It’s the dream for countless gearheads out there: You come across a piece of vintage Detroit iron rotting in some field somewhere, so you drop a couple hundred bucks, pull the thing out of the weeds, and get it back to your garage. Then you spend the next year or two stripping it down to the frame, going over every nut and bolt, and making it even better than when it rolled out of the factory 50 years ago.
But that’s the romanticized version. In reality, you and your buddies will spend that first afternoon struggling to pry this hulk out of the mud that’s been creeping up over the wheels and rockers since Carter was in office. Then it’ll likely sit in the garage as a shelf while you try to figure out how much to set aside from every paycheck, and hope that the whole damn process doesn’t run into five-figures. And if you bought it from anywhere east of Houston or north of Kansas City, you’d better be pretty good with a plasma cutter or have a cheap body shop, because there’s probably going to be rust. A lot of it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done — browse through any issue of Hemmings, and you’ll find success stories. Over the last few years, more companies have started offering an impressive number of official factory-licensed parts for some of the more iconic muscle cars — from engine decals and correct taillight screws to entire bodies. So instead of spending years in pick-and-pull lots and swap meets, as long as you’ve got a solid frame and engine, chances are you’ll be able to get your relic on the road as quick as you want, budget permitted. If you’re thinking about bringing a piece of automotive history back to life but don’t know where to start, take a look at these legends.
1. 1965-70 Ford Mustang
Let’s get the reigning champ out of the way first. The Mustang single-handedly kicked off the ponycar segment in the ’60s and accelerated the muscle car arms race in a way that no other model can. In its first five years on sale, Ford sold over 2.5 million of them, which means there are plenty of surviving cars — and parts — out there. But if you’ve got Dad’s car that you can’t bear to get rid of even though it’s more rust than car, you’re in luck: Dynacorn Classic Bodies sells exact replicas of the classic Mustang’s sheet metal, and companies like CJ Pony Parts will sell you brand new factory-spec interiors, complete with hardware. Amazingly, virtually every part on these half-century old cars is still being manufactured, and can still be found at reasonable prices. With that kind of parts support, plus a bookshelf’s worth of how-to books and countless internet forums about how to rebuild them, a classic Mustang project is a great way to get into restoration.
2. 1967-’69 Chevrolet Camaro
The Mustang is an undisputed icon. But remember, there’s that whole Chevy versus Ford thing that isn’t going to end anytime soon. So for those guys that don’t drive anything without a Bowtie badge on the grille, the first-generation Camaro is the ponycar for you. Like the ‘Stang, Dynacorn offers full bodies for the first three model years, and Camaro Central sells full interiors complete in ’60s-tastic colors like turquoise, orange, and gold. With a ton of small-block Chevy V8s available on every local Craigslist in the country, the Camaro is one of the easiest classic muscle cars to build any way you want it.
3. 1957 Fuel Injected Chevy
It may not be part of the ’60s muscle car canon, but the ’57 Chevy “Fuelie” was one of the hottest performance cars of the Eisenhower Era. What’s more, the ’57 made headlines last decade when companies began selling “brand new” Chevys — exact replicas of ’57s, but built from new, exact replica parts. So if you see a rotten 60-year-old Chevy selling for next to nothing on Craigslist, roll up your sleeves. With some elbow grease, deep pockets, and knowledge of the Rochester mechanical fuel injection system, you can transform your V8-powered hulk into a 270 horsepower straight-line rocket.
4. 1964-’70 Pontiac GTO
For some gearheads, the Mustang may have been the first ponycar, but the GTO was the first proper muscle car. Pontiac may be long-dead, but its iconic performance car isn’t; the bigger, bolder, and more powerful GTO ruled the drag strips in the ’60s, and today companies like Original Parts Group Inc. are as well-stocked with parts as a Pontiac dealership circa 1969. But beware: The GTO was more expensive and rarer than the Mustang and Camaro, so expect to pay more of a premium for your car. And please, whatever you do, stop transforming Tempest and Le Mans survivors into GTO clones.
