The Camaro is great, but there's no replacement for the original pony

by Rob Sass
21 November 2023 4 min read

As one who’s had three GM pony cars, I find myself firmly in the camp celebrating the life of the Camaro this month. I’m not above admitting there’d be no Camaro without the Mustang, though, and Rob Sass’ opinionated musings below are a clear-eyed reminder of the root of the Camaro’s origin. Maybe, too, it’s a reminder of why the car is soon disappearing.—EE

If you sensed that there was a little something special in the way the Earth tilted on its axis in 2010, you probably weren’t imagining things. The original pony car got back its most bitter—and consistently credible—rivalry that year, and for more than a decade, both the Camaro and the Mustang were the better for it, continuously goading each other to reach new heights just as they did after the Camaro burst onto the scene in 1967.

As it turns out, though, the flame that burns bright also burns short—the Camaro’s “Transformers” fueled revival didn’t quite make it a decade and a half, and barring some sort of misguided EV revival, the Camaro nameplate seems destined to become part of the automotive fossil record. Not so (at least not yet) for its Mustang sparring partner, and to a degree, we all know why. Storied and beloved though the Camaro is, honest enthusiasts have to acknowledge that since it was created as a response to the Mustang, it could never occupy the same hallowed space in the car-crazy American psyche as the original. Though there were several moments in their intertwined history where the Camaro came out on top, the Mustang was always the one that mattered most. 

The original

1964 1/2 Ford Mustang coupe. Ford

Ford, and specifically one Lido Anthony Iacocca, were the first ones to do the math. 1964 marked the beginning of a tsunami for the youth market, not just for cars but in every imaginable consumer good. The postwar baby boom that had started in 1945 was poised to deliver millions of people with some actual spending power and Ford got there first with something sexy. Hell, the name of the entire segment, “pony car” was inspired by their product. GM was inexplicably—remember, this was the fearless company trying innovative concepts like the Corvair and penning some of the most beautiful cars ever, like the second-gen Corvette—and inexcusably late to the party, and that colossal error in product planning has always hung over the Camaro and its long-gone Firebird sibling. 

Indelible personalities

It’s not as though there was no Camaro royalty—people like Don Yenko, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Roger Penske, and Mark Donohue are all certified legends, but none could compete with the dynamic duo of self-promotion that Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca represented. Both are household names, are well-known even outside of car enthusiast circles. Both knew that in order to secure the Mustang’s future, its success was as dependent on marketing as design and execution. More than ten years after signing his last glovebox, the legacy of the original Shelby GT350 and the Shelby name itself still loom large, while the magnificent Yenko and COPO Camaros are mainly museum pieces, important mainly to those in the know. 

Mustang’s motorsports success meant more

Jerry Titus on his way to a win in the BP class win at the 1965 Santa Barbara Sports Car Races. Getty Images/Charlene Megowan

This one comes as close to a draw as possible, as over the last 50-plus years, the Camaro has taken its share of motorsports wins over the Mustang. But the fact is, by the time Mark Donohue delivered the first Mustang spanking at the hands of his Penske Camaro, besting Parnelli Jones in the 1968 Trans Am season, the Mustang had already established its reputation as a winner—the  Shelby GT350 Mustang won the SCCA B Production championship in 1965, and the Mustang took the Trans Am championship in 1967. The Falcon-based pony was firmly rooted as the athletic and fun car to have in the eyes of the American public. Once again, it pays to be the first mover. 

Styling, and timing, were almost always on the Mustang’s side

Styling is subjective, but some things about the Mustang’s looks aren’t in dispute. The Mustang created the template for the pony car—long hood and short rear deck, and while the original notchback and convertible body styles were nice to look at, it was the 1965 fastback that became iconic. Chevy seemed to recognize that, abandoning the notchback design for the second-generation Camaro in 1970, producing what was arguably the prettiest Camaro ever. They managed to keep it nicely updated with a smart urethane nose that looked good even as the 1980s dawned and with Ford selling the infamous Mustang II, the Malaise Era should have been Camaro’s opportunity to crush the Mustang. Chevy did manage to eke out a couple years of sales victories as the ’70s drew to a close, but once again, GM dithered, its updated third-gen Camaro following the sharp Fox-body Mustang by three critical years. Momentum lost once again. The ’90s were a bit of a draw, with both cars suffering from the melted, jellybean, overhang-rich styling trends of the time.


