It’s a battle as old as time itself: who is the master of American muscle? Which is the fastest, baddest, sexiest machine? Is it the Ford Mustang? Or are you siding with the Chevy Camaro?
(Welcome to Who Ya Got, a new series where you get to vote on famed car rivalries, some more notable than others.)
This particular head-to-head hits real close to home for me. I grew up in a family who owned both a Mustang and a Camaro at the same time—if you asked, I could come up with a million reasons as to why they’re both super freakin’ great because I, gotta say, my first love was probably the good ol’ muscle car (or Eddie Van Halen—who’s counting, though?).
For brevity’s sake, we’re going to stick with the pre-discontinuation models. We’re getting historical. We’re going vintage. This is the OG shit.
There’s no way for me to decide which is better. That’s why I’m turning the question over to my fellow Jalops. Who’s gonna win?
In the Red Corner: Ford Mustang
Can you name a more iconic car than the Ford Mustang? The first affordable, sporty car of its kind, the Mustang debuted in good ol’ Garland, Texas in 1964, where fifteen bidders fought over who would drive home behind the wheel of the first ever Mustang. That’s how game-changing it was. In fact, its introduction pioneered a whole new style of car—the pony car—that gave America the long hood and short deck that came to be synonymous with American muscle.
At a stunning price of $2,368 ($19,562.12 today), the Mustang was just what the people needed. Ford’s forecasted annual sales for the Mustang’s first year was 100,000 units, CJ Pony Parts notes. Dealers took 22,000 orders for the car on its very first day. Can you imagine getting that stoked about a new car today?
You can check out the specs of the 1964 model thanks to this handy graphic from Car and Driver:
The first generation of the Mustang was produced until 1973 and saw a ton of little alterations each year so that Ford could keep improving its product while maintaining the hype train for as long as was humanly possible. There were the 1965 GT350 and 1967GT500 models, the race car version of the Mustang designed by Carroll Shelby. There became an option for a thick V8 engine. Safety improved and so did handling and speed.
However, the original pony car met a pretty quick end. In 1972, Ford toned it down a little, no longer aiming for special editions or tons of wild muscle car options. Engines were de-tuned and cars were made to meet NHTSA standards, which seemed to put a pretty big damper on Ford’s creativity at the time.
Lee Iacocca was not going to let the Mustang die, though. When he became President of Ford in 1970, he demanded a smaller and more fuel-efficient Mustang to hit production by ‘74—and what Lee Iacocca wants, Lee Iacocca gets.
The Mustang II, as it was called, debuted right before the 1973 oil crisis—and it was one of the few car models that didn’t completely suffer. In fact, its small size proved to be pretty beneficial, enabling it to be competitive against the foreign-made sport coupes that were faring better in the midst of chaos. Iacocca doubled down on the downsizing, making the Mustang II smaller and smaller.
Until 1979 hit, and so did the third generation. Suddenly, the Mustang grew three sizes like the Grinch’s heart. Ford started basing the new models on the Fox body platform that had been designed for the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr—which meant the new Mustang was longer, with tons of space for passengers and storage.
Even though things were drastically changing, the Mustang was still in high demand. Here’s more from CJ Pony Parts:
When Mustang’s legacy seemed in jeopardy, a public outcry ensured that the journey continued.
While the Mustang legacy continued to burn bright from the early to mid-80s, Ford’s product development team was looking for alternatives to the popular Fox Body. By 1987, it was again time for Mustang to evolve with the changing market. Designers gave the Fox Body – the platform introduced in 1979 – a facelift with new “aero-look” design and a 5.0-liter V8 with 225 horsepower.
“There were people who thought Mustang was headed for the scrap heap,” said Ressler. “Sales were sluggish, and they thought that front-wheel drive modern-looking cars were the wave of the future.” After Ford signed an agreement with Mazda to build the Mazda 626 and MX-6 at a new plant just outside of Detroit, the idea was to use the front-wheel drive Mazda platform as the underpinnings for the “new Mustang.”
“When news came out that the all-American Mustang was going to be based on a Japanese car and built by a Japanese company, plus move to front-wheel drive and again go back to losing its V8 engine, the nameplate’s legion of fans could hardly believe it,” said John Clor, author of The Mustang Dynasty. “By the time a cover story in AutoWeek magazine hit the newsstands on April 13, 1987 – questioning “The Next Mustang?”– the Mustang-badged Mazda was already the target of a letter-writing campaign launched by the editors of Mustang magazines across the country.”
The public spoke out with a vengeance, and Ford listened. The front-wheel-drive Mazda became the 1989 Ford Probe, and the iconic vision of the Ford Mustang lived on.
So, the Mustang kept on trucking along into its fourth generation, starting in 1994. This was one of the first major redesigns that had come in years. The Mustang was no longer the boxy body it had once been, instead adopting come curves for the new Fox-4 platform. There were plenty of throwbacks to the original Mustang models, but Ford proved that they could move forward from their storied history, matching public demand to Mustang styling.
