The 1960s is often referred to as the ‘golden era’ of automotive design and engineering, so it’s just fitting that the cars made in this era were exceptional. During the decade, many iconic car models were born, including a group called muscle cars. Sports cars that combined performance with elegance were booming during this time, too.
So, let’s take a moment to get to know the best cars made in the Swinging Sixties.
Ford Mustang (1964)
The Ford Mustang, unveiled in 1964, arguably started the muscle car revolution. It was not just a car; it was a cultural icon that encapsulated the spirit of freedom and power. When it was released in 1964, almost all Americans became car fans, but owning a Mustang was something extra special. It shared parts with other Ford models, and its affordable price made it accessible.
The Mustang’s long hood and short deck design were iconic. Its range of powerful V8 engines and customization options allowed every buyer to feel like they were driving something unique.
The Mustang craze was huge, impacting more than just Ford. It prompted its rival, General Motors, to launch its own pony car – the Chevy Camaro in September 1966 – sparking a rivalry that continues today. We’ve been debating the merits of these cars for decades and hope to keep doing so. But there’s no question that the Mustang started it all.
Jaguar E-Type (1961)
Was the Jaguar E-Type the best car of the 60s? Maybe not. The prettiest? Quite possibly. The most influential? Definitely. Imagine seeing a Jaguar E-Type on the streets of Britain in the 60s. It must have been like a colorful, exciting flash in a black-and-white world. With its long, flowing lines, the E-Type is often considered one of the most beautiful cars ever made.
Launched at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show, the E-Type wasn’t just a feast for the eyes; it was quick, too. Even if reaching its claimed top speed of 150mph needed a bit of tweaking. It stayed in production until 1975, eventually getting a bit heavier and upgrading to a V12 engine.
Right from the start, it was the fastest production car in the world, and it was much more affordable than the Ferraris and Aston Martins it easily outperformed. The E-type’s impact, especially in Britain, is impressive considering that only just over 72,000 were made in 13 years, with 85% being exported. These numbers seem small by today’s standards. Yet, almost as many are still registered for road use in the UK today, showing just how much people still love this car.
Porsche 911 (1964)
First shown at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show, the 911 was intended to be a bigger, fancier successor to the Beetle-derived Porsche 356. It originally had the name 901, and 82 cars were made with this label before Peugeot stepped in, claiming rights to car names with three digits and a zero in the middle. So, they quickly changed the name.
Enter the Porsche 911 in 1964, a car that set the stage for a long line of evolution and innovation. With its distinctive rear-engine layout and timeless styling, it became an icon of sports car perfection. The early models, with their air-cooled flat-six engines, provided a unique driving experience that is still sought after by collectors today.
With the Porsche 911, a winning formula was born: a 2+2 layout, a rear-mounted flat-six engine, initially 2.0-litres and air-cooled. Over the years, we’ve seen various versions, including the Targa, race-oriented models, semi-automatics, and the famous 911 Turbo. The one-millionth Porsche 911 was produced in May 2011.
Pontiac GTO (1963)
The GTO was so epic that people nicknamed it “the goat,” even though it’s not an exact acronym. Its impact was undeniable. This car marked a turning point for Detroit’s auto industry, leading to a wave of more exciting cars. It wasn’t that predecessors like the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 or Chrysler C-300 were insignificant – they were just steps towards the perfect moment for muscle cars in 1964.
DeLorean and his team, Bill Collins and Russ Gee, were eager to bypass GM’s rule against competing, longing to see their creations dominate American dragstrips. They found a way to sneak the 6.4-litre V8 from Pontiac’s larger cars into the more compact Le Mans.
The GTO is a rare blend of raw power, balance, and superior stability. The real kicker was how the GTO lived up to its bold name. It wasn’t just fast – it handled and stopped well, too. It gives value for money, and it could outrun any Ferrari on U.S. roads. The GTO’s impact was so profound that it sparked a wave of similar cars, dominating the automotive scene for a decade. It only slowed down with the advent of stricter emissions controls, the oil embargo, and changes in insurance standards.
Lamborghini Miura (1966)
What began as a mere side project turned into the birth of the modern supercar. Marcello Gandini of Bertone crafted the Miura, a masterpiece combining stunning aesthetics with innovative engineering. With its ‘eyelashed’ headlights, elegant lines, and curvy fenders, the Miura has long been praised for its beauty, often in very human terms. Even when standing still, it exudes a sense of power, speed, and drama.
Introduced in 1966, this car featured extraordinary performance that broke new ground in automotive engineering. As the fastest production car of its time, with a top speed of 174 mph, the Miura’s design was revolutionary. Its 345-hp V-12 engine was mounted transversely behind the cabin, allowing for a shorter wheelbase and giving the car a nimble feel to match its looks.
The Miura didn’t just define Lamborghini; it redefined the concept of a mid-engine two-seater by blending cutting-edge design with sheer power. It paved the way for every supercar that followed, leaving its mark on everything from modern Ferraris to Corvettes. That’s quite an achievement for a car with only 763 units produced. Its list of famous owners includes Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Eddie Van Halen.
