Words by Jacob Joseph
The pony car had its beginnings at Ford Motor Company in the late 1950s following the demise of the original, two-seat Ford Thunderbird.
The Mustang defined what the pony car would be. Its instantly iconic body shape
, the "long hood, short deck, open mouth" look, has defined what a pony car must look like ever since the first 1964 1/2 models rolled out. The formula has been a huge success, both for pony cars in general and all the more so for the Mustang itself, as it is the only pony car to have enjoyed an uninterrupted 48-year production run. Even more than just defining the looks of the niche, the Mustang established other rules for pony cars. They have to be affordable, or at least have an affordable base price, and optioning up from the V6 to the V8 can't be prohibitively expensive.
«Pony cars are kept relatively simple»
Pony cars are kept relatively simple, as a means of keeping the price down, although newer models have made huge improvements in the handling department when compared to the 60's and 70's originals, which tended to only be able to go fast in a straight line. Lastly, a pony car is one aimed at young buyers, both with the pricing and the advertising. Difficult though it may be to imagine, the Mustang was originally conceived as a two-seat mid-engine roadster, with a four-cylinder engine.
Ford ultimately scrapped the idea when it was realized that the two-seat original version of the Thunderbird, pretty though they were, hadn't been big sellers. The Mustang intended to be a much more mass-market vehicle, and the only hint of the original design to survive the transition to 2+2 fastback were the air intakes located in front of the rear wheels. These intakes have always been purely ornamental on production Mustangs, but it is without question that they give the car a look entirely its own. The Mustang was such a huge success that Ford hit their projected annual sales target of 100,000 units in the first three month that the car was out.
They ended up having to build more than 300,000 additional units just to meet demand in the first year, something they were only able to achieve because of how liberally the Mustang borrowed from Ford's parts bin. The Mustang was always available with a V6, and there have been a large number of higher-performance models
over the years, such as the Boss, SVT and Shelby variants. But the true original pony car was the 289 V8 in the original body style. Starting in 1967, the Mustang saw several size increases, culminating in the bloated 1971-73 models, which were so much larger and heavier that buyers who wanted speed began to look elsewhere.
This lead to a major redesign in 1974, the beginning of the era of the Mustang II. Though this new Mustang was once again small, it was still heavy, a problem exacerbated by the fact that there wasn't even a V8 offered in the first year of production. Sales weren't as bad as you might expect, but Ford still recognized that the Mustang II had been a misstep, and 1979 saw yet another redesign. For the third generation of the Mustang, Ford dropped the numbering system and went back to calling the car Mustang. This was the "Fox body" Mustang, and Ford had finally made the car light again.
The car got a major facelift in 1987 and stayed in production until 1993, the longest production run of any generation of the Mustang. The light weight body combined with the new 5.0-liter V8 made for quite a quick car, and 5.0 Mustangs have become collector's items. It was this generation which also saw the introduction of the Cobra R, a factory-built drag car available for sale right from Ford. For 1994, and the thirtieth anniversary of the Mustang, Ford rolled out a completely new design, one which is an early example of the "retro" automotive design trend.
The new design did an admirable job of evoking the spirit of the '64 1/2 models, and a facelift in 1999 sharpened up the lines and gave the car a look that was both modern and retro. This idea was carried over into the current generation, in production since 2005, which calls on the 1967 body style for inspiration. These new Mustangs, in GT trim, started out with a 300-horsepower 4.6-liter V8, a holdover from the previous generation. But for 2011, Ford brought out a new 5.0-liter V8 for the GT, which produces 412 horsepower. There is also a 305-horsepower V6, a Boss version with a tuned 5.0 and a Shelby Mustang, which puts out an astonishing 662 horsepower.
This is all very impressive, but it is once again the GT, with its 5.0 V8 that is the true pony car. The Mustang has gone through some rough patches, and some periods where you couldn't even really call it a pony car, but the Mustang has returned to form, and it once again offers that excellent mix of performance and affordability
. Sales may not be what they once were, and we're told that the V8 might not be around too much longer, but for the time being, the Mustang is once again the standard by which all other pony cars are judged.