5. 1970-’72 Chevrolet Chevelle
And speaking of clones, between 1968 and 1972, Chevy sold over one million A-bodied Chevelles, nearly 100,000 of them go-fast SS models. Of those, about one quarter came with the big block 454 V8. These days, it seems like every Chevelle at your local car show is not only an SS, but an SS 454, complete with an iconic “Cowl Induction” bulged hood. The muscular look of the A-Body has made it a customizer’s dream for decades, and as a result, parts for these cars and projects have never been hard to find. Call us crazy, but we’d rather see an imaginative build, or an unusually-spec’d restored car than yet another red over black, racing striped, big-block clone. But it’s your restoration project, go wild.
6. 1970-1974 Dodge Challenger/Plymouth Barracuda
Chrysler’s E-Body cars were designed with one main objective: to fit the largest engines the company built under the hood. The result was the awesome Hemi-powered Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda. The cars didn’t share any body panels, and the Challenger has a slightly longer wheelbase, but mechanically the cars are very similar. And no matter what model you own, companies like Year One offer all but the rarest parts for your restoration. You may not have an all-original, million-dollar Hemi ‘Cuda in your garage, but if you want your project car to come pretty close, you can.
7. 1970-1972 Chevrolet El Camino SS
It seems like everyone loves the business in the front, party in the back El Camino SS, and with good reason. The Camino combined car-like handling and big block power with room to haul all your stuff. And since it’s based on the A-Body Chevelle, there are tons of reproduction and aftermarket parts out there to transform your project from faithful restoration to wild custom. Rust can be a problem with all that sheetmetal, but places like The El Camino Store offer correct replacement panels to bring even the sorriest looking trucks back to life.
8. 1968-1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass/4-4-2
Oldsmobile may be long dead and gone, but back in the ’60s and ’70s, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was one of the best-selling cars in America, and luckily, there are plenty left. Arguably GM’s best-looking A-body design, the Cutlass also had an upscale interior, and in 4-4-2 trim, offered some of the best performance of its day. Find the nearest Cutlass you can, bring it back to life with Original Parts Group and Year One parts, drop in a 455 cubic-inch V8, and roast some rear tires. You can thank us later.
9. 1967-1976 Dodge Dart
We had to include the diminutive Dart because there are still a ton of them on the roads, and they’re generally dirt cheap. The good-looking fourth-generation Dart arrived for 1967, and over its nine-year production run it could be had with anything from a thrifty 170 cubic inch slant-six, to a big-block 440 V8. Pick one up for a few thousand bucks, and build it your way. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a cheaper entry point to muscle car ownership.
10. 1968 -1974 Ford Torino
While Shelby, Boss, and Mach 1 Mustangs are now out of reach for most muscle car fans, Ford’s other performance coupe remains surprisingly attainable. The midsize Torino was launched as a more luxurious Fairlane, but quickly became a Mustang alternative for people who wanted something different. Think of it like Ford’s Chevelle; big, muscular, and available with the legendary 302, 351, and 429 cubic inch V8s. The top Torino Cobras put out 375 horsepower, and could run the quarter mile in under 14 seconds. Today, the most desirable cars go for about the price of a well-restored Mustang GT of the same vintage, and less-than-perfect runners are a lot cheaper. Thanks to a healthy aftermarket, you can get a project car and build it the way you want without breaking the bank.
11. 1968-1970 AMC AMX
When it was launched in 1968, American Motors tried to position the AMX as a Corvette-fighter. But with its steel body, short wheelbase, and classic proportions, it was all muscle car. Only available with V8s with power ranging from 225 to 340 horsepower, the two-seat AMX was anything but boring. Fewer than 20,000 were built, but we wouldn’t be surprised if close to half survived. Today, strong aftermarket support (especially for an orphan brand) and an active enthusiast community mean that even the most neglected AMXs have a fighting chance of making it back onto the road.
