Market Spotlight

Who made the most valuable muscle cars?

by John Wiley
2 November 2022 3 min read
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Photo by Evan Klein

Peak Muscle. 1968 to 1972. Muscle cars were honed in stoplight drags on streets and strips across America. The fastest car won. Manufacturers were in on it, too: each competed to outdo their cross-town rivals and corporate cousins. Enthusiasts then and now have debated who fielded the strongest muscle cars during this golden age. Of course, car to car, the easiest way to find an answer is to line them up at a drag strip. Yet the conversation gets more complicated when you try to determine which manufacturer won the muscle car wars.

Does the highest average horsepower win? Possibly, except many cars had underrated horsepower back then. What about the highest production numbers? If small-displacement Mustangs outnumber COPO Camaros, what does that tell us? Not much. Besides, these numbers fail to take into account the legacy of these cars—what they mean to enthusiasts.

Our solution: use the collector car market to determine the overall winner.

The Hagerty Price Guide has more than 1900 vehicle-body-engine combinations for cars built by the big three for the 1968 through 1972 model years. Since we’re talking about muscle cars, we zoomed in on 2-door cars with V-8s. No convertibles.

Next, we lined up model years and market segments to avoid apples-to-oranges comparisons. For 1968, for instance, we compared the Dodge Dart to the Plymouth Valiant, Chevrolet Nova, Ford Falcon, and Mercury Comet. We also aligned the trim levels for those, so the ’70 Charger R/T is compared to the 1970 models of the GTX, Chevelle SS 454, Buick GSX, GTO Judge, Torino Cobra, Cyclone GT, and 4-4-2 W-30. All combined, we use 26 groups of models, trims, and model years.

For each of those 26 groups, we find the most valuable vehicle from each make and rank the entries accordingly. For example, in group 6, which has the 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, 1968 Chevrolet Camaro, 1968 Pontiac Firebird, 1968 Ford Mustang, 1968 Mercury Cougar, and 1968 Shelby GT350, the Camaro is ranked first with the COPO, Pontiac second with the Ram Air II, and Ford third with the 428 cid Cobra Jet in the Mustang Fastback GT.

Finally, we averaged those ranks across all 26 groups to determine the manufacturer with the highest average.

By this analysis, Dodge has the most sought-after muscle cars, with an average ranking between 2nd and 3rd in each group. Chevrolet is just a little behind, with a ranking closer to 3rd than 2nd. Plymouth, Pontiac, Shelby, Oldsmobile, Ford, Mercury, and Buick follow those in that order. 

The Mopar fans in the audience surely need no more convincing. For everyone else, a few rationales exist for Dodge's high ranking. First, VINs. Although they're not as sexy sounding as Hemis or High Impact colors, the fact that Dodge had decodable, accurate identification numbers long before this became industry-wide practice is an important factor in why they tend to fetch more money. It means the bidder on, say, a 1970 Charger R/T can be sure the car in question really came from the factory with a 440 Six Pack and a 4-speed manual.

Other things to consider are the sheer range of colors and options and smaller production numbers overall. Also, Dodge has a wide range of (currently) sought-after models, with the Challenger and Charger ranking well, but also the Dart and Coronet.

Mecum

Dodge also benefits from being late to the pony car game. The Challenger debuted in 1970, and thus ducks heavyweight slugfests with the 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 and 1969 Chevrolet Camaro COPO (the 1969 Plymouth Barracuda 440 was around and placed third).

Note we're talking highest average ranking. Dodge doesn't win everywhere. The 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, for instance, is second in price guide value to the 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge, while just behind those two is the 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS 396. Also note these rankings are based on current price guide values. In another year with different valuations and evolving consumer interest, the crown could easily go to another manufacturer.

One more critical caveat: This is all in good fun. No metric—not dollars nor horsepower nor even quarter mile times—can possibly quantify the passion (and partisanship) people feel toward muscle cars. On that note, we'd love to hear what you think in the comments. And if you're the sort who likes to read footnotes, you can peruse all the groups we used to determine our rankings, below.

Comments

  • matthew rolek says:

    where do i get a copy of” Hagerty Price Guide”

  • Rolf says:

    I can only comment re basic Mustang Vers Camaro driving experience,found the Camaro V8 more comfortable

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    Now this is the list of muscle cars. So many good choices to choose from.

  • Warren Nelson says:

    I believe the 1964 through 1967 Pontiac GTO should be in here. The 1964 was one of the first available in the “muscle car” category. I owned a 67 GTO when I got out of the Army in 1969 with the 400 engine and a manual 4 speed Munci transmission that also had factory air so I am probably biased because today they are worth a small fortune.

  • Agp3075 says:

    I love my 1970 SS 454 Chevelle.

  • Johnny D says:

    I don’t understand this list. #1 Dodge Dart GT, Plymouth Valiant.
    Dodge Charger R/T #5? Are you saying the #1 cars are worth more than the lower cars? Are more popular? Or you insure more of the #1 cars?

    • John Wiley says:

      The group numbers are just used to identify the set of cars being compared. Each group has one vehicle from a particular market set (compact, mid-size, full-size, … ).

  • Judy says:

    I had a 69 Ford Fairlane Convertable, and I love it.

  • Dave D says:

    It seems that another variable that wasn’t considered was original sale volumes. This reflects on availability and subsequently the value after 30 – 50 years.

