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20 non-US muscle cars
When it comes to simple motoring pleasures the USA stands peerless.
There’s something wholly refreshing about the no-nonsense performance cars America began building from the 1960s onwards.
When the main goal was to offer affordable cars that went fast and made a sound like a volcano erupting, what was there not to love? Though the US wasn’t the only nation to walk the muscle-car path.
Some of the best performance cars from around the world have at least been influenced by the muscle-car movement.
With almost as many definitions of a muscle car as there are examples of them, what they all seem to have in common is V8 power.
Whether it has four doors or two, it is a super saloon or a GT, here are some of the best examples – in chronological order – of car manufacturers learning the right lessons from the ‘land of the free’.
1. 1965 Iso Grifo
Our first ‘muscle car’ is actually an Italian Grand Tourer, about as far removed from blue-collar Detroit as it’s possible to get, though if US car fans can call a Buick Riviera a muscle car, then surely, we can have the Iso Grifo?
Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, during his time at Bertone, the Grifo’s stunning and curvaceous lines covered the mechanical work of master engineer Giotto Bizzarrini.
What put the muscle into the Iso Grifo was a series of American V8s, first a Chevrolet small-block 327cu in (5.4-litre) with 295bhp, later progressing to a 454cu in (7.4-litre) unit, then finally a Ford Boss 351 with 330bhp.
2. 1965 Opel Diplomat Coupé 327
Oft-overlooked Opel has consistently created some of the coolest German cars. Probably the most obviously US-inspired of its fare was the three-door, exclusively V8-powered, Karmann-built Diplomat Coupé.
The engine in question was a small-block Chevrolet 327cu in (5.4-litre) unit, though it didn’t come cheap, retailing for DM25,500, or approximately as much as seven Volkswagen Beetles.
American influence was unsurprising, considering GM had been paymasters at Opel since 1929. The Diplomat Coupé was part of Rüsselsheim’s upwardly-mobile KAD series (Kapitan, Admiral and Diplomat), designed to take on BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
3. 1966 Jensen Interceptor
There was something of a method to classic European muscle cars in the 1970s: the best tended to sport Italian-designed bodies with American power.
The Jensen Interceptor was arguably one of the greatest expressions of that formula. Handsome yet powerful styling came courtesy of Carrozzeria Touring, a first for West Bromwich-based Jensen, whose previous models had all been penned in-house.
Early Interceptors were built by Vignale in Italy and came with either 6.3- or 7.2-litre Chrysler V8 power.
The real driver’s Interceptor was one of the 23 manual-transmission examples; the majority of the 6974 Interceptors shifted ratios via a Chrysler three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.
4. 1969 Aston Martin DBS V8
The famous Aston Martin badge isn’t perhaps one you’d instantly associate with motoring muscle, rather it is a marque associated with more refined grand touring.
That said, a few models stand apart, one of which boasts unashamedly American styling and a roaring eight-cylinder soundtrack.
William Towns led the styling at Newport Pagnell in the late 1960s, after time at Rootes and Rover. He pipped Touring of Milan to the post with his design for 1966’s DBS; granting him a nod to continue with the design of its V8 sibling.
If you hadn’t seen the badge, you could have been forgiven for thinking those rippling haunches and bulging bonnet belonged to something from Detroit.
Incidentally, those neat rear lights were lifted from Town’s former colleagues at Rootes – they were donated from the Hillman Hunter.
5. 1970 Ford Capri Perana
South Africa is a nation, like Australia and the US, that’s wedded to the V8 engine.
One of the many spicier versions of more pedestrian models to come from South Africa was a V8 version of Ford’s humble pony car, the Capri.
Given a suitably brutal new name, the eight-cylinder Capri Perana thundered out of Basil Green Motors in Johannesburg to the tune of a 5-litre Ford ‘Windsor’ V8.
What’s even more amazing is that this wasn’t just some backyard chop-shop job, the Perana was officially sanctioned by Ford SA and could be ordered from dealerships. It even came with a factory warranty.
6. 1972 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9
We’ve long since come to associate Mercedes-Benz, and its AMG tuning partner, with muscle cars, yet that hasn’t always been the case.
For even longer, the brand stood for luxury, refinement and impeccable build quality. That all changed in 1967 with the arrival of the 247bhp W109 300SEL 6.3, followed in 1975 by the truly legendary 116-series 450SEL 6.9.
The flagship in the 116 line-up had all the Rolls-Royce-beating qualities expected of a model that challenged for the title of ‘best car in the world’.
It was exquisitely well made, beautifully appointed and had prodigious thirst for petrol; especially when the driver exploited the vast power reserves of its 282bhp 6834cc V8.
