The Ford Mustang debuted in April of 1964, inaugurating the pony car segment and changing the history of American cars in the process.

1964, The Year of the Mustang

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the pony car. Back in April of 1964 the Ford Mustang debuted to a thunderous and enthusiastic reception inspiring a host of imitators and kick starting a legacy that remains relevant to this day.

You study the history of anything long enough and you’ll start to see hinge points, pivots in trajectory that irrevocably change the course of things. In automotive history you have moments like the emergence of Carl Benz’s Patent Motor Car or Ford’s Model T debut, clear before and after points on the timeline. For American car enthusiasts 1964 is one of those points, a demarcation between the staid, conservative designs of one generation and the bold, vital designs of a succeeding generation. The emergence of the pony car in 1964 was seismic. It ushered in a brief but bounteous period of heated competition between American carmakers that gave us classic after classic.

Is the Mustang the First Pony Car?

1964 Ford Mustang - Carsforsale.com

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that the pony car and muscle car era had on American car culture. And it all started with the … Plymouth Barracuda?! Wait, the Olds Rocket 88! No, the Pontiac GTO, right? Err, the Ford Mustang? I’m kidding, of course. But also…am I? If you know anything about car people, and pony/muscle car fans in particular, there are camps/schools of thought/deeply ingrained, factually justified, passionately held positions arguing persuasively for any or all the above.

Part of the debate rests not on what came first (we’ll get to that), but on which car had the most impact and greater influence. From that vantage at least, it’s hard to argue against the Ford Mustang as the first true pony car and the most influential of muscle cars. But how can it be both of those things when it’s clearly neither?!, you cry.

Yes, the Olds Rocket 88, dating back to 1949, was probably the first instance of a factory built “muscle car” as it came to be defined, a small to mid-size two-door with an oversized engine stuffed into. And yes also, the Pontiac GTO debuting in late 1963 was the first car of the era to so well combine youthful styling with raw power, arguably sparking the muscle car craze to follow. So too did the Plymouth Barracuda beat the Mustang to market by a mere two weeks, claiming the mantle of the first pony car. While all three of those cars have a case for marking the beginning of the pony/muscle car era, it’s clearly the Ford Mustang that deserves the bulk of the credit.

That Was Then, This is the Mustang (Era)

1964 Ford Mustang - fordheritagevault.com

The Ford Mustang debuted to the public on April 17th, 1964, at the World’s Fair in New York and at dealerships across the country (April 14th for the press launch). The reception was unprecedented with dealers taking 22,000 orders for the new Mustang that first day.

The Mustang’s story begins back in 1962 when Ford’s vice president and general manager Lee Iacocca identified an emerging market for a youth oriented 2+2 sports car, something that sporty but practical, affordable yet attractive. Iacocca enlisted three different teams in a design competition: Lincoln-Mercury, Advanced Design, and Ford’s own design team led by Joe Oros. It was Oros’ team that eventually won out. The engineering was a good deal simpler as the Mustang would be built from the Ford Falcon’s existing platform. The Mustang’s base engine was a 170 cu.-in. six-cylinder making 101 horsepower while its most powerful option was the HiPo 289 V8 with 271 horsepower.

In a rush to beat competitors to market, Ford managed to get the Mustang from blueprint to dealership lots in just 18 months. Not only did the Mustang sell an astounding 22,000 units on its first day, but it also sold 418,000 units in its first year, more than double Ford’s estimates, and over 2 million by its second year. The Mustang’s popularity naturally drew imitators, even before its April 17th release.

Barracuda, First and Second Banana

1965 Plymouth Barracuda - Carsforsale.com

It turns out the Mustang project wasn’t the best kept secret in the auto industry. So Chrysler, having caught wind of Iacocca’s plans, made haste to develop their own affordable sports car. Like the Mustang, the Barracuda was based on existing architecture, in this case the Plymouth Valiant. Indeed, the Barracuda was a good deal less radical a departure from its origins. Designers took the two-door Valiant and gave it a fast back design with a massive wrap-around rear window. That window was the Barracuda’s signature feature. At 14.4 sq.-ft., the Barracuda’s rear window was the largest ever on a passenger vehicle.

Also like the Mustang, the Barracuda was given a puny six-cylinder as its base engine, in this case a 170 cu.-in. slant-six making an identical 101 horsepower. The Barracuda’s largest engine offering at launch was a 273 V8 making 180 horsepower, though that V8 would be replaced by the “Commando” V8 for the 1965 model, with a higher compression ratio and four-barrel carb yielding 235 horsepower.

Chrysler managed to get the Barracuda to market two weeks before the Mustang’s debut, April 1st of 1964. But being first didn’t mean the Barracuda would end up defining the era, that would instead be the car it was designed to emulate, the Ford Mustang, rightfully considered the first true pony car. And here’s why.

The Mustang is to pony cars as the Beatles and Beach Boys are to multi-track recording. Sure, Les Paul was the first to make a multi-track recording, but it’s the Beatles and Beach Boys whom we remember pioneering the sound. And so it is with the Mustang versus the Barracuda. There’s a reason why they’re called pony cars and not fish cars, right?

Defining Pony Vs Muscle Car

1967 Pontiac Firebird - Carsforsale.com

The pony car is effectively a subspecies of muscle car. Though definitions vary, muscle cars are generally defined as sporty mid-sized two-door cars that eschew six-cylinder and small V8s for powerful, larger displacement V8s. Among early muscle cars would be cars like the Pontiac GTO mentioned above, the Oldsmobile 442, Chevy Malibu SS, as well as the Ford Fairlane when equipped with its 427 V8, or the Dodge Charger or Plymouth Coronet with their 426 Hemis.

The pony was inarguably defined by the Mustang’s design: lighter, smaller, and exclusively a two-door affair (not the two-door version of a four-door car). Yes, it offered a V8, but its default engine was an economical six-cylinder. Even before it was officially launched, the Mustang had imitators starting with the Plymouth Barracuda. The Mustang was a smashing success and Chevrolet belatedly released their own pony car, the Camaro in September of 1966. Chrysler’s follow-up to the Barracuda arrived even later to the game with the Dodge Challenger not making it to market until late 1969. The list of pony cars includes many of the era’s luminaries like the Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am, Mercury Cougar, and AMC Javelin.

Of course, the pony car segment was never all that clearly delineated. Ford bulked up both the Mustang and Cougar for 1968 so they could accommodate the massive 428 V8, thus blurring the line between what constitutes a pony car versus a muscle car. Chrysler did the same with their Challenger and ‘Cuda, expanding their footprints to house 426 Hemis.

In the end, a simple rule of thumb is this: all pony cars are indeed muscle cars, but not all muscle cars are or were pony cars. The Mustang was the first true pony car and one of the most influential and beloved muscle cars of all time. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Mustang is set to be the last of the true pony/muscle cars, still soldering on with a V8 under its hood as the Camaro finishes out after 2025 and Dodge is busy converting the Charger and Challenger to electric propulsion.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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