THE BOTTOM END
We can probably agree that the Ford Mustang created the ponycar market, even though the Barracuda debuted several weeks earlier. While the Barracuda was a Valiant with a contemporary fastback roofline, the Mustang was a much bigger entity: a new class of car backed by solid market research that seized upon emerging youth, female, and two-car family demographics and psychographics.
Yet apparently we can’t agree on whether or not a Mustang with a Cobra Jet is a muscle car.
As a rule, ponycars in standard form had six-cylinder and low-performance V-8 engines— not muscle cars! However, there is a segment of the muscle car hobby that sees a Cobra Jet and says, “That’s not a muscle car. That’s a ponycar!”
Why can’t it be both?
Today we view muscle cars by class: compact, intermediate, and fullsize, with intermediates representing the quintessence. In that spirit, the 1964 GTO is an intermediate (LeMans) with a performance engine (389). The pattern continues: a fullsize (Impala) with a performance engine (409) is a muscle car, as is a compact (Duster) with a performance engine (340).
Yet a COPO Camaro is not a muscle car, according to the logic of a few. Not sure why, considering that a ponycar (Camaro) with a performance engine (427) doesn’t sound any less like a muscle car than those mentioned above. Muscle car is simply a subgenre of something bigger.
Head starting to hurt? Then prepare to toss off all preconceived notions of how you categorize cars and look at how the auto industry saw the marketplace back in the day. From the January 3, 1966, Automotive News:
Generally speaking, a specialty car is anything that isn’t a true compact, intermediate, or standard car. The product planners consider the specialty car unique in that it’s not based on price or on size. Instead, the specialty-car category is based on these somewhat intangible, but nonetheless real characteristics:
• “A unique, pleasing, and contemporary appearance” with styling themes such as the
fastback, semi-fastback, and/or long hood and short rear deck.
• “One of a kind,” often with unique body styles not shared with regular series.
• “A number of unusual features that say ‘this car is different’” like concealed headlights,
full-width taillights, and/or special paint and trim, among other items.
• “A sporty flavor. This is especially true of the seating . . . the stylists and product planners are able to forget some of the practicalities of a family car.”
These attributes were shared by such varied models as the AMC Marlin, Buick Riviera, Chevrolet Corvair and Corvette, Dodge Charger, Ford Thunderbird and Mustang, Oldsmobile Toronado, and Plymouth Barracuda. The Chevrolet Camaro, Mercury Cougar, and Pontiac Firebird joined for 1967 (generally considered the year for the specialty car segment), followed by the AMC Javelin and AMX for 1968 and the Continental Mark III and Pontiac Grand Prix for 1969.
Ward’s 1968 Automotive Yearbook said, “After the Mustang hit the scene, the industry’s direction became clear. The little old schoolteacher in the vintage Detroit Electric moved to Pasadena, bought a Mustang, and was promptly courted by the little old man in the Corvette equipped with imported Michelin racing tires. In short, people were interested in cars with personality.”
A generous option list (a big contrast from the days of radios, whitewall tires, and little else) was a byproduct of the specialty car market; for 1967, vinyl top, air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, and V-8 were most popular. Ward’s claimed that Mustang buyers in particular added $440 in optional equipment on average. The influence was felt in different car categories too: “Nearly every car line available at the beginning of the ’68 model year boasted specialty-type models and specialty car options,” with the GTO and Road Runner being notable examples. “The market, in its seemingly boundless youth, is not fickle, however, because it seems to know what it wants. It dictated the end of sports-type fastbacks after a few short years, forcing the replacement of the Marlin and the restyle job of the Charger.”
No one would dare deny that the 1968 Charger R/T was a muscle car despite being considered a “specialty car” by the industry. Perhaps it’s time to agree that a 14-second Mustang or any other highperformance ponycar is a muscle car. What do you think?
n HOT ROD magazine claimed that the 1968½ Cobra Jet Mustang was the “fastest running Pure Stock in the history of man.” Yet people say it isn’t a muscle car?
n Inspired by a conversation with collector Brian Styles, here’s a Venn-like diagram that shows the thinking determining what makes a muscle car.