We have all heard the raucous glory of the classic domestic muscle car - the raw, thunderous roar of an old late-60s brute preparing to charge. These cars not only defined an era but more than one generation of car people, putting power and personality above practicality and handling, and being adored for it.
There are too many greats of the era to name, but a very short list would include the class-defining Ford Mustang, super-speedway destroying Dodge Daytona, the iconic Dodge Charger, and the fast Chevelle SS variant of the classic Chevrolet Malibu.
But as the fuel crisis hit, insurance costs climbed, and federal legislation on emissions loomed, all of these cars would fade away. Because even though the Mustang, Daytona, Charger, and Malibu nameplates continued, the cars they adorned were not even empty husks of what had come before. The engines were choked and often far smaller than before, the styling was at best plastered over by new safety regulations and at worst was warped into a lackluster version of what had come before.
In some ways, this trend only worsened into the 80s, with cars that weren’t as bad, but just incredibly boring. Styling that had been beautiful, that had become bad looking, was now just a series of cardboard boxes taped together. As the 90s and 2000s rolled around things have improved dramatically, but the big three still occasionally made some bad muscle cars. Enter the worst of the bunch.
25 1974 Ford Torino
Unfortunately, having a snappy set of TV show appearances does not make for a good muscle car. It certainly doesn’t hurt, especially in the case of the good old early 70s Dodge Charger, but first, a good muscle car needs to be good without special effects and slick editing.
The post-1974 Torino was not a good muscle car, according to Motor Trend. Similar to all other former muscle cars of the era, its engine was choked with emission equipment, its styling stunted by regulations and bad taste, and even its handling was not helped by extra weight.
24 AMC Pacer
One look at this car and you know why it ended up on this list. It appears every design decision made on the outside of this car was a bad one, and they only ever got worse as the car gained variants and facelifts.
A truly bad bloated fishbowl look, less than flattering from the front and even worse from the rear.
The look was far from the car’s only problem, however, as it too was incredibly heavy for what it was, while at the same time being underpowered and gas guzzling, according to Motor Trend.
23 AMC Rambler
AMC was a strange amalgamation of companies, producing a strange amalgamation of cars. These days, like most quirky things, AMC has a strong and devoted cult following who point out the brand’s nascent innovations and gloss over the dramatic lapses in quality that put the now-defunct car-maker out of business in the first place, according to Hot Rod.
Among the strangeness of the AMC lineup is the Rambler, something known as a doe-eyed old person car back in the day. AMC saw the muscle car craze and decided to join in, by taking their grandma car and building into a factory racer. What followed was the comedy of a full-on racing effort that produced very few results.
22 Ford Pinto
It wouldn't be great sitting at a light and suddenly explode when rear-ended... But that’s what the early Pintos did. Ford knew this, of course, and sold them anyway, figuring it was cheaper to pay off victims than fix the problem.
Obviously, this blew back on them hard and made the little econoboxes with a hint of an underpowered attempt at V8 muscle utterly unsellable.
These days, the few Pintos left on the road have been fixed under recall. They still manage to be bad cars though.
21 Plymouth Prowler
The nineties were a strange time for the US auto industry. We were pulling out of what had been at least a decade and a half slump, slowly producing better and better machines that could not only meet emissions guidelines but also thunder down a racetrack. But some of the old laziness and lack of agency remained, which in one case created one of the strangest attempted muscle cars ever made.
Chrysler Corporation was on a throwback kick and had managed to get Plymouth a retro futuristically styled hotrod - with a minivan engine. This would be fine, but the Prowler was also quite a heavy car, keeping it slow and wallowy, according to Motor Trend.
20 Dodge Challenger X
The Challenger X is an awesome name, and as most awesome names go, it is attached to an absolutely bad car. A slow and bad looking subcompact built by Mitsubishi, that Dodge attempted to pawn off as a captive import, according to Motor Trend.
Equipped with two different non-turbo 4G inline four Mitsubishi engines that at most provided an entire 105 horsepower, the Challenger X was barely able to accelerate uphill even though it was lightweight.
Slapping the Hemi brand name on the little 2.6-liter engine didn’t help, with reputation or performance. This is not a Challenger.
19 Dodge Dart (Late 70s)
Called the Aspen in the States, this dreary lump of steel and iron was branded the Dart in some markets. These days most know the good Dodge Dart from Forza, a car that was never really intended to be a muscle car when it was built, but became one of the greats as people got to modifying them, often as sleepers.
