When it comes to the current state of the muscle car breed, it’s pretty hard to be upset: Ford makes a Mustang with a screaming flat-plane crank V8 that’s more Maranello than Michigan, Chevy builds a corner-carving Camaro that’ll leave vehicles costing twice as much in its dust on track, and Dodge will let you buy an 840 HP Challenger that’ll embarrass a Veyron through the quarter mile. Heck, take a look at what’s on offer from Europe and Asia: though they’ve committed to building engines powered by the Devil’s magic (AKA forced induction), Mercedes-AMG’s V8s still make a divine racket and shred tires with Uncle Sam’s finest. On the other hand, while they’re being left behind in the increasingly ludicrous horsepower arms race between Germany’s performance royalty, Lexus should be commended for their continued dedication to more refined arts of natural aspiration. In other words, if you’re looking to lighten your wallet with a surplus of stallions, there’s no better time to be a potential buyer than right now.
We’re a curious species however, and we can’t help but wonder what could have been had Motown and Co. decided to put these high-powered beasts into production.
While the most recent high-powered Chevy sedan to wear the ‘SS’ badge was the tragically short-lived Holden Commodore-based, uh, Chevrolet SS, there was another car that bore the same name a decade earlier. The SS concept was unveiled at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit as a sort of homage to the automaker’s high-performance back-catalog. Remember, back in 2003, Chevrolet was lacking a bit in terms of on-road muscle: sure, they had the Corvette, as they always have and always should, but the fourth-generation Camaro had been out of production for a year, which left a pretty sizeable hole in their tire-shredding lineup.
This swoopy four-door would have bridged the gap very nicely: under the hood was an all-aluminum 6.0 liter V8 cranking out a very juicy 430 HP and 430 lb-ft of torque. That was sent to the rear wheels via a four-speed automatic. Handling would have been appreciably sure-footed as well: the SS concept employed fully independent suspension front and rear, fortified with driver-adjustable shocks. Behind the front wheels lurked suitably massive six-piston brakes clamping onto 14-inch rotors, with four-piston calibers out back. The interior, meanwhile, was a lovingly-crafted contrast to the grey plastic dreck that GM was shoving off the assembly lines: real stainless steel, white leather, and houndstooth-pattern vinyl.
Believe it or not, there were three GM-designed concept cars to carry the Nomad name: the first, a FWD minivan prototype revealed in 1979, the second, a retro-inspired wagon that was shown off in 1999, and the third and perhaps best known, the compact, cleanly-styled, RWD two-door shooting brake that was unveiled only five years later. If I’m being honest, of the three, find the latter to be the prettiest. With its comparatively tiny 2.2 liter Ecotec inline-four under the hood however, it would be a bit of a stretch to call it a muscle car. When it comes to power then, you can’t go wrong with its predecessor.
I won’t call it pretty, but the 1999 Nomad concept was definitely striking, with its sharply-creased flanks, steeply raked rear end and simplified fascia playing an especially dedicated tribute to the styling excesses of the original 1955 model, while things like the A-pillar mounted wing mirrors are meant to celebrate the USA’s hot-rod culture.
GM spun the concept off of the F-body platform, which also underpinned the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird at the time. It also shared a heart with those bruisers, a Generation III 5.7 liter small block bearing the LS1 designation. Output was a stout 344 HP, transmitted to the rear wheels via a very unusual so-called “shift-by-wire” transmission, a system that forwent the use of mechanical linkages to shift gears.
In an industry full of arbitrary alphanumeric badging, a name like "Firepower" would have stood out like a bullhorn at a chess competition. Thankfully, it wasn’t attached to some wimpy crossover: the Chrysler Firepower, revealed to the world back in 2005, was a luxuriously-appointed grand-tourer with the heart and soul of a 1960s muscle car. While the concept used the same platform as the third-generation Dodge Viper, it’s likely that the actual production car would have used a new RWD platform that could be made in greater numbers; in spite of the two-seat cockpit being trimmed in premium-grade black and white leather, the Firepower was actually pitched as a less expensive, less exclusive car than the Dodge’s slinky sports car.
