When most people think of a pony they think of a small, young horse. Perhaps it is something that youngsters can safely ride at the fair. Generally speaking they are slow and safe and very tame. In the car world, ponies are something entirely different (Photo 1).

There is no definitive definition of precisely what a pony car is. But there are traits that run through the entire class. According to CarDebater.com, a pony car is a small, American-made two-door car that generally seats four. It has a long hood and a short rear deck. It is made from mass produced parts and features an affordable base price and would offer a multitude of possible upgrades.

So where did this description come from? The Ford Mustang, of course (Photo 2). Introduced in 1964 the Mustang was the first pony car and ticked every box of that class’s description. The first Mustang was not actually what we consider a Mustang. The original concept car was made in 1962 as a two seater (Photo 3). It was followed in 1963 by a four seater version. According to legend, Ford originally wanted to base the Mustang on a Galaxy 500 but instead resorted to the smaller sized Falcon. And a legend was born.

Well, not exactly. Prior to the release of the Mustang there were a few cars that featured at least some of the above traits. The Falcon (Photo 4) was introduced in 1960 as a compact car. Ford wanted it to compete with not only other domestic compacts but also the assault starting to come from overseas. It was an instant success and outsold its competition. While it sold very well, Ford realized halfway through its decade long life cycle that its styling and features were falling out of style. They knew this simply by looking at what the other manufacturers were turning out.

Over at rival Chevrolet, 1960 saw them launch the most revolutionary American car in decades. The Corvair (Photo 5) was a rear engine car built to compete as much with the Volkswagen Beetle (Photo 6) as any Detroit metal being produced. Its design and engineering were lauded by the automotive press. Motor Trend named it the 1960 “Car of the Year” and decent sales followed. Famously, in 1966 consumer advocate Ralph Nader spoke out against the safety of numerous cars, singling out the Corvair in a book entitled Unsafe At Any Speed. This really signaled the end for the Corvair.

Other similar cars that were introduced in 1960 included the Dodge Dart (Photo 7) and the Plymouth Valiant (Photo 8). While the Valiant was originally introduced as a compact to compete directly with the likes of the Corvair and the Falcon, the Dart initially was a full sized car on a slightly smaller wheelbase. That changed after a couple of years and the two MoPar cars were sharing many of the same design elements. Both cars had runs into the mid-1970s and the Dart has recently made a comeback.

There were actually two American cars already on the road that pre-dated all of these. In 1958 Rambler introduced the American (Photo 9) as an alternative to the growing trend of full sized, big engine cars rolling off of the lines in Detroit. Geared as an entry level economy car it spent its entire run under the Rambler banner. In fact, the American was the last car to use the Rambler name before American Motors did away with it.

In 1959 Studebaker introduced their compact car, the Lark (Photo 10). Throughout the 1950s the Studebaker-Packard Corporation was hemorrhaging money and trying to come up with any ideas on how to stay in business. The idea of bringing an affordable small car to the market was their solution. The Lark went head to head with the Rambler American and in many ways was the superior car. For one, even though it was designated as a small car, it could still comfortably seat six. That didn’t really matter, though, as the Big Three continued to use their financial advantage to underprice the Lark and it only made it until the 1962 model year.

Despite all of these predecessors the Mustang is considered the first real pony car but the truth is, it was introduced 16 days after the Plymouth Barracuda (Photo 11). Everyone in the auto industry knew that Ford was planning to introduce a sporty compact car but didn’t know much about the particulars. Plymouth, seeing an opportunity and sniffing a potentially profitable market segment, created a fastback hardtop based on the Valiant platform. In fact, other than some unique cosmetic changes, the Barracuda was essentially a re-tooled Valiant. The base models even used the same slant six power train as the Valiant. There was, though, the option to step up to an all-new 273 cubic inch V8 with a two barrel carb that churned out 180 horse power. This was to be the trend, equipping these light weight sporty compacts with more powerful engines.

