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Pony Car History

Article by Mark Trotta

On April 1st, 1964, Plymouth introduced the Barracuda, a compact fastback based on the 106-inch wheelbase Valiant model. Sales were lukewarm.

plymouth barracuda history

Two weeks later, Ford debuted their new compact model, the Mustang. Affordable and stylish, it's good looks and youth-oriented marketing helped make it enormously successful.

More than one-million Mustangs were sold in the first eighteen months of production. Because of its popularity, and the fact that it inspired so many competitors, the Mustang sits in automotive history as the original Pony car.

pony car history, Ford Mustang

The performance-oriented Mustang GT gave the buyer a quick-ratio gearbox, stiffer front coils and rear springs, front disc brakes, and the K-code 271 horsepower 289-cid V-8.

Chevy Camaro

One of the reasons the Chevrolet Camaro did not arrive until 1967 was that many GM executives believed the rear-engine, air-cooled Corvair could compete in sales against the Ford Mustang. The Camaro quickly made up for lost time with the potent Z-28 package, which dominated the SCCA Trans-Am circuit in 1968 and 1969.

pony car history

Pontiac Firebird

The Pontiac Firebird was launched simultaneously with the Chevy Camaro. The two cars shared platforms and major components with each other. Both two-door hardtop and convertible models were offered for 1967-1969.

Pontiac Firebird history

Mercury Cougar

Introduced in September 1966 for the 1967 model year, the Cougar shared most of it's components with the Ford Mustang. Although having a longer wheelbase (111" vs 108") it was still quite a performer - many of the Mustang's performance options were available on the Cougar as well.

pony car history

What Is A Pony Car?

Pony cars were unique in that they could be different things to different people. For example, being a fairly small and light car, reasonable gas mileage could be attained with the base six-cylinder engine. They also made a good platform for a sports car, or a quarter-mile drag racer.

Pony Car vs Muscle Car

Whereas a Pony Car was small and built on a unibody platform, a Muscle Car was a mid-size car, built on a conventional frame with a separate body.

Trans Am Racing Series

Created in 1966 by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), early Trans-Am race cars were merely modified production cars. There were two engine classes; "Under 2.0 Litre" (European cars) and "Over 2.0 Litre" (American cars). Engines in the latter category could be no larger than 5.0 litres (305-cid).

SCCA rules stated that any parts that were used on race cars must also be available to the public. This helped bring many factory race parts into the hands of amateur and street racers.

pony car history

Ford vs Chevy

Ford won the "Over 2.0 Litre" category in both 1966 and 1967. To be more competitive, Chevrolet introduced the Z-28 option on their Camaro late in 1966. Chevy engineers combined the 3.00-inch stroke of the 283 engine with the 4.00-inch bore of the 327 motor to produce a high-revving, 302-cid small-block.

1968 Trans Am Season

Racing legend Mark Donohue, driving the blue #6 Camaro, won 10 of the 13 Trans Am races this year, easily winning the 1968 series. The Penske/Sunoco prepped 302ci engine produced an estimated 480-horsepower.

Winning on the racetrack and the resulting publicity always boosted sales.

AMC Javelin and AMX

Introduced in August of 1967 for the 1968 model year, the AMC Javelin offered clean styling, respectable performance options, and several special edition models.

1969 Javelin and AMX muscle car

Always to have identity issues with its pony car stable-mate the Javelin, the 1968-1970 two-seat AMX could be had with a 390 cubic-inch, 315 horsepower V-8, which produced a tire-shredding 415 lb/ft of torque. At 3,000 pounds, the AMX was capable of zero-to-sixty times in under seven seconds, with quarter-mile times under 15 seconds.

1968 AMC AMX

1970 Trans Am Season

After winning the manufacturers championship for Chevrolet in 1968 and 1969, Roger Penske and driver Mark Donohue switched to American Motors. In their first year out (1970), the team scored three wins and four seconds. After that, it was American Motors winning back-to-back championships in 1971 and 1972.

Plymouth Barracuda

A second-generation Barracuda (1967-1969) featured a convertible and hardtop coupe, alongside the original fastback model. Wheelbase grew to 108", the same as the Camaro and Mustang. A curious note about the 1967 Barracudas were that the front and rear bumpers were identical.

Plymouth Cuda

Chrysler Corporation's first pony car was the A-body Plymouth Barracuda, introduced in 1964. The third-generation Barracuda (1970-1974), now called the Cuda, was a complete re-design. No longer Valiant-based, the Cuda was quite different from earlier models, with 426ci Hemi and 440ci versions available.

E-Body Platform

The 1970 Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Cuda had little in common with the A-body cars from which the original Barracuda were based. Using components from both the compact A-body and midsize B-body cars, the E-body design featured long hoods and short rear decks. They were wider than the previous Barracuda, with the Challenger getting two more inches of wheelbase at 110-inches wheelbase. Total length was 192 inches.

Dodge Challenger

Designed to compete with the more upscale Cougar, the Dodge Challenger had larger body dimensions and more luxurious interior, and was aimed at more affluent young American buyers.

Dodge Challenger in Pony Car History

Horsepower Ratings

Prior to 1972, published horsepower ratings were expressed as SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Gross. These figures reflected an engine's output without power-robbing accessories, such as cooling fan, exhaust system, and alternator. Starting in 1971 and going industry-wide in 1972, engine output was expressed as SAE Net, with horsepower measured at the rear wheel. The result was lower advertised horsepower ratings.

With emission regulations and no-lead gas already bringing about lower compression ratios, Pony car sales started falling after 1970. Performance faded as emissions standards and safety concerns increased. The 1973 U.S. Oil Crisis made the gas-thirsty Pony cars fall further in the marketplace.

1974 was the last year for the AMC Javelin, Plymouth Cuda, and the first-generation Dodge Challenger. The original Mustang pony car was downsized to the compact Mustang II for the years 1974 through 1978.

The RWD Mercury Cougar continued until 1997, and brought back in 1999 as a front-wheel drive model powered by a six-cylinder engine. The Ford Mustang has been in continuous production since 1964.

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

Life After Death

Four years after the Challenger was discontinued, Dodge revived the Challenger name in 1978 for a version of the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda coupe. Powered by an inline four-cylinder instead of a six or eight-cylinder engine like the first-generation models, it retained little of the styling of the original. In 2008, production started on the third-generation Dodge Challenger. Many design cues were adapted from the original Challenger R/T.

Both the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were produced until 2002. An all-new, fifth generation Chevy Camaro debuted in 2010.

Although originally called pony cars, the present-day Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and Dodge Challenger are now considered muscle cars.

Misc Notes

In it's 34-year production (1967-1997 and 1999-2002) the Cougar was Mercury's highest-selling model with 2,972,784 examples produced. Although the two-door coupe was most popular, the Cougar nameplate was also seen on convertibles, four-door sedans, station wagons, and hatchbacks.

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