Hot wheels: The top five muscle cars of summer

Courtesy of ARA Content

Baseball, barbecue, pool parties—when you’re tallying ways to celebrate summer, don’t overlook one uniquely American invention that some devotees say is the epitome of summer fun—the muscle car.

“Summer and muscle cars go together perfectly,” says Steven Magnante, former technical editor of Hot Rod magazine. Magnante will be SPEED’s on-the-block reporter during the Inaugural Barrett-Jackson Orange County Collector Car Auction in Costa Mesa, Calif., this summer. “Summer is a time for enjoyment. Winter snow and frigid temperatures become distant memories when you’re motoring along in a high-performance car on a sunny summer afternoon.”

If you’re lucky enough to have a muscle car in your garage, summer is certainly the perfect time to roll it out. If you’re an admirer but not an owner, you’ll find plenty of collector car auctions, auto shows and TV programs (SPEED will show 18 hours of live coverage of the Barrett-Jackson event) to indulge your interests this summer.

“America was the perfect breeding ground for the muscle car phenomenon,” says Magnante, who has hosted Off-Road Adventures TV and Classic Car Restoration on cable’s DIY Network. “We’ve got the best primary and secondary roads in the world, vast expanses between major cities and towns and a higher level of prosperity. Add in our free spirit, quest for individuality and competitive nature, and the arrival of high-performance passenger cars was inevitable.”

Here are Magnante’s picks for the top five muscle cars of summer:

5. 1983-’93 Mustang GT Convertible—“Many of us just can’t afford to spend what it takes to obtain a classic ’60s muscle car,” Magnante says. “But if you can get past the somewhat dated styling, any 1983 to ’93 Mustang GT convertible will bring you endless smiles without draining your wallet. Clean 5.0 drop tops are easy to find for under $7,500 and make great budget-conscious, summertime-fun machines.” A 5.0-liter engine makes the GT a great performer. The 225-horsepower 1987 Mustang GT was a 14-second drag strip performer, capable of running with some of the Mustang greats of the ’60s.

4. 1968-1974 Big Block Corvette Roadster—“Some say it’s a sports car and doesn’t belong in the muscle car category, but any car that can smoke tires at 60 mph, run 13s at the strip and strike fear into the hearts of Street Hemi owners is a muscle car,” Magnante says. Big block ’Vettes with V8 engines deliver 427 cubic inches of brutal performance. Though earlier cars (pre-1971) were less encumbered by smog controls and reduced compression (for compatibility with unleaded gas), even a de-tuned ’74 454 roadster (270 horsepower) has plenty of torque for excitement when you mash the gas pedal—especially when coupled to a four-speed stick.

3. 1968-1975 Plymouth Road Runner—“Plymouth went fishing in the shallow end of the marketplace by pricing the original Road Runner below $3,000 ($2,870 for a stripped pillar coupe),” Magnante says. Plymouth kept the price low by doing away with frills like power windows, bucket seats and air conditioning. A very potent 335-horsepower, 383 big-block engine and rugged four-speed manual transmission were standard equipment. “With no exaggeration, it was the first muscle car that was affordable to the average teen-aged supermarket checkout clerk,” he says.

2. 1965-1970 Mustang High Performance Convertible—“This selection is only valid for Mustang convertibles built with the top engine option for its respective year,” Magnante says. “Mustangs built with lesser engines are fun to drive, but do not qualify as muscle cars.” In 1966, Ford produced 72,199 Mustang convertibles—the peak year of production for the model.

1. 1964-1971 Pontiac GTO Convertible—“Experts will always argue about who invented the muscle car,” Magnante says. “Controversy aside, nobody can deny that the 1964 Pontiac GTO was the first mass-produced Detroit muscle car to really get the mix of image, marketing and performance just right—and spawn a host of would-be imitators from every competing make.” The car was so successful that although Pontiac expected to sell just 5,000 of them in 1964, by the end of the year, Americans had driven 32,450 GTO convertibles off the lot…and a legend was born.

“For summertime enjoyment, nothing beats a GTO convertible (preferably with a four-speed stick), so let’s call it No. 1 on our list,” Magnante says.

To see more amazing muscle cars, classics and great vehicles, tune in to the Barrett-Jackson Orange County Collector car auction June 25-27 on SPEED. Log on to to learn more.

One thought on “Hot wheels: The top five muscle cars of summer

  • Aug 10, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Some most decent picks indeed! That your top four are all 60-70’s Muscle Cars shows you were around during those great days! For those of us fortunate to have been cruising Woodward north of Detroit in the late sixties and early seventies – we had it all. We had the best cruise strip anywhere and we lived in the heart of car country! If it was new and it was hot – it was on Woodward! Good job on your picks, although I’m sure someone will whine about the new Mustang and Camaro convertibles!

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