  • Bob Cancelli says:

    I bought a brand new 1969 road runner. It happened to be extremely fast for the factory 383. When I came up against cars like the hemi‘s, the 440s, the 396s, the 427‘s, I would beat them. Many times I had to pull the car over for the loser of a race or someone that just wanted to ride to see what I really had under the hood. Nobody could believe there was a 383. About a year after I got rid of the car For the 1970 Cuda I read Ian I think it was popular mechanics that the car companies in NASCAR we’re looking at putting together another division for the midsize big blocks. When they decided not to go with the new division the chrysler president had 50 of the 100 engines left over from testing . So he decided just to put them in to the assembly line and guess what I had one of those engines. Those days it was easy to do stuff like that. Back then it was just another car that an 18-year-old hammered the crap out of and send it out to pasture. No big deal it was a one of 50 chrysler/Plymouth built that year. Today who knows how much that car would’ve been worth but it would be much more than the $2000 I got for the trade-in. Great story but it’s true.

    • Rick Simpson says:

      Check the sales and demand for 1971 Cudas. One of the hotest collector cars in the kast two years.
      Not sure how you could miss these. Perhaps they are selling so fast you cannot track them.

    • bw says:

      Bob, sounds like an urban myth. MOPAR did put out engines from the factory that were absolute freaks. To wit, I had a ’70 Duster 340, not the stipper mind you but full on p/s, pdb, a/c, 727, vinyl top, etc., that would smoke pretty much any big block it came up against. Small blocks? Forget it. The list of beaten cars included 455 HO T/As, SS454s, one HEMI ‘cuda, and just about any GTO or Mustang. Heady and fun days.

  • Paul E says:

    Why the 1968 start? What about the earlier GTOs, 4-4-2s, Gran Sports and SS 396s, including the ‘64 GTO that pioneered the era? Your methodology notwithstanding, I doubt many fans think much of Darts, Valiants, Falcons and Comets as muscle cars.

  • Timbo says:

    Though not as popular, AMC had lots of power to be proud of – AMX, 401 Javelins, SCRambler, Machine. And, incidentally, a Javelin beat the Mustangs and Camaros in 1971 in the SCCA series.

    • Charles Mollins says:

      AMC would be around today if they had a “Bill Gates” type individual at a top level and $ to invest. It was not the product on the road.

  • Steve B says:

    You Hagerty guys have way too much time on your hands! How about a few of you guys just sitting around go get a real job and have Hagerty lower my premiums! Lol! I’m kidding of course!

  • William Bulpitt says:

    I can’t verify this with accuracy, but I always had the impression that the Chrysler cars had thinner sheet metal, were more prone to rust and overall did not survive as well as other makes, and thus as time wore on became more rare and therefore more valuable.

  • Dave Oakes says:

    I read this article and somehow I must have missed its legend. What does each group specifically represent? The groups were generically described but I was unable to determine any meaning.

    • John Wiley says:

      The groups are just the market segments for a given model year. For 1968, the groups represent compact, mid-size, full-size and so on.

  • Michael Condon says:

    I will never understand the lack of love for the 69 Ford Cobra (Torino). 428 CJ, Pure muscle, especially if you added some of the Ford performance items such as thinner head gaskets, police cam, adjustable rockers, etc. They easily ran in the low 13’s – I ran that with street tires! I watch for them to come up at auctions, etc but they are few and far between. A lost gem in my opinion.

  • Ron says:

    The AMX should be in the mix somewhere!

  • michael a wells says:

    I owned both a 1968 and 1970 GTO. Both had 400 cu in displacement, however the 70 had a Ram Air 3 engine which blew my 68 out of the water. Of course it was a base 400 cu in and a 3:55 Rear End while the 70 GTO had a 3:90 rear end, so no contest here. Interestingly while racing stoplight to stoplight on Woodward Ave in the years 68-70, I was at a light head to head with a Ram Air IV 1970 GTO in my 70 GTO. Of course we raced and ended up a dead heat which left me unimpressed with the Ram Air IV vs my Ram Air 3 powered Goat! Who knows what variables there may have been, but one thing for sure that Ram Air IV GTO today would be worth a mint!! Fun Nights and Fun Times!

  • Alan Guttridge says:

    Looks like the 1970 Buick 455 GS/GSX is the “forgotten” Muscle Car. Many a MOPAR, Chevelle, GTO, 442, Torino, etc, fell as a SURPRISED victim to the torque monster Buick GS…510 ft lbs @ 2800rpm, and, in the opinion of many the Buick GS cars had an excellent, very well tuned, corner carving suspension (for that era), even though they outweighed most of the competition. Upper level Buick management did not fully support the Buick Performance Group so it was a challenge for the mid-level engineers to field a performance vehicle.

  • Mike Douglas says:

    I know this was done just for fun & of course is not exact science but curious as to why you included Shelby for the years they were produced but left out the Charger Daytona/Superbird for ’69 & ’70? Nothing else to compare it to, maybe? Enjoyed the article, especially since I’m a Mopar guy!

  • Charles Mollins says:

    Your group failed to recognize American Motors which had a 2 seater muscle car, 68 & 69 AMX, along with the Rebel Machine and the javelin which won a number of racing series in the US.

  • Brian Fay says:

    Every one has an opinion. I think Hagerty still has some learning to do to be fair. This evaluation system leaves so much out of the equation, it is not as accurate as it may seem. Don’t bet your last dollar on it. It is not that simple, and Shelby’s are Ford Mustangs, not a separate manufacture or a different car. Why don’t you separate Boss mustangs, RS Camaro’s, or Hurst 442’s. You forgot the 1970 Boss hemi big block, let alone the many more small blocks, etc. I could go on, but I have done my research and take a lot more facts into my considerations. Stop trying to make it short, simple, and sweet; because it is much more detailed and complicated than you have presented. Why don’t you list just the collector car action results from the last year or two that would let the all the people who buy cars decide what is most valued? The value is always set by the people who buy and sell in the market. At least that would be much more accurate and yet overly simple!

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