Though nearly all pony cars went through some pretty serious changes in the first few years of their existence, the changes which Plymouth scrambled to implement on the Barracuda are certainly the most dramatic. The first-generation Barracuda came out just two weeks before the first Mustang, and although it did have several of the elements of the pony car, it wasn't quite what the car-buying public was looking for, and the Mustang outsold the Barracuda by a huge margin.
«Mustang outsold the Barracuda by a huge margin»
Thus began the processes of rethinking the Barracuda, one which would eventually lead it to become the legendary 'Cuda. The original Barracuda was not without its charm. Based heavily on the Valiant, the fastback body incorporated a large wraparound rear window. At 14.4 square feet, this window was not only the Barracuda's most distinctive design feature, but also the largest window to have been fitted to any production car in the world at the time. The base price was a couple hundred dollars higher than the Mustang's (a big deal in 1964), despite a less-exciting engine lineup.
There were two different slant-six options and one V8 offered, a 273 cu mill fitted with a two-barrel carburetor. This engine produced 180 horsepower, which was noticeably less than the 225hp produced by the Mustang's 289 V8, it's no wonder the Barracuda didn't match up in sales to the Mustang. Plymouth immediately swung into action to correct the Barracuda's less appealing qualities. Though 1964 models were badged as the "Valiant Barracuda", the "Valiant" part of the name was dropped for the 1965 model year, in an effort to make the models seem more distinct. That year also saw a number of performance-oriented upgrade options.
These included disc brakes, upgraded suspension and wheels, a tachometer and those all-important special badges for performance models. More importantly, the 273 engine got a thorough going-over. It got a more aggressive cam, increased compression and a four-barrel carburetor. This raised the power output to a competitive 235 horsepower, something which helped sales quite a bit. But it wasn't quite enough to save the first-gen Barracuda, and even though several changes were made to the sheet metal in 1965 and 1966, the Barracuda received its first redesign in 1967, just three years after it was first introduced.
The new Barracuda, though still based on the Valiant, had a new look which is much more pony car-like than the original. In addition to the fastback body style, a notchback and convertible were also offered with this generation, and the wheelbase was stretched by two inches. The slant-six remained as the base engine, and the 273 V8 was kept for the first year of the new model. It was replaced in 1968 by a 318 cu unit, and was joined by an optional 340 cu V8 and the 383 Super Commando V8. The 383 borrowed a number of engine components from the Road Runner and Super Bee.
It was also fitted with a more restrictive exhaust, limiting power to 300hp as a means to prevent the Barracuda from upstaging the performance of the bigger, more expensive cars. It was in 1968 when the full potential of the Barracuda as a drag car was first explored. Plymouth made 50 factory drag cars based on the Barracuda. These cars had stripped-out interiors and were fitted with a number of lightweight components. A 426 Hemi V8 was dropped in, and the drag cars could run mid-10s in the quarter-mile, quite a feat for 1968. Then, in 1969, the Barracuda was finally let off the leash.
The 383 was given a proper exhaust, and power was bumped up to 330hp. A new top-end performance trim level was added, known as the 'Cuda, it was available with the 340 and 383 engines, as well as the newly added 440 Super Commando V8. 1970 saw the introduction of another Chrysler pony car, the Dodge Challenger, and a newly-redesigned Barracuda now shared a platform with this car, thus abandoning the last of its connection to the Valiant. The Barracuda wasn't simply a badge-engineered Plymouth though, as it didn't share any sheet metal with the Challenger, and the two cars even had different sized wheel bases.
With the larger engine bay in the new model, Chrysler's 426 Hemi V8 was offered for the first time on street cars, as was the new shaker hood. The 1971 Hemi 'Cuda is generally considered to be the ultimate example of the Barracuda
, and though one could argue that this particular setup would make the vehicle more of a muscle car than a pony car
, the car's position in the Plymouth lineup, still below the Road Runner, makes a pretty solid case for the car as one of the ultimate pony cars. After 1971, new emissions regulations strangled the power out of the Barracuda, and by 1974, Plymouth no longer saw the point of producing it.