History repeated itself in 2005 when Ford introduced the brilliant Sid Ramnarace-designed S-197 Mustang, which incorporated some of the best-loved design elements of the first-generation car. GM waited an excruciating five years to decide that there might be some life left in the segment after all. In 2010, almost a decade after killing the Camaro/Firebird F-body twins, GM gave us the best-performing Camaro yet, but inexplicably, it drew its stylistic inspiration from the first-generation Camaro, rather than the much prettier second-generation car. Perhaps it saw the original notchback coupe design as a way to differentiate the car from the fastback Mustang. At least to my eye, nearly every variety of post-2010 Mustang is both prettier and more distinctive than the Camaro, which suffered from a series of uninspired redesigns and mid-cycle “enhancements.” With about half as many Camaros sold as Mustangs in 2022, the buying public clearly knows what it wants.

Which brings us to today. The Camaro heads off into oblivion, or at least its second purgatory, while a brand-new generation of Mustang launches into an admittedly uncertain future. The traits the Mustang had from the get-go—first-mover advantage, performance identity, baked-in marketing mojo, big personalities, an eye for what design would resonate—all built one of the strongest-ever brands in American cars, and arguably the momentum that’s keeping the Mustang alive for another generation. That said, we’ll all miss the rivalry. Regardless of where you stand, it unquestionably made both cars better. 


  • paul s murray says:

    Rob , agreed , mostly. While I too think the second generation Camaro ( 70 ) is a “prettier” car it’s understandable that GM would go to the first generation for the latest and perhaps last version. Say- ” Camaro” to most chevy guys and you’ll probably get the same pavlovian – “69” as if you say -” Corvette” – and then hear – “Split window”. – The guys in market research did their job. You also didn’t mention the other ponycar leaving the scene. I understand that too. The current Challenger has always looked too big and bulky, owing to its Charger four door roots, so much so it may belong in another category. It’s a hot rod Chrysler 300. The market research guys did their job there too. Every time I see one there’s a senior behind the wheel. So while both of the contenders haven’t really changed all that much since being reintroduced to grab a piece of the retro look market, the Mustang continues to evolve.While I like many shook my head at the Mach-e it does seem to be a hint of what’s to come. Regardless of the power train, it’s hard to keep a great concept down. I suspect there will be Mustang in the Ford stable for many years to come.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    As the originator it will always have a place but I feel Chevrolet did an equal rebuttal to the Mustang. They are similar but different interpretations of the same idea. I love both the early Mustang and Camaro equally. Lightning in a bottle that will not be repeated.


    The Mustang was the first Pony Car. But it was marketed to school marm’s and housewife’s for the most part. Performance in a Mustang was an after thought. The vast majority of Mustang’s built from day 1 until today were 4 or 6 cylinder cars. Most of the V8 Mustangs ever built are under 5.0 liters.

    It took the Chevy Camaro/Pontiac Firebird to come out before Ford ever put anything bigger than a 289 in a Mustang.

    Ford sold a lot of Mustangs because they were cute, not because they were performance cars. How much did Ford pay to have Charlie’s Angels drive the Pinto version Mustang?

  • Gary says:

    Chevrolet and GM marketing have been brain dead for a few decades now… it’s past time for that UGLY new Camaro design to die with them!

    PS. The first generation Camaro (’67-69) was the only period when the Bowtie Camaro actually trumped the Mustang, although the initial 2nd generation design (’70-72) provided good handling improvements, the ‘rest’ belong to the ‘also ran’ category!

  • Mark Jovik. says:

    To me the best looking pony car of all time is the second gen Firebird, especially the 70-72’s. They have a voluptuous, curvaceous design with the best split grill in Pontiac history.

