How To Choose The Right Muscle Car

For some people, choosing the right muscle car for them is easy. They know exactly what the want: make, model, year, trim, powertrain, and color. However, most of us are less picky, less knowledgeable, or just plain open to different options. Here are some important things to think about. It may help to keep notes on a piece of paper as you build your dream muscle car.

1. The Make

For most people, this is the easy one. You are a Chevy guy, a Ford guy, or a MOPAR guy. For everyone else, the make is an extremely important decision. All makes had very distinct personas back in the 1960s (unlike today). Even the GM makes (Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile) were all different and used completely different engines from each other (although they did share frames and other parts). Usually, you choose the make based on the styling that you are interested in. You either love the MOPAR styling or you don’t. Another thing to consider: Chevrolet and Ford cars and parts are the easiest to find. The other makes require you to hunt all over for reproduction parts and pay top dollar to buy them. Of course, some people like the challenge or uniqueness with a less common make.

2. The Model

Once you choose the make, you then need to think about the model. Once again, this is usually an easy decision. But for those that are still considering various options, understand that the model choosen defines the muscle car experience. A Camaro is vastly different than an Impala. Consider the model’s size, history, popularity, body styles, styling and powertrain options.

3. The Body Style

For some muscle cars, this is not an option. They only came one way (usually a two door hardtop). But most muscle cars were also available as convertibles, and others were also available as two door fastbacks or two door post coupes. While the other three choices are very similar, choosing a convertible is a tremendously important decision. On the one hand, convertibles are harder to find, much more expensive, slower, viewed as “less performance oriented,” and are more expensive to fix and restore, than fixed roof cars. On the other hand, you can drop the top!

4. The Year

Once you have decided on the make, model, and bodystyle, it is time to narrow down the year. Most models (and bodystyles) were available only certain years, so that helps narrow down the choices. Then, it becomes a matter of styling, engine choices, and options. Styling is perhaps the biggest factor. Some people like the 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda, some like the 1971. The only major difference is the styling. Most people just narrow it down to a range of 2-3 years.

5. The Transmission

Manual or automatic? For those that can’t drive a stick, the choice is clear. For those that can, the choice is more difficult. Manuals (either three or later four speed) tend to be a bit faster (though usually not by much), but were probably abused by their former owners. The clutch tends to be heavy and tough to shift. Automatics, however, are limited to just two or three speeds, and definitely lack the performance image of a manual. Once again, your personal taste.

6. The Engine

Finally, we get to the engine. No other aspect of your car will define your experience, and enjoyment of your muscle car more than the engine. This choice will probably be limited by the make, model, and year (and sometimes transmission) that you choose. A 1965 Buick GS was only available with 1 engine (a 401 V8), but a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro was available with 12 different engines! Most muscle cars were available with a choice of several engines which came in various sizes (327, 350, 396, etc.), power ratings (325bhp, 350bhp, 375bhp, etc.), carburations (2bbl, 4bbl, etc.), compression (H.O., etc.), with or without Ram Air, and even number of cylinders (though if you are even thinking about anything less than 8 cylinders, stop reading and go buy an issue of Super Street). Obviously, your choice of engine will greatly affect the price and rarity. 1969 Camaros with a 307 V8 are cheap, 396 Camaros are not. And don’t even get me started on Hemi’s. Remember that you don’t need the most powerful engine to have fun. A 383 is plenty of motor for your MOPAR. Also remember that powerful engines like the 426 Hemi, 427 Chevy, and 427 Ford are often difficult (and expensive) to maintain in running, let alone at peak states of tune.

7. The Trim Level

The Trim Level is usally a function of the above criteria, but in general, buy the highest trim you can afford. Note that some Trims were clearly performance enhancing (Dodge R/T’s, Chevy SS’s) and thus are mandatory for true muscle car fans, while some just added luxury items or were fancy decal and badge sets (Dodge SE’s and Pontiac Trans Am’s). Not to say that it doesn’t add to the value of the car. It is just that you have to decide where to spend the money.

8. Options

Are there any options on your must-have list? Some cars came with very few options (think Plymouth Road Runner) while others came with option lists so long, almost every car built was unique (think Ford Mustang). List at least two or three options on your must have list. Power windows and door locks, working A/C, and bucket seats are nice. Bonus points if you choose performance options like wheel upgrades, front disc brakes, or locking rear differentials. Deduct points for a 8-track players and sunroofs (yes, these were available) unless you are looking for a collectible fully-loaded vehicle.

9. Color

Colors are very personal. Although most people agree that the classic muscle car color is red, yellow and black are also popular (though black is impossible to keep clean). Certain makes (such as MOPAR) were known for wild colors that reflected the late ’60s and early ’70s (with equally wild names like Go Mango and Plum Crazy). And don’t forget about the interior color. Unlike today’s cars, muscle cars came in a variety of matching or contrasting interior colors, from mainstays like black and red, to green, blue, and even orange. If you are looking for a convertible, convertible tops came in different colors as well, both matching and contrasting. Think of a few color combinations that you like.

10. Rarity

Given your choices above, how rare is your dream car? GTO’s and Camaros are plentiful, 442’s and Hemi convertibles are not. Remember that the more rare the car, the tougher it is to find and the more you will pay for it.

11. Original

How important is it that the car is all original? If you are looking to buy a true collectible, then buying as close to original is key. The car must be numbers matching (the engine and transmission are original – the numbers stamped on them match the car’s VIN), must not be modified (headers, exhaust, etc.) and any restorations must have used either NOS (New Old Stock) parts or at least the correct restoration parts. Will you accept a car repainted in a different color than it was built in or one with aftermarket headers and a CD player? For daily drivers, these considerations are less important. Beware of heavily modified cars (i.e. a 1966 Chevelle with a 454). There are likely to have been used as race cars and thus are heavily abused. Decide how “original” your car needs to be.

12. Price

Take a look at your list above. Now, calculate a price for this car. You can use guides such as Old Car Trader available at most bookstores. Or better yet, check out the guide to determining the proper value for a muscle car here. Now, is this price realistic for your budget? If not, maybe it is time to scratch out “Hemi” and write in “383” on your list.

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