It’s a common consensus that America is the land of motor cars and a cradle of modern automobiles. When it comes to sports cars though, the United States has had a fundamentally different approach than European or Japanese manufacturers, which created an unique ecosystem.
Historically, American sports cars have been criticized for their subpar handling and thirsty engines, but what can’t be denied is that sports cars coming from Detroit are in a league of their own. So, what makes a great American sports car and how can we pick only the ten greatest?
We gathered ten American sports cars representing important milestones for their respective companies and eras, painting a big picture of America’s quest for performance. Buckle up and let’s go!
#1: Shelby Cobra
The fact that everyone and their dog know about the Shelby Cobra and rarely anyone’s aware of its British roots tells a lot about its status as an iconic American sports car. Born in California by putting a good ol’ American V8 into bodies sourced from AC, the Cobra soon gained international acclaim as a formidable grassroots race car—enabling its creator, Carroll Shelby, to expand his business and racing endeavors alike, propelling himself to the automotive hall of fame in the process.
In its zenith, the Cobra was a furious contender: a legendary winner and an intimidating machine. It is now one of the most appreciated pieces of American automotive history. Apart from Shelby himself, the Cobra has been honed, reimagined, and replicated by numerous companies—proving that the thirst for bare-bones, analog, and sometimes scary American sports cars is truly unquenchable.
#2: 1964 Ford Mustang
From a plethora of legendary variants of America’s everyman’s sports car, we’re going back to the one that started it all. The original Mustang opened the doors to a whole new market concept: a sports car for the people.
As you all know, the car was an absolute success and has since evolved into a true performance car, both thanks to Shelby and in-house efforts. More importantly, the Mustang made moves throughout the industry, influencing Chevrolet to retaliate with the Camaro, creating the great pony car rivalry that lasts to this very day.
From 1964 to the present, the Mustang has been around through all highs and lows of the American automotive industry, but it remains the car that had the single biggest impact on it. As such, it is one of the most important American cars ever created and definitely one of all-time greatest sports cars coming from Detroit.
#3: Chevrolet Corvette
Given that the Corvette nameplate gave us a number of glorious cars since it was introduced as a straight-six roadster in 1955 and all the way to its final form of a mid-engined sports car, let’s just try to sum up what the Corvette is and why it’s so important.
It’s a mass-produced sports car that could take on pricey handbuilt exotics from across the Atlantic, and it has embodied the American dream for generations. Even in its darkest days, the Corvette was two things: V8-powered and drop dead gorgeous.
Finally, as an accomplished race car, the Corvette proved itself in the world’s toughest races, creating an everlasting legend. As such, it is nothing short of legendary—both as a highly-capable performance car and a pop culture icon.
#4: Pontiac GTO
As a car credited for starting the muscle car era, the Pontiac GTO enjoys legendary status as a truly revolutionary car. The Pontiac GTO followed a rather simple recipe of putting a high output V8 in an intermediate Le Mans body, which soon worked out so well that other brands started copying it, adding their own spices.
Soon after, the North American market was flooded by powerful and impossibly cool cars, and it was all thanks to Pontiac. For example, the GTO name was chosen as a cool sounding moniker and a nod of respect to those pesky-but-lovable Italians and their homologation grand tourers.
Looking back, the original 1964 GTO was eclipsed by later iterations—more specifically, the streamlined silhouettes that appeared in 1968. Inarguably, the GTO nameplate peaked in coolness in 1969 with the introduction of The Judge. Sporting a high impact orange paint and flaming graphics, The Judge perfectly embodied what the 1960s were in every way.
Still, our vote goes to the original GTO, for it created the wave that marked the wildest, most counter cultural era of American auto performance.
#5: Plymouth Superbird
The late 1960s brought a totally new concept to the world of racing—aerodynamics. Formula 1 saw pioneering efforts in using aerodynamic wings to improve the cars’ performance, and America soon saw the potential to apply similar principles on superspeedways.
This resulted in short-lived NASCAR aero wars, where a totally new kind of race car stormed through the straights, attaining speeds of 200 mph—thanks to a combination of drag reducing and downforce-enhancing kits.
The most iconic silhouette of this wild era was the Superbird, a thoroughly modified Plymouth Roadrunner. But while this car excelled on the superspeedways in the hands of Richard Petty, it struggled on showroom floors.