Its ten-year production run saw the meteoric rise and sudden fall of the pony car. The drastic changes which the Barracuda underwent in its short life span can be seen as reflecting overall trends in the automotive world at the time, and few nameplates have ever served as such a telling cross-section of automotive history. The Barracuda name was never revived, but rumor has it that the Barracuda will once again see the light of day in 2014, wearing a Dodge (or possibly SRT) badge. Although the legacy of the '71 Hemi 'Cuda will not be easy to live up to, it will be interesting to see how the project is handled. We're looking forward to it.
When, in 1966, a press conference was held for the official unveiling of the 1967 model-year Camaro, GM's executives were faced with the question of what the name means. Their answer, that the Camaro was "a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs", tells you everything that you need to know about the Camaro. 1967 was also the first year of another GM pony car, the Pontiac Firebird, but it was the Camaro that took the role the lifelong enemy of the Ford Mustang.
«A small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs»
Apart from a recent eight-year gap in production, this rivalry has continued
through every generation of each car, and it is as fiercely contested now as it has ever been, if not more. Unlike some other pony cars, Chevy had a winning formula for the Camaro right from the start. The body style was an instant classic, and the wide range of available engines and trim options were exactly the sort of thing that a pony car needs to be successful. That said, the Camaro was not the instant runaway success that the Mustang was. This could be partly attributed to the fact that the Mustang was essentially unrivaled in its niche for the first few years it was sold.
Even once the competition heated up
, there haven't been many years when the Camaro outsold the Mustang, including an uninterrupted 24-year streak of Mustang sales supremacy, ending just last year. Like other pony cars, the first Camaros borrowed heavily from the corporate parts bin, with its platform being based on the one used for the Nova. As is the norm for pony cars, the Camaro came with a six-cylinder engine as the base, and a choice of five different V8 engine options. The smallest of these was a 302 cu power plant which was found in the Z/28 performance models.
These models were intended to be essentially track-ready
, and were built for homologation purposes so that Chevy could race in the Trans Am Series. Though relatively small, the 302 V8 was immensely powerful for the time. The official power rating was listed at 290 horsepower, both for insurance purposes and to qualify for Trans Am regulations. In truth, the version of the 302 with a single four-barrel carburetor produced about 360hp, and the dual four-barrel setup used on the Trans Am cars produced about 400hp. Also of note in the first generation were the COPO Camaros.
Simply put, the Camaro team was forbidden by GM to put any engine bigger than 400 cu in the Camaro. So, using a special ordering system intended for fleet vehicles, dealers (the most famous of which was Yenko) would obtain bigger 427 cu V8 engines and install them in Camaros themselves. The engines were hugely expensive, but dealers still found homes for more than a thousand of these special Camaros. The second-generation Camaro came out in 1970, and by this time, the competition in the pony car niche had reached its highest-ever level. This generation started off strong, but became heavier and less powerful after just a few short years.
The golden era of the pony car effectively ended in 1974, with Chrysler throwing in the towel, and the Mustang making the transition to the Mustang II. So, although 1975 saw a 350 V8-powered Camaro producing a pathetic 145 horsepower, the bar was set so low by what little remaining competition there was, the Camaro and Firebird still managed to sell in huge numbers. A new, and much-improved, Mustang hit dealerships in 1979 and devastated Camaro sales figures. By 1981, Camaro sales had dropped to less than half of what they had been in 1979, and the need for a complete redesign was obvious.
Introduced in 1982, the third-generation of the Camaro was a big improvement over what had become of the second generation. Power output improved greatly over the course of the third-gen's ten year production run, and the IROC-Z Camaro even made Car and Driver's Ten Best list in 1985. Camaros outsold Mustangs that year, but it would be the last time for many, many years. The fourth generation of the Camaro came out in 1993 and would last until 2002, when GM killed it off, due to a record low in sales. Though the Mustang would manage to hang on through this period, the Camaro had become largely irrelevant.
Young people were turning increasingly to imported cars, where an emphasis on efficiency had prevented performance cars from becoming bloated and underpowered. GM's stubborn refusal to evolve the Camaro by anything more than baby steps meant that the once cutting-edge car had become something of a joke. The decision to kill it off was inevitable. But GM made up for all of this in 2009, when the nameplate was resurrected for a fifth generation, one which done right, and was once again a real competitor for the Mustang.