It was the fastest production saloon of its day and ushered in all the big bruiser Benzes to come.
7. 1972 Vauxhall Firenza Can-Am
We are heading back to South Africa with this one because, alongside the aforementioned Ford Capri Perana, GM gave the green light its own two-door V8, based on the humble Vauxhall Viva.
Just 106 Chevrolet Firenza Can-Ams were made to satisfy homologation regulations.
Only six of these were ever intended for competition, though plenty more have since found their way onto rally stages and racing circuits.
With good reason, too, because a 302cu in (5-litre) V8 in an 1100kg two-door Viva coupé body made for quite the combination.
8. 1973 MGB GT V8
Effectively showing the world how not to convert an MGB, the 1967 MGC attempted to up the B’s thrust. Yes, there was more power, but it hurt the purity of the model’s balance.
It was down to talented engineer and racing driver Ken Costello to show BL how it was done.
Costello won the British Saloon Car Championship in 1967, so knew a thing or two about building and setting up a car.
When he turned his attention to the MGB’s engine bay, there was only one motor he saw in his mind’s eye.
His Rover-V8-converted Bs were so good, BL made its own copy and put it on sale from 1973. Sadly, the fuel crisis that followed meant only 2591 were sold.
9. 1976 Rover SD1
Sticking with the Rover V8 theme, there’s another British bruiser with old Buick power: the SD1.
Rover and muscle rarely go together, but in the late 1970s and ’80s, the handsome SD1 saloon carried on the tradition of the P5 and P6, by gaining V8 power and, with it, a successful circuit-racing career.
That career included the 1984 British Saloon Car Championship for Andy Rouse, victories in the ’85 European Touring Car Championship for Win Percy and Tom Walkinshaw, plus Steve Soper and René Metge took top honours in the 1983 RAC Tourist Trophy.
In race trim, the 3.5-litre V8 had around 340bhp.
10. 1985 Mercedes-Benz 560SEC
The second Mercedes-Benz S-Class on our list, this time in coupé form, the 560SEC represents a high-water mark for the brand, with build quality that – since its demise in 1991 – has been consigned to history.
The follow-up might have had a V12, but it still never came close to matching the talents of its predecessor.
Powered by a 5.5-litre, 268bhp version of the M117 V8 when launched, this massive coupé could accelerate to 60mph in just 6.9 secs from rest and go on to almost 150mph – and from September 1987, its output rose to 296bhp.
11. 1992 Aston Martin Virage 6.3
Aston Martin in the early 1990s was just recovering from being in a fairly perilous place.
The new Vantage was a crucial model for the Newport Pagnell firm, which was welcoming a fresh cash injection from new (ish) owners Ford. Despite this, its first new model for a generation was put together on a shoestring budget.
Though the new Virage was already a serious performer, Aston Martin took it upon itself to offer a further upgrade.
The Virage 6.3 option saw Aston’s racing engine from the AMR1 dropped into the big coupé, gifting it 456-500bhp and 175mph performance.
12. 1996 Audi S8 (D2)
Ronin – need we say more? One of director John Frankenheimer’s last films, 1998’s post-Cold War thriller Ronin is best remembered today for its remarkably realistic car chases.
That’s because the director of Grand Prix wanted authenticity at the fore and, boy, did he get it...
The actors, who included Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone and Robert De Niro, were apparently strapped into cars that were actually travelling at 120mph through real locations in southern France. We can only imagine the rate of their insurance!
One of the most memorable machines in the film, which really put the brand on the performance map, was the Audi S8, its 4.2-litre V8 snorting and roaring its way straight from the screen and into our dreams.
13. 1997 Jaguar XJR (X308)
Jaguar took a great deal of time and effort making sure its E-type replacement was a worthy successor.
Thankfully, the XK8 wowed us all in 1996 – it was, and remains, an absolute gem. And with its new AJ-V8 engine, it was perhaps inevitable that Jaguar would slot it under the long bonnet of the XJ saloon.
The X308 series was the ultimate evolution of the XJ40 platform, which had been introduced back in 1986. With the V12 and AJ-16 engines no longer in production, the new V8 was the sole power source for the XJ and XK ranges.
The 3.2- and 4-litre V8s were both smooth and powerful, but the supercharged 4-litre gave the full-fat XJR savage performance. Motor Trend magazine called it a ‘muscle car in a tuxedo’, which sums it up rather nicely.
14. 1998 BMW M5 (E39)
Supersaloons aren’t usually confused with muscle cars – they’re often far too refined for that. However, there are exceptions to that rule.