12. 1982-1987 Buick Grand National/GNX
Released at a time when Detroit was just starting to rediscover serious performance, the Grand National and GNX were some of the most formidable performance cars of their day. In GNX trim (only available in 1987), Buick coaxed 300 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque from the car’s turbocharged V6. Nowadays, any Regal-based turbo Buick is worth saving. Thanks to their popular G-Body architecture (which also underpinned the Oldsmobile Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Chevy Monte Carlo), and a strong aftermarket, there’s no reason not to bring one back from the brink.
13. 1967-1970 Mercury Cougar
Launched in 1967, the Mercury Cougar was a slightly bigger, more luxurious sports coupe based closely on the Mustang. The winner of Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in its first year on sale, the Cougar quickly caught on with middle class buyers, and was even available with Ford’s big block 390 cubic inch V8. The nameplate survived some serious ups and downs over 35 years, but most agree that the Cougars to get are the good-looking first-generation cars built from ’67 to 1970. Thanks to a healthy aftermarket, you should be able to find everything you need to get an old Cat on the road again fairly easily. And compared to skyrocketing Mustang prices, these Mercurys are still a relative bargain.
14. 1983-1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS
For 1983, Chevy brought the SS nameplate back to the Monte Carlo lineup after a 12 year hiatus. Inspired by the aerodynamic bodywork it developed for its NASCAR racers, the SS looked unlike anything on the road at the time. Incredibly popular thanks to its 350 cubic inch V8, the SS has spent the past few decades in collector’s purgatory due to its reputation as a redneck favorite. Luckily, that salt-of-the-earth stigma is fading, and the powerful coupe is now firmly in classic car territory. Healthy aftermarket support means that once difficult-to-find parts are now back in production, meaning even the sorriest examples can get a second chance.
15. 1964-1967 Pontiac 2 + 2
To most vintage car fans, Pontiac’s ’60s performance lineup was dominated by the GTO and Firebird. But from 1964 to 1967, it also offered the full-size 2+2 coupe. Based on the popular Catalina model, the 1965 and ’66 models came standard with Pontiac’s mighty 421 cubic inch V8. Selecting the High Output option meant 376 horsepower and 461 pound-feet of torque from the engine, which rocketed the massive car from zero to 60 in a still-impressive 3.9 seconds. Rarer than Pontiac’s more well-known performance cars, 2+2s spent decades suffering from a lack of parts support. Today, Original Parts Group offers just about everything you need to keep these rare beasts running strong.
16. 1979-1993 Ford Mustang
As important as the original 1964-’71 Mustang was, millions of gearheads have cut their teeth on Ford’s third-generation ponycar. Built on the rear-wheel drive Fox platform that underpinned a dozen models, the chassis has become legendary thanks to the “Fox Body” Mustangs. Cheap, plentiful, and incredibly easy to modify, these cars are the perfect gateway to cheap American speed. Thanks to a healthy aftermarket, you can build a Fox Body any way you want, from a faithful restoration to a brutally fast hot rod.
17. Dodge Super Bee
Dodge’s midsize muscle car shared its Mopar “B-Body” with the Plymouth Satellite/Road Runner, and the more pedestrian Coronet. Dodge launched the Super Bee (get it?) in 1968 as a no-nonsense bruiser,offering a trio of Big V8s, a heavy-duty suspension, and not much else. The looker of the ‘Bees is the 1970 model, with its “bumble bee wings” split grille and too-cool cartoon graphics. Today, virtually every part you need is being remanufactured. But like the GTO, if you’re in the market for one, beware of clones.
18. 1965-1970 Chevrolet Impala SS
By the second half of the 1960s, midsize muscle cars dominated the American performance landscape. But that didn’t keep The Big Three from wringing serious performance out of its big cars either. The Impala was America’s best-selling car mid-decade. And in Super Sport trim, it could be ordered with the 427 cubic inch L72 engine, which cranked out a whopping 425 horsepower. For gearheads who want that ’60s-era muscle, but with a little more comfort than smaller cars offer, the Impala SS is ideal. Simple mechanicals, a healthy supply of new parts, and a number of options for customization means that the big cars can be transformed into whatever you want them to be.