It says a lot that a grandma car of the 60s looked as hardcore as a late 60s Dodge Dart. But the Aspen is not that Dart - even from a 5.9-liter engine it only made 170 horsepower, according to Motor Trend.
18 Dodge Charger (Late 70s)
From 1975 onward, the Charger started falling fast. One of the greatest muscle cars of all time faded immediately after the oil crisis, as Dodge tried to switch the car from being a performance vehicle into a luxury barge.
One would think a 70s domestic automaker would be good at building that kind of car, but heavy barges, in general, were a decade too late, and the new Charger faded quickly, according to Hot Rod.
What followed after the late 70s Chargers were even further from the cars that popularized the name.
17 Chevy Corvette (early C4)
Earlier in the domestic auto industry’s history, just when the first pinpricks of light were beginning to be visible at the end of the long tunnel of the 70s and 80s, even those tiny bits of light had a lot of dark in them.
After decades of languishing in obsolescence, the Corvette was revived to great fanfare. Better looking and better performing than the late C3 generation car it replaced, it sold quite well, according to Road and Track. But all that fanfare masked problems, like issues with the crossfire fuel injection system and performance that while better than the outgoing 'Vette, was still bad.
16 Chevy Corvette (early C1)
The Corvette was an instant success, but not in the way people often think. The styling was the success, and indeed the thing people bought the car for, even before a running example even existed, according to Motor Trend.
They saw the concept and while at the auto show dropped a down payment down on a pre-order.
The performance was a ways away, and the first Corvettes, while light for their size, were nothing more than pieces of machinery. Not until the V8s were introduced did the Corvette really take off, making the car not just art, but art at speed.
15 Ford Mustang II
The Mustang changed the world when it debuted midway through 1964. The world’s largest car market was turned entirely upside down practically overnight, all because of a sporty little coupe that was just plain cool, according to Motor Trend. Not only did the Mustang cause a sensation on its own, but it created an entire segment named after it- the pony cars.
These were emulated from the British Capri to the Celica. But when the muscle car died in 1973, so did the Mustang. Replaced with a bad and slow automotive mess.
14 Dodge Daytona (G platform)
The Daytona was a world-beating homologation racecar, something that can be mentioned in the same breath as the Audi Quattro, Nissan GT-R, and CLK-GTR.
Its huge rear wing and pointy nose allowed it to slice through the air and the competition, dominating across the NASCAR speedways.
But all it took was one oil crisis for that Daytona to become a front wheel drive econobox, according to Road and Track. Even with a turbocharged engine, it made way less than half the horsepower, despite being lighter it was way slower.
13 AMC Gremlin
Domestic automakers were late to the compact game, which would have been fine if they got good at it. They didn’t. Their early attempts are among the worst, though that said, at least they are rear wheel drive, according to Hot Rod.
But despite being compacts they had egregiously efficient engines that sucked down gas while simultaneously making no power whatsoever. They were lighter than other cars available at the time, so many had the muscle car treatment applied with engine swaps. But even these remained bad looking.
12 Dodge Charger (LX Platform)
When the mid-2000s rolled around, the Big Three were back, taking on the world and holding their own, according to Road and Track. But that doesn’t mean every step they made was a good one, and the truth is actually quite different.
These days the updated Charger remains a strong seller despite seemingly every other sedan evaporating into thin air.
There is something to be said for style, after all. But when first released, the Charger really only had style. Prone to drivetrain problems, and from very high weight inherited from its big-boned platform, the early 2000 Chargers are cars to be avoided.
11 AMC Spirit AMX
AMC was nothing if not plucky, though perhaps unintelligent is a better term. Long after the writing was on the wall about their company’s eventual fate, its engineers continued trying to resuscitate the ailing and aging beast of a corporation, according to Hot Rod.
Perhaps their last, best hope was the Spirit AMX. Based on the lackluster compact rear-drive domestic cars of the decade before, the 80s AMX was made to take the few scraps of resources AMC had left and build something decent. But decent wasn’t good enough, as the Foxbody debuted the same year, dooming the AMX to obscurity thanks to its inferior quality and performance.
10 AMC Javelin
The Javelin was a really poorly built car, perhaps even for the era it was made in. It was also awkwardly styled, with curves protruding from straight and flat lines without much melding of the two styles on what was still a largely boxy car.