While the Barracuda was marketed as a car for “people of all ages and interests,” Ford aimed the Mustang squarely at a younger audience. It worked. In fact it worked so well that the Mustang became the biggest selling new car for Ford since the Model A (Photo 12) was unleashed in 1927. Original sales projections had been for fewer than 100,000 to be sold in the first model year. That number was eclipsed within three months and over 300,000 more rolled off for the initial model year.

Another famous quark about the first year Mustang is that they are all referred to by Ford as being 1965s. The first ones actually came out in 1964 in order to not fall too far behind Plymouth and so collectors will refer to the ones manufactured from the original August, 1964 date through that year as ’64 ½ models.

Seeing this success the other car manufacturers wanted a piece of that rapidly expanding market. Soon everyone was jumping into the pony class but not all of those were new designs or even new cars. The Pontiac LeMans was introduced in 1961 as the top trim line for the Tempest (Photo 13). While the LeMans toyed with being its own name plate in 1965 it spawned a trim called the GTO (Photo 14). There are those who argue that the GTO is more muscle car that pony but the distinctions are slight and the GTO was a success for Pontiac.

Historically, Ford’s biggest rival has been Chevrolet and that wasn’t going to change in the battle of the pony cars. In 1966 Chevy introduced the Camaro (Photo 15) for the 1967 model year. The Camaro was built with the sole purpose to go up against the Mustang. In fact, that’s how it was marketed. When it was first introduced reporters asked the marketing team what the car’s name meant. The response was that a Camaro was “a small, vicious animal that ate mustangs.”

General Motors wasn’t done going after the Mustang. In 1967 it introduced the Pontiac Firebird (Photo 16) and two years later its most successful trim, the Trans Am (Photo 17). Both cars shared the same frame and many of the same components as the Camaro and were built in the same factories. The Norwood GM plant was one of the largest production facilities for the Camaro and the Firebird and Trans Am.

To help offset some of the pressure being put on by GM, Ford turned to its Mercury line in hopes of winning back some of its lost market share. As Mercury was seen as a more upscale line than Ford, the Cougar (Photo 18) was slotted above the Mustang in their line-up. But while the Mercury was seen as more luxurious it did not lack for power. Engine choices of that first generation in 1967 ranged from the 289 cubic inch two barrel V8 up to a 390 cubic inch four barrel V8. Similar to what Ford had done with its personal luxury Thunderbird (Photo 19), the Cougar would undergo a growth spurt and move into an intermediate sized car.

In 1968 the struggling American Motors Corporation came after the Mustang with a double barrel launch. The Javelin (Photo 20) was based on the Rambler American’s underpinnings and was designed to be a “hip” car aimed squarely at the young pony car market. It also packed some power with engines ranging from a 232 cubic inch straight six up to a 390 cubic inch V8. It was with the Javelin that AMC hoped to wipe out its economy car image and firmly enter the race for the power hungry crowd.

A two seat muscle car version that ticked all of the pony car boxes was also introduced. The AMX (Photo 21) was essentially the same as the Javelin only lighter. It used the same power trains and transmissions but the marketing was to the muscle car crowd more so than the pony audience. The AMX, standing for American Motors eXperimental, only lasted three model years with 1970 being its swan song.

There were other cars that entered the pony race. Ford created a sub-compact that, if properly equipped was a true pony car in the Maverick. They also re-branded the Ford Capri which had tasted a good deal of success in Germany as a Mercury for the American market. And Dodge brought out a slightly little brother to the Barracuda in the form of the Challenger.

Eventually many of these cars would suffer the same fate as the muscle cars of that era. Rising fuel costs and tougher safety and emissions laws forced Detroit to completely re-think their line-ups. Many of the cars that did survive were morphed into something else. The Mustang itself became a compact car, literally based on the Pinto platform. But it still survived and today is back to its pony glory. Cars like the Challenger are part of the new muscle movement that has emerged.

Pony cars were truly an American phenomenon. For about a decade they were mainstays in just about every manufacturers’ line-up and today they are some of the most desirable collectors. Go to any show and you are sure to see some of these gems.

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