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Let's Hear it for the Pony Car

By Edited Oct 9, 2016 0 0

It was 1964, an era of ducktail haircuts and “greasers” with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeves of their t-shirts. The flower children had yet to bloom, color televisions hadn’t penetrated every home, and teenaged girls still swooned at the sight of the Beatles – especially Paul, the cute one.

Out on the streets, the cool guys listened to Jan and Dean on AM radio as they drove their muscle cars: Detroit iron, an oversized V8 dropped into a 2-door coupe version of a family sedan. GM rolled out a quartet of muscle cars that year, including the Oldsmobile 442 (four on the floor, four-barrel carb, two exhausts), the Pontiac GTO (“Gran Turismo Omologato”), the Chevelle SS (Super Sport) and the Buick Skylark Gran Sport. Meanwhile, the guys with the good jobs were driving a real two-seater sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette, or the more luxurious 2+2 Ford T-Bird – back in the days before it morphed into the bloated behemoth of the 1980s. 

And then Came 1965.

The Shot Heard 'Round the Automotive World

The First Real Pony Car
Credit: aldenjewell / flickr.com

A 1965 Mustang Fastback on the assembly line at Ford.

In mid-1964, the first Ford Mustangs rolled into showrooms. The Mustang was a ground-breaking concept, positioned between the true sports cars like the ‘Vette and the output of British Leyland (Triumph, Austin Healey, MG) and the family cars repurposed as muscle cars. The class of cars that came to be known as pony cars was born.

That first Mustang model defined the style: a two-door coupe or convertible with a long, long hood and a short rear deck. The cars were smaller and more nimble than the muscle cars and – perhaps more to the point – more affordable as well. The stock 1964½ model ran on the same 260 cubic inch engine that had been in the 1964 Fairlane.

To say the Mustang met with success is an understatement: Ford sold a million 1964½, 1965 and 1966 models in the nameplate’s first eighteen months. The pony car had hit the ground at a gallop. Unlike all its competitors, the Mustang nameplate – though not necessarily the “fun” component – has been a part of Ford’s line in an unbroken string right up to the present day models. From the 2005 model year to the present, Ford has been selling a more muscular version of the Mustang with retro design elements intended to remind baby-boomer buyers of that first model year. It’s done that quite well (and it sounds “real mean”).

The 1965 Plymouth Barracuda

A '65 Barracuda
Credit: CZmarlin / wikimedia commons

The Barracuda's humongous rear window set a new standard for the day.

Although Ford introduced the Mustang in mid-April at the 1964 World’s Fair, Plymouth had already rolled out their vision of an affordable yet sporty car – the 1965 Barracuda – on April 1. The ‘Cuda was built on the same frame as the Valiant and used many of that model’s components, including all its drivetrain options (one of which was the infamous Plymouth pushbutton automatic tranny). The model’s crowning glory, however, was its enormous fastback rear window, which was at the time the biggest piece of glass ever installed on a consumer vehicle.

Though the Barracuda led the Mustang onto the market by about two weeks, the latter won the popularity contest by far, not to mention giving its name to an entire class of cars. No one’s ever called them “fish cars,” after all. The Barracuda continued in production until the 1974 model year, and Plymouth tinkered with the drivetrain and body throughout its history. The nameplate never sold as well as its competition, especially the Mustang and Camaro.

Ford Mustang, America s Pony Car
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1967, Part 1: The 1967 AMC Javelin SST

A Base '68 AMC Javelin
Credit: CZmarlin / wikimedia commons

Like the rest, AMC's pony car version had a long hood and a short deck. The Javelin came in only one model, a modified fastback.

Beginning with the 1967 model year, pony cars galloped onto the market in droves as Detroit strove to make up for Ford’s 2-year head start. In alphabetical order, the first competitor to hit the showroom floors was the AMC Javelin (AMC for you young’uns was the parent company of Jeep and, except for that line disappeared entirely after a 1985 buyout by Chrysler).

The inaugural Javelins came in a single body style, a hardtop built on the Rambler platform. The car’s roofline mimicked the sleek fastbacks of the Barracuda and a Mustang variant, though the rear window glass sloped more steeply than the sheet metal. All Javelins, whether the stock model with an inline 6-cylinder motor or the more muscular SST with its 290-cubic inch V8, had bucket seats and a center console.

Like several of its competitors, the Javelin lived a short and none-too happy life, disappearing from sales floors after the 1974 model year. 

1967, Part 2: The 1967 Chevrolet Camaro

A first-generation Camaro from 1968
Credit: Rich Niewiroski Jr. / wikimedia commons

Chevrolet's pony car, the Camaro, is perhaps the only real competition the Mustang ever had.

Though it took two more years for GM to enter into the pony-car fray, Chevy’s version is perhaps the only model ever to challenge Ford for dominance in the market. The Camaro, like its cousin the Pontiac Firebird, was built on GM’s F-body platform. The name “Camaro” was chosen to reflect “comradeship between car and driver,” though early press releases also hinted that a "camaro" is a small animal that dines on Mustangs.

