Settling The Debate: Pony Cars vs. Muscle Cars


Brian is a writer focusing on the automotive world. After running his 2000 Ford Taurus into the ground, he fell head over heels for a 2013 Mazda3, because Skyactiv Technology. Duh.

Pony Cars vs Muscle Cars

You’ve probably heard the terms pony car and muscle car thrown around in conversation and online when referring to Camaros, Mustangs, Challengers and other cars in this pocket of the auto industry. The problem with a lot of the Internet (and most of my friends) is that they are wrong about a lot of things, including the use of these words. While pony cars and muscle cars share some characteristics, and certain vehicles qualify as both, the two terms are not interchangeable. I’ll help clear the air so you can go from ignorant bystander to pretentious snob ready to criticize anyone who uses either term incorrectly.

Pony Cars


The 1964 Ford Mustang

The origins of pony cars trace back to the launch of the Ford Mustang in 1964. The Mustang was the first model to feature the now iconic stallion logo, hence the term “pony car.” As the first of its kind, the ‘64 Mustang provided, and still provides, the template for what makes a pony car. Here are the criteria:

  • American-made
  • Two-doors, four passengers
  • Styling that includes a long hood, short deck, and open mouth
  • Built with mass production parts
  • Affordable base price with an abundance of available upgrades

Although the Mustang was the first pony car, it opened the floodgates for competitors trying to match its combination of performance, style, and affordability. Through the years, many automakers have tried their hands at creating pony cars, as vehicles like Pontiac Firebird, AMC Javelin, and Plymouth Barracuda have all come and gone. But not all pony cars have been phased out, and an elite group has stood the test of time. Today, the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and Dodge Challenger carry the torch as the current generation of American pony cars.

Muscle Cars


The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

Like pony cars, muscle cars are American-made two door coupes, but with a larger emphasis on performance and power. Typically, muscle cars will be equipped with a V-8 engine and rear-wheel drive and have space for at least four passengers. While the origins and criteria of muscle cars aren’t as clearly defined as they are for pony cars, many people consider the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket as the first true muscle car.

What most will agree on is that muscle cars are built for straight-line speed and raw power. Through the years, automakers have built legendary muscle car models like the Pontiac GTO, Chevy Chevelle SS, Plymouth Barracuda, and Dodge Charger, which is still in production today.

Can Pony Cars be Muscle Cars?

Absolutely. And vice-versa. Think of it like a baseball player on steroids. Before he used performance enhancing drugs, the player — we’ll call him Barry — was a good athlete that commanded a salary most teams could afford. After taking steroids and adding a ton of power, Barry wants more money for his dramatically improved performance.

Pony cars that also are considered muscle cars are no different than Barry. While a base Mustang (pony car) is affordable to most drivers, upgrading to a 2014 Mustang Shelby GT500 with a 662-horsepower supercharged V-8 would qualify the Mustang as both a muscle car and a pony car. Those performance upgrades come at a price, however, making them less common than pony cars.

The golden age of muscle cars is in the past and most automakers no longer offer a true, stand alone muscle car, but rather upgraded versions of their pony cars. While the classics are still around, they are becoming more and more of a rarity on the road.

View Comments (10)


  1. kumar

    Mar 6, 2015 at 1:35 am

    want to construct an american muscle car

  2. Heather

    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Thanks so much for this! I’m a newbie restoring a 77 Camaro. There are so many little things that I know make me stand out in conversation as a newbie. This really helped me understand that I have a Pony Car until I add the power!

  3. Jim

    Jul 4, 2015 at 9:50 am

    One key aspect you left out. Musclecars are 5+ passengers. Pony cars are 4 . The Dodge Challenger has always been a car that qualifies as both. Pony Cars try to balance 1/4 mi et with handling. Musclecars do not. Mustang and Camaro are Pony cars until you get to the fire breatheathing drag race only monsters then they are viewed as musclecars.

  4. Rich

    Jan 18, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Wrong…should realize that anyone comparing cars to baseball doesn’t understand…

    • Greg

      Jan 31, 2016 at 10:14 pm

      The use of a non car related metaphor does not make the author wrong Rich. That’s what a metaphor is! The Author’s description of what makes a pony car into a muscle car works. The high power upgrade creates a muscle car out of a pony car, but being built into a lighter car, it retains its pony status as well.

  5. Chris

    Feb 4, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    I recall a definition that says muscle cars have full frame chassis. So, by that standard, pony cars are NOT muscle cars. Muscle cars are larger.

    • Leon Vaughn

      May 17, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Exactly Chris, there is a clear difference between muscle cars and pony cars and one can’t become the other. Pony cars were generally smaller cars with unibody construction. There was a publication that came out in the mid/late 60s called “Pony Cars” and on the cover it listed Mustangs, Camaros, Javelins, Barracudas, Corvairs and maybe a couple others. Muscle cars were full frame, larger cars, with high power eight cylinder engines. Can a Pony Car be more powerful? Yes. You hit the nail on the head with the frame reference. That eliminates any car made in the last 20+ years from being a muscle car because they don’t have frames anymore.

  6. Andy

    Feb 8, 2016 at 9:34 am

    In my opinion, nowadays pony cars aren’t pony cars anymore …

    Mustangs from the 60’s weight from 1,1 tons to 1,3 or 1,4. Nowadays a Mustang weights 1.6 tons or more.
    Nowadays pony cars are theoretically in muscle car area.

    Not mentioning the downsizing….
    Maybe one day we will drive a 1,3-1,4 tons pony car with a V8 engine …

  7. mr.Camaro

    Oct 24, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    I see what you did there with Barry,Baseball and roid…. lol

    good info btw.

  8. Chet

    Apr 13, 2017 at 8:43 am

    If anyone bothered to read the history of both types of car, it would become obvious that the “platform” of the cars determined whether they were Muscle cars or Pony cars.
    Muscle cars were based on ‘Intermediate’ sized platforms (Charger, Chevelle, Torino, etc) while Pony cars were based on ‘Compact’ platforms (Mustang, Camaro, Duster, etc).
    Of course you’re going to get problems with definitions if you talk about vehicles made before 1964 (when the intermediate size was born) or after 1979-ish when sizes became obscured.
    I also doubt there will ever be agreement about E-body Mopars which were basically shortened Intermediates…

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