Tuner cars are nothing new. Back in the ’60s, they were called third-party muscle cars, modified by the dealership or company to increase performance over what the factory offered. Some of them took it a step further and added exclusive wheels, body parts, or custom paint. They built what manufacturers didn’t offer, and a number of legends came out of that work.
Today, Yenko and Baldwin-Motion Chevys, Royal Oak Pontiacs, and Mustang Stallions and Shelby cars are some of the most sought-after vehicles in the classic muscle car market. Here’s a look at some of the fastest and most well-known classic tuners.
It doesn’t really get much bigger than this. From numerous race wins in the ’60s to Nicolas Cage drooling over one in “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” the GT500 is arguably the best-known tuner car of all time. Carroll Shelby knew the Ford Mustang could be more than a “secretary’s car” and totally changed its attitude by reworking the entire vehicle, including pulling the pedestrian 289ci V8 in favor of a 428ci. More than just turning up the horsepower knob, Shelby added a race-worthy suspension built from his Le Mans days (Shelby had been on the GT40 team), so it could tear up the corners as well as the drag strip. Stripes and custom parts helped the visual punch, contributing to the legend and making the GT500 one of today’s most expensive muscle cars.
Baldwin-Motion Phase III Camaro
The Camaro was designed to fight the Mustang, so building a competitor to the GT500 was a natural conclusion. The Baldwin Chevrolet dealership teamed with a nearby speedshop, Motion Performance, to create a limited run of super-muscle cars. Baldwin-Motion would work on nearly anything, but it was famous for the Phase III Camaro (no, there wasn’t a phase I or II). This beast packed a 427 that had been heavily massaged with race-worthy parts. Advertising listed it as 500 horsepower and “unreal” torque. That’s not an exaggeration, as it could run 11.5 in the quarter mile. With optional bulging hoods, side pipes, and outrageous paint colors, these cars weren’t subtle, but they were fast.
Yenko SC427 Nova
Don Yenko’s dealership and performance shop had been building hot versions of the Camaro and Corvair for years by 1969. That experience allowed him to get the new Nova right the first time around. Pulling the top-of-the-line 427ci V8 from the big Chevelle SS, Yenko stuffed it, along with a four-speed manual, into the tiny Nova, making a hilariously fun and dangerous car. Four-hundred-and-fifty horsepower was good for 11 seconds in the quarter on slicks, and even zero-to-60 passed in just 5.1 seconds. It would be 30 years before the factory Camaro could do it that quickly, and for the ’60s it was very impressive. Yenko later reflected in Road & Track that the SC427 Nova was “barely legal at best” and was probably too dangerous for the street.
Royal Bobcat GTO
GM’s excitement division arguably created the muscle car in 1964, but by 1968, the 400ci-powered GTO was fading into the rearview. Mega-dealership Royal Pontiac decided to change things by swapping in a 428ci V8 with a fistful of upgrades. Loaded up with ram air and steeper gear ratios, the rebadged Bobcats were capable of daily driving but were a handful at the limit. Car and Driver called them dangerous in the wrong hands, as they were civil enough for grandma around town but just a gas pedal away from supercar firepower. Bobcats were good for 13-flat in the quarter, if you had tires that could grip all that torque. On regular street tires, they were good at turning rubber into smoke.
Hurst/Spaulding Dart GTS 440
The Dart was an attractive but mild-looking compact, and it had acceptable performance with its 340ci V8. The late ’60s demanded more speed, so legendary aftermarket performance company Hurst and Chicago dealership Mr. Norm’s Grand Spaulding worked together to stuff Chrysler’s 440ci mountain motor in the compact Dart. Conservatively rated at 375 hp and 480 lb/ft, the repowered Dart weighed 3,600 pounds. The result was shenanigans, as the Dart GTS 440 was severely nose heavy, and lacked power steering or a warranty. It didn’t matter, though, as the overpowered compact could run low 13s in the quarter mile, beating Corvettes for half the price.
These tuned classics were performance bargains in their day but now sell for serious cash. Ever seen one at a car show or the strip? Let us know your favorite in the comments below.