It’s classic-car wars season once again. If you’ve ever been to a classic car show, you’ll know what this means. The debate around ideal classic cars has gone on for decades, and it doesn’t seem like there’ll be an end to it anytime soon. Even though they’re no longer in production, jumbo luxury cars built in the early and middle years of the 20th century still retain as much relevance as they did in their heyday.
Want to have a taste of the thrilling world of classic cars? Google “local car shows near me” and see what pops up. At some point in the mid-20th century, the American dream was owning unique classic cars and racing through the streets in their sleek yet powerful V8 engine-powered frames.
The automobile industry has witnessed great things ever since Ford introduced the 1908 Model T, and we dare say that the greatest classic cars of all time were created from this time until the early ‘80s. Many eras of unique design and manufacturing prowess have passed in a bid to build the ideal classic car, and the US was a frontliner alongside European and Japanese manufacturers.
The Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) defines a full classic vehicle as a “fine” or “distinctive” high-priced and top-end automobile that was built in limited quantities within the years 1915 to 1948.
Do we agree with this definition? Not entirely.
The craze around classic cars and antiques spanned for many years since 1908, and the introduction of American muscle cars further fueled the movement. Everyone was after the new, sleek, and powerful design of V8 engines and the massive horsepower that muscle cars offered. Indeed, we cannot deny that their impact has revolutionized the American automobile industry. Until now, many classic muscle car favorites include cars built in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. While no one can fully assert that there’s a perfect classic, there’s some bias towards some amazing luxury cars no one can seem to get enough of.
Whether you’re a collector or just a genuine classic car lover, we’ve curated a top list of the ideal classic cars that once graced our roads and race tracks. These favorites have been handpicked based on their distinctive qualities, strengths, and reception when they first rolled off the assembly lines and into the automobiles market. We also highlight where you can find classic cars for rent or buy, and preferably, drive them, so you can have a feel of the complete classic car experience. You’ll also be able to sell your classic car at an auction or in a model car show near you. Let’s get to it!
1969 Dodge Charger
Dedication and perseverance always pay off. That’s the story behind the 1969 Dodge Charger model, Chrysler’s second generation of Chargers. When the concept was first introduced in 1946, it was a social experiment to see whether the general public would buy into the idea. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough curiosity for the project to go into production, and the idea was shelved.
Twenty years later, the concept resurfaced. NASCAR’s race shows were all the buzz, and Chrysler was determined to build something to rival the Ford Mustangs and Pontiacs that dominated the tracks. The first generation of Chargers was intended to usher a distinctive approach and design that differed from the classic muscle cars in circulation at the time.
However, Chrysler didn’t want to build just a race car. The 1966 Charger was an attempt to build a sedan that combined race-car qualities with the regular car. It offered a 2-door fastback option and installed extra individual seats with more room. Unfortunately, sales didn’t run as high as they’d hoped.
In 1969, something new hit the American automobile market. After the 1966 Charger failed to draw enough public attention, Chrysler’s engineers figured it was time to build a true muscle car. They hit a significant level of success with the 1968 Charger, but something was missing. While the fastback coupe offered amazing speed and fair handling, the car was still too heavy to rival the Thunderbird on NASCAR’s circuit tracks.
In 1969, Chrysler struck gold. The 1969 Dodge Charger rivaled anything the muscle car world had ever seen, and the bestselling Daytona led the ranks on the track. The muscle car passed the 200mph mark in its debut, beating Ford and Pontiac race cars. The vehicle’s popularity was further fueled by the Dukes of Hazzard TV series’ use of General Lee, an orange-hued 1969 Dodge Charger. Chrysler produced almost 90,000 Chargers, and it currently ranks as the second most popular vehicle modified by Mopar, beaten only by the BatMobile.