  • paul s murray says:

    ps Rob. Do you know if the ‘ George Foreman Collection ‘ Camaro Transformers edition (shown) comes with a George Foreman Grill?

  • Paul Ipolito says:

    I’m in Camp Camaro. My first car purchase in 1972 was a 1969 Z-28. White with black interior, vinyl top and stripes. I also owned a 1970 Boss 302, but that Camaro left a real impression on me. A wise man once told me “Difference of opinion makes horse racing possible.”

  • paul s murray says:

    and by the way ‘Champ’ – By the time the Camaro came to market in 67 the second gen. (67 ) Mustang had already been designed and engineered. Not even to mention the time it takes to shut down the line and do the tooling required etc. Producing a new model is not a, in your spare time weekend job. If Ford was reacting to the Camaro by putting in a big block there wouldn’t have been one in a Mustang till late 68 at the earliest. Many of the ‘new’ models we see today have been in development for two years or longer and the work for their next replacement is already possibly underway.

  • Steve says:

    Or you could play both sides of the fence and have a 1st gen Camaro, and 65 fastback. 😃

  • Jack says:

    I remember the release night watching “Hazel”. The next day the dealers were sold out with Hugh number on the waiting list. Seeing the first one in town and thought Wow, the most beautiful car I had ever seen. I was 15 and that was the day I fell in love with cars. I finally got mine in 1996 a white GT convertible. Wish I still had it. I’ve been looking ever sense for a mustang pony on Mecum every January.

  • Malcolm Novar says:

    Well.. what can I say about the early Mustangs??? I had 1967 Springtime Yellow Mustang Convertible. The ball joints were garbage. The brakes were atrocious. And to end it all, the poor thing rusted out within 3 years…after it was Ziebarted. $4100 for a rust bucket was a lesson learned well. Stick to GMs…

  • Dan Lively says:

    GM= Good Motor the unfair advantage is the small block Chevy. True back then even better now. I’ve got both & the ZL1 with the LT4 supercharged 6.2 L does it all. I have own three second generation Camaros over the years; good cars but became too heavy. The fox body mustangs are great cars as well(improved power to weight ratio). Wife learned to drive in a 65 mustang GT so we have feet in both camps. steel sharpens steel.

  • FRANK HERCHE says:

    The real first Pony car was the 64
    Plymouth Barracuda. I know they weren’t that popular, but the 273 outran the 289.

    • Dale says:

      There’s a lot to be said about the appeal of the pony cars, the point that everyone seems to be missing is that they were AFFORDABLE! The base cars were very affordable on a modest budget with an amazing assortment of upgrades.
      Today’s overpriced packages are unavailable to anyone not making at least 6 figures a year in income….the market simply will not support a $60,000.00+ “pony ” car. These icons would still be selling like crazy if base prices were around $20-35k for the base no leather electric seats, manual windows, small engine and no backbup camera. In other words A PONY CAR! The basic good looking, sporty transportation everyone can afford on a budget. DOT safety doesn’t require leather seats, dual control climate control, power windows, or keyless entry.

    • Greg W says:

      Where did you research and find proof that a 273 outran a 289 ?

  • Joe Bantelman, CIC says:

    School marms, maybe,,,??? But if they bought ‘em 65% were V-8’s. The first Shelby was available less than a year after 4/17/64. In truth it was a car that could be equipped for anyone with any budget.
    It created the standard and still sets it today.

  • Joseph A Shaver says:

    My first and only hot rod was a 65 Comet Cyclone. I would be perfectly happy with another one. I drove a 69 396 Chevelle home with a friend(his car) That was sweet. I’m not prejudiced with what you drive, If you love it

  • Coop says:

    To each, his own. I’ve never cared for the second-generation Camaro, etc.

