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Car Corner
Is The Pony Car Back?

April 1, 2006
By Scott Lewis

Some things are happening faster than I can write about them. I went to a local car show in October/November time frame and I have yet to post the pictures. During the month of March I had the unique chance to get a short, but solo, drive behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger SRT8. There is also the news that GM is dropping the GTO.

I already put off this Pony Car article too much, so I will cover that here. Next month I will tell you about the Charger, and the unique way in which I got a chance to drive it.

What is a Pony Car

When I went with my brother-in-law to go shopping for a Mustang Convertible it became clear that the term Pony Car and Muscle Car are getting blurred. I mentioned that the Mustang is a Pony Car, while my brother-in-law thought the Mustang is a Muscle Car. Car and Driver even named the Mustang GT the Best Muscle Car in its latest 10 Best article.

The Mustang was nick-named the Pony Car because the name, Mustang, is a type of horse. Since the Mustang is still named after a horse I assume it is still a Pony Car. The term Muscle Car was originally used to describe cars from the mid sixties through early seventies. These cars were intermediates that had big car engines. Basically a big block stuffed into a smaller car.

It is generally accepted that the GTO was the original Muscle Car. We have a GTO now. Is it a Muscle Car? Maybe, maybe not. The current GTO is a two door coupe, which is about right. But the intermediates from the sixties were a lot larger than the Pony cars of the era. The current GTO goes toe-to-toe with the Mustang. Is it a Pony Car?

I have been in both, and I would say there interior space is so close you can't put these two cars in different categories. So are they both Pony Cars, or are they both Muscle Cars.

They are both Muscle Cars. When the Mustang is in GT trim with its 300 hp V-8 it is definitely a Muscle Car. However, the GTO is technically not direct competition for the Mustang. If it were, then where is the affordable version, like the V-6 Mustang? There isn't one. The GTO may run against the Mustang GT, but it is a low volume, high price Muscle Car. 

Pony Cars are cars that came out as competition to the Mustang. Granted, the Barracuda did come out just before the Mustang. Had the Barracuda been the super success story the Mustang was maybe they would have called then Fish cars. Ford sold over 600,000 Mustangs in its first year of production. To this day it is the best new car launch ever. The Mustang still follows the classic Pony Car formula in a short deck long hood arrangement in a sporty coupe/convertible/fastback.

Yes, the Mustang is a Pony Car! It is also a Muscle Car... when equipped with muscle.

RIP GTO

As I briefly mentioned, the GTO is going out of production at the end of this year. That's a shame. When Bob Lutz pushed the GTO into production it was with the promise that a truly American version would be about three years behind it. Well, we have had three years now (2004-2006) and no American replacement. The GTO as it is now is built in Australia off a Holden Monaro. This is one of the reasons the GTO is priced so high. Bob wanted it to be in the mid $20K range. I am sure it would have sold well at $25K... even with the bland Australian styling.

Unfortunately this poorly executed GTO tarnished any chance for a proper update. With all of GM's financial issues they just don't want to invest in building the car people want. And maybe they shouldn't... but I am getting ahead of myself.

Is The Pony Car Back

This brings us to the topic at hand. Chevrolet introduced a Camaro concept vehicle and Dodge showed a Challenger concept at the Detroit Auto Show this past January. I like them. I am a huge Camaro fan, but I find the appearance of the concept car less than pleasing. It may grow on me, but it just doesn't look enough like the old Camaro. Maybe this is a good thing, I don't know. The Challenger, on the other hand, looks remarkably like its 1970 predecessor. I like it a lot.

Will they make them... and if they make them will they sell. I have read in the past that GM got tax breaks and loans from Canada and the Canadian Union to help with the St. Theresa plant that made the last Camaro (1993-2002). Part of the agreement was that GM would build all Camaros and Firebirds at the Canadian plant until 2017. GM could have a huge legal problem on its hands if it brings back the Camaro and does not build it in Canada. 

Another obstacle in GM's way is the lack of a proper platform. Personally I think a "cheapened" version of the chassis under the Cadillac CTS-V would make a great platform for a series of modern rear wheel drive vehicles. Shortened in wheelbase it could be used for the Camaro. I guess Cadillac doesn't want to share. I mean it already holds the same V-8 they have in the Camaro show car.

Chrysler has it better. For starters, if the Challenger is built it will be based off the chassis for the Charger/Magnum/300. It would be relatively easy for Chrysler to build 30-50,000 Challengers on the same assembly line as its chassis cousins. The downside to building the Challenger off the 300/Charger platform is weight... about 500 lbs. too much weight. Pony Cars are usually lighter than the big boys, but the concept Challenger is within 100 lbs. of the Charger and 300. Oops.

Ford sold almost 200,000 Mustangs in 2005. Pretty much all they could make. I think the final number was close to 192,000. Not bad for a first year launch. I think GM will need to generate similar numbers for a Camaro that is starting off on a new platform. As I said, the Challenger could probably be profitable in small quantities because of the platform sharing it will have right out of the gate.

A Chick's Car

Since day one Mustangs have always appealed to women. More women buy Mustangs than men. Plain and simple. During the Muscle Car era the Mustang got larger and more masculine, and sales kept dropping. In 74 all the "Men" Mustang enthusiasts complained about the "Charlie's Angels" Mustangs. They were not real Mustangs. Actually, they were. The original Mustang was a sporty coupe on an economy chassis. The 74 Mustang went back to its roots to do just that. The 74 Mustang sold better than all but the 65-67 Mustangs before it... because it appealed to women. The current Mustang does have a familiar and somewhat muscular look, but it is all cute looking. Just cute enough to appeal to women. Ford knows this and is very careful to make sure that the Mustang appeals to women. If women don't like it, it won't sell in numbers well enough to keep it around.

The Challenger and Camaro concept cars don't look like cars that will appeal to women. The Challenger seems very large for a sporty two door coupe. It is expected to weigh over 4,000 lbs. The Camaro looks too aggressive. It doesn't seem like a chick's cars to me.

Since the Challenger could survive in volume of 1/4 the Mustang it will easily attract enough men to fill those orders. Especially with a Hemi under the hood. But I don't see the concept Camaro selling over 100,000 units a year. That's what killed the Camaro in the first place. It had a bad boy image, and didn't appeal to women. Chevrolet is setting themselves up for failure.

Also, we need to consider the time frame of these cars. I am hearing these cars won't be available until late 2007 at the earliest... or all the way up to 2009. This is the Internet age, and everyone will be bored with these cars by then. They need to move far more quickly. Sales of the Mustang are sure to drop once "everyone has one." Sporty cars do well when they are new. The "new-ness" will have worn off for the Mustang. I don't know what Ford can do to the Mustang to keep it fresh, but I bet it sells less than 150,000 copies in 2008. Where will all the buyers be to buy the Camaro and Challenger.

In the end I think that if they build the Challenger with a target of 30-50,000 units annually, and they can make a profit at those numbers, it will sell. The Camaro has a lot more riding on its shoulders and will need to sell in the 120-150K units per year to be successful. I just don't see that happening with the design they are showing. Sorry. Remember, I am a huge Camaro fan, yet I foresee failure. If the car is good (it doesn't even have to be great) I will definitely be there to buy one... unless the Challenger is better with its Hemi engine and Pistol Grip six speed.

Even though the Mustang is making a great comeback, SUVs still dominate the market. Now that people are finally moving to "car" based SUVs instead of "truck" based SUVs, I see this trend continuing for quite a while.

Conclusion

Is the Pony car back? Well... the Mustang is back... but I don't know if the Pony Car market is back.

We'll see. I am hoping it works out, but I don't think it will.

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