Despite a glorious heyday that lasted throughout the 1960s, the pony car was losing its appeal by 1971 and the auto industry could certainly see it. Mustang sales had been sliding since 1966. The Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were holding up (aided by a handsome 1970 redesign) but were not gaining.
American Motors' Javelin was a mild success, but no blockbuster. Neither were Plymouth's bulked-up 1970 Barracuda and its new Dodge stablemate, the aptly named Challenger, neither of which brought in the pile of orders Chrysler expected.
A big reason was that a new wave of economy imports had caught America's fancy, including some fast-improving Japanese cars wearing unfamiliar names like Toyota and Datsun. The threat seemed minimal, and most people still couldn't conceive that the world might run short of oil some day.
But Detroit evidently remembered the European small-car invasion of the 1950s, because this time it counterattacked right away. Besides mustering new compacts like the Ford Maverick, Chevy Nova, and AMC Hornet, the industry spent vast sums to bring out even smaller, cheaper subcompacts led by the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, and AMC Gremlin. By 1971, pony cars were fast losing sales to these and other sensible wheels -- down to almost half of where they'd been at their 1967 peak.
The changing market also presented a stark reality unique to Ford: "Total Performance" was no longer that important to sales. Besides, Ford had little left to prove in competition after dominating stock-car and drag racing for much of the Sixties, not to mention winning the prestigious LeMans 24 Hours four times in as many years.
With many more pony car models chasing fewer and fewer buyers, Motor Trend began to think the breed was headed for extinction. In fact, the magazine began an October 1971 pony car comparison test with a "pre-mortem." While admitting that fierce competition was doing no one any good, MT blamed "the auto makers themselves" for withering pony car demand:
"You see, selling cars is not really a very profitable enterprise. It's what you sell with the car that makes the whole venture worthwhile. If you can take, say, a $2500 Plain Jane Mustang and talk the buyer into loading it up…[then] you've got a sale. In that $1000 worth of options is…the profit. That's why the original six-cylinder Mustang sat at the back of the showroom while the salesmen pushed the optional V-8…. The escalation derby gathered momentum as time went on, until by the late Sixties you could buy…engines that originally had been developed for the 200-mph straightaways of Daytona. And the prices of these overbuilt pony cars rose pretty well out of sight, too -- in the $5000 bracket rubbing elbows with Buicks and T-Birds. Option overkill."
Answering a rhetorical "where will it all end?" MT made a remarkably accurate prediction: "We figure the pony cars will all fade out into the sunset by 1975…. Oh, at least one automaker might keep his pony car nameplate alive…as a sort of nostalgic reminder of When Things Were Good. But there are all sorts of tides running against the pony car now...."
Sure enough, most of the Mustang's imitators were either killed off or turned into something else by mid-decade, leaving only Ford, Chevrolet, and Pontiac to carry the torch -- and some would judge the coming Mustang II as anything but a traditional pony.
The survivor had some large personalities behind the scenes. You can meet one of them on the next page.
For even more on the Ford Mustang, check out the following links.
- Saddle up for the complete story of America's best-loved sporty car. How the Ford Mustang Works chronicles the legend from its inception in the early 1960s to today's all-new Mustang.
- Mustang had it all for 1969 -- except buyers. Sales were lower still in 1970. In 1969-1970 Ford Mustang, you'll find out how a new president infused the brand with more performance.
- With Lee Iacocca back in the saddle, Ford's ponycar revsited its roots. 1974-1978 Ford Mustang tells the story of the Mustang II with its smaller, lighter design and return to rationality.
- The 1971 Ford Mustang Boss 351 was Ford's final high-performance Mustang of the classic muscle car era. Here's a profile, photos, and specifications.