AMERICAN MUSCLE: Revisiting the sexiest cars the road’s ever seen

1969 Shelby GT500

In the 1960s, a young General Motors engineer named John Delorean altered the fate of American automobiles – and their aesthetic – when he put a big, powerful engine into the Pontiac Tempest; boldly transforming it into the first muscle car. Thus was born the Pontiac GTO – an abbreviation for Gran Turismo Omologato.

There may have been fast cars before (roadsters like the Corvette), souped up in garages by those with the inspiration and the know-how, but the GTO was altogether different. It was a turnkey, factory hot rod available for purchase right at a dealership by anyone with the means, giving drivers access to wild, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive performance without the need to break out a tool set and get covered in sweat.

And so the muscle car craze began; spawning a new market for horsepower and a race to produce these hot rods at each of the major American automakers – General Motors (GM), Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth and American Motors Corporation (AMC).

Although all the big players were in the game, not all muscle cars were created equal. Two stood out from the pack, pushing the art form to an even higher level.


1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

In 1964, General Motors gave the “green light” to the F-car project, in response to Ford’s Mustang “Pony Car.” Not to be left behind, two years later, the Chevrolet Camaro hit the ground running. From the get-go, the Camaro was available in a hardtop coupe and convertible body styles, and could be ordered with nearly endless customizations – including four distinct packages; the RS, the SS, the RS/SS combination, and the formidable “race-ready” Z-28 version. With power front disc brakes, upgraded suspension and a close-ratio Muncie 4-speed manual transmission, it featured a small-block V-8 engine designed specifically to race in the Trans Am series, which required smaller engines. With a top speed of 140 mph, it certainly had the makings of a race-ready vehicle, and now, thanks to broad racing stripes on the hood and trunk lid, it had the look to fit the part. While inspired by the Mustang “Pony Car,” the first Camaro was really promoted as more of a “Junior Corvette” that promised the family man with a hunkering for a real sports car the opportunity to buy one with four seats.


1969 Pontiac GTO - The Judge Ram Air IV
1969 Pontiac GTO – The Judge Ram Air IV

Though originally intended as a budget machine to take on Plymouth’s Road Runner, by the time it debuted in January 1969, it was a more expensive and visually aggressive GTO. Named after Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Here Comes The Judge” skit on TV’s Laugh-In, The Judge was a parody of the muscle car over decorated with stripes, spoiler, a blacked-out grille and goofy “The Judge” fender decals. It may have been derided as cartoonish, but the 400 cubic inch V8 engine produced 370 horsepower and 445 lb-ft of torque. Not only that, it is a rare treasure of the muscle care world as only 700 ‘69 GTO coupes were built with the Ram Air IV option and rarer still, only five Judge Convertibles had it.

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