Available in both a coupe and a convertible version, the 1967 Camaro was offered with a then unheard-of eight different power plants, ranging from a 230-cubic inch straight six to a mammoth 427-cubic inch V8. Among several packages, buyers could choose from a SS (SuperSport) version or a Rallye Sport trim with motor-driven shutters on the headlamps.

The Camaro outlasted some of its competition (though not the Mustang), surviving up until the 2002 model year. In 2009, Chevrolet unveiled the 2010 Camaro as a concept car whose styling is unmistakably based on the first generation’s classic lines.

1967, Part 3: The 1967 Mercury Cougar

First-generation Mercury Cougar
Credit: morven / wikimedia commons

A 1967 Cougar gives us a good climpse of the "electric shaver" grille.

Seen by some as Ford’s ugly stepsister, the Mercury division had to wait until 1967 to get its own version of the pony car, the Cougar. Not that it was all that new – the first Cougars were built on a modification of the Mustang platform (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery). The cousins differed significantly in their sheet metal, however, with the Cougar featuring the so-called “electric shaver” grille and concealed headlamps. Under the hood, the Cougar – in keeping with Mercury’s image as an upscale Ford division – didn’t bother to offer a 6-cylinder engine: instead buyers chose from 6 V8 power plants sized from 289 cubic inches up to 428.

The Cougar was always the most luxurious of the pony cars and, consequently, became the first to shift away from an emphasis on performance to an emphasis on posh appointments. By the time the nameplate was discontinued in 2002, all traces of pony car had disappeared from the Cougar’s DNA – in 1982, Mercury even glued the nameplate on a short-lived station wagon version. Shame!

1967, Part 4: The 1967 Pontiac Firebird

A First-generation Pontiac Firebird
Credit: bull-doser / wikimedia commons

It’s been said that only an enthusiast can tell a Firebird from a Camaro of the same year. Like its cousin, the Firebird was built on GM’s F-body rear-wheel drive platform, but the enthusiast knows to look at 1) the taillights and 2) the front end. Unlike the Camaro’s blocky taillights, the Firebird was marked for years by slit taillights passed off by its big brother, the Pontiac GTO muscle car. The front bumper was integrated into the grille surround, unlike that of the Camaro that stood on its own. The first year’s Firebird was available with four different motors, ranging from a 230-cubic inch inline 6 to a 400-cubic inch V8 that was rated at 325 HP.

Like the Camaro, the Firebird managed to survive into the 21st century, ending production with the 2002 model year. GM dropped the Pontiac division and phased out the last models beginning in 2009, so – unlike the revived Camaro – the Firebird nameplate died out with its parent.

Parting Shots: the 1970 Dodge Challenger

An Early Dodge Challenger
Credit: bull doser / wikimedia commons

The short-lived Dodge Challenger was resurrected as an economy sedan in the '80s, and lives on today as a pony car on steroids - about the same size as a 1970 Charger.

A pony car for a whopping four model years (1970-1974) the Dodge Challenger came late to the party and didn’t stick around long. Based mainly on the platform of its cousin the Plymouth Barracuda, the Challenger bore a strong resemblance to Dodge’s larger muscle car, the Charger (aka the General Lee in the early “Dukes of Hazard,” America’s favorite flying car). 

Legend has it that the Barracuda was intended to compete with  the entry-level pony cars like the Camaro and Mustang, while Chrysler want the Challenger to… well, to challenge in the upscale market that was going to the Cougar. Perhaps because it was long in arriving and perhaps because the sheet metal never significantly differed from the decidedly downscale Plymouth Valiant, the Challenger was never much of a factor in the pony-car wars.

In later years, the Challenger nameplate reappeared as a nameplate twin to a version of the Mitsubishi Galant, which is about as “pony” as a Volkswagen Vanagon. Chrysler resurrected both the name and the pony DNA in 2008, releasing a retro-styled 3rd-generation Challenger to compete with the 5G Mustang and, later on, the 5G Camaro.

Whatever Happened to the Pony Car?

In the simplest terms, pony cars outgrew their market. The first-year Mustang was the same size as a 2013 Toyota Corolla; the 2013 Mustang is eight inches longer and 700 pounds heavier – and the 2013 Camaro is even longer. Every one of the pony cars grew the same way, adding pounds and inches as they struggled to make the interiors more elegant and the amenities more numerous.

About half of the pony cars – the Javelin, the Challenger, the ‘Cuda – couldn’t survive the combination of the oil price increase of 1973 and the implementation of Clean Air Act emission standards in the 1975 model year. The survivors – Mustang, Firebird, Camaro – somehow became bloated versions of themselves, oversized and typically about as “sporty” as the family sedans driven by the owner’s grandparents. The influx of sportier imports, beginning with the Datsun (then Nissan) Z series and later European imports like the BMW Z3 and Z4 or the Audi TT pushed the niche even further into the shadows. 


In the interests of full disclosure, the author's one pony car was a doozy: a 1967 Camaro Rallye Sport convertible with a 327 V-8 and an automatic on the column.



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