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.
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.
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
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.