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10 of the Best 70s Muscle Cars

It was the worst of times for muscle cars, but there were some diamonds in the rough of the US sportscar world.

CHevy Chevelle SS, a modern classic

The 1970s wasn’t a vintage decade for sports cars in America, but there are American 70s muscle cars you can drive without looking like a down-on-his-luck gigolo.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped shipping to the US from October 1973 to Spring 1974 and the relatively short oil crisis had a lasting impact on the whole decade.

At the same time, the public moved to smaller, more efficient cars. Insurance premiums went up for bigger-engined cars and The 1970 Clean Air act called for manufacturers to curb emissions, too. It was almost a perfect storm and the 70s were a time for austerity, not excess.

It’s no coincidence, then, that a lot of the best cars of the decade were there at the start of it, since it was basically all downhill after one glorious, trouble-free year.

The angular, blocky design language of the decade hasn’t aged well, either. Still, there are some diamonds among the rough and here are the best 70s muscle cars that you could still drive today.

1. 1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1

  • Price: $20,000-$40,000

The Ford Mustang will always be the iconic American muscle car, but it really went off the boil during the 1970s. The Second Generation Mustang was unveiled in 1974 and it was a styling nightmare, while the Third Gen in 1979 wasn’t really even a Mustang anymore – it was a donkey.

The good news is that the early cars were a work of art. This is the first generation Ford Mustang, a curvaceous 60s design that just kept going. It’s expensive and you can easily spend $300,000 for a piece of American muscle car folklore if you go for the 7-liter BOSS Mustang 429 V8, or the 100K Ford Mustang BOSS 329.

The Fastback Coupe, pre-1974, is a better option than the convertible. It looks to be one of the more convincing 70s muscle cars. That’s in part due to the Shelby-tuned GT500s that became legends thanks to Gone in 60 Seconds turning ‘Eleanor’ into an icon. Nowadays, there are hundreds of Shelby copies, tributes and modern cars with many times more horsepower than the 335 hp originals.

Here is the Hollywood version, in all its magic, together with a mildly ridiculous stunt to round it off.

Now, the Mach 1 is a very different car, mainly because the performance just doesn’t match up to the looks. If you want to cruise rather than race, however, then this is an epic muscle car for the modern world. It looks and sounds the part, which is enough for some.

It comes with a performance package that includes an air scoop on the hood, a front splitter, and a wing on the rear. They provide accent touches, but you can find a smoothed-down Mustang without the appendages and you can also find some modified, faster cars out there.

The 300 hp Mach 1 gets the 327 cu-in engine, otherwise known as the 5.8-liter. That works in harmony with the four-speed automatic gearbox to pull this icon to 60 mph in 8.3s which, akin to its 122 mph top speed, is not exactly great.

There are cheaper Mustangs on the open market and you can pick up a rough and ready project car for as little as $10,000. The Mach 1, though, is one of the finest Mustangs of the 1970s, because it’s really a muscle car child of the 60s.

2. 1974 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

  • Price: $25,000-$75,000

New pedestrian safety laws ruined a lot of American sports cars as they had to introduce new crash structures that just looked awful. Somehow, they helped turn the 1974 Pontiac Firebird into one of the finest looking 70s muscle cars ever made.

The 1971 car was curvaceous, but it was also monumentally ugly with one of the weirdest front ends in automotive history. Mandatory 5-mph telescoping bumpers at the front resulted in the legendary shovel nose hitting the market for the first time. It became the car’s calling card for decades.

It’s a unique style and this car isn’t for everyone. The starring role in Smokey and The Bandit turned it into a cult hero, but that came at the cost of credibility as a serious piece of automotive history at the same time. It’s a novelty in some respects and too many of the 1976 models ended up with a tribute eagle on the hood.

So, if you’re looking for a classic American sports car, then stick to the pre-Smokey 1974 vintage. $25,000 buys an honest car, but you can always spend more.

The 1974 Pontiac Trans-Am gained a lot of weight due to the new regulations and it was born at the height of the oil crisis. So, you could get a 100 hp version that just feels slow by today’s standards. The 7.5-liter, 250 hp version is the one you really want, though. The Lightweight Super Duty, meanwhile, is rare enough to command an outsized premium that only serious collectors will want to pay.

It’s a feel-good car that any car nut grew up with on TV. It isn’t actually that fast, but it is one of the most famous muscle cars in America and it will put a smile on your face. Don’t go nuts, stay at the bottom of the price range and this classic American muscle car is a bargain.