That’s reflected under the engine bay as well: instead of the Viper’s enormous 8.3 liter V10 engine, Chrysler opted to use a slightly more economical (in terms of both cost and fuel consumption) 6.1 liter, naturally-aspirated Hemi V8. That engine cranked out 425 all-American stallions, enough to fling the Firepower to 60 MPH in 4.5 seconds. Although then-Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda said the Firepower was still "on our agenda" a year after its unveiling, the financial reality of developing a brand-new chassis for use on a niche product meant that the Firepower was an unfortunate production non-starter.
If you were to judge the Chrysler Nassau purely from its exterior, you might accuse it of erring too close to the luxury side of the equation to be taken seriously as a muscle car. After all, it had a soft-edged 4-door hatchback profile, an interior trimmed in buttery-soft beige and black leather, and load floor finished in polished teak wood that emulated the decking of a billionaire’s yacht. Look closer, however, and you’ll find all manner of menacing details that hint at the power lurking under the lovingly-surfaced hood; take a gander at that oversized grill, the quartet of square exhaust tips, and the massive 22-inch wheels wrapped in performance-oriented Goodyear Rubber.
Indeed, the Nassau is powered by Chrysler’s erstwhile Hemi V8 engine, fettled by the company’s Street & Racing Technology (SRT) group. In fact, its the same unit used in the Firepower concept as well as the first-generation Dodge Charger, Challenger, and Magnum SRT-8, not to mention the range-topping Chrysler 300 and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8. There’s nothing wrong with a lack of exclusivity of course, not when you’ve got 6.1 liters and 425 HP to play with.
While I suppose you can say that this concept technically went into production, given just how common four-door Chargers are on North-American roads, the 1999 Charger R/T doesn’t really bear much in common with those big ol’ brutes, despite using a shortened version of the same LX platform. Instead, it was a far more performance-oriented car, with functional side scoops, a five-speed manual transmission, and center-mounted exhausts.
Though the proportions of the car were meant to emulate the original 1966 Charger, the R/T was actually over a foot shorter and a substantial 650 lbs lighter than its ancestor despite having two more doors.
If you compare the current Charger to the concept, the latter is over 800 lbs lighter. That surprisingly light 3,000 lb curb weight meant that the Charger would have been pretty brisk even with a hamster wheel under the hood. Thankfully, Dodge wanted more than “pretty brisk” and fitted a 4.7 liter SOHC V8 engine under the hood, good for a stout 325 HP. Supposedly, it was capable of launching the car to 60 MPH in just 5.3 seconds. Interestingly, the R/T was intended to be more of a showcase for compressed natural gas technology rather than a pure performance car: it employed an experimental, highly compact fiberglass CNG storage tank that delivered 300 miles of range without compromising trunk space.
With the market for on-road performance-oriented SUVs expanding exponentially in recent years, maybe Dodge would like to cut themselves a healthy slice of the pie by putting an updated version of the Sidewinder concept into production. Unveiled at the 1997 SEMA convention in Las Vegas, it was a vehicle far ahead of its time: truck-like utility combined with supercar levels of go. Though it was officially called the Dakota Sidewinder (for those trying to remember, the Dakota was Dodge’s midsized pickup truck), it shared basically nothing with the automaker’s actual model lineup.
The chassis was a bespoke job designed by famous American racing constructor Riley & Scott while its 8.0 liter V10 engine was pulled straight from the competition-prepped Dodge Viper GTS-R, which participated in both the North American IMSA GT Championship GTS-1 class as well as the European FIA GT Championship in the GT2 class, where it dominated in the 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2002 seasons. That championship-winning heart cranked out a colossal 640 HP and 530 lb-ft of torque, enough to fling the Sidewinder to 60 MPH in under 4 seconds and on to a top speed of 170 MPH.
You get no points for guessing a what’s under the hood of this unusually-styled sedan. Mind you, I won’t keep you waiting either: the Super 8 was packing a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with 353 HP and 395 lb-ft of torque. Surprisingly, the engine is probably the least interesting part of the concept, revealed at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
No, this is a vehicle whose personality is defined entirely by its detailing, which borrows from an era and automotive subculture that car manufacturers seem to avoid today: the 1950s road trip.