Just as they had done in 1967, Chevy brought out their pony a few years after Ford, but got it exactly right from the start. The styling calls on the original '67 car for inspiration, and several variations
have been made to compete with all of the different forms of Mustang available. It remains to be seen how long these new pony cars will stick around, but now is certainly a new golden era for both the Camaro and pony cars in general.
Annual sales figures for the big names in pony cars, such as the Mustang and Camaro, numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the mid to late sixties. The cars became legends almost overnight, and it's easy to forget about lower-volume pony cars, some of which were actually quite good. The AMC Javelin was one such car. Production numbers were only a fraction of those for the Camaro, but a solid argument could be made that it was the better car.
«The history of the Javelin is a sad one»
Of course, that is a debate which could go on for years, but it was still an amazing accomplishment for a car from such a small company to be able to give the heavy hitters from the big three a run for their money. AMC brought out the Javelin in late 1967, as a '68 model. The '67 model year was huge for pony cars, and AMC's relatively late entry into the game meant that they had missed out on the feeding frenzy that had taken place at their competitors' dealerships during the preceding year. This was unfortunate, but what with their somewhat more limited manufacturing abilities, AMC still had no problem selling all of the cars they were able to produce.
This was, quite simply, because they had a good product. AMC didn't have the money to develop several different body styles for the Javelin, and even the idea of a convertible had to be abandoned. But the styling of the hardtop coupe was among the best in the niche, and has been compared to a "wet t-shirt", with all that that implies. Only four different engines were offered, but these were all competitive with the most popular engine choices offered by the competition, and AMC was wise enough not to waste money by offering more than one six-cylinder engine option. The biggest engine available was a 390 cu V8, which produced 315 horsepower.
The 390-equipped Javelin was once described as "dangerously fast", although it's safe to say that our idea of what is fast has changed a bit in recent years. The car was fast though, and this is one of the qualities which so endeared it to members of the automotive press at the time. Motor Trend in particular lavished the car with praise, and selected it as the best "sports-personal" car of 1968. The car was popular with young people, despite being slightly more expensive than some of its big competitors. The first generation of the Javelin lasted only two years, during which time it enjoyed relatively good sales and even some surprising success in the Trans Am racing series.
This included finishing third place in the series, despite having an all-new car and very little in the way of time and money to prepare it for racing duty. This came as a surprise to everyone, and served as a testament to the abilities of the road car. The redesign in 1970 made the car longer, lower and wider, as was the trend with pony cars in that year. AMC still paid attention to performance though, and it was the second-gen Javelin which enjoyed the most racing success, taking the Trans Am title in 1971, '72, '73 and '75 (at the hands of a privateer team). This is due in a large part to a shift in AMC's lineup.
The AMX ceased to be a separate two-seat model in 1971, and became instead a performance trip level for the Javelin. This meant that, among the ten different engines offered for the new Javelin, there was a 401 cu V8 for the AMX, which produced 335 horsepower. A number of other options to help with handling were also offered, and the faster second-gen Javelin was also given a more aggressive look. Unfortunately, the relative success of the Javelin did not last long. Pony cars fell out of fashion as gas prices climbed and new emissions and safety regulations turned the cars into slow, ugly shadows of their former selves.
As was the case with several other pony cars, the Javelin was discontinued in 1974, amid a huge, but largely unsurprising decline in sales. AMC didn't hold out too much longer after the decline of the Javelin. The late seventies saw the rise of the subcompact, and such cars as the Gremlin and the Pacer kept AMC competitive, but when the trend swung back to bigger and higher-performance cars, AMC wasn't able to replicate the success of the Javelin, and ended up being bought out by Chrysler. The Javelin remains one of the most highly sought-after AMC models by collectors. Naturally, it is the '71-'74 AMX models which fetch the highest prices.
The history of the Javelin is a sad one, since it is unlikely that we'll ever see such a thing again. Pony cars aren't the kind of thing that can be built by a small car company anymore. Pony cars need to be cheap, and that means they need a large corporate parts bin to draw from in order to keep production costs down, especially with what development costs have become for carmakers. Boutique automakers will continue to be able to put out high-dollar exotics, but for us regular speed enthusiasts, there will never be another Javelin.