3. 1971 Dodge Charger

  • Price: $15,000-$40,000

The Charger is another one of those 70s muscle cars that slowly lost its soul as the decade progressed. The car it was at the start would have been ashamed of what followed. This was the General Lee, the car that jumped over rivers and foiled Sheriff Rosco P Coltrane time after time, and it died before our eyes.

It slowly devolved into a neutered sports sedan. In 1975 Dodge tried to reposition the Charger name and created a luxury car, but that’s not what anybody wanted from a Charger. The 1971 car is the first and the best car that the decade had to offer. It all went badly wrong from here.

This was Dodge’s only two-door car after it moved the Dodge Coronet up to the four-door class. So, they sold lots of them in a bewildering number of combinations.

Engines ranged from the entry-level 3.7-liter Inline Six through to the 7.2-liter V8. An old-school four-speed manual gearbox is by far the best option and just go for as much power as you can. The fastback coupe is the best-looking

Dodge sold 2,659 Chargers in 1971, and just 63 of them had the Hemi engine. It’s not quite the unicorn you’d think it might be, but you will have to pay upwards of $150,000 for the legend that was killed off in 1972 by rising gas prices, the oil crisis, and the changing mood of the nation.

The Dodge Charger R/T is easy to find, but they’re all in the $70,000 bracket unless they need work and most of us will have to be content with one of the lesser models.

Do that and you can pick up one of the most powerful cars in the line-up for just $17,000. That can buy a solid V8 with enough power and torque to send her sideways on command.

The Fastback is a stunning, old-school muscle car. It’s a boat of a machine, especially as it comes with two-doors. The vinyl roof actually works and optional hideaway headlights concealed behind the front grille was a moment of pure inspiration. Get a good 1971 Dodge Charger and you have got a piece of American history.

4. 1979 Chevy Camaro

  • Price: $15,000-$60,000

While other manufacturers shrank from the muscle car scene and civilized their wildest offerings, the Chevy Camaro remained unapologetic. It kept getting bigger, with more power and more wings.

The 1979 Chevy Camaro Z28 is pretty much the epitome of excess, and it’s wonderful. It’s a poster child for the 70s with its bold design and unrivaled reputation.

You can buy heavily modified versions of these machines with insane horsepower levels, but make sure you’re ready for that. A stock car can be fast enough.

The 2+2 got a number of engine options, ranging from the 4.1-liter Inline Six to the 330 hp V8 in the Z28 special – that one will cost in the region of $50,000 for a show car, though. If you actually want to drive it, $30,000 seems to be the sweet spot for a classic Chevy Camaro Z28.

There was also a 5.7-liter V8 that puts out 185 bhp, and, more importantly, 280 lb/ft of torque. It’s a car that really suits an automatic gearbox that you can coax into kickdown by basically flooring it. If we’re daydreaming then you want the SS at the very least, but they are changing hands for $40,000-$60,000 now, and that’s a big investment for an occasional toy.

5. 1971 Plymouth Cuda

  • Price: $60,000-$150,000+

There are no cheap 1974 Plymouth Barracudas. It’s just the way it is, even a modified car generally starts at $40,000 and the only thing you’ll get for less is a full-blown restoration project.

Lots of the old cars have been modified and some are pushing out 550-600 bhp now, so they’re  effectively retro supercars that can mix it with the best today has to offer at the strip.

Even in stock form, the Pymouth Barracuda was a potent car. The base 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine pumped out 275 hp and the range-topping V8 is a near ridiculous 425 hp, 7.2-liter Hemi. This engine was taken off the Cuda options list in the oil crisis and the car actually got slower from 1972.

Just 11 Hemi Cuda Convertibles saw the light of day and inevitably they will set you back serious money on the rare occasions they hit the auction room floor. One recently sold for $3.5 million, just so you know the ballpark.

There were two six-cylinder engines, including the entry-level 3.2-liter, and three more desirable V8s. As you go up the tree, though, you’ll find yourself heading towards a six-figure outlay.

6. 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass

  • Price: $25,000-$40,000

The car we actually dream about is the Oldsmobile 422. The muscular fastback is once again the pick of the bunch, but they all come with the 455 cubic-inch V8 (that’s 7.5-liters in today’s money) that pushes out 365 hp.

This vintage muscle car will stop traffic wherever it goes and the four-speed manual adds another dimension to the old barge with 410 lb-ft of torque. This car can unstick the tires in the first three gears and was a dragstrip regular back in its day.

