The segment of the market that became known as the "pony car" was born in April 1964 with the arrival of the Ford Mustang. This four-seater sporty car with a low-slung stance, long hood and short deck was underpinned by lowly Ford Falcon mechanicals, but in spite of this modest base, stylists and engineers had created a kind of American sports car that was far more practical than traditional English roadsters. It was quickly nicknamed the pony car.
The Mustang was a sensation, catching the wave of a youth movement seeking style, performance and affordability. Within four months, more than 400,000 were sold and Ford Division president Lee Iacocca quickly became known as the "Father of the Mustang." It helped propel him to the presidency of the Ford Motor Co.
The Mustang came as a convertible or hardtop, and offered so many power and handling options it could be transformed from plain and simple to fast and sporty. Engines ranged from the standard overhead-valve 2.8-litre 101-horsepower inline six to a 4.2-litre overhead valve V-8 with a four speed, floor-shift manual transmission. Base transmission with the six was a three-speed manual, with automatic optional.
Ford Motor Co. had caught the industry flatfooted. Although the Plymouth Barracuda, basically a Valiant with a huge wrapover rear window, had arrived just before the Mustang, it was overwhelmed by the Mustang's popularity.
Others knew they needed a competitor, but it took General Motors until the 1967 model year to offer its Mustang challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro. While the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair Spyder with four-speed manual and turbocharging was quite sporty, it couldn't accommodate a V-8 engine.
The Camaro followed the Mustang's lead in form and function, using Chevy II underpinnings draped in a close-coupled, four-seater body with the mandatory long-hood, short-deck profile. Like the Mustang, it offered a variety of engine options, from the base six to a 6.5-litre V-8.
Other marques quickly chimed in. Ford's Lincoln-Mercury Division's Mercury Cougar came as a 1967 model. It used many Mustang components, but with a restyling that set it apart as something a little more upscale.
Pontiac was not to be outdone, having cultivated a strong performance image with its racing success and 1964 GTO Muscle Car. It wanted a pony car too, and the mid-1967 Pontiac Firebird was basically a Camaro with Pontiac power. Like Mustang and Camaro, it offered a wide range of engines starting with its new overhead-cam inline six, which was a Chevy six with the pushrods replaced by a belt-driven overhead camshaft.
American Motors, after a false start with the too-large, mid-1965 fastback Marlin based on the Classic sedan, got into the game properly with not one but two 1968 pony cars. The most popular was the Javelin, which followed the pony car formula. The other was the AMX, a short-coupled version of the Javelin created by taking 305 millimetres out of the Javelin's wheelbase and overall length. It was the only two-passenger pony car.
Dodge finally entered the pony-car market in 1970 with its Challenger, which was very similar to the redesigned Plymouth Barracuda. The Barracuda offered everything from a slant six to a 425-horsepower Hemi V-8.
These light, agile cars that could be loaded with horsepower just begged to be raced, so for 1966 the Sports Car Club of America established the Trans-Am racing series. Pony Cars were a natural, and after a tentative start, manufacturers were fighting it out tooth-and-nail on tracks all over North America. The Mustang won the 1966 season, and Cougar the 1967, a one-two punch for Ford.
Camaros took the Trans-Am for the next two years, setting the stage for a grand slam 1970 season when every factory except General Motors was into Trans-Am racing. GM had an official ban on racing, but was likely providing under-the-table assistance. Even little American Motors contested the series with famous driver Mark Donohue, who had previously raced Camaros. Donohue drove a factory-backed Javelin team man-aged by the redoubtable Roger Penske.
Mustang won the 1970 Trans-Am series, the high point of pony-car racing popularity. Most factory participation ended with the 1970 season, although the series carried on.
As with the racing, general interest in Pony Cars began to fade in the early 1970s as emission controls and lower compressions sapped power, and insurance rates rose dramatically. Pony cars gradually faded away until only the Mustang survived by staying true to its roots.
Recently, the revived Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger have come back to challenge Mustang. It may rekindle the spark, but it's unlikely we'll see a return of the pony car's glory days of the 1960s.
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