HomeCar CultureCommentaryShe's real fine, my muscular pony sports car

She’s real fine, my muscular pony sports car


It’s Arizona auction week and I’m already dreading the thought of hearing people talk about Mustangs and Camaros and Shelbys and even Chevy 409s as “muscle cars.” Because they are not.

Being old may have its disadvantages — though being old at least means you’re not dead. And being old also means that you were there when what is now history was current events and you still may remember how things were. Really were.

So if Mustangs and Camaros and Shelbys and even Chevy 409s were not — and are not — “muscle cars,” what were and still are? And what should we call Mustangs and Camaros and Shelbys and even Chevy 409s?

Muscle cars: Big engine in a mid-sized package | Larry Edsall photo
Muscle cars: Big engine in a mid-sized package | Larry Edsall photo

We’ll start with muscle cars…

Once upon a time, John DeLorean and his crew at Pontiac found a way to violate General Motors’ marching orders and to stuff the big V8 engine from the full-size Bonneville into the Tempest, which was Pontiac’s “intermediate,” though today we’d call it a mid-sized, sedan.

Pretty much from the start, American sedans were full-size cars, roomy enough to carry the entire family. Then came the imports, primarily the Volkswagen Beetle, and the gas crisis and people wanted small and less fuelish cars, so we got the Rambler American and the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvair and the Plymouth Valiant, so-called compact cars.

But like Goldilocks, for some people compact was too small and full-size was too big, so the automakers created “intermediates” that were just right.

And then they became much better as DeLorean and his team discovered two things: (1) they discovered that their 389-cubic-inch V8 engine would fit into the engine bay of the intermediate-size Tempest and (2) they found the loophole in the corporate laws that allowed them not only to install those engines in that car, but to sell them to law-abiding customers. Well, they were law-abiding until they got their hands on this new GTO model and started racing them away from stoplights.

And it didn’t take long for those buyers to have people and cars to race because suddenly we had a whole series of “muscle cars” – the Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, Oldsmobile Cutlass 442, Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda, Dodge Charger, Ford Torino, Mercury Cyclone, even the Rambler Rebel SST.

Mustang launched the pony car genre | Larry Edsall photo
Mustang launched the pony car genre | Larry Edsall photo

But intermediates weren’t the only new-sized cars coming into a diversifying automotive marketplace. With baby boomers coming of age, automakers saw an opportunity to sell a personal-size car, a vehicle built on a compact-car chassis, basically with two buckets seats up front and a small rear bench in back, but with very sporty styling. Ford was first to market with the Mustang, which was an immediate sales hit. Chevy followed with Camaro, Pontiac with Firebird, Dodge with Challenger, Plymouth with a new Barracuda, AMC with Javelin, etc.

But because Ford was first, its Mustang enjoying a huge head start — by more than one million sales — this entire new car category was labeled “pony cars.” They even had their own racing series, the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American Sedan Series, or Trans-Am as it was popularly known. Pontiac liked the Trans Am name so much that it was willing to pay the SCCA a licensing fee so it could label the raciest version of its Pontiac Firebird as the Trans Am.

While muscle cars carried the largest engines available, the pony cars that raced in the Trans-Am series were limited to engines with 305-cubic-inch displacement. But as with the original GTO and other muscle cars, larger engines could be wedged beneath pony car hoods, and so we had the Mustang Boss 351, the Shelby Mustang with a 428-cid Cobra Jet V8, various big-block Camaros, and the lines between pony car and muscle car were starting to blur.

Carroll's Cobra was a sports car | Larry Edsall photo
Carroll’s Cobra was a sports car | Larry Edsall photo

Speaking of Carroll Shelby, the chicken-farming, race-car driving Texan really wanted to beat established competitors such as the Chevrolet Corvette or Enzo’s Ferraris, so he figured a way to stuff a powerful American V8 in a small and lightweight European sports car chassis. The result was the Shelby Cobra, and like various Ferraris, the Corvette, Jaguar XKs and others, the Cobra was a pure sports car — two seats and ready to show its competence on the road or on the race track.

They were sports cars, not “muscle cars.”

409: Big block in a big car | Barrett-Jackson photo
409: Big block in a big car | Barrett-Jackson photo

Which brings us to the Chevy 409 and its ilk. For the 1961 model year, which was before the Cobra, the Mustang or the GTO, Chevrolet offered a Turbo-Fire 409-cubic-inch V8 engine option and produced 142 Impalas with that engine and an SS (Super Sport) option package. The 409 became not only the car to have on the drag strip, but the subject of song — “She’s real fine, my 409,” sang the Beach Boys.

Ford soon followed with a 427 and Chrysler upped the ante to 440 and GM to 454 and…

And somewhere between then and now people started describing all of the cars — the true muscle cars and the pony cars and the sports cars and the big blocks — as muscle cars, and the nomenclature got even further confused when the Camaro and Challenger were resurrected and along with the Mustang were termed “modern muscle cars.” Which they are, even if their historic namesakes never were called muscle cars by those who owned, drove or wrote about them.

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
  1. There are too many misleading facts when it comes to muscle car definition.Larry Edsall says ” muscle car series like chevelle 396, olds cutlass 442, dodge charger, Plymouth hemi cuda..Then he says pony cars like Camaro, firebird, challenger, and Plymouth CUDA”.You see, two cars called the same thing…but one has a hemi engine..same car..A 1969 dodge super bee is considered a muscle car. It’s gigantic, longer from bumper to bumper than a 62 Bel Air 409..A 62 dodge dart 413 max wedge is one inch shorter than a 64 GTO. The dodge would beat the gto any day of the week. It’s lighter, more powerful, but not a muscle car?

  2. The Pontiac GTO in 1964 was the first so-called Muscle Car. Long before that many cars could have been called Muscle cars. The 49 olds, the 49 cad, the 55 Chrysler 300, the 57 fuelie Chevy, the 409-409 Bel Air, just to mention a few. These cars are slow by todays standards, but back then they were setting the pace for performance. Everyone knows that cudas, mustangs, Camaros, amx’s are called pony cars, but you go shows in Chicago like the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals and what do you see, the above mentioned ” PONY” cars and 409’s and super duty Pontiacs and max wedge mopars all under the same roof with all the so-called other Muscle Cars, They are all Muscle Cars, just ask Bob Ashton, the guy who puts the show on. Ask all the people who come to the show to dream and see their favorite Muscle Car……So I will say to you Mr. Larry, thinks he knows it all, Edsall, start writing the real facts….Edsall, is that like the Fo Mo Co EDSEL…..the car that was a big flop…..

  3. As far as John Delorean stuffing the big engine from the Bonnevilles etc into a tempest all Pontiac engines from the 326- 455 were the same size externally .They did not go with the so called big block small block thing .

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