The term “performance car” suggests a fairly large church these days. On the one hand, you have in this description, classic sports cars that exist for their athleticism and track smarts, as well as Grand Tourers that tend to exhibit plenty of pace as well as long legs for covering great distances. .
There’s also the hot-hatch which basically equates to a big engine in a small car, and then there’s the supercar and even the hypercar, which is reserved for absolute high-end performance products from premium brands.
And somewhere in that mix is the car known as a muscle car. But what is a muscle car?
Learn more about muscle cars
Well, it’s nearly impossible to be specific, but generally speaking, a muscle car is a mainstream passenger vehicle with an incredibly powerful factory-fitted engine, not to mention a (usually) pretty loud presentation.
If ever a car came out of a gym locker room, after whipping nerdy dudes, it would be the muscle car. It doesn’t have to be an old car, but since the early days of touring car racing gave rise to the concept, many muscle cars are, indeed, cars of a certain age.
While the United States is the birthplace of the muscle car, in Australia muscle cars have also rung the right bells with local manufacturers producing many models over the decades that fit the muscle car definition perfectly.
Some started out as homologation cars for local touring car racing, others were a simple response to a market looking for something other than everyday transportation.
That said, a good muscle car is a car that can perform normal tasks, but by the time you add the big engine, graphics and attitude, it also offers so much more.
The first Australian muscle cars began to appear when the annual Bathurst Touring Car Race was still dedicated to production cars. In order to qualify to compete in the Great Race, manufacturers had to build a minimum number of the specific model they intended to race.
Called the homologation process, this is when local cars started pushing big V8 engines, wider wheels, bigger brakes, better transmissions and even details like huge fuel tanks. fuel tank and front bucket seats. Not to mention the stickers and trim designed to let people know what you got.
The big three local manufacturers (Ford, Holden and Chrysler) all had a fairly good grasp of the muscle car concept. Ford’s GT Falcons were a prime example, Holden’s Monaro and Torana were others.
And while Chrysler’s original muscle car, the Pacer, was a bit as popular (although it’s hugely successful now) by the time the brand tinkered with the Charger, the muscle car scene was getting pretty crowded.
These days, Australian muscle cars of all shapes and sizes are worth a lot of money and specialist brokers and retailers are now focusing solely on muscle car sales.
And the Australia-wide cult of muscle cars is a genuine thing. The cars are considered serious collector cars and prices have not only skyrocketed, but they have brought with them more prosaic models.
For example, a Ford Falcon Phase 3 GT-HO that cost around $5,000 back then might cost you a million dollars today. If you can find one (homologation rules at the time meant that Ford only built 300).
It’s a similar story with an older (1968 to 1971) Holden Monaro GTS, and even the latest Torana SL/R 5000 and A9X models fetch huge prices in the hundreds of thousands.
And the Valiant Charger? Cheaper but still an extremely expensive toy if you can find an E38 or E49 Bathurst version with the legendary Weber triple carbs.
It might seem strange in a country that has slavishly followed American car trends over the years, but it’s now a fact that an American muscle car is probably a cheaper alternative to a local car.
Back when the Australian dollar was worth more than an American dollar, importers flooded the market here with American muscle cars brought in by container.
As a result, there are now Ford Torinos and Mustangs, Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros, Pontiac Firebirds and Plymouth Dusters and Dodge Darts at prices that are a fraction of an Australian muscle car of the same era and in the same state.
Even more surprising are the similarities that many homegrown heroes share with the infernals of the American market.
But since these are Australian muscle cars, what are the Holy Grail models?
Holden Torana SL/R 5000
Any Torana designed to win Bathurst is a great example of a local muscle car. The later Toranas were mid-size cars with oversized V8 engines and as such fit the formula perfectly.
An older model LC or LJ GTR XU-1 with its six-cylinder engine (and the Peter Brock connection) is another great alternative, while the LX Hatchback with the A9X performance option represents the ultimate Torana.
Years: 1969 to 1977
Benefits: Robust engineering, great mythology
The inconvenients: Quite hard, expensive considering the actual content
Price: $100,000 to $700,000
Ford Falcon GT
GT Falcons fall into two categories; the earliest, square-shaped, and the newest, mid-70s ones. But either is a good catch in GT form, even if it’s the earliest with their Bathurst history that pays off the big bucks dollars.
Either way, you’re buying a big, beefy V8 engine and a lot of what passed for the local style. And you can park it at any car show in the country and be proud.
A Phase 3 GT-HO remains Peak Muscle in this country and about as collectible as a local car will ever get. As a poster child for Australia’s native muscle car, the Phase 3 can’t be beat.
Years: 1967 to 1975
Benefits: Terrific V8 engines, Bathurst heritage in spades
The inconvenients: Collectors have forced prices into the stratosphere, many are now museum pieces
Price: $150,000 to $1,000,000
The short-wheelbase version of Chrysler’s Australian family car has become a legend thanks to pop culture and sheer beauty. Although it never won Bathurst, the Charger is revered here and especially in New Zealand.
Strangely, the V8 version was not the hero model; this was reserved for the straight-six variants, especially those with the Weber triple carburettors and wild colors and stripes. The E38 and E49 are the true collector’s items, but any Charger is now rare and tough enough to make the muscle car cut.
Years: 1971 to 1977
Benefits: Super strong mechanically, shiny appearance
The inconvenients: Body rust can be a problem, trim is now becoming hard to find
Price: $30,000 to $500,000
There are three distinct Monaro families, the very first, the mid-70s models, and the 21st century version.
Early cars are now rare and expensive but great to look at. V8 versions in GTS version are the price. The mid-’70s cars were less harsh, but still good looking, and were even available as four-doors for fast families (although a GTS badge replaced the Monaro tag).
The third generation was based on the Commodore and is a modern and very liveable car with a panoramic look and the Monaro badge for the congratulations.
Years: 1968 to 2005
Benefits: The first cars are hard as nails, the last cars are very livable
The inconvenients: Mid-70s Monaros lost some venom, hard-to-find rare parts
Price: $35,000 to $750,000
Ford Escort RS2000
This one might seem like an odd choice because it was a small, inexpensive four-cylinder car. But the reality is that before the hot-hatch, cars like the RS2000 were the way to go fast in a compact package. Manufactured here at Ford’s Sydney plant, the RS2000 was an instant hit.
These are easy to work with and easy to own and there was even an Australia-only four-door model. They have a huge following now and are a global phenomenon, not just a local one. Huge fun to drive.
Years: 1979 to 1980
Benefits: Cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, high street credibility
The inconvenients: Hard to find on sale now, raw rear suspension
Price: $25,000 to $60,000