One-Hit Wonders: 5 Muscle Cars Produced for One Year or Less, But Made an Ever-Lasting Impression on the Automotive World
When it comes to one-hit wonders, the music world is absolutely full of them. But this phenomenon of existing for a very short time, never to be made again isn't exclusive to radio stations and records. It also happens in the automotive world, and when it does, the results are usually quite impressive, and ultimately sought out well after said one-hit wonder hit the streets. Here are five one-hit wonders of the classic muscle car era that should be on your radar.
1. 1969 COPO ZL1 Camaro
We start our list with an easy one: the 1969 COPO ZL1 Camaro—not easy in the sense that you can easily get your hands on one, but easy as in most automotive enthusiasts know quite a bit about it.
COPO stands for Central Office Production Order and it became synonymous with the Camaro in 1969 when Chevrolet made the now famed COPO ZL1 Camaro available for order using a set of four-digit numbers on a dealer's order sheet. Not widely advertised or even offered to the normal consumer, COPO Camaros were an insider secret for quite some time—that is until they started appearing on NHRA drag strips. For some, it was Don Yenko's L72 iron 427ci-outfitted COPOs that took the show, but in the end, it was Fred Gibb's all-aluminum 427ci ZL1-outfitted COPOs that proved even more potent on the drag strip.
If you knew the right set of numbers to write down on the order form and paid additional fees, you too could get yourself a now super rare, highly sought after, NHRA-dominating muscle car. With number “9561,” you could purchase a Camaro outfitted with the aforementioned all-iron L72 427ci big block with a solid-lifter cam, 780cfm carburetor and a high-rise intake, among other things. This engine was rated at 425hp although numbers upwards of 450hp were commonly reported. With number “9560,” your Camaro would be outfitted from the factory with an all-aluminum 427ci big block (a $4,160 add-on to the original price of the car) which featured a wet-sump lubrication system, Holley 4-barrel carburetor, and a GM rating of 430hp and 450ft-lbs of torque, although many believe it to have been closer to 500hp—a hefty horsepower rating not unlike the restomod '69 Camaro we caught up with in 2017, pictured below.
In addition to the aluminum big block, COPO ZL1s came with options like a Muncie M22 “Rock Crusher” 4-speed transmission and a 12-bolt rear axle typically featuring 4.10 gears. All options on these cars were an additional cost, of course.
Only 69 of the ZL1s ever left the factory, partially because they were expensive both to produce and sell, and partially because GM only needed 50 of the limited-run cars to be produced to qualify the model for the NHRA Super Stock racing class. Those that did survive the abuse of the track and/or the “Frankenstiening” that happened to many of the cars (in which they were re-bodied or their aluminum engines were swapped out for something a little more tame), are now held on a well-deserved pedestal in the automotive world. Try to get your hands on a true 1969 COPO ZL1 and you can expect to see prices in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars range to start!
As we noted in our article on the history of the COPO Camaro earlier this year, the COPO/ZL1 namesakes came back in 2012 within the Camaro lineup, although not quite like in their original form. That's why were still counting the 1969 as a true one-hit wonder!
2. 1969 Ford Torino Talladega
Named after (at the time) NASCAR's soon to be opened Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama, there's no denying what the purpose of this next one-hit wonder muscle car was when it was first produced. Meant to continue to overtake the competition of fellow manufacturers, Dodge in particular, when it came to the oval track, the 1969 Ford Torino Talladega was in part the brain-child of Holman & Moody, the official racing contractor for Ford Motors at the time.
As the story goes, Ford wanted to continue to up its game against rising competition from the other manufacturers racing NASCAR, particularly Dodge, which was plotting the introduction of the limited-run 1969 Charger 500 for the 1969 race season. To do this, Ford commissioned Holman & Moody (the same race contractor that also helped Ford with famed race cars like the Shelby Cobra, A/FX Mustang and GT Mark IIs) to create a more powerful and aerodynamic Torino Fastback, which the company had had success with on the track previously.
With many ideas on how to do this, Holman & Moody proceeded with tweaks they wanted done to the production car. But there was one catch—just like with the 1969 COPO ZL1s, a certain number of cars had to be produced in order for the Torino Talladega to qualify to race. Ford took this challenge head-on and put the re-worked car into production for just two months—January and February of 1969—producing, according to the official Talladega Spoiler Registry, just 751 examples of the model. For the Talladega, 500 production cars were required in order for Ford to race the car.