Back in the days when NASCAR actually ran stock cars, rules stipulated that a certain number of cars had to be offered for sale, so the Superbird went to the showrooms too. While the aero warriors dominated the 1970 season, sales representatives struggled to sell these cartoonish cars, ultimately resorting to removing the aero trim and selling them as regular Roadrunners.
In all its goofiness, the Superbird was still an impressive car, representing the zenith of the muscle car era.
#6: Buick GNX
The automotive American dream came crashing down with the 1972 oil crisis. Muscle cars were dead, and for the next decade and a half, performance was nothing but a naughty word. The wind of change came with a turbo whirl, thanks to Buick and its experiments with forced induction—embodied in the Grand National.
The Buick GNX was a Grand National experiment pushed to eleven, with a slew of changes to all vital components. Inheriting the all-black treatment the Grand National, the GNX was fit for the it-villain of the era, Darth Vader himself. The Grand National and GNX reclaimed American performance, becoming icons of the post-muscle era.
#7: Dodge Viper ACR VX I
Originally envisioned as an updated take on the Shelby Cobra, the original Dodge Viper was a bare bones brute of a car, with no aids whatsoever and a ferocious V10 burning rubber in every gear. After years of refinement from generation to generation, the Viper kind of became more user friendly—but also more potent as an all-round performance car.
The VX I series Viper ACR is by all means the ultimate production Viper: a distilled sports car engineered to break prejudices and records alike. A part of the ACR’s outright amazingness was a specially-engineered chassis and the fabled V10, but it was the downforce-generating Extreme Aero Package that kept it glued to the ground even on the most challenging tracks.
This very variant held an unofficial Nürburgring record—a herculean feat, considering the Viper’s reputation. Being a proof of success through evolution, the VX I ACR is one of our dearest American automotive all-stars (and sadly, the Viper’s swan song, too).
#8: Shelby GT500
The 21st century muscle era spawned some truly ferocious sports cars, like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the Camaro ZL1, but none can really compare with the Shelby GT500 introduced in 2020. While the former is a one trick pony and the latter is a competent track car, it’s the Shelby with its boundary-pushing tech that stands as the all-time greatest modern American sports car.
The fine-tuned rear multi-link suspension yields refined and immersive all-round performance, but it’s really the supercharged 5.2-liter Predator V8 that stands as this car’s centerpiece. Unthinkable for an American car of any sort, the Predator releases all 760 horsepower at 7200 rpm.
While it’s not as interesting as the GT350’s 8250 rpm, flat plane crank Voodoo V8, the Predator is the most powerful roadgoing Ford V8, pushing over 900 horsepower in its highly limited GT500KR guise. Extremely powerful yet surprisingly practical, this Shelby Mustang is the king of modern muscle cars.
#9: Ford GT
Mid-engined American sports cars are rare as hen’s teeth, and the Ford GT is basically the only such great sports car coming from the Big Three. For our pick out of the two roadgoing GTs, we’re not going for the retromodern one inspired by the Le Mans-conquering GT40, but the forward thinking 2016 GT.
The second generation Ford GT is by far the most advanced sports car ever to come from Detroit. It was engineered and built as a true exotic by employing carbon fiber structural elements, advanced passive and active aerodynamics—and on top of it all, a 650 horsepower 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6.
The GT’s introduction coincided with the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first overall Le Mans triumph in 1966, and poetically, it won the world’s most famous endurance race in its respective class—once again beating Ferrari.
#10: Cadillac CTS-V
If American cars were known for something, it was democratizing luxury. Ever since the 1950s, the amount of convenient features in American cars was unmatchable in all but the most luxurious European imports, and Cadillac was at the very forefront of producing these well loaded land barges. In fact, Cadillac was historically so focused on luxury that its cars’ performance was at the very bottom of its list of priorities. And then, in 2004, came the CTS-V.
Originally equipped with a LS6 V8 sourced from the C5 Corvette Z06, the CTS-V was a disruptor both for Cadillac and American performance as a whole. For the first time in history, European sports sedans had a US-born adversary, and Cadillac got a car that handled nothing unlike your grandpa’s car.
The CTS-V was a true gamechanger, and the fact that it came from Cadillac out of all possible brands makes its success even more impressive. Luckily, the CTS-V was no one-model affair, spawning an equally impressive direct successor and kickstarting the acclaimed V Series—marking a new era for both Cadillac and American sports sedans as a whole.