1965 Ford Mustang. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The “Pony Car” was born in April, 1964 with the arrival of the Ford Mustang, a low slung, long-hood, short-deck, four-seater sporty car based on compact Ford Falcon mechanicals. Ford stylists and engineers had created a kind of American sports car, one far more practical than traditional English roadsters. It was quickly nicknamed the Pony Car.
The Mustang was a sensation, catching the wave of the youth movement. 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 presidency of the Ford Motor Co.
The Mustang came as a convertible or hardtop and offered so many power and handling options it could go from plain and simple to fast and sporty. Engines ranged from the standard overhead valve 2.8-litre (170 cu in.) 101 horsepower inline six, to a 4.2-litre (260 cu in.) overhead valve V8 (soon to be 4.7 litres (289 cu in.) with a four-speed manual floor shifted transmission. Base transmission with the six was a three-speed manual, with automatic optional.
The Ford Motor Co. had caught the industry flatfooted. The Plymouth Barracuda, basically a Valiant with a huge wrapover rear window, had arrived just before the Mustang, but was overwhelmed by the Mustang’s popularity.
It took General Motors until the 1967 model year to offer a Mustang challenger, its Chevrolet Camaro. While the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair Spyder with four-speed manual transmission and turbocharging was quite sporty, it couldn’t accommodate a V8 engine.
The Camaro followed the Mustang lead in form and function, using Chevy II underpinnings draped in a close-coupled, four-seater body with the mandatory long hood and short deck. Like the Mustang, it offered a variety of engine options, from the base six up to a 6.5-litre (396 cu in.) V8.
Other marques quickly chimed in. Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Division’s Mercury Cougar came as a 1967 model. It used many Mustang parts, but with restyling to set it apart as something a little more upscale.
Pontiac had cultivated a strong performance image with its racing and the 1964 GTO Muscle Car, so it wanted a Pony Car too. Pontiac’s Firebird, basically a Camaro with Pontiac power, bowed as a mid-1967 model. Like Mustang and Camaro, it offered a wide range of engines starting with its new overhead cam inline six, a Chevy six with pushrods replaced by a belt-driven single 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 Pony Cars in 1968. 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 mm (12 in.) out of the Javelin’s length, including the wheelbase. 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. With Dodge’s racing heritage it’s not surprising that the Challenger offered everything from a slant six to a 425 horsepower Hemi V8.
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. The Pony Cars were a natural, and after a tentative start, manufacturers fought 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 was into Trans-Am racing, except General Motors, who had an official ban on racing, but was likely helping under the table. Even little American Motors contested the series with famous driver Mark Donohue, who had previously raced Camaros, in a factory backed Javelin team managed by the redoubtable Roger Penske.
Mustang, the original Pony Car, 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 racing, general interest in Pony Cars began to fade in the early 1970s as emission controls sapped power, and insurance rates rose dramatically. Pony Cars gradually faded away until only the Mustang survived. 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.