That stylistic influence can be seen most keenly on the inside, where the car’s tall profile, long wheelbase, and front row bench seating provide plenty of room for the highway-bound, while the infotainment system and gauges resemble parts of a diner jukebox. Heck, even the name is a deliberate reference 1950s vacation culture, when the Super 8 camera was the de facto way to immortalize family moments. Meanwhile, the Super 8 Hemi’s wraparound windshield, side strakes, and quartet of headlights recall Dodge’s family cars from the mid-20th century, while the crosshair grille, aggressive lines, and chunky wheels reference the company’s contemporary offerings.
The swoopy-styled Dodge Venom was one of the best-known concept cars in the 1990s, enjoying a multi-year career posing under the spotlights of auto shows all around the world. That’s a rarity for an industry whose styling trends age like milk on a hot day. It's not that difficult to understand why: in a lot of ways, the Venom was timeless: dated looking side strakes aside, the smoothly curved body surfacing looks as fresh today as it did upon the car’s reveal in 1994. It’s single-minded focus on driving enjoyment meanwhile is as relevant today as its ever been. The Venom’s guiding principle was to be a modern, yet back-to-basics reinvention of the muscle car. That means a minimum of electronic frippery, but by no means was it to be a luddite-mobile. Instead of a polar-bear slaughtering big-block, the Venom employed a naturally-aspirated 3.5-liter SOHC 24-valve V6 that was loosely related to the one in the car’s antithesis, the Chrysler Sebring. Output was 260 HP, sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.
Even more interestingly, the car’s chassis had more humble roots than its motor: its platform was an extensively reworked version of that of the Dodge Neon, pulled and squashed in every direction before being converted to shred the back tires. Plebeian origins don’t mean plebeian performance, however, with the 0-60 MPH sprint taking a mere 5.2 seconds.
What is undoubtedly the most menacingly-styled on this list (and that’s no mean feat), the brutish-looking Ford Interceptor looked like a mob boss’s car from the 2040s; its easy to imagine it slinking through neon-lit streets in the dead of night with a dead-eyed wise guy at the wheel and some extremely illegal merchandise in the trunk. Exercises in creative writing aside, this looked a genuinely cool ride for enthusiasts looking for a little more storage space upon its unveiling at the 2007 North American International Auto Show.
Built to serve as a 21st century reinterpretation of Ford’s full-size Galaxie sedan, the Interceptor was based on the same platform as the S197-chassis Mustang, only stretched to accommodate another pair of doors.
That means a solid rear axle and plenty of built-in street cred. Things only got more exciting after you open the massive clamshell hood and peer into the engine bay, home to a Ford Racing 5.0-liter Cammer V8. That beastly powerplant was capable of running on high-octane E85 fuel and produced a sledgehammer-like 600 HP, sent to the rear wheels via the metaphorical cherry on top, a six-speed manual transmission. The Interceptor’s interior was pure concept car tosspottery, a leather-wrapped cocoon with two pairs of kidney-crushing bucket seats and an unfortunately squircle-shaped steering wheel.
Technically, the Italdesign Mustang is sort of cheating when it comes to mentioning muscle cars that didn’t enter production, as the post-refresh S197 Mustang borrowed one or two styling cues from this concept. That said, “one or two styling cues” isn’t the same thing as a full-fledged automobile rolling the assembly line. Besides, mechanically speaking, this Italian-American fusion was quite different to a standard S197, and could have been pitched as a more upmarket coupe to do direct battle with something like the BMW M3: it had touch-sensitive scissor doors, a 500 HP supercharged V8, and a UV ray-filtering glass roof.
If you’re unfamiliar with Italian design and engineering company Italdesign Giugiaro, you probably don’t recognize the name of its co-founder, Giorgetto Giugiaro. If you find yourself to be part of this group, shame on you.
Why? Well, in my humble opinion, Giugiaro is the most talented car designer that the industry has ever produced, the holder of a portfolio that’s breathtaking not only in its size and scope (he designed both the 1977 BMW M1 and the 1960 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone, not to mention the Delorean and De Tomaso Mangusta), but also its consistency: in his over half a century of working, the man has never put out an uninspired piece of work. I’m not the only one who thinks that either, in case you’re wondering: he was named Car Designer of the Century back in 1999. This Mustang was designed under the watchful eye of his son, Fabrizio. Judging by my entirely untrained eye, I’d say he’s got the goods too.