Pity the poor Mercury Cougar. What started out as a largely successful effort to make a more sophisticated form of the Mustang ended up falling victim to Ford's general inability to define the Mercury brand. The Cougar came out in 1967, and shared a platform with the newly face-lifted Mustang, and was Mercury's only performance model. A healthy options list meant that the Cougar could be made into an impressive performance car.
«Mercury killed off the Cougar in 2002»
However, it didn't take long for it begin the move to a more luxury-oriented coupe, a sort of budget version of the Lincoln Continental. The first Cougar, introduced in 1967, was all pony car. The car slotted in between the Mustang and the Thunderbird, and borrowed elements from each, although mostly the Mustang. The platform was from the Mustang, but it was much more than a rebadging. The sheet metal was different, and the wheelbase had been stretched by three inches. Another key difference was the engines offered for the Cougar. Unlike nearly every other pony car, there was no base six-cylinder option, and Ford's 289 V8 served as the base engine.
Amazingly, Mercury kept this V8-only engine lineup for the Cougar all through the oil embargo, and didn't offer a six-cylinder until 1981. First-gen Cougars even had the option of a monstrous 427 or 428 Cobra Jet V8 engines. These were incredibly expensive in comparison to the base vehicle, but they served the Ford crowd as good counter to the COPO Camaros being driven by their bitter rivals in the Chevy camp. Sales were excellent, especially in '67, but it wouldn't last. The first redesign came in 1971, and although the new Cougar wasn't much bigger than its predecessor, the engine option list had shrunk significantly.
There were two different versions of the 351 V8 and a 429, but the big block was dropped for the 1972 model year, never to return. This Cougar was still based on the Mustang, but as the pony car niche died off and Mercury shifted the focus of the Cougar to being luxury coupe, the platform sharing made less and less sense. So another redesign came in 1974, and the Cougar switched its chassis to that of the bigger Ford Elite. Mercury was intended as a sort of luxury-light division of Ford, and the third-gen Cougar started to receive more and more of the trappings of a seventies American luxury car, including those all-important opera windows.
Manual transmissions were no longer offered, and Mercury's advertising now openly drew comparisons to the Continental. Performance just wasn't fashionable anymore, and luxury was in. Cougar sales figures for the third-gen model show that the shift had paid off, and the big, heavy luxury-ish coupes had become Mercury's bread and butter. This trend continued through the fourth generation Cougar, but in 1980 it switched to the smaller and lighter Fox platform, also used by the Mustang. Mercury could have used this opportunity to reintroduce it as a pony car, just as the new Fox-body Mustangs were cleaning up that car's reputation after the Mustang II debacle.
They didn't though, and a selection of weak engines failed to so much as hint at any performance roots the nameplate might have had. For the sixth generation, the Cougar stayed small and improved in both looks and performance. It was a far cry from the '67 model, but a new notchback body style and a 5.0-liter V8 borrowed from the Mustang were at least done in the spirit of the old car. There was even a performance suspension package and manual transmission offered. Sales improved as Mercury made baby steps back toward performance. Then came a redesign in 1989 and it all went right down the tubes.
The wheelbase grew by a massive nine inches and there wasn't even a V8 available at launch. A V8 was quickly found to fit under the Cougar's hood, but sales slid until hitting a then-record low in 1997. Mercury killed off the Cougar after the 1997 model year, but went back on this decision and brought out a new Cougar for the 1999 model year. The new Cougar was front-wheel-drive for the first time, and no V8 was ever offered from this eight-generation model. This was essentially a bigger version of the European Ford Puma, and borrowed from the Ford Contour SVT parts bin.
There was a brief hope that Mercury making a Cougar for a new era. Sport compacts were all the rage in the late nineties, and if Mercury managed to hop on this trend the same way they had jumped on the pony car craze, the Cougar might have once again become a name associated with speed. The car's advertising was aimed at younger buyers, and Ford built impressive high-performance concept versions of the car, ramping up excitement for the newly rethought Cougar. But then, in much the same way that Mercury's place in Ford's lineup was becoming increasingly unclear, nothing was ever done with the Cougar.
