posted on June 26th, 2017

Defining the American automobile

Picture a muscle car in your head. Go ahead. It’s very likely that you’re actually thinking of a pony car. It’s also likely that you’ve heard both of these terms, but what’s the difference?

Pony cars can trace their roots back to when the Ford Mustang was launched in 1964. There was no other car like it, and it broke all post-war sales records in the US. The other American manufacturers scrambled to release competing models, kicking off the “pony car craze”. Pony, because a Mustang is a horse, you know.

John’s ’65 Mustang. San Jose, CA

The pony car class became defined by the Mustang, its namesake model. Pony cars are stylish, affordable, American cars that were generally built with mass production parts. They have two doors, four seats, and are “performance-oriented”, if not flat-out sporty. Engines varied, of course, but pony cars often carried small-blocks with eight cylinders or even six-cylinders under the hood. Ponies could be had with big-block V8s in higher trims, especially in later generations.

David’s ’65 Mustang. Costa Mesa, CA.

To battle Ford’s Mustang, automakers released a slew of legendary names in the new pony car segment. Chevy launched the Camaro, the only car to ever really worry the Mustang, for the 1967 model year. Plymouth had the Barracuda, which actually debuted two weeks before the Mustang. There was the Dodge Challenger, Mercury Cougar, Pontiac Firebird, and the AMC Javelin. But because these cars were all manufactured in the late 60s and early 70s, the golden age of American muscle, most of us today lump them together with the proper muscle cars.

Jeffrey’s Plymouth Barracuda. El Cajon, CA.

The definition of a muscle car is a bit more nebulous, because there was no single model that spawned the muscle car wars. But the recipe is simple enough: Drop a huge V8 into a two-door coupe and optimize only for straight-line speed. Raw power, lack of sophistication, and that distinctly American swagger are the hallmarks of all the great muscle cars.

The platform is the defining distinction between a pony car and a muscle car. Pony cars had more compact size with unibody construction. Muscle cars were mid- to full-size cars with full frames. For the fellow nerds: 110 in wheelbase or under = pony car. And a muscle car had to have a V8. The bigger the better.

In 1964, Pontiac offered its mid-size Tempest with a GTO package. The GTO, regarded as the first muscle car, included a whopping 389 ci (6L) V8 rated at 325hp, among other upgrades. In 1966, the Pontiac GTO became its own model. Also in 1966, Dodge unveiled the Charger fastback, available with a new street version of its 426 ci (7L) Chrysler Hemi engine. Chevy threw massive V8s into the Chevelle SS and Impala SS, and Ford did the same with its Galaxie and Gran Torino.

Anthony’s ’67 Pontiac GTO. Dallas, TX.

Muscle cars were simple, yes, but their simplicity lent fantastically to drag racing. Cheap parts, bulletproof construction, and enormous, snorting V8s made quarter-mile times the benchmark for American performance.

US manufacturers often took the V8s from their flagship muscle cars and offered them in their smaller pony cars. Harder, angrier versions of the Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, and Challenger all were offered with a wide variety of V8s and performance packages. Many iterations of these ponies, such as the Shelby Mustang GT500 and the COPO Camaro, could aptly be called muscle cars.

In this day, the differences between pony cars and muscle cars are mere technicalities. The terms are commonly used interchangeably, and differentiating them is mostly a fruitless endeavor. The modern versions of the ponies and muscle cars of yore barely resemble their glorious ancestors. Those that have survived (RIP Pontiac, Mercury, Plymouth, AMC, Oldsmobile), have grown much larger and the characteristics that differentiated the classes are no longer relevant.

The modern Mustangs and Camaros are still technically pony cars, but focus on suspension, handling, and Nurburgring lap times has muddled the terms we use. The super-sporty Mustang GT350 and Camaro ZL1 are track monsters and bonafide sports cars.

Perhaps only the modern Challenger is strictly a muscle car, even though the original was classified as a pony. It alone has retained an unwavering commitment to fitting giant V8s into an even more giant body, while disregarding things like refinement and corners. With 707 hp, the supercharged Dodge Challenger Hellcat is a magnificent modern throwback to the dragstrip heroes of the old days.

Joan’s 2016 Dodge Challenger. Seattle, WA.

So, does the difference really matter? It depends on who you ask. Pony cars and muscle cars share many more similarities than differences. The iconic muscle cars and pony cars of the golden age have both come to define the spirit and aesthetic of the American automobile. They occupy special places in pop culture and appeal to the kid in all of us. When a ‘69 Charger rumbles down the street, it’s an event. You might not know if it’s a muscle car or a pony car (well, you do now), but you probably don’t care.

Steven is an avid car guy and content maker at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.