Austin Mini (1960)
The 1960 Mini, initially known as the 850 in the U.S., was the product of Alec Issigonis’s inventive thinking. To create as much room as possible inside a car just 10 feet long, he positioned the 848-cc engine sideways and integrated the four-speed manual gearbox into its sump. The Mini’s unibody design removed the need for a separate frame, and its lightweight structure was supported by rubber-cone springs, sitting on small 10-inch wheels. This design was groundbreaking at the time and conceptually mirrors many of today’s cars and crossovers.
The Mini also proved its mettle in racing. In its souped-up Cooper S version, it clinched victories at the Monte Carlo rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967. (In 1966, it was controversially disqualified for headlight issues despite taking the top three spots.)
Over the years, the Mini has competed in almost every type of motorsport, with a notable presence in vintage races today. Manufactured by various companies, including Austin, Innocenti, BMC/British Leyland, Morris, Riley, and Wolseley, over 5 million Minis were produced before the model was discontinued in 2000.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (1963)
The 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray marked a significant design shift for the Corvette line. Picture this: a rear-wheel-drive sports car with a 300-plus-hp V-8 engine that loves to rev high, equipped with top-notch independent suspension, all wrapped up in a stunning, lightweight body. Sounds like a dream car today, right? Well, that was exactly what the 1963 Corvette Stingray was, hitting the roads 60 years ago.
The brainchild of engineer-racer Zora Arkus-Duntov and GM’s design leader Bill Mitchell, the C2 was available as both a coupe and a convertible. It featured lightweight fiberglass body panels with hardly any chrome, deviating from the chrome trend of the era. This Corvette didn’t just rival a Ferrari in performance and handling; it blew its predecessor out of the water, and it did so at a price that the average American could afford.
This Corvette set the standard for the balance of performance and value that Corvettes have maintained ever since. This second-generation Corvette continued until 1967, but its legacy lives on, evidenced by the high prices collectors are willing to pay for concours-condition models today — often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lotus Elan (1962)
The Lotus Elan was designed by Ron Hickman, who also created the Black & Decker Workmate. The Elan was an evolution from the super-light but delicate Elite, featuring a sturdy steel backbone chassis instead of the previous glassfibre monocoque. This chassis, shaped like a tuning fork, held the drivetrain and suspension, with the Elan’s fiberglass body fitting over it. Lotus continued using this design method for the next 30 years.
The Elan was powered by Lotus’ own version of the Ford Kent pushrod engine, later adopted by Ford for the famous Lotus Cortina. With just over 100PS (74kW) powering the lightweight 680kg Elan, it offered plenty of punch. The car had independent suspension all around, disc brakes, and rack and pinion steering, making it one of the best small sports cars ever. Even Gordon Murray, the designer of the McLaren F1, once said he wished he could give the F1 steering as good as the Elan’s.
The Elan was a triumph for Lotus, too. Introduced in 1962, around 9,150 Elans were produced over ten years, defining what almost the perfect sports car should be. It’s perhaps most renowned as the car driven by Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg) in The Avengers.
Renault R4 (1961)
The Renault R4 was Renault’s response to the Citroen 2CV, aiming to be a car for everyone but with more modern touches. The R4 took some cues from the 2CV, like the soft, long-travel suspension and its simple, practical design. It also featured front-wheel drive and rack and pinion steering, much like the 2CV.
But the R4 stepped things up with its four-cylinder engine, maintenance-free torsion bar suspension, and a practical, roomy body complete with a hatchback. By the time production ended in 1994, over eight million had been made, placing it among the best-selling cars ever. It even bagged a third-place finish in the 1980 Paris-Dakar rally.
Renault focused on practicality with the R4, featuring an innovative estate car design and removable rear seats. Its ease of driving and low maintenance costs made it a hit, especially in France.
Jaguar XK-E (1961)
The XK-E wasn’t just another dream car; it was the dream car of its time, captivating with its beauty. But here’s the thing: its beauty was just a bonus. The car’s sleek shape, designed by Jaguar’s aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, was all about slicing through air at high speeds. It’s hard to believe this car, which could reportedly hit 150 mph, is almost 60 years old now.
The XK-E’s powerful DOHC inline-six engine, roaring with 265 horsepower, likely inspired the incredible BMW sixes. And you’ll be thankful for its robust four-wheel disc brakes, especially the inboard ones at the rear, when you’re zipping around. The interior is a classic, with its array of needles, dials, and toggle switches.
AC Cobra (1962)
The AC Cobra may have started in Britain, but it truly flourished in America, all thanks to race driver and chicken farmer Carroll Shelby. He had the brilliant idea to fit a V8 engine into the elegant but tame AC Ace sports car. The result was the legendary Cobra, first as the 4.2-litre Cobra 289 and later as the 7.0-litre Cobra 427.
In its most powerful form, the Cobra could accelerate to 60mph in just 4.2 seconds and reach up to 165mph speeds. Despite being produced in limited numbers, its fearsome performance and iconic status have inspired countless replicas.
The 1960s will always be remembered as a time when the automotive world burst with creativity, innovation, and style. The cars from this era were more than just transportation; they were a reflection of a changing world and the aspirations of those who drove them. Today, they remain highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts.
As we look back at this golden era, it’s clear that the best cars of the 1960s were not just products of their time; they were ahead of it, setting trends and standards that would influence the automotive industry for decades to come. They were, and still are, the epitome of automotive excellence.