There are few more evocative names in the automotive world than "Cobra." The ludicrously overpowered roadster with British roots was an instant high-performance icon and turned Carroll Shelby a household name practically overnight. It’s a mighty lofty goal to try and recapture that same magic almost fifty years later, even with the same players. Thankfully, Ford and Shelby weren’t too intimidated by the challenge and delivered a fresh-looking concept that couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a modern-day version of that very same legend. The illusion wasn’t spoiled when you opened the hood either.
If the 1961 car was a wheeled suitcase nuke, with its monstrous 4.3 liter Windsor V8 packed into a shrinkwrapped shell, this concept was a planet-cracking asteroid: 645 HP, 501 lb-ft of torque, and 6.4 liters worth of all-aluminium V10, all contained within a lightweight chassis that was mostly derived from the mid-engined Ford GT supercar. While the GT was already a fairly compact car in most ways (aside from its enormous width), the Cobra concept made it look like a double-decker bus, being almost two feet shorter and 350 lbs lighter than the former. This was achieved via a fanatical approach to weight saving, with the roadster eschewing almost every form of luxury: no radio, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, or even windshield wipers.
The Ford 49 concept was unveiled at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit (you know what, I’m starting to detect a common theme here). It was meant to celebrate the imaginatively named 1949 Ford (sometimes called the "Shoebox" by enthusiasts), which represented a radical step forward from its predecessor, introduced in 1941. The 1949 car featured a then-revolutionary ladder frame chassis (hilariously dubbed the "lifeguard body" by the automaker) as well as an independent front suspension design and a design that integrated the fenders into the body itself.
The low-slung 49 concept wasn’t nearly as boundary-pushing as its predecessor, but there’s no denying it cut a striking figure, with its all-glass upper body (complete with opening rear quarter windows), super-slim taillights, and smooth, torpedo-like fuselage.
The interior was a striking mix of tan and black leather, with plenty of chrome brightwork running across the transmission tunnel and up the center console. Power came from then-Ford subsidiary Jaguar in the form of a 3.9 liter V8, also used in the not-nearly-as-cool Thunderbird revival. That motor was presented within a magnificent stainless steel cradle and prettied-up with satin-black headcovers and more polished stainless-steel detailing.
If the Shelby Cobra turned Carroll Shelby into a household name, the Daytona immortalized him (and designer Pete Brock) in the pantheon of auto racing greats, right up there with il Commendatore himself. The Daytona was borne of the goal to beat the latter and his Ferrari 250 GTOs at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a car of Shelby's own design. Realizing that his Cobras were basically faster everywhere around the circuit except for the legendary three-mile long Mulsanne straight due to the aerodynamic drag imposed by their open roofs, he resorted to asking employee Pete Brock to put together a low-drag coupe body. The car earned its name during its first race at the Daytona Speedway in 1964, where it locked down pole position in no small part thanks to its near-200 MPH top speed. The same year, it earned GT class wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Tour de France Automobile, and yes, the 24 Hours of Le Mans (coming in 4th overall).
In 1965, it dominated the GT III class of the World Sportscar Championship before setting 25-speed records at the Bonneville salt flats. While the Ford Shelby GR-1, revealed as a mechanically functional concept at the 2005 North American International Auto Show, didn’t have the same racing heritage, it did seem to have the performance goods: under that polished skin lay the same running gear as the Cobra concept, that being an all-aluminium V10 engine sending its power to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission.