1965-1966 Shelby GT350
If anyone greatly impacted the muscle car world, it’s Caroll Shelby. Although not related to the Peaky Blinders, this Shelby is just as popular. He made a lot of money as a race car driver for Enzo Ferrari in the 1950s, and when he retired, he didn’t disappear from the public eye. Mr. Shelby delved into the business of providing high-performance race cars, and his most notable invention is the Shelby GT350, a spinoff from Ford’s popular Mustang series.
The Shelby GT350 is a classic example of car make vs. model. Ford had delved into the world of pony cars with the 1964 Mustang series. The goal was to provide a sporty 2+2 fastback that was small enough to draw the younger generation’s attention and interest. The project was a rousing success, enough to be called the coolest car of the decade. Sales went through the roof, with about 22,000 Mustangs sold on the first day alone. For the GT350 model, Caroll Shelby added improvements for street driving while retaining the pony car style that was in vogue.
Where to find: You’ll find a used 1965-66 model of the Shelby GT350 on Hemmings.
The Pontiac GTO is as relevant to American automobile history as sports cars are to car racing. Marketed by General Motors, the Pontiac GTO practically ruled the American muscle car market from 1964 to 1966. While everyone else struggled to manufacture vehicles that met car racing standards, Pontiac had already perfected their race cars design.
Naturally, the Pontiac GTO is accorded the title of the first original American muscle car. With a name inspired by John DeLorean, the GTO lived up to its name as the Grand Tempest Option on racetracks and on the street. Although the GTO was originally meant for Ferrari’s upcoming race cars, Pontiac got to the name first. The GTO model accorded a significant success that over 74,000 GTOs were sold in 1966 alone.
The uniqueness of the Pontiac GTO model wasn’t limited to the beautiful coupe’s iconic styling alone. It had great gas mileage, making it one of the most fuel-efficient luxury cars ever made. The GTO model was a beast on the track even though Pontiac never built a GTO with an output rating of more than 400 horsepower. Little wonder the series was widely referred to as “The Goat.”
1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda
In 1964, Plymouth embarked on a journey to create a fastback coupe based on their first-generation muscle car – the Valiant. While this pony car was expected to rival the other big names on the track like the Ford Mustang, it, unfortunately, did not perform up to standard. The answer to this problem was the second-generation Barracuda which rolled off the assembly line in 1967.
However, in 1970, the Barracuda evolved into something quite different. Plymouth switched from their Valiant-style model and created a fastback that could go from 0-60mph in less than six seconds, sporting a powerful 7-liter V8 engine that could now rival the rest of the muscle car competition.
Like many enthusiasts will tell you, the Hemi ‘Cuda should not be confused with the original Plymouth Barracuda series. Chrysler based the outlook of the 1970 model on their new E-body platform, and they revamped the components under the hood to handle more speed and power. Without a doubt, the Hemi ‘Cuda is Plymouth’s most successful muscle car. Decades after it first rolled off the assembly line, it still ranks as one of America’s most prized collectible classic cars.
Where to find: A restored 1970 Hemi will be sold at the Mecum Kissimmee auction in 2022. Check out Hemmings for more information on inspecting the car or registering as a bidder.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro
Next on our list is the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. This classic vehicle is Chevrolet’s response to the Mustang and Shelby models of Ford, its top competitor. The automobile company was determined to create something that could spark the interest of young and middle-aged drivers who loved the aggressive look the new model provided. The Chevy Camaro was not for small fry; it was for the big guns.
Although Chevrolet already had something lined up for the 1970 model, the 1969 Camaro took top priority, and for good reason too. Chevrolet provided different powerful spinoffs of the base model, and many favorites included the Camaro Z28, RR, SS, and COPO models. The 1969 Chevy Camaro is popularly known as The Hugger because of its low and wide frontal look, and it remains one of America’s favorite pony cars.
Where to find: If you’re looking for a taste of some Chevy Camaro action, you can rent a classic, restored Camaro SS from Hagerty DriveShare. You can also put your vehicle up for listing.
