The two terms have been used interchangeably for a long time, and while a pony car can certainly also be a muscle car, there are some distinctions worth mentioning.
The main difference between a pony car and a muscle car is that pony cars are generally built on smaller frames, and back in the 1960s when the term was new it often meant that the cars had small block V8s (or V6s) in them. Muscle cars at that time tended to exclusively have larger V8 engines and full-size bodies.
The first Mustangs in 1964 were built on a smaller frame, optimized for straight line performance. At the time there wasn’t any car like the Mustang, and it broke all every post-war sales record the U.S. had seen up till that point. Other American car manufacturers were quick to follow suit.
Apart from far more expensive foreign sports cars of the era, the Mustang and other American muscle cars were affordable and simpler to maintain. (This was largely due to being built with mass production parts.)
The appeal of course was an accessible performance vehicle for a whole new audience of enthusiasts.
Why Is It Called A Pony Car?
The simple answer is the homage to the Mustang, which was the first car of its kind to enter production. Though the Mustang was actually originally named after a fighter jet (B52 Mustang), it did come to represent a speeding stallion over time.
This is the image Car Life Magazine editor Dennis Shattuck had in mind when he coined the term “pony car”.
Custom Versions of Pony Cars
Though the Ford Mustang comes in different styles, from hard top and convertible to different engine sizes for starters, third party manufacturers have also made some noteworthy variations over the years. Many of them have been widely celebrated for their high-end performance that puts the Mustang on a whole new level in terms of cars that end up its peers.
Some of these popular variations include:
The Shelby Mustang. Auto racer Caroll Shelby began by converting a stock Mustang into a track racing car, which he called the “GT-350”. Some of the key changes were the removal of the rear seats, shortening of the hood, and of course tweaks to suspension and engine performance.
The popularity of this variation soon led to versions of the Shelby Mustang for street usage and drag racing. A few subsequent versions of note were the Shelby GT500KR, Shelby CS8, Shelby GT-H, and the Shelby GT500E.
Roush Mustangs. Performance engineer Jack Roush took his reputation for providing high performance parts to the next level in 1976, expanding the options for customizing the look, power, and handling of Mustangs. He even pitched Ford on a collaboration to create a 400 horsepower twin turbo version of the Mustang. While they passed at the time because they thought that would be too expensive to produce, Roush made that a reality on his own in 2004 with the release of the 440A.
Saleen Mustangs. Racer Steve Saleen was also involved in the production of a customized version of the Mustang. His first model debuted in 1984, and his focus was more on improving the Mustang’s handling than speed. He primarily used stock Mustang engines, and devoted resources to more refined tuning that won him several 24 hour races as well as SCCA championships.
The Bullitt. The 1968 movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen became famous for its chase scenes featuring the 1968 390 fastback. In 2001, a partnership between Warner Brothers and Ford resulted in the release of the Bullitt in honor of the movie. It featured a hood scoop reminiscent of the movie car, high performance handling, and significantly more torque than the standard GT model.
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