23 September 2016

The top five entry-level classic muscle cars

Muscle cars exist for one reason: To get down a straight two-lane blacktop as quickly as possible. But automakers have long paired performance options with convenience or luxury features, which invariably increase price and weight. And they’re easy to justify. After all, air conditioning and power switches are handy and only decrease speed marginally.

You could tick boxes for all sorts of power accessories, yet “adding lightness” improves every measure of a car’s performance. That’s why, usually, the most basic car with the biggest engine was the true racer’s choice. Following are our top five choices for bare-bones muscle cars, listed chronologically. Did we get them right?

1962 Plymouth Sport Fury Max Wedge: The Chrysler Corporation was struggling to find buyers in the early 1960s due to its “interesting” designs. Its solution was to cram bigger engines into the cars, which had been downsized from the previous generation, and take them racing. The 413-cid “Max Wedge” produced 410 horsepower in a car that weighed right around 3,000 lbs. The result was a sub-15-second quarter mile. It also turned up the heat on Ford and GM.

1967 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova SS: Take a bigger car’s engine and stuff it into a smaller, cheaper one. Boom – muscle car success. That’s what Chevy did when it dropped the Chevelle’s Turbo-Fire mill into the Chevy II. Displacing 327 cubic inches, it made 350 hp and turned the little Chevy II into a legitimate stoplight demon. While the 327 option debuted in 1965, the engine initially made 300 hp. We prefer the later, more powerful one.

1967 Ford Fairlane: In 1966 Ford revamped its Fairlane for the fifth time. The mid-level GT trim was equipped, standard, with the “FE” 390-cid V-8. It had a four-barrel carburetor and produced 335 horses. About halfway through the year, Ford offered an optional “R-code” 427-cubic-inch engine intended for racing but only built 57 of them. The following year, Ford’s Windsor (289-cid) became the standard V-8. However, the 427-cid V-8 was now optional on the entry-level Fairlane, the XL. For the most die-hard, two four-barrel carbs on the 427, combining to produce 425 horsepower, were the ultimate option.

1968 Dodge Dart GTS: Debuting late in 1967, the Dart GTS was arguably the model’s hottest trim level. In 1968, it came standard with a high-output 340-cid V-8. But for some this wasn’t enough, which is why Dodge offered an optional 383-cid monster. Still not enough? Well, Dodge was eyeing the Class B Super Stock drag racing championship and also offered 60 426-cid Hemi equipped Darts. These cars weigh about 3,000 lbs. and Dodge bragged that they were capable of “over 130 mph in less than 11 seconds” over a quarter mile. That they weren’t street legal and were only offered to well-known racers are minor details.

1970 Pontiac GT-37: “There’s a little GTO in every GT-37,” the advertising read. Pontiac’s sales share was rapidly slipping in 1970, so it offered a stripped Tempest, known as the T-37 to compete with other OEMs’ cheaper offerings. Soon enough, however, someone at Pontiac had the idea to liven up the model by stuffing larger motors under the hood. Indeed, that “little GTO” was the drivetrain – beginning with a 350-cid V-8 that made 255 hp. But if you were serious about cheap horsepower, the best option was the Ram Air III. Its 400 cubes produce 345 hp, and best of all it was insured as a Tempest, not a GTO.

10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Howard Salsitz CA September 28, 2016 at 17:41
    I'm pleased to own the "real thing", my '67 GTO, since 1989.
  • 2
    Nelson Tracy September 28, 2016 at 18:17
    I wouldn't call a 427 Fairlane or a 350 horsepower Chevy II entry level. They are quite expensive. A 390 Fairlane would fit the bill though. The Dart was a little beast with that 340. I had a couple of friends in high school with them, one a '68 GTS and the other a '69 Swinger. Though stodgy looking compared to my '69 Mustang SportsRoof, those 340s hauled ass.
  • 3
    Fred jackson Virginia September 28, 2016 at 18:29
    My vote is for the 1966 Chevelle SS 396 / 375 hp
  • 4
    Bill Barnes Lynnwood, Washington September 28, 2016 at 22:06
    The 1967 Fairlane GT came standard with the 289 CI engine. In 1966 the only engine available in the GT was the high performance 390 CI rated at 335 HP. The 57 R code cars were built in 1966 and all went to the factory backed drag racing teams.
  • 5
    REY NC September 29, 2016 at 02:50
    To go along with the dart gts would be the roadrunner. My brother had the dart gts back in the day and it was a great, surprising quick car.
  • 6
    David Glenn Clawson, Mi. September 29, 2016 at 18:59
    Yoav Gilad has no understanding of what entry level means, that is, a vehicle that someone of limited means could buy new. The Sport Fury, Nova SS, Fairlane GT, Dart GTS were all top of their line, and the Max Wedge, 350 HP 327,and The Ram Air III were very pricey options. My list: 1964 Falcon sedan, 289/271 HP. 1965 Chevy II sedan, 327/300HP, 1967 Rambler American sedan, 343/280 HP. 68 Plymouth Roadrunner 383/335 HP. 64 Plymouth Savoy, 383/330 HP. All these cars could be ordered with 4 speed transmission and limited slip differentials for nominal cost. I have left out pony cars as they were more expensive than the compacts they were based on. I could substitute the '64-'65 GTO sedan as they would have priced competitively with the larger Plymouths I chose, but not the hardtop or convertible GTO.
  • 7
    Rich Crisfield Williams OR September 29, 2016 at 19:43
    The 327/350HP (RPO L-79) was available in 1966 Nova models. I recall that for 1967 the top HP Nova engine was the 327/275 HP. I bought a new 1969 Nova SS 396/375 HP (RPO L-78) with bench seats,TH400 on the column and dog-dish hubcaps -- mid 13's out of the box for $3300.
  • 8
    PETER GORBENKO Arizona September 29, 2016 at 10:48
    Being already a Pontiac owner('67 GTO HO), I went to a dealership while living in Calif to order a new '71 GT-37 with a performance 455ci. Already had all the details written down: 4 speed manual, 390 posi, black interior, silver paint, etc etc. But...as I walked over the car lot, there was a like new '70 GTO RA IV in polar white. She was basic and beautiful! Needless to say, I bought it instead. What a screamin' very nice car it was. Won at the strip in my F class and sooo many street races. It was at the top of performance. Some day when I get rich and famous, would try to get a '67 and 70' GTO once again. Shame on GM for killing Pontiac...the division that had style, class and performance!
  • 9
    Mr. Michael Central States September 30, 2016 at 09:42
    Great list. I have a Dodge Dart (insured by Hagerty!) and can say that it packs quite a punch as an entry level muscle car.
  • 10
    Trey Bien Everywhere, USA November 5, 2016 at 02:06
    Sport Fury: Try sub-13 seconds with the Ramcharger. Nova: Why the '67 when the '66 L79 was much more numerous? Fairlane: 427s were available in all trim levels but the GT, and the XL was hardly the entry-level trim level. Dart GTS: 383 initially the only engine available, joined by a 340 in '68. GT37: The optional 400, not the Ram Air III, was the same as the base GTO's. It's an old rumor that was put to rest several years ago.

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