  • David says:

    I never thought any Camaro (or Firebird was a good looking car. Pretty bland

  • Bob Alessio says:

    Hi Rob. What year is the red Mustang convertible pictured on the beach in your article?
    I have a 1964-1/2 D-Code 289 with original body panels. Now Red on Red with a White top. Absolutely pristine and beautiful!!!
    I also have a 1982 Camaro Sport Coupe with the three vents in the urethane nose … prettiest front end of all the Camaros!! … and only available in the first year of the 3rd GEN.

  • rjw says:

    mach-e? what a joke. THAT thing is NOT a mustang, it’s an suv/crossover. uggggggly

  • Darrell McKinnon says:

    There were “muscle” cars long before the Mustang, as I remember the 62 Pontiacs with tri-power 421 CI and the beloved Chevy Impala with the 409 CI. The GTO was right on target at the right time since it was smaller and had a big powerful engine before any real performance Mustangs or Camaros were available. The ‘63 Falcon Sprint V-8 had potential but wasn’t appealing to everyone. The early Mustangs and Camaros are both special for sure with great appeal. It seems to depend on whether or not you’re a loyal diehard GM or Ford fan as to which one you like the best. Personally, my pick of the Camaro is the 1969 RS-SS396 and of the Mustang, the 1968 Shelby GT500. Both awesome cars. That ‘69 Camaro was the best of that decade for GM. Then the Mustang fastbacks from 1965 to 1970 were all great, as were all the Shelby modified Mustangs of those years. The only newer Mustangs that truly resemble and live up to heritage of those early models are the 2005 – 2009 Mustangs. They nailed the design those years after floundering around with the Mustang II and the Fox body Mustangs that weren’t very appealing without modifications or GT trim. The Camaros after 1969 were never the same. The early Camaros and the early Mustangs were appealing to all folks in all offerings, even with the little sickly six cylinder engines- that was an accomplishment that is hard to match. Right now, I would gladly take a 67 Camaro six cylinder or a 65 Mustang fastback six cylinder- I can’t say that about many other cars of that era. I would only go after the big v-8 versions. Ford and GM will never get it that right again.

  • Paul D says:

    As an owner of both a 68 Camaro RS/SS 396 and a 65 A-code Mustang, and having restored both, the build quality of the Camaro is far and away better than than the early Mustangs. And while both are fun to drive, the Hidden headlights grille of the Camaro is killer cool, and the Camaro interior just looks and feels more quality. However, most Camaros after 1972 lost their way and became fat, ugly and bloated while the Mustang (excluding the Mustang II era) continued to improve and innovate while keeping true to their roots. My 2019 Shelby GT 350 is a remarkable piece of engineering and an overall superior car to its Camaro counterpart.

  • Thomas Wasney says:

    Bob Alessio, that’s probably an 05, the start of the rebooted retro styling. I was a fan since they came out. Just purchased an 09 v6 convertible sitting in my area with no plates on it. What a great little car. Nice peppy motor, 5 sp auto tranny. A really fun cool ride.. Has the pony package which fully dresses the Vista blue paint and black canvas top… Had a 90 vette a few years back, always wanted one but no longer… Was one of the most beautiful cars I ever hated… Very crude. Got a 98 jelly bean gt after that and loved it… I am a fan of both camaro/firebird and mustang first gen though.. So glad I spotted my “new” one… Lovin my retro stang

  • Jim says:

    I have great memories of the Camaro. My father was the general manager of a Chevrolet dealership in Frankfort Michigan and I had access to some really great cars in the 60s. My first car was a 57 Chevy. My second car was a 64 GTO and I went through several Nova‘s and Camaros working my way through college bought and sold. They weren’t Z 28 or super sport Camaro’s just pretty basic Camaros but very cool and I made a few bucks on each one. One great memory is we got one of the first 68 Z-28’s delivered and I took it up to the Empire hill climb in Empire Michigan. It was a brand new car and I was trusted with it for the day. I took it up the hill a couple of times and parked it mostly for display. My dad got a call the next day from a hotel owner in Traverse City Michigan and said his son was all excited about this Camaro. He asked what it was. Came down to Frankfort the next day and bought it. It was a great time.

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