An added impetus came from Chevrolet, with the popularity of the Corvair Monza introduced in mid-1960. The initial Corvair had been positioned as an economy car, but it was much more successful with the plusher trim and sportier image of the Monza model that included bucket seats and a floor-mounted transmission shifter, which sold around 144,000 units by 1961 - starting a trend toward sportier cars with bucket-seats in all sizes from compacts to full-size cars. Ford responded to the compact Corvair Monza with sportier Futura and Futura Sprint versions of its Ford Falcon, and Chrysler with the Plymouth Valiant Signet and Dodge Dart GT, as well as American Motors (AMC) with the 440-H and Rogue versions of the Rambler American, and Studebaker with the sporty Daytona version of its compact Lark. Other sporty bucket-seat compact cars that appeared during the early 1960s included the Mercury Comet S-22, Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass, Buick Special Skylark, and Pontiac Tempest LeMans. Most of these sporty compacts came standard with the same economical six-cylinder engines as their more mundane counterparts, but in some cases more powerful V8 engines were at least optional along with four-speed manual transmissions and center consoles housed between the front bucket seats.
Some interesting technical developments of the early sporty compact cars offered in the U.S. (1961-63) included a turbocharged six-cylinder in the rear-engine Corvair Monza Spyder/Corsa (1962-66), turbocharged aluminum V8 on the 1962-63 Oldsmobile Cutlass Jetfire and a standard four-cylinder engine mated to a rear transaxle on the 1961-63 Pontiac Tempest LeMans in several states of tune, including a four-barrel high-performance option, as well as (in 1963) a large (for a compact car) V8 that was optional with up to .
Although the sporty compacts were a commercial success for most automakers, some auto executives, however, principally Ford's Lee Iacocca, believed that sporty versions of mundane compact cars only scratched the surface of the potential market. During this period there was a strong influx of young buyers with discretionary income and a taste for vehicles with a younger image than a standard sedan, and Iacocca's marketing studies revealed that if a unique-looking sporty car could be offered at an affordable price, it would find many buyers. Ford's response to this demand was the Mustang, launched on April 17 1964, which proved to be an enormous success. The company was forecasting sales for the first year to reach 100,000 units. However, Ford dealers took 22,000 orders the first day and the company had to shift production mid-year. The extended model year sales totaled 618,812 Mustangs.
The requirements were therefore set:
While most of the pony cars offered more powerful engines and performance packages, enough to qualify some into muscle car territory, a substantial number were sold with six-cylinder engines or ordinary V8s. For the most part, the high-performance models saw limited sales and were largely limited to drag racing, road racing, or racing homologation purposes.
Initially, General Motors believed that the restyled 1965 Corvair would be an adequate challenger for the Mustang, but when it became clear that the Corvair itself was doomed, the more conventional Chevrolet Camaro was introduced, going on sale for the 1967 model year, at the time the Mustang was entering its second generation. They were presently joined by the Camaro-based Pontiac Firebird, the Mercury Cougar, and, in 1968, the AMC Javelin. Dodge joined the party belatedly, while the last to arrive was the 1970 Dodge Challenger, an enlarged version of the Barracuda.
The pony car was primarily an American phenomenon, but in 1969, Ford created a highly successful European equivalent in the Ford Capri. Sharing most of its underpinnings and its four- and six-cylinder engines with an ordinary model, (the Ford Cortina), it had a combination of style and image very much in the spirit of the Mustang. The European Ford Capri (sold in the U.S. as a Mercury Capri through 1978 at Lincoln-Mercury dealerships) was last imported for the 1978 model year, and the nameplate was placed on a rebadged Fox-body Mustang until it survived through 1987. The Toyota Celica was introduced in 1970 with strong styling cues from the Mustang. It was aimed at a similar market, and could arguably be considered the first Japanese pony car.
While sales were strong throughout the end of the 1960s, the greater value of the pony cars was in bringing buyers, particularly the crucial youth market, into the fold. In 1970 Car and Driver reported that while very few pony car drivers bought a second pony car, around 50% moved on to purchase another car of the same make. Nevertheless, even by 1969 sales were beginning to slide, dropping to 9% of the total market, from a peak of 13% in 1967.
By 1970 buyers were moving away from the pony cars, either toward smaller compact cars (domestic or imported) or toward larger, more luxurious models. Performance of the hottest pony cars began to erode as a result of emissions controls and the added weight of required safety features. The 1973 oil crisis left the bulky pony cars out of step with the marketplace.
The Challenger, Barracuda, and Javelin were cancelled after 1974, and the Camaro and Firebird nearly died at the same time, although they received last-minute stays of execution. The Cougar became an upscale personal luxury twin to the Ford Thunderbird, while the Mustang was reinvented as a luxury compact based on the Ford Pinto.
Sales of Mustang remained strong, although in the 1980s Ford gave serious consideration to replacing it with a front-drive model (which eventually appeared as the Ford Probe instead). Emissions and fuel economy concerns led many of the latter-day pony cars to offer four-cylinder engines (sometimes with turbocharging), although they were never as popular as six-cylinder and V8 models.
By the mid 1980s, the pony car survivors (Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird) enjoyed a period of renewed popularity as progressively more and more powerful (yet relatively fuel-efficient) V8 engines were offered in performance-oriented versions of these vehicles. However, declining sales and the growing popularity of light trucks and sport utility vehicles ultimately led to the demise of the Camaro and Firebird after the 2002 model year.
The dilemma facing automakers in offering pony cars (or their spiritual equivalent) today is that few have suitable platforms that are affordable enough to be viable. Unlike the mid-1960s, the large majority of modern compact cars are front-wheel drive, with four- and six-cylinder engines, and the widespread use of monocoque construction makes engineering a specialized body an expensive proposition. Some would argue that the true modern equivalent of the pony car is the sporty compact, such as the performance models of the Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cobalt, although a pony car is a separate model only based on a compact, not a compact itself.
As of late 2005, only the original pony car, the Mustang, remained in production, although due to its popularity following the Mustang's 2005 redesign, the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro are slated to return for the 2008 and 2010 model years.
MUSTANG MEMORABILIA | ORIGINAL `PONY' CAR RODE INTO HISTORY THROUGH RECESSION, OIL EMBARGOES, MARKET CHANGES AND A CLOUD OF DUST
May 16, 1999; The direction of the American auto industry changed forever on April 17, 1964, when a very different kind of car was unveiled to...