The performance concepts never found their way to showrooms, and it was hardly a luxury coupe anymore. The Cougar had simply become this ill-defined compact coupe which cost a little bit too much, for reasons which nobody could ever satisfactorily explain. Mercury killed off the Cougar in 2002, followed a few years later by Ford killing off Mercury. It's hardly surprising that the Cougar met the fate it did, no matter how truly excellent the first generation of the car was. It continues to serve as a warning that, if you aren't sure about the direction your product should take, simply putting out something mediocre will not work as a substitute.
The Pontiac Firebird was essentially GM's answer to the Mercury Cougar; at first, anyway. Later models would have nothing to fear from the Cougar. The car debuted in 1967, and shared a platform with what was seen as the more mundane Chevrolet Camaro. The Firebird got different sheet metal than the Camaro, although the Camaro is seen by many as having the more classic look. Like the Camaro, the Firebird lasted through decades of production without any changes to the basic idea behind the car.
«GM's answer to the Mercury Cougar»
It never became a luxury car and it was never offered without a V8. The first generation of the car had as classic pony car styling as has ever existed. This in spite of the fact that a pony car was never what Pontiac wanted to build. They had hoped for their own two-seat sports car, but GM said no, out of fear that it would cannibalize Corvette sales. Engine options were somewhat more limited than those found in other pony cars, but this is because all of them were Pontiac-specific power plants. A six-cylinder was offered, but the V8's were a bit larger than those found in the competition.
This is because the Firebird was seen as slightly more upscale, and buyers heavily favored the V8's. Like other pony cars in this era, the Firebird underwent a number of changes during its first few years on the market. Without question, the most significant of these was in 1969, when Pontiac first started offering
the "Trans Am Performance and Appearance Package", then a $725 option. This caused a bit of controversy for a brief period, since the Trans Am name was used without permission of the SCCA, the governing body of the Trans Am race series.
This first generation lasted only until the 1969 model year
, but due to problems with the rollout of the 1970 Firebird, 1969 Firebirds continued to be sold into the early part of 1970. The 1970 redesign introduced a new shape for the Firebird. A longer, lower shape, which would serve as the basic proportions for the Firebird for the rest of its existence. It was this generation that would raise the Firebird to the status of legend. Starting in 1977, the Firebird, and more specifically the Trans Am, received a number of roles in big movies, most of which starring Burt Reynolds.
This continued on into the third generation of the car, most notably on the show Knight Rider, but it is the second-gen Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit that is the most classic of all Firebirds. It was the second generation that also saw the introduction of the giant hood decal of a bird on the Trans Am. Jokingly referred to as the "screaming chicken", this was one of the most love-it-or-hate-it styling touches in automotive history (note: the author is in the "love it" camp). The third generation, introduced in 1982, suffered from the low power numbers which plagued the niche during this period.
To their credit, Pontiac put a huge amount of effort into chassis design and weight saving, and in the end, performance didn't suffer. In fact, it was during this generation that the fasted Trans Am ever produced was made. This Trans Am was a special project for the T/A's 20th anniversary, and only 1,555 were built, during 1989 only. The idea was to take the 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 out of the now-infamous 1987 Buick Grand National and put it into the Trans Am, after a bit of tweaking. The result was not only the fastest Trans Am, but also the fastest American car sold in 1989.
Aerodynamics were also a priority in the design of this Firebird, and the car not only performed well, but got surprisingly good fuel economy as well. The Firebird got a facelift in 1991 and a redesign in 1993, but sales were on the decline. Just like the Camaro, the Firebird wasn't relevant anymore. Its relatively high price, compared to a number of Japanese offerings, meant that it had lost the youth market that was once so vital to pony cars. The Firebird was put to rest in 2002, and barely anybody noticed that it was gone. There have been some rumors that a new version, based on the current generation of the Camaro, could be in the works.
There have been some aftermarket attempts
at such a car have actually shown what an attractive idea this could be. But it is still an unlikely prospect. Not only because Pontiac is no more, but this also seems to be an era of one pony car per company. As truly excellent as it is these days, the pony car niche doesn't sell in the numbers it used to, and profit margins are slim. So if you're in the market for a Firebird, you might have to take the aftermarket route. Either that or get a Camaro, they're pretty damn good these days.