The 5-litre V8 BMW M5 that arrived in 1998 is one, because it managed to barely hide its muscle-car nature underneath a fantastic chassis, sleek exterior and cabin that was up there with the marque’s all-time greats.
The late 1990s saw BMW reach its range zenith with the E46 3 Series, E39 5 Series and E38 7 Series all being absolute bangers.
Arguably, though, the pick of the bunch was the M5. It managed to be all things to all drivers, keeping cabin occupants comfortable and well supplied with toys, while also setting your hair on fire if you decided to leave the manual stick where it was and stretch that astounding S62 V8 engine towards its 7000rpm redline.
15. 1998 Jaguar XKR (X150)
We’ve already mentioned the saloon that made use of Jaguar’s new-for-the-1990s V8, so it would be remiss not to give its coupé companion an airing.
The XKR deployed the same 1.8-litre Eaton supercharger atop the 4-litre AJ-V8 found in the XJR. Incidentally, and keeping things USA-oriented, it was the same supercharger found in the Ford F150 SVT Lightning.
The XKR looked fresh, sounded great and went like a scalded cat, all of which was remarkable considering it was largely built on the antiquated XJS platform, with plenty of muscle that made the XKR comfortably the best Jag for a generation.
16. 2001 Holden Monaro
After a quarter of a century without a full-size Holden coupé, the Monaro arrived in 2001.
As is often the case, the public was teased with the concept at the 1998 Australian International Motor Show, the response to which caused Holden to launch the 2001 Monaro – there had been two prior versions of the Monaro, named after the highland area of New South Wales.
This Monaro took American muscle-car aping to heart, quite literally, taking advantage of its parent brand’s lauded LS1 V8 engine.
In 5.7-litre (346cu in) form, this alloy GM small-block V8 was a revelation.
17. 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK DTM AMG
Many performance-car greatest hits have come about due to motorsport tie-ins.
Whether it’s a roadgoing homologation special or a celebratory edition, these machines are often among the best driver’s cars out there.
Mercedes’ CLK DTM AMG falls into the latter camp, because it was built to honour Bernd Schneider’s utter dominance of the 2003 DTM season. Just 100 were made, a mere 40 in right-hand drive.
Despite costing an astounding €236,000 back in 2004, the CLK DTM sold out immediately and we can see why.
It was powered by a 5.5-litre AMG V8 making a tyre-torturing 574bhp. That enabled this supercoupé to hit 60mph in a scarcely believable 3.9 secs, with a heady top speed of 199mph.
18. 2005 Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Aston Martin took more lessons from fellow UK sports-car maker Lotus than from the US when it came to the V8 Vantage for the new millennium.
Its structure built upon Richard Rackham’s extruded and bonded aluminium creation from the original Lotus Elise.
Unlike the comparatively feeble four-cylinder engine that powered the aforementioned Lotus, however, the V8 Vantage – as the name implies – made use of eight glorious cylinders.
Initially powered by a 4.3-litre – later 4.7-litre – AMV8, power came in at a healthy 380bhp and 420bhp respectively.
As both Jaguar and Aston Martin were owned by Ford, Aston’s powerplant had many similarities with Jaguar’s AJ-V8, yet departed significantly by using dry-sump lubrication, plus several other facets of the engine underwent in-house tweaks.
19. 2006 Audi RS4 (B7)
The original RS4 (B5 generation) wasn’t much cop as a driver’s car. It was technically a successor to the magnificent RS2, reinforced by the fact that it came as an Avant (estate) only.
In 2005, Audi unveiled its second-generation RS4 to a fairly lukewarm reception. However, there wasn’t any disappointment once the car was launched a year later, powered by an astounding 4.2-litre naturally aspirated V8.
It was rated at 414bhp, revved to a stellar 8500rpm and had to run on exclusively on super unleaded, due to its 12.5:1 compression ratio.
The car handled superbly, look svelte yet aggressive and came with only one transmission; a six-speed manual. It was also the first RS Audi to be available as both a saloon and an estate.
20. 2007 BMW M3 (E90/92/93)
With BMW’s M5 E60 upping the ante with a Formula One-inspired V10 engine, there was a need for the M3 to up its game.
Going from six to eight cylinders was an even bigger deal for BMW in the early noughties, because its main competitor Audi (as we’ve just seen) had already beaten it with the RS4.
The aforementioned V10 was used as the base for the M3’s new 4-litre S65 engine.
Despite its competence elsewhere, this M3 was really dominated by that engine. And what an engine it was, the M3 with 414bhp from a naturally aspirated eight-cylinder motor that could rev to 8300rpm.