Automotive terminology can be a confusing thing for those uninitiated in the jargon. Gearboxes take it for granted that normal people know the difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger, or why a Ford Mustang Mach 1 is a completely different animal than a standard Mustang GT.
Then again, there are probably quite a few diehard reducers out there who would argue about another contentious point. They buzzed until they were blue about the fact that the majority of Mustangs are pony cars. Only a few of them are actually muscle cars. The prestigious 1968 Shelby GT500 KR is a perfect example.
This doesn’t just apply to Ford Mustangs. The pony car conundrum covers many different makes and brands and has been with us since the term was first coined in the 1960s. So in an attempt to shed some light on the problem, here are 10 things that you didn’t know about pony cars.
ten What is a Pony Car?
To qualify as a pony car, the vehicle must be compact, sporty or have a performance image. They should remain affordable and can be sleek coupes, fastbacks or convertibles. Engine sizes tend to be under 5.0 liters. These cars are generally aimed at the youth market, with a fun factor emphasized.
With a short deck profile, pony cars must carry 4 people. It’s not an exact science, but notable early pony cars were the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Mercury Cougar, and AMC Javelin, to name a few.
9 the original pony
Some will proclaim the Plymouth Barracuda as the first true pony car. But without the Ford Mustang, there would be no reference to a pony. Released in 1965, the Ford Mustang was a commercial success. It opened up a whole new market and became an icon overnight.
This allowed those on a budget to purchase a performance-oriented vehicle that looked great. Not only did the Mustang perform well, but it appealed to the lucrative youth market. Ford had not only created a legend, but also a whole new segment of vehicles.
8 It doesn’t have to be a V8
The biggest misconception about the pony car is that it must have a powerful V8 engine under the hood. In truth, the pony car originally leaned towards smaller displacement engines, with straight-sixes and V6s being commonly used.
It was about staying within the parameters of being affordable to buy and operate. In the late ’60s, Pontiac offered the Firebird with a 3.8-liter straight-six, and it was a popular model. More recently, the impressive Challenger AWD could only be purchased with a 3.6-liter V6 engine under its flared hood.
seven Small and mighty is the way
The pony car was something to get excited about. Much more compact in its approach, it also offered plenty of scalable performance. Those not tempted by the frugal running costs of low-displacement motors might opt for something much tastier instead.
Since the majority of manufacturers’ engines were available in a chosen pony, installing a high-powered unit was not a difficult task. This left performance-loving owners with a small car that dispensed copious amounts of horsepower.
6 A car revolution
The introduction of the pony car marked the dawn of a new era in motoring. With the market quickly saturated with offers from all major manufacturers, owning a pony quickly became a very popular thing. No matter your devotion to the brand, there was definitely an option for you.
Part of the appeal of owning a pony was the wide range of options with the cars. Accessories, trim levels and engine specs. The buyer could choose what suited him best and build the car of his dreams.
5 There are European exceptions
Generally, a pony car is considered American. Yet, although its origins are in America, there are notable exceptions, the most defining being that of the Ford Capri. Often presented as the European Mustang, it is a sports coupe offered by Ford Europe.
It came with a selection of engines, including a V6, and is better known as an RS2600 or RS3100. Light, nimble and powerful for its age, the Capri offered a taste of what was going on in America but with a distinct European flavor. It’s a pony because not like the others.
4 Scramble the range of muscle cars
The rule of thumb states that when the displacement exceeds 5.0 liters, you go from pony to muscle car. This is not always the case and it can get very confusing with Mustangs. Fittingly, all Mustangs are pony cars.
They proudly wear the stud badge, and the genus gets its name from the reference to the logo. However, faced with a Shelby GT500 and its 7.0-liter 350 hp engine, the boundaries between pony and muscle are blurred. He seems to have a foot in both camps, and rightly so.
3 The muscle alternative at a reduced price
For many who got into the pony car phase, they were looking for the look of more powerful cars at a much more reasonable price. Not everyone wanted more than 300 horsepower at their disposal, but they wanted people to think it was.
Being able to spec a less powerful car to look like its more powerful sibling was a huge draw for buyers. What they then got was all the show, but less to go. That meant lower running costs, higher insurance, but full attention…until they dropped the hammer, that is.
2 They spawned an automotive phenomenon
These gear buffs who had their first taste of the hotrod scene in the 1950s saw pony cars as a very unique opportunity. For much less than a high-end big-bore model, they could tune one of the many small-block V8s. A whole new tuning culture has erupted.
What followed were dedicated car clubs and magazines, and the scene went wild for aftermarket bolt-on parts. It soon became the norm to buy low and tune high. The pony car had transformed into a street racing car of choice.
1 At pasture
At one point, it appeared to be wall-to-wall pony cars. They were everywhere. Then, as tastes changed, wallets tightened and imported cars became more common, the pony car took a back seat. At the turn of the millennium, only Ford could truly claim to still be making a pony car in the form of the Mustang.
Other manufacturers had long since abandoned the concept as buyers sought out more contemporary rides. That would change though. Thanks to a recent styling revival, the retro-looking pony car is king again.