25 April 2016

Five muscle machines that broke the mold

In the ’60s and ’70s, “muscle car” most often meant a midsize American coupe with a high-performance V-8 and rear-wheel drive, period. But as Detroit performance started making a comeback in the late 1980s, and with V-8s on the decline, carmakers began stretching that definition. Some new approaches to American muscle set the blueprint for future models, and some became instant cult classics.

Here are five that broke the muscle car mold.

1986–87 Buick Grand National

The Buick’s extraordinary big bad Grand National is forever cemented into muscle car history, but when it was new, there were those who sneered at its “small” turbocharged V-6. Muscle purists just couldn't get on board with a computerized six-banger taking the place of a hulking V-8.

The GN’s high-13/low-14-second quarter-mile times, in stock form, changed a lot of minds. And for those who preferred their muscle with stealth, Buick also offered the GN’s “plain clothes” sibling, the Regal T-Type.

Stock output of the Buick’s intercooled 3.8-liter turbo V-6 was 245 net horsepower and 355 pound-feet of torque. (By comparison, the 1986 Corvette’s V-8 made 230 horsepower and 330 pound-feet). The turbo Buicks crushed the preconception that “computer cars” could not be tuned for even higher performance. It turns out, that was pretty easy.

Buick ended the Grand National’s run with the 1987 GNX, a pinnacle muscle machine with a McLaren/ASC-tuned turbo V-6 making 300 horsepower and a stonking 420 pound-feet of torque. Buick made just 547 GNXs, and one with 362 original miles sold for $165,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s 2015 Palm Beach auction.

1988–92 Lincoln Mk VII LSC

The “hot rod Lincoln” was in many ways a muscle car for the country club set. The sleek design blended Euro sophistication with pure American swagger.

Lincoln boldly pitched the Mk VII as a competitor to the Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC coupe, which cost nearly three times the Mk VII LSC’s $27,000 price. Starting in mid-1987, when it gained the Mustang’s 5.0-liter H.O. V-8 with 225 horses and 300 pound-feet of torque, the Mk VII LSC (for Luxury Sports Coupe) essentially matched the big Benz’s power (238 hp, 287 lb-ft).

The Mk VII LSC’s mid-15-second quarter-mile times were right there with Trans-Ams and IROC Camaros of the day, along with numerous classic muscle cars. Based on the Thunderbird platform — itself a version of the Ford Fairmont’s Fox chassis — the Mk VII rode on a longer, 108-inch wheelbase. It was a roomy midsize coupe and pretty close in concept to classic muscle cars in that regard. Air suspension made the Mk VII a cushy yet agile cruiser. Too bad Lincoln has nothing like it today.

1989–91 Ford Taurus SHO

The Ford Taurus SHO stretches the definition of “muscle car,” but a speedy four-door held strong appeal for gearheads who needed a family hauler. The $20,000 price was reasonable, too. SHO stood for “Super High Output,” from a Yamaha-built version of Ford’s 3.0-liter Vulcan V-6. The high-winding V-6 made 220 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, and the SHO came only with a five-speed stick until 1992.

The aluminum SHO V-6 used the day’s best engine tech: double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a variable intake manifold, with the coolest looking set of intake runners outside of an Italian exotic. While front-wheel drive might seem to disqualify the SHO as a muscle car, the SHO was just a few ticks off a 5.0-liter Mustang’s quarter-mile time, according to Car and Driver. From there, the Taurus SHO pulled away from the Mustang to a 143-mph top speed, making it the fastest sedan available for under $60,000.

1992–93 GMC Typhoon

After building the shocker of the year with the 1991 Syclone pickup, GMC put the freakishly fast pickup’s mechanical package into the more versatile Jimmy sport-utility to create the 1992 Typhoon. With the same 280-horsepower turbocharged 4.3-liter V-6 and full-time all-wheel-drive system as the Syclone, the Typhoon offered about the same performance, including 14-second quarter-mile times. But it had room for five and their luggage, which broadened its market.

Handling was good but not great. Remember, this thing still had a pickup truck frame and solid rear axle on leaf springs. The $30,000 price was an obstacle, but GMC still built about 4,700 Typhoons. The Typhoon was well ahead of its time; a quarter-century later, the hot models from luxury brands are hot rod SUVs.

1994–96 Chevrolet Impala SS

By the early 1990s, GM’s big rear-drive coupes were history. So Chevy did something crazy by building a four-door muscle car. The 1994–96 Impala SS followed in the tire tracks of the 1960s Impala SS models, but it was even quicker.

The 1994–96 Impala SS was essentially a Caprice with most of the 9C1 police package chassis hardware, plus 17-inch aluminum wheels, black paint and trim and a leather-swathed cabin. Other colors were offered later. The LT1 5.7-liter small-block’s 260 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque could hurl the big boat down the quarter-mile in 15 seconds flat, according to Car and Driver. (As a comparison, Car Life magazine had clocked a 1967 Impala SS427 at 15.7 seconds.) The 1994–96 Impala SS was also a surprisingly good back road handler, far better than its ancestors and comparable to some European sport sedans.

Chevy made just over 70,000 of the big muscle machines before putting its old rear-driver out to pasture after 1996. The Impala SS left a lasting impact, however, opening the doors, so to speak, for future muscle four-doors, including today’s Chevrolet SS and the Dodge Charger R/T.

