Ask any car expert about the difference between a pony car and a muscle car and they could wax eloquent. But for anyone who is not an expert, like 99.9% of the world, it becomes a bit tough to distinguish between the two, so pony and muscle often becomes a term used interchangeably, even though it is erroneous.
The American pony car is as famous as its older sibling, the American muscle car and while these terms are mostly used for classic cars – the times they are now changing and we are already witnessing a re-emergence of these trends in the car bazaar. So let's take a peek into the history of what made us pony up for the pony car…
10 The Origins Of The Pony
By actual definition, a pony car is akin to a sports coupe, smaller than the traditional muscle car with a good engine under the hood, be it small or big block. In the 60s, demand for a cheaper, smaller but powerful car was abounding. For a while, the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevrolet Corvair managed to fill in this growing niche, till the Mustang blew it all to smithereens.
The term pony car itself came into being with the advent of the Ford Mustang in the mid-60s, so decorated with what they called a stallion – and people started to refer to it as the Pony. Mustang became synonymous with the pony car though it was also a muscle car, from time to time.
9 The First Pony Car: ‘Cuda
Now the arrival, or rather the announcement of the arrival of the Mustang created the Pony clamor. However, the first pony car to arrive on the scene was not the Mustang but the ‘Cuda – rather, the Plymouth Barracuda. It was based on the Valiant, heavily redesigned with that stately rear window and engine options that ranged from a 101-horsepower 2.8-liter Slant-6 to a 180-horsepower 4.5-liter V8.
It was soon overshadowed by the better performing Mustang, even though the ‘Cuda looked amazing. While it was a fastback version of the Valiant for the frugal spender who wanted a buzz; the two-week time advantage it had over the Mustang could not keep the sales very high.
8 The Pony-Muscle Conundrum
So for us mere mortals, the exact line that traverses between a pony car and a muscle car gets blurry. Normally though, a muscle car is defined as a large 2-door, rear-wheel-drive family-sized car (mid or full) that has to have a “large” V8 under the hood.
A pony car, on the other hand, is a sports-like coupe, smaller, more affordable, compact and has to be performance-oriented. So even a finely tuned V4, V6 or even inline-4s and inline-6s can make for a good pony car, with a small and sporty size. For the larger muscle car, it better be a “large” V8 which means a minimum of 5 liters and up.
7 Ponies Were Cheaper
So muscle cars looked better, were more powerful and could seat more occupants. But the biggest advantage pony cars had over muscle cars was the moolah one needed to cough up for either of these beauties. While the muscle cars were heavier and had bigger engines, the Pony cars were smaller, nimbler and infinitely cheaper than their muscled siblings. And their affordability is why they were lapped up like cream.
This is because the Pony cars were often high-performance small cars built on the chassis of erstwhile successful passenger cars – like the Mustang was built on the Falcon, the ‘Cuda on the Valiant and the Camaro on the Pontiac Firebird.
6 Mustang Vs. Camaro
All pony cars rivaled for marketspace, popularity and sale numbers. But nothing is more legendary than the (ongoing) beef between the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro. Ford came first so for a while the finders keepers, losers weepers idiom seemed to fit right. Then Chevrolet came at the Mustang with all guns blazing with a car codenamed “Panther.”
At the name reveal, Chevy was quizzed as to what the Camaro meant and they replied, “a Camaro is a beast that eats Mustangs for breakfast.” May not be the same words, but this is what the spirit of the conversation was. Since then, the Mustang and the Camaro have been at loggerheads and if the Mustang has Shelby, the Camaro is Bumblebee!
5 Famous Pony Cars
Of course, let’s not forget all the other cool pony cars of that time. There was the Dodge Challenger, The Pontiac Firebird, Mercury Cougar, Studebaker Avanti, The AMC Javelin, the Pontiac TransAm and many versions of the Mustang and Camaro in between. Everyone had their favorites, be it for cars or brands, and very often stuck it out with their choices till the end.
There were a few misses in between, like the legendary fireball (literally) Ford Pinto, or the non-turbo like Pontiac Trans Am Turbo – but the oil crisis and a need for better engines did give many cars some rough edges before they were finely tuned to perfection.
4 The Rise Of The Hot Rods
The one advantage that Pony cars provided to many wannabe engine tinkerers and car tuners was that the small engines, better power, and cheaper prices let people experiment with their cars. A whole slew of youth suddenly had the wherewithal to buy a car, since the pony cars were far more affordable than the muscle, sports or luxury cars of their time.
And with cars, came the eagerness to experiment to see how powerful the engines could be. Enter hot rodding, which may not have been a new concept, but the cheaper ponies simply provided a better opportunity and platform to be tinkered with.
3 When The Pony Retired
With higher insurance premiums, new and strict emission rules and the continuing effects of the 1973 oil embargo; pony cars began to decline as did muscle cars. By the time the oil crisis hit, many pony cars had enlarged in both body, weight and engine displacement to become muscle cars.
So with gas being at a premium, pony cars began to sell less and less. 1974 turned out to be the death knell for the Javelin, the ‘Cuda and the Challenger. While the first two went to their graves, the Challenger was revived in 1978, but to another gory end. Soon all muscle and pony cars began to turn into luxury cars with smaller engines but better interiors and exteriors.
2 The Pony Is Back
There has been a revival of the pony car starting in the 2000s, with the Camaro relaunching with striking new looks in 2002. The Dodge Challenger followed suit in 2008, and this time, it came in a muscly avatar. The Mustang was perhaps the only pony to hang on – and has been at it, year after year, since 1964.
NASCAR has welcomed the Mustang, the Camaro and the Challenger on its tracks after the latter two’s hiatus – and things seem to be looking up for the pony car. Except now, the base models of these cars can be considered ponies while the higher trims with huge engines fall into the muscle car category.
1 The Future May Be Electric
Who knows what the future may hold for the pony car that has seen as many ups and downs as has the automobile world in general. With electric-power being the new gas, and fuel cell and hydrogen already lining up to even replace electric vehicles even before they are made – the world is now moving too fast. With there soon be a new EV Mustang or Camaro?
And with so many new Asian entrants on the market scene today – Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Honda and more – is an all-electric pony car far behind? Hyundai’s all-electric 45 Concept is inspired by Hyundai’s first 1970s model, dubbed the Pony (available in the States as the Hyundai Excel). So ponies better gear up for an electrical jolt, right?