19. 1967-’70 Pontiac Firebird
The first-generation Firebird is largely overshadowed by its platform-mate, the Chevy Camaro. But we love the Firebird for its great proportions, understated styling, and classic Pontiac power. Available with everything from Pontiac’s groundbreaking overhead-cam straight six to a massive 400 cubic inch V8, the Firebird offered something for everybody. Today, they’re a little rarer than Camaros of the same vintage, but thanks to strong aftermarket support, surviving cars have almost limitless potential.
20. 1966 – 1970 Dodge Charger
The Charger is one of the most iconic muscle cars ever built, and decades after hundreds were destroyed filming “The Dukes of Hazzard,” surviving cars are highly prized. But chances are, even if you find a wrecked General Lee somewhere, you could probably bring it back to life. Everything from the smallest engine label to entire bodies are still in production, meaning that we’ll have plenty of Chargers on the road (or in collections) for years to come.
21. 1968 – 1974 Chevrolet Nova
When it was redesigned in 1968, the Nova became a massive success for Chevy. It isn’t hard to see why: No matter what was under the hood, it was a muscular, good-looking compact car. And in top SS trim, the Nova could be ordered with the 396 cubic inch big block V8, which put out an impressive 375 horsepower. While it isn’t as sexy as a Camaro or Chevelle, there’s an undeniable appeal to the Nova’s no-nonsense attitude. Today, virtually every part is relatively easy to track down from a number of suppliers.
22. Buick Gran Sport
Based on the Skylark, the Gran Sport was Buick’s entry into the muscle car segment. And while it wasn’t as popular as A-Body platform-mates like the Chevy Chevelle, Oldsmobile 4-4-2, and Pontiac GTO, it was marketed as something different: “The Gentleman’s Hot Rod.” The interior was indeed accommodating, but under the hood, buyers could opt for the 455 cubic inch V8 with the Stage 1 package. With 360 horsepower and an incredible 510 pound-feet of torque, the GSX (the hottest Gran Sport) had the most torque of any American production car until the introduction of the second-generation Dodge Viper in 2003. Not many were built, but with a healthy aftermarket, you can easily bring one back from the dead.
23. 1977-1981 Pontiac Firebird
By the late ’70s, the muscle car was all but dead. But there was one exception: the Pontiac Firebird. While Ford and Chrysler had basically ditched performance, and even the Chevy Camaro was neutered (the two shared a platform), the Firebird was still a beast. The second-generation cars were built from 1970 to 1981, but in recent years, values for 1976-’77 cars have skyrocketed, thanks to its starring role in Smokey and the Bandit. For a too-cool late ’70s vibe and a big block V8 to play with, a later second-gen Firebird is a great way to get into classic cars. Great parts availability means they’re relatively easy to keep in top shape too.
24. Ford Falcon Futura Sprint
Fun fact: The original Mustang was based on the Ford Falcon. This meant that when Ford beefed up the chassis to handle V8 power for its ponycar, it also made the accommodations for its entry-level compact too. Back in the ’60s, Falcon Sprints could be had with a number of powerful Ford engines and were performance cars in their own right (this ’64 model is proving its meddle on an English racetrack), even if they were overshadowed by their sportier relative. Thanks to the Falcon’s popularity and versatile architecture, it isn’t difficult to find a solid project car and build it as wild as you want it to be.
25. Chevrolet Corvair Monza
The Corvair isn’t generally mentioned in muscle car conversations, but maybe it should be. When it launched in 1960, its long option list was copied by Ford when it introduced the Mustang a few years later. And in 1962, Chevy released the Monza Spyder, the second turbocharged production car in history. With the turbo bolted onto the rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-six, the Monza put out an impressive 150 horsepower. In its day, these hot Corvairs were known to hold their own against Porsche 356s in races. A prettier second-generation Corvair launched in 1965, and turbocharged Corsa models cranked out as much as 180 horsepower. For those of us who couldn’t hope to afford a vintage air-cooled Porsche, the Corvair is the next best thing. And thanks to a healthy aftermarket and active enthusiast community, it isn’t terribly difficult to restore one.