, Hotchkis Performance, and Art Morrison Enterprises have developed a critical mass of products to enable muscle cars to perform about as well as everyone always imagined. Muscle cars make fantastic hot rods. And maybe that’s what you really want.
- Look in vacant lots. The hunt for an old muscle car in obscure barns and dangerous alleys can be more rewarding than a second or third mimosa at Barrett-Jackson. Detroit built a lot of these cars and there are still good ones to be found. So don’t get sucked into buying a pristine museum piece when there’s a car you could love sitting out in the desert waiting to have the sand blown out of it.
1. 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix Hurst SSJ—Pontiac downsized the Grand Prix from full-size to mid-size for 1969. And then Hurst Performance took a few and added some flamboyant gold and white paint and a padded vinyl roof with sunroof. Only about 272 were made for 1970 and a few more in ’71 and ’72 for a total of 489.
2. 1967 to 1969 Plymouth Barracuda—Collectors have long gone nuts for the later E-body 1970-1974 Barracuda. But the A-Body Barracudas just before that generation are great looking cars and are still affordable. Forget the ’64 to ’66 Barracuda, which was merely a Valiant with a fishbowl bolted to the tail.
3. 1966 and 1967 Ford Fairlane GT/GTA—The sportiest version of Ford’s mid-size car with a solid 390-cubic-inch V-8 in its nose. A few (called 500s) had 427s.
4. 1971 AMC Hornet SC/360—American Motors made only 784 of these compact two-doors powered most often by a 285-horsepower, 360-cubic-inch V-8. Of course, owning one means being an AMC guy and that comes with some serious car geek stigma.
5. 1970 and 1971 Pontiac Tempest GT-37—This was Pontiac’s obscure answer to the Plymouth Road Runner. A cheap Tempest (pillared two-door coupe or pillar-less hardtop) overstuffed with Pontiac’s 350 or a pair of 400-cubic-inch V-8s, including the potent Ram Air III. Rare? Sure.
Not So Good Examples
1. 1970-1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda—No doubt an interesting car, but stupidly expensive now and always a bear to drive on the street. The 440-powered ‘Cudas were better cars to drive if you insist on owning an enormous-engine E-body.
2. 1970-1975 Ford Maverick Grabber—The Maverick had a pretty fastback shape, but it was cheaply built even by muscle era standards. At first they didn’t even come with a glovebox. So don’t get fooled.
3. 1968 Shelby GT500—Carroll Shelby was out of the Mustang business by ’68, so the GT500s were produced by Ford using the 428-cubic-inch Police Interceptor V-8 with 360 horsepower. A nose-heavy yawn. And the cheesy “Eleanor” replicas built in tribute to the icky Gone In Sixty Secondsremake are a joke.
4. 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona—Built to race in NASCAR stock car events, the Daytona was brilliant on superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. But as a road car, the nose was ridiculously long and that rear wing was just silly. Yeah, the same goes for the Plymouth Superbird too.
5. 1964 Pontiac GTO—Yeah, it was the original muscle car. But that 325-horsepower 389 V-8 in its nose was no great shakes. Tested by Motor Trend in their January 1964 issue, a four-speed GTO convertible ran the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 93 mph. A bog standard 2016 Honda Civic powered by a 2.0-liter four with a six-speed manual transmission will match that. Pathetic.
Muscle cars are simple beasts that are easy to work on. But best of all, they’re so familiar to and beloved by so many of us that it’s easy to rope our friends into helping maintain and restore them for little more than a case of Keystone Light and a couple of DiGiorno pizzas. Social skills are vital skills.
Don’t shirk on insuring your muscle machine. Companies like Hagerty specialize in insuring classics (usually on a “stated value” basis) and that can be critical should something happen to your freshly restored ride. Don’t just put the car on your regular auto insurance policy without first consulting your agent about how it will be covered.
If you’re anal about it, you’ll want to install reproduction bias-ply muscle era tires on your car. That’s great if all you’re going to do is park it at car shows. But if you’re going to drive the thing, treat it to some radials. Modern rubber is a true lifesaver.
Finally, the grim truth: The earliest members of the baby boom generation are now hitting their eighth decade, and they’re soon going to be hitting the end of their actuarial relevance. You know, dying. So some of the best deals on already restored, long cherished muscle cars will be through estate sales. Start searching those.
There are literally dozens of magazines dedicated to the muscle car obsession. Hundreds of websites, too. And there are millions upon millions of opinions.
Start, however, with Hemmings Motor News that is both the largest online marketplace for all things old car and a strong editorial resource for exploring all the trivial elements that make muscle-headed mania worthwhile. With its listings for cars, parts and flotsam, this is where you can get a feel for the market.
Barrett-Jackson runs auctions around the country—you know, the ones that get shown on cable TV—but it also maintains a thickly stocked website containing auction results that go back at least 10 years. These auctions can be absolutely stupid when it comes to pricing, but their accumulated history is a good snapshot of how the muscle car market moves over time.
And remember, with muscle cars we’re talking about fragile antiques. So even though swap meets and junkyards may seem archaic in the digital age, they’re still absolutely relevant today. Don’t shy away from them, or local car shows either. It may be that the guy you bond with at the taco truck may have the killer leads on the good stuff in your local neighborhood.
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