So what did the new Talladega offer compared to the previous year Torino? Well, a lot of things! The Talladega body received upgrades like a Holman & Moody designed sleeker and more aerodynamic front end, which included a lengthened nose section, a modified, close-fit front bumper and a flush-mounted grille; reshaped and rolled rocker panels to allow the car to sit lower to the track for even better aerodynamics and a lower center of gravity; and blacked out rear tail panels and hood. Mechanically, the car was upgraded with both engine oil and power steering fluid coolers; a Ford 9-inch rearend with 3.25 gears; staggered rear shocks; and a 3-speed automatic transmission. As for the engine, well, the Talladega got a 7.0L 428ci Cobra Jet with overhead valves, a cast-iron block and heads, wet-sump lubrication system, and a Holley 735cfm carburetor. Output for said engine was 335hp and 440ft-lbs of torque.
All the upgrades to the car ultimately paid off for Ford and won them over two dozen Grand National titles, as well as the 1969 NASCAR Manufacturer's Championship and the 1969 ARCA Manufacturer's Championship. Over 50 years later, the car remains an amazing part of automotive history and it's super short production run has made it not only collectable and uber-valuable, but also another one-hit wonder you should know about.
3. 1963 Stingray Corvette Z06
In 1963, the classic muscle and pony car sectors of the automotive world were, as many would argue, yet to even be thought of. But that didn't mean that the competition between automotive manufacturers on and off the tracks wasn't hot and heavy.
Racing platforms like the 24 Hours of Le Mans inspired manufacturers to design the lightest, most nimble and aerodynamic cars for outright speed and performance possible, and even though GM had a ban on racing in 1963, a handful of factory-produced, race-ready Corvette Z06 models hit the tracks and made waves.
In 1963, Zora Arkus-Duntov was the Chief Engineer for Chevrolet's Corvette. It's worth noting that as a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion, Duntov thought that all racers should have the platform and factory options to build out their ultimate race cars despite GM's ban on racing as a manufacturer. It was partially for this reason and partially because Duntov was always looking for ways to improve the car that the newly revised Corvette for the 1963 model year received what is now a widely-celebrated option—the Z06 performance package. Offered under selection “RPO Z06,” also known as the “Special Equipment Package,” the already upgraded-for-1963 Corvette received a plethora of performance-honing components with this package.
As we all know, the Corvette changed a bit in style and performance for 1963, most notably with the introduction of the car's first 2-seat coupe option and that famed split-window now synonymous with the first Stingray Corvette. In addition to the coupe option, the Corvette received a new independent rear suspension featuring a new two-part axle shaft; a modified frame configuration for a lower center of gravity and improved handling; and a secondary steel frame hidden behind the car's body panels for extra rigidity and safety.
On top of those upgrades already included with the car, Z06-optioned cars were equipped with enlarged steel disc brakes with a vacuum-boosted master cylinder and internal fans; a stiffer, heavy-duty suspension system, including a bigger anti-roll bar up front; a 36.5-gallon “Big Tank” fuel tank (at first required with the model, then changed to an option with the package); Positraction rear end; four-speed close-ratio manual transmission; and not to be forgotten, the famed L84 fuel-injected V8 that powered it to the top of the competition with 360hp and 352ft-lbs of torque.
Only 199 Z06 Corvettes were produced for the 1963 model year, and of those, only 63 of them had the enormous 36.5-gallon fuel tank. This means that if you or someone you know has one of these very special race-bred beasts, you should consider yourself lucky. And if you're looking to acquire one any time soon, you better be ready to write a whole lot of zeros behind that initial number in your checkbook. Decades and a number of Corvette generations after the '63 Z06 came out and solidified the moniker as one to respect, the Z06 name came back into play. But there's nothing quite like the original 199 that made this one-hit wonder unquestionable for our list.
4. 1970 Oldsmobile Rallye 350
By the end of 1969, the automotive world had reached the peak of muscle car performance. More manufacturers, more car models, and more power was the name of the game, even for companies like Oldsmobile. While the company had had plenty of powerful vehicles in its lineup by the 1970 model year, including the Toronado and the 442 in all of its forms, 1970 brought with it a new set of challenges—mainly high insurance rates for muscle cars with big engines and high horsepower ratings. This made it not only harder to own a muscle car, but also for dealers to sell them.