Mercedes 300SL Gullwing
Although Mercedes is not originally an American automobile company, the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing was created to cater to the American baby boomer market. That’s good enough to get a special mention in our books. The 300SL is history’s most fun gullwing, and many have called it the first supercar ever made. It was dubbed the greatest car of the ‘50s and subsequently voted sportscar of the century in 1999.
The iconic styling of the 300SL is one of the most significant factors for its success. The gullwing-styled doors were unlike anything the American automobile market had ever seen, and the vehicle’s overall styling added to its unique flair. Its interior and exterior screamed class, style, and luxury, alongside a surprisingly powerful engine.
In terms of performance, the vehicle did not fall short of standards. The direct fuel injection feature inspired by Max Hoffman boosted output speed and power, making it one of the fastest cars of its time at an all-time high of 163mph. It was just what the American market needed.
Unfortunately, the 300SL Gullwing was not mass-produced. After its debut as a gullwing coupe in 1954, slight modifications were made to accommodate it as a roadster in 1957. Only 1,858 units of the vehicle were produced. Overall, less than 3,500 units of the 300SL Gullwing were ever made. It remains one of the rarest sports cars ever made and definitely an all-time favorite.
Where to find: You can buy a used Mercedes 300SL Gullwing at Classic Driver. This premium vehicle was once sold at auction for as high as $1.4 million.
1963 Lincoln Continental
What makes this classic car so unique is its almost silent performance. Very little noise escapes the engine, apart from the premium bass feel that it provides when cruising around town. The Continental was originally intended to follow the 2-door Thunderbird concept, but a last-minute change had designers churning out a 4-door convertible and sedan instead.
As a product of Ford’s luxury car division, the Lincoln Continental was intended to be the best-looking American car ever built. Lincoln had struggled with their Marks II and III series, and the Continental was what they needed to get back on America’s good books. The project was a complete success. In fact, the Continental was brazen enough to finally face off with Lincoln’s top competitor, the Cadillac.
Where to find: You can check out the 1963 Lincoln Continental listing on Classic Cars.
1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Nothing screams classic like the ’78 Pontiac. One look at this beauty, and you can totally understand why it was named the Firebird. The Trans Am is not just another pony car; it is a feat of engineering prowess that was revolutionary for its time. Produced by General Motors, this vehicle’s design was so alluring that the production line kept pumping out Firebirds from 1967 until they finally stopped in 2002.
Unlike other cars that looked the part but lacked performance, the Firebird was in its own class. The balance of having the engine in front and the Firebird being rear-wheel driven meant you had just the right amount of understeer, and when you let that throttle go, you were greeted with a controlled sideways movement and the soothing roar of the V6 or V8 engines. The feeling is indescribable. Very rarely in American history did class, design, and performance converge, but they did in this classic vehicle.
Where to find: The Pontiac Firebird ranks as one of the cheapest classics to buy now. Check out the listing on Classic Cars to find a model that’s right for you.
The ‘62 Shelby Cobra
The Shelby Cobra isn’t just a classic that takes you from point A to B; it’s an experience and a story waiting to happen. This classic vehicle is a piece of British and American history made possible by Formula 1 and Le Mans legend, Carroll Shelby. It can be a bit too much for a newbie, but in the hands of a pro, it’ll handle smoothly and glide like the Cobra it is.
The Cobra’s top feature is that it offers an opportunity to tame its powerful 4.3L V8 and a 4.7L V8 option. Weighing in at just 916KG means the weight to power ratio is the same, if not better than you’d get with the big dogs. The Cobra came in with a winning streak at several street and track events, sprinting from 0-100mph in less than ten seconds.
The top-tier performance of this iconic classic takes nothing away from its aesthetics. It remains one of the most beautiful cars Ford has ever made and one of the rarest. Less than 1000 models were made of the entire series from 1962-1968, and demand runs as high as ever.
Over the years, the American automobile industry has grown in leaps and bounds. Although new favorites have since been manufactured in the 21st century, nothing will beat the sheer genius and ingenuity that birthed the cars we grew up driving. Not in our generation, at least.