Their muscle cars were soundly outperformed by their rivals, leaving those who did like the styling of the weird Javelins to wallow in defeat and excuses.
While never a good competitor in its era, when looked at without competition it doesn’t seem so bad, according to Hot Rod. But who builds a car for a participation prize?
9 AMC Matador
AMC, strange as it was, had a model lineup that was rather hard to wrap one’s head around, using the same name for very different vehicles, according to Motor Trend. While the late Matador coupe and sedan might have been on the same platform, one was the kind of conservative and one you would find on a police car, while the other was an extreme fastback coupe with headlights that made it look permanently surprised.
Earlier in the model’s history, it had a dedicated muscle car variant that is now almost lost to history alongside “The Machine”- but this like the other AMC muscle cars was outgunned.
8 Ford Probe
The photo above is obviously not of a muscle car, but the Probe was originally going to be Ford’s next-generation Mustang, according to Motor Trend.
The Mustang was very nearly turned into a front wheel drive econobox powered by a less than buff V6, at best.
While the Probe taken by itself is far from the worst car one could dream up, taking it as a muscle car is not even a joke. But Ford would have gone there, if not for a massive outcry from the Mustang crowd.
7 Ford Mustang (Early SN95)
Many Mustang guys, at least the most hardcore, still to this day say the last Mustang was built in 1993. To them, the Mustang was only a Mustang in its raw form, with the original raucous engine and simple analog components, without a computer in sight.
And, of course, without the lines that can be associated with 90s cars from Japan, the Mustang aficionados did when they saw the new Mustang for the new millennium. And while the SN95 would eventually improve, it was true that the original Modular 4.6 engine-equipped cars were far from good muscle cars, according to Hot Rod.
6 Ford Thunderbird (90s)
Back in its heyday, the Ford Thunderbird was as cool as its name was. Sleek and rocket-like, the personal luxury car was not just a decent grand touring machine, but a fashion statement the equal of anything else in the world, according to Motor Trend.
Alas, that status was not to last.
By the 90s the Thunderbird had become a symbol of the “malaise” era, when domestic automakers neglected to care about their products, and it showed. Reduced to a front wheel drive waste of space with no oomph and no style, the Thunderbird lost all its cool.
5 Chevy Impala (2000s)
The Impala of the 2000s is a car we frequently see on the road to this day and are unfazed by. It is the definition of a traffic car, something that not only blends into the crowd but is the crowd. This wasn't always the case.
The earlier Impala, the top of the line full-size Chevy, was a work of art. Not only does every corner of culture in the States adore the 1964 Impala, but the other generations before and after it as well, according to Hot Rod.
4 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera
The Cutlass was a proper piece of muscle car kit in the 60s, something capable of going toe to toe with the big guns and coming away on top. Even through the 80s dark ages the Cutlass managed to remain rear drive and modifiable, easily able to be built into a highway terror or dragstrip demon, according to Hot Rod.
But the Cutlass lived a double life. The rear drive car was the Cutlass Supreme - but the Ciera version was just a pile of front wheel drive depression like the rest of the industry.
3 Oldsmobile Toronado
Olds pioneered front wheel drive in the States, which is something some roll their eyes at and others commend as an important part of history.
The ride was the only 60s muscle car that was front wheel drive, and it had strange styling to go along with the strange layout, according to Motor Trend.
But being different isn’t the same as being good, and the Toronado's only real claim to fame was its strange looks. Besides that, it was a muscle car that handled even worse than the average lead sled.
2 Chrysler 300M
Chrysler had utterly destroyed their image over the course of the late 70s and 80s dark ages in the US auto industry and was desperately trying to claw back some recognition as the 90s were becoming the 2000s.
Their answer to this was to produce vehicles on par with their supposed European rivals, who at the time so far superior to them they couldn’t even be compared, according to Top Gear. The car this created was a weird blend of good and bad, summed up as one big meh. All thanks to unrealistic ambitions on a shoestring budget.
1 Oldsmobile Cutlass (1978-1988)
The worst casualties of the great muscle car death of 1973-1974 were the generation of cars built immediately after the product cycle that had started from 1975 to 1979.
These were not only cars built by grossly inefficient and low-quality car-makers, but also on a tight budget and in a massive rush, according to Motor Trend.
An example of these bad automobiles is the Cutlass of 1978, which despite being a thousand pounds lighter than the outgoing car, was still slower and far and away worse looking.
Sources: Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Top Gear, & Road and Track