Lesser Oldsmobile Cutlass models are on the market for $25,000 and it’s not too easy to tell them apart. The 350 cubic inch small block V8 is still fast enough for a 47-year-old chassis and suspension. A lot of cars have been subtly modernized over the years in terms of the suspension and brakes.

That’s a good thing unless you’re looking for perfectly clean, original 70s muscle cars for sale. The W31 aero package gives it the added wings and menace. It’s an archetypal American muscle car and not too many people remember Oldsmobile having a dog in this fight. It’s the left field vintage sports car, the oddball’s choice.

7. Chevy Chevelle

  • Price: $30,000-$150,000

The Chevelle was America’s favorite mid-sized sedan, it was basically the white goods of the automotive world. The Fastback SS was a different animal altogether.

For those on a budget, the basic Chevy Chevelle offered a V8 engine. It was nothing compared to the 360 hp LS5 V8 that sat up front in the range-topping SS, but you can expect to pay more than $60,000 for that unique experience in the modern age. Some cars are changing hands for well into six-figure ranges already.

Chevy also offered a surprising option with the Chevelle. A 454 cu in crate engine designed for race cars that enthusiasts could just fit to their road car. It was labeled as a race engine, it was designed for 100+ Octane fuel and a surprising amount of them have ended up in road cars.

The Chevelle has taken on unicorn status with the muscle car fanboys, and that has driven the prices for the SS right to the limit. Some of the cars have gone above and beyond, too, like this drag strip monster.

A V8 Chevelle that sounds right can be had for just $25,000 and there is a range of body styles from the iconic coupe right through to a station wagon and a four-door sedan. The basic V8 offers 200 hp, but engineers have played with this engine for the best part of 50 years and there are plenty of power tweaks in the modern age.

The two-door coupe or the convertible are the only models that look like a classic, rather than a leftover.

8. 1976 Plymouth Duster

  • Price: $20,000-$45,000

Visually, the Plymouth Duster just kept reaching for the stars in the 1970s, while those around them embraced austerity. The two-door coupe is a classic 60s muscle car in profile, with some psychedelic 70s touches and the long bumpers that went with the new pedestrian protection laws.

It’s a big clunky boat of a sports coupe with a bench seat in the front. It works best with the automatic gearbox and there were some pretty unique special editions in the lineup as well:

  • Plymouth Feather Duster – A lightweight special with aluminum parts that saved almost 200 lbs.
  • Plymouth Space Duster – A wagon with 51 cu-ft of storage space in the back and a secure compartment.

The performance models of this big old barge are the ones to go for. The 360 Duster came with a 225 hp engine that propelled the car to 60mph in 7.9s.

9. 1973 Mercury Cougar XR7

  • Price: $10,000-$30,000

Mercury is a part of history now, but back in the 1970s it was still going strong with radical designs like the XR7.

The scalloped front end creates an Art Deco muscle car with the best of both the 60s and the 70s working in total harmony. On a pure design level, the Mercury is a match for any of the biggest 70s muscle cars out there.

There’s a convertible that is sexy, but the coupe version looks like the old-school muscle cars that we all know and love.

A 370 hp V8 was the flagship, but those cars are rare and you might have to make do with the small-block 5.7-liter V8 examples that are out there for $15,000.

10. 1970 Chevy Nova

  • Price: $20,000-$40,000

The first generation Chevy Nova was an econobox, but there are performance variants of this unloved small car that are truly mind-blowing. Essentially, with the right engine then it’s a compact muscle car, a sub-pony car that makes sense in the modern world.

The cars of the 70s are boats by modern standards. This compact muscle car can just about slot into modern traffic and it’s still almost five meters long.

It’s a carryover car from the 60s, once again, and from 1975 the Nova tried to imitate European sedans in a failed experiment. It was a radical departure from the curvaceous Nova that has turned into a collectors’ car in SS form.

That car got a downsize in the 70s from a 6.9-liter V8 down to a 5.7-liter mill. Standard engine options ranged from 4.1-liter to the range-topping V8. Its sister brands started badging this car, too, and it surfaced as the Pontiac Ventura and Buick Apollo.

Chevy took the design language of the muscle car and shrunk it for the Nova. With the right engine, it’s as viable an option any of the big name 70s muscle cars.

About Nick Hall

Nick spent 20 years driving the fastest cars on Earth for Motor Trend, Automobile, Super Street and The Sunday Times. He was fortunate enough to drive F1 cars, one-off Bugatti Veyrons, Paganis and Koenigseggs. He knows a thing or two about the fast lane in life.