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.
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.