The Monaro name is an iconic part of Australia’s high-performance heritage, a beefy two-door muscle car built by GM’s Holden subsidiary. It traces its roots back to the mid-1960s before expiring in 1977, only to be revived again in 2001 in a form that American consumers might remember as the Pontiac GTO. At the 2008 Melbourne International Motor Show, the automaker didn’t officially call the Coupe 60 concept a successor to the Monaro, but spiritually speaking, it's pretty easy to put the pieces together. Like its immediate predecessor, it was built on a shortened version of the full-size Commodore sedan chassis. In the Coupe 60’s case, that was GM’s recently-introduced RWD Zeta platform, which also underpinned the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro. As we all know from the track-ready Z/28 model, that chassis could be made to dance in spite of its bulk. It seems that this concept would have been quite agile as well: much of its hardware was inspired by Australia’s V8 Supercars series (the best way to describe it is to call it is a fusion of British Touring Car Racing and American NASCAR, only even more awesome than that sounds). It featured super-sticky Kumho semi-slicks, a competition-inspired cockpit (complete with harnesses and a digital instrument display) and plenty of downforce-boosting addenda, including a flat underbody tray, a rear-diffuser, a front splitter, and a fully functional decklid spoiler. It wouldn’t be a muscle car without the muscle of course, with a 6.0 liter LS2 V8 delivering a blood-and-thunder soundtrack via side-mounted exhausts.
The EFIJY is one of GM’s best-known concept cars, a rarity considering the fact that its design was an entirely non-American effort. The concept was drawn up in-house at Holden’s Australian studio, and is meant to pay homage to the second “all-Australian” car ever built, the Holden FJ. The 1953 FJ was quite ahead of its time, as it featured a monocoque structure, a rarity at the time. Mind you, that didn’t stop people from buying them, as close to 170,000 units were sold over the course of its three-year production run.
It was hardly a speed demon, however, as its inline-six engine cranked out a middling 65 HP in its peak state of tune.
With these historical tidbits laid out in front of you, you might expect that a vehicle meant to honor the humble FJ would be a cleverly designed, unpretentious family hauler. That, um, is not what we got. Revealed at the 2005 Australian International Motor Show in Sydney, the EFIJY was about as subtle as a Swarovski-encrusted pair of brass knuckles, and delivered an equally brutal punch. Peel back the layers of hot-rod inspired bodywork, finished in what the automaker dubbed “Soprano Purple,” and you’d find a stretched Chevy Corvette chassis and a supercharged version of GM’s 6.0 liter LS2 V8 sitting up front. In stock form, that engine makes a stout 369 HP. With the chrome-plated Roots-type blower sitting on top? A tire-incinerating 644 HP, sent to the rear wheels via a 4-speed automatic; a stick shift would disrupt the obsessively curved lines of the minimalist cockpit.
While you might accuse me of cheating on this one, given that the world was fortunate enough to see an RWD sports coupe from Hyundai that looked just like this one, minus one or two obligatory concept-car flourishes. However, the reason why this Genesis Coupe is on this list sits under the vented carbon fiber hood. Upon its reveal at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show, the concept was powered by the automaker’s naturally aspirated 4.6-liter dual overhead cam V8, plucked straight from the nose of the Genesis luxury sedan. Dubbed ‘Tau’ this engine was actually the first V8 that South Korea's automakers had ever produced, cranking out a very respectable 385 HP and 333 lb-ft of torque.
However, when the production-ready Genesis Coupe rolled onto dealership lots in 2008, pitched as a competitor to the S197-chassis Ford Mustang, buyers were stuck choosing between a turbocharged 2.0 liter inline four and a naturally-aspirated 3.8 liter V6, with the former producing 210 HP and the latter making a healthier 310 HP. Hyundai seemed content to keep teasing enthusiasts, as modified versions of the car powered by the Tau V8 showed up at both the 2009 and 2011 SEMA shows in Las Vegas.
This wasn’t the first vehicle to wear the Banshee name, as the badge had been used on three previous prototypes, the first built way back in 1966. The 1988 model is undoubtedly the most famous, however, with appearances in Back to the Future: Part II as well as the 1993 Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes action classic Demolition Man, not to mention an (unlicensed) appearance in Need for Speed 2 SE. It’s not really hard to see why it carried so much weight in pop culture: the arrow-shaped fiberglass body looked, and still does, resemble a private spaceship from the 23rd century.
That pointy profile (meant to resemble an enlarged version of the Pontiac badge) and those partially-enclosed rear wheel arches might make it seem a little too futuristic to be considered a muscle car, but rest assured, this thing deserves a seat at the table, right up next to its block-shaped brethren. Under that matte-black hood was a fuel-injected, single overhead cam V8, with a solid, rather than shocking, 230 HP output. Wile the radically-styled Banshee never made production, some of its styling cues found their way onto the fourth-generation Firebird.