The Dodge Challenger had the misfortune of being introduced several years after a number of competing pony cars, and therefore had the shortest production run of any classic pony car. This is unfortunate because, having already learned from the Plymouth Barracuda about what makes a good pony car, Chrysler got quite a bit right with the Challenger. For example, the Mercury Cougar and the Pontiac Firebird were conceived as upscale versions of more pedestrian pony cars.
Compared to the Barracuda, the Challenger was slightly bigger and slightly more upscale than the former with which it shared a platform. More specifically, it shared a platform with the second-generation Barracuda, since the Challenger didn't come out until 1970.
The Challenger's strength in the market came from Dodge's insistence on a long options list, something shared by other successful pony cars. Most important of these were the available engines, where Dodge offered to nearly any engine they made under the Challenger's hood. This meant two different six-cylinder options, four small block V8 options, and a pair of optional big blocks.
The most powerful of these was the 426 Hemi V8, which produced 425 horsepower and 490lb-ft of torque. Hemi-equipped Challengers could run the quarter mile in 13.2 seconds, a time which is still fast by today's standards, and is .4 seconds faster than the much more sophisticated Challenger R/T of today. The 440 V8 was the more popular of the big blocks, and it was this engine that was famously under the hood of Kowalski's Challenger in "Vanishing Point". The car was a strong seller in its first year, but then, it needed to be. The Challenger was swimming against the tide of automotive trends, and barely more than a third of the 1970 sales figure were sold in 1971.
Dodge was proud of the car, and took it to the 1970 Trans Am series in 1970. For this year only, Dodge made a Challenger T/A (Trans Am) edition for homologation. Homologation for these cars was done a bit differently than in other cars. The Mustang Boss 302 and Camaro Z/28 also raced in the series, but these cars would race using the same engines found in the street versions of the homologation cars. But Dodge raced the Challenger with a 303cu engine that was a de-stroked version of the 340 engine that would be found in the homologation cars. Like Boss 302 and Z/28 engines, the 340 was rated at 290 horsepower, but, just like the others, actually produced more than 300.
The race cars did reasonably well on the track, but on the street, T/A buyers probably found themselves at a bit of a disadvantage when facing off against similarly homologated cars which had real race engines under their hoods. Of course, the T/A was by no means sluggish, and Dodge went all out to make it look cool as well. It was outfitted with front and rear spoilers, racing graphics, a louder exhaust and a matte black fiberglass hood with a giant air scoop. Four-wheel disc brakes were fitted, as well as improved suspension components, and as a result, the T/A had much better handling than most other pony cars.
The 1971 Challenger was still quite a good car
, although Dodge was already seeing the handwriting on the wall for the pony car niche, and they didn't put quite as much effort in the '71 as they had the '70. By 1972, Dodge had dropped many of the options for the Challenger, including both big block options and even the convertible option. Dodge was pretty much phoning it in when it came to the Challenger for the rest of its short production run. 1974 was the last year of the car, and Dodge barely sold any of the '74 model year cars. The name was revived in 1978 for a rebadged version of the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda.
The car was actually reasonably quick for a subcompact of that era, but it is generally agreed that it wasn't proper to have named this car after the legendary Challenger. This four-cylinder version of the Challenger lasted only until 1983, and after this it seemed that the Challenger name had finally been put to rest. But then, in 2005, Ford brought out a new and much-improved Mustang, and both Dodge and Chevrolet decided that it was a challenge that needed to be answered. Thus, in 2008, the Challenger name was reborn, and given to new car which bore a striking resemblance to the original.
«Will be killed off in 2014 and replaced by a new Barracuda?»
The available engines aren't quite as numerous as they were in 1970, but they are enough to grab some decent sales figures, certainly better than the '71-'74 models. What the Challenger doesn't have is anything to go up against the current Boss 302 Mustang
, or the top-end Shelby GT500
and Camaro ZL1
. A 392 Hemi is offered, and while the 470 horsepower it produces is impressive, it does fall a bit short of the GT500's 662 horsepower. It remains to be seen whether Dodge will be rethinking the Challenger for its next generation or if the rumors
will be true that it will be killed off in 2014 and replaced by a new Barracuda.