Mustang versus Camaro. It’s the car rivalry that all other car rivalries aspire to be. It’s like Star Trek versus Star Wars, only with bigger egos and lower IQs. Don’t get offended, I can say that because I’ve owned a Mustang - two actually - so I’m right there with you pony car guys.
I get the whole rivalry thing, but more importantly, I also get the stigma that sometimes goes with such ownership. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just watch this classic video. As a former (and probable future) Mustang owner, I simultaneously laugh my ass off and apologise for this display of douchebaggery.
Which brings me to what this article is all about. There’s no question that car culture in ‘Murica is forever tied to V8 power and rear-wheel drive. Such is the muscle car recipe, and right now in America you can buy a halfway decent mid-‘90s Mustang GT or Camaro Z28 for about $3500. Like it or not, it’s hard to beat that kind of sideways-loving, V8 bang-for-buck.
But not everyone wants a Mustang or Camaro. For one thing they’re cop magnets, and for the younger buyers, they usually come with ridiculous insurance premiums because, well, they tend to get wrecked. A lot. Or maybe you just don’t want to be pigeonholed into the Mustang versus Camaro camp of enthusiasts, which is perfectly understandable. So for the discriminating American petrolhead looking for a good V8 rear-wheel drive fix on a $3500 budget, here are four muscle car alternatives worthy of your attention.
Old-school muscle car DNA is prevalent all through the 1994-1996 Caprice thanks to its body-on-frame construction, big V8 and solid rear axle. It also benefits from a decent performance aftermarket thanks to its Corvette/Camaro-sourced 260bhp 5.7-litre engine. In fact, so does the Caprice’s B-body associates, namely the Buick Roadmaster and Cadillac Fleetwood. But horsepower lineage is not the only reason to like these cars.
The Caprice was the American law enforcement pursuit vehicle of the day, so most of the models still in circulation are ex cop-cars with upgraded, um, everything. And since they’re bolt-on upgrades, non-cop models can still benefit from the fun. And lest we forget the cool-as-hell Impala SS is just a Caprice with some snazzy trim. With a little elbow grease, you can easily build an Impala clone for half the going rate.
At a time when just about all mid-sized American cars were turning the front wheels, the Thunderbird and its Mercury Cougar cousin held the rear-wheel drive torch until finally getting the axe in 1997. The V8 returned to the T-Bird in 1991 - a 200bhp version of the Mustang’s 5.0-litre that morphed into the 4.6-litre, 205bhp V8 for 1994. While not extremely quick, this 3600-pound car still had plenty of power to roast the hides.
All the V8 models were overshadowed on the performance front by the Thunderbird SC with its supercharged V6 and five-speed manual, but they kept the car in favour with traditional buyers who preferred that front-engine, rear-drive V8 layout. Riding on independent suspension and benefiting to a degree from the Mustang’s aftermarket engine upgrades, the Thunderbird is an inexpensive alternative to Mustang muscle.
A Lincoln muscle car? Odd as it may seem, the Mark VIII does meet the requirements - specifically in the form a 4.6-litre, 32-valve DOHC V8. With 280bhp (290bhp on later models) going to the independently sprung rear wheels, it moved with respectable authority and actually didn’t suck in the handling department. At least until the air-ride suspension broke, as it did on most models. Still, it’s powerful, sleek and nicely equipped. So why is it available for $3500?
In short, the Mark VIII was always a car struggling to find its way. It was expensive to buy, costly to maintain, and it didn’t have the interior space most Lincoln buyers wanted. Not sure if a loud exhaust fits the Mark’s image, but if you want to make a hot rod Lincoln, this is a great place to start.
Here’s another unlikely muscle car mashup. Also known as the Toyota Soarer, the SC 400’s smooth-revving, 4.0-litre, 250bhp V8 gave it serious chops back in the day. Later SC 400s would get even more ponies - 260bhp and 290bhp respectably - though finding one of the later cars under $3500 might be a bit of a challenge. Add in the attractive styling, slick handling, Toyota reliability and Lexus panache and the SC 400 is really something of a winner here.
Brand new, these cars were seriously expensive so they never sold that well. And when it comes to maintenance, even the Lexus crowd complains about SC 400’s sky-high maintenance bills. But we’re talking about rear-wheel drive V8 tomfoolery for $3500, so if you really want to annoy the pony car guys, smoking them in a Lexus is a great place to start. Not that I would know from experience. Well maybe just once.