While I’m actually quite partial to the Holden Monaro-based 2001 Pontiac GTO and would very much like to have one in my driveway, I can’t help but feel slightly embarrassed that GM gave the leftovers of an entirely Australian effort the same badge as the granddaddy of the muscle car breed. The 1965 GTO is a national icon, practically Captain America on wheels! If there’s one car that should be 100 percent American-designed and built, it should be the GTO. That sense of second-hand shame is only intensified when you realise that Pontiac did, in fact, design a GTO successor, one that incorporated many of the original car’s signature design cues, including its "Coke bottle" profile ( defined by its kicked-up rear haunches and pinched middle), split front grille, and triangular taillight shape from the 1966 model year.
Alas, at its reveal at the 1999 North American International Auto Show, the concept was meant to serve as a humble design study, and as such, Pontiac made the tremendously bad call of not fitting an engine. Look, I’m not going to deny the fact that the GTO looked, *ahem* challenging when viewed from certain angles, but there’s no denying the fact that there were the makings of greatness here, especially if the production model softened some of those blocky edges and got rid of those silly metal side strakes. Of course, with the company that pioneered the muscle car being dead and gone, I suppose we’ll never find out.
The French aren’t really known for their muscle cars. If you stepped back into the 1960s' genesis for the segment in the US, you’d be out of luck trying to find that brand of fuel-combusting fury in the land of baguettes and Bordeaux. You want a luxury car? Step this right this way, we’ll put you behind the wheel of a hydropneumatic-damped Citroën DS. What about a mechanically bulletproof sedan that can traverse the African continent? Ben oui monsieur, how about a Peugeot 504?
Meanwhile, today, the country’s mainstream automaker’s best-known high-performance exports are their hot-hatches, with badges like Renault Sport and GTi carrying serious weight in enthusiast circles. VFX company Tronatic, perceiving that gaping hole in their country’s automotive heritage, decided to design a vehicle that’s both instantly recognizable as a muscle car, but also quintessentially French. As such, the so-called Eveira has the proportions of a modern example of the muscle car breed, with a long hood, extended dash-to-axle ratio, and short rear deck, but with a raffish fastback greenhouse befitting of a European grand-tourer. Added futuristic detailing comes in the form of the two-tone bodywork and full-width headlight and taillight treatment. Being nothing more than a highly-detailed 3D render, Tronatic didn’t see fit to include any mechanical details, so we can only speculate as to what should be powering the car.
The original BMW 2002 Turbo was a pocket-size Rottweiler of a car, a deeply Bavarian reinterpretation of a 1960s muscle car with enormous bolt-on fender flares, ridiculous ‘TURBO’ decals, and a 170 HP inline-four underhood. That was a shedload back in 1973, and with a featherweight 2,300ish lbs to move around, the OG 2002 Turbo could still be considered brisk today. Thankfully, when BMW decided to honor the bite-sized bruiser for the 50th anniversary of the (regular) 2002, they didn’t phone it in with a 3-Series covered in stripes and marketing pap.
The 2016 BMW 2002 Hommage concept was built on the same bones as the already excellent M2, which means a 365 HP straight-six engine and a chassis and suspension that Car and Driver praised for delivering “heroic handling.”
Of course, this wasn’t meant to be an exercise in mechanical revolution, as most of the effort went into shaping the retro-futuristic bodywork. It’s full of cheeky details that reference not only the 1973 Turbo, but also several racing cars from BMW’s illustrious racing history.
Check out the squared-off yellow tinted headlights, flanked by massive air intakes that artfully blend into the chunky fender flares. Or maybe the carbon fiber accent line running down the length of the car, a 21st century version of the chrome strip that adorned the flanks of the original vehicle. My favorite styling feature is the reversed ‘Turbo’ decal on the front bumper, which would be flipped the correct way when the driver in the car ahead of you would look at their rear-view mirror.
Sources: roadandtrack.com, supercars.net, caranddriver.com, oldconceptcars.com