17 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Phil austin April 27, 2016 at 17:01
    Re Ford's SHO engine That Ford had to go to Yamaha to obtain a so-called high output engine when Lexus was selling it's 3 liter 6 cylinder SC300 with greater power during the same era. Then Toyota added turbos to the same engine to crank out 320 horsepower in the fabled Supra. So much for good old American ingenuity
  • 2
    David Knoxville, TN April 27, 2016 at 17:10
    I enjoy these short articles, but notice that you normally have an incomplete set of pictures. Today, you missed a shot of the Lincoln Mk VII LSC. These would be much more enjoyable if I didn't have to go Google the missing pictures.
  • 3
    steve perkins hendersonville tennesse April 27, 2016 at 17:40
    One thing to be said for two of the cars above was that Jim Perkins had a lot to do with them. He was the national sales manager for Buick during the Grand Nationals days. He was the General Manager during the SS impala days.
  • 4
    Michael Zazzaro Rochester, NY 14624 April 27, 2016 at 18:55
    Great looking muscle cars.
  • 5
    Henry NY April 27, 2016 at 21:26
    You mention the Taurus SHO, nice car that was called a turtle due to its looks back in the day. I would have added the 90s Z/34 Lumina to your list. 200+ hp & a 5 speed stick with at least some styling. Since you insure mine I'll forgive you for the over site. :)
  • 6
    Nolan Pahud Santa Rosa, CA April 28, 2016 at 15:22
    Don't forget the Impala's cousin Buick Roadmaster with the same engine. My neighbor has one which can still burn the rear wheel drive tires!
  • 7
    Paul Gualtieri Walton NY April 28, 2016 at 03:32
    Since I've own a 1996 Impala, a 1989 SHO and a 1985 Buick GN I can safely say leaving out a 2004 Mercury Marauder is sinful. Do some research because large American muscle with excellent overall comfort is what a Marauder is all about. A Hellcat Charger may destroy it performance wise, the Marauder is second to none as a highway King. King of performance, comfort and size!
  • 8
    Tom O'Connor Salinas, CA April 28, 2016 at 20:14
    You missed one of the best of that era, the 1989-90 Mercury Cougar XR 7 and it's stable mate the Thunderbird SC. Here are some features they had, that the others didn't have. 1. Supercharged 2. 5 speed manual transmission 3. 4 wheel disc brakes 4. Side bolster leather trimmed power bucket seats 5. Electronically controlled suspension settings 6. Independent rear suspension As far as build numbers, Mercury built 841 manual transmission XR 7's in 1990, I'm lucky enough to own one.
  • 9
    Mr. Bill from Jacksonville Jacksonville FL April 28, 2016 at 11:53
    Nice selection but what about the Monte Carlo SS? I still own my 87-SS all original, bought in 88 with 96k miles that still turns heads.
  • 10
    Randy Pedersen Salina, Kansas April 28, 2016 at 00:29
    I would have thought the Mercury Marauder with the 4.6 L Modular V8, the DOHC 4-valve version producing 302 hp the same engine as the 2003–2004 Mustang Mach 1, and was still RWD.
  • 11
    Dan Bruckbauer W. Michigan April 28, 2016 at 00:50
    The '87 Buick GNX was rated at 276 hp, and 360 ft.lb torque. Not sure where you got your numbers.
  • 12
    Steve Robinson, TX April 29, 2016 at 09:08
    Recently acquired a 2003 Mercury Marauder. Similar in concept to the Impala SS, it's a great road car that accelerates impressively once you get its mass in motion.
  • 13
    Paul Clarke Cleveland Oh April 30, 2016 at 18:05
    Thanks for the article about Mark VII's . These cars have never been given the respect they deserve. They are extremely fun to drive. I have a very heavily modified 91 that turns in the mid 13's. They are easy to modify because they share the same drivetrain as a Mustang GT. Thanks again
  • 14
    Gene Cos cob,ct May 4, 2016 at 16:35
    Where is the Dodge Shelby???.
  • 15
    John V. Baton Rouge, LA May 4, 2016 at 00:30
    Even though I'm a fairly hard-core Mopar muscle car guy, I owned a Taurus SHO cousin for a while... A Contour SVT that I got a great deal on at the local auction ( a "Mondeo" in the UK ). That car really impressed me in more ways than one. One of the articles that I read when I researched the car said that it was "as close as Ford had ever come to building a 'BMW class' of car". You could downshift it and blast past most anything, but you'd be comfortable while doing it. I drove it once on an 800 mile weekend trip to see my parents and it was honestly the ONLY car that I've done that trip with that I didn't feel like I needed a chiropractor when I got back! I drove it as a commuter car for a little while, and it would also regularly surprise me when I'd look down at the speedo and notice that I was going 80 mph on the interstate, but it felt as smooth as if I was going 50 mph! I have to hand it to the Ford guys and gals; I do miss that car!
  • 16
    Richard New york May 16, 2016 at 18:24
    "Hot Rod" Lincoln defenitely applies to the Markvii's successor the 1993 Lincoln MarkViii. With a "low" rating of 280 h.p. this car made the 1992 markvii feel like an antique within one year. With the introduction of the "variable induction" 4.6 liter 32v V-8 engine infused in the "thunderbird and cougar platform" along with dozens of weight saving and design improvements over the older car. This car hepled push Ford into the modern era and the Ford Motor Company has never looked back. Though it was larger, the 1993 Markviii was actually the same weight as the car it replaced. It was a leap forward dynamically and "bench mark" for american rear drive auto design , well worth it's $40,000 pricetag back then. Though Mercedes and Bmw control this marketplace now, Lincoln Markviii's offered competive performance at stop lights back in the early 90's. In fact in many ways it resembles the leap forward the "New" mustang platform is doing for Ford today! It was definetly a sweet car!
  • 17
    Rob Pittsburgh, PA June 17, 2016 at 10:27
    You forgot to mention the 1989 Pontiac TTA. This was a Grand National hiding under a Trans-Am skin; so many people over look that car. The Grand National technology is vested in a whole family of similar vehicles: Grand National, GNX, Syclone, Typhoon, and the 20th Anniversary TurboTrans-Am

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