So what was to be done? Well, for Oldsmobile, they produced the Rallye 350—a car that could be purchased based on three different body styles: the Cutlass Holiday Coupe, the F-85 Coupe, or the “post car” variety, the F-85 Sport Coupe. Built with a stiffer “Rallye Sport Suspension” system with better handling in mind, a 12-bolt rearend with anything from 3.23 gears to 3.91s, a variety of transmission options, an L74 350ci V8 engine rated for 310hp, and a muscle car silhouette painted exclusively in Sebring Yellow (minus a few special-order painted cars rumored to possibly exist) from the main body to the bumpers and wheel inserts, the Rallye 350 was every bit a muscle car as its predecessors, just with a little less horsepower and lower insurance premiums. And unlike the rest of the cars on our list, it was not produced with racing in mind.
Going along with the model having been built on three different platforms, the Rallye 350 seemed to be the muscle car of choices, except for the paint color, suspension and the engine. If you were a dealer, or one of the lucky few consumers that ordered a Rallye 350 from Oldsmobile, you could choose from a 3-speed column-shift transmission, 3-speed floor-shift, 4-speed floor-shift, or a Turbo Hydra-Matic 350 automatic transmission. You could choose 3.23, 3.42, or 3.91 gears. You could opt for the Anti-Spin differential or the non limited-slip. Manual drums or a power disc/drum brake combo could be chosen. You could even choose between blackwall, white-lettered and white-striped tires. Of course, there were some limitations on which options were able to be ordered together and which weren't.
For the 1970 model year, 3,547 Rallye 350s were produced, the most rare being the post car variety built on the F-85 Sport Coupe platform, of which only 160 were produced. While good intentions led to the production of the car, the model was considered a pretty big flop for Oldsmobile at the time. It could have been the shifting automotive market, the lower horsepower rating, or that blazing Sebring Yellow paint scheme, but Oldsmobile dealers found the model harder to sell than expected. But what's one car manufacturer's perceived flop is a collector's best friend when it comes to rarity and value of a one-hit wonder car decades later.
5. 1970 Plymouth AAR 'Cuda
Last on our list, but certainly not least is a car that shouldn't come as any surprise given our race leanings with this list—the 1970 Plymouth AAR 'Cuda. Built to take on the twists and turns of road racing, the AAR 'Cuda was built in contract with race car driver Dan Gurney and his All American Racers (AAR) race team and company. Just like with many race cars of the day, a certain number of the AAR 'Cudas had to be factory-produced in order for them to be legal for Gurney to race them in the SCCA Tran-Am Series. Because of that, 2,724 cars were built in March and April of 1970, meeting the 2,500-car race standard and giving automotive enthusiasts yet another one-hit wonder to ponder.
The AAR was built a bit differently than other race-born cars of its era. Instead of a massive engine and tons of power, the AAR was given a 340ci V8 featuring three, two-barrel Holley carburetors, a 10.5 to 1 compression ratio, Edelbrock aluminum manifold, and a horsepower rating from the factory of just 290hp, although there are many sources that suggest it was actually closer to pushing 325hp. The engine power, whether above or below 300hp was helped by the fresh air funneled in through the fiberglass hood and large, functional air scoop. This, of course, was nothing compared to the 305ci V8 pumping out 440hp in the track cars.
Other notable features of the production car include the front eyebrow spoilers, rear tail spoiler, side-exit exhaust, strobe stripes on the sides, and the choice of a 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic or a 4-speed manual transmission. You could get the car with either standard 3.55 rearend gears, or the optional 3.91s. The AAR is also known for its staggered front and rear tires, as well as its nearly 2-inch lift in the rear thanks to modified shocks and springs. This raked stance didn't quite give the production AARs the curve-hugging nature of the lowered track cars, but rather the opposite, making the cars notorious for understeer issues.
It certainly wasn't the fastest car out there, the most powerful, or even the most rare of its era, but the 1970 AAR 'Cuda remains a one-hit wonder prized in the automotive community. You may not see them often, but if you do get a chance to look one over in person, we highly suggest you do so. We know we certainly got a kick out of perusing the ins and outs of one of these special cars when we got the chance to back in 2016!