This era also saw the fastest factory Mustang ever produced: the 2000 SVT Mustang Cobra R. More from CJ Pony Parts:
The Cobra R boasted a powerful 5.4L DOHC V8 engine that gave it 385 horsepower. The R was stripped of any stock feature not needed for track use or that would add extra weight. That means no radio and no AC. The 2000 Cobra R was only available in Performance Red for the exterior and Dark Charcoal for the interior. Only 300 units were made making it one of the rarest Mustangs available.
The fifth generation (starting production in 2005), saw an even bigger redesign of the Mustang. Blending both history and future, Ford introduced a pretty radical new concept that basically smooshed together the first and fourth gens to create one hell of a good looking car.
People got excited. People got stoked. While the Mustang had survived through multiple generations by morphing shape to meet the changing demands, car enthusiasts were really freaking hyped to see a Mustang that actually looked like the original car. At last, you could have your retro-vintage-classic styling cues, and you could have your air bags, too!
The sixth and most current generation took all the cool shit from the fifth gen that people loved and just built on it. The name of the game now is pushing boundaries. The Mustang name is associated with speed, and Ford has been pretty determined to make sure all their new models are spectacular pieces of machinery.
In the Blue Corner: Chevrolet Camaro
Chevy had a problem, and their problem was the obscene popularity of the Ford Mustang. It didn’t have anything that compare to the affordable, sporty, sexy car. And when your competitor introduces something that blows everything else out of the water, you better act fast when it comes to bringing something else to the table.
The Camaro hit showrooms in the fall of 1996, Car and Driver reminds us—which is just a little over two years since the Mustang proved such to be a smash hit. And the original specs were pretty decent: for only $2,466 ($19,491.45 in today’s currency), you could take home the base-model 3.8-liter straight-six engine that produced 140 horsepower. But what really drove up the appeal here was the lengthy options list (we’re talking sixty different ways to customize your new ride). If your heart so desired, you could nab a 6.5-liter L78 big-block engine with 375 hp right out of the gate. You could even get it in a convertible.
While it only generated about half as many sales as the Mustang in its first year, the Camaro could still be seen as a pretty damn impressive success. Part of the appeal was just how damn customizable it was. The first-gen Camaros came in Super Sport and Rally Sport editions, with the Z/28 coming in as a new model. If you wanted to feel like you were a race car driver, Chevy was gonna make it happen.
The second-gen Camaro was introduced in 1970 and remained in production through the ‘81 model year. Still based on the F-body platform, this round of Camaro was larger, lower, and wider (we don’t do economy, thanks), while retaining its unibody structure, front subframe, A-arm front suspension, and leaf springs. While the first generation was fun, the second really upped the ante in terms of the whole “making cars really fun to drive” thing. It was sound-proofed and held the road better. It was faster and more comfortable.
But as the years went on, the Camaro did admittedly grow less powerful. With more stringent safety and emissions standards, what can ya do? By 1981, it was time for a significant re-styling.
Introducing: the third-generation. And damn. Daaaaaaaamn. If you want drool-worthy specs, MotorTrend’s got ‘em:
Powering the new 1982 Camaro were the infamous 2.5-liter Iron Duke I-4 producing a measly 90 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque; a 2.8-liter, 102-hp and 142 lb-ft V-6; and two 5.0-liter (305-cubic-inch) V-8s: a carbureted version making 145 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque and a Crossfire Injection fuel-injected version with 165 hp and 240 lb-ft. Transmission options were limited to a four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic for 1982, unless you opted for the CFI V-8, in which case you were stuck with the slushbox. The car was offered in hardtop and T-Top body styles.
While the third-generation Camaro was initially designed around the all-important high-performance Z28 model, Chevy offered two additional trim levels. The base trim was the Camaro Sport Coupe, which could be had with the Iron Duke, a V-6, or the carbureted 305. Sandwiched between the Sport Coupe and Z28 was the Berlinetta model. Chevy hoped the Berlinetta would be to luxury what the Z28 was to performance, and so it came with a plush interior, toned-down exterior styling, and a soft suspension. Berlinetta buyers chose between the V-6 or the carbureted 305. But not many people bit, and the Berlinetta was axed by 1986.
Though by modern standards the ‘82 Camaro Z28 is far from quick, we were so blown away by its performance that we named it our 1982 Motor Trend Car of the Year. Our CFI and automatic-equipped Camaro accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds, finished the quarter mile in 17.10 seconds at 80 mph, and stopped from 60 mph in 149 feet. One of our editors was particularly impressed: “If you’re making up your personal shopping list of great road cars and you don’t have a Z28 or Trans Am on it, you need a new list.”
This car was a whole lotta badass crammed into one package. Chevy seemed to be going pretty strong with their third-gen, keeping it around until 1992. Which got ‘em thinking: how to we modernize this car for the next decade?
Things started to go... a little downhill after that. Gone were the previous generations’ sharp, sexy lines and here were all these curves instead. The fourth gen was small and light, it was fun, but it just wasn’t anything too exciting—at least, not in the way we’d come to expect from the Camaro. People just weren’t super jazzed about sport coupés like they used to be. Production slowed as the new millennium approached until, finally, plant overcapacity and the discontinuation of the F-body platform saw the Camaro slip into its grave.
Which, of course, isn’t to say it stayed there. The Camaro is back on the roads today with an all-new updated styling, not letting us forget about its storied past.