Ford caused a sensation at the 1964 World’s Fair with the introduction of the Mustang, which within three years had created a whole new segment in the auto industry: The “pony car.” As the '70s dawned, just about every popular-priced marque sold a small 2+2 coupe with available V8 power and sporty good looks.
As those “pony cars” spent longer on the market between model cycles, car companies, and their marketing departments stepped in to answer the new demand with limited-production specials or event-based replicas. All ten of the cars on this list are special for different reasons, but all made their donor cars prize ponies.
10 1977-80 Pontiac Sky/Red/Yellow Bird
General Motors’ “excitement” division rolled out the first “Color Bird” package as a response to an increase in Firebird ownership by women. The “Sky Bird” appeared in the middle of the 1977 model year as a special edition of the Firebird Esprit. Even in a time of flashy F-bodies, the Sky Bird stood out for its bright two-tone blue paint, color-keyed “snowflake” wheels and matching interior.
Subsequent “Color Birds” arrived in red and yellow. None were especially fast, and it’s not clear how many were built, but they’re very unusual sights today.
9 1970 AMC Javelin Mark Donohue
Before his untimely death during the qualification for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975, Mark Donohue was one of the top race drivers in the world. He won the first International Race of Champions (you know it as “IROC”) series as well as the 1972 Indianapolis 500. But before that, he campaigned an AMC Javelin in Trans-Am racing.
AMC sought to capitalize on that partnership with a special edition of its Javelin SST pony car. Just 2,500 were built, all with big V8s, Ram Air hoods, and spoilers designed by Donohue himself. They’re exceedingly rare today.
8 1984-86 Ford Mustang SVO
Ford had started to shake off the torpor of the “malaise” era with the high-output 5.0L V8 in the ’83 GT. At the same time, the company’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) team, which had been getting Ford back into racing, was tasked with creating the ultimate Mustang, one that could deliver more than a great quarter-mile time.
Enter the SVO, with a turbocharged and intercooled 2.3L four-cylinder, ingenious quad-shock setup to reduce wheel hop from the Fox body’s live rear axle, and unique styling with “biplane” rear spoiler. Fewer than 10,000 were built across its three model years, but it helped pave the way for the current EcoBoost Mustang.
7 Pontiac Firebird Firehawk
GM contracted with SLP (Street Legal Performance) to inject some brio into 1991 and ’92 Firebirds with the Formula package. The “Firehawk” edition available through Pontiac dealers included a 360-hp 5.7L V8, big Brembo brakes, and a roll bar…all sold with a full GM warranty.
Pontiac continued to offer the Firehawk package on V8-equipped Firebirds off and on through the end of the F-body program in 2002. But it got SLP (now called Specialty Vehicle Engineering) in the door, and the company wound up being a key supplier of enhanced-performance cars for Chevy and Pontiac.
6 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car
Indianapolis Motor Speedway selected Chevrolet’s Camaro to run its Memorial Day 500-mile race twice in its first three years of production. The 1967 pace car was white with blue accents and a blue interior. Two years later, however, Chevy turned the visual impact up to 11…as in Z-11, the official order code for the Indy appearance package.
And the ’69 is a beaut! This time, the white body came with arresting Hugger Orange stripes and lettering, and a now-famous orange-and-black houndstooth interior. Plenty of cars have paced the 500, but none looked so good.
5 Ford Mustang Bullitt
Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Steve McQueen’s 1968 detective thriller Bullitt is…not a great movie. However, the ten-minute car chase in the middle might be the best ever filmed, and it made McQueen’s green ’68 Mustang fastback an American icon.
In 2001, Ford decided it was finally time to cash in on the mystique with a Mustang GT inspired by the film. It’s been available intermittently across three generations, each in Dark Highland Green or black, with retro-inspired graphics, retuned exhaust, and Torq-Thrust-like alloys.
4 1985-87 Camaro IROC-Z
The International Race of Champions featured great drivers from the world’s top racing series (NASCAR, USAC Champ Car and Formula 1) competing in identical cars, mostly Camaros. In 1985, Chevrolet commemorated its sponsorship of the IROC series with a special edition of its Camaro Z28.
The muscular IROC-Z combined monotone bodywork and special graphics with an uprated suspension and specific alloy wheels. It was such a big success that it replaced the Z28 on Camaro order sheets from 1988 to 1991, and became common sights in cruising spots and high school parking lots.
3 1969-70 Mustang Boss 429
None of the numerous “Boss” edition Mustangs are as rare and highly regarded as the one known familiarly as the “Boss 9,” created when Ford needed to qualify its 7.0L semi-Hemi V8 for stock-car racing.
Each Boss 429 had to be modified off-site to accommodate the huge V8. Ford also upgraded the suspension so that the extremely nose-heavy Mustang could be driven in anything other than a straight line. Barely 1,300 were built across two model years, and Boss 9s now command hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions.
2 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
There have been a number of notable special editions of Dodge’s pony car (the first-generation “T/A” is a standout) but in terms of sheer power and attitude, the SRT Demon puts them all on the trailer. Under the hood of the heavily flared and scooped Demon lies a 6.2L supercharged V8, pumping out 800 horsepower on premium fuel.
It may be street-legal, but it’s NOT a typical streetcar. Each Demon is sold without a front-passenger seat or a rear seat (both can be added), and with a massive waiver absolving Fiat Chrysler from liability if you do something stupid in your showroom-ready drag-strip car. Any car with a warning from the lawyers has to be good…but there’s one better.
1 1976-81 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Special Edition
So why is this gaudy, scooped, and spoilered monument to the “malaise” era at #1?
Two words: Burt Reynolds.
The Trans Am’s co-starring role in Burt’s box-office smash Smokey And The Bandit (also not an amazing movie) made the “Special Edition” package a hit and helped make the Trans Am the most popular Firebird model through the end of the ‘70s. Checking the box marked Y82, Y81, or Y84 (depending on model year and whether or not you wanted T-tops) bought you a black T/A with specific gold pin-striping and hood bird, gold-anodized “snowflake” alloys and gold-tinted dash appliqués. To this day, people call any black Trans Am with a gold hood bird a “Bandit” T/A, and they command a premium at resale over any other Trans Am.