When people mention the term Pony Car, two iconic steeds come to mind - the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro. During a simpler time in Middle America, these cars represented fun and freedom - freedom to go where you wanted, when you wanted.
By 1968, the Sports Car Club of America had two major wins in its professional division (SCCA Pro Racing). The highly touted unlimited, no-rules formula of the Canadian American Challenge (Can-Am) sports car series and a huge manufacturer war in its Trans-American Series (Trans-Am).
Both series attracted the best drivers, engineers, and throngs of spectators. The SCCA Trans Am series criss-crossed North America, bringing high powered competition to mammoth road courses. These events left behind exasperated audiences; audiences who witnessed a civil war on wheels. The fight between America’s Big Three automakers, who poured huge resources into established teams, was for both bragging rights in Detroit and rabid customers in the showrooms.
The Muscle and Pony Car Era was in full swing. American Car companies were shoehorning big motors into sleek sedans to retail the cars to the Baby Boomer consumer, who were now getting drivers licenses. An undaunted post-war era of affluence put a car in most driveways - and the automakers wanted their cars to be THAT car.
The Trans-Am Series, originally formulated for production sedans in 1966, was a perfect showcase for these cars. Where else can you demonstrate so boldly the power and beauty of your product to a mesmerized audience? The premise was that if you could “Win on Sunday, (you would) Sell on Monday.” Therefore, sales were the backbones of these inspired automotive crusades.
Broken into two sedan classes, Under 2 Liter and Over 2 Liter motors, the Trans-Am saw an international variety of cars. The Under 2 Liter classes included Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Datsun, Saab and Austin Mini Cooper... while pony cars were the standard for the Over 2 Liter class.
Ford was fighting battles all over the racing world, providing factory support to teams and visionaries. Henry Ford II personally saw to the development of the GT40 in international endurance racing with one goal in mind - to win the 24 Hours of LeMans. It wouldn’t be long until the DFV V8 would become almost standard issue for Formula One Teams. The big three were also racing head to head in the Southeastern United States in NASCAR.
Chevrolet had a great deal of racing success with the Corvette, and answered the Lee Iacocca-designed Mustang with the new Camaro and its sister car, Pontiac Firebird.
Chrysler, not wanting to be left behind, introduced the Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger to its line. American Motors bet on the AMC Javelin to be a category contender. These cars would be the major players in a series whose golden era was about to commence.
Roger Penske was a Goodyear Tire distributor and Chevrolet Dealer in Pennsylvania, and was already on track to building an empire. Chevrolet gave him a number of Z28 Camaros to be campaigned in the series, which had already seen the 1966 and 1967 manufacturer championships go to Ford with the Mustang.
The modern age of motorsports was still in its relative infancy, and teams were loosely put together for race weekends by (in many cases) fledgling privateer car builders and car dealerships. Penske Racing entered driver/engineer Mark Donahue beginning in 1967. Donahue was a very talented driver and had an incredible knack for car set up. His level of dedication and tireless hours in the Penske Racing shop proved formidable; in 1968, his Z28 won 10 of 13 races, grabbing the championship and raising the bar for professionalism in the sport.
The Mustang, at the hands of Jerry Titus and Horst Kwech, won only the 24 Hours of Daytona, Watkins Glen and Riverside.
In 1969, the show was all Bow-Tie and Blue Oval as the Camaros and Mustangs diced at the front of the pack throughout the twelve-race season. Penske and Donahue proved again the best, but not anywhere near the dominance they had shown in the previous year.
Mustang took four early season victories with Parnelli Jones, Sam Posey and George Follmer at the controls. While close, it looked like the Mustangs would outclass the Camaros when a surge of victories by Donahue and Australian Ronnie Bucknam rallied with seven straight wins.
This war of money, executive pride and showroom validation escalated to fever pitch by 1970. Penske and Chevy parted ways in favor of the Javelin. AMC, who had sought and seldom found victories, looked to the Penske organization and drivers Mark Donahue and Peter Revson to grab those elusive Trans-Am trophies.
Ford and the Mustang factory group got behind engine tweaker Bud Moore whose iconic Boss 302s were driven by Parnelli Jones and George Follmer. Aerodynamics maestro Jim Hall from Midland, Texas took on the factory support of the Camaros, entering sports car heroes Vic Elford and Ed Leslie.
Plymouth partnered with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, and Dodge got behind Ray Caldwell’s Autodynamics group.
This time, the Mustang was at the front, taking six victories from eleven races. Camaro took three and Mark Donahue gave AMC its first two victories as the team struggled to finish the bulk of the races. Money from the factories, special parts from the think tanks and thousands of fans were flowing, and 1971 would be no different, but would also mark the end of the war.
Penske and Donahue took victory in seven of the ten contests, with Mustang claiming the trophy in the other three. A disgusted General Motors pulled the plug on their Chevrolet and Pontiac programs in racing, and under media pressure from anti-automobile crusaders like Ralph Nader, GM publicly killed their support for racing altogether. Chevy would still quietly and secretly provide support for NASCAR and Corvette, along with privateers in Trans Am. Ford would follow suit with its Trans Am program.
The legend of the Pony Car Wars lives on. Even today, a re-introduced Camaro, sporting the essence of its 1960s lines, still goes head to head with the enduring Mustang on city streets, racetracks, and showrooms throughout the world.
- Tom Stahler
Photos by Sam Attal and Shelby Knick