There isn’t a car guy on the planet who hasn’t heard of at Pontiac GTO, Shelby Mustang or Hemi Charger because cars like that definitely got the press.
They earned it because they backed up their reputations on the street where alleged muscle really gets sorted out.
Despite the overwhelming notoriety of these Detroit icons, there were other cars that flew under the radar—they were the stealth bombers of their era.
The first example is the Hudson Hornet because it was a great example of early 50s muscle. Cadillac, Lincoln, Buick and Chrysler all had V8s that made serious horsepower by early 1950s standards but the Hudson Hornet was a major player at the track and on the street.
Hornets ran straight sixes but they were high-compression and they were monsters with the Twin-H carb option so these Hudsons were formidable cars.
They looked like aerodynamic bath tubs on wheels so they handled well enough to dominate NASCAR in the early 50s. Six-banger or not a Hudson Hornet was definitely a stealth form of an early muscle car.
The second example is the ’57-8 Studebaker Golden Hawk. These Hawks were unsung heroes on the street thanks to their supercharged 289 cubic inch V-8s under the hood.
The heavy breather supercharger gave these finned Studes a very solid power to weight ratio so unsuspecting competitors saw their taillights more often than not.
They were in the high 8-second (0 to 60) range and topped out at over 122 miles per hour so these Golden Hawks were in the upper-end performance range in 1957.
The third example is a big Dodge. C-body Mopars aren’t spoken about with the same reverence as their cousins, the Road Runners and the Challengers but the 1969-70 Dodge Polara 440 Police Interceptors were definitely playing in the same league.
These cars were engineered from the factory to be high-speed, high-performance police cars so the 440 under the hood of Dad’s ’69 Dodge wagon was a lot milder.
They wound out to the point of nudging 150 miles per hour so if you had a GTO and expected to lose a cop driving a ’69 Polara your trip to jail was going to be mercifully quick.
The fourth example is a Gremlin. The AMC Gremlin was often the punchline to a joke back in the 70s because of their unusual lines.
Gremlins were built to be economy cars to take on the Japanese invasion from Toyota, Datsun and Honda but they also had a V-8 option.
It was typically the 304 cubic inch V-8 but AMC upped the game with the Gremlin 401-XR. This was a very limited edition version of the Gremlin and it took the 2600-pound car to 13-second (or better) ¼ mile status. That was Warp 7 speed in the mid-70s.
The fifth and final example is the Cosworth Vega. The Vega was another disposable econo-box designed to fight the sub-compact battle in the early 70s. They weren’t remarkable cars but the Cosworth option took the little Chevy to much higher (more respectable) levels on the street.
They could crack the 8-second 0-60 barrier in the mid-70s so that number automatically put Cosworth Vegas at the top of the heap during the disco era. They’re far and away the most collectible Vega you can find because they set the table for new-tech innovations in an era when old tech had the life choked out of it by smog cops.
Five cars with five different stories that you’ve probably never thought were bona fide street warriors.
By: Jerry Sutherland
Jerry Sutherland is a veteran automotive writer with a primary focus on the collector car hobby. His work has been published in many outlets and publications, including the National Post, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Sun and The Truth About Cars. He is also a regular contributor to Auto Roundup Publications.
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