The Fastest American Cars of Each Decade Since 1950
Fastest American cars you could buy
Updated July 30, 2017
The Fastest American Cars of Each Decade Since 1950
The ultimate arbiter for so many car-related discussions is top speed. Top speed is an indication of so many benchmarks-engineering, design, power, efficiency, and execution. Top speed very much separates the performers from the posers, the wheat from the chaff, braggadocio from brawn. There were numerous high performance cars built in the first half of the last century, but the real advancements seemed to begin after troops came home from World War II. For a solid examination of performance progression, let us begin with the 1950s. To clarify the issue, this article will select only road-going cars made for the general public, to be driven legally on public roads; in other words, domestic production cars, not racers.
A car built specifically to answer the call of those looking for a sports roadster, the Chevrolet Corvette was the brain child of Harley Earl. With Zora Duntov as a project leader, performance grew from the 1953 offering of the rather sad Blue Flame Six, to positiviely fire-breathing with the 1959 Rochester fuel-injected 283c.i. V-8 giving 290 horsepower. Fed through a four-speed gearbox to a 3.70 rear diff, the Corvette could rocket its way to a 140mph terminal velocity.
Though the birth of the American Muscle Car may have happened in the 1950s, the real Muscle Wars took place in the 1960s. Every US auto manufacturer had a brawny, hairy-chested entry into the arena. This would spawn monster powerplants and rivalries that are still talked about in automotive circles. Startling advancements in performance came out of this decade. But the simple formula for speed was as true then as it is now: speed=light weight + big power. No other car did this as well as the legendary Shelby Cobra. The Cobra’s 425-hp Ford 427 would push it up to a staggering 164-mph in street trim.
The 1970s saw the advent of horsepower-choking emissions equipment, weight-adding safety equipment, and multiple oil shortages which spurred manufacturers to cut power in favor of economy. This yielded an era of malaise in US auto performance. Thus, the fastest production cars of the decade would be produced early in the decade. There was one very bright spot in this quagmire, however, in the form of the DeTomaso Pantera. Featuring bodywork by Ghia, an Italian interior, and German ZF transaxle, and a Ford 351 Cleveland V-8 that was woefully underrated at 330-hp (tests have since shown that 380-hp would have been closer to the actual mark). The Pantera was sold in the United States through Lincoln-Mercury dealers. This mid-engined stunner would rocket to a fantastic 159-mph top speed, easily besting any other challenger. It qualifies (barely) as a domestic due to the agreement between DeTomaso and Ford to be sold in US dealerships, as Ford was directly supplying the engines for all Panteras.
It took years after the losses of the 1970s for performance to return to American automobiles. Slowly but surely, engineering and technology found a way to deliver safety and economy simultaneously with performance. The fourth generation Corvettes that bowed in 1984 ushered in new performance benchmarks, and proved the US would claw its way back into the pantheon of power. The Buick Grand National and GNX stood tall, offering a 3.8 liter turbo V-6 that consumed the quarter mile faster than the Corvette. The Pontiac Trans Am Turbo borrowed the engine platform from the Grand National, slightly enlarged the bore, and posted performance benchmarks of its own. But, no single example stood out so glaringly as the Callaway Corvette. Introduced in 1987, the Callaway Twin Turbo option, designated option package B2K, was the first ever Corvette option package to installed by a supplier outside of GM. It carried a full GM-backed warranty, and could be serviced at any Chevy dealer. The Callaway yielded 390-hp, and a truly staggering 562-lb ft. of torque, which made the Corvette’s slippery bodywork good for a 191-mph top speed
The advent of new technology, computer aided performance, and competition from both inside and outside the US pushed manufacturers to new levels in the final decade of the 20th century. Sports and muscle cars that struggled to reach the 200 horsepower mark in the 1980s would see output well exceed that in the 1990s. Even trucks were getting into the game, with the GMC Syclone and Typhoon borrowing the Buick Grand National engine from the 1980s, adding a bit more bore, and cranking out nearly 300-hp. Ford’s F150 Lightning boasted 360-hp from its supercharged 5.4, making it a pickup that could haul more than just stuff. But the fun was just beginning with Chevrolet’s introduction of the Corvette ZR-1 and the new Dodge Viper RT/10. The ZR-1 debuted for the 1990 model year, featuring an all-aluminum, 375-hp 32-valve DOHC, 5.7liter V-8. The Viper arrived for 1992, with a 400-hp, aluminum V-10, displacing 8.0 liters. Not to be outdone, the ZR-1 responded in 1993 with a bump in power up to 405-hp. Though the Viper line would eventually come to include a coupe in the form of the GTS, and power would grow to an impressive 450-hp, it would miss the ZR-1s top speed by a single mile per hour, leaving the Corvette as King of the Hill at 186.
What a truly amazing time this was to be a car fan. Performance gains were to be found everywhere, in every kind of car. Power and speed could be had in abundance, and in many cases it could be had relatively cheaply. Tuner versions of just about any stripe fulfilled the desires of enthusiasts. Going fast had never been quite so affordable or available.
The Corvette entered a new generation for the 2005 model year, and received a complete redesign. Eventually, the sixth generation Corvette would give birth to the Z06, a 505-hp aluminum 427 cu. in. coupe, and the ZR1 (no hyphen this time), which was powered by a 6.2 liter supercharged plant, throwing down the gauntlet with 638 stock horsepower. The Viper continued to evolve, with the aluminum V-10 growing to 8.4 liters, and power commensurately increasing to 600 ponies. Even the Ford Mustang was getting in on the game, with the Mustang Shelby GT500 producing 500 horsepower from its supercharged modular 5.4 V-8. But the killer from this decade, the wolf-in-wolf’s-clothing, the top speed king, is Ford’s GT. The tribute to the Ford GT-40 racer of the 1960s, the GT is powered by much the same supercharged 5.4 V-8 as the Mustang Shelby GT500. The GT, with its super-low profile, exotic styling, and mid-engine design takes the crown at an impressive 205-mph. As a footnote, if you choose to allow a limited production, boutique manufacturer model into the competition, the SSC Ultimate Aero crushed all other competition when it set a record of 256.18 mph in September of 2007. You might want to bring your mortgage banker to the dealership when you buy one; base price is $650,000.
Things in the high-performance realm of domestic manufacturers begin to sound like a broken record. New generation Corvette. New Z06. New Viper. New Ford GT coming out next year. For the time being, the seventh generation Corvette Z06 is good for 650-hp. The Viper returned to production in 2013, with a 640-hp version of the venerable V-10. It gained another 5-hp in 2015. The coming Ford GT is said to produce 600-hp from a twin-turbo 3.8 liter V-6. There are also reports of a new, mid-engine Corvette ZR1, possibly called the Zora (after Zora Duntov), which will give 710 horsepower to the rear wheels. Until those cars arrive, they are simply speculative. Who holds the record now kind of depends on who you read and trust. Some say the Viper is ‘only’ good for 204-mph. Other say 206. There are reports of the Corvette Z06 punching out 206. Others claim only 203. Really, when you are going that fast, and the speeds differ by that little, it seems a bit like splitting hairs. Or, you could include the Hennesy Venom GT (a heavily modified Lotus Exige by boutique tuning house Hennessy Performance), which set a speed record of 270.49 in February of 2014. You may have to sell your first-born to swing